Where Nowhere Begins
by Gary Clifton
The telephone shrilled Dubinski from fitful sleep.
“Good morning, Snapshot, Dartboard here. How’s the weather in Ecuador?”
Dubinski heaved himself upright on the bed’s edge. The clock read 4:47 a.m. “Good God, Williams, do you people ever go to bed?”
A laugh blared through the handset like a braying mule. “Of course we don’t go to bed. We’re spies. And do not say my name again.”
“Might oughta try sleeping more. Makes you a lot smarter, Willia... uh, Dartboard. Why are you using the comsat unit to communicate?”
“Relax, Snapshot, the Pecab scrambler is on full juice. Your unit must be up and running, too, or we wouldn’t be talking. We have a priority assignment.”
“What do you want?”
“Sending you a rookie trainee. Spanish language specialist from Searchlight Seven.”
“Priority? You do recall, the last two rookies you sent down here went back in hermetically sealed coffins? They had listened to too much of that crap in the academy. Why not Mexico, where Langley’s military commander has complete control? Sort of.”
“He’s an up-and-comer. Needs to see society’s fringe. And you’re not to take him too close to the front.”
“Dartboard, we got plenty of fringe down here, all right. Don’t send him, for God’s sake. You gotta know how much trouble it is to find another one of those damned tin coffins.”
* * *
The C.I.A., now permanently in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had used the so-called War on Narcotics as justification for seizing the government of Mexico in 2021. The oil of Pemex and a firmer grip on illegal immigration had spurred the brass to move south.
Dubinski had been a lineman at a small college in the Midwest, seduced at graduation in 2013 by a slick-talking guy in a silk suit. A career in clandestine, patriotic service to the country seemed a hell of a deal at the age when a young man feels invincible. They wanted his speed, size, and very nice G.P.A. They did not fully explain his job description.
Survival, some success at clandestine operations, and never missing an opportunity to keep his mouth shut had earned him several offers to move up in rank. Promotion would mean that, at this instant, if he still lived, he would be crawling around jungle several miles out on the frontier, commanding a regiment of a few operatives, plus many clones and robots shooting at other clones and robots and an occasional Iranian or God-knew-who.
He had managed to become a largely invisible back-bencher, working where buildings had roofs — usually — and murdering an occasional soul as Langley dictated. Langley referred to the victims as “assignments.” Very civilized and sanitary.
* * *
Duties also involved other jobs. Now he was receiving — via telephone for God’s sake — one of those “other missions as directed”: “He arrives on Mexicali Flight 714 at 7:30 a.m. Pick him up, integrate him into the program and learn to follow orders, Snapshot.”
Dubinski downed his enhancement pill and a cup of bad coffee and started to the airport. In a few minutes, he felt the usual surge of energy and mental clarity. He often wondered if his boost might be a simple coffee high and the pill was crystal meth.
Although he still received orders from his desk officer in Langley, he was assigned to a quasi-military unit. All he’d paid in return over the years was his soul.
After murdering twenty-seven human beings at arm’s length, plus many more through a sniper scope or with improvised explosives, he’d sometimes willed himself to go half a day without seeing the faces. This morning, for reasons beyond his comprehension, his brain refused to release the image of a cab driver who’d died swearing he was not involved in political matters.
Now a twenty-year veteran field operative, he still relied on the old-style daily enhancement pill to function. What had once encouraged him to think he could leap tall buildings had now dissipated into the cynical realization that he needed to take care not to stumble over curbs
After surviving eighteen years south of the U.S. border, the past four in Ecuador, this morning, as with every morning, he expected to be assassinated at any instant by a cab driver, a traffic cop, somebody in a nun’s habit, or a kid whose shoeshine box contained four pounds of C-4.
There was no quitting. Years earlier, Langley had morphed into a military grid, and the law was changed. Grunts like Dubinski didn’t exit until Langley said so, which equated to never. Sooner or later, the deadly charade could only end in disaster.
This kid would have had the whole treatment: chemical alteration of emotions, artificially induced speed and strength, possibly a heart-augmentation implant and, worst of the worst, the early psychological stages of blunting the need to feel fear.
The war of jungles, snakes, dirty streets, and alley murder had dragged on until the current year, 2033. The mighty conquest had been bogged down across South America for nearly two years on a line roughly following the equator with no end in sight. Ecuador was the Iwo Jima of the twenty-first century. Both sides were running low on human combatants, but the supply of artificial troops rolling off the assembly line was endless.
Russian and Iranian forces had flooded the areas to the south with combat troops and a gaggle of expendable operatives like Dubinski, many of whom were on a first-name basis, only killing one another on specific orders of some faceless bureaucrat back in Moscow or Langley. Hence his constant paranoia of expecting to be murdered at any instant — perhaps by the guy he’d played poker with two nights before.
He’d survived three attempt on his life in his eighteen years on the front, each time managing to dispatch the would-be assassin to Hell. He had been wounded each time, once requiring six months’ hospitalization at Guantanamo. He marveled at the lack of talent sent by his enemies. But he knew the law of probability dictated he would not survive again.
Being dead, only awaiting the final instant, created a mental clarity no normal human could possibly understand. He’d never received the anti-fear program but had developed his own mental defense system.
A rational mind would consider defection — flee to any one of several foreign services competing in the area. Others had tried, and each had been executed as spies. The American Embassy still flew the U.S. flag and, although he was not allowed inside, all in all he’d survive the longest by sticking to the policy line. Loyalty should factor in somehow, but it didn’t. Langley knew that. They knew everything. The whole process had left Dubinski slightly nuts, and he knew that, too.
He pondered his visit from the hangman and worked his way toward Mariscal Sure International.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton