The Grey Man

London.  2024.

  Jonothan Smith sat outside of Sotheby's in the rain.  He was a small man, not tall to begin with and shrunken with the years.  His black hair, greying, plain face lined with years and care, scarred around the jaw and left temple.
London had only got greyer over the years, the weather bleaching everything, fading colours, dirtying whites, permeating everything.  It stained skin, given long enough.
  Jonothan looked down at his hands, pale in the greylight.  Keeping the grey off his skin had been difficult.  He had washed them so many times there was no trace of pink.  Not even under his nails.  But people looked at you funny if you were grey.  Too many associations with the mutants.  Too many associations with the show trials and the mass executions.  Too many too's.
  He felt grey, though.  Had been grey for more than a decade.  He didn't know exactly how long.  Every time he tried to count his head spun and he ended up back in that hangar, watching the plasma-scarred Avenger touch down in a steaming wash of rain, the huge grey bulk still hot from re-entry, its boxy shape dented like a poorly-used toy.
  That grey feeling had descended with the Avenger's ramp, colouring his thoughts and emotions.  Washing around back there in his brain like stagnant water in a forgotten sink.  Sometimes he looked in the mirror and thought he saw his pale blue eyes bleaching to grey.  Then he would vomit, heave into the sink that sick grey feeling, until he was left empty.  Nothing ever replaced it.  Not anger, not despair, not love, not fear.
  The grey just filled him back up, usually before he could go back to bed.

  He came back to himself, sitting in the rain, dripping wet.  He sighed, checked his watch, tucked his hand back into his pocket.  Hurry up and wait.
  Memories brought a smile to his face for a change.  Stuck in the ready room, standing to like good little toy soldiers, playing cards, watching films.  Juarez presenting a porn flick, to enthusiastic cheers.  Keiko staring him down while a particularly enthusiastic scene unfolded on the widescreen.
  "I could do that for you." Jonothan flicked his eyes at the screen and saw her flush.
  "Oh?" She tried her best to keep up that inscrutable facade and failed, her cheeks bright pink.
  Jonothan nodded.  He'd never even spoken to her before, had always been too intimidated by her ice queen persona.
  "Alright."? She got up and he followed.
  They fucked in the closest room they could find, the armoury.  Smelling gun oil and steel, they stripped and bound each other in flesh, strong muscle lubricated with sweat, working hard to achieve their first clear goal in this stupid dirty war.  He remembered the shelf breaking as they both reached their peak, both came, shuddering under the pleasure of it, gouging and biting because they couldn't stand it, couldn't stand the pleasure and had to hurt each other.
  Keiko agreed to marry him two months later.  She was pregnant two months after that.  X-Com canned her.  She gave birth to Ryuhei Smith eight-and-a-half months after that, a tiny parcel of crying flesh, eyes so dark it reminded Jonothan of the bugs.   One year later, she re-entered X-Com as a squaddie.  It took her two years to get back to her previous rank, surpassing him by far.
  Jonothan didn't mind.  He loved her.

  He snapped back to the present again, checking his watch.  Still not time.  There were a few people stood about, waiting.  Not like him, though.  He was dressed in well-used clothes, shades of grey.  They were in flamboyant flaming reds and silken shimmering blues, spots of colour in the dull city.  Cars swished past, spraying rain, flinging it up from puddles, waves of it slicking across the pavement.
  None of the grey stained the brightly coloured people.  And he was already stained.
  They looked at him, now and again, flicking glances his way like he wasn't even worth an honest appraisal.  But their eyes slid off him.  He was grey, like the building behind him, like the rain, like the clouds in the overcast sky, like the smell and taste of the air.
  Camouflaged, he sat and daydreamed.

  Cities under attack.  Sydney, Geneva, Moscow, Edinburgh, Tokyo, Sarajevo, Berlin, Ottawa, Copenhagen, Athens, Jerusalem, Lima and more.  Many more.  Once a month, like clockwork.
  Tacnuking Beijing.  The Siege of New York.  Gassing the London Underground.  Burning the slums of Bangkok.  Horror after horror after horror.
  Impregnated children getting cut in half under machine gun fire.
  A hospital, firebombed, burning, patients spilling out of its windows.
  Gas-blind bugs crawling up out of tunnels, larvae-pale in the torchlight, getting head-jobbed by laughing squaddies.
  The silent dead of Everytown, sprawled in the streets, alien-fucked, burned, blown up, the ones that had faces screaming silent screams up at the sky, up at the squaddies stepping over them, their eyes blind to everything but targets.
  The bottom had fallen out of Jonothan's world when that Avenger had touched down.  Everyone else had celebrated the end of the war.  He had gone home, dead inside, waking up every day expecting to find the sprawling havoc of his base around him.
  But there was only quiet.
  Not a year after the end of the war, the mutant threat had surfaced.  Sectoid-human hybrids, living in the thickest urban congestion or the most remote wilderness.  They popped up everywhere, every continent, every city.  X-Com looked set to reform, and Jonothan had felt that greyness glimmer uncertainly.
  But no.  The mutants were no threat.  They were beggars and thieves, most unable to take direct sunlight, nocturnal by necessity, of smaller stature than humans.  Physically weaker, psi powers nothing but a myth, their hunting was pared down to dot-the-i's-and-cross-the-t's bullshit, superficial patrols by private security companies, with an occasional sweep by the military to calm public fury.
Those captured during the war had been executed, live on television, world-wide newscasts.  To show the aliens that mankind would not tolerate any dilution of its pure blood.
  Those captured after the war were executed, but quietly, if not secretly.  Hounding any minority for too long, too openly, always resulted in opposition.  The governments gave the bleeding hearts no grounds, this time.
  No crusade against the mutants.  X-Com was officially mothballed, given into the care of the UN.  The UN dropped the ball.  All of a sudden, it was a scramble to see who could grab what.  The US severed almost all ties with Europe in the resulting fracas.  Europe solidified, smug and secure.  Asia destabilised, throwing the international equivalent of a tantrum.  Africa descended into chaos, not one single country escaping revolution.
  And Jonothan Smith sat and felt grey.

  There were mutants beneath his feet, right now, in the suffocating dark of the London Underground.  Jonothan leaned forward, staring at the pavement between his worn boots.  X-Com issue.  He stamped a foot, experimentally.  The boot didn't fall apart.
  He leaned back, smiling, surprised at his own pleasure.  Made to last.  The smile disappeared off his face as if someone had just pushed an internal switch.
  Just like the gun under his coat.
  A Heckler and Koch Mk. 23, Model X.  Identical to the Model 0 apart from the X in the serial number.  X-Com issue only.
  Jonothan pulled his coat open, the velcro rasping tiredly, and glanced down.  He knew the serial number of his gun, but he liked to see it.  On the left side of the slide, 23-110X.
  Jonothan smiled, comforted.  He remembered Keiko's, as well.  23-109X.

  "Looks like our guns were meant to be together." She said, hosing down the slide of her 23 with an aerosol can of oil.
  Jonothan looked up from his book. "What?"
  Keiko tossed him the slide.  It landed on his chest, dripping oil.  He frowned, folding over the corner of a page and setting the book down.  He sat, picking the piece of metal up.  It was warm from her hands, slick with lubricant. "So?"
  She turned her almond eyes back to their disassembled pistols. "Check the serial number."
  He did, rotating it.  23-110X. "So?"
  She sighed, shaking her head, glossy black hair shaking like an ebony waterfall. "Here." Another slide, hers.
  He looked at it.  23-109X.
  "Ah." He held them out, in the palm of his hand.
  Keiko reached out without looking, grabbed his wrist and pulled him off the bed.  "Bitch" He hit and rolled, getting up.
  Keiko laughed, kicking the chair back, dropping the slides onto the desk. "What are you going to do about it, big man?"
  He lunged.

  Jonothan glanced sideways at one of the displays.  He glared at it until he felt sick.  Then he looked away.  He didn't want to vomit, that would get him noticed.  He didn't want to be noticed.  He wanted to get inside, unnoticed.  The security shouldn't pick up the gun, most scanners were set to look for laser weapons these days.
  He still had that book, The Catcher in the Rye, and that corner of that page was still folded over.  He wasn't a fast reader, but he liked books.  Keiko had envied him that.  Thousands upon thousands of hours spent in her quarters, reading, cleaning their weapons, making love, sleeping, away from the sly comments and stupid jokes.
  Juarez, grinning every time he saw them together, dark eyes flashing with laughter.  Tomasson, small and delicate, rumoured to be as deeply in love with Jonothan as he was with Keiko.  Offering him a nervous smile every time he passed.  Swann, the man heavy weapons were invented for, foul-mouthed and rude.  Patel, as well spoken as any British lord of the manor.  Fox, wiry and neurotic, that little tic twitching away under his eye.
  And so many others.
  Forgotten.  Each country set up their own monument to their fallen, civilians and military alike.  The X-Com troops who died got their name on the Clock.  To outsiders, that meant nothing.  To the 'Com, it meant everything.  But it had been years since anyone had laid flowers there.  And twice that since the anniversary had been anything more than an excuse to get drunk, dress up like aliens and party.
  It was like some sort of ghastly Halloween, a parody of the war, faux aliens flooding the streets with toy weapons and laughing screams.
  Looking at them made his trigger finger itch.

  In 2018, some scavenging genius thought up a use for old X-Com gear.
  They began to auction it off.
  It was a disreputable business at first, black market only.  Then eBay, because it wasn't actually illegal per se, the UN having dropped the ball not only once, but twice, passing on the chance to appropriate all X-Com property.
  Finally, the respectable auction houses recruited former X-Com personnel, got them to authenticate materiel and act as mouthpieces.
  No better way to honour the war.  Actively remember the fallen.  Own a piece of one of the greatest moments of human history.
  Jonothan had shot his television the first time he had seen an advert for it.  The .45 calibre slug had staved in the image of Juarez, one-eyed, greying, haggard, dressed in his X-Com kit, rifle slung, pistol on his hip, with some other vets he didn't recognise.
  Jonothan himself had received an offer.  He had slammed the phone down so hard it shattered.  His pension was meagre, but it was enough.  And he would rather die than whore out his past.
  He knew he was sitting on a small fortune, his pistol, X-Com issue ammunition, clothes, some smaller items of kit, a few keepsakes of alien tech.  Enough to make for a comfortable life.
  He would burn it rather than sell it.
  Sotheby's had marketed this as the most important X-Com auction ever.  The one and only chance to buy equipment from the most important mission X-Com had ever carried out.  Equipment that had come back from Mars.

  Sotheby's audio catalogue.  2024.  Excerpt as follows.
  "Lot number one-four-six, one forty-five calibre Heckler and Koch semiautomatic pistol.  Excellent condition, in perfect working order, slight plasma scarring around the grips.  Serial number two-three-one-zero-nine-X.  Personal sidearm of Captain Keiko Matsumara, commanding officer of Bravo team, Cydonia Mission."

  "Juarez?" Jonothan looked through the steam pouring off the Avenger. "Juarez"
  The swarthy trooper, thick with armour, clumped down the ramp.  He avoided Jonothan's gaze, walking off across the hangar, dripping onto the floor.
  There were few survivors, most of them he didn't recognise.  X-Com had recruited its best for the mission, from every base around the globe.  They walked past him, pale armour scorched and scraped, slump-shouldered as if they had been defeated.
  Keiko did not walk down that ramp.  She did not smile at him.  She did not enfold him in her arms and she did not kiss him, in that way that made him know she loved him.
  Someone put a hand on his shoulder.  Jonothan knew it was Juarez.
  Jonothan whirled, slamming Juarez's armoured limb aside.
  The world went grey and he began to cry.

  The crowd pushed forward as the door opened, chattering excitedly.  It was one large tapestry of beautiful flowing colour, shifting and changing restlessly.  Glowing fabrics folded and billowed as the morning wind picked up, howling down the channels between the buildings.
  There was only one spot free of colour, in the middle of the crowd.  Jonothan Smith, sweating with nerves, mouth dry, the grey feeling gone.  For longer than he could remember, he now had purpose.
  These people wanted a piece of the war.  He would give them a piece of the war.  They would learn the true price of the war, of the death of his wife, of this fucking obscenity they called an auction, they would learn it was more than they would ever voluntarily pay.  They would pay just as much as Keiko did.
  Prostituting honour, duty, service, love.  Jonothan moved into the auction house with the crowd, teeth clenched.  Selling it.  Like it meant nothing.
  He moved with them, through the tastefully decorated antechamber, to the auction room, and slipped into a seat at the back.  The heavy oak doors boomed shut.
  "Ladies and gentlemen." The auctioneer, distinguished, impeccably suited, smiling a dazzling smile.
  The true price of war?  Obscenity.
  Jonothan Smith drew his pistol.
  The only way to defeat obscenity was to meet it with one of your own.
  He stood up and started shooting.