She was really something special, everyone said so. It didn’t come easily for her and it wasn’t natural, either. Hours and days of dedicated practice melded into weeks and months of specialist training, and what little time she had left was spent in fending off wandering hands and deflecting crass sexual innuendo.
Tara had completed her military service honourably but with a lack of progression through the ranks; it was still a boys and their toys world. From there, she joined the force and began trying to work her way into a specialist position, which had only months ago become a reality. She was now a sharpshooter in an emergency response team.
Ben had also seen active service; more active than Tara had experienced, and he had come back haunted by it. Where she had remained focused, he had lost his sense of direction. Sure, he had a job, but it wasn’t a career. It was just a thing he did, that he was good at, but not something that fed his soul. A demolition expert, he had been charged with bringing down enemy strongholds and wiring their cars so that when the bad guys turned the ignition key they’d only be identifiable under a microscope. Back here he was lucky to have found well paid work setting up large format fireworks displays.
Their lives were passing each other in the night; a zombie relationship which was neither truly alive nor dead. They shared an occasional meal and even more occasional sex that had become nothing more than a physical release. They loved each other, but neither of them were certain they really liked each other anymore. Perhaps the relationship wasn’t terminal, but it was showing the stress fractures of modern life.
Ben became more withdrawn but there was no one there to notice it. He tried writing about it but his skills with the pen were not as mighty as they were with the sword. Everyone has secrets, mostly kept by choice, but it’s a special kind of hell when they’re kept because there’s no one to tell them to. He kept them stored inside his head, where they became more confused, convoluted, and depressing.
Tara had her own challenges. When you’re a woman in a man’s world you have to be twice as good to be treated half as well. Here in the 21st century, women like her were miscast and cast out by her sisters in the feminist movement. She had learned, through bitter experience, that to be cast out you simply needed to be in a professional that the sisters disapproved of. Between those men and women whose thinking was stuck in the last century but who thought they were modern adults, Tara was reduced to little more than eye candy for the former and a class enemy for the latter.
At the rifle range she set her own personal targets, which were much tighter and stricter than those she needed to keep her qualifications active. In the gym she strove, every single time, to improve her fitness; to be tougher, faster, more responsive, and with faster recovery time. Home and Ben were becoming unpleasant memories. Unpleasant? What was she thinking? Where had the fun times gone? The times when she couldn’t wait to see him, couldn’t wait to be home, and doing those things they loved doing together.
Slowly but ever so surely, the trap of life can make you believe what you had before was an illusion. It hit her suddenly, the knowing that what they spent in getting to ‘the future’ wasn’t worth the price they paid for it. Life can do that to you, if you’re not careful. She packed her things quickly, shoving sweaty clothes into a bag, and she made a beeline for home. Ben was worth saving.
The future is a place everyone wants to believe is a utopia, because not believing that can cast minds adrift and steal the pleasure of life. The future is a promise rarely kept, that keeps us wondering how what we did with the best of intentions brought us to a place removed from the enjoyment of them.
Ben was gone when Tara arrived home. Not just out, but gone, and the worst part of it was that there wasn’t one particular thing she could point to and say: “That was it, it was that moment”. She looked for signs of him, noting that most of what was missing was his presence. He hadn’t divided their things into his and hers, he hadn’t taken many things he could have, and those things he did take made little sense.
For the next few hours she tried to fool herself that he was just out somewhere. In the next few hours after that she grew angry at him and then sad for herself, but the next morning when she woke up fully clothed on the sofa, she felt resigned to the reality. The worst part of rejection comes when you realise you deserved it.
It had been a long time coming for Ben. Tara seemed to like rubbing his face in everything. He tried to explain that her motivation and drive didn’t make his wrong, but she was so focused on her career and her place in it that she had stopped listening. She had trained herself out of understanding. She had abandoned the reason for everything in the race to get to everything else.
Ben had had his own epiphany, of sorts. He felt a tiredness of spirit, as if he was slightly disconnected from himself. Without giving a reason he gave his notice, went home and put what he needed into a bag, and he walked out of his life. It was the first in a series of freeing experiences.
When the call came in Tara was on shift, highly motivated, and available. In the briefing room she, along with the rest of the team, were given the latest intelligence on a firebug who seemed to be escalating his hobby. What began as spot fires soon grew into small and targeted bombings. What made this case unusual was that the bomber was choosing buildings with no value and that were away and out of sight of any passers-by. An arsonist is usually motivated by revenge, money, or attention, but this one didn’t seem driven by anything other than the pure joy of the event. So said the profiler assigned to help make sense of everything.
“You have a different thought?” the profiler asked Tara, noticing she was smiling sardonically and shaking her head. “Sure do,” said Tara. “Target practice. This is all building to something bigger.” If she was wrong, Tara had just made a CLS – a career-limiting statement. After the meeting she heard the whispers about her and she chose to ignore them for now. Time would prove her right or wrong, and in pyromaniacal terms she’d know pretty soon.
All went quiet for a few days and then the report that vindicated her came in. The pyro had escalated it, and now there were casualties. “It’s him, alright. Triggering mechanism matches and so does the accelerant,” she said to herself, but loud enough for others to hear. In some quarters there’s nothing worse than being right. Her CLS had just become a CLM – a career-limiting move. She saw the looks and she was smart enough to know she’d just crossed the Rubicon and was now at the beginning of the end of her time here.
Twice her team was deployed, and twice it proved to be a false alarm. Then, right under their noses as they were standing down and reloading their assault vehicle, an explosion rocked the building behind them. “It’s hard not to take that personally,” she said when they were eventually cleared to return to base. She let that thought hang in the air. To take it further would only evoke mutterings of paranoia.
More than a month had passed since Ben had walked out on her, and given her knowledge of his background she admitted to herself, and then was ashamed of the thought, that the fires and subsequent escalation had begun right where he’d left off. Were they connected? How obliged was she to mention her … what? ‘Suspicion’ was too strong a word, and if she ventured into the realm of ‘intuition’ her demise would become supersonic. She couldn’t provide a reasonable motive so she decided to keep it to herself, for now.
In the event, ‘for now’ didn’t last much longer. A few days later her team were once again called out and this time it wasn’t a false alarm; it was an ambush. At least part of her theory had been right; this was personal. Her team were down everywhere as booby traps, very subtlety hidden, were tripped with alarming devastation. It was as if Pyro knew where they would run to, as if he’d thought it through and worked out the best escape routes, and the initial flash-bangs were just …
Oh, shit. The flash-bangs were just a diversion, designed to drive the team into the logical escape routes, where the real damage was waiting to greet them. Five men were down, oily flames licking around them, and the noise of the fire and explosions made communication difficult even through their throat mics.
“We’re being herded!” she yelled into her mic. “Don’t run from the flash-bangs!” Because there was no basic respect for her, she wasn’t listened to now, and another of her team members fell. Tara ran to intercept the other remaining team member, breaking a cardinal rule of engagement by putting herself out of position. She was now ‘in the wild’, and as backup muscle arrived it was a dangerous place to be.
The most powerful explosion yet knocked her off her feet, and her flak jacket saved her from the shards of death that hit it. She had multiple shrapnel wounds in her legs, arms, and face, but they weren’t catastrophic. Tara’s ears were ringing as she checked herself for damage. Had she not been out of position and down on the deck, she wouldn’t have been in the position to see him. It was Pyro. It was Ben.
She heard the sirens and knew backup had arrived. Now it was just a matter of holding the line and making sure no one out there would step into more bloodshed. A jagged movement in her peripheral vision called her attention to that spot. It was too far away to be Ben. “Shit, he’s getting help!” she called into her mic, unsure if it was working. A small black object sailing toward her brought her attention back to the moment, and in a heartbeat she understood that it was some sort of home-made grenade.
Scrabbling away, she made it as far as a strong beam before the explosion unleashed itself on where she had just been. Wild-eyed, she wondered why Ben was doing this, and then a calm stillness came over her. The reason didn’t matter. Responding to her training, she snaked cautiously away from the blast zone and looked for a safe, elevated position.
Ben was busy rewiring the charges available to him. This whole thing hadn’t gone as he’d expected it, and he’d be lucky to get out of it alive. The smoke was thick around him but bearable; he’d been in worse. Most of the specialists were down and, he suspected, dead. The charges had been laid in a complicated pattern, very similar to those he’d used in the war. His head had been full of confusion for months but now it was clear again. He knew exactly what he was doing, and what he needed to do.
Tara had found the elevation she needed but it left her more exposed than the textbook called for; she was still out of position. With the cavalry now here what she should have done was retreat and debrief, but events had superseded that and now she was here. Quartering the cluttered and smouldering space, she thought she saw Pyro, but it was a 4/10 visual evaluation and not enough to fire on. She swung her rifle into position, checked it, and got ready to take advantage of any opportunity that came her way.
Quartering again, this time with her gun in position, she saw Pyro once more, darting between boxes and aisles. Just as she drew a bead on him the whole area around him exploded and she saw him, or at least parts of him, flung high and wide.
Ben had seen him, and Ben had nailed him. He turned the game around and the best man won. When the confusion cleared he knew there was nothing he wanted more than to make it work for life with Tara. His final problem was that he didn’t know how to approach her. He didn’t think his heart could take a breaking, not from her, and so he followed her from afar until he worked it out.
He’d seen her team responding to a callout and he’d followed at a distance, mesmerised somehow but still unsure what would come next. Then the flames and explosions began and he knew enough to know they’d been gulled and had walked into an ambush. The false alarms had weakened their sharpness, and the perpetrator had counted on it. This whole thing was part of a canary trap, where the bird is drawn into ever-smaller cages until it has no room to move, no room to escape.
Ben went in, unseen and undetected, the team’s perimeter checks abandoned when the fun began. He read the blast patterns like a banker reads a balance sheet, and he picked his way through all the traps with ease and speed. He was too late to save those who’d already tripped the triggers, so he went to work on neutralising what he could and rewiring what he couldn’t. He took grim satisfaction in seeing his plan come together. The bomber was good, but he was better, and when he saw Tara scrabbling away to safety he knew they’d won. Just one more thing left to do. He stood up slowly, raising his arms as he did so. It would all be over soon.
Tara registered movement to her left, saw a head begin appearing from behind a large container, and she took the shot. His skull opened as her bullet took his life and he spun to the ground. It was over.