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An operative’s worst enemy is doubt.

As the town car drove him through the patchwork of narrow streets in the heart of the Russian city of Kursk, the Raptor stared out the window at the ramshackle storefronts, the boarded-up windows, the downtrodden locals hanging around in front of the ugly apartment buildings. If not for the ubiquitous Cyrillic graffiti, it would have looked much like turn-of-the-millennium Camden or Baltimore.

Was coming here the right move? He’d never worked with these people before. On the other hand, their technology was far superior to anything his usual sources could procure. It was worth the risk. The Raptor issued a mental command to his implant chip and the car seemed suddenly filled with a strong smell of tangerines. Activated by the changes in the chemistry of his brain, the computer altered the signals sent by his olfactory receptors. For the Raptor, this deception was as good as the real thing. The scent of tangerines always calmed him down.

The town car stopped in front of a four-story building, chrome and glass gleaming in the afternoon sun. The driver circled the car to open the door for the Raptor. A bald man, whose wide shoulders, straight back, and military bearing didn’t quite mesh with the white lab coat he was wearing, waited by the front door.

“Welcome, Mr. Bauer,” he said with a thick Russian accent, his W sounding like a V and his R a little too sharp. “Follow me, please.” He headed for the elevator without bothering to check if the Raptor followed.

Something felt off. The Raptor had no evidence yet, couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but years of dangerous missions had allowed him to develop a sixth sense about such things. He considered his options. Getting away now might prove messy, and he needed what he came here for. He decided to see how things would play out, and rushed to catch up to his guide.

Once the two of them boarded the lift and the doors closed, the speakers played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and the elevator descended. It took over a minute for the elevator to reach its destination. The deceptively small building hid a huge installation underneath it.

The Raptor’s pulse quickened. He ordered the nanites in his bloodstream to tweak his serotonin levels slightly—enough to keep calm, but not so much that he would be unable to generate a quick adrenaline boost if he needed to fight.

On the inside, the Antey Biorobotics building looked like a military installation. It was cavernous, compartmentalized, and brimming with well-hidden security equipment. The Raptor’s cybernetic implants identified every camera, tracked every motion sensor, mapped every potential weak spot. The Raptor was ushered into an ordinary office where a blonde woman in her forties was seated behind the desk.

“Olga Tretyakova, director of operations,” she introduced herself by way of greeting. She pointed at the chair across from her.

“Nice to meet you.” The Raptor sat down.

Tretyakova gave him an appraising look. “You’re older than I expected.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Let’s dispense with the pretenses, shall we?” She leaned back in her high-backed leather chair. “Your passport may say Chris Bauer, but it’s just one of a dozen aliases you use, that we know of. You’re the Raptor, one of the world’s most effective assassins.”

So they knew. Given Antey’s security apparatus and reach, the corporation probably knew more about him than most governments, and there was no sense in denying the truth. “Is this going to be a problem?”

She smiled. “Not at all. My superiors are eager to cultivate a working relationship with you. I trust you’re amenable to—how do you Americans say it—working something out in trade?”

“I prefer to pay cash,” said the Raptor.

“Not an option,” said Tretyakova. “You’re only here because we have need of your services. You could try our competitors in Taipei or Curitiba, but they’re each at least a couple of years behind us.” She shrugged. “High-end nano-enhancements are a seller’s market.”

The Raptor had already explored those other options, and he wanted the best. “All right,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”

“First, you’ll need to prove yourself. A free sample, so to speak.”

The Raptor frowned.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of your work,” she said. “But there are some on our board of directors who might look at your graying temples and your wrinkled face, and doubt your effectiveness.”

“What hoop do you want me to jump through?”

“We got word that the Renegade Chemist is in town. Have you heard of him?”

The Raptor’s computer implant performed a quick net search. Pictures and text projected onto the inner cornea of his left eye. “He’s an up-and-comer in the drug trade,” he said, as though he knew about the man all along. “Western Europe, mostly.” He focused back on Tretyakova. “He has good security.”

“Our intel suggests he’s in town for a quick meeting, with only a handful of bodyguards, nothing you can’t handle. We want you to take them all out, a message to any syndicate that contemplates setting up shop in our backyard.”

“Fine,” said the Raptor. “That’s the free sample. What’s the real job?”

“One thing at a time, Raptor,” said Tretyakova. “One thing at a time.”

The car pulled to a stop at the edge of town, where affluent Russians had their summer homes.

“The Renegade Chemist and his men are in the yellow dacha up the road,” said the driver.

“I don’t have a gun,” said the Raptor.

The driver looked at him impassively and didn’t reply. The Raptor shrugged and got out of the car.

His body went into fight mode as he approached the dacha. The nanites in his bloodstream activated chemical reactions which released perfectly measured amounts of adrenaline and dopamine. He felt sharp, and focused, and in control.

The Raptor circled around and approached the dacha from the back. He jumped, the cybernetic implants in his leg joints allowing him to clear the eight-foot fence. The Raptor landed on his feet and ran toward the house.

Utilizing both the mechanical and chemical enhancements to his body, he moved with incredible speed. In contrast, the first pair of bodyguards he discovered seemed like they were treading water. The Raptor snapped one’s neck before the man’s gun was out of the holster. He jump-kicked at the second man, who fell backward. By the time the second opponent got back on his feet, the Raptor already held the first man’s gun. He shot the bodyguard once between the eyes and moved on, hunting for others.

Several minutes later the Raptor approached the inner sanctum of the dacha, reloaded gun in hand, the nanites still pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream. All seven of the Renegade Chemist’s bodyguards were professionals. They fought and died well. Would the Chemist fight until his last, or would the Raptor find him rolled up in a fetal position, begging for his life? The Raptor had seen plenty of both in his career. Men who were about to die always revealed their true selves to him; there was no time for pretenses in their final moments.

He slipped into the room to find the Renegade Chemist making tea.

The drug lord was in his sixties, dressed in a thick bathrobe worn over a plain white undershirt and linen pants, his gray hair and beard neatly trimmed. The Chemist filled a porcelain cup with steaming liquid from a vintage samovar and gently set it onto the matching saucer. Only then did he look up at the Raptor.

“Are my men dead?” The Chemist spoke with a faint German accent. His voice was even and his face serene.

The Raptor nodded, his eyes darting around the room. It was sparsely furnished, and he detected no traps.

“Pity,” said the Chemist. “They were competent and loyal, a rare combination these days.” He picked up another cup and filled it from the samovar. “Would you have some tea with me before you kill me?” When the Raptor hesitated, the Chemist smiled and took a small sip from the cup he offered to his assassin. “See? Perfectly safe.”

The Raptor scanned the table area. There were no hidden weapons. He approached and accepted the cup. “You’re taking this remarkably well,” he said.

“There’s a fable about an Emperor who knew that one of his generals was about to assassinate him,” said the Chemist. “The Emperor invited the General over to a meeting in a garden, alone. The other man was so impressed by this show of trust that he didn’t strike, and ultimately became one of the Emperor’s most loyal supporters.” The Renegade Chemist drank from his cup. “Some people think the moral of this story is to throw yourself at the mercy of your enemies. I think what really happened is that they had the time to negotiate, and the general got himself a better deal. Perhaps we can negotiate, too.”

The Raptor took a sip. The tea was aromatic and rich. “I doubt it,” he said.

“Why not? You have no personal grudge, do you? You’re here doing a job?”

The Raptor nodded again.

“Then it’s only a matter of price.” The Chemist smiled.

“I have enough money,” said the Raptor. “You can’t give me what I want.”

“Try me,” said the Chemist. “Information? Resources? I have both in abundance.”

“What do you know about the Antey Corporation?” asked the Raptor.

“Ah! It does make sense. I am in Kursk to meet with my contact from Antey. Most of my other enemies wouldn’t even know I was here. They are one of my suppliers. They manufacture synthetic drugs of better quality than most of the crap sold on the streets.” The Chemist swirled the tea in his cup and stared at the liquid. “We made good money together, but they’ve been growing fast. Perhaps they got too big to be making a few extra million on the black market. So they’re sweeping old embarrassments like me under the rug.”

“What do you know about their nano-robotics operation?”

The Renegade Chemist shrugged. “Antey started out as a defense contractor for the Russian army and grew from there. They’re a huge multi-national conglomerate that makes everything from nanites to baby formula.” The old man glanced at the clock on his desk. His voice remained even, but the Raptor could see beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

“If I wanted an overview, I’d read their Wikipedia entry. You’ve got nothing I can use.” The Raptor set down his cup and aimed the gun at the old man’s head.

“Wait! I can get you dirt on Antey. Let me just make a few phone calls.” The Chemist’s hands were shaking now, sweat rolling down his face.

“You’re stalling for time, but you already know that your tactic has failed,” said the Raptor. “I should have been unconscious on the ground less than a minute after I took a sip of your tea, but my body is at least as adept at neutralizing the toxins as yours.”

“We can still make a deal!” There was fear on the drug dealer’s face, his calm façade completely demolished.

“The difference between you and the Emperor from your story is that he did negotiate in good faith,” said the Raptor. “He didn’t try to poison his rival.”

The Renegade Chemist managed a weak smile. “Would good faith have made any difference at all?”

The Raptor contemplated this for a moment. “No,” he said.

He fired two bullets into the Renegade Chemist’s eye and walked out without looking back.

“The board is suitably impressed,” said Tretyakova.

“That was amateur hour,” said the Raptor. “No preparation, no weapons, and a crime scene that gives the local press plenty to report about. The truly impressive operations are the ones where the general public never finds out.”

“The publicity suits our needs.” Tretyakova didn’t elaborate.

“Why don’t you tell me what you really want from me?” asked the Raptor.

“We have reason to believe this site is going to get hit by Mercury’s team,” said Tretyakova. “We want you to stop her, with extreme prejudice.”

“You want me to go up against the second-best assassin in the world? Your nanites aren’t worth that.”

Tretyakova chuckled. “Aren’t they? Every day, you are getting a little bit slower, your aim just a bit less steady. You are getting older, Raptor, and age is an enemy even you can’t defeat. At this rate, Mercury isn’t going to remain second-best for long.”

Tretyakova rested her palms on the table and leaned toward him. “Antey Corporation has the most advanced nanite technology in the world. Do you want to roll the dice and wait a year or two, hoping that one of our competitors catches up soon, or do you want them now? Millions of tiny robots working tirelessly to keep you at the top of your game?”

The executive and the assassin stared each other down.

The Raptor thought back to the decades of surgery he had endured to make him more than human. Implants to improve his body’s various functions well beyond the norm. Servos grafted onto his joints to give him a boost in strength and speed. Generations of nanobots floating in his bloodstream, from the crude early technologies to the latest and most sophisticated miniature machines.

All of that allegedly made outdated by Antey’s latest advances. If their tech was all it was promised to be, he could be even faster, stronger, more lethal than ever. And if not, there was always the emergency protocol.

“I’ll do it,” said the Raptor.

A self-satisfied smirk spread over Tretyakova’s face. “There’s a catch,” she said. “The nanites fuse themselves directly into the host’s nervous system. This procedure is extremely painful.” She gave the Raptor an appraising look. “Then again, I heard you enjoy pain. Certainly explains the countless elective surgeries you’ve had.”

The Raptor didn’t reply. His face betrayed no emotion. He just stared at Tretyakova impassively, until she shrugged and summoned an assistant to schedule the procedure.

The sparse room where the procedure was to take place reminded him of a similar space, half a world away and twenty-seven years ago.

Back then he’d had another name, another job, another life. He was a junior CIA agent assigned to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. He was there when the bomb went off. He remembered no details of that. One minute he was going over paperwork at his desk and the next he woke up in a hospital bed. There were burns and bruises all over his body; his head was bandaged in layers of gauze, leaving only a thin opening for his eyes. And yet, he felt no pain.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” a doctor told him later. “There is a small bit of shrapnel lodged deep in your brain tissue. It’s beyond our ability to surgically remove safely and, by all rights, it should have already killed you.” The doctor leafed through a pile of scans and blood tests. “You seem totally fine; it hasn’t even impaired your motor functions. Are you a religious man? I’m an atheist myself, but this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a miracle.”

The doctor was wrong—he wasn’t fine at all. He tasted nothing when he ate his food, he couldn’t smell the anesthetics, or anything else, around him. And he still felt no pain.

Alone in his hospital room, he used manicure scissors to cut into the skin on the back of his hand. He watched with fascination as the blood swelled from the gash. When he made the cut, he felt only the dull pressure of metal against skin.

He was scared, which is why he made the mistake of telling the doctor. The man was incredulous. He ran a series of tests, but had no answers. The next day, a CIA official arrived and said they would be transporting him stateside, effective immediately.

He didn’t want to become a guinea pig, a lab rat for the agency doctors to poke and study. So he ran, abandoning his wife and daughter, leaving behind his life and even his name. Chris Bauer was born.

It wasn’t until a few years later that he earned the nickname of the Raptor. Cold-blooded and vicious, they said. He merely wanted to raise enough money to get cured, and his CIA-trained skill set was always in demand on the black market.

The Raptor had discovered no cure for his condition, but he’d never stopped working. The freak accident robbed him of both pain and pleasure—all his feelings dulled to the point where no external stimulation was meaningful. But he could still feel pride, the satisfaction of being very good at what he did.

He performed well and was getting progressively more dangerous jobs, missions that paid handsomely but required more of him than merely the ability to shrug off pain. That’s when the Raptor had discovered cybernetic enhancements, the edge they gave him, and the ease with which his body handled even the most invasive surgery. A string of procedures followed.

The Raptor was in an arms race against other operatives, against the ever-more-sophisticated security systems, and against time itself.

One of his most recent acquisitions was a batch of nanites that fooled his brain into thinking he once again had the sense of smell. It simulated any scent he desired on demand, which for him usually meant tangerines. The Raptor thought this was even better than regaining his natural olfactory functions.

The Raptor wondered at what other things he might gain through technology that would allow him to further surpass his humanity. He nodded to the men and women in surgical masks who towered over him, and allowed the general anesthesia being delivered through the IV drip to put him to sleep.

When the alarms went off announcing the attack, the Raptor was glad the waiting was finally over.

The Antey Corporation had installed him in the ground floor office stuffed with surveillance equipment. Officially, he was recuperating from the procedure. The new nanites were already doing their job. The Raptor felt sharper, stronger, more alert than ever. A bottle of painkillers sat unopened in his desk drawer.

He’d been frustrated by days of pointless waiting, by the passive nature of the mission. He’d roamed the building checking and rechecking the security systems and coming up with plans of attack he’d deploy were he in Mercury’s shoes, then figuring out the way to counter them. He’d been reasonably sure that he’d prepared for any stratagem his rival might attempt.

In the end, Mercury failed to surprise him. By the time her team took out the perimeter guards and entered the building, he was in fight mode. He moved impossibly fast, taking out her team one by one.

They were good, far better than the Chemist’s bodyguards. Some were even augmented with a handful of cyber-implants of their own, but their frail human bodies were no match for the Raptor’s nano-enhanced perfection. He killed them quickly and efficiently, until only Mercury was left.

She moved toward him, her reflexes faster than any opponent he’d ever faced. He came at her, knocking the gun from her hand. When she saw him up close, her eyes went wide and she stopped fighting. The Raptor trained the gun at her but didn’t fire, surprised by this move.

She stared at his face. “Dad?”

The Raptor staggered back, shocked. He studied Mercury. She was five foot ten, of slight build, comely but not beautiful. Non-threatening and not memorable. Perfect for covert work. He could see a patchwork of tiny telltale scars on her upper neck—she had an implant chip of her own, a brutally painful upgrade for someone without his unique condition.

Could it be? The facial features, the age … The Raptor thought back to his family, to the little girl he was forced to abandon. It had been so long. Was this a trick? He retreated several steps, kept his expression neutral and his hand steady, the gun aimed at her heart.

“It’s me, Leigh. Don’t you recognize your own daughter?” She took a step forward. “I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.”

Whoever this stranger was, she knew his daughter’s name.

It’s a deception, a trick to make you lower your guard, said the voice inside his head.

The Antey nanobots let the Raptor’s new employers talk to him whenever they pleased. It was perhaps the least palatable new feature, and he looked forward to disabling it as soon as this contract was fulfilled. Although the communication was one-way, they also monitored the security feeds.

Take her out now, before it’s too late.

“You’re such a bastard,” said Mercury.

Kill her now.

The Raptor stared at her, motionless.

“I’ve been playing out this scene in my head for years,” said Mercury. “What I’d say when I finally met you. How I’d eloquently convince you that it was wrong of you to run. How it devastated Mom and almost screwed me up. How you might react to all this. Dozens of scenarios, playing over and over again.” She looked at the Raptor, waiting for him to say something.

It’s psychological warfare. She’s softening you up.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a long pause. “The Agency wasn’t going to let me come home anyway. They would have locked me away in some lab and experimented on me for the rest of my life. Running was the only option.”

“Lock you away? The Agency takes care of its own. We would have trained you, protected you, made you better. They said you were a good agent before your accident. I’m not at all certain that losing your ability to feel pain made you a better one, but we could have worked with that.”

So that’s how you tolerate the procedures so well. Very interesting.

The Raptor was angry at Mercury for carelessly spilling his secret, but the ramifications of that could wait.

“You’re CIA?”

“Yes,” said Mercury. “I joined up partly because they offered me the resources to look for you.” She took another step closer. “You lost more than you know in that explosion. You lost your humanity. Have you ever bothered to learn about what had happened to your family? Did it even occur to you to try?”

Don’t let her get too close!

“Some faint echo of my father is still inside you, or you would have pulled the trigger. It’s never too late for redemption. Come back into the fold.”

He stared at Mercury, trying hard to see the grown-up version of his Leigh. Did she have his eyes? Her mother’s cheekbones? He couldn’t be sure.

“Why are you here?”

“I’m here to save you, among other things.” She lifted up a small backpack. “There’s an EMP grenade in there. I have to get inside and wipe out Antey’s nanite lab.”

“Save me? You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

“It adds up,” said Mercury. “They are aware of your quest to … better yourself through science. They must have lured you in with a promise of superior technology, but it’s a trap. Their new nanites are a Trojan horse. Once they’re activated, Antey will literally own you.”

She’ll say anything to complete her mission.

“Help me do this,” said Mercury. “Help me, and come back home.”

An operative’s worst enemy is doubt. He stared into Mercury’s eyes while he was trying to decide. Eyes that looked so much like his own.

The Raptor lowered his gun.

We didn’t want to do this, but you’ve left us no choice.

The Raptor’s body tensed up as millions of nanites fused to his nerve endings activated at once, wresting control of his motor functions away from his own mind. The Raptor twitched once, twice, fighting for control.

“What’s happening?” Mercury frowned and took another half-step forward. Then her eyes widened. “You already did it, didn’t you? You already had the procedure?”

The Raptor wanted to speak, but his body wasn’t responding. He felt like a marionette on strings, the puppet masters forcing his body to make sluggish, jerky moves.

The Antey nanites controlled his nervous system, but not his brain chemistry. He could still issue commands to his implant chip. The Raptor activated the emergency protocol.

He never expected to use the failsafe like this. It was a way to remove a batch of nanites with faulty design or programming. Millions of pre-existing, self-replicating nanites in his blood stream activated with the sole purpose of finding and destroying every microscopic robot that didn’t share their digital signature. They would purge the Antey tech from his body and spare the older, more reliable upgrades, but it would take time.

“We can still help you,” said Mercury. “Let me complete my mission. The EMP blast will take out all the nanites they cooked up here, including the ones inside you.” She reached into the backpack.

The Antey nanites pulled on the marionette strings. In one fluid motion the Raptor raised the gun and fired several bullets into Mercury’s heart. She gasped and fell backward.

The operative’s worst enemy is doubt. The Raptor couldn’t be sure if the woman sprawled on the linoleum tile floor of the lobby was really Leigh, or perhaps a competent agent who sought to take advantage of his Achilles’ heel. All he could think of was the last day he’d spent with his family. The three of them sat on the couch, watching cartoons and peeling tangerines. Seven-year-old Leigh laughed, her little hands covered in citrus juice. The scent of tangerines filled the living room.

She was an impostor. She would have said anything to get you to lower the weapon.

After all these years it was difficult to be sure. Was the Raptor feeling pain, or just turmoil? He couldn’t be certain.

You were wavering. We had no choice but to take charge.

The Raptor wiggled his fingers. He was slowly regaining control as the nanites in his bloodstream exterminated their unwelcome brethren. In a few more minutes, the purge would be complete. Then, all too quickly, he found himself able to move again.

We’ve released you. Take a few minutes. Then come inside.

He took small steps toward the body. Should he hug her? Was that the appropriate—the human—thing to do? He settled for reaching out and touching her forehead. He listened to his heart but it remained numb, like his fingers against Mercury’s skin.

He reached for the backpack, and took out the EMP grenade. He held up the sleek device the size of a shoe box and studied it.

Somewhere, faceless Antey executives watched his every move, ready to press the button and to steal his body again at the first sign of trouble. They didn’t know that their nanites were all but wiped out by now. The Raptor could carry the EMP right into the heart of their precious lab and press the button, and there was no one around who could even slow him down.

But then, his nanites would be destroyed too, along with most of his cyber-implants. Nearly three decades of surgeries, enhancements, and upgrades would be negated with a single click. He would lose his advantages, his speed, and his strength. He would become nothing more than a damaged human.

The Raptor dropped the device onto the floor and stepped on it hard, grinding it into the ground with his heel. “I’m coming in,” he said to the cameras. Then he walked to the elevator. Behind him, the puddle of Mercury’s blood was pooling toward the broken mess of plastic and microchips.

He stepped inside the elevator. The sound of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture from the speakers mixed with the scent of tangerines the Raptor had allowed himself. The medley filled the elevator cabin as it descended into the bowels of the building.

An operative’s worst enemy is doubt but, for once, the Raptor was certain of his next move. Secure in their belief that they could control him, the Antey officials would let him get as close as he needed. EMP wasn’t the only way to destroy a lab. He wondered what truths about herself Tretyakova would reveal in the final moments of her life.

The elevator came to a stop and dinged, the doors sliding open. The Raptor tightened the grip on his gun and stepped outside.

This story originally appeared in Galaxy’s Edge magazine.

As a fun experiment, I wrote “Doubt” to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (which is referenced in the text). To my mind, the rise and fall in the action is sort-of, kind-of consistent with how the music flows in this classical piece.

Antey Corporation was a real entity until it merged with another corporation in 2002 to form “Almaz-Antey,” which, according to Wikipedia, was the 12th-largest defense contractor in the world as of 2013. They’re pretty much Russia’s Halliburton and they have a murky history worthy of a techno-thriller, including the murder of their General Director in 2003 which was linked by investigators to the company’s internal politics.

In Russian, the word Antey means Antaeus, the son of Poseidon and Gaia in Greek mythology.

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