Once inside the room, he disabled the cloaking device that had enabled him to slip past the hotel's security. He wouldn't need it here; by the time his target saw him, it would be too late.

While he waited, he surveyed his surroundings. Like every other hotel room in the galaxy, it had an air of worn-in anonymity that came from playing host to a succession of inhabitants, none of whom stayed longer than a few nights at a time. The segment of skyline visible through the window could have been part of any modern city on any planet in the Federation. Even the mission was routine, one he had carried out many times before with only minor variations: the elimination of a double agent who had become more liability than asset. In spite of the risk involved, the Federation knowingly contracted with such individuals all the time. Ziggurat 8's job was to take care of the fine print.

He blinked, shifting out of ordinary vision into enhanced mode. Now the furnishings appeared red-lit under a mesh of projected data, faint traces of recent activity hovering over the grid like an afterimage. Life signs pulsed within his range, revealing activity behind the walls, the movements of other inhabitants in other rooms.

He sensed the approach of his target and was prepared long before the door opened. It closed behind a man he had seen only in the holograms from his briefing--unassuming, virtually nondescript, with the fastidious look of a government bureaucrat and a furtiveness about the eyes that suggested a different profession altogether. The target stared at him for a moment without comprehension, swore, staggered backwards, checked his fall against the door and propped himself upright, one hand groping blindly along the wall for the control panel.

"That won't open the door," said Ziggurat 8, his footfalls dulled by the carpet as he crossed the room. "The lock has been reprogrammed. There is no other exit."

The target swore again, under his breath. His vital signs were racing off the charts, but he forced a grimace. "Well, well, what a nasty surprise. I thought they'd at least send me a live one after all I've done for them, but I guess I don't rate after all. Kind of insulting to be killed by a motorized corpse, don't you think?" The man's voice rose sharply, wheedling, betraying his fear. His gaze darted around the room and came to rest on the blade hilt that protruded from Ziggurat 8's left forearm. "At least tell me who sent you. I deserve that much. I want to know who sold me out."

Ziggurat 8 moved closer, another muffled step. "I'm here on orders from the Federation Government. They've been monitoring your illegal activities since the Miltian Conflict. I'm afraid that's all I'm authorized to tell you."

The target nodded, swallowed with pained effort. "So they finally decided I've outlived my usefulness. It's about damned time."

Ziggurat 8 said nothing. By now even an ordinary human would have noticed the terror straining through the other man's defiance, and with his sensory enhancements it might as well have been written in blazing letters a mile high. He had detected the same signature in the eyes of countless others, not only those he had killed but those he had been sent to protect or retrieve from danger. Their faces blurred together until he could no longer recall an individual among them, only the fear surfacing like a skull behind a hundred different masks.

Reduced to a primal caricature, the man cowering before him no longer resembled the pictures from his briefing, and it was that much easier to forget the rest. He knew the target was married, with daughters ages two and six, their existence briefly noted in the intelligence report along with details on the anti-Federation groups the man had been spying for. Someday, when they were old enough to understand, those girls would ask where their father had gone, why he had never come home from his "business trip," and someone would have to decide whether to tell them the truth.

"You'll get your turn, you know." The spy's voice wavered now, and he paused to wipe the corners of his mouth with a shaking hand. "I'm surprised they haven't retired you already. You look like you've been rusting away for decades." He laughed, an unconvincing rasp. "You're not the only type of equipment the government uses. We're all as good as dead once they decide they don't need us anymore. It's just a matter of how soon."

Again, Ziggurat 8 was silent. Another step closed the space between them, and he stared into a face stripped down to its barest expression, glaring defiantly back at him from the other side of death. He brought up his right arm and the other man flinched from the gesture, but Ziggurat 8 only rested his gloved hand lightly on the man's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said, controlling the urge to look away.

He carried out his orders quickly, efficiently. Per his instructions, he staged it to look like a suicide, leaving no sign of intervention. Tomorrow's headlines would carry the story of a traitor who pulled the gun on himself when he saw both sides closing in. It was an old story, and one he'd helped to fabricate so many times it had lost the sting of irony.

His contact from the government had arranged to meet him after the mission at a designated point downtown. Reactivating his cloaking device, he left the dead man's room, slipped out the hotel by the same way he'd entered, and merged invisibly with the pedestrian traffic on the thoroughfare. Under ordinary circumstances he never looked into their eyes. Now that he knew what to look for, he could always find it, buried under the sediment of lesser worries and mundane cares and distractions but always too close to the surface for his own comfort. He didn't want to be reminded of the line he had crossed when he became something other than human, when he began to long for what they feared. The crowd pushed past him on all sides, and he avoided their paths with practiced skill, unseeing and unseen: one more dead man among the living.

6 May 2010