They were giving her a Makarov today.
She would have preferred something else…a Glock, maybe. She liked the way a Glock fit in her hand, the weight and balance of it. But she was never allowed to choose the gun she used, and she was expected to be equally proficient with every sidearm she was assigned.
She took the Makarov without comment and entered the firing range.
The space was enclosed by dull gray walls on each side, but the back wall was painted a deep black, and numbered signs tacked to the ceiling marked off the distance from the shooter to the target. For this session, her targets hung in a long, straight row, each painted with the dark silhouette of a faceless man.
Gun held at her side, muzzle pointed towards the floor, she walked to the aperture she had been told to use, the sound of her footsteps oddly muffled by the ear plugs she wore, the world tinted yellow from the safety glasses covering her eyes. She paused when she reached her station, lifting the Makarov for inspection. She ensured that the weapon was not yet loaded, then checked the barrel and the sights, the motions automatic enough that her thoughts drifted as she worked.
In the three days since her mission had begun, she and Clint had spoken each night, and she had told him a great deal about the program. But, he had proven to be every bit as obstinate as he’d seemed, and his resistance had not lessened, though she had tried many times to emphasize the risk he was taking.
The Red Room’s tolerance extended only so far.
Clint did not seem to care.
"Maybe they’ll figure I’m more trouble than I’m worth and let me go.”
"You are not that naïve.” It was a statement, not a question. She knew him well enough now to be sure of that.
He snorted softly, the sound bitter, rather than amused. “Yeah. But that doesn’t mean I’m just gonna roll over and do what they say.”
There had been no accusation in his tone, but she had heard one all the same. An unfamiliar spike of anger had lodged itself in her chest. He had no right to judge her, this boy who had yet to experience the worst the Red Room had to offer. But he would experience it. She had no doubt of that. Eventually, the Polkovnik’s patience would come to an end, and he would resort to other, more invasive measures.
"They will get what they want,” she had warned Clint coolly. “They always do.”
Eyes darkening at the memory of that particular conversation, she reached down to pick up one of the clips that had been placed on the counter for her use. She slid the clip into place, raised her weapon, aimed for the line of targets in front of her, and pulled the trigger. The report of her Makarov was almost soothing, the noise echoing in the range.
Her bullets struck one target after another, each at center mass, small flecks of paper following in their wake. When she was finished, she lowered the gun and examined her work.
Two of the bullet holes were a few centimeters to the left.
“Еще раз.” Again. Her trainer’s voice sounded distant as it issued from the observation chamber behind her.
She quickly replaced the old magazine with a new one, and waited for a fresh set of targets to move into position. She had always done well at the range, had even enjoyed it early on, though that had changed as her assignments had progressed, and she had been deemed ready for more than simple espionage.
"They’ll want me to kill people, won’t they?”
Clint’s voice was flat, and she doubted that he really needed the confirmation, but she gave it to him nonetheless.
"Yes. Can you do it?”
There was a long silence, and she hoped it was not because he would refuse - the program would never accept such an answer.
"Yeah,” he said at last. “I think I can.”
"That is good.”
"No. No, it’s not.”
The targets were set; her finger reached for the trigger, and the feeling of each shot coursed through her until all eight rounds were spent.
She knew even before she examined the targets that her second attempt was better than her first, but now one of her bullets had impacted the target slightly to the right. She was not surprised when the trainer’s voice came from behind her once more.
“Еще раз.” Again.
Her hands moved over the weapon automatically, sliding the used clip free and inserting another. The magazine locked into position with a click, and as soon as new targets had appeared, she raised her gun a third time.
The Makarov’s recoil traveled down her wrists and to her ribs, but she did not allow the pain to interfere.
This was the world she knew…all she had ever known.
"Did they take you like they took me?” Clint wondered.
"I don’t know.” A woman’s voice. A scream. Smoke. “I was too young to remember.”
"How old are you? How long have you been here?”
"I am thirteen.” She was twelve - at least, that was the age she had been told to provide as Natalie Rushman. But, Clint was at least a few years older, and she hoped the extra year would make her seem less like a child. “I do not know how long it has been.”
"They don’t let you keep track?”
"There are many things we are not allowed to keep.”
The final target was struck and she lowered her weapon, her eyes raking over the range.
Her third attempt had proven to be the best thus far, in fact it was nearly perfect, though as she was well aware, nearly was not good enough. She was preparing to reload once more when the trainer’s voice reached her.
“Мне сообщили, что Полковник хочет поговорить с вами. Оставьте пушки на вашей станции. Я буду иметь дело с ним.” I have been informed that the Polkovnik wishes to speak with you. Leave the gun at your station. I will deal with it.
She signaled her acknowledgment of the order by raising her hand in a fist so that the trainer could see it from the observation chamber. Then, she flicked on the Makarov’s safety and placed the gun on the ledge in front of her, frowning as she did so. Standard procedure dictated that she clean the weapon she had used, but the Polkovnik was clearly not to be kept waiting if the trainer was agreeing to do so in her stead.
A feeling of unease settled somewhere in her chest.
She had given the Polkovnik her report on Clint that morning, and something significant must have changed for him to require a second meeting now.
Removing the ear plugs and safety glasses she had worn, she turned and strode to the range’s exit, a cadre of guards surrounding her as soon as she stepped into the hallway. They started immediately for the Polkovnik’s office, and her unease did not lessen as she considered the possible reasons for her summons.
Perhaps the scope of her assignment was being expanded or redefined. Perhaps Clint had been questioned and they had discovered that she had spoken with him before she’d been cleared to do so. Perhaps…perhaps Clint had attempted to escape.
If that was the case, the Red Room might very well have decided that he was “more trouble than he was worth.”
"You’re telling me you’ve never thought about it? Escaping?”
The denial should have been immediate, adamant. But the words simply did not come.
Clint must have sensed an opening. “Listen, you know this place better than I do. Maybe we could make it.”
She stared at the wall of her cell for a long moment. He’d said that they could leave together once before, that first night, but she had dismissed it as empty sentiment. Apparently, he had been more sincere than she had realized.
"They will stop you,” she told him at last, choosing to ignore his use of the plural. “And even if you somehow succeeded in leaving the compound, where would you go? Outside, there is tundra. Little cover and no shelter. The closest town is several miles from here. How would you survive?”
"I don’t know.” He sounded frustrated now.
"They may not even let you get that far. They may simply kill you. Do you want to die?”
"No. But I don’t want to live like this either.”
It was entirely possible that Clint had been as good as his word, she knew. The fact that she had not been with him was irrelevant. Despite his suggestion that they might have a better chance together, he was most likely desperate enough to make his attempt when the first opportunity arose, regardless of her presence.
But Clint had been considered a flight risk from the beginning, and was monitored carefully.
He would not have gotten far.
A strange sensation curled in her stomach at the thought, but she deliberately pushed is aside. She had no way of knowing if that was indeed the reason for this meeting, and speculation would do her no good. She would learn the truth soon enough.
A few minutes later, they reached the end of the hallway where the Polkovnik’s office was located. The guard stationed at the door announced their arrival, and they were quickly ushered inside.
The Polkovnik was seated at his desk, a pad of paper resting in front of him, the open page filled top to bottom with script. His glasses were pushed to the end of his nose, and he held a pen loosely in one hand. He glanced up when she entered, then leaned back in his chair and waved her forward.
She stepped closer obediently and stood to attention, her back straight, chin raised, eyes locked on the wall behind him.
The Polkovnik did not bother with pleasantries.
“Ситуация сложилась в Берлине, тот, который должен иметь дело как можно скорее. Я думаю, что вы лучше всего подходит для этой задачи. Миссия подготовка начнется завтра.” A situation has developed in Berlin, one that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. I believe you are the best suited for the task. Mission preparation will begin tomorrow.
She kept her expression deliberately neutral as the words registered.
Clint, it seemed, had not made an escape attempt after all.
It should not have mattered. Yet, it did.
But that did not stop the cold feeling beginning at the base of her spine, nor did it stop her heart from speeding up suddenly in her chest, even as she forced her breathing to remain even.
Mission preparation meant only one thing.
“И мое текущее задание?” she asked carefully. And my current assignment?
“Это будет продолжаться, пока. Миссия подготовки продлится несколько дней, и я не вижу причин, чтобы не поставить время, чтобы использовать, пока вы функционируют в соответствующей грузоподъемности.” It will continue, for now. Mission preparation will last several days, and I see no reason not to put the time to use, as long as you are functioning in the correct capacity.
She gave a clipped nod of understanding; her assignment would last only as long as she was capable of remembering that she had received it.
“А как насчет мальчика?” What about the boy?
The Polkovnik’s eyes narrowed faintly at her inquiry, and she did not react, silently willing her heart rate to slow.
“Я предполагаю, что его статус изменится, а также,” she clarified. “Нужно ли вносить изменения в том, как я имею дело с ним?” I assume that his status will change as well. Will I need to make adjustments in how I deal with him?
Such information could very well be important to her assignment, and perhaps, she admitted silently, it was important to her as well.
The Polkovnik studied her for a long moment, his free hand tapping the arm of his chair thoughtfully.
“Я сомневаюсь, что статус мальчика будет проблемой для вас,” he said at last. “Тем не менее, я уверен, что вы сможете справиться с любой трудности, которые возникают.” I doubt the boy’s status will be an issue for you. Nonetheless, I am certain that you will be able to handle any difficulties that arise.
Her jaw clenched imperceptibly, but voicing her questions once had been risky enough. She could not make a second attempt.
With that, she assumed that the briefing was finished, and waited for the Polkovnik to speak, but he did not release her.
Instead, he tossed his pen onto his desk and grasped his glasses by their frame, removing them and reaching into his suit to retrieve a handkerchief. He polished the lenses for several long minutes, pausing only to check their clarity in the light.
He did not stare at her, did not even acknowledge her presence, but she was keenly aware that she was being observed all the same.
Finally, satisfied at last, the Polkovnik replaced his glasses and slipped the handkerchief back into his pocket.
“Вы уволены.” You are dismissed.
She acknowledged the command with a final crisp nod, then turned and strode from the room.
The guards moved into position around her, and they started down the hall once more. The gray walls of the facility slipped past her as they walked, and she noted their direction, automatically cataloguing their route, but it was habit, reflex.
Her mind was elsewhere.
The Red Room’s leniency towards Clint had come to an end.
The Polkovnik had not stated that explicitly, but she had long ago learned to hear what her superiors did not say. She wondered if this had been the Polkovnik’s plan all along, or if the Berlin mission had pushed up his time table. Clint might have even done that himself when his behavior had not changed.
She could guess what he would face.
Mission preparation…or something like it. That cold feeling in her spine spread slowly upwards, her chest tightening.
Clint was still untrained, so it was unlikely that he would be sent out immediately even if the Red Room was certain of his compliance. But, the Polkovnik had always referred to the process as mission preparation, and she had no other name to give it.
She had not been forbidden from discussing that aspect of the program with Clint, but she had avoided it nonetheless, sensing that if anything, it would only strengthen his resolve to resist.
If she had warned him sooner, maybe it would have made a difference.
But, what was done was done, and in a few days it wouldn’t matter.
She couldn’t regret something she did not remember.