Author's Note: My thanks to Robert Oswell, the writer of The Spiral Crisis. Your excellent story, even incomplete, was a major inspiration for this work. Thank you.
Somewhere in Africa
In his concealed sniper's position on the freezing cold desert floor (but protected by a heavy coat of fur), Aaron LeDuc studied his target, 1.2 kilometers away, through his weapon's night vision scope. The thoughts that kept recurring to him were variations on the theme. Damn terrorists. Not even the Change made them reconsider their Holy Cause. Aaron had been a "long rifleman," a polite term for long-range assassin, for Department Null for almost a year now, though to date he had not actually killed anybody. Yet. If, however, tonight's assignment went as planned, he would have his first sniper kill. If goes as planned. Right. Extreme range, weapon never used in combat before, what could possibly go wrong? Helicopters (other than the extraction 'copter), missiles, and such were out of the question, due to possible anti-aircraft defenses or Powers being used at this terrorist training camp. Besides, Null, as usual, wanted to keep this operation quiet. A lone sniper, a very good one, had therefore been determined to be the best route for taking out one, possibly two dangerous terrorists. Using the NVG scope, Aaron sighted in on the target and signaled on his radio "Steel to Ironhead, on target." Response: "Roger Steel. Weapons are still tight. Will advise." Aaron double-clicked the radio to signal his acknowledgment, trying not to grind his fangs in annoyance, doubly hard when his wolverine's predator instincts were urging him to kill his prey. "Weapons tight" meant he was not yet authorized to fire, and could only recon the target for now.
The bastard under his gun right now had a long history of terrorism and violence even before the Change altered him into a huge, medium degree rhinoceros morph about one year ago. It had not affected his dedication to his Cause one iota; the terrorist Sean O'Mallery still believed his every act was for the good of his people, even though the Irish government had denounced Sean in the vilest of terms. Before the Change, he had been responsible for a number of lethal acts, the worst of which was a bomb on a British airliner that had killed all 185 people aboard. When that particular chunk of shit hit the fan, Sean had made himself an enemy of every NATO country in the world, plus many others. After the Change, he had done worse, including using a Touch of Death power to murder four young British children he had taken hostage when negotiations had fallen through (Sean had wanted some of his allies released from various European prisons). Somehow, the scumbag and his three comrades had escaped, one of them probably using a Teleport power to get them all out before the Wrathful God of SWAT Teams descended on them. That act of lunacy had taken place only four weeks ago, and finally Null had stepped in to help. One of the terrorists made a discreet call announcing where Sean would be four weeks hence for a discreet meeting with members of his organization. The Department, of course, had learned of the phone call from the British. So one terrorist actually has a conscience, Aaron thought to himself. Too bad it came four weeks too late for those kids. Waiting for the go-ahead signal, Aaron let his mind wander, thinking back on how his career with the Department had all gotten started.
North Central Illinois, USA, 11 months ago
Three weeks! Aaron thought to himself, not for the first time that day. A little more than three weeks since the Change had turned the world completely upside down. And yet, here he was, getting some supplies from the local Wal-Mart, marveling at how quickly the world had adapted to this extreme situation. Aaron had Changed into an average degree wolverine morph, complete with long bushy tail, densely packed bone and muscle, dark brown fur with silvery highlights and teeth that could actually bite through frozen meat and bone (or even his mother's cooking) with ease. He had awoken early, disturbed by strange dreams of hunting small rodents in the woods and of eating carrion. To relax, he'd drawn a hot bath and settled in, hoping to soothe sore muscles from a hard week's work which included weekend overtime. When the Change had hit, at 7:00 a.m. Illinois time, he had lain in the bathtub for hours, riding out the weird experience and hoping it was all a dream. When his tail grew out suddenly and he discovered pain from lying back on it in the tub, he realized that, yes, he really was Changing into something not human. And, of course, when the phone rang, his altered ears registered a noise at a boom-box-set-on-nine level, startling the hell out of him. It was at this moment he learned the little-known fact that wolverines have musk glands similar to that of a skunk. Fortunately he had sprayed the musk into the water, diluting it somewhat. As Murphy's Law would have it, he had no tomato or lemon juice to remove the stench, and only one clean towel to dry off sopping wet (and stinking) fur that needed five or six towels, all the while trying not to freak out over what had happened to him. He slammed his new tail in the bathroom door on accident. He even missed the phone call. Typical Monday. His brother Randy (now a low degree cheetah morph) did call back after a couple minutes, and each realized that yet, this was happening to more than just me, a fact confirmed by the elk morph anchorman on the TV a few minutes later.
WallyWorld was unusually crowded for a Tuesday, but that shouldn't have been much of a surprise. After all, people now needed much more in the way of various supplies like deodorant (imagine what B.O. smells like to an enhanced nose), perfume, shampoo, towels, brushes... let's just say personal hygiene is a helluva lot more difficult now. Carting his supplies back to his car (easy to carry heavy bags now), Aaron noticed a scent in the air, one of... anticipation? Nervousness? It was so hard sometimes to make sense out of his new ears and nose. Aaron looked around, seeing a couple people walking in his direction, but there were many people in the parking lot, and could not pinpoint the source of the smells. Shrugging off the experience, Aaron set his stuff down and opened the Tempo's trunk. "Excuse me, sir."
Aaron turned around and saw a very striking woman looking back at him from five feet away. Squirrel morph, medium degree... prey? Aaron shook off the instinctual thought and politely responded "How may I help you?"
"My name is Patty Renard. I know some people who would like to talk to you. My card," she said, handing over a small piece of paper.
Aaron took the card, thinking, What the hell? I don't even know this woman. Patty started walking away rapidly and Aaron shouted after her, "Hey, wait a minute! What the hell is this? Who are you?"
Patty didn't even turn around, but said, "Call the number on that card. You'll get all your questions answered." With that, she norm shifted to a small red squirrel form and darted under a group of cars.
Aaron shook his head in bewilderment; even if he wanted to catch her now he couldn't; after all, he had no Powers he knew of, not even norm shifting. Tracking by smell or hearing would be impossible with all the other people around. Putting his supplies away and getting into the car, he activated the fuel cell and thought of the bizarre encounter. Guess I have to call this number now, he thought, looking at the card. If I don't, wondering about it is gonna drive me bat-shit eventually. My curiosity will probably get me killed someday.
Driving was not too difficult now; Aaron had only lost a few inches in height (down to 5'8") and still had plantigrade, or human-shaped feet, with five digits still on each foot and toe, the claws semi-retractible to keep them out of the way. The only major difficulty was sitting without pinching his tail, which explained why he had spent half an hour last week mutilating the driver's seat with a large knife to make a tail hole. Cars don't feel pain. Squashed tails do. Aaron made it home in short order, put his purchases away, and decided there was no sense in waiting and letting his curiosity chew him alive. He punched in the phone number (it was actually a local number) and sat back, thinking. I hope this isn't some friggin' practical joke.
The call seemed to take quite a while to connect, with a lot of clicks and beeps in the background, but, thank God, no stupid elevator music. Finally, after fifteen seconds or so, the phone started to ring, and was picked up on the second one. A low-pitched, rumbling voice came on the line. "Aaron! So nice to talk to you."
Aaron said "How did you... oh. Caller ID?"
"Something like that," was the response. "My name is Steve Jameson, and I would very much like to talk to you in person. This is very important. Can you meet me in person?" Jameson then gave Aaron an address in a rural area about twenty-five miles away, asking the meeting to take place at noon in two days.
"Wait a minute! What the hell is this all about?" was Aaron's bewildered response.
"I assure you Aaron, all your questions will be answered in two days. You will be compensated for your time. It doesn't matter if you tell anybody where you are going; I promise you that there is no danger involved. Let's just say we would like to offer you a well paying job of sorts. Good day." Without giving Aaron time for a response, the person on the other end of the like suddenly disconnected. Aaron was left sitting there, staring at the phone receiver in his hand in utter confusion.
Job opportunity? What skills do I have that anybody would want? Aaron was a utility worker in a magazine printing factory, a business that had suffered some over the years from decrease of the printed word and the rise of the Internet. He had no special skills he was aware of that would contribute to a "well paying" job. Whoever it was on the other side of that phone, he had piqued Aaron's curiosity to a painful level. Must be some psychological ploy. Jameson knows I can't refuse this meeting, whatever it is, due to curiosity, Aaron thought. I should have Changed into a cat. No, scratch that. Curiosity killed the cat. Maybe a wolverine won't die so easily, if there is indeed danger in this meet.
Two days later. Aaron had told his brother, his parents, and a few close friends where he was going and of the mysterious nature of the meet. His brother, cynical as always, warned Aaron of possible perverts with a thing for wolverine-morphs. "Carry a hand grenade in your pocket," Randy had joked, "so if he feels you up, you can blow his paws off." Naturally, Aaron did not accept such wise advice. He did, however, carry a small can of pepper spray concealed in a pocket. With many of the Changed having such strong senses of smell, the spray and his own musking ability would make handy self-defense weapons if push came to shove, which Aaron doubted would happen as he walked up to the nondescript farm house. Many emotions and threats could be detected by smell now, and Aaron scented no nervousness, no anger, no oiled steel indicating a firearm, no threat at all.
Still ten feet away, the door opened and a high degree (flighted) red-tail hawk morph said, "Aaron! Good to meet you, come on in." Entering the house, Aaron discovered the pepper spray and musk would both be almost useless anyway; birds generally have very little sense of smell or taste, and of the four people in the house besides himself, three were high degree bird morphs of various sorts. The fourth, an low-degree gorilla morph, rose to meet Aaron as he entered the living room.
"Aaron! Hi, I'm Steve Jameson, we talked on the phone. Have a seat. Drink?"
Before Jameson could go any further, Aaron held up one paw-hand and said, "Hold it!" Flopping down on a chair (barely avoiding a painful tail-pinch), he immediately demanded "Don't go any further until you explain just what the hell is going on here!"
Aaron's patience was obviously at an end. Unfazed, Jameson sat down himself and said, "Right to business then. You deserve an explanation for our summons, of course. It has to do with your Powers."
"Powers?" Aaron said, not sure he understood Jameson. "I have no Powers. Many people do, but I'm not one of them. I'm one of the minority."
"Oh, you do have a couple Powers, you just don't know about them yet. Allow me to explain."
"The woman you know as Patty Renard, not her real name, by the way, is an employee of the same organization that I work for. When the Change hit and paranormal abilities began to show up in the vast majority of the newly changed human race, Patty was discovered to have a strong ability of her own. She has the Identify Power, a very strong version of it. Her power is like a supersensitive probing device, a scanner that can focus on one individual at a time and only requires a split second to function. The subject doesn't even know he or she is being scanned. This Identify power of hers flawlessly detects other Powers in the subject, even latent ones, and gives Patty a good idea on what the Power does. We simply have Patty walk around public places, scanning people at random, looking for unique Powers that may be useful to our organization. Your power, latent though it is, came to our attention six days ago when you were at the local mall, playing a video game, of all things."
Quiet through this monologue, Aaron suddenly had a bad feeling. "You've been shadowing me for almost a week now? You probe people without telling them? You ever heard of 'violation of privacy?'"
"Aaron, calm down," Jameson said. "We didn't do any spying on you, we just used those six days to do a basic background check on you, like any police department might do from time to time. We violated none of your rights. We are not going to blackmail you, or coerce you into anything. But understand this: in other countries, blackmail, threats, and worse are being used by government forces, including those with political positions adverse to that of the United States, to bring individuals with powerful abilities under their control. We need Powers of our own available to counteract this threat. Call it a matter of national security."
"You're government agents?" Aaron asked, hardly able to believe his ears. If there was anything Aaron did not want involvement in, it was politics, and working for the government seemed a sure way to get tangled up in them.
"Before I tell you anything else," was the response, "the rest of this conversation is now being recorded. If you want to hear any more, you have to keep it a secret or face criminal charges. Do you agree?" A click indicated the activation of some recording device or other.
Angry at the veiled threat, Aaron nevertheless wanted to hear the rest of what Jameson had to say. "All right, I agree. If there's one thing I can do good, it's keep a secret."
"Good," Jameson remarked. "everyone here, and Patty, work for a division of the CIA known as Department Null. It is what you would call a 'black' agency, doing things that are best kept out of the public limelight. We are well funded, with state-of-the-art technology available to us, and with the Powers of many of our agents, recruited in much the same way as this, we are now highly flexible as well, capable of doing any number of special operations. Now here's where you come in. William."
One of the bird-morphs, a flighted raven, quiet up until now, broke in. "Aaron, I'm William Carver, Department Null weapons research & development. For almost five years now, we have been working on a tactical sized version of a magnetic based mass driving system; a railgun if you will. You know what a railgun is, don't you?" Aaron shook his head; he had heard the term 'railgun' before, but knew very little about what it meant. "Ok, a railgun is essentially a long tube equipped with a series of magnets along a set of rails in the barrel. The magnets activate in sequence, pushing a projectile along the tube faster and faster, finally ejecting the object at incredible velocities. We have a relatively small tactical version of this device working, which is about two meters long, or about seven feet. Half of that is barrel. The weapon weighs forty-eight pounds, and its auxiliary equipment, carried in a backpack and wired to the weapon, weighs about twenty pounds. We have solved most of the problems associated with the device, such as recoil, overheating, etc. The one problem we cannot overcome is the power problem. A portable battery pack is too heavy and unreliable, drains too quickly, and takes far too long to charge the railgun's capacitors."
"You were discovered to have two latent powers," Jameson said, taking control of the conversation again. "A power called Calming, which allows you to calm your emotions and instincts, and voluntary slow your breathing and heart rate, among other things. Fast heartbeat and respiration can badly throw off a sniper's aim."
"That's it? You want me to shoot people for you?" Aaron blurted out.
"Hear me out. Please," was Jameson's response. Aaron quieted down, mind churning, but wanting to hear more. Jameson continued. "Your second power is more interesting. We call it Variable Mass-Energy Conversion, or VAMEC for short. You can directly convert matter into energy, and convert it either into heat or electrical energy. With training, you could burn or shock targets by touch, maybe even be able to project beams of heat or lightning. But that is not important right now. You, by converting matter into electrical power, would be a living power plant, the ideal portable power supply for the railgun. With you using your two Powers behind the sight of the railgun, it would become the ultimate sniper rifle: hyper-fast, unbelievably accurate, and with more penetrating power than any conventional firearm out there at any range. This is dependent, of course, on your willingness to join us. You would be a freelance agent for any paramilitary operations we have to put together. No rank, just a code name on each mission. You would earn $75,000 a year for starters, and would only be called in for extreme situations where there is no acceptable alternative. Your cooperation is completely voluntary.
Aaron sat and thought for about two minutes or so. "If I accept," Aaron started slowly, "I would want full disclosure on why I would have to shoot. I also want the option to refuse the mission if I don't agree with the reasons for needing to shoot."
Jameson thought for a few seconds. "All right, that is reasonable enough. Here is a number you can reach me at. Memorize it and do not write it down," Jameson said, giving Aaron a seven digit phone number. "You have one week to decide if you wish to work for us. After accepting, you have another week to get your affairs in order, and get packed up to move; you can't very well commute to Virginia every day from North Central Illinois."
"Ok" Aaron said, getting up to leave; the others stayed where they were. "Refuse or accept, I'll be in contact. Have a nice day." With that, Aaron turned around and left for his car, quietly reciting the number to himself.
Now, lying behind the sight on this advanced weapon, Aaron thought back to the sequence of events afterward. His acceptance after two days, getting his affairs all in order, and leaving for training, which itself was a mere blur. Jameson had played on his conscience and general feelings of justice, not to mention his desire for a much better paying and more interesting job. Completely voluntary my ass, Aaron thought. He knew I'd accept. I knew then, deep down, I'd accept. Not that he minded; he figured he could actually help others now in a much more direct (if secretive) way. He had turned out to be the best sharpshooter Null had ever seen, able to use this weapon to hit the target's bullseye from over a kilometer away. The gun could even punch through two meters of reinforced steel with ease. After all, with the charge Aaron could bleed into the weapon, its 12-millimeter wide round ball moved at about ten times the speed of sound!
Watching the scene from 1.2 klicks away, Aaron suddenly saw a flash of light and another person appeared in the midst of the terrorist camp, a high degree shrew morph. Appearing startled at first, O'Mallery recovered and warmly greeted the new arrival. Aaron activated his comm. "Steel to Ironhead, new arrival joining the party. Teleporter, looks like one of the bastards from the Madrid fiasco" Aaron intoned, grimly recalling four innocent children, lives snuffed out.
"Steel, Ironhead acknowledges. Be advised, we were waiting for this to happen. Weapons free. Teleporter is designated Target Bravo. Target and neutralize subject Alpha first. Recharge and attempt to neutralize subject Bravo as a secondary objective. Signal after each successful termination. After completion or failure of secondary objective, withdraw and return to the rally point for extraction."
"Acknowledged, Ironhead," Aaron replied, already Calming himself, and flipping off the rifle's safety. "Weapon charging now."
Pulling molecules of nitrogen out of the dry air, Aaron converted them into electrical energy and fed the juice into his backpack unit. Aaron could not fine-tune the voltage he generated. He didn't need to anyway: the power converter in the backpack gear did that for him, adjusting the energy to the proper voltage and sending the power into the railgun's capacitor bank. The capacitors began to hum louder and louder with contained energy, in three seconds reaching full charge. Aaron, having set himself into a rock steady calm, swiveled the gun on its tripod, bringing the crosshairs to rest on the center of O'Mallery's huge head and depressing the trigger about halfway. He could have used an infrared laser to aim the weapon, but as some morphs could now see into the infrared spectrum, it might have given O'Mallery just enough warning to duck. Crosshair aiming was much more stealthy, and Null wanted nothing to go wrong with this operation. Ok, Aaron. Do it just like in training. Take this guy out or more innocents die. Calm and clear-headed due to his Power, Aaron remembered exactly what to do to maximize his shooting accuracy, and, two seconds after the weapon was charged, he depressed the trigger the rest of the way. The capacitors fired, and the railgun ejected a 12-millimeter hollow cored ball of ceramic and steel.
As fast as the projectile traveled, it reached its target in less than a third of a second. Tremendous friction heat would normally cause a projectile to burn up at this speed, but the ceramic coating dissipated enough of that to keep the ball together on its short, violent flight. Sean O'Mallery's huge rhinoceros head was in profile when the shot landed, his left tube-like ear the closest part of his head to Aaron. The ball struck Sean just below his left ear.
Unknown to Department Null, Sean O'Mallery, also known as Target Alpha, had another Power, a strong kinetic shield that would stop most bullets, even large projectiles from high-powered conventional sniper rifles. Sean kept this Power up almost all the time, even in the presence of his allies, for the world he lived in was one of treachery and danger, and he never knew when a weapon was being aimed at him. This protection had made Sean a bit overconfident, explaining the inadequate security during this meeting. What Sean did not realize was that his shield would only slow or stop projectiles, not deflect them. When the ball hit Sean's head, it was going approximately Mach 10, or 7,650 miles per hour. The shield slowed the ball down to about Mach 4, but failed to stop it completely. The ball plowed through tough leathery hide and bone, and began to flatten out to increase the size of the exit wound. The ball had a hollow core both to lighten the projectile and increase speed, and to cause this flattening effect. However, the slower moving projectile was able to flatten out even more than the designers had hoped for, and Sean's shield made his probably fatal wound into a definitely fatal one. The flattened steel ball exploded out the right side of Sean's head as a thin disk about two inches in diameter, taking most of Sean's brain tissue with it. The terrorist dropped like a sack of rocks, and Aaron, using Calming to control his sudden revulsion, quickly signaled "Alpha down. Center head. Targeting Bravo." Jacking in another round and recharging the capacitors, Aaron swung the gunsight around to cover the secondary target.
Daniel Ladson, who was known to Null as an escaped British prisoner, was Target Bravo, though Null did not know that this was Ladson under the gun at the moment. He had very little liking of the animal-morph he had Changed into, even though along with the Change came the teleport Power that allowed him to escape from an English prison. O'Mallery was the first one to express admiration of Ladson's teleporting abilities, and Dan had joined the terrorist group as a way of getting revenge on those who had imprisoned him. That the imprisonment was justified (Ladson was a serial rapist-murderer) meant very little to him. His dislike of his shrew-like body came from the fact that he could no longer easily approach and seduce vulnerable women the way he looked now. His discomfort led to a considerable amount of self-denial of his Change, and also to violently suppressed instincts that he had yet to learn to control effectively. When Sean's head came apart less than three feet away, Ladson's shrew instincts took instant control of him and made him run like hell in a random direction, instead of teleporting away. He ended up running straight toward Aaron's sniper position.
Aaron, seeing Bravo moving and making himself a harder target, aimed lower to ensure a better chance of a hit. As the weapon reached full charge, Bravo stopped suddenly, which was Ladson regaining control of his body. The action would prove to be his last. Aaron didn't know or care about that; all he saw was his crosshairs centered directly over the target's center chest. A second snap, actually a miniature sonic boom, announced the second shot of the evening. A large hole magically appeared in Ladson's chest as the hollow steel ball blasted a column straight through his heart. The ball, hardly slowed, continued flying off into the night until it burned up. Ladson just stood there for a second or two, not knowing what had happened, and then fell, dead before he hit the ground.
Quickly picking up the heavy rifle, Aaron was off and running as he signaled "Bravo down. Heart. Pulling back now." Half a mile south was the hidden checkpoint, and he moved fairly quickly, trading some speed for caution. Probably not necessary, he thought. There's a sniper shooting at them; they're probably keeping their heads down. Even if not, they'd expect the rifleman to be much closer. Aaron reached the rally point without incident, panicking for a split second when he smelled his ally but saw nothing, then Ironhead released his invisibility field and started the jeep. Quickly disconnecting the rifle from the backpack, Aaron took a few seconds to store the weapon's two parts in the back of the jeep and covered them up with a tarp. Two seconds later, Ironhead, a low-degree goat morph, was driving like a bat out of hell for the dustoff zone.
"Ironhead to Flame Tongue, mission accomplished. Code Whisky Hotel Zulu," Ironhead spoke into his radio, authorizing the chopper pilot to strip off the camo tarp and start the rotors turning. He then turned to Aaron for a moment. "Used the gun camera's transmitter to see the action. Damn fine shooting." Said Ironhead, real name Jason Kirby, as he eased down the throttle some on the jeep.
"Glad you approve, Jason." Aaron said quietly, lost in thought at the moment. He was no longer using his Power, and his emotions were jumping all over the place at the moment: Released stress, anger at the necessity of what he had done, euphoria for a completed mission, and many other emotions swirled into a malt in his psyche at the moment. In ten minutes they reached the extraction point, which was hidden by some rock outcroppings and sand dunes. Aaron recovered the rifle components, then they turned the Jeep over to a waiting fiend agent who quickly drove the Jeep off in another direction. It would be discreetly disposed of. Jason and Aaron jumped aboard the helicopter as Jason yelled "Go Go Go!" They buckled in for the ride, hoping the minigun on the side, manned by a sharp-eyed falcon-morph, would not be needed to discourage pursuit.
Using headsets, Jason and Aaron communicated briefly. "Aaron, are you all right?"
"Fine, I think. I think... Oh God..." Aaron, not using Calming, finally felt the normal revulsion that comes with taking a life, no matter how richly deserved the death was. Aaron unfastened his restraints, quickly crawled to the open door of the chopper, and tossed his last couple of meals into the wind. Returning to his jumpseat a minute later and shakily refastening the restraints, he said "I'm okay now."
"It's all right, Aaron. It's normal. Shows that you're still human. A lot more human than those creeps on the ground tonight." Jason had seen it before, and was actually grateful for it, for it showed him that the shooter was a human, not a machine or an animal, no matter how much like animals they resembled now.
Aaron, for his part, thought back on the events of the night. So many problems and their grim solutions that are still around. Even after the Change, we are all still so very human.
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