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When I'm Gone

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The red folder on the desk sat mocking me.

It was the one spot of color in my small empty room. Everything else was shades of gray: bare concrete walls, a dented metal desk, the creaking metal-framed bunk on which I lay. My quarters looked like a prison cell, and for the first time, they felt like it too.

A prison—or a tomb. A place to be buried alive, suffocating.

I didn’t bother to ask when it had changed. The question was when I had changed, and I knew the answer to that.

It was always easy, before. Hunt and kill, or stalk and capture alive. No study, no surveillance, no concept of the prey as anything human. Just so much flesh and blood… I stared at my hand for a long moment, then clenched my fist until my fingernails bit into my palm. Opened my hand, watched drops of blood well up; watched the scratches go away as if they’d never been there.

I hated mutants because I was one of them.

Man is the only species that systematically kills its own kind. That fact was important to me. Killing my own kind was the one thing that made me feel something close to human.

Until Stryker decided to give me a challenge.

This one he wanted more than just taken alive. He wanted her to come willingly.

He didn’t know her abilities; even I never found out just what her mutation was. All Stryker knew or needed to know was that she was an assassin, like me—except she only targeted normal humans. She hated people, and that was enough. He had uses for all that hate.

So he sent me to Japan to work on her—and I worked on her better than either of us expected.

Her friend, her lover, her soulmate; she learned too well to trust me. I pretended at whatever she wanted me to be. It wasn’t hard. She was beautiful, she was strong… and she loved me. Or thought she did, and that was all that mattered. When she reached the point of no return—when she would do anything for me, follow me into hell—then I was supposed to bring her into Stryker’s fold, to find out if that hatred of hers could be turned in new directions.

Failing that, my job was to kill her.

I should have done just that the moment I laid eyes on her. I should never have let myself discover what it was to touch and hold and kiss her.

I was doomed from the moment I fell in love with Yuriko.

There was no question of letting Stryker have her, twist her, turn her into his pet—the way I knew, deep down, I had let him do to me. So the last night I saw her, I told her everything. I told her to run as far and as fast as she could. To disappear, and never be known by anyone again.

When I told Stryker I’d killed Yuriko, I wasn’t completely lying. I watched her eyes when I told her what I was, what I did… and I saw a part of her die. The part of her that could still feel love and trust; the part of her that kept something alive inside me.

I think I died a little more than she did.

Slowly I got up from my bunk, paced the three steps to the desk and sat down, staring at the red folder. It smelled of Stryker. I remembered the day he brought it to me. I’d watched his face as he described his latest fantasy of scientific sadism… and realized he was more of a monster than I would ever be.

Even if…

I turned the first few pages. Without Stryker’s savagely gleeful narration, it was just a lot of meaningless science jargon to me, but the drawings—those I understood. Letting the folder flop open, I traced one of the diagrams with my finger, following the lines of bone and muscle and three long dagger shapes.

An armor-plated skeleton was a thought I didn’t much care for. But the other part…

Oh, yes. There were possibilities there. I closed my fist and flexed my arm, trying to imagine it. Calculating the added weight of metal—and the pain of blades through flesh.

Every animal should have claws.

That was all that was left now: an animal. Anything else had died with Yuriko’s love for me. Not even by my own perverse definition was I still human.

The will to murder was gone.

I slapped the folder shut, picked it up and walked out of my quarters. I could’ve navigated those dank, low corridors with my eyes closed, but for some reason, every little crack in the concrete held new interest. The scents of dampness and rust and mildew were unusually sharp, even for me. My senses were spiking, my body reacting in a dull panic to what my mind had calmly planned.

I recognized the noncom outside Stryker’s office. What was his name—Lynum? No, Lyman. Not much more than a kid, but a lot too bright for his own good. I’d gotten an idea Stryker was grooming him to be his chief toady someday. He was more boy scout than black ops, and didn’t seem like the type for this work to me. I’d gotten him drunk a few times, trying to figure him out, but he always passed out before he could give me any revelations about himself.

Those nights spent with the bottle were the only times he wasn’t terrified of me.

"The Major in there?" I asked him, rolling my eyes toward the door.

Lyman was too much of a good little tin soldier to fidget, but his own eyes shifted. "Yes sir."

I managed not to laugh at the "sir" business; funny calling an animal that. He knew perfectly well that was what I was, too. He never hid his contempt for me, even through all that fear. I liked him for that. One day he was going to really grow up, and find out what it was to make people fear him—and then he’d be a force to reckon with.

When I finally went berzerk on these people, I decided I’d kill him last.

For now, I had other business to take care of. Without bothering to answer him or even to knock, I stepped past him and barged through the door into Stryker’s office.

The Major looked up from the report in his hands as the red folder hit the desk, making a vaguely satisfying thwack.

He stared down at it for a moment, then up at me. His lips quirked in an expression of surprised intrigue, but before he could make the snarky comment that had to be coming, I held up my hand.

"One condition, Stryker."

His eyes narrowed and he sat back, but poker faces don’t work too well when the guy in front of you can just about smell what you’re feeling. He was suspicious of the catch.

I didn’t feel like it, but I sat down, leaning across the desk to stare him in the eye. "I’ve seen how you make Swiss cheese outta the brains of the ones I bring back alive. I don’t know how you do it, and I don’t want to know. But I want you to do the same for me.

"I want you to wipe my memory."

Stryker fell back in his chair, his eyebrows hiking up and lips twisting in amusement. It was an expression I didn’t like one little bit.

"All of your memories," he asked slowly, "or just the ones of her?"

That was the moment when our understanding of each other became perfect.

I’d betrayed him. He knew it, I knew it, and my fate was already sealed. I just surprised him by choosing the means to the end.

"All," I answered tersely, still meeting his gaze.

His crooked smile hardened a little. He had no more use for my mind; it was a liability now. I’d betrayed him once, and I could do it again. Maybe more. Maybe kill him before he could find Yuriko—because I knew he would, sooner or later. As a mutant hunter, he was second only to me.

He had no way to know that I wouldn’t stop him. Yuriko had killed me, by loving me and making me love in return. I wouldn’t spare her… but I couldn’t live without her. And I couldn’t face her if they let her live—if they brought her here, and changed her from the woman I had loved. Oblivion would be better than that, for both of us.

So take this living corpse, Doctor Frankenstein, but kill whatever is left of the soul within.

If he didn’t, sooner or later, I would kill him. It was as simple as that, and he knew it.

Stryker steepled his fingers, not quite smirking at me over their tips. "There’s no guarantee you’ll survive the procedure." An empty warning, because in his mind too, I was already dead.

"Just try and kill me." Less than a challenge, but spoken with just enough defiance to let us both pretend it wasn’t the desperate plea that it was.

At last he leaned forward, forcing me to pull back and give him space. He reached out, placing his hands almost reverently on top of the red folder, and gazed at me with clear, cold intent.

It was all the answer I needed.

Outside the door of his office, I stopped, staring down at my fist as I trailed three fingers over the spaces between the knuckles. Once more, I tried to imagine the claws—only this time, I imagined them at Stryker’s throat.

Whatever monster he created of me, I hoped it would have more guts than I did.


© 2003 Jordanna Morgan