PlightBenitez, captain of the eight-man squad, broke down the infiltration plan one last time but Meli only half listened. They'd been through it twice back at Ol' Federal and twice since. He knew it front and back. The instructions were simple: two fireteams descended into the sub-lab from its north and south entrances and meet in the middle, subduing or restraining all inhabitants they encountered. The support squad would arrive at daybreak for interrogation and inventory, followed by deportation. Routine.

"Meli, take point for Alpha team," Benitez whispered. Point was the most exposed position, which was why Meli volunteered for it. His life was expendable. Without his Alessandra, he didn't care about anything anymore. He was a marionette, or rather an automaton, programmed to perform a specific set of tasks that he executed without contemplation, emotion, or regret. In this way he made himself useful.

His team pulled back the sod covering and pried open the sub-lab hatch. A small red light winked out from the depth of the hole. The men exchanged suspicious glances--an alarm?--but no one spoke. Without further pause Meli slipped over the rim.

This facility had the prototypical sub-lab design, one long corridor with rooms branching off on both sides. The layout made for easy access but equally easy defense. There was nowhere to hide. He had heard rumors that a whole squads had been baited down a hallway like this, only to cut down by machine gun turrets that dropped from the ceiling. True or not, it didn't matter now. Such thoughts were a distraction, not a part of his programming. Meli stalked forward in a crouch, navigating by touch and testing each door he found, all of which were locked fast.

He heard shouting and then gunfire from the far end of the corridor, flashes of light playing on the wall. Bravo team beat us to the action, Meli thought as Benitez ordered from behind him, "Double-time it, Meli. Move!"

Meli put his shoulder through an adjacent door and burst onto the firefight. Fifteen yards to his right, Bravo team hunched behind overturned lab tables, enduring a volley of gun fire from shadowed figures at the opposite end of the room. The attackers were lightly armed with pistols and one automatic weapon. Nothing a grenade or two couldn't fix.

With his Alpha teammates on his heels he crept forward, parallel to the firefight, when a figure stumbled into their path. In the dim light Meli saw it was a thin woman caught on the wrong side of the combat. The overhead fluorescent lights flickered as she faced them, her hand pressed to her bleeding forehead. "Alpha, hold fire," Benitez barked. Scientists were one of the commodities they were after. Meli stepped forward to seize her.

The woman saw him coming, her eyes wild behind protective classes, and for a millisecond Meli hesitated. From this distance and in this poor light, the woman bore an uncanny resemblance to his wife, with her tan skin and high cheekbones, and he had a sudden and unwelcome pang of remorse at how much of his life had fallen away.

That instant of distraction cost him. As his momentum carried his foot forward he felt and heard the unmistakable twang of a tripwire and wondered, in the eternal slow-motion moment that followed, if his dying thought would be of his wife and of regret.

A flash and the sound of breaking glass followed by a stinging sensation along his jaw. He touched with a trembling hand and saw a tiny glass phial fall from his neck to the floor. Another bounced off his palm. He had enough time to realize a third phial was protrucing from his wrist but a split second later those thoughts no longer mattered.