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Unable to sleep, I lie staring up at the ceiling. A thing that isn’t foreign to me. My dreams never let me sleep for too long. Funny, how all the lives I’ve taken in the name of my country never keep me up at night. I know one day I’ll have to atone for those lives, but until that day comes, it’s business as usual. On the other hand, I have no control over the ghosts of my childhood, and they’re hell bent on destroying me one dream at a time. Slowly moving the covers off me, I sit on the edge of the bed. Rubbing my eyes, I mindlessly make my way to the bathroom for a much-needed hot shower. My body’s tired from the insufficient sleep I’m getting, but as usual my mind is wide awake. Time sitting around is time wasted. I figure I might as well make good use of mine. There are a thousand things that need my attention at the Collective. The enemy doesn’t sleep. Somewhere, someone is getting hard off the thought of mass murder.

The drive is always peaceful this time of morning. It’s 4:45 A.M. when I walk into the Collective, still very early. It’s quiet in Comm as I pass; only Vivian is there, ever ready at the helm. She must feel as I do. Tactical is just as empty. A huge empty table and a blank T.V. monitor mounted on the wall are all that fill the room. The only room that’s busy, as if it were five in the evening instead of the morning, is the training room. The new recruits start their day early for the entire time they’re training. I walk into my office, closing the door behind me. Walking around my desk, I unbutton my sport coat to make myself more comfortable. I turn on my computer only to stare at the screen. The button that allows me access to the recently released members of the Collective seems to be goading me to push it. After a recruit passes their final test they’re allowed to live outside the Collective, but are heavily monitored. Shy has no idea she has cameras strategically placed in her apartment. My hand hovers over the button that allows me access into her apartment. As much as I want to watch her without letting her know how she makes me feel, I can’t do it. It feels dirty watching her without her permission. She isn’t a target, and because my feelings for her aren’t only professional, it feels perverted. There’s nothing more abhorrent than a pervert, or a sex crime. After what I went through as a child, I have no tolerance for such depravity. I hit the button, allowing me to open the screen for new intel instead. All potential missions are sent to me for review before going to the General. He then makes the final decision on which team will head it up. I lean back in my chair halfway through the intel when Sonja pops up in the corner of my monitor.

“Michael, my office,” she demands before disappearing.

“What now?” I sigh.

Logging off, I stand from my chair, buttoning my jacket before making my way to Sonja’s office. I punch in the code and the door slides open. She’s sitting behind her desk with the General standing to her left.

“We have an assignment for you, Michael. Your team is not to know about it. You will speak only to the General or me. Is that understood?” Sonja barks.

I expect nothing less from this woman. I nod my understanding, clenching my jaw all at the same time. I hate when she speaks to me like I’m a child. She’s so fucking condescending. I’m thankful the General continues giving me the details of my assignment because hearing her speak really grates on my nerves. By the time they finish giving me the details, the Collective is in full swing. I walk to my office, closing the door behind me. Pulling my phone out of my jacket pocket, I dial Shy.

“I’m here,” she says, sounding groggy.

“Come in,” I say, hanging up the phone before she can speak.

Leaving my office heading for Comm, an exotically beautiful woman standing next to Vivian catches my eye. Having never seen her before, my curiosity is piqued. I walk right up to her, introducing myself.

“I’m Michael, and you are?” I ask, extending my hand.

Accepting my hand, she answers. “Brianna. I run the Rio analytical section of the Collective.”

Her grip is firm as she makes eye contact. She’s confident; I like that. I step back as I see my team heading for Tactical, and the briefing. Brianna is still watching me, and I smile. She averts her eyes for a second before returning my smile. Like taking candy from a baby. I can still feel her eyes on me as I turn, heading for Tactical. Shy walks in as I’m heading to the briefing. Her eyes are fixed on the exotic beauty watching me. Her face frowns ever so slightly when she notices the look Brianna is giving me. She knows that look as well as I do. Her curiosity gets the better of her as she heads for Godfrey, as I knew she would. He is her go to guy for any and all things Collective.

“Hey, Godfrey, who’s the new recruit,” Shy assumingly asks.

“That’s no new recruit, butterscotch,” Godfrey says, eyeing Brianna like the candy he just referred to Shy as.

“She’s the analytical expert for the Brazilian division of the Collective.”

Shy rolls her eyes at the way he’s drooling over Brianna. She shouldn’t be surprised. Godfrey drools over every beautiful woman he sees.

“What’s she doing here?”

“Let’s find out,” Godfrey answers as they head toward Tactical.

Shy takes a seat, only it isn’t her usual seat. This time she sits next to Laci because the beautiful Brazilian is occupying the seat next to me. I glance at Shy, trying my best not to smile at her and Godfrey’s conversation. She has no idea how incredibly helpful reading lips can be in this business, but she’ll find out soon enough. Wasting no time with introductions, the General pulls up a schematic of a house as he begins the briefing. He points to the teleprompter on the wall as Vivian pulls up a picture of a man who looks to be in his late fifties.

“This is Oscar Benet, a leader in the Red Sky faction. We have intel--thanks to Brianna, and the Rio division--Benet’s holding up on a farm in Lyon, France.”

He then points to the schematic. “In this house . . . Vivian,” he says, turning the briefing over to her.

“The intel suggests minimal security. Alpha team will consist of Michael, Shyira, and Brianna. You’ll go in dark and take the house. Secure the prisoner, but we need him alive. Bravo team will consist of Delaney, Beck, and Laci. You will take the perimeter. Delaney, you’ll run point. Michael, you’ll take your team in through the back of the house, here.” She points to the back door. “After Beck takes out the sniper on the roof, Michael, you’ll take out whatever guards are in the house and proceed up the stairs. He will be in the second bedroom to the left of the stairs. Any questions?” Vivian asks.

“Does she have any field experience?” Shy speaks up, shocking the shit out of me.

Brianna cuts her a look saying, she doesn’t appreciate Shy questioning her abilities.

“I have plenty of experience,” Brianna states in her thick Brazilian accent.

Brianna’s tone is hostile. I don’t care for it. Boundaries must be set. She needs to know you fuck with one of us, you fuck with me.

“It’s a valid question. Shooting at people and shooting at paper are two very different things.”

Brianna turns slightly toward me when she asks, “And how is that? My marksmanship is excellent”

“Because paper doesn’t shoot back,” Shy interjects, her tone just as sharp. “Your training was meant for regulation purposes only, not field work. I just want to make sure you’re ready because we can’t protect you out there.”

Her tone softens with her last sentence. The conversation is sort of a déjà vu moment of the one I had with Laci. Only I know Shy is coming from a different place. She’s genuinely concerned about Brianna’s safety. I put my head down briefly to conceal my smile at Shy’s response. I’m proud of her. However, Brianna doesn’t find her quite so amusing.
“I’m quite capable of protecting myself,” Brianna states, gruffly.

“If you two are finished?” The General glares at both women, finally settling on Shy. “It’s not your job to question the profile. However, it is your job to do as you’re told. Are we clear?”

The women nod.

“Good, then we’re done,” the General says, walking away.

Vivian shuts down the teleprompter and the team disperses. I get up first, heading to the Ready Room to change for the mission. I can hear Delaney rush his steps in order to catch up with me. When he reaches me he slows to keep pace.

“Michael, what’s up with Chandler? It’s not like her to challenge a profile, especially in front of the General.”
I stop walking to look Delaney in his eyes.

“How would I know?” I narrow my eyes at him. I let my look linger a while before slowly walking forward again. Delaney stays behind, allowing me to walk ahead into the Ready Room. He recognizes I need some space. Shy getting on the General’s bad side unnerves me. Beck catches up with Delaney just as I go in. I hear Beck ask, “What’s up with him?”

“You want to know, go ask him!” I hear Delaney shoot back.

Apparently, my mood is infectious. I rush to change, so I can meet up with Shy at Weapons. Delaney isn’t the only one concerned with her outburst at the briefing. Proud as I might’ve been, it isn’t worth getting on the General’s bad side. I walk up behind her, whispering in her ear.

“What were you thinking, challenging the General like that?”

Shy shivers, stumbling over her words. “I . . . I wasn’t challenging him, Michael. I was asking a legitimate question,” she turns around to face me then. “I . . . we don’t know anything about this woman. She’s an analyst with no field experience. Quite frankly, Michael, I’m surprised you didn’t ask the question yourself. This is your team, is it not?” Shy holds her ground.

It’s difficult being so close to her while staring into her moss green eyes, while staying stern. I want so badly to touch her. To tell her I’m proud of her, but I don’t want to fuel that type of behavior. Shy hasn’t been an active operative for very long, and hasn’t yet proven her abilities enough to make those kinds of outburst. She needs to know her place. I know if I’m not the one to put her there, they will.

“Never question the General in a briefing. If you have a problem with the way an op is ran you talk to me only, got it?” I can feel myself getting angry. Not with her, but with the fact that I have to speak to her over something as small as voicing her concerns. Shy stands motionless, continuing to stare at me for a few seconds longer before grabbing her bag from Godfrey’s table and walking away. I know why she’s pissed, and she has every right to be. She was right, and I didn’t have her back. Godfrey stands quietly in the backdrop, saying nothing. I lock eyes with him for a brief moment before grabbing my bag and walking off. His look is enough. He understands the rules.

Thirty minutes later we pull up to a wooded area. I look at Delaney and nod. It’s go time. Delaney gives his team their orders: Laci is to stay in the van on mobile comm, while Beck takes out the sniper on the roof and prepares egress. Delaney will keep the perimeter clear. I step out of the van first, followed by Brianna then Shy. In the same formation, we silently make our way to the tree line of the woods.

“Kill anyone who gets in the way, but we take Benet alive.”

The team nods as we head out. As we reach the house, Beck comes over the comm.

“The sniper has been put to bed. I repeat, the sniper is down. You’re clear to proceed, Michael.”

Inside, the house is dark. We can see okay without our infrared glasses, but why take unnecessary risks. I tap my goggles, motioning for Brianna and Shy to pull them over their eyes. Testing the back door, it’s locked as expected. Shy crouches down, picking the lock while I cover her six. Brianna keeps her sights on the door. Shy slowly opens the door, and I spot one hostile. Squaring my shoulders, I fire once through my suppressor and he’s down. I motion with my hand for Shy to head forward. This time Brianna follows, with me coming up the rear. Shy, quietly and slowly moves to the top of the stairs. Brianna hangs back mid-stair, covering the door. Moving around Brianna, I stay close behind Shy with my hand placed firmly on her back. Shy reaches the top of the stairs. Turning to her right, she scans the hall for any hostiles. She holds up one finger before motioning to the right, telling me she has one hostile. She aims, firing within a split second. The hostile is no longer a threat. Shy proceeds forward, hugging the wall with me still at her back. She comes to a stop on the right side of the door, waiting for me to give the signal to enter. I quietly come around her, gently opening the door. Shy enters first, flanking the left side of the bed while I take the right. We both stand at the head of the bed with our guns at the ready. The blanket covers all but the hair of Oscar Benet. I holster my gun while Shy holds steady. Taking out the tranquilizer gun, I pull the trigger. The dart went into what should’ve been the neck of Oscar Benet. Shy pulls the cover back to find a dummy in his place. I can see Shy is as surprised as I am as we make eye contact. Two things happen simultaneously: Laci comes over the comm with warning in her voice, and the rapid gunfire erupting through the room. The bullets rip through so hard and fast we don’t have time to do anything except take cover. We both fly to the ground at the same time, scrambling for the door. The light coming through the bedroom window is the only thing that tells me the rapid fire is coming from a Black Hawk helicopter. Besides the bullets, there’s virtually no sound. My ears are ringing from the thunderous sound of bullets ripping through the walls. As we round the corner, I see Brianna crouched down, hugging the wall against the stairs. The entire upstairs wall is riddled with bullets and they’re still coming. As we flee downstairs, all I can hear is gunfire coming from all directions. Laci’s voice is drowned out by the relentless spray of bullets. No matter how many times I’ve been in this situation, it never gets easier. I’ll never get used to nearly getting my ass shot to shit. But at some point, instinct and adrenaline kicks in, and you realize you’ll do anything to survive. The fifty caliber bullets lessen as I hear the M4 rounds increase. Delaney’s team is clearing our egress. The three of us run toward the front door as it flies open. A man enters with an automatic weapon pointed up at us. Brianna’s in the lead and doesn’t hesitate to discharge her .9mm, putting a bullet right through the front of his head. She was right. Her marksmanship is excellent; although, I wasn’t counting on the speed in which she executed. I hear Delaney come over the comm.

“They’re retreating, Michael. Your egress is clear. We have the perimeter. Beck took out the remaining hostiles.”

Brianna stands motionless, staring at the dead man on the ground as I walk by her, stepping over the body. From the look on her face that may have been her first kill, but she needs to reflect later. I stop, turning around. Looking at both women, I shout.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

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