Svetlana awoke on a cool damp floor of concrete. Head ringing. A dull ache in her upper thigh. Slightly nauseous. Disoriented. She took comfort in the latter. It meant the machine was through with its business, its awful business, and once again Svetlana was surfacing, regaining control. This perhaps was a misleading conceit, for the machine was no less a part of Svetlana than any other murky bit of her psychology. The difference was that the machine was a created thing – an entity shoved somewhere between her id and her ego by her sponsors back in the days before her first assignment.
She had been merely 17, without family, without a home, without options. She had a name, but it didn’t matter, it would be forgotten. She had killed a man. He deserved it, as much as any man could deserve to have a car door closed three or four times on his head, but justice was not always the priority in the cold, dirty Kiev neighborhood where a bleeding scared girl had learned the street life. The man’s name matters little now, but at the time it was of some minor importance in the local government. Certainly it was more important than the truth or the future of a yet-to-be-Svetlana who was not yet of importance to anyone. The little girl from Kiev was on a countdown and she knew it.
The count went all the way down to fourteen. Fourteen days remaining until her eighteenth birthday. Fourteen days to rot in a freezing stone and iron cage until her turn came up on the executioner’s schedule. Fourteen days left to live when she found herself taking a second life. The dyke guard deserved it, as much as any sadistic government-pensioned rapist deserves to be kicked and kicked and kicked in the throat, and bureaucracy being what it is, the incident ironically bought Svetlana three more months to develop walking pneumonia before she would be eligible for “re-scheduling”. The truth was the guard had underestimated Svetlana’s resistance (later, a common and often lethal mistake), and well, Svetlana had managed to land a first lucky kick after having bitten through a hefty chunk of the big bitch’s cartilage. Luckier than Svetlana realized, the kick and its lethal effect had caught the attention of a sponsor. Of course she didn’t know it at the time. For the next three months things in the cage were rather quiet, except for the coughing and the periodic beatings. On the day of her re-scheduling she went quietly, and that was that. — Of course she didn’t expect to wake up in heaven. She didn’t really expect to wake up at all. But here she was in heaven: A clean warm room, with a clean smell, cleaner than anyplace she could remember, anyplace she could imagine. She noticed a woman sitting at the foot of the bed. The woman was clean and bright in immaculate starched white. The woman seemed to be smiling. The little no-longer-dirty girl smiled. She felt safe. Heaven was safe. She didn’t notice the restraints; she just faded back into the dark.
When she finally met her sponsor the restraints were gone, so were the I.V.s, the attendants, the tutors, and the name, court records and identity of a little Kiev orphan. She met her sponsor and his peers in a spare but tidy conference room. They wore suits. She wore a paper robe. She felt tingly, and there was something else. They told her about sponsorship. They explained a few rather harsh realities about the program. She didn’t mind. They told her about the thing inside her thoughts that they put there to help her. She was grateful – heaven might be behind her, but she was alive, she was warm, she had a purpose, and she had her new family, her first family, her sponsors. She felt something for them, some ambiguous feeling that eluded her when she tried to concentrate on it. She did know she was grateful for the gifts they had given her. She had a new name and a new thing inside her, which she knew would always protect her, because that’s what it was there to do. The new thing didn’t have a name then, it didn’t yet need one. It wasn’t until she wrote her first report when she needed to describe the experience and put into words a detailed explanation of exactly why she was still alive when three large, athletic men were dead, it was then when she first called it the machine. It was her first report, just a week after her sponsors had placed her in Dubrovnik. She had not even been given her first assignment yet, but as she quickly learned sometimes in this line of work your assignment finds you.
Svetlana shrugged off the disoriented feeling and disoriented memories in her usual way, by taking inventory: bruised thigh, broken nail on left hand, a throbbing welt above the left temple, a cooling corpse on the ground in front of her. No rips in her clothing that she could see, but a few stains – hardly noticeable in the dark material. A cut on her right arm, not deep but bleeding. She picked up the ghurka knife lying across the floor from the cooling body and cut a swatch of yellow silk to make a bandage. There was yellow silk everywhere. A turban had unfurled after a painful spasm had thrown it off its wearer’s head. Miraculously, there had been little blood. She pulled the small brooch out of the Sikh’s neck and very carefully avoided the business end of the pin. She cut another long swatch of silk and used the brooch to fashion an over-the-shoulder wrap to distract from and camouflage the bright yellow bandage. The machine had left her a message, something the Sikh had said while under the effects of the trace of an exotic chemical that had coated the brooch’s pin. Something that the Sikh had apparently refused to tell while the machine had methodically broken both of his legs, his left arm and four of the fingers on his left hand. Svetlana was grateful for the machine and how it took over when things needed to be done. It was always efficient, always economical, but it had no mercy. Svetlana was glad she didn’t need to watch what the machine was doing, or hear the sound of the bones cracking, the screams, the pleas. The machine had insulated her from the noise and from the remorse.
Svetlana unfastened the handcuffs binding the Sikh’s bruised right wrist to a pipe and placed them along with the ghurka in her purse. Inventory told her there was still a hammer and a vise-grip pliers to add to the collection. The machine had left her an address and a name and though she would have preferred to stay a while longer to tidy things up properly, Svetlana knew addresses and names have a short shelf life in this business. She would have to do the quick and dirty – she took off her right earring and placed it in the corpse’s mouth and clamped the stiffening hands over the orifice. Speak no evil.
Across the street and seven flights up the Kalmyk was taking a biological break. One of the pitfalls of working alone was the inevitability of biology. Had she been at her post behind the high-powered binoculars she might have seen the attractive woman with the bold yellow wrap emerge from the building across the street. She certainly would have noticed the strange way she pulled off her left earring and dropped it on the ground and crushed it into the asphalt with a single stomp of her heel. What the Kalmyk did notice, even from her current immodest perch was the sound of the blast that occurred exactly five seconds after a stomping boot had activated a tiny transmitter. The Sikh was gone, and would be very hard to identify. And for the Kalmyk, now flying solo, a new chase had begun.