Fane sat in a darkened, freezing corridor at the end of the armoury. The metal bench designated the waiting area for the testing room. The heavy door was the only separation between him and heaven. On the other side lay his set-up, his paradise. It was the one place that he truly felt like the world didn’t matter.
He dressed out in black. As usual with this test, he had been given the option to pack whatever he could carry. His goal: to hit as many targets as he possibly could as accurately as possible in the half-hour block of time he’d have to get through the village simulation. A pair of Glocks sat at his back. A rifle hugged his shoulder. His pockets hid a myriad of ammo. Braces on his arms held darts. At his shoulders, under the rifle, a set of long throwing knives. In his boots were small knives. Lastly and first to go, he held a burner Glock that he’d drop after he blazed through its cartridge.
The cold plastic was a welcome relief under the hot sweat of his palms. He loved it. His heart craved this dark minute. Electricity snapped under his skin. Tightness wrapped around his spine and inched into his clavicles. His heart jumped as a horse grabs its bit to run. A sadistic smile crawled across his face. This was going to be fun.
He didn’t fault Zephyr for bringing him in for the shot test. After all, he had covered for him with the General at the party. It was better for everyone if he kept his commanding officer looking good.
It was Orlov that he was pissed off at. The presumptive bastard could rot for all he cared. So what if he didn’t look like some kind of superhero or a woman, apparently? He didn’t know what the hell was up with the ‘split-shot’ name. He wanted to spit but thought better of it. The pain in his side had all but disappeared. With any luck, he’d be able to go take his physical next week. He sure as hell wasn’t going to revisit a red room.
He shook his head. It wouldn’t do him any good to focus on such things right now. He breathed out, trying to clear his head. He counted to twenty slowly, trying to drain his feelings down his spine and into his seat. He concentrated on the flow of air through his lungs. The expansion, the contraction. The subtle movements within him. Tension eased out of his skin.
In a separate room overlooking the village simulation, Orlov, the General, Zephyr, and a board of scientists and personnel congregated around a series of terminals and the massive window. One of the screens showed a green and black night-cam image of Fane sitting in the tiny black box of an extension to the armoury.
Orlov, sipping at a tepid cup of burnt coffee, observed Fane’s every mannerism. A chill ran down his spine when the soldier smiled. The redhead looked like a malicious dog. He was dangerous. Was this the man he hoped to have train his men?
By the time the Prince forced himself to down the slog claiming to be a caffeinated beverage, the redhead came off of his nervous energy high. A strange poise took over the soldier’s body. Orlov’s skin crawled. Fane looked up, dead centre to the camera; though everyone knew the CCTV was small enough, no one would have found it easily with the lights off in that blacked-out hall. Orlov watched the man mouth the word ‘bang’, and not more than a split second later, the buzzer rang. The door opened, and Fane slipped out.
Zephyr joined Orlov at the window as they tried to watch Fane’s progression through the village simulation. As soon as he slipped the threshold, they found themselves in a spine-chilling situation. They could not find him. The cameras weren’t keeping up with him. An alarm on a board on the wall pinged. A shot had been fired. Perfect hit. It showed it was supposed to have come from an area farther to the back of the massive complex. How had he covered that distance? Everyone started looking for a sniper vantage.
A pair of targets pinged. Dead centre. Again, they looked, but the man had disappeared. This back and forth of search and tease continued for about ten minutes before a louder buzzer announced Fane had beaten the primary targets. Propane tanks and special effects explosives erupted in the space. Smoke billowed up, blocking off cameras right and left. Sprinklers activated as alarms blared. A cacophony of noises went up throughout the village. Again, the targets rang out in order through the din.
“Where is he?” Orlov demanded, lost on where to look in the chaos on the screens.
“For all we know, he could be in this room, and we wouldn’t know it,” Zephyr whispered. Orlov shot him a glare before surreptitiously glancing around the room.
“You’re joking,” Orlov breathed a sigh.
“Actually, no. Usually, with these shot tests, when he’s found all the targets, he rigs his guns to take out the last set of targets while he somehow manages to break in here. We find him scarfing doughnuts when the bell rings, announcing the test is finished. Scares the hell out of all of us.” Zephyr smiled amicably.
A pit dropped in Orlov’s gut. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“We’re hoping to have made it more of a challenge for him this time around,” Zephyr continued talking over Orlov’s protest.
“How?” Orlov went back to the monitor images to piece together the direction Fane was taking through the simulation.
“We got sneaky with some of our targets.” Zephyr pointed to a set of shadowed targets on a monitor. A series of pops went off close to the wall of the viewing room. The monitor refreshed. Knives, buried to the hilt, splintered the centre of the targets. Pings from the alarm board echoed in the room. Zephyr’s smile dissolved in a look of amused disappointment. “Well, I thought we were being sneaky. We even got a more complex code pad installed.”
“Sneaky about what?” A timid voice asked from beside Zephyr. Orlov jumped away from the agent and turned. A man in a black compression top, black flak vest, black cargoes and beanie stood next to Zephyr.
“About those stupid targets you annihilated, you batshit crazy black hole! How the hell did you get in here this time, you damn weasel?” Zephyr demanded, exasperated.
Fane had a powdered cake doughnut shoved in his mouth already. He swallowed, almost choking. “You guys forgot to reset the password from last time, even with the new pad.” He shrugged. Running the back of his hand across his mouth, he left sugar dust on his glove. He glared at it, swatting the powder out.
“So, what was his time?” Orlov asked, looking around for the scorekeeper.
“Twelve minutes, twenty-seven seconds for a thirty-minute run. Score of 590 out of 600 on accuracy, with each target worth a total of 10 points. Markdown of 8 points per each target not hit dead centre,” an individual in military uniform at a terminal supplied Orlov.
“You’re joking!” Orlov exclaimed, leaning over the soldier to look at the screen. A rectangular graph of data points ran under a series of images of destroyed targets. The voracity sent a shiver down Orlov’s spine.
“We did say he was our best.” Zephyr smiled before turning back to his charge. “Your favourite from that uppity little rabbit food place you’re always talking about. You better thank me for that run.” Zephyr wagged his finger at Fane.
“I like to think large rhino food.” Fane shovelled another doughnut into his mouth.
“He only missed one target out of sixty?” Orlov searched the terminals for the one target not destroyed.
The soldier in front of the screens pointed to a line of images. A series of targets had knives buried in them. “Nope, he hit all sixty clean; the boards don’t register knives as legit ammo. They marked him down automatically.” One of the other staff shot a disdainful glance at the man in black.
“You guys said I can pack out what I want.” Fane shrugged. He was more relaxed than he had been at the party. Orlov studied the lithe man in black. Easy confidence slid off his shoulders and dripped from his fingertips. No, Orlov checked himself. Fane wasn’t confident. This was something he could do blindfolded. Proficient would be an understatement. This was his speciality. He needed no faith in himself, blind luck, good luck, or a higher power. This was unquestionable second nature.
Orlov took a step toward the redhead. The man’s piercing ice-blue eyes checked him in place. Malicious dog was an inaccurate description. Viper. Assassin. Orlov swallowed. He extended a hand. “Fane Anson, would you be willing to discuss working with New Punjab in training our men?”
Fane looked at the hand, hunching into himself. His adrenaline high never lasted long enough. His bravado dissolved. The chill in the room evaporated. “I’m not really…I’ve never been field-tested, Mr Orlov.” He tried to back away from the invitation.
“Well, he technically still has the week off. Anson, go get changed. We don’t mind you having the privilege of talking with Prince Orlov about working in a partnership,” the General supplied.
Fane came to full attention, saluting the man. “Yes, sir!” He dashed to the locker room in the building. The door closed behind him with a deafening click.
Zephyr cleared his throat, disturbing the eerie silence Fane left in his wake. “Prince Orlov, as we stated earlier in our deal, we’d be more than happy to extend our trust to you. If you would like to use Fane Anson to train your men, as the commander of this unit, I will not deter you. It looks like he may require some convincing to be stationed. He has one last medical test in two days before we can release him to your care. If you would like to discuss or reassure him of anything, that should be sufficient time.” Zephyr directed the Prince out of the room.
“Get his papers ready,” the General said over his shoulder as he noted images of the targets to the soldier at the terminal.
Zephyr turned to the General. “What about…?” Zephyr subtly nodded at the many of the soldiers in the room did not have clearance for this conversation.
“It’ll work over long distances. We’ll have someone on the ground as backup in case we have to have an emergency pick up,” the General reassured.
“Yes, sir.” Zephyr saluted. He left the room and headed for his office. Who the hell was the General thinking of sending with Fane to keep his condition in check? The General would be wise enough to send him. As it stood, the fact that they were sending Fane out to New Punjab, away from the facility, was out of the plan already. The General must be desperate, Zephyr mused. The motive was to find something that would trigger the response, and maybe exiting this dank town would help get him over the edge.
Fane stood in the changing room, facing his closed locker. Having dumped his weapons at the armoury closet on the way in, he rolled his shoulders, relieved of the thirty pounds of gear he had been carrying.
The expression of startled awe on Orlov’s face had helped ease some of Fane’s tension. The fact that he could elicit some form of respect from the man was reassuring. Fane might not be cultured and refined. He might not have excellent table manners or etiquette befitting royalty. At least he had stealth and fortitude to make it through a simulated disaster zone.
What the hell are they thinking? How am I supposed to teach a bunch of people how to defend royalty? He rubbed the palm of his right hand with his thumb, massaging the pressure points. He wanted to feel like an average person. What’s the deal with this Prince?
The hair on the back of his neck rose, and a chill ran down his spine. Someone was in the room with him. He crawled his hand toward a pocket on his thigh. Inside, he had stashed a set of his personal throwing knives. The other knives he had packed out earlier for the test were property of the armoury, and he had to give them back at the end of testing, but these were his own. Small, precise, they varied in size, the largest barely two inches longer than his palm when closed around the shaft. The short ones fit between his fingers, an easy replacement for a pair of brass knuckles -, though it was an excellent way to completely ruin his tendons.
His heart raced, and the tension he loved coiled itself around his lungs as the temperature in the locker room plummeted. A sadistic smile touched his lips. His hearing sharpened. He readied himself. The other person hadn’t identified their presence. He practically shook with excitement. He waited. Then he saw what he was looking for. A flash of silver crossed his vision. A knife. An arm pressed against the back of his shoulder, a death grip bruising his traps.
He brought his hand up to the knife hand and pulled down firmly, rotating it smoothly, rolling his back into his attacker’s chest. He rolled under the arm, extracting himself from the lock. It took an override of his training to check himself from slamming the blade between the assailant’s ribs when a shock of platinum hair pooled across his vision. He pulled the forearm, plucking the knife out of the hand as he did so, up behind Orlov’s back, slamming him into the row of lockers with a clatter. He pushed his body up against the Prince, the knife now at the man’s throat.
“Wanna tell me why ye’re tryin’na kill me t’is early in t’e mornin’?” Fane’s eyes flashed.
“Wanted to see what you could do with a real person.” Orlov trembled against his chest, fingers flexing for release.
A tinge of cold anger ran across Fane’s subconscious. The clock in the locker room ticked twice. He allowed the chill to seep out of him, aware that those kinds of emotions would blind him to reality. “You know something, Prince? You have a terrible concept of testing me.”
“Was I supposed to believe some tiny ass recruit is the split-shot rumoured to be tucked away in this hell-hole of a broke-back military complex?” Orlov retaliated.
Fane bristled under the deluge of insults. “Ye look down on me ‘n me team from yer ivory tower, ye entitled bastard. Ye don’t even try to get to know who the feck I am.” Fane lifted the Prince’s arm up farther until the man sucked in his breath in pain.
“Why should I?” bit back Orlov, half his words swallowed.
“’Cause, it’d save ye from bein’ put in this kinda position, Yer Highness.” Fane allowed the sharp little knife in his hand to ever so gently caress the skin on the Prince’s neck, not enough to draw blood, but a slight pucker of skin raised in response. “Dermatographic urticaria. Well, if I was a horribly sadistic bastard….” Fane trailed off.
The Prince stiffened, his skin prickling in response to that threat. “What are you going to do to me?” A tinge of terror laced his posh accent. His possessive amber eyes had melted into a washed-out yellow, colour draining from his face.
Fane involuntarily quirked an eyebrow as a thought raced across his mind so fast it caught his breath. Pain shot down his left side in a white-hot flash. He released the man, pushing him into the lockers as he lept over the bench to the row of lockers at his back. Retaining possession of the knife, he palmed it, finding its balance.
“I should be asking you the same.” Fane kept his eyes focused on the Prince.
Orlov slowly turned around, keeping his hands up where Fane could see them. When Fane made no move toward him, he straightened his jacket and brushed back his hair.
“You haven’t had a lot of self-defence training, have you?” Fane tilted his head in observation. He had noted the tense muscles of the man, pressed against him as he was, but there had been no muscle memory for being put in a dangerous situation.
“Fourteen years of tennis and polo are not going to count,” grumbled the Prince, unable to meet Fane’s slashing eyes. He hoped the comment would break the tension, but the man’s expression remained stolid. Fane was different when he had a weapon in his hand. A freezing aura of absolute death hung over the man like an icy shroud.
“My command wants me to come with you. I cannot easily turn it down. You might not realise this, but those types of ‘privileges’ are orders, not offers. I’ve already been written off to follow you,” Fane grimaced.
“You’re joking. Everyone can say no. You might be discharged for it, but you can always say no.” Orlov eased back against the locker.
“Bro. I’d like to be able to land a job at more than minimum wage if I ever left the military. If I didn’t care about job prospects, sure, I could say that I’d take being discharged all I want. It doesn’t matter. If I willingly went the route of discharge on my own, I’d end up in a detention centre for quite literally the rest of my life.” Fane spun the knife nervously about his fingers.
“What do you mean by that? That’s holding a person against their will.” Orlov came off the locker.
“You don’t know anything about me, do you? They didn’t give you my file when you got it in your head you needed the Crazy Split Shot of the North? I was some hood rat they found on the streets; dead man walking. I had so many infections and broken bones and amnesia when they found me; the medical care they put into me, in this day and age, is enough to put me in debt to them for the rest of my life.” Fane stilled the spinning blade momentarily.
“You are not a slave, Anson. Even indentured servitude is illegal.” Orlov crossed his arms over his chest.
“You really don’t know how things work here, do you?” Fane sneered.
“You could get an attorney? The military couldn’t hold you against your will.” Orlov waved a dismissive hand.
“Do you understand what solitary confinement is? Do you know how they can make people disappear? How do you call an attorney when you’re stuck in some windowless nine by nine at the bottom of a massive complex no one has heard of?” Fane fought to still the tremble running up his legs.
“So, you’ll follow me, even though I tried to kill you, so you don’t end up in a cell to rot?” Orlov summed up.
“At least, as long as I’m not in that cell, I can protect my own life, even if that means sleeping with one eye open for the rest of my life.” Fane leaned against the locker.
“You think they’re selling your contract to me,” Orlov’s eyes went wide.
A creak at the door alerted Fane. The knife in his hand went flying, landing with a thunk in the door jam. Zephyr’s eyes rolled to look at the instrument at eye level buried halfway up its length. Blood drained out of his face. Fane and Orlov stood in the locker room. He knew Fane had been the one to throw the knife. He also knew Fane had missed on purpose.
“I’ll do what I’m commanded to do within reason,” Fane eased up on the other side of the bench between himself and Orlov. The Prince shrank away, his back against the locker. Fane raised himself onto the bench and leaned over, placing a hand on one of the lockers behind Orlov, boxing him in. He whispered in Orlov’s ear, low enough for Zephyr to not hear him, “but if you ever dare pull a knife on me again, I’ll show you what this broke-back recruit will do to you, Prince.”
Orlov’s amber eyes sought out Fane’s icy blue ones. The soldier watched the colour shallow out of Orlov’s cheeks with cold indifference. Fane turned away from the man, stepped off the bench and walked over to Zephyr, plucking the knife out of the door jam. He pressed it into Zephyr’s hand and leaned in to whisper to his commander in passing, “I’m continuing with my day off. Don’t look for me. The next person who I talk to had better be on death row.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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