It wasn’t even 7am yet, and already it was getting hot.
I’d been watching the building all night from the ruined train station on the opposite side of the road. Nobody had come or gone.
It must have been an old car dealership or something before the war. I could see the dusty Christmas decorations inside from my hiding place. If the mark was inside, he certainly hadn’t come anywhere near the windows since I’d been here.
The world had gone to Hell during the war, and hadn’t got much better since. Nuclear winter gave way to the dust-bowl we lived in now. Plenty of people lived in the bigger cities – the Protectorates – but the rest of us out here in the Wastes had to do anything to scrape by.
The man from the city had met me in the usual place. All he did was slip me a large envelope with some information, and told me an amount and a date.
“Get it done by then.”
His suit made him stick out like a sore thumb, as did his ‘holier than thou’ demeanour. It didn’t seem to worry him. It didn’t bother me too much either – he might live in the city and make more money in a month than I’d see in a lifetime, but he needed my help. Again.
He always paid well for my work.
I never asked questions about who I was looking for, or what they’d done. All I needed was a recent picture, a name, and a place to start looking.
It hadn’t taken me long to track the target down. By all accounts he’d been living in this dump for a while now. A couple of months at least. Seems he was a regular at a bar a couple of miles down the road. Though one person suggested “regular” meant “stand outside, yelling into the wind and falling asleep in the gutter.
Word was he actually called this derelict spot, miles from anywhere, home.
Finally, at about half past 7, I saw enough of a person moving in the back of the dealership to convince me they were right.
Shoving my binoculars in my bag, I found my long coat and my gloves. The wind was getting stronger, and the dust was whipping in off the dunes. I slipped out the back of the station and made my way a short distance down the road – just enough that the old dealership started to be lost in the haze as the sandstorm started to really pick up. I crossed and started moving in on the building.
I lifted my scarf and goggles to fend off the sand and dust. I could feel the wide brim of my hat flapping in the wind, threatening to tear it from my head. The harsher weather nowadays meant plenty of people dressed like they were in the Old West, but in my line of work it paid to always be wearing gear that can handle anything – especially if it helped hide your identity too.
There wasn’t any cover on the way to the dealership, but there were no windows on this side. I’d already taken a close look at the place from all the angles, so I knew where to find the side door. Putting my ear to it, I wasn’t able to hear anything on the inside of the building over the noise of the wind. I tried the handle. It was unlocked. I left it ajar a few millimetres, quickly getting in close to the wall a little way along from it. Sure enough, a few seconds later the wind caught the wood and threw it open with a tremendous crash.
A moment later, I saw a dark shape start to weakly push the door shut.
I threw myself at it.
A pain seared through my shoulder as it made contact with the wood. A weight on the other side quickly gave way; the sickening crunch and muffled cry telling me I’d broken their nose and sent them flying.
I managed to stay on my feet, flinging the door shut and raising the pistol from the holster at my waist all in one practised movement.
The mark scrambled backwards on the floor until he was sat up against a desk, clutching his nose. We were in a large, darkened office, with a wide window looking out into the dealership’s main front space. Past the old Christmas decorations, I could just about make out a faint outline of the small train station ruin. The storm was getting really bad.
Through a doorway to my left, I could make out the spot the target must have been sleeping in. It was a smaller back room, with a couple of blankets spread out on the floor. I could see the filth surrounding them, as well as empty cans and evidence of a collection of illegal vapes and powders.
Why would someone from a Protectorate want this man dead?
He dropped his hands from his face so he could shift his weight and make himself more comfortable. He’d calmed down from the initial shock surprisingly quickly. He was older than I expected; his hair and beard were longer, more matted and unkempt than in the picture. But it was definitely the mark.
I never hesitated. Ever.
Why was I hesitating now?
He looked straight into my eyes and gave a little smirk. “Ah,” he said, “It’s you. About damn time.”
He’d been expecting me?
Finally, my brain caught up with what my eyes had spotted immediately. His nose was bent and broken, but there was no blood. His voice didn’t sound like he’d been hurt. It wasn’t right.
With a sigh, he placed his hands on the top of his head. “Ok. Let’s get this over and done with.”
He still didn’t take his eyes off mine. He barely even blinked.
I pulled the pistol’s hammer back. The wind was howling outside. It would cover the sound of the shot.
“Out of interest… What’s he paying you?”
He laughed. A grating, wheezing, hacking sound that was as though his lungs weren’t accustomed to being used properly. “You have no idea what you’re getting into, do you?”
Over the years, I’d seen many people beg. I’d had people offer me money for mercy. I’d never come across anyone so calm.
“Oh well,” he continued, “I guess it isn’t my problem anymore.” He closed his eyes. “Come on.”
I pulled the trigger.
A distinctive metallic ping echoed around the space as the bullet hit. I thought it had passed through him and hit the desk, but the sparks falling from his skull suggested otherwise. There was a low whirring as a multitude of small arms, cogs and pistons in his head struggled to compensate for the hole where his eye used to be. His other eyelid flickered up and down as if stuck.
I bent down to take a closer look.
I’d been doing this since I was old enough to use a gun. I’d been surviving in the wastes even longer. I’d never seen anything like this.
The sparks died, the whirring stopped, and finally his body relaxed.
I shoved the pistol back into my holster and took a picture of the body. I shook the photo paper as it slid out of the bottom of the camera. I didn’t leave just then as I didn’t want to risk the dust ruining the paper, but I also struggled to tear my eyes off the body while I waited for the picture to emerge. It wasn’t human.
Most people in my position probably would have wondered what was going on. They would have questioned everything they’d seen, and how many of these machines there were in the world. Me? I just hoped the man from the city didn’t expect a discount because I didn’t kill a person.
I put the photo and the camera back in my bag, turned, and stepped back out into the sandstorm.
A nagging doubt stopped me getting past the doorway. Why had he expected me? Why had I been sent to kill a machine? Did they know he was a machine?
Had he just been a decoy?
I headed back inside, pistol level, and carefully checked the rest of the building was clear before I set about searching his meagre belongings.
A thick layer of dust covered the entire place, the only exceptions being the room he’d been staying in, and the office I’d come through. Nobody had been here in an age. I rifled through the debris around the blankets. It painted a picture of addiction and a tough, sad, lonely life, but there was nothing to suggest anyone else had been here recently besides the ‘person’ I’d killed.
The wind threw the back door open again.
Instinctively, I darted around a corner, further into the dealership and away from the body. I stood with my back to the wall, just next to the door frame. I pulled the hammer back on my pistol, hoping to do it before someone came in and heard me.
A few agonising seconds went by. I strained to try and hear anything, but to no avail. I knew what would happen if I went near the door as it flapped in the wind. I kept glancing towards the dealership’s main area. I was just out of sight from it, but had a good enough view that if anyone was trying to get around me, I’d see it.
Finally, I heard the distinct sound of a weapon being cocked and the crunch of shoes calmly walking in through the back door. They were checking the coast was clear.
A radio squeaked. “This is Watkins. Experiment six has failed.” I recognised the voice as the man from the city.
He turned and left, closing the door behind him.
I waited in that room for hours. I waiting in case someone came back for the body. I waited for what I thought was the inevitable ambush outside the back door to leave. I had time before I was due to meet the man from the city again.
And I vowed that when I did, I’d find out what was going on.