The man was slime. Ethan could practically feel the evil oozing off Howell’s grotesquely expensive suit as he shoved him through the crowds, covering him with a half-spent Beretta M9 and Luther shouting in his ear to head south for the fire escape. But the job wasn’t to judge. The job was to do or die—or, do and die, as the case may be. Ethan hoped no one would die here today, but if the last few months had taught him anything, it was that hope was just a particularly pretty castle in the sky. A castle that tended to come crashing down around one’s ears.
The thwipp of the bullet was in perfect sync with the crash of the back door flying open. Ethan imagined it parting the raindrops on its way to kill the man he was supposed to protect, but who he had now failed utterly.
Ethan could duck out of the way of knives and arrows, he’d once rather memorably dodged a poison-tipped boomerang, but not even he was faster than a speeding bullet. The lead slug cut through the meat of his shoulder like butter and slammed into Howell’s throat, where the man cowered beneath Ethan’s protective hold.
The blood pounded in Ethan’s ears and gushed out of Howell’s neck, and Ethan had his hands on the wound, but the greasy businessman had already gone slack in the grip of death. Metal glinted merrily out of the corner of Ethan’s eye and he spotted the sniper. More specifically, he spotted the drone.
A drone! He wanted to swear out loud but couldn’t waste the breath. A goddamn drone. That wasn’t very fucking original.
The drone began to vibrate and then abruptly incinerated, but not before shooting off some sort of small missile into the sky—no, not a missile. A firework. It went off, and its red sparks were in the shape of a heart.
Ethan hung his head. There was the personal touch that clinched it.
“Another one bites the dust,” Jane sighed in Ethan’s earpiece, and he empathized with the familiar combination of frustration, grief, and plain old exhaustion in her tone. But beyond that, Ethan was much more—he was furious.
Howell was Control’s seventh victim.
Seven dead, seven failures, three of them on Ethan’s in-person watch. His pride had taken a hit, and so had his superiors’ confidence in him. They thought he might be losing his edge, and privately, he wondered the same thing. For all that Luther and Jane said otherwise, like the loyal team they were, Control was a power unto himself and quite possibly the thing that was finally going to kill him. Ethan wasn’t afraid of dying, but he was afraid of spending the rest of his days watching other people die.
The Remote Control was about as dumb a nickname as you could get. Bestowing it upon the assassin they were trying to stop was a pathetic revenge, but revenge nonetheless. Like, sure, you’re a supervillain, but a really tacky one. The kind that never leaves the fifties except when the writers get stumped and need to shake the dust off some canonical nobody in an attempt at nostalgia-sales. ‘Remote Control’ was a little too unwieldy, though, so the folks around the office started just referring to him as ‘Control.’
Control was fucking terrifying, because if there’s one thing a bunch of black ops spies and agents don’t want to lose, it’s control.
On the eighth kill, Control started talking to them. Well, that wasn’t quite right. He started talking to Ethan, and Ethan alone.
Ethan was lying on the ground, sick with radiation poisoning as Natalia—a known, and now very dead, human trafficker—sprawled motionless a dozen feet away, still glowing slightly from the blast of her rigged microwave. Death by kitchen appliance was a particularly bad way to go, Ethan decided, as his lunch demanded release via his esophagus.
“You don’t look very good, my friend,” someone said. Ethan flinched, gun at the ready though his vision was too blurry to see much beyond the end of his nose.
“Don’t worry,” the voice continued, “your companions are nearly there. A little Potassium Iodine and a good night’s rest, you’ll be right as rain. After all, this death wasn’t yours.”
“What—” Ethan coughed, and more than words left his mouth. He couldn’t speak.
“You know…” the stranger continued, and Ethan finally located the source of the sound as the television set. The image was a loop of static that whirled in a sickening rainbow while Control—because who else could it be?—said in a chipper tone, “Having a secret agent all to myself, dedicated to stamping little old me out from existence….it’s just endlessly flattering. Really, I can’t thank you enough.”
Ethan tried to move towards the television. To do what, exactly, he couldn’t say, but he tried nonetheless.
“Nothing to add?” Control asked brightly, and Ethan felt like if he stared into the TV static long enough, he could search out a face. “That’s alright, I’m a bit of a chatterbox, if we’re being honest, I can keep this up for the both of us. For example, a note for your bosses: tell them to work on the acronym. ‘IMF’ wouldn’t strike terror into the heart of a rabbit with a cardiovascular condition. Oh, listen!”
There was a crash from the floor below, and a smattering of shouts. His team.
“They’re nearly here, so I’d best be off.” Ethan could hear the pleased grin in Control’s voice and he almost shot the television out of pure spite. “Give them my love. I’ll be seeing you soon, Ethan.”
The television went black, and Ethan’s vision followed suit.
“I do hope you’re at least a dozen feet away from Mister Takashima, Ethan, because it’s been so much fun watching—”
Ethan had been about fifteen feet away from Takashima when the voice began. He’d been about eight feet away when the micro-explosive Takashima’s tea had been laced with was activated by his stomach acid, turning him into so many flaming hunks of meat. Ethan’s second-degree burns and lacerated face barely stung afterwards, compared to the voice seared into his mind.
Emergency services descended in minutes like helpful flies, buzzing around him, or maybe that was just his ears, but he was looking for something and paid them no mind. Takashima had been a paranoid bastard. He’d known he was doing bad things for worse people, he’d known someone was coming to kill him. He’d been recording everything, just in case.
The old-fashioned tape recorder was half-melted, hot to the touch. By the time Ethan got it to the Data Recovery team, the thin plastic wound inside it was like a particularly rancid ice cream cone dropped on a sizzling sidewalk. But with enough ingenious effort and Ethan hovering over the worker’s shoulders for hours on end, radiating as much menace as he knew how, a few scraps were saved. Bits and pieces of boardroom meetings and backroom deals, and this – the only known recording of Control in existence.
“I do hope you’re at least a dozen feet away from Mister Takashima, Ethan, because it’s been so much fun watching—”
Click. Hiss, whirr—Ethan kept the rescued fragment in three different formats, with copies in six different locations, none of them digital.
“I do hope you’re at least a dozen feet away from Mister Takashima, Ethan, because it’s been so much fun watching—”
Click. Hiss, whirr—the copy of the recording Ethan always kept on his person was in a new tape recorder. That particular technology had managed to outlive its previous owner after all, and Ethan liked the physicality of it.
Click. Hiss, whirr—it wasn’t nearly enough to do anything useful with. Not voice print analysis, not even enough to be positive on an accent or nationality. Ethan was convinced he heard the British Isles in those rounded vowels, but even assuming that wasn’t enough to create much of a profile. There were just too damn many male, probably-European, probably-white, probably-around-thirty-years-old psychos out there with access to computers. God damn technology.
“Jesus Christ, Ethan,” Luther grumbled from the darkness beyond Ethan’s desk, letting the door slam shut behind him, “this shit again?”
“Yeah, this shit again,” Ethan agreed. He’d already tried denial and defensiveness the last two times Luther had caught him brooding in the dark with a killer’s voice for company, might as well just admit it now.
Luther flicked on a lamp and settled heavily into the worn chair across from Ethan’s. Its metal legs squealed on the concrete floor. Ethan set the tape recorder down, fingers resting protectively on the cheap plastic casing.
The door rattled with Jane’s arrival, and then Ethan’s whole team was crowded into the smallest room of an already inhospitable subterranean base.
It was an ancient, pre-war bunker that Ethan had stripped all the electronics from after the sixth kill. Everything left ran on an independent generator.
“Is he one of ours?” Jane asked without fanfare or explanation. Everyone present knew what she was talking about.
“You mean IMF?” Luther replied, “No, though that would be poetic, wouldn’t it. As far as we can tell, he’s not IMF, FBI, CIA, MI6, IRA or any of the ABCs you can think of. Ethan places his origin in or near Britain, but other than that and the usual demographics of your average serial killer…”
Jane propped one heel up on Ethan’s desk. “Just some disaffected computer geek, then.”
“Not just,” Ethan countered quietly. “Most of those don’t have a body count.”
“They also don’t usually fanboy over the men sent to kill them,” Jane countered, “Why is this guy so obsessed with you, personally?”
“I have no idea,” Ethan said, and it was only mostly true.
“God dammit!” Ethan shouted, picking up the chair Control’s tenth victim had fallen out of, dead before he hit the floor. He threw it through the plate glass separating the man’s home office from his living room. The glass shattered with a satisfying crash, and Ethan could breathe again, if only for a moment.
“You son of a bitch!” he whirled around, searching out all the digital devices in the space. Television, multiple computers, phone, tablet, printer, even a goddamn smart fridge. “I know you’re listening!”
“Always,” the fridge agreed, and Ethan nearly laughed. It fit. Control’s sense of humor—this victim had died with ice in his veins, injected with something that froze his blood almost instantly. “You seem particularly angry, tonight. Not sure why, after all, this man’s killed an awful lot more people than I have.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Ethan dragged a hand across his mouth, boiling over inside, “no one deserves to die like that. No one!”
“Actually, I think he did. I think he deserved to die exactly like that. And I think that there’s a part of you, inside, that feels relief when they stop breathing and you know they won’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Ethan knew denial would only make him sound guilty. He also knew he was too angry to lie. “I’ll certainly be relieved when you stop breathing, you bastard.”
“No need to bring my parentage into this,” Control sighed, “And why don’t you just call me by my real name? Oh, silly me. I never did introduce myself properly—and here I am, already considering us on a first-name basis.”
Control cleared his throat and announced formally, “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ethan Hunt. My name is Benjamin Dunn—but my friends call me Benji.”
Ethan paused, then snorted.
“I know, I know,” Benji sighed, “is the joke that I have friends or that I have a name better suited to a corduroy bear? But I come by the name honestly, so I figure I might as well keep it for that novelty alone.”
On the team’s comms, Luther muttered, “First sweep on Benjamin Dunn shows nothing. I’ll keep digging, but this guy’s the Mozart of hacking, so we probably won’t pull shit.”
“You won’t find me, I’ve been quite well purged,” Benji agreed, like he was listening in on their conversation, and Ethan suspected he was doing just that, and had been for a while. “But even if you lucked out and discovered some scrap, it wouldn’t do you any good. Might do me some good though…I do love watching you try and find me.”
“Then you’re really gonna love what I do next,” Ethan growled, pulling out his earpiece and smashing it underfoot, before systematically destroying every other piece of technology in the room, starting with the goddamn fridge. Only one item remained untouched: Ethan took the victim’s phone.
He left clean-up in Luther and Jane’s capable hands. He went into the woods, to the edge of the phone’s signal. It was no place in particular, or rather, a particular nowhere. No connections, chosen as randomly as possible. It would just be Ethan and the voice on the other end. Benji, Control.
Ethan walked until he’d run the fiery, furious energy from his limbs, until he could think. And then he sat, cross-legged on a worn stump, and set the phone on the ground in front of him. He waited.
It was almost an hour before it rang.
Ethan waited, counting his heartbeats, before he answered.
“Alright,” Benji agreed, curiosity dripping from each syllable, “what about?”
“How about we start with something simple. Why you do what you do.”
Benji sighed, the sound rattling down the line. “I should think that’s obvious. I’m taking out the trash.”
“But why? I can think of a lot of reasons.”
“I’ll bet you can.” There was a snapping sound—a bubble popping? Gum. “So, what’s this about,” Benji murmured, voice low and rich, “You talk to me, think if you can piece together my tragic past, you’ll unlock my moral compass? Be able to guide me into the light? Or, if you’re feeling more prosaic, maybe you’re just trying find some sort of personal trauma that you can manipulate to gain an edge. Well, sorry to disappoint, but there’s no room for caring and sharing on today’s schedule.”
“No, I imagine assassins stay awfully busy.”
“Assassin. Such a dramatic word.” There was a muted creak on the other end of the phone. Ethan imagined Benji, a dark shadow of a man in his mind, leaning back in his chair, smiling as they talked. “I’m more of a…vigilante. Which actually might be more dramatic, but at least it’s accurate. No one’s paying me, after all. Well, sometimes they try to, but I just take their money and give it to people who need it more.”
“And then kill them?”
“Naturally. If they know enough to try and hire me, then they know too much. And they’re not exactly savory folks, so you can save your tears.”
“Being unsavory isn’t worthy of a death sentence in my book.”
“Come now, I’ve never taken any innocent lives. I do my research, and I’m very precise.”
“And you think that makes what you do alright?”
“Yes,” Benji declared without hesitation. “You’ve killed people yourself, some of them fairly innocent. You justify it, saying they died for the greater good. The only difference between you and me is that you’ve got a well-funded government behemoth behind your vendetta against crime. And, of course, that I’ve never had any civilian casualties caught in my crossfire—oh, and the fact that what I do actually makes a difference.”
Don’t listen to him, Ethan counseled himself, he’s just trying to get to you, the way you’re trying to get to him. Turn it back, take control.
“We’re back to the same question, then. Why you’re doing this. Not the killing,” Ethan clarified, “the talking.”
Another creak. Benji’s voice sounded closer the next time he spoke; Ethan could almost pretend he was standing in front of him. “Come on, mate. I’m not exactly playing hard to get.”
“You’re lonely,” Ethan said, and for some reason the words came out soft and sad rather than harsh and demeaning. A mistake.
“Who wouldn’t be? Cooped up behind a computer all day.”
“You should get out more often.”
“I should. But there doesn’t seem much point when you’re out there, waiting to take me down.”
“You think that’s gonna change?”
“Hmm. Not sure yet. I think part of you has already changed, or rather, never needed to change. You’re half on my side already, you just need to drop the badge.”
“Why didn’t you just get one?” Ethan asked, “A badge, I mean? You wouldn’t be the first psychopath I met who went to one academy or another just to get a license to kill.”
“Got problems with authority. Much like you, I’d wager. Not to mention the fact that my targets are powerful enough to be protected by the very governments you hold so dear.”
“Why these targets?” Ethan asked, “Why these specific people?”
“Why do you think?”
Because they’re predators, Ethan’s traitorous mind whispered, who else would be our prey? It’s logical. If I was going to clean up this world, I’d start with them too.
No. Ethan almost hung up the phone. This was past dangerous territory, this was a cliff’s edge.
“Because you or someone you loved was hurt by a monster like them,” he proffered instead, trying to replace the weakness of the conclusion with a steely tone.
“Oh please, we’re back to this?” Benji scoffed, accompanied by a scrap and a rattle. His voice sounded different, he was moving, pacing. “A solid F on the fishing effort, my friend. Simplistic. I mean, come on, do you have a single, narratively convenient source of trauma that motivates all your actions? No! People are more complicated than that. Things happen slowly, tiny things, and they build up and shape and curve the path you’re on and the choices you make. You become what you are by being it.” A series of rhythmic taps on the line. Fingers on a desk. “I know you, Ethan. Better than you’d like. I know I make sense to you.”
“A lot of murderous assholes make sense,” Ethan snapped, and he picked up the phone. He was going to hang up. He needed to hang up. “It doesn’t mean they’re not murderous assholes.”
“I don’t think I have to point out what your falling back on childish name-calling means,” Benji trilled, pleased.
“They why are you still talking to me?”
Ethan’s silence was mutinous, angry.
“You can’t trace my location. I haven’t said anything tactically useful; my moral stance on unsanctioned killing doesn’t help you narrow down what continent I’m operating from. So, I think we both know why you’re still talking to me.”
“Yeah.” Benji laughed, sharp and high. “Neither of us have anyone else to talk to!”
Benji hung up, leaving Ethan adrift in the woods. He told himself he wasn’t alone. Luther and Jane were one phone call away. But he didn’t need backup, he needed…
He needed the same thing Benji did.
“Fuck, fuck.” He kicked a clod of dirt and hit a rock, stubbing his toe even through his thick boot. A final indignity of the evening.
He went home, driving in a daze, feeling electric eyes than may or may not be upon him. He slept with the tape recorder in hand and a gun beneath his pillow.
He went in without his team. This was the height of stupidity, he knew, but it was the only way. Control wouldn’t talk to him if others were listening, not really. Benji wouldn’t let anyone other than Ethan catch him.
Ethan crept into the office, slowly. He’d seen the electricity flicker on his way into the building, and knew Benji was already here, in spirit anyway. There was no chance of saving the target; there never was.
“Are you here to kill me?”
Ethan had spotted the man a few seconds before he was spotted himself. He didn’t bother to duck or hide. It wouldn’t be long now.
The man stood behind his desk, pistol clutched in white fingers, pointed at Ethan. The barrel shook so hard Ethan doubted a bullet fired from its chamber would come anywhere near him. Nevertheless…
“No,” Ethan raised his hands, the gesture almost lazy. “I work for the government. I know you’re in danger.”
A glint in his eyes. Hope. Ethan felt bad for that.
“Are you here to protect me?” he asked, the gun dropping to the desk.
Ethan shrugged. “Not really.”
The lights went out. Ethan heard a strangled shout, and moved slowly, almost leisurely forward. He watched the man, the target whose name he hadn’t bothered to remember after Luther’s algorithm tagged him as a potential Control hit, clutch at his chest. Heart attack? He speculated idly.
The man twitched and twitched and finally died. Ethan stood over the body and waited.
“Hacked his pacemaker.” Control—Benji—spoke through the man’s computer speakers. “Kind of boring honestly, pretty sure I picked up the idea from some television show.”
“Disappointing,” Ethan sat on the edge of the desk, flicking the gun out of his way, “I’ve gotten used to a higher grade of murder from you.”
“Hmm. And I’m not sure if I should be complimented or offended by your coming alone.”
“Dealer’s choice.” Ethan glanced around for security cameras and found a number of them. He picked one at random and waved.
“Feeling perky this evening, are we?” Benji asked, and Ethan noted the caution in his tone approvingly. He’d damn well better be cautious. This ended tonight, one way or another.
“It’s not a bad night.” Ethan glanced out the window, watched traffic creep by like glowing insects on the street below. “Warm, not too humid, you can see more stars than usual from this deep in the city.”
“I wouldn’t know. Not much of a stargazer.”
“Oh, don’t lie to me. You’ve had your head in the clouds all your life.”
Benij’s silence was warm, thoughtful. Finally, he just said, “Come with me.”
The speakers fizzled and popped, and Ethan turned around as an electric whirr started in the hall, beyond the dark of the dead building.
“Come on!” Benji’s voice was distant but it was also…real. It sounded real, not relayed.
“Down, down the rabbit hole….”
Ethan followed Benji’s voice, but it was difficult to track, echoing down long halls, bouncing through half-open doors.
The walls of the building fell apart as he entered a segment under construction, full of drywall and exposed circuits and torn-up carpet.
Benji’s voice was much closer the next time he spoke. “You’re no Alice, and this sure isn’t Wonderland, but I’m sure we can write a fantastic story of our own.”
Ethan pulled his gun. He wouldn’t be faster than a drone or other mechanical death trap, but if Benji really was here, in the flesh—
“You’re right,” Ethan said, picking his way over a mess of cable, “I’ve already got the ending all picked out.”
His voice came from nowhere and everywhere.
Ethan whirled around, finger tightening on the trigger.
“Won’t you even think about it? Think about what beautiful things we could do together?”
Sweat trickled down Ethan’s forehead, narrowly avoiding his eye. “There’s nothing beautiful about what you do.”
“There’s no beauty in your precious sanctioned deaths, either. And worse than that, they hurt you. It hurts you to hurt people, I know it does.”
“It hurts you too,” Ethan whispered. “I know it hurts you too, eating away at your soul, but you keep doing it anyway.”
“For the same reason you do.”
“No. No, I don’t understand why you do what you do.”
“But you do understand! It’s why you’re here!”
There was a crash to Ethan’s right. He dove towards it, found a mop thrown to the ground, still rolling slightly on impact. He edged along the wall, sighting along the barrel of his gun as Benji continued to shout, his voice getting closer with every step Ethan took.
“It kills you that I’ve done more good than you, the righteous hero. But you still get it, you get me, that’s why you hate me so much. That’s why it’s so hard for you to hate me.”
“I do hate it,” Ethan ground out, “I hate you. And I don’t. But it doesn’t matter how I feel, or how you feel. I’ve made my choice.” He saw the shadow. Tall enough to be a person, moving slightly. He had a shot. “No one deserves to die by remote control, to be killed by someone without oversight. Someone who answers to know one.”
Benji sighed, a soft, shallow thing. Like he wasn’t angry, just disappointed. “If I was more of a megalomaniac, I think this is where I’d insert some raving speech about power and individuality, wrap it up with a clear indication that I’ve got god complex. But I think I’ll leave the megalomania to your cherished US government, they seem to have it pretty well covered.”
“I don’t disagree,” Ethan said, and then he stepped around the corner and fired.
The first bullet whizzed through a slim pocket of empty space, the second and third glanced off of steel rods where a man was supposed to be.
It was a Roomba, Ethan realized. Of all things. A goddamn robot vacuum, with a metal frame soldered atop it and a small black plastic speaker perched at its apex. The shadow approximated a human’s, its movements too. Benji’s laugh wasn’t at all tinny when it arrived, clear as a bell.
“Come on, Ethan, surely we’ve been playing this game long enough for you to know I wouldn’t be here in person.”
“No, of course not,” Ethan spat through gritted teeth, “too much of a coward to face me. To face the people you murder.”
“You’re so right,” Benji drawled, and Ethan prowled around the perimeter of the room, one eye on the machine in the center, “I’d better rise to that obvious bait and come rushing in, guns blazing, so you can overcome me with your no doubt superior hand-to-hand skills. Should I tear my shirt Captain-Kirk-style first, or would you care to do the honors?”
Ethan’s gun fell to his side. He’d been wrong. Thought he’d felt a connection, thought Benji would be compelled to see his face. The way Ethan felt compelled to see his. He was wrong.
A crackle, a buzz, and all four security cameras dotting the corners of the room swung towards Ethan. He had time to raise his weapon, but little more.
Green lasers, dazzlers, exploded to life through the camera lenses, modified into weapons. He was blinded, but he still managed to take out one, two, three of the lasers as his knees threatened to buckle.
Footsteps from behind. He kicked out and felt his boot just miss flesh, the heat of skin fateful millimeters away—
A solid blast of pain, crackling around the edges and searing the flesh of his back. Like a steak someone forgot on the grill—well done, please, and thank you, Ethan wanted to laugh. Oh hell, that was the hysteria talking, a bad sign. Bad, bad, sad, glad, Sir Galahad and all those knights—
Electric shock, then. With good-old fashioned shock setting it right behind. High voltage, maybe a modified taser. Possibly lethal. Almost certainly brain damage, considering twittering blithering blistering—
“No!” Someone shouted, and they sounded like Ethan. Was he shouting? Did his mouth work? Did he have a mouth? How odd that would be.
Someone else was there, someone who wasn’t him, wasn’t Ethan-him. The him who had electrocuted him? Him, him. He had a face. It got close. It was a nice face. Big eyes of a nameless kaleidoscopic color, light beard, hiding a pretty smile that didn’t get outside much anymore.
Strong, smart hands, holding something very much like a taser, but bigger and meaner. Cattle prod? Souped up, cooped up, looped up, too much? Too late.
“The charge was on the line—high enough to kill, but low enough that maybe…well.” Control shrugged—no, he had a name. A silly child’s name, but then, perhaps that was appropriate, since he killed with the clarity and discretion of a child’s black-and-white world. Benji shrugged, and Ethan’s life tipped backwards and forwards in the balance.
“On the off chance you live…” Benji moved closer, those incredible eyes, luminous in the bright darkness, “Come and find me.”
Benji kissed him. A tiny, gentle thing. A sip of oxygen, putting him to sleep.
Ethan watched his brown suede shoes walk away and contemplated drowning in technicolor.