Director Meyer awoke, instantly alert, any trace of sleep already gone from his mind. He sat bolt upright in bed, disorientated. His head pounded briefly with the after effects of overindulgence from the previous evening, before the pain receded to a dull throb somewhere between his eyes. Out of habit he groped briefly for his glasses before remembering, not for the first time, that he no longer needed them. He cast his eyes around the darkened space.
Moonlight pooled on the marble floor, a milky luminescence reflected around the room. It caught the pale shoulder of an anonymous girl, unconscious in the bed besides him, almost lost amongst the sheets and pillows and the black tresses of her own hair. One of Roux's girls, unless that had been the night before last. A few empty tox sacs littered the bed, and he brushed them away with a sweep of his hands.
The far reaches of his expansive chambers remained in formless shadow but for the dark wood of sumptuous furnishings that loomed out of it, solid and reassuring. Nothing stirred there. All was still except the curtains that rippled on the cool breeze that drifted in from the open balcony doors. His heartbeat slowly settled. What had disturbed him?
Meyer lay back down, willing himself back to sleep. It would not do to put off his scheduled appearance in the Conurbation again, and it was hard enough dealing with the horrible racket and stench of the place without also being tired and hungover. Meyer firmly believed that ordinary people, with their dumb, dead eyes, grasping hands and endless bovine moaning were a completely different species. They didn't deserve his time.
He screwed his eyes tight in frustration. Images of black-clad assassins skulked unbidden through his mind. He was being paranoid, he told himself - the new palace was a veritable fortress. The guards would apprehend anyone before they could even get within a kilometre of the place. But he couldn't shake the feeling of a foreign presence. A chill shock of fear coursed through him when he saw the man.
A tall figure hunched over the balustrade straightened himself and turned, heading inside, slender form briefly silhouetted against the curtain. Meyer’s heart was beating harder now - he was sure the intruder must hear it. He pulled the covers up and consciously tried to slow his breathing. The interloper padded softly into the room, but not in a way that would suggest caution - the gait sounded quite casual. Was this it? Was he about to die? He cringed in anticipation. But there was no gunshot, just a voice.
'Director.' He felt his body tense up as they addressed him. 'Director, get up,' the intruder repeated. There was something about that voice. He was sure he recognised it.
Meyer marshalled his reserves of courage and steadied his own voice. 'Lights,' he uttered, sitting up in bed. The lamp on the bedside table came on. He squinted as his eyes adjusted. A tall, gaunt man clad entirely in black stood at the end of his bed. Dark, watchful eyes regarded him coolly. 'Vash?'
'Good morning, Director.' Vash’s voice was slow and measured. It somehow managed to sound like the voice of someone much older than the fifty years his appearance suggested, old enough to make the Director Meyer feel suddenly young in comparison. It chilled him. The blind animal panic was replaced by a deeper sense of unease. The fact that Meyer recognised the man did nothing to settle his nerves. This man shouldn't be here, not now at this absurdly early hour. Not here alone in his private quarters without invitation.
'Vash,' he repeated again, more authoritatively than he felt, stalling for time. The man ignored him and busied himself by pulling a chair up, sitting and leaning forwards.
Meyer had always considered Vash disrespectful of authority, as though he followed the protocols simply because it cost him so little, because he cared so little for them. But this was something else, this was inexcusable.
A furious indignation welled up inside of him, even as his mind desperately cast around for options. There was a gun under his pillow, but that was a last resort - after all, despite the rejuvenation he was undergoing, Meyer was not a young man. It wouldn't do to panic. He had other failsafes in place.
'This is unexpected,' he finished at last. Those crucial three words would activate the mics and cameras installed around the room, waiting for his command. He'd always known there was a possibility that someone unauthorised might get in here, no matter how tight security was. You didn't last this long at this level through carelessness. An alarm would already be ringing in the control room. Any minute now the guards would burst in and arrest this man. The Director Meyer smiled thinly in spite of himself. Vash would suffer for this insolence, whatever his ultimate intentions were. Vash smiled back, folding his long limbs into the chair, like a spider drawing up its legs.
'I assume you have a good reason to break into my house like this and disturb me at this hour?' Meyer asked, struggling to keep the displeasure from his voice.
'Of course, Director,' Vash replied, and then simply stopped without any suggestion that he intended to explain himself further. As though he too was waiting for something. He was a fool if he was. Any minute now, the traitor’s life would be as good as over. The silence stretched between them.
It unsettled Meyer that Vash could sit here so calm. The longer he sat here, the more danger he was in, surely he must know that? Vash might have looked like an assassin, but his manner and the utterly ordinary cut of his coat and shirt suggested otherwise. He was a civil servant, not a killer. An ill-concieved coup attempt, then? A fit of madness?
'Well?' Meyer asked with as much nonchalance as he could muster, when the silence became unbearable.
'I've come to discuss the matter of your retirement,’ Vash said, simply.
'Now Vash, you know as well as I do that the position of Director is for life.' Meyer had regretted his choice of words as soon as he'd said them.
'And yet,' Vash mused, reaching into a pocket, 'there is a surprisingly quick turnover for the position, all things considered.' He drew a small, cheap looking gun and laid it carefully, pointedly, on the beds footboard. Meyer swallowed, his mouth dry. Where were the damn guards? He’d have them whipped for their heaven-damned incompetence. His mind turned again to his own weapon.
'You're here to kill me then,' the Director finished bluntly, as though disappointed. 'I'd almost convinced myself it wouldn't be something so base. But it would seem you're no different from the rest of us - my mistake for assuming so.' Meyer grimaced bitterly. ‘Men always struggle amongst themselves for power. Why pretend otherwise?’
The Director Meyer had never had a good handle on Vash. Indeed, it appeared nobody had. Where the records weren't absent, they were contradictory. He had no region of origin and no birth date. Normally this would have been cause for concern and the local authority or the Director Meyer himself, would have acted to ameliorate the concern.
But upon questioning Vash had never shown any sign of evasiveness. He had once fought for a resistance movement, he openly admitted, but upon the realisation that their cause was futile he had changed sides. Once part of Arco, the global government, he had risen quickly through the ranks as his superiors realised his utility. Above all else, Vash was a competent man. He was thorough and dedicated in a way that was almost more valuable than mere intelligence, another quality he had in abundance. Vash was a man who ensured that what needed to be done got done. It had saved him from the firing squad. It had spared him in purges and violent regime transitions. And now within the byzantine hierarchy of Arco, Vash was technically just one step beneath Meyer himself.
‘I'm not interested in power,’ Vash said slowly, as if Meyer were a small child. Meyer laughed back at him.
Vash had never shown the slightest glimmer of ambition as far as Meyer could remember, a trait he found reassuring in those beneath him. The problem was Vash also appeared utterly impossible to manipulate. He'd followed orders so far, but what about now? What about when the rules ceased to apply? All men had levers and pressure points, but Meyer was starting to suspect Vash was the exception to that universal law.
‘So what do you want?’ Meyer replied, eyes skirting over the expansive bed and towards the door. Where were his guards?
‘I would have thought my motives were completely transparent,’ Vash said.
Meyer reflected that a completely transparent object is also invisible. As far as he knew, Vash had not accrued any vices that might be used against him. The man had no family or friends that might be threatened as blackmail, nor desires that might be leveraged as bribes. Meyer had seen straight through him, without being able to glean any insight into what made him tick in the process. He had come to assume that Vash's governing drive was nothing more than the mental equivalent of inertia.
And now here he sat uninvited, in the palace's private quarters in the middle of the night with a gun. Clearly the Director Meyer had been mistaken about what this man was capable of. Panic once again threatened to overwhelm him. Minutes had passed - where were his security? He kept his expression blank, whilst in his head a voice screamed.
'They're not coming, Meyer.' The Director felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. How had Vash known?
'I'm sorry?' he asked.
'The guards. They're not coming. The code won't work. A burnpulse disabled the cameras in here.’
Calm, Meyer told himself. Think. Maybe, if he just shouted loud enough he could alert the guards? The door was soundproofed so he could ‘entertain guests’ in private. But he feared that would force Vash's hand. After all, for now Vash seemed quite content just to sit and talk, as though he had all the time in the world. Better to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to use the gun. Even if he missed, the sound of gunshots would alert those stationed in the corridor beyond. His palms were slick with sweat. Meyer wiped them on the bedclothes. The gun mustn't slip if he had a chance to grab it. Vash was still talking,
' -and your mistake, Director, your mistake was in thinking that we are all as motivated by a desire for power and wealth and infamy as you. You've forgotten what Arco is for, why the world government was created in the first place - to keep as many alive as possible, at as high a standard of living as possible for the duration of the - '
'Then why did you ever oppose Arco if you think its aims so just? Or do you deny that you were once a criminal subservice?' asked the Director. Just keep him talking…
Out of Vash's sight Meyer’s left hand fumbled under the pillow for the gun, finding the cold reassurance of its grip. He half glanced over as the girl in the bed stirred beside him. Perhaps he could use her as a distraction, get her between him and this madman? He suspected that even if Vash would shoot him the fool would balk at killing a random bystander.
'I thought there was another choice. I was wrong.' Vash stood, returning his own gun to a pocket and walking around to the far side of the sprawling bed, where the girl lay. He stooped, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and woke her. This was his chance, whilst Vash was distracted. Whilst she was between them. He could discipline the guards later. If he had to kill the traitors himself, he would.
The girl sat up, drawing a sheet around her, her huge mass of dark hair still tangled and reaching down to her hips. The Director Meyer seized his opportunity. In one practised motion he tore the revolver from beneath the pillow, swung it at Vash and the collateral damage, flicked off the safety and pulled the trigger repeatedly.
The weapon clicked uselessly in his hand. He looked down at the piece of inert metal incredulously, shocked that it could betray him. When Meyer looked back up, Vash was watching him, an almost indescribable expression on his face, sympathy and disgust. The girl glanced back at Meyer, grinning as she let the bullets run through her fingers onto the bed. The gleaming bullets snicked as they rolled and gathered in a fold in the bedclothes. The Director Meyer stared at them.
'You bitch,' he managed over a thick, dry tongue, but his heart wasn't in it. She stood up and crossed the room wordlessly. As she opened the door a guard slumped through, a dotbow bolt buried in his neck. The girl stepped lightly over the corpse and was gone, leaving the door ajar behind her, affording Meyer a view of the empty corridor beyond. A few faint shouts drifted in from downstairs, a distant crash. How had this happened? It was all over.
'...I'll give you anything,' Meyer felt his bowels start to relax and clenched, desperately. 'Anything. Anything. I can - '
‘I have grave doubts that you have anything material left to give me,’ Vash sighed. ‘It’s over, Meyer. I won't kill you. I just have one request; you can retire as Director. Resign. That's all I ask,' Vash said, settling back into his chair.
'They'll kill me - I'd be dead within the month - trodden on too many - on the way up I mean - no provisions for retirement process...' Director Meyer babbled. Vash let him finish, watching silently. Gradually the Director calmed himself. He swallowed and with a furiously shaking hand, finally let go of the useless gun.
'Our occupiers, those who command the Earth, I don't think they're evil,' Vash began. 'At least not the way we see it. Certainly capable of it, but no more than we ever were. Consider this - despite preemptively attacking they spared us. They didn't want all those deaths on their conscience. But the government they created was crude and it has allowed venal, greedy men like yourself to rise to positions of power. And in ensuring that we could pose no threat, they have left the Earth a carcass, picked over by vultures.'
Whilst Vash had been speaking the Director had steadied his nerves and fear had been replaced by an anger that boiled inside of him. How dare this… bureaucrat lecture him?
'You want me to step down...because of corruption?' Meyer asked, unable to stop himself. ‘I guess you're still opposed to the western campaigns as well. Are you some kind of idealist?’
Now it was Vash’s turn to laugh.
‘I’ve never been called that before, Meyer. But your waste and incompetence strains an already fragile system. We can only survive the duration of the occupation if we're careful - '
'Duration of the occupation?' the Director shouted incredulously.
‘It's been almost a century since the occupation began - I don't even remember the world before and neither do you, so don't give me that idealistic crap. That's your justification, what's your motivation? You're on a mission, right - to save us all from ourselves. You think anything you do can make a single bit of difference. Do you even think it matters the tiniest bit who rules the world? How could any amount of tedious political power matter when they,' he jerked his finger upwards to the blank marble ceiling, ‘own every last one of us like goddamned cattle?’
Vash paid no heed to the flecks of spittle flying from the Director Meyer's mouth, nor did he flinch as the Director lent forwards to yell in his face. Instead he sat there, quite still, head cocked to one side as though in deep thought. The Director continued, desperate for some response, a crack in this facade.
'You think you can do a better job, right? The people won't thank you for it - to them you're just another one of us, another puppet of those above, pulling the strings, another collaborator with blood on his hands! You might not kill but it's done in your name! You say you won't kill me, but you know I will die anyway.’
'If you won't resign then I'll have you arrested. I have all the evidence I need - '
'And I'll waste away in some frozen gulag, safely out of sight, or die en route at the hands of some thug.'
Vash didn't respond, his expression briefly troubled. And suddenly an idea came to Meyer. Vash was a man of his word - when he said he didn't want to kill he surely meant it. 'I would rather kill myself here and now,' Meyer finished, deliberately. He fumbled down for the gun, the bullets.
'Don't,' warned Vash, gesturing with his own weapon.
'I will force you to confront the consequences of your actions. And when you see me die, know that I am neither the first, nor the last that will die as a result of what you have chosen.' He reached again for the bullets.
'Stop,' Vash commanded, an edge to his voice. He aimed his gun at the Director.
'Do it, then,' the Director Meyer snarled. 'Show some agency, take responsibility!’
Vash let the hand holding the gun drop to his side. He walked over to the desk, his head turned away, his free hand tracing over the finely carved wood and the smooth plastic of an old, black telephone. Even in these dire circumstances a sense of impending victory surged through the Director Meyer.
He had at last gained the true measure of Vash; he was a man that defined himself by the responsibility he felt to always do the right thing, a compulsion so strong that it was almost instinctive.
And now it was in conflict with his utter inability to take a life, despite the knowledge that people had surely died before as a result of his actions, that thousands more would have done so had he succeeded here tonight. People hated cognitive dissonance, being forced to confront contradictions in their own deeply held convictions. Especially people like Vash, who deluded themselves into thinking they were on the side of right. Meyer could figure a way out of this - with Vash out the picture it would not be hard to get the Enforcers now pushing through the palace back on his side. This was a pragmatic age, and loyalty was a fleeting thing.
'What's your plan then, Vash? What can you do?' Meyer crowed. 'I'll make you an offer - leave now and take your men with you. I'll give you three days head start, for old times sake. And I'll name one of the conurbations after you, in honour of all the work you have done...'
The Director trailed off as Vash paused, turned, his eyes anguished, his face drawn. And at that moment the Director realised he'd never fully understood Vash at all, that there were yet deeper levels to the man, utterly inaccessible to him. He'd misjudged him for the last time.
Vash strode back over to the bed, his grip around the pistol tightening, his knuckles white. Meyer scrambled backwards, the luxurious bedding tangling around him, impeding him as he tried to get as far away from Vash as he could. He backed up against the ornate headboard, pressing himself against it. Vash levelled the weapon at Meyer's head.
The Director was pleading now, a pathetic old man on his hands and knees, grasping vaguely at Vash's free hand. 'Please,' his beseeching voice hoarse. 'I'll do anything, give you anything. But I can't leave this compound. They'll kill me. I don't want to die... What can I do to dissuade you?' He looked up at Vash, trying to meet the dark, ancient eyes above the barrel of the gun.
Vash looked down, drawing on a reserve of strength inside himself to meet the Director's searching eyes. 'You are a liar and a murderer and a condemned man in any case. Give me another choice,' he replied simply. And pulled the trigger.
The weapon leapt in Vash's hand, the gunshot deafening. Director Meyer jerked violently in response, and then slowly, as though he didn't quite dare to believe it, he opened his eyes. A hole marred the ornate headboard behind him.
'Wha - ' Meyer mouthed.
'Sir, any trouble?' came a voice from the door. Two armed Enforcers entered.
'No, we're done,' Vash replied. ‘Take him to a cell. We’ll do everything properly, by the book. But he’ll pay, eventually.’
The Enforcer nodded, looking discreetly around the room.
'Very good sir,’ then the other spoke.
‘He doesn’t deserve prison. He should die right now.’
'You coward... you total goddamned hypocrite’ murmured Meyer from the floor. Vash ignored him.
'No, it won’t do any good for our credibility. And it would be impossible to make Director Meyer suffer even a fraction of the suffering he has caused others, so what would be the point of retribution?'
'You sanctimonious bastard-' Meyer mumbled.
'Yes sir.' One of them loaded a tranquiliser, the other loosened a pair of cuffs from her belt.
'You can't wash your hands of this Vash, not forever!' raged Meyer. 'One day you will be forced to take a life yourself, and only then will you know the true cost of leadership!'
'I already do,' Vash replied. The Enforcer's gun hissed as the dart was fired and the Director fell silent. 'Goodnight, Meyer. I doubt we'll ever see each other again.'
The Enforcers marched over and dragged the unconscious body from the room without ceremony leaving Vash alone with his thoughts. A shadow of uncertainty passed over his face, but there was nobody there to see it. Those above would soon know the Director Meyer had been deposed, it was just a matter of time. But even though he expected it, when the phone at last rang he jumped.
He walked slowly over to the desk where the mundane, old fashioned telephone rang, filled with trepidation. He picked up, not saying anything, just listening to the wash of interference.
'It is done, Vash, yes?' it said at last. The voice was female, young. It almost startled him how human it sounded. But even through the tinny speakers of the phone, Vash could hear the inflection was somehow off. As though the speaker didn't really understand the noises it was making, forcing alien sounds through a maladapted physiology.
'Yes,' he replied.
'Good. Don't fail me Vash. Directors position is for life,’ said K’txl, the Iktotchi administrator of Earth. There was so much more Vash wanted to ask of it. But before he could say another word the line went dead.
He gathered himself, collected his overcoat from where he had draped it over the balustrade and made his way purposefully out of the gaudy fortified palace via the main doors to the courtyard where a vehicle waited for him. A patchwork of tiny single-person farms, grey internment blocks and gigantic conurbation arcologies stretched out before him, just another sector of the global prison that was the planet Earth.
‘Rip this mansion apart for spares,’ Vash ordered an Enforcer as he passed. 'Demolish whatever's left.’