He awoke to a painful flash of light, still groggy from the sedative. Stacks of meat wearing guns and tactical armor stood beside him, their faces obscured by thick wads of fabric. His hands were untied. The desk in front of him was as he had seen it last. Its loathed occupant was suited, sallow, and smiling. It set down the torch it was holding.
"Welcome back, agent."
"Your mission was a resounding success. My contacts are pleased."
"I murdered thirty-seven innocent people."
"Does that bother you?"
"…it's grossly inefficient."
"Such practices are acceptable in wartime."
He shook his head, trying to banish his drowsiness. "I'm not at war. You gave me - contract."
"We are at war; you are with us." It frowned. "Enough of this. There is work to be done."
"But the restaurant… I shot up. I bombed a fucking parade for you. None of that was in the deal."
"None of it was in our mandate. You simply utilized the methods that would get the job done, and admirably so."
It chuckled. "Admirably! Difficult to believe, is it? We look for bodies, and bodies you have provided. We require more. You will give them to us, and when we are done, you get to go home. That was the deal."
He felt ready to strangle the wretch. Instead, he controlled his tone, slurring as little as possible. "Then where am I going next?"
"The Horn of Africa. There is a petty dictatorship by the name of Kugal along the coastline of the Arabian sea; you are going to remove its leader by force."
He felt incredulous. "Regime change."
The creature's visage grew hard. "In a manner of speaking, yes. Do you find yourself wanting for such a task?"
"Will it bring me home?"
"Of course it will."
His fists hardened. "Then consider it finished."
His body melted away into darkness, as a syringe entered his neck.
Several decades earlier
His first night in the blood pit.
A friend guided him through the warehouse. Schoolchildren and ruffians loitered around it, smoking and muttering to one another. It was a cesspool - but the throbbing of his black eye urged him forward.
They reached a dimly lit, foreboding office, and were let in by a squat, wrinkly boy with a dark pistol grip emerging from his trousers. Two older boys, twins, were sharing a bottle of pale liquor as they discussed something in the hushed tones of a foreign language.
His ears were still ringing as his friend recounted the beating he had dealt out to the Italians, even as they had left him for dead. The pair then proceeded to poke and prod at his musculature. They asked him questions - had he ever killed a man? Yes. When? Years ago. Who, and why? He came up behind his father as his mother begged for mercy.
Often when the case workers ran upon that part, they would turn a distinct shade of green. But the twins merely nodded, and told the squat boy to close the door.
"What did you feel?"
He said what he always said. "Regret."
One of the twins chuckled, and spoke a phrase in Russian. "You do not lie well."
"I've never been good at it."
He nodded again. "That is good. It means you are still human."
They ignored the question. "What did you feel?"
He didn't need to think.
He woke up in a car.
A cluster of people maneuvered around his roadblock as his eyes struggled to adjust to the morning light. His surroundings were excessively claustrophobic; a dark, lengthy leather bag sat in the backseat. He'd see what was in it once he found a hotel.
He exited the sedan, opening himself to a cacophony of shouting and bicycle bells. It was a farmer's market; the rays of a 7:00 sun illuminated the colorful collection of buyers and sellers. Wading through the crowded plaza, he began to perceive a ramshackle collection of huts, guarded by a pack of begging children and a sweaty man relaxing with his Kalashnikov - a slum. Good enough, though he'd have trouble finding his way back to the vehicle.
He made his way into the sprawl, wandering past feral dogs, gang members, and prostitutes innumerable. After half an hour of searching, he found himself an isolated nook, something of a deserted religious site. A mound of gears, discarded software drivers, and assorted tools lay at the center of a field of unlit candles.
He cleared himself a space near the pile, unzipped the bag, and extracted its contents: his gun, a stack of currency, building plans, an iPhone, and field rations. It also yielded a pack of cigarettes and a zippo; he tossed the former onto the mechanical mountain and kept the lighter.
He checked his watch. Three hours of daylight left, and not a minute to waste. So he got to reading, hopeful the situation wouldn't be too bad.
Three hours later, he was beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed.
Among the plans he had received were a series of articles and documents detailing the socioeconomic characteristics of Kugal. He had read them all, and each of them donated a new nugget of unpleasantly unhelpful information.
The most prominent national language was a local iteration of Amharic, which he couldn't speak, understand, or write. The area surrounding the presidential palace was cordoned off by a contingent of soldiers armed with Western guns and trained by Western officers. The President himself rarely left his personal quarters, delegating administrative matters to his Western-educated prime minister. Whenever he did, he was guarded by a five-man commando squad armed with gut and machine guns. The palace was a walled compound built three centuries prior to the fact, surveyed by a crack cadre of counter-snipers.
He ran a hand through his hair. There was no version of this that did not end without him dead, or a large portion of the government's staff taking his place in hell.
He would do it. About that, there was no question. A man died in his home, and home was where he made his deathbed.
Who had said that?
He glanced over at his rifle.
One decade earlier
"Your weapon is your life," the Quartermaster had insisted. "You hear me? You will clean it, train with it, and sleep with it. It is your closest companion. There must be nothing on this Earth comparable to your level of base intimacy."
"Do you want to kill for a living, son?"
"It's what I'm good at."
He sighed. "That's not reason enough. That is never reason enough. You want to murder? You want to take lives?"
"I've been doing it for a decade."
"That shitshow Pavlov's boys ran? Out in the field, kid, you're not getting paid my upfront to take down some punk with a goth complex and then spend it all getting fucked up with your buddies. Buddies are the antithesis of the occupation. You sort out filth for filth, on your lonesome; that's the way it goes. You wanna live a life? You're in the wrong business."
"I don't want to live my life."
"Then what the fuck are you in my face for?"
His face scrunched up in regret. "Look kid, I'm sorry. The Russians - they're not easy partners. I've seen so many of you kids come through here, bright as day, and get wasted by some banger with a vendetta. It's just, you're in this deep, and you don't got any other options, right?"
"Then let's get started."
A group of soldiers rushed the president down a tall, gilded hallway.
"How far have they gotten?" He demanded on the way. "Is it the communists?
"We don't know who it is, sir. But they've breached the outer perimeter and are making their way further into the building."
They reached the panic room, discreetly camouflaged behind a 19th century original by Cristobal Rojas. His bodyguard entered a code into its keypad, and they ushered him in as a a tank shell shredded the exterior corridor.
The three-inch steel door closed behind him as another explosion caused the ground beneath them to shake. They were shrouded in darkness. One of the soldiers found a switch, illuminating the room with a series of blue screens. All of them displayed static.
Gunshots and screaming were heard as the president's men overturned a table and took up positions around the vault entrance. They leveled their Uzi submachine guns at the door, while their liegelord cowered behind his chief of security.
"I don't understand," he whispered, "I gave them what they wanted."
The lights flickered out, and the door blew open.
The sedan needed gas. As he pulled up to a rest stop alongside an empty highway, an older attendant drew up to his window, and the blood drained from his face.
Maybe he spoke Arabic. "I'd like a full tank. And somewhere to clean up."
"I will take care of it. There is a washroom upstairs."
"What is my charge?"
"None for you, friend."
"Nevertheless, I would pay."
The attendant looked around, as though he were complying with some illicit transaction. "Twenty dollars."
He handed him the stack of money. "Keep the change."
His eyes widened. "Might you be the messiah?"
"If anything, I am the devil."
He got out of the car and stalked towards the building. Once he got into the upstairs bathroom, he went to inspect his face in a mirror, and was surprised to meet with what appeared to be an alien.
Red-faced and covered in chalk, it observed him through a porthole in the wall. It put a hand on its chin, raised its eyebrows, and he realized that the monster he inspected was himself.
After washing the gore and ash from his skin, he returned to the station, thanked the attendant, and drove for miles. When he eventually reached a suitably empty grassland, he shut the car off and browsed through the cellphone they gave him, eventually finding a lone number hidden among the contacts. He dialed it and waited.
A toneless voice answered him, "We are receiving Dust. Be this news, accident, or injury?"
"I need to be picked up from work."
"Then come to these coordinates."
The operator rattled off a set of meaningless numbers.
"We'll be there at 8."
He relaxed in his seat and watched the setting sun shoot rays of light across the green, peaceful savanna.
As the hours passed, stars began twinkling overhead and the moon rose in the sky. When the wagon eventually rolled up, he was fast asleep.
A white, unmarked truck flattened the brush as it came to face the sedan. As his eyelids slid open, three armed men jumped out of the back and made their way over to his seat, weapons drawn. The leader, a massive, broad-shouldered man motioned for him to roll down his window.
He opened the door with his hands up, only to be pushed onto his knees, and he closed his eyes as the syringe granted him his escape.
"What's the status of your American asset?"
"His mission in the Horn went well. In the power vacuum we'll be able to consolidate our hold on the mines and oil fields and recruit directly from the military. Hassan was a good associate, but he was too paranoid. We're better off rid of him."
"Is he ready for deployment against Olympiad?"
"Possibly. He's certainly Jean's best acquisition thus far, and he's already done good work for us.
"Then notify the cell, and make preparations."
Once more, the cell.
The creature's smile stretched further as his eyes opened.
"Welcome back, agent."
"How are you feeling?"
A television was displaying his 'exploits' in the corner; he felt like he could vomit. "Fine," he said, meeting the creature's odious gaze. "That's good." It somehow managed to grin wider at the anticipation of delivering bad news, "We have stratagems to discuss, operations to plan - the crux of your purpose is upon us."
"I'm glad to hear it." He wanted to scream.
"Good." It ignored the obvious edge in his voice as it continued, "The activities that we have been preparing for you up until this point have merely been odd jobs when compared with what is to come. You will be going to Cairo next; there, you are going to eliminate one of our most stringent competitors."
"A man of import. He will be engaged in operations of his own; it is essential that you do not allow his plans to come to fruition."
"It'll be done."
The waking world faded out, in, and out again. The syringe left his body, and he returned to a world of softer echoes.
Three years ago
The one who would temper his sword in the boiling blood of a thousand Insurgents, the man who slaughtered three scores of children forged in battle, climbing to his apex atop a mountain of sullied and pulverized corpses, the beast set upon the enemies of Chaos, who would turn to face the unspeakable darkness and seek to ravage the atrocity that had offended him - for he was the one who they called 'Dust' - sat in an internet cafe drinking coffee.
England was on the verge of breaking away from the European Union, a fact that greatly intrigued him. As an American expatriate forced out of his niche by a federal manhunt, he tended to become absorbed in matters affecting his new place of business. He was deeply engrossed in an article about the aforementioned vote when he was approached by a tall, thin man in a woolen coat.
He spilled liquid over his copy of the Times. As he watched the caffeine and sugar sop the ink of its brilliance, the man pulled up a chair and studied his nonchalance with great interest.
Then he grinned.
"I suppose we can both agree that you're not from around here. Very homesick?"
He looked straight into the gaunt man's steely pupils, the memory of his former alias setting off an orchestra of long-repressed chords in his memory. "Acutely."
"Why don't we talk?"