Assassins have crept through the dark hallways of history, a fact that will persist in the far-flung future. Technology won’t make us better, it will just make us better at what we do. With sleek powered armor and active camouflage, tomorrow’s elite paid killers will move like shadows in the darkness.
A SHADOW IN THE DARKNESS
Kins II : The Calavaran Shelf
I am not death, for death is eternal stillness, the unwaking sleep.
I am the sudden violence that precedes death,
the snap of bone and the rend of flesh.
~ Kage no hon
The Book of Shadows
She watched the shark glide silently past the 49th floor window. The dorsal fin alone rose almost two meters above the sleek grey back. Nose to tail the leviathan had to measure somewhere near twenty meters.
Kemuri admired it; every gram of its hundred ton weight existed for the sole purpose of killing. A faint smile tugged at her mouth. While she stood shorter than its fin, Kemuri had killed more people in the last thirteen minutes than the shark had likely killed all week. Corpses, stuffed in crannies across several floors of the undersea skyscraper, gave silent testament to her lethality.
Mindful of her schedule she crossed the room; an indistinct shadow ghosting across the huge glass window. Had anyone been watching she might have been taken for a momentary ripple in the shifting glimmer of light that made it down to this depth. Such was the benefit of active camouflage, the surface of her armor coated with electronic chromatophores patterned off the very octopi that slithered through the reef outside. While not as powerful an illusion as the light-bending stealth armor favored by Special Forces, e-chrome was completely passive. Yes, remaining unseen demanded diligence on her part, on fluid motion and boundless patience. But unlike the soldiers with whom she sometimes worked, she didn’t show up as a bipedal black hole on a spectrometer scan.
Killing was easy; killing unnoticed was an art.
Normally, travel from the surface down to the master suite was done via express elevator, but that was a road marked by redundant layers of guards and detection gear. Few would think to snake their way through five floors of air ducts to reach open stairs. As such, this floor, much like the sixty-two above it, remained largely empty and without lighting. Glowstrips ran the seams between floors and walls along the central pathways but normal illumination relied on flourescing panels that would activate when something living walked in.
But ghosts didn’t trip sensors. Kemuri crossed the room in undisturbed darkness, offering neither footfall nor body heat to betray her presence. By altered genetics, by a lifetime of training and an unbreakable oath, Kemuri was Ikiryō: a wraith. The sleek, high-tech armor didn’t hurt.
She would have preferred killing only her primary target, leaving witless minions to scratch their heads and spread fear of her kind. But her employer had other directives.
Just as well, she thought. This particular target had spent good money to surround himself with above-average minions, the kind that randomize their patrol routes and schedules to avoid being predictable. The kind that just as arbitrarily pair up to walk circuits normally executed by a solitary guard. The parts of two such figures were stacked in a utility closet up on the 63rd floor, her first contact coming down from the roof. That was the only part of the tower that extended above sea-level. With each floor she decended, the number of personnel, and the frequency of their appearance, dwindled.
She had her target to thank for that last fact. His abusive intolerance was almost as well-documented as his wealth. The son of Banu aristocracy, Zul-Ren came by his fortune the old fashioned way; he inherited it. This was not to say that he failed to display the bloodthirsty ruthlessness of his mother who had amplified the fortunes of her father before her, but Zul-Ren was a child of privilege; over-indulged, thin-skinned, just a hair-trigger away from a tantrum over the tiniest slight, real or imagined. He was spiteful, corrosive, demeaning to anyone beneath his social stature. It is one thing to fail to win friends or earn their loyalty, it’s quite another to be so malignant that others will pay to see you dead.
Kemuri had a term for people like Zul-Ren: job security.
As a matter of shibumi, Kemuri rarely took pleasure from her work save for the quiet satisfaction that comes from flawless execution. But the more she learned about Zul-Ren in preparing for this contract, the more she felt she was doing the universe a public service.
Among Zul-Ren’s many sensitivities was an oft-repeated complaint about being disturbed by the footfalls or door-opening of security personnel, or having to suffer from lights, floors above, filtering down into windows on the 40th floor. That was Zul-Ren’s “personal space.”
It seemed to Kemuri that the Banu man-child placed far too great a reliance on the unassailability of this aquatic fortress, as though the hefty price tag translated to real security. She could not imagine the cost of sealing and refurbishing a skyscraper that had submerged when the melting of polar ice caps flooded coastal cities up and down the continent. Kins II had become yet another planet from which the Banu largely packed up and left, abandoned now to slavers… and people like Zul.
Drawing on a myriad of microsensors in her armor, Kemuri saw a thermal silhouette through the door ahead. With two rapid steps she crossed the gap, grabbing the sword on her back as the door slid open. From tachi-ai, the standing posture, she drew and struck with a single motion, a tsuki thrust that drove through the figure’s throat before the door had fully opened. Wide eyes blinked with shock for just an instant before she rotated the blade ninety degrees, sharp edge left, and whipped it free, severing trachea, carotid artery and jugular vein. Half-decapitated, spinal cord severed, the guard slid to the floor with a soft thud. Kemuri snapped a reflexive chiburi, flicking the blood from the blade before returning it to her back.
Along with the latest body, Kemuri disposed of the guard’s ATT-4, still unfired by now-dead fingers. This was an age of starships and laser rifles where the sword was, by any logic, an impractical weapon. Its range was intimate, its mastery demanding years of sacrifice. It was dependent, without exception, on the strength, speed and skill of the wielder.
Yet these very qualities made it a tool like no other, both offense and defense, weapon and shield. It was silent and elegant, immune from a crippling addiction to batteries or ammunition. It was the weapon of choice for a ghost.
This particular sword adhered to a classic design. Shorter and thicker than a formal katana, the curved blade sacrificed reach for extraordinary cutting power and mobility in confined space. Qualities one might need to cleave through armor in the confines of a starship, or in a tower reclaimed by the sea.
Unike the mastercrafted blades of antiquity, this chisa katana was a doctoral thesis in material science. The nanocomposite blade wasn’t hammer-folded, it was assembled one molcule at a time. Magnesium alloy, osmium-cored for mass, with a diamond-hard edge that only tungsten could deliver. The ebony damascus finish inspired its name: Kuro Hi. Black fire. The monniker only hinted at it’s thermal properties, as extensively engineered as the physical ones. Those were truly exceptional.
Kemuri decended the last set of stairs, arriving on the 40th floor. The doors ahead fit snugly as did all of the others, doors that as part of the retrofit of this building could act as watertight bulkheads should a window fail and the ocean rush in. She stared at the door, the sensors in her armor absorbing the rythmic throb of music playing softly beyond. Micro-changes in surface temperature suggested that lights were on. She studied the door closely; four heavy dead-bolts were seated into the frame. It appeared that the time for stealth was at an end.
Kuro Hi slid silently from its sheath as she squared herself to the door. The accelerators in her nervous system kicked in, the world around her slowing to a crawl. Her grasp on the handle tightened, a surge of power flowing from her armor through contacts in her gloves, crossing into the sword. The black damascus steel took on a dull cherry glow that quickly blazed with veins of orange incandescence. She drew the sword overhead and lunged in, striking with a force that split the door down the center.
At a dead run she burst through the gap, small launchers in her shoulderplates fanning pellets in her path. The tiny spheres burst into clouds of black smoke. She charged, e-chrome matching the broiling black so quickly that she looked like a viper made of smoke racing through the room.
The big robot deployed, both its existence and location predictable. Petulant though he may be, Zul-Ren wasn’t an idiot and if living guards were not to be present in his inner sanctum, automated ones would be. That the ‘mech was stored in a recess on the innermost wall was predictable as well. It would have weapons that were designed to pose no threat to the wall of glass, but one could not guess what an adversary might bring. Drawing fire away from that outer wall was just common sense.
Kemuri dove into a roll as the robot’s twin guns belched out blobs of adhesive, most likely that military ‘nano-glue’ that actively spread itself across a target on contact before constricting like a python. The shots tracked high, drawn off-target by energetic particles in the smoke acting like chaff. She came out of the tumble, launching herself with a powerful stride up the side wall; a twisting leap that hung her in the air above the machine. Power surged and the katana blazed, arching down like a falling star.
A moment later Kemuri stood over the pile of smoking debris, sparks popping where severed edges of robot armor glowed orange-hot. She turned with a fluid grace, the long trail of smoke at last evanescing to reveal her true form.
Perhaps a bit dramatic, she conceded, but an indulgence she allowed herself.
Zul-Ren back-scrabbled across the floor, stabbing madly at what would most certainly be the Panic Button on a small remote. Kemuri paused, turned her head to listen, then smiled behind her featureless facemask. To nobody’s surprise, save perhaps Zul-Ren, no one left alive was rushing down to give their life in his defense. It appeared that the petulant little shit finally got the quiet he demanded.
As she walked slowly towards him, the sword burned with a fury.