Jason looks up at the volcano and it appears bigger than the last one. He gets out of his car and looks up at it, trying to find the wrap-around he’d saw earlier. Fortunately, it doesn’t take him much looking because he spots and unnatural protrusion of rock about twenty-five feet to his left. He looks into his car and realizes he neglected to burn the maps like he usually does, which is strange. He goes back and picks up the map. He takes out his lighter and. . .what’s this? He hesitates to burn it. Why? He’s done this hundreds, thousands, of times before and he’s always completed a mission with peak efficiency. His success rate is nearly one hundred percent! Why the hell is he hesitating?! This map has more info than what it’s showing, he thinks, better keep it close. He folds the map and places it in his inside pocket then heads toward the protrusion where the wrap-around begins.
Everything is fine while he goes up the path. His body is working with him, his eyes are as sharp as they usually are, the sweating has ceased, and the mask seems to be back in working order. . .until. . .
“What do you mean it’s not ready yet?!” A voice booms from nowhere.
Jason stops dead in his tracks and swiftly aligns himself along the wall. His heart is racing a hundred miles a minute but you’d never be able to tell from his poker face.
“We were supposed to have it done hours ago!” the same voice booms. Male, kind of raspy and sordid.
“Don’t blame me!” A female, nasally voice screams back, “I was trying to make sure we had everything, but noooo, you went and rushed me out the shop and you know how I hate being rushed!”
“Shut up, for God’s sakes woman, I’m trying to think!”
It gets quiet for a moment. Jason thinks if he ever told any female in his family to shut up, it’d be the last thing he ever did.
“Alright, I’ve got it!” The male voice says, “we’ll use these.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” The female says, “who in their right mind would wear something like that?” she adds. “Totally ridiculous!”
“Have any better ideas?” he asks.
“At least a hundred.”
“Any ideas that can be executed this century?”
The woman went silent.
“As I thought,” the male voice said with satisfaction, “now, help me make the final arrangements.”
While the two were preparing whatever it was they were preparing, Jason crept along the wrap-around in swift fashion. When he got to the midway point, he reached in his pocket and looked at the map once more, searching for any hidden messages. He checked the front and back then looked to see if he was being watched and aligned himself with the wall again. He didn’t like being out in the open, it made him feel naked and it was unprofessional given the nature of his career. He held the map up to whatever bit of sunlight he could catch (which wasn’t much given the smoke all but blotting out the sky) and found nothing. It seems this was just another map, like all the others he’s burned over the years, and he’s just wasted his time keeping sensitive info on him he’s not supposed to. Well, he figures now’s just as good a time as any to make up for the error so he takes out his lighter. Just as he’s about to burn the map. . .
“I wouldn’t if I were you.”
Jason’s head snaps in the direction the direction the voice came from. He puts the lighter and map away and draws his weapon in less than eight seconds and points it at the man.
“State your business.” He says coldly.
“I believe it is I that should be asking you that question,” He pauses, “Jason Maccavelli.”
“How do you know that name?” Jason asks with an expression of indifference.
“I know many things, “the man starts, “including what your mission is and the commanding officer who gave it to you.” He continues, “I also know the end result of your mission.” He gives Jason a sly look as he says this.
“That info’s outside of my clearance and doesn’t concern me.” His expression still indifferent. “State your business.”
“My business,” the man replies, “is you, Mr. Maccavelli.”
Jason doesn’t reply.
“My business is to impart to you something very important to your mission.” He starts. “By the way, my name is Ventril, as in ventriloquist, but not really. Just Ventril will suffice.” He goes on. “Anyway, I’d been told that when you arrived at my base, you’d have a map with you, though you usually burn them after every rendezvous.”
Jason still has his poker face on, but on the inside, he’s having second thoughts. He’s wondering how this man, Ventril, knows so much about him and his mission. Either this is part of some bigger plan that doesn’t concern him. . .or he’s been compromised (whenever Jason’s cover is blown, he kills the witnesses, or enemies, swiftly and disposes of the bodies in a humane and discreet way. Now, this doesn’t happen often, so his body count is on the low side, even for a Black Ops operative).
“You’re trying to distinguish whether you’ve been compromised.” Ventril says. “Your poker face may be good enough to fool regular folk, perhaps even some of the top lieutenants and generals, but not me. That look in your eye says it all. . .the look of doubt, hesitation. . .and fear.”
That did it.
Jason charges at Ventril and has him on the floor and puts the gun to his forehead, right between the eyes, in less than ten seconds. Ventril knows what he’s done. He knows how to get a reaction out of even the most stoic of operatives. The poker face and indifferent expression is his favorite to pick apart and break down, because it shows no matter how hard we all try, we’re still human. Still emotional and social creatures. Still vulnerable to influence. Still weak.
“Who do you work for?” Jason asks with indifference. “You have one chance and one chance only. Wrong answer gets a bullet in your head.”
“Are you su—”
Jason cocks the gun and presses it to Ventril’s forehead. He isn’t messing around. Not one bit.
“Does the name Cavanaugh ring a bell?” Ventril asks, his attitude cooler than the box of pizza in your freezer. “One of your former commanding officers.”
“Yes, do you know what happened to him?” Ventril developing a steely look in his eye.
“Info’s above my clearance.” Jason replies.
“Not today.” Ventril says. “Today, you get an all-access pass, because you have the map.”
“What’s the map have to do with it?”
“Use your brain, Maccavelli.” Ventril says. “Trace everything until now. Why didn’t you throw away the map? Why did you hesitate to kill me as soon as you thought you were compromised? Why was your first target a diamond in the rim of an active volcano? And, the most important question of all, why do you feel a sense of dread you’ve never felt on any mission in your career?”
Jason removed the gun from Ventril’s forehead and rose, helping him up after. He didn’t spare Ventril because he was telling the truth (Jason figured that out already), he spared him, because if he held the gun to his head long enough, his hands would begin to shake, and Ventril would have the satisfaction of knowing he’d broken down one of the Black Ops top operatives and Jason couldn’t let that happen under any circumstances. Even though he’s on the tail end of his career, he’s still a professional.
“My business,” Ventril starts, “is to tell you your next directive and your real mission.”
Jason examines Ventril and determines what he says is true. He stands at attention.
“Your mission, Ventril pauses and looks Jason right in the eye, “is to find Cavanaugh. An make sure he reports to the Castle at the Cracked Sea by 1900 tonight.”
Ventril goes into his base and comes back out with a suit zipped in black plastic. He hands it to Jason.
“Cavanaugh is the best man to Lisa Pratt’s wedding.” Ventril starts. “I’m sure Lisa Pratt’s informed you of the wedding?”
“Anyway, Cavanaugh was on a mission, just like you, out by the Arctic Circle.” He continues. “However, he’s been compromised by fatigue and injury, and he’s stranded. Headquarters can’t spare anybody at the moment so they’ve ordered me to use you for the search and rescue.”
“Affirmative.” Jason says as he takes out the map and hands it to Ventril.
Ventril takes out a lighter that doesn’t look like a lighter, more of a miniature flamethrower, and lights it under the map. A very thin layer of the map burns away to reveal another map underneath it. Once the layer completely burns away, he hands the map back to Jason. When Jason looks at it, it is no longer a map of Ventril’s base but a map of the Arctic Circle. His instincts had been right not to burn the map. It contained twice the information it appeared to have.
“What’s the ETA?” Jason asks.
“Just twenty-five miles northwest of here.”
“How much time do I have?”
“All the time until 1900 tonight.”
Jason takes out his lighter and burns the map, and this time he’s sure on himself, the map has given all the info it has to offer and takes off.
When he gets to the base of the wrap-around and looks to his car, he sees there’s something else inside. Another cylindrical container. He goes up and opens the back door to put the suit in and closes it, then opens the front door and throws his pack in back. He gets in and opens the container and looks at the map. This map, however, pinpoints the exact location of Cavanaugh, somewhere in the mountain about seven thousand feet. Jason memorizes the map and does a quick estimate of how much time it would take (he didn’t get round missions often, it was always one and done. When he did get round missions, he had to calculate how much time it took to complete or else it’d bother him all day, and seeing how eventful his day has been. . .he really wasn’t in the mood).
He started the engine, made the U-turn and drove off to the Arctic Circle.
Ventril watches Jason drive off and goes into his where his wife, Catharine, is sitting in the far right corner reading a magazine. Now, this magazine in particular is exclusive only to those who live between the Twin Volcanoes of the Cracked Sea (which means its name must remain secret), but, for the reader, let’s call it Twin Magazine.
Ventril walks over to his table where tools, contraptions, and unfinished projects lay splayed all over the place. He tries to remember exactly which one he was working on but it escapes him at the moment. Suddenly, from the far corner. . .
“Why did you send him for Cavanaugh?” Catharine asks. “You know Lisa couldn’t care less if he was there.”
“Because Mr. Maccavelli was well on his way to arriving early,” Ventril responds, “I needed to give him something to stall for time.” He continues. “I received a transmission from Mr. Stealth ordering me to stall him while the preparations were being made.”
“You think that mission will shave enough time?” Catharine asks as she flips the pages of Twin Magazine. “He’s a top operative, you know. And the most consistent when completing missions. His record is impressive.”
“Yes.” Ventril nods while trying to remember what he was working on. “Normally, that’d be an issue. But, with him being at the tail end of his career, and his body giving out on him, it’ll take him quite a bit of time to even get to the Arctic Circle, much less rescue Cavanaugh. Who, in fact, does need rescuing.”
“I suppose you’re right, dear.” Catharine says as she turns on the fan. Her red hair blowing sexily in its breeze. “And you were working on that grenade looking thing right there. That. . .egg thing.”
“Oh!” It finally hits Ventil. “My Dark-Thirty Magma Bomb!”
“If Jason gets injured because of this,” Catharine says, “Lisa’s going to have your ass for breaking her man.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine, dear!” Ventril says with a somewhat scary grin. “Rest assure!”
“You better hope so,” Catharine says flipping through her magazine, “you better hope.”
Lisa stands atop the castle, the wind blowing softly against her skin while the waves crash against the reef. The sun is high in the sky and the clouds are thin. The scarlet star burning with an aged intensity, as if trying to maintain its youthfulness. The sun shines bright but dim at the same time, as if its waning. Lisa looks on as the look of worry creeps over her face (it has already all but consumed her mind), she tries to fight it, but she can’t ignore the signs. The metaphor of the waning sun is too obvious for her to turn a blind eye to; she stands up straight, takes a deep breath and reasserts her will over her mind. Jason will be fine, she thinks, just fine.
Jason drives with a full and troubled mind. Thoughts that’d never concerned him in his career have suddenly risen to the surface, thoughts he’d been extremely and intensively trained not to have. His mind is working against him, putting things together he shouldn’t, asking questions above his clearance, having doubts about his ability to complete this last mission. He tries to reassert his will, but his body has started up again. His fingers and palms tightening, his arm growing stiff as control of the steering wheel becomes a struggle, and his shoulders. Goddamit, his shoulders. His left one especially feels like its been hit with Thor’s hammer. His vision gets blurry again, but this time it isn’t the heat that’s getting to him, it’s the transition. Every time Jason goes through a transition from one extreme climate to another, his body contracts. Badly. Everything feels like it’s being squeezed in a torture machine, like someone pumping Botox into you non-stop, tightening your skin until its about to rip from your bones. Usually, Jason is able to maintain his poker face through it and control the movements of his body so it look like all is well, but no this time. This time, the left side of his chest completely caves in on him.
He grunts in pain and he jerks the steering wheel left and quickly jerks it back and straightens it, regaining control. The sweat is racing from his temple despite the coldness he’s entering. He turns on the windshields as the snow begins to barrage his car. The left side of his body shakes as if hemorrhaging, he fights to remain in control but with the doubtful thoughts and a deteriorating body, it slips away from him the harder he tries. Regardless, he doesn’t stop. He can’t stop, because if he does. . .it would be the death of him.
Jason manages to get to the base of the mountain where Cavanaugh is stuck. Jason surmises Cavanaugh might be going through something similar to himself and that he should make his way to Cavanaugh before he freezes to death. Jason goes into the back seat and takes out his automatic harness then gets out of the car and puts it on. He pops the trunk, goes to it, and pulls out the extra one he brought with him (in case he needed to go on a rescue mission, like now). He closed the trunk and went back to the front and switched masks (the one he currently had on was getting sweaty and uncomfortable). He didn’t bother taking an extra for Cavanaugh, he’s well aware Cavanaugh is prepared for anything, he just can’t move because his body is giving him more shit than he can handle. Jason understands. He’s cracking under that same shit.
Jason finds a rocky point on the icy mountain and sets his harness. Out the hooks go and latch onto the mountain and begin to pull Jason up. If one saw the expression on his face now, they’d say he’s been married for at least thirty years and had been arguing with his wife for twenty-five. Yeah, he looks that worn out. The left side of his chest is loosening up as he ascends the mountain, when he reaches the first decent place to stand on, his right knee goes bye-bye and he kneels as if before a Greek God. FUCK!, Jason thinks as his neck muscles flex trying to hold in the pain. He turns and leans against the mountain, with the snow coming down like no one’s business, and breathes heavily. He tries to breath as he was taught in his training but it doesn’t seem to work. His body is tired, fatigued. Its been doing this shit for fourteen years and its clocking out whether Jason likes it or not, it doesn’t give a shit if it dies out here.
“What the fuck is going on?” Jason asks to no one. “I’m losing control.”
Suddenly, his radio starts to static. He manages to exert enough control over his right arm to reach for it and tune it to the incoming transmission. It’s Cavanaugh.
“Mayday, Mayday!” Cavanaugh says. “Black Fox down. Black Fox down. Requesting search and rescue. Mayday, Mayday! Black Fox down.”
Jason answers the transmission, “Silver Wolf responding. Estimated time for search and rescue fifteen minutes. Hang tight Black Fox.”
“Maccavelli?” Cavanaugh says. “That you, boy?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“I’ll be damned.” Cavanaugh chuckles. “They sent you for lil ole me, huh?”
“Isn’t this supposed to be your last mission?” Cavanaugh asks. “Figured they’d send someone else for a simple search and rescue.”
“Yeah,” Jason responds, “I was the closest one. I was just finishing up at the Twin Volcanoes.”
“Twin Volcanoes. . .” Cavanaugh thinks for a moment. “I see. You say your ETA’s fifteen?”
“Why so long, boy?” Cavanaugh asks. “Don’t tell me you slowed up over the years.”
“Not at all.” Jason says concealing his pain as he tries to stand. “I’m about sixty-five hundred feet below you.”
“For any normal operative it’d take fifteen to twenty, for a newbie about an hour and some change. But you’re far from normal.” Cavanaugh says then commands. “Be here in ten.”
Jason clicks off the radio and gets going.