N'buli MacGregor took his seat in the third row of the theatre, exactly five minutes before the movie started. It was an average multiplex cinema on the edge of Dublin, but it would do. He’d bought the popcorn he didn’t really need and had a sudden craving for the grubs he used to find under trees as a child, before spooning the popcorn into his mouth happily.
He’d been looking forward to the movie for months and was off duty for the next two and a half hours after destroying an ancient IRA weapons cache earlier in the day. He wasn’t going to let work interfere with his day off. Nothing would make him move from this spot, a thought he instantly regretted, because of course something came along.
The cinema was empty, so N'buli instantly knew something was wrong when the girl with short blonde hair and a severe dark suit sat down right beside him.
'Shit, this isn’t fair,' he said, putting the popcorn aside, his appetite for the snack shattered. 'I was promised a day off. I haven’t had a day off in three years. I just want to se a movie.
'I’m sorry, Agent MacGregor,' said the girl in a faint Irish accent. 'But a situation has come up and they ne-'
N'buli interrupted her with a wave of his hand. 'A situation always comes up. That’s what they do. Surely somebody else can take it on.'
'Nobody as good as you.'
'Yeah, yeah. Flattery will get you everywhere, but it's still not fair,' said N'buli, still a little embarrassed by how much he sounded like a child. At his age. He stood up and dumped his popcorn in the girl’s lap. 'All right, but you have to sit here and watch the movie for me.'
'They need me to report back.'
'They needed you to tell me to come in. Job done. Now I need you to watch the rest of this film and then compose a written report on its merits and deficits, without resorting to any kind of plot spoiler. You will be judged on your spelling and grammar.'
'This is a perfect example of male entitlement, you know. Getting the woman to do all the real work.'
'Maybe, but I'm 119 years old. Cut an old man some fucking slack and bash out a report. It won't take long.'
The girl pouted. 'I was the second fastest typist at my high school.'
N'buli resisted the urge to kiss her on the cheek. They said it wasn't appropriate anymore, and he was trying to change with the times. 'Then you’ll be fine. Now. Where is my motherfucking helicopter?'
The motherfucking helicopter was waiting on the roof of the cinema complex, disguised as a medivac. The identical twin Agents from Pakistan - who N'buli kept getting mixed up, which made him feel even more old and racist - flew him from the complex to the nearest airport and he was in the air on an innocuous-looking cargo plane within 20 minutes.
Valentina and Dave were already waiting for him on the plane. She was on duty, but he’d been dragged away from a long-planned Call of Duty marathon and spent the entire flight sitting in the cockpit with Max, bitching about the last seven Star Wars films.
N'buli went over the briefing papers as Valentina stripped and cleaned her Bliss rifle for the third time on the flight. It was a typical operation – a senior Egyptian government minister had been kidnapped from his Luxor home, with all signs pointing towards a group of militant Egyptian women who operated further up the Nile.
As he read the file, N'buli saw the complicating factor. The girls had some legitimate grievances. The politician, a man named Aziz, was a depressingly conservative advocate for male dominance. He had twice been charged with beating his wife, but never convicted. He deserved to be put in his place.
But LOVE saw all the angles. The analysts in the forecasting division predicted a 93 percent chance of bloodshed if Aziz wasn’t rescued within two days. If he was killed, the backlash would be inevitable. Innocent people would suffer and N'buli’s job was to stop that.
He filed away the papers in his briefcase and moved to the back of the plane to change out of his double-breasted suit. He hoped he wouldn’t need the extra edge of the standard fight-suit he started putting on, but experience had taught him it was far, far better to be prepared. Just in case.
The fight-suit's design hadn't changed much since it had been introduced during LOVE's World War Two operations. Simple design gave him the most comfortable clothes in five temperature ranges, while stowing away enough gear to keep a man going for days. Recent developments in muscle augmentation had been incorporated into the suit and gave him a punch harder than Ali. It also allowed him to reach a top speed of just under fifty kays an hour, which was useful when he had to run away, very fast.
N'buli did not like using the suit's full offensive capabilities, mainly because he had to use them so often. He didn't mind all the defensive stuff, though.
Suited up, he returned to the front section, walking around the one small truck tied down in the middle of the otherwise empty interior. He had to grab onto the wall of the cargo plane as it began rattling through some turbulence. Even after decades of flight, N'buli didn’t like being in the air. He swallowed back the discomfort and headed for the front.
Max and Dave were still arguing and a little of N'buli’s soul died when he realised they were still arguing about the Star Wars prequels. It was a horribly familiar argument that N'buli had lost interest in a long time ago. He liked movies, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm of the other two men.
Even though N'buli didn’t enjoy flying, he knew he was safe with Max at the controls. The man might never shut up about the distinctive fight choreography of each individual Jedi, but he was LOVE’s best pilot, used for the most crucial of missions. Max had saved the lives of everybody on board the plane, on several occasions. His terrible taste in movies was acceptable after that.
'It’s all about the feint,' said Max. He frowned as he tapped one of the gauges, only to shrug it away. 'It’s the teamwork of two warriors who know each other backward, and know how it use that in combat to their full advantage.'
'I’ll give you that,' said Dave. He was chewing away at a chocolate bar, his one concession to nervousness before an operation. He’d already smeared some of it down his own fight-suit. 'But that doesn’t absolve Lucas of his storytelling responsibilities. You can’t have four differently themed climaxes going on simultaneously. It just looks busy and stupid.'
'Are you dense? His only responsibility is to himself, not some faceless audience. Really, Dave. Your sense of entitlement is crowding me out of this cockpit.'
N'buli cleared his throat loudly and Dave nearly jumped out his seat.
'Jesus, mate. I’m going to paint you with whiteout. I can never see you coming.'
'Quiet, you dumbass cracker. You'll never see me coming,' said Nbuli, before turning to Max. 'ETA?'
'Half an hour. The new sleeve-sheet coating has us going a little over Mach 7. Not bad for a plane built when my Dad was still in diapers.'
'Why update when quality lasts this long?' said Dave, but nobody picked up on his sarcasm.
'All right,' said N'buli. 'I'm going to try and get 20 minutes sleep before we go in. Wake me when we're over the desert.'
'So, what's the plan, boss?' asked Dave.
'Standard. Max can drop us off outside town, and he can wait for us while we do the real work.'
'Hey!' said Max.
N'buli ignored him. 'Forecasting gives us a two-thirds chance the girls who've taken the minister are holed up in a building in a small settlement just outside Luxor. Val will cover us as usual from across the street and we'll go in and see what's what. We'll only have a couple of hours before the shit really hits the fan, so we'll have to get it sorted out as soon as possible. Okay?'
'So we're winging it as usual.'
N'buli nodded. 'I said it was a standard op. Best scenario, we get the politician out of there without anybody noticing, get him out to the plane and in the air before anything goes crazy.'
'Oh sure,' said Max. 'It's not real work until you need someone to come in and haul your arse out of the fire, is it?'
'It's not real work if you're not shooting anybody, Max,' said Dave.
'It's not real shooting if you're not using proper guns, Dave,' said Max.
N'buli left them to it, leaving the cockpit without another word, determined to get some rest while he still had the chance.
Max and Dave sat in silence for several minutes, before the pilot spoke up again. 'Is that why you need just one narrative thread? Is it because this shit can get complicated enough as it is?'
Dave closed his eyes and started thinking about video game strategies. 'Shut up and fly the fucking plane.'
'I hate Egypt,' moaned Dave as he got out of the van. 'Twenty minutes in country and I've already got sand all the way up my crack. How does it do that?'
Valentina and N'buli both ignored his moaning as they got their gear out of the van and locked it up, leaving it in the darkest side alley they could find. It was just after one in the morning, local time, and the small town they had arrived in appeared completely silent.
The target building was further down the block and they moved off towards it. Dave was about to launch into a rant over the North African diet when he saw the look on N'buli's face. It strongly suggested it was time to keep his fucking mouth shut.
Hugging the walls of the small dwellings around them, they stealthily made their way down the street. Several stray cats were the only witnesses to their passing. Within seconds, they were opposite the target building.
Valentina knew what was expected of her. Without a word, she moved into the building covering the front of their target. It was a half-finished, three-storey apartment building, with plenty of cover. She was up on the third floor in moments and had her tranq rifle ready in seconds.
She tapped the comms wire twice, activating it. 'Good to go. If this isn't the place we're looking for, it's still something interesting. Place is barricaded, but there is a front door, which is never a good idea. You could try roof access. You've got two sentries up there.'
N'buli looked up at the building, but saw nothing. 'Are the sentries women?'
'They're wearing heavy clothing, but they hold their guns like girls. You've got a fire escape on the north side. Do you want to go in from the roof?'
'Yeah, drop the guards and we'll set off the datablitz.'
'Understood,' said Valentina. She fired twice and saw the figures on the roof slump forward. Her Bliss rifle carried three kinds of sedative, but this was her favourite. It put the target down instantly and induced euphoric dreams. Val sometimes shot herself for fun, or when she couldn't sleep. 'Done.'
'Blitz it, Dave,' said N'buli.
Dave nodded and hit seven buttons on his phone, setting off the datablitz. The sub-sonic neurowave shut down all electronic security within three blocks. Any cameras, alarms or electronic locks were instantly shut down. It also meant every television in every house in the area would be irreparably damaged, but Dave knew a consignment of brand new HD televisions had already been ordered for the settlement.
'Go,' said N'buli. He didn't wait for Dave, sprinting across the street and swinging his long legs up the fire escape. He was on the roof without making a sound and was pleased to see Dave had kept up with him.
They silently crept across the roof, heading towards a skylight in the middle. The two guards were out and Dave heard one of them murmur something softly in French.
Reaching the centre of the roof, N'buli cautiously looked inside. There was a bright light shining up from within and definite movement, but the skylight had been deliberately smeared with dust and dirt, making it impossible to see inside.
Dave moved up beside him, only to stop suddenly. N'buli could feel him tense up from half a metre away.
Dave looked glum. 'I don't think this roof is going to hold.'
'When I stepped here, I felt something give under my foot. If I move, I might go right through the fucking roof.'
'Then don't move!'
'Gee, you think? Why don't I dance a ji-'
Dave vanished as the roof completely gave way beneath him. N'buli heard a crashing sound, followed by a moment of silence, and then a group of women began yelling very loudly. N'buli didn't hesitate and dived in through the hole after Dave, gun drawn.
He landed on his feet and instantly took in the situation. Dave had landed on a large table in the centre of a room that must have taken up most of the building. Surrounding the table were several dozen angry women who had been eating a meal when they had been rudely interrupted.
Dave sank to his knees and covered his head with his hands, wishing it all away.
N'buli stood up straight. He saw angry faces. He saw guns. He saw intention to use those guns.
'N'buli! Dave! What's happening?'
'Can't talk right now, Val,' said N'buli carefully and quietly. 'We're in a situation.'
He looked around the room and knew bloodshed was inevitable.
N'buli smiled. 'Ladies, apologies for the interruption,' he said in perfect Egyptian
Then he pointed his gun at his head and pulled the trigger.