This isn’t who I am.
On the outside the act is convincing: I’m over six feet tall, in great physical shape, dressed in black fatigues, mask, leather gloves. I’m kneeling over four tanks of triacetone triperoxide, checking for the fourteenth time that everything is connected up properly. There’s a pistol holstered against my thigh, and a nine-inch blade strapped to my chest. For the first time in my life, it looks like I know what I’m doing.
On the inside everything is different. I have thrown up five times in the last twelve hours. It’s difficult to explain what this kind of fear feels like because it is no longer part of modern life. My life is in danger but I don’t really know what I’m doing—if anything goes wrong I can’t fall back on years of training, all I can do is fall backwards.
Fear has control of my body. My clothes are damp and clinging; my hands slimy inside the gloves. As I was lifting the tanks into place, sweat was forced out from underneath them in bewildered droplets. Panic is sabotaging every movement and the more I handle the triperoxide, the more clumsiness and anxiety spur one another on in a screeching feedback loop. I can’t even think—instead I’m concentrating on repeating this monologue over and over in my head: “…lay tanks, turn receiver on, kill Echo, set up transmitter, wait for signal, initiate phase two, open gates, runlikehell.” Every other thought is driven out by its stampede.
Satisfied that the equipment is ready, I grab my rucksack and move back down the corridor. I don’t want to run, but walking is agonisingly slow. The result is a lumbering canter made even more maladroit by self-consciousness. I slip through the double doors that are still propped open and slide up against the corner of the building. For two or three tortured seconds, my mind goes blank. I flail in panic, trying to claw my crib sheet back from the depths of my memory. Thankfully, the momentary loss turns out to be nothing more than a glitch in the tape, and I gasp as it returns: “…kill Echo, set up transmitter, wait for signal…”
With a second glance around the corner, I brace myself and dash across the yard. At least, that is what happens in my head—in reality it’s more of a crouching scurry. Floodlights are spilling over the fence by the road, and I’m better hidden if I stay low. I land a little too hard against the concrete wall of the gatehouse, and something from my backpack jabs into my ribs. Nothing: not one of the things I was bracing myself for has happened. Everything is going fine.
But it feels like someone is pumping petrol into my head. Every minute the pressure increases, and by now my ears are pounding. For a split second I watch from outside my body as my head explodes in front of me in an expanding cloud of stringy viscera—before my consciousness snaps back inside my skull. I try to slow my breathing, but it’s all I can do to keep from choking. And still all of this hovers at the edge of my mind, locked half-heard in the next room by “…set up transmitter, wait for signal…”
According to my watch, I’m a minute early. I draw the weapon from its holster, check the magazine, attach the silencer, and cock it. If I had any freedom of thought then this would be a great time to panic, but the only part of my brain that isn’t hypnotised by that tumbling cascade of words is trying to get enough air into my lungs to stop me coughing.
I slide around the far corner and peek cautiously over a grimy industrial windowsill. The guard, codename “Echo”, is at his desk, just where we expected him to be. The room is dark apart from a tiny light on his desk, pouring a small puddle of warmth into his lap. He’s probably reading. The last time I spoke to him, I noticed a pile of novels on the filing cabinet next to his jacket. He’s into action thrillers. At the time, I added this to my secret list of reasons why I shouldn’t feel guilty about killing him. I don’t need reasons now. Every twenty-eight seconds my head is blitzed by the words “kill Echo”. At this moment the future feels every bit as immutable as the past.
Twenty seconds. I check the gun again and unlock the back door of the gatehouse. I was worried that it might be difficult to open silently, but it’s easier than I expect. I slip inside, taking care to stop the hydraulic closer slamming it behind me. I’m in a narrow corridor with a ceiling so high I feel like an insect, scuttling across a floor built for giants. The only light seeps through a row of windows high above my head. My eyes are accustomed to the dark and I have no trouble making my way to the office door. It’s still closed, which means there’s almost no chance that he’s heard me yet. I check my watch. “…kill Echo”. It’s time.
The gun raised, with my left hand I jerk the door open sharply. In the darkness, I’m not sure if he even looks up. There may be the faintest movement but he can’t see me without turning his whole body. Thud. Thud. I feel the familiar jerk of the gun’s recoil, but I’m surprised how quiet it is. It barely competes with my breathing.
I flow through the door, and the gun starts to sweep around the room, checking each shadow carefully, making sure there aren’t any surprises—