Standoff

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Lying face down in the loose, sandy dirt, Aaron had given up on struggling. He moved only occasionally to blow dirt out of his nostrils, his mouth clamped firmly shut. What felt like a large, wide tread of a boot was planted firmly in the middle of his broad back, and sterile gloved hands groped in the many pockets of his woolen jacket. Any moment now, they would find it...

The boot shifted, rolling a few vertebrae as its owner recoiled in shock. The gloves withdrew. “He's armed, sir.”

From several yards away, another voice spoke, rising above the drone of a large engine. Its words were tinny and hollow, as if spoken from the depths of a mask, yet still rumbled with authority. “Show me.”

A glove returned once more, gripping an oblong object gingerly and lifting it free from the folds of cloth. There was a rattle of flying mechanical parts and the snap of a large hand closing promptly around steel.

A series of clicks and pops followed, and the ratcheting of a sliding contraption. The hollow voice returned. “Compact, fully automatic...” a louder snap, “hydraulic compensation for firing kick. Interesting, and definitely the work of The Provider.” A creak of stressed leather, followed by the sound of a fumbling catch off to one side. “Do with it what you will. You,” the voice directed once more to the man on Aaron's back, and was met with a nervous flinch, “let me see his face.”

Aaron was hauled up by the collar, brought face to face with a wall of blinding light. To either side of him a pair of large electric fans whirred, their blades aimed towards the bright unknown. Clearly some kind of spotlight had been set up, and vaguely silhouetted in it stood three figures, one of grand and regal bearing flanked by a slender, graceful shape and a hulking mass. Grimacing against the white pain in his eyes, Aaron worked his tongue around the smooth, metal obstruction inside his teeth. He fought to keep his mouth shut, taking suffocatingly short breaths through his nose.

The regal figure stepped forward, addressing Aaron in the muted voice of the second speaker. “Mr. Falowe, why are you here? I know well by now that you have been sent by the Provider, no doubt on some fools errand with the aim of undoing me, but had I not warned you already? Did the display put on by Scourge,” (the hulking shadow shook with a dry rattle and the sliding of chains in recognition of its given name) “or the example I made of Mr. Grey's boat not show you what waits for those who deign to oppose me?” He paused, twirling his hand idly as a spot of impossible darkness, like a fragment of a black hole, sprang into being and danced between his fingers like a flame until it was snuffed by his snatching palm. “And yet you persist, and I find you here, precisely where you should never have come. What do you have to say for yourself, Aaron Falowe? What reason can you give for running so blindly to your death?”

Aaron refused to reply, keeping his lips locked together.

“Why, Mr. Falowe, Why?” the other continued to implore him. “Why would you not want to return to your old life, your six figure salary, your penthouse suite? You threw all of that away over a man you met at a conference. It wasn't even your conference, you didn't even give your own speech. Why would you give up everything to gain nothing? I want to know what The Provider has sent you to do. I want you to tell me.”

Once more, Aaron did not speak, but he thought. He thought of what had brought him to lie under the gaze of the spotlights. He thought of how it had all begun. He thought of the hotel room.





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