The Sin Eater
For once in my life, I was glad of political unrest.
Diplomatic resolutions were in the air, and a conference was soon to be held in Madrid, roughly a four hour drive from Elche. And a conference involving US diplomats, meant US news coverage. I had only to find where the media would be based, which in the end wasn’t hard at all. Within ten minutes after boarding a bus bound for Madrid, I had my location, and after memorizing the route that would bring me there the fastest after touchdown at the bus stop, all that was left for me to do was to sit back and wait.
But all I could think about was Marta.
For the first hour I could still feel her lips on mine. The gentle touch of her hands. The warmth of her body against mine, and how we fit each other perfectly. How impossibly smooth her skin was. For the first hour I could still taste her.
I love you, Aaron Cross.
I burned to have her by my side; hating to be so far from her, while my mind concocted all of the worst case scenarios that could happen while I was gone. But I knew I couldn’t take her with me. I consoled myself with the fact that I was drawing all the fire towards myself and away from her. She would be safe, and soon she would be free to start fresh again.
I purposefully forbade myself to consider what would happen after I leaked my story. I knew my chances. They weren't good. Months of being on the run from an agency that was out for blood, my blood, and suddenly I was going to publicly broadcast my exact location to the very people I was running from. Couple that with the fact of the inevitable skyrocketing piss levels back at Langley as soon as I did spill the beans, and there'd be a sniper centering their crosshairs on every door and window of the place by the time I would be getting through introductions.
The instant I step out of that door? Bang. Thank you, and goodnight.
But I had one hope that I was holding onto. A hope that the public would respond. That the assassination of the whistleblower on the very doorstep of the press would act as a very public admission of guilt. That Byer would realize that and hope to avoid such an admission. That he would go into full-scale innocent ass-covering mode, instead of throwing a very natural temper tantrum and plastering the walls with my brains.
I was hoping he wouldn’t do that.
Either way, I told myself I was going through with this. For Marta. For Nikki. For Jason. For Outcome 03 who died in Alaska, and for the woman he loved. For all of the Outcome and LARX agents, and who knows how many other programs. For everyone who ever had their lives ruined by Kramer's, Turso's, Mandy's, and Byer's twisted need to be in control.
Four hours came and went uneventfully, and I soon found myself on a curb in Madrid, looking about me at the breathtaking architecture and life that overflowed from Spain's capital.
It wasn’t the first time I had been in the city. Three other times, each years between each other, I had visited. All had been for and on a mission, so I never really had the time for sightseeing. Not that I did now. I was still on a mission.
Mentally routing my course, I shoved my hands in my pockets and started walking, slipping anonymously past tourists and locals alike. Somewhere off in the distance a Spanish guitar was singing a sweet melody, while birdsong harmonized in the afternoon sun. It was a bright and hot day, with a cloudless blue sky, perfect for a stroll down the cobblestone streets with a pretty woman at your arm.
I passed a pot of bright red begonias and thought of Marta. How if she were with me, I would stop to pluck one and slip it in her hair.
But I had no time for daydreams. I was nearing my destination. Just around the corner should be the large stone building that FOX News was using as its home base. FOX was a good choice. Statistically, more people watched it on a daily basis.
Cutting down a small, cobbled side-street, I paced past silent and empty houses. Yet, suddenly as I turned a corner, I came to a stop, body tensing like a spring.
There before me, standing easy in the center of the alley not eight feet away, stood a man I hoped to never see again. The very last man I was expecting as my welcome party. He always did take pleasure in surprising me, and now he had truly succeeded. I was caught unprepared. Caught wary and exposed.
There, standing before me, was Eric Byer.
"You're a very hard man to kill, Five," he said, tone light and face deceivingly collected.
I cast a quick, casual glance over my shoulder. Nothing there. The street was empty. Next I scanned the rooftops lining the alley. No one. The windows on the houses. Nothing. From all appearances, Byer was alone.
Either that or his operatives were doing their jobs well for once.
"Yeah, well I had a good incentive," I replied, keeping my voice wry and cynical, like this was all just some big joke. In reality I was analyzing the shit out him, but getting nowhere.
What are you playing at, Byer? What's your game?
He gave a complacent little smile in return to my comment, as if we were nothing but two old friends discussing last night's baseball game. "You got sloppy towards the end, though. Enlarging your party to four? Very rash. You gave me four white Americans on the African coastline to track. Your route was predictable."
I shrugged. "Maybe I just don’t care anymore. Its all about to end anyways." I cocked my head, as if genuinely curious. "Do you have a good lawyer? You should find a good lawyer. Actually make it three or four. Hell, six while you're at it. I think you'll need them."
He didn't bat an eye. "You were always a good operative. One of the best," he continued. Suddenly he cocked his head as I had done, matching my tone. "What exactly was your incentive? Was it that pretty little doctor you've been carting around ever since you took out my D-track team in Maryland?"
I didn't like where this was going. Marta shouldn’t even be apart of his picture.
I was praying she wasn’t apart of his plan.
"Shearing was only ever an asset," I responded, my face neutral while I said her name in a hard voice that distanced myself from it. "She understands the Chems. I don’t." I shrugged. "I was hoping that maybe somewhere along the line she could heighten my enhancements."
It was an easy lie. Smooth and effortless. Plausible and emotionless.
Eric smiled, as if we were sharing an inside joke. "Ah, but she's more than that, isn't she? You care about her, don’t you? Maybe even love her…"
I said nothing, only stared him on deadpan.
"I'm just curious," he continued, "Do you think things will be better for her after you tell the world our dirty little secret? Do you honestly think she'll be safe? She'll be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life. If not for me, than for someone else who will use her for her skill set. She'd be targeted on a thousand switchboards, and there's nothing you would be able to do about it."
I said nothing.
But a part of me knew he was right.
He took a step towards me, his manner persuasive, his face earnest, like he was on my side. My old commander. "Come back to us, Aaron. We don’t have to play this game anymore. You pretend to want the simple life, but deep down you know you could never live with yourself. You thrive on the mission. You crave it. And its what you're good at. What you were trained to do. What you were made for."
I said nothing.
He was right. I didn't know anything else. I was crafted for the field. How long could I play the game of pretending to be normal? How long could I exist without craving the rush? Craving the mission?
"If you come with me now, if you forget about all of this and come home, I promise you Marta Shearing will be given protection. She'll have her life back. She'll be safe. She need never see you again. She can forget."
I said nothing.
For a moment I imagined what that would look like. I imagined Marta doing what she loves and working at a lab again, with a comfortable country house, no longer plagued with the fear of what may come in the night and what tomorrow might bring. No longer having to face the constant reminder of my face—the government's favorite weapon.
She deserved that life. She didn't deserve me. I didn't deserve her.
You don’t get it, do you? Aaron, we still need each. All of this? Us running for our lives? Its just as much my fault as it is yours. Yeah, I loaded the gun! And you pulled the trigger! I'm staying with you, and we end this together.
I love you, Aaron Cross.
I love you, Aaron.
I love you.
I love you.
Suddenly I saw Marta working in a lab, slaving over the next upgrade for LARX. I saw her in her country house, where invisible security cameras haunted every corner and her every move had to be surveyed and approved. I saw her worrying over the past, dwelling on what might have been if I had chosen differently.
Byer was right. There might be a few others that would come hunting for her, but I had promised to be right there, protecting her, shielding her.
If there was one thing Marta deserved, it was to have a choice.
Besides, its not as if I believed a word of it. We were too much a liability for Byer to let him keep us alive. Most likely, he would just wait for us to lower our guard before assassinating both of us in one blow.
"No," I said firmly, meeting Byer's eyes. "No more, Byer. This ends here. I'm done being your weapon. I'm done being your sin eater. Its time you faced your own sins."
He inhaled through his nose, lifting his head slightly and dropping the act, the mask of concern falling away from his face. "Very well."
I was expecting the flash of movement when it came. I had long since been anticipating it. Watching for the signal from Byer.
It wasn’t hard to deduce where it would come from. Byer was a risk taker, but he wasn’t stupid. His position of where he was standing left precisely one window on each side of the buildings fencing us in, two stories up, in between us.
Two windows on either side where an assassin was waiting behind the wall to pop out and take me out.
I was counting on the fact that the only way an attack would come from behind is from the street. I got the feeling that Byer wouldn’t put himself in the line of fire should any evasion on my part make a bullet go wide.
I was expecting the flash of movement when it came.
And suddenly it seemed the entire world around me was moving in slow motion, but I wasn’t. As if each fraction of time was split into a thousand pieces, shattering and hovering in the air.
I saw the muzzles of two M16's peek out from the windows on either side of the alley, moving sluggishly, the hands and arms of their two owners soon following, twisting out and slowly turning towards me in minute increments.
My hand was already drawing my Beretta out from my waistband at the small of my back. I had already begun the process the second Byer lifted his head ever so slightly.
By the time the head and torso of my attackers were visible outside the window, leaning their shoulders forward to brace against the window frame while they squinted down their sights at me, my arm had already snapped up and centered—already found my first target.
I pulled the trigger. Watched as the head of the first snapped back with a blossom of blood after what seemed like a full three seconds later in the twilight zone of time I was operating in.
My wrist snapped up at the recoil, and I used it to shift to my second target on the other side of the alley, swiveling my arm but keeping it extended. Keeping it straight and traveling on the same line of latitude as the first.
In the corner of my eye I saw Byer, drawing his own pistol from a holster at his back, moving in slow motion, eyes fixed on my face.
But I kept my current path. There was no stopping now.
Up in the window, I saw my assassin slowly shift his finger down to the trigger. I saw the muscles and nerves in his hand tense. Saw his mouth part slightly as he exhaled—the ideal point of release.
I pulled my own trigger a half second before he did, suddenly allowing my momentum to keep me swiveling, turning a full half circle so that it carried me sideways and directly towards Byer.
It seems to me I watched the bullet fly past, just ripping through the corner of my shirt sleeve that had extended in the movement. A hairsbreadth away from me. What would have been an unequivocal perfect shot in the heart.
Again, I saw the man's head snap back like his partner, the velocity of my bullet striking the hard flat of his skull, sending it back with a force that must have broken his neck, snapping cartilage like a twig while a puff of pink mist decorated the wall behind him.
I was still moving. Still crashing off balance into Byer who had by this time fully extended his arm, the muzzle of his gun staring me in the face, his finger curling over the trigger.
I didn't allow myself to slow down, keeping my momentum, latching onto Byer's extended shoulder and hip, slamming into him like a football player.
My own momentum suddenly became his own, and my hand positioning forced him to spin around, his shot going off by my face but wide and hasty. He had no time for another as I sent us both crashing down to the hard stone street, using his back as a cushion for my own impact as I forced him to land face first.
And suddenly the shards of time reassembled themselves—like an explosive on rewind—and the world began to spin again, and everything came crashing into place, every movement seeming now fast comparatively.
Byer grunted at the impact, my body weight pinning him down to the street so that his face was at an awkward sideways angle, pressed up against the stone. In an instant I had delivered three lightning strikes to his kidneys, making him cough and writhe. In an instant I had disarmed him, tossing his sidearm to go skittering twelve feet away. In an instant I had my own Beretta pressed to his temple.
"Do it!" he hissed, "Do it, Cross! Kill me! Finish it!"
I didn't move, my breath coming fast and erratic from the adrenaline pumping through my veins.
Oh, how I longed to pull that trigger.
"Did you kill them?!" I shouted at him, "Did you kill all those agents?! To clean up your mess?!"
He gave a harsh laugh. "What do you think? Of course I did. They were a liability. You were a liability. Now you're faulty. You're a malfunctioning 18 million dollar weapon. You were designed for this, Cross. It's all you were ever good for. Now do it! Finish your mission! Pull the trigger!"
I hesitated, leaned in close to his ear, pressed the muzzle to his temple so hard it began to bruise, curled my finger over the trigger.
"You're not worth the lead."
He breathed out, blinking. Stunned. Pulse racing with what he though would be his last moments. He wasn’t expecting me to spare him.
He looked disappointed by it.
But the look didn't last long. In the next instant I brought the butt of my gun crashing down on his skull and he went limp. Out cold.
Hands shaking, I awkwardly got to my feet, staring down at the vulnerable body of my arch enemy. Glanced up at the windows where the limp hands of the two assassins were still hanging out, blood staining the entire window frame.
Still breathing hard, I stepped over Byer, and walked out of the alley towards the news building, clicking off the recording device in my pocket as I did so.
"Can you tell us who you are?"
I focused on the innocent, inquisitive face of the young blonde interviewing me, and not on the large camera that hovered just beyond her shoulder, no doubt capturing the whole of my face in its frame and broadcasting it live.
"My name is Aaron Cross, and I am a CIA operative in the Black Ops experimental program, Outcome."
She raised a slight eyebrow, glancing at her producer. "Black Ops?"
I gave a curt respectful nod. "Yes, Ma'am."
The entire newsroom was completely silent, everyone working behind the scenes giving me their undivided attention, curiosity practically pulsating in the room. And who could blame them? I had burst in the room demanding to share my story, claiming that my life was in danger and that I would most likely be murdered the moment I left the building.
They had in turn immediately interrupted whatever dry politic mantra they were reciting to sit me down for a live interview. Well. Semi-live. Another male newscaster was waiting in the background to run commercial breaks and introductions in between so that I could continue uninterrupted with his female partner, clips of the interview being routed and aired when appropriate.
"You said earlier that your life was in danger. In danger from whom, and why?"
I kept my gaze steady on her face, resting my palms flat on my thighs as I sat still in my chair. "For two months I have been on the run from the CIA. They have so far made over five attempts on my life, and on the life of my partner, in order to conceal the illegal operations taking place. No doubt you have heard of Jason Bourne, and the scandals involving the agency's directors. The ongoing investigation Bourne sparked has led to an agency-wide cover-up. I'm here to tell you that Treadstone is just the tip of the iceberg."
And so it began.
I started from the beginning, telling them about Outcome, and what it was we did. I explained the Chems, and how it was they enhanced Outcome's agents. I told them about how Jason Bourne's actions had sparked the investigation into the Treadstone, and how the close affiliation between the various programs would inevitably lead to their eventual exposure. How, together, the heads of the programs and NRAG, decided to eliminate the evidence of the programs even existence, and how that sparked the assassination of countless Outcome agents and doctors.
I referenced the incident at Sterisyn-Morlanta, and how Dr. Donald Foite had been most likely manipulated with one of the mind control experiments the lab was working on at the time, ordered by Byer to kill everyone in the lab. Told them about the attempt on my life in Alaska. How Byer ordered another team to take out Marta, but how I saved her life.
I told them about Manila, and how she viralled me off. Which led into the existence of LARX and its operations. I explained how it was an upgrade from Outcome, verging on mind control.
And through it all, I offered the evidence that Marta and I had worked to secure. I produced the dog tags, Chems, and blood samples to back up my words when it came time for each of them in my narrative. I played Jason's testimony out loud, which lasted for about two hours and filled the deathly silence of the room.
But the real cincher was Byer's own admission of guilt.
Did you kill them?! Did you kill all those agents?! To clean up your mess?!
What do you think? Of course I did. They were a liability. You were a liability. Now you're faulty. You're a malfunctioning 18 million dollar weapon. You were designed for this, Cross. It's all you were ever good for. Now do it! Finish your mission! Pull the trigger!
You're not worth the lead.
The silence was total after the track played. I had nothing more to say. It was out. It was done. I was all over.
I'm done being your sin eater, Byer. Its time you face your own sins.
"How did you get that?" the now pale-faced reporter asked quietly.
"Eric Byer himself tried to assassinate me not five minutes
before I came here."
Her eyes widened and she glanced at her producer again for what must have been the hundredth time through the whole sitting. "What did you do with him?" she asked breathlessly.
I meet her eyes fearlessly, face and voice blunt. "Well he's either still out cold in the alley, or he's hauling his sorry ass back to DC to do damage control."
The shock on the faces through the room was electric.
I simply looked up above her head at the cameraman beyond her. "Are we done here?"
He opened and closed his mouth soundlessly for a moment, before fumbling with his camera and turning it off.
I rose from my seat, and others followed suit automatically, but I didn't wait around, passing the woman the evidence I had collected and meeting her eyes. "Make sure this gets out. A lot of people's lives are riding on this."
She stared at me, but nodded, speechless, and I turned about face and walked out of the room, people parting for me like the red sea.
I was counting on the initial shock to make my escape before the cops were called, so I had no time to lose. Quickly exiting, I made it to the fire exit stairwell, jogging down them two at a time while my footsteps echoed in the metal and concrete chamber.
But I halted when I reached the bottom floor. Before me lay the door that led to outside. Beyond that door, there was a high chance a highly trained black ops sniper was waiting to take me out. Fifty-fifty. Like flipping a coin. Heads or tails. Live or die.
I stared at it for a long time. Doing nothing. Just standing there.
After a moment I pulled out the pay-as-you-go burner phone I had bought for Marta and I in the Philippines. I scrolled through the menu, selecting the call log and finding the one number I had entered.
I pressed call, and it went to voicemail, as I knew it would. I had turned off her phone long ago.
"Hey, Marta, its Aaron." I let out a long breath. "We did it. Its over. We won. They know. They all know. From here on out, this story is going to spread like wildfire until every corrupt deed Byer and everyone has ever done is exposed. We'll be free, Marta."
I allowed myself the pleasure of a small smile, picturing her face, before I glanced at the door again. "Just…give it a few days to let the ball start rolling before you let your guard down. If all goes well….I'll see you soon."
I closed my eyes. "I love you, Marta," I whispered into the phone, wishing only to hold her one last time, before hanging up.
Taking a deep breath, I stowed my phone, stepped up to the door and twisted the handle, opened it to the sunshine, and stepped out into the unknown.
Fifty-fifty chance. Like flipping a coin. Heads or tails. Live or die.