A lifetime ago
“What do you mean I’m discharged?”
“You are no longer a member of this army. These papers are final.”
“But… everything I’ve sacrificed… everything I’ve given you.”
“The papers are final, ma’am. Please, leave the premise. Immediately.”
She sat on the ground outside the compound. She had nothing. No rifle, no medals, no beret. Nothing to prove she’d even been a soldier. Her clothes were grey sweats—they’d taken even her fatigues from her. Her sole comforts in this world now was the hill she was sitting on and the tree against her back.
“Excuse me.” She looked up. A man stood there. A government man. He was pale, with gelled dark hair, with tight features and beady eyes. They looked identical, all of them. She wondered if there was a factory somewhere that churned them all out. “My name is Agent Miller. I’m with the Office of Science and Industry.” He reached into his coat and withdrew a folding piece of leather. A badge and an official looking card lay inside. She had a second to look before the leather disappeared again. “I understand you’ve had a difficult time recently.”
“Office of Science and Industry… are you doctor?”
Miller offered a polite, cordial laugh, and shook his head. “No. OSI isn’t only what you read in the papers, Sergeant.”
“I’m a civilian now.” Her voice still rang hollow. It had all moved so fast.
“Not if you don’t want to be.” Miller said. She looked up, sharply.
“Sergeant, I understand you were up for consideration on fourteen medals. Your commanding officer wrote in his accommodations that you were the finest NCO he had ever had under his command. Your unit has enjoyed one of the most decorated periods of its history. Your shooting scores are exemplary. You have not had a single complaint filed against you.”
“Then why am I being forced out?”
“You know why.” Miller said, crouching down to her eye level. “Despite all things speaking to the contrary, you have been dishonorably discharged, Sergeant.”
She looked down at her hands, resting in her lap. They seemed such useless things now.
“The only question I have for you is this.” Miller continued.
She looked up.
“Do you still want to serve your country?”
“What does OSI do, exactly?”
“Aside from everything you read?” Miller asked.
“Sergeant, before the war the United States Department of Energy operated at the highest level of security within the nation. They handled the formidable nuclear arsenal of the Old World.” He unbuttoned his jacket as they walked, his hard-soled leather shoes clicking on the steel floor. They were in Vault City. In the Vault. No one went down here. No one except the First Citizen, big-wig scientists, the Captain of the Guard, and top NCR military and governmental officials. She didn’t even think her mother had ever gone down here.
In a way, it made sense that OSI found its home here. Both it and this Vault had once been focused solely on science. Now… they’d both been repurposed.
“OSI fills a similar position in the Republic’s government.” Miller continued. “When the senators, generals, and president need something done… discretely, they call us. We handle anything and everything. People wonder why our intelligence department seems lacking compared to that of the Brotherhood’s or that of the Enclave’s?”
The automatic Vault door lifted in front of Miller, opening up a quiet hallway. It could be any part of the Vault. Another research department. A hallway full of labs. As they walked down the hall Shrike peered into windows. The people inside were certainly not lab techs. They wore suits, like Miller’s, and stared at screens or at papers and talked. There appeared to be a lot of talking.
“It’s easier to spy on someone if they don’t know you can.” Miller said. He sounded smug.
“What exactly is it that you want me for?” She asked.
“Sergeant, I will be frank.” Miller motioned for her follow as he led into an atrium. “We bring people of your talent into the fold for one reason.”
“Assassins.” She guessed.
“Correct.” Miller extended a finger in her direction, as if granting her a point. They climbed up a side of stairs, onto a cat walk, so that they could overlook the OSI workplace. “But for your country."
“For my country.” She repeated.
“Of course. Threats both foreign and domestic, Sergeant. The oath remains the same. Only a change in its… execution.” He stopped and turned to face her. He was slick looking. A snake oil salesman if there ever was one. She found herself liking him merely for the efficiency of everything he did. He did something and moved on to the next. There was no wasted effort. But she realized at the same time what a dangerous, ruthless person that made him. If she fell through the cracks it would be no concern of his.
He held out a hand. “Well, Sergeant? What do you say?”
She looked at it. And then took it. “You don’t call me by my name.”
“We don’t have those here.” Miller said. “It’s our modus operandi. You need a new one. Something no one else would remember you or could know you by.”
She thought of the one thing in the world that still gave her peace. That still was her comfort. “Shrike.”
They shook hands.
The first kill wasn't supposed easiest, but the rifle shook in Shrike’s hands. He hugged his daughter, kissed her on the forehead, ushered her off to school. The trigger was slick and oily.
She watched as the girl left the house and walked down to the sidewalk. In the distance, a bus pulled down the street.
She looked through the scope, and all she say was the man’s living room, and the crosshair settled over his heart. He was looking out the window, watching to make sure she made it to the bus.
There was no way Shrike was going to land this shot. Her hands shook like she was having a seizure. Her mouth tasted of bile.
The bus was pulling up.
“Shrike?” Miller’s voice was in her ear. “You’re green, target’s alone.”
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t trust her own voice.
She had killed before. A lot of people. Far more than her sanity or ethics should allow. She’d looked down a scope at a crosshair very similar to this one and squeezed a trigger very similar to this one and killed men not all too different from this one. Why was this time so damn hard?
“Shrike?” Miller repeated. She had to. She knew she did. There was no other choice. If there was, she was too weak to make it.
She closed her finger on the trigger. The rifle jumped, the window cracked, and the man disappeared from view without much ceremony. There was no noise.
Down the street, the girl turned back towards the house. She opened her mouth and called. Shrike couldn’t hear it from here, but she knew what was being said. The girl walked back towards the house, slowly at first, then quicker.
“Oh god no.” Shrike pleaded. “Please, lord, anything but this.”
The girl threw the door open and saw Shrike’s work right away. The screams reached Shrike in her nest. She shouldered the rifle and ran.
“What do you mean no more guns?” Miller asked. It was early morning. The OSI offices were empty. They were two, ordinary people having a cup of coffee before work. If only.
Things felt fuzzy, indistinct to Shrike now. Sometimes she woke up and days were gone from her memory. Other thing she remembered in crisp, clear detail, as if they had happened that moment. Memories slid through her grasp like mercury. It has hard remembering this conversation with Miller, now. It was hard remembering a lot of her past, before the surgeries. There wasn’t much left of who she had been. There was only Shrike.
“I can’t shoot anymore.” Shrike had said. “I went to the range. My scores are in the trash.”
“Do you know why?” Miller asked. It was an inconvenience. Shrike was a tool, one that had broken after a single use. To him, that was both a colossal waste and a failure.
“Yeah I know why.” Shrike said, unwilling to talk more about it. “But when I was a girl I fought competitively. They said they selected me for that when I joined Special Forces. I’ve had to use it in the line of duty. I’m more comfortable with it.”
“Few people would say it’s easier to kill someone with their bare hands than with a weapon.” Miller noted.
“I’m different.” Shrike said, like it was obvious. “It’s like… instinct to me. With a gun I have to think. With my hands it just happens. I move and then the work is done.”
Miller was quiet after that. At the time she thought it was because he didn’t believe her. Later she realized it was because he was afraid of her. It was around then she began to scare a lot of people.
The man moved about the room beneath her. Shrike’s back rested on the rafter, her hands and knees pressed to the ceiling for balance. This was her ninth kill for Miller. For the OSI.
She dropped from it and landed behind him. She closed her arms around his neck in a sleeper hold and fell back, pulling him to the ground. His big, much bigger than her, but the grip was a vise and she wrapped her legs around his arms, pinning them to his sides.
Soon he was dead.
The door behind Shrike opened and two men walked in. They took in the scene—Shrike on the floor, her arms wrapped around the throat of their boss.
They went for their pistols and Shrike was on her feet. A kick to a knee, a head locked to her hip, and she snapped his neck. The second drew and turned the gun on her, but she ducked out of the line of fire, hands grasping the barrel, and she stepped in, forcing the gun back towards him. She twisted from his hands and cracked him in the temple with it. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. Dead.
She wiped her hands of the blood and stood up. She had messed up big, she knew this. Three people dead in a pool of blood was much different from one man quietly asphyxiating.
She messed up. She was dead. The OSI didn’t like messes. Or mistakes.
She could go back to them. And die. Or she could run.
But it had never been in Shrike’s nature to run.
She radioed in her failure the morning after a long, sleepless night. She had spent it wondering the streets of the Boneyard. She had no good-byes to say. Everyone she’d ever known or loved thought she was dead. She found an old, shattered a high-rise overlooking the lost City of Angels and set up her receiver. Birds twitted between the exposed steel, singing as the song came up.
“Shrike?” Miller’s voice was on the other end of the line. He sounded concerned. She wondered if it was genuine. “I’ve been waiting to hear from you. What’s the status of the mission?”
“It’s done.” She said. “But there was a complication. His bodyguards got back early. I had to take care of them.”
There was a long pause on Miller’s end. “Can you clean it up?”
“No. I wasn’t able to.”
“They want me to cut ties.” The connotation in his voice was heavy.
Shrike felt a vague sense of disappointment. She wasn’t sure why or about what. Maybe it was that she had expected this. Had known it was coming. Everyone betrayed her, eventually. “I understand.”
Miller sighed. “Good luck.”
“You too.” She turned off the receiver.
They came for her in the evening, as the sun set. Three men. They wore armor, carried assault rifles. They entered the high-rise as the bottom floor and became to climb up towards her. The stairs echoed with their heavy footsteps.
Shrike took up a position at the center of the room. Debris and furniture surrounded her, making for decent cover. It would have to do.
They came into the room in a pronged formation, one in front two at her rear flank. Their leader wore a mask, night vision goggles, and a helmet. The instant he saw her he raised his rifle and fire.
Shrike dove, rifle fire tearing into the cement behind her. She landed behind a fallen steel girder, and the soldiers spread out to surround her.
She kicked a nearby table, it slid across the dusty floor and took a soldier off his feet. She dove for him as he face planted into the ancient wood and the other two men took up position at her back. She grabbed the lip of the table and pulled it hard, yanked it upright as she vaulted over it and the prone soldier.
The men unleashed in the next instant, shredding the table with gunfire, and hitting their comrade in the process.
Shrike ducked, using the body to shield herself from the gunfire, although she couldn’t avoid it all and took a round in the arm and a second grazed her leg.
The pain was immediate but she forced it down. Not now. Later. Once she wasn’t in danger.
She sprung up from behind the table. The men were out of ammunition, defenseless. One went for his knife, Shrike lunged forward to relieve him of. He tried to slice her on the draw, but she braced her hands against his forearm in quick grappling maneuver and kneed him a single time the groin. His grip weakened and she tore the KABAR from his grip. She tore open his throat, just as the single remaining man fell on her.
He punched her in the shoulder and backhanded the knife from her grip.
She feinted a jab for his head, he ducked, replying with an overhand right cross. It rocked her nose, sending her reeling and blood gushing down her face. He advanced she tried to drive him back with a sidekick to the thigh. It bounce of his armor, hurting her shin more than him. He grabbed her ankle, pinning it to his hip, and seized her shoulder.
He was big, much larger than her, and he lifted her up, and then slammed her to the ground beneath him. The impact forced the air from Shrike’s lungs in a rush and she lay gasping as he gripped her throat and slowly drew his own knife.
Just like that she knew it was over. This was how a close quarters fights went. Not like a pre-war movie where the heroes went back and forth for twelve minutes. A less than ten second bout that ended in a mistake, and then death.
She could not see his face. The mask, goggles, and helmet were standard among them, but she tell he from his movements was taking his time. He would not make it quick.
He laid the blade of the knife on her face and began to burrow it into her cheek, working the blade in like a drill. The pain was unlike anything she had felt before. Blood began to fill mouth and pour down her throat, even as the pinpricks of agony shot through her.
There was a squelching, wet noise, and the knife sunk through her cheek, penetrating her tongue. He continued to wiggle it back, cutting through her uvula, towards the back of her throat. She could taste he edge as it massacred her tongue. Cold and like leather from its sheath, now coppery as it became slick with her blood.
The knife sliced open the back of her neck, scrapping her vertebrae, delving Shrike into a whole new level of hell. She began to spasm uncontrollably, making it easier for the man to work the knife back the rest of the way. The knife's point came to rest on the concrete behind Shrike’s head, staking her to the concrete. The spasms subsided and she lay still, hardly breathing.
The man released his weapon. He stood up, observed her through his goggles, and then began pacing the room. He pressed a hand to his ear.
“Target is neutralized.”
He paused, listening to the response on the other end.
“No, only me.”
Why was he sparing her? Maybe he wanted to save her for himself? Was he supposed to take her alive? Shrike’s head lulled to the side, drooling blood onto the floor, and saw her reflection in a shard of dusty glass.
A knife was stuck through her head. Blood pooled beneath her, pouring out through a hole in the side of her mouth. She could see her teeth, dark red, and her tongue hanging limply.
He thought she was dead.
“No need for retrieval. I’ll burn what’s here and then head to the agreed upon location.”
Shrike rolled onto her stomach and began to stand. His back was to her.
She reached into her mouth, fingers finding the wet grip of the knife. They brushed the hilt and fresh pain found her, making her shake. In that moment she felt and overwhelming urge to lie down and sleep. The pain was intense. If she pulled the knife free it would be worse. No one would care if she died. No one would mourn her or think fondly on her memory. Her corpse would be burned along these two here and everything she had ever done would be wiped from history. But it simply wasn’t in her to do that. She had made it through everything life had thrown at her. She had sacrificed everything for others, taken nothing for herself. Life had hit her in the face, thrown her down, and she’d gotten right back up and asked for seconds. She was a survivor. And there was no chance in hell the OSI’s cleaners were going to be the ones that got her.
She gripped the knife with the pads of her fingers and pulled. It grinded against her flesh and she pulled as it appeared, inch by inch out her mouth, red with her own blood, like some sort of perverse street magic act.
Shrike held the weapon in her hand and staggered towards the man. Her boots scuffed the floor, her feet loud and unsteady. But to the remaining soldier she was a corpse and as he turned around, surprised, she burned the knife in his stomach. He gasped, hand dropping away from his ear.
“I am Shrike.” She told him as he fell to his knees in front of her. She pulled the free and stabbed him again, twice, three times. Over and over.
“I am Shrike.” She repeated, the words were malformed, lisped. She tipped his chin upwards, to look at her face, and she burrowed the knife in the soft of his jaw.
“I am Shrike.” The body fell at her feet.
She dragged herself from the tower, staggered down into the street, towards one of the many trashcans fires that literally this destroyed world. She took the knife blade in the fire and wiped the blood from her cheek as best she could. Then she held the shredded flesh together and pressed the hot blade to it. This pain was crisp, almost refreshing in comparison to what had come before. Comforting. Pain meant she was alive
It was a week later she lay down in the surgery suite in San Francisco, still covered in wounds, her face a swollen mass of red, angry flesh.
“The surgeries you are proposing.” The surgeon was standing over her, going through the sheet. “I have never seen anything so extensive.”
“You can do it.” She informed him. “You have the necessary equipment and expertise. That procedure you hold I wrote myself. It’ll work.”
“Your knowledge of medical science aside, the human body cannot withstand this amount of tampering. Especially a woman of your size, in your condition…”
“You have my money.” Shrike said. “I’m here, you said you were willing to operate. There's a good chance I'll die anyway, given what's happened to me. This surgery is my one chance. If I die then it's no loss. I'm already dead anyway, in more ways than one. But if I live?" She let the implication hang in the air. These implants, in conjuction, would make her more than human. She'd have abilities you only saw in a dime novel.
He looked at her a moment before setting the chart aside. “Very well. I’ll call the nurse in. Let’s begin.”
Shrike closed her eyes and lay back.
Shrike stood out in front of Vault 21, silhouetted by a street light, stone still, frozen in memory. She flexed her right hand, opening and closing her glove, regaining her hold on reality as the flashbacks faded. There were times she found herself locked in her memories. She couldn’t fight them. They came and went on their own. The ones that came when she was alone and rested were different than when she was in a fight. When she was alone it was like watching a movie, like someone else was playing back her life before her eyes, someone else doing everything she did. It was surreal and made her feel out of control, as if she wasn't the one deciding the path her life took.
When it a fight, it was a similar loss of control, but always the same memory and she felt as if she was reliving it all over again. She was back in that tower in the Boneyard. She was terrified. Bloodied. Angry. And the only way forward was to kill. That was the memory that came in a fight. It was what drove her. It was that moment when she’d been driven low, on the verge of death, when who she’d been had died and in her place Shrike had arisen. There was only Shrike now. And Shrike was a creature that fed on vengeance. Fed on vengeance and fueled by a cold, smouldering rage.
Shrike headed inside Vault 21. The interior was that of a budget hotel. Beneath was a former Vault, but that was not Shrike’s destination.
Sarah Weintraub, the owner and operator, looked up from the front desk. She saw Shrike and seemed to sense something was wrong right away. Shrike had that effect on people. Sarah reached for something underneath the counter but before she could pull it out Shrike had sent a shockwave at her. It caught her in the chest and threw her backwards, across the room.
Shrike strode around the counter. A pistol had landed near Sarah—she’d likely had a finger around it before she’d been thrown—and Shrike kicked it away.
“Hello, Sarah.” She said. “I’m Shrike.”
The woman must’ve heard of Shrike by now for she grew very pale. Had Shrike been here she would’ve felt pity for that woman. But she wasn’t. She was back in Los Angeles as the man sunk his knife through her face, carved her open. She was bleeding out on the floor, dying.
Shrike crouched down next to Sarah. “I’m going to kill you.” Shrike informed her as if it was an unfortunate eventuality. “You can thank Josey Wales."
That only seemed to confuse her. "Jose...?"
"Your death will hurt him." Shrike continued. "And after that I’m going to kill your brother and then Josey and then everyone else in that tower. I won’t enjoy it, but it needs to be done.”
Sarah looked Shrike straight on. She was afraid, but Shrike could see she had backbone. “Fuck you.”
Shrike smirked. She rose to her full height and lifted a boot. “About what I expected.” She brought her heel down on Sarah’s neck with a crunch.
It was the next morning she met Randall at North Vegas Square. He stood outside the Gray, leaning next to the building’s front door. He was running a whet stone along the blade of his knife and sheathed it as she approached.
“You got everything in position?” He called to her.
“Yes. This evening you’ll go to the tower. I will be here. Josey will leave for me and you will kill the remaining five.”
“I ain’t taking them all on my own, lady. One of ‘ems a mutant and the other’s Enclave.”
“I’m aware of that.” Shrike told him. “That’s why you’ll have inside help.”