In a metropolis like Neo Hong Kong, rain didn’t fall in drops; it fell in torrents. Alkaline water, slight acidic precipitation…most types of rain were harmless to organic life. Everyone feared the sulfur showers, the more toxic form that dissolved lesser metals and bare skin.
It simply rained water on this particular evening. The night skies opened up, swelled and merciless, pouring heavily onto the city below. On neon-lighted streets, the denizens of Neo Hong Kong went about their business as normal, drenched but thankful that it wasn’t another acid storm. The rain, like the air they breathed, was just a daily routine in their lives. Few remembered the times of old, when there existed an actual difference between day and night, when a bright sun lighting the skies was not just a memory.
One of those who did remember now walked unnoticed among the masses. A middle-aged man in his late thirties, with sharp dark eyes, dressed in a trench coat and wide-brimmed hat. His manner seemed cautious and reserved as he strided through the crowded walkways, as if growing accustomed to walking alongside others. Like any other night, the man needed a few drinks and was headed to his new favorite bar.
Life as a civilian took some getting used to, but by no means did he find it difficult. He found his new existence rather amusing at times, knowing that his trained eye noticed thousands of little bits of information that the average man or woman on the street wouldn’t even be aware of. A loathsome pimp lurking here, a junkie addicted to smack barely breathing there. Whispers in the dark alleys, the faint cough of someone looking down at you from a high window. A siren wailing some miles in the distance, toward the northwest. All random things, barely noticeable through the rain splashing into the ground. All seemingly disconnected, yet in reality constituted pieces of a much larger scene that his mind documented systematically, objectively. Yes, he really needed that drink now.
Out in front, police lights flashed ominously. Small clusters of folks had gathered, their curiosity beaten back by the reprimands of wearied officers. A young woman lay dead on the wet pavement, a prostitute. The back of her head had been blown apart, for God knows what reason; her brains and blood mixed remarkably well with the rainwater. Back in the old days people would cover up a corpse exposed to the public, out of decency. That practice would sound ludicrous in modern times; what was the point? Violence like this happened every minute, it was foolish to deny the truth. As he entered the bar, the dark-eyed man caught one last glance at the dead girl. If he hadn’t been so hardened already, a part of him would have felt a little sympathy.
The bar inside looked just as it did every night; in fact, all his nights were starting to feel the same. Noisy, stifling, dim-lighted, enough people for just the right amount of anonymity. Everything was the same, of course; only he didn’t feel the same. Not after the message he had received last night. He seated himself at the counter, where one of the bartenders recognized her most mysterious patron.
“Nice night for a walk, eh partner?” she asked, her tone and nod referring to the scene outside.
The dark-eyed man returned her nod grimly. “I’ve seen worse.”
His eyes told the barmaid that he’d also done worse sometime in his life; she smiled, trying not to look overtly curious. “So what’ll it be tonight?”
“I think I’ll have that drink you suggested the other night, that ‘White Russian, double or nothing.’ It sounds intriguing.”
The barmaid smiled in amusement. He had grown fond of her lately, she being one of the few friendly faces he had encountered during civilian life. Regrettably, he did not know—nor would he seek out—her name. Too much trouble involved.
“White Russian double, coming up.” She paused, looking pensive for a moment, then reached below the counter. “By the way, I found this inside before I opened up tonight. Figured it might be for you, partner.” She held out a plain white envelope and handed it to him. Written on one side was, “To the silent one.”
The dark-eyed man stared at the envelope for a bit. “Perhaps it is. Thank you.” He waited until she went away to open it. Inside, a plain piece of paper, a note written in elegant calligraphy. He recognized the first seal design below the message all too well:
I await you outside.
The barmaid returned with his drink. “Good news? Bad? I can hardly tell with you.”
Calmly, he placed the entire message into a coat pocket. “More like expected news,” he replied. “Expected, and disappointing.” With a single motion, the man swept up the glass and downed the drink in a gulp. Then he looked up at the barmaid, through the thick haze of cigarette smoke permeating the whole bar, for what may be the last time. She was prettier than he had previously thought. Short lilac-dyed hair, lean chin, dimples when she smiled. Pretty, and unsentimental. She would no doubt have a wonderful life in the future. “Thanks for the drink.”
With that, the man placed some money on the counter, and then briskly left the bar. He didn’t look back…his gaze fell only on the falling rain outside.
The meeting place was to be a location away from prying eyes, somewhere inaccessible to civilians. That he knew, for they had all been trained to think the same way. He went toward the rear of the bar, in the shadowed alleyways festered with garbage and vermin. Not a soul in sight. Above him, steel catwalks stretched across adjacent buildings, some firm, some dangling dangerously unfastened. No unusual sounds, save for the occasional crack of thunder overhead.
With little effort, the man leaped incredibly high and caught hold of one steel railing, swinging upward. He caught another rail, swinging once more, and suddenly he now stood on the roof of the small bar. The blacktop looked deserted, slicked with rain; dark and foreboding, with many hiding places.
He had expected to be contacted after receiving the message the previous night, but not so soon. Were they actually trying to force his hand?
A light step behind him, barely audible that only his trained hearing would detect it. He turned slowly, unafraid and undaunted, to look upon a colleague. A slender figure stepped from the shadows on a wall above him. A young woman no less, outfitted in a uniform of her own design. She wore a dark crimson gi, sheathing her body from head to foot, exposing only her eyes. Long black hair protruded in individual spikes from her cowl, draping her face. Shoulder armor and forearm guards, in addition to the metallic belt suspended around her waist, glimmered from the neon lights below.
The man didn’t even need to see the design patchwork on her left breast to know who—or what—she was. The very color of her uniform told him as much. “Vermillion,” he said simply, more like a statement.
The young woman scoffed under her breath. “Civilian life does not suit you. Even from my vantage point, you stick out in the crowds like a novice. So it is true; you now wither away in those kinds of establishments, drinking poison! What a waste.” Her voice sounded feminine and prim. Disapproval edged her tone, but by no means did she imply disrespect.
Feeling somewhat comfortable again, the dark-eyed man relaxed his tensed muscles. “That is no consequence of yours, but thank you for sharing your thoughts. Now, what brings you all this way to see me, young Strider?”
Strider Vermillion deftly jumped down from the wall in a catlike motion, and then faced him. As all sword-wielding Striders do, her right hand stayed constantly gripped on the handle of her cypher blade, strapped behind her small waist. Her left hand pointed an accusatory finger at him. “Didn’t you receive the Vice Director’s message last night?”
Casually, he shrugged. “I did.”
“Then why didn’t you contact Vice Director Matic immediately after?” Vermillion demanded. “He waited to hear your decision; when he didn’t, he sent me to find you.”
“I left my transmitter and my comlink back at Headquarters. It must have slipped my mind.” He paused, glaring slightly at the young woman. He knew Vermillion in passing; he had attended her graduation to B class, some years ago. “I am in the process of retiring, you know.”
Vermillion remained motionless. “Here then. I brought my own comlink for you to use. You may contact Vice Director now.” She slid a thin, palm-sized console from her belt and held it out to him, waiting.
The dark-eyed man suddenly felt aggravated. He had submitted his resignation, cleanly and with honor weeks ago. He had expected a quick approval. Now he had to accept an assignment forced upon him? Even though he received news of this assignment, he hadn’t really taken it seriously. He had considered it a mistake. It was highly unusual to assign a retiring Strider such a late mission. Of course, the mission itself was highly unusual…
Submitting, he took the console and opened the video link. The image sharpened, and Vice Director Matic appeared as though he had been listening to the entire conversation. “Glad to know a sense of duty still brims in our veterans,” the Vice Director quipped over the com.
“My sense of duty’s been filed away, just like my resignation should have been,” the man shot back. “What do you want from me, Matic?”
The Vice Director chuckled. An Englishman, Strider Matic rose quickly through the ranks of B class Striders to become second in command of the organization. Cool and calculating, Matic oversaw nearly every aspect of every covert operation in the world. As such, he was known to demand and expect fierce loyalty from the Striders under his command. “What I’ve always asked of you, old friend. I need a job done.”
“Then find someone else! I’m through, remember?”
“Well I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Quite frankly, you’re the only one qualified for the task. You are—or were—the best Monitor that we ever had. Of course new monitors are being trained as we speak, but we need you. This is an extraordinary assignment, after all.”
“I know. I know it is. It’s incredible, really…”
“Then why don’t you accept? We need your valuable input. Hiryu could quite possibly be the best we’ve ever trained. Bullocks, it could be that he’s the one who has trained us! But Hiryu has never left Moralos Island; he hasn’t got that ‘real world’ experience. So I just want you to look after him on his preliminary assignment. What do you say?”
“What I’ve already said. Find someone else. There are plenty that are just as experienced as I am.”
“But no one has your experience, that’s the point!” A pause. “As an added incentive, I’ve talked it over with the Director, and we’ve agreed to a compromise if you accept.”
“Well if you accept, I can guarantee you that your resignation and approval will be taken care of immediately. No questions, no bureaucratic nonsense. You retire, you’re free to leave us, plain as day. Is it a deal, old friend?”
The dark-eyed man reflected on this proposal, feeling a little surprised. All being said, it sounded fair enough. Paperwork could take another six months to finish, and in all that time he could still be tracked and never left alone to start a new life. What was another Monitoring assignment to him anyway? One more task, and he would be done with it.
“No strings attached?”
“None. You have my word.”
“All right, Matic,” he breathed finally. “I’ll monitor Hiryu. Just to speed up my resignation. But I’d like to see him in action for myself as well.”
“Splendid!” Matic looked beside himself, his eyes looking ecstatic behind his shaded spectacles. “You’re doing us a last great service, old friend. Hiryu’s operation begins at 0200 hours. Vermillion will provide all the information you need to follow him. I expect a report from you after each objective accomplished, and a final report after the overall mission has been completed. That said, good hunting…it should be interesting. Matic out.”
The link went dead abruptly, but the dark-eyed man really didn’t have much else to say. He handed the console back to Vermillion. “I suppose this means that we’re going to be partners?”
“Not so much as partners, but associates.” The young woman stood upright, her right hand still gripped on her cypher, but now looking more relaxed. Her dark red gi appeared less threatening. “You may consider me your assistant.”
He looked away, contemplating what would happen in the next few days or even weeks. He’d have to give it his all for this assignment. A bold new world for the Striders might be coming, and he was on his way out. Ah, well. He’d already had his share of triumphs and losses, miraculous survivals and shattering heartaches. This was going to be his last mission, and what better way to end than with possibly the best there ever existed? Strider Hiryu—already a legend among their ranks before the young man even began his vocation.
“I need to get my things, we haven’t much time.” Without hesitation, he leapt off the building and landed silently into the dark alley below. Strider Vermillion followed just as noiselessly, two shadows moving among shadows.
“How should I address you?” Vermillion asked in a hushed voice. The young woman stalked beside him, barely making a sound. “In your own eyes, you don’t even consider yourself one of us anymore.”
The man pondered for a moment. “Just use my codename, at least for a little while longer. Hunter. That’s fine, isn’t it?”
Strider Vermillion’s eyes narrowed as they approached the open street. “Very well, Strider Hunter…at least for a little while longer. I will see you again soon.”
A light breeze against him in the driving rain. He turned to find young Vermillion gone, like a shadow vanquished by the light.
Overhead the skies remained gloomy and overcast. A few feet above, the downpour cascaded off the bar’s roof in a surging waterfall. Soon he was on the streets again, mingling with the rest of Neo Hong Kong’s people. In a single night, his world had transformed again. His former life could never be left behind, much like one could never leave the storm clouds behind. The dark-eyed man felt each droplet of water pelt the soaked fabric of his trench coat, striking him in harmless fashion one by one. In a way, they felt almost alive.
The rain never let up when he wanted it to. It never would.