Thursday

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 5

((Cowritten by Ciarente. Part 4 or start at the beginning))

I poured myself a double, put it on my desk, and sat down. I stared at the amber liquid, watched it vanish a bit at a time.

It wasn't the blooders behind the box disappearing, or I'd be drip-drying. Instead, Dun wanted me to know he was on the hunt too.

Lucky break for me. The kinda luck I could do without having too often.


I checked my messages. Had one from Auvy: Gellique wasn't anyone's puppet, he really was just boring as a Caldari on a downer binge. Just a dock worker like a million others. Hell, he really did have a sickly mother in the Federation - round the clock care. It wasn't cheap.

More than he could afford, on the handful of ISK a month he was paid.

And then he ended up dead.


There were only a few ways a Gellique who didn't work for some bigger player would fit with what I knew. Like, maybe he was on the lookout for himself.

It took me a few hours, and a handful of favors, but I got a compartment number. I made a couple of calls, grabbed my stun-stick and the usual kit, and went for a walk.


The compartment number led me to an abandoned part of the station. The air had the slight metallic tang that comes from cycling through the scrubbers again and again without touching human lungs. The compartment door was big enough for industrial work. It wasn't locked.


The sounds: riveting, welding, grinding, hammering - echoed bizarrely inside, like the cackling of of one of the mad gods worshiped by the cults that infested the lower levels. Loud and disjointed. There was a short corridor, and then a sharp turn. Beyond that was the main room - a vast storage space.


My 500isk-a-day job was sitting in the middle of the room. About man-high, half as wide. Made out of some greyish metal - maybe the stuff Caldari are so fond of. Mostly featureless, aside from the small control panel and a viewport - both covered by panels.


Curved, triangular sections of something - a nuclear containment vessel, maybe - were piled nearby, like an out-sized drift of leaves. A half dozen figures were working to enshroud the box, fitting those pieces together around it, welding them in place.


Not a bad plan: it would hide whatever traces the Box's power plant threw off, and it wouldn't take much of a bribe to make sure no-one wanted to uncork a nuclear bottle.

One man was standing between me and the box, his back to me. Supervising. Even without seeing his face, I knew - the stance, the back of a recruitment-poster haircut, the smug look. Well, I couldn't see the look, but ISK to Syns he looked smug.

Bruve Ashte, of Ashte Security and Consulting. Sleazy rented shield for unwitting podders and general thug, and my employer Kaita's former local security contractor. The small fish that decided to try swallowing a shark. The man behind the shell company behind the shell company renting this place.


See, it'd probably all been Henri Gellique's idea. He had needed money, badly. With his primary employer - Kaita - leaving the station, he might not have even had enough to cover his own rent, much less pay for the care his mother needed. So he got desperate. Kaita might not have known that Ashte was a crook who happened to own a uniform, but Henri was a Syndicate lifer.

He went to Ashte, told him what the prize was, and offered to help for a piece of the action. Poor Henri must have thought it was perfect: he would have needed to deal with the security checkpoint at the hangar one way or another anyway; making them his only accomplices increased shares for everyone.

Ashte isn't the sort who likes sharing, though. Or maybe Ashte's plan was to frame the Blooders from the start - and Henri was a loose end.

So, Ashte offs him, and makes it messy.

Cue yours truly coming to talk with him, and he just has to point me at the blooders. He drives home the point - has some of his guys put on the face paint and try to shake me up.

Ashte just didn't count on Dun valuing his reputation enough to set me straight.

Ashte must have felt my eyes on his back. He turned and saw me. Smiled and walked closer. I sent a message on my neocom and got out my stun-stick.

"Thought you'd still be chasing Reds. Not that it matters." Gone was the terrified rent-a-cop I'd talked with in Ashte's office. He spoke with assurance - secure that he delayed me long enough, and that I had stupidly put myself in his power. That he knew the angles and had them covered. His next words confirmed it, "I hope you aren't counting on the good Sergeant coming with the cavalry. Eniver might be unreasonable, but his superiors are a different story. He's on a long assignment off the station."

He waved over some of his men, never getting close enough that I could take a swing at him. It was hard to tell, but I think one of them was the fake blooder.

They worked me over pretty good, but I took at least a couple of'em out of the fight before the others started practicing their dance steps on my ribs. Lost my stun-stick when I jabbed someone in the neck and one of them took a swing at my elbow with a length of pipe. I found myself curled up on the gound pretty quick after that.

Getting kicked in the head isn't generally a hilarious experience, but I couldn't help it anymore. I started laughing. Not the best thing to do, and with cracked ribs - but it just seemed so damn funny.

I was trying to cover my face - my nose's been broken plenty, I think it's got just the right touch of crookedness already - so I couldn't see Ashte, but I could hear him, "What's so damn funny, Tarva?"

His guys let off, so I rolled over, caught my breath, "Eniver isn't the one I called."

Speak of the demon. I heard noises behind me as I gracefully struggled into a sitting position. Saw Ashte and all his guys' sudden retreat. Managed to turn myself around, so I could see the door.

Aruvasa Dun, blooder high priest, looked a lot more natural in light body armor than brocade robes. In the flickering lashes of razor-edged shadow from welding torches and work lights, it looked a bit like his head was covered in black flames. That might have been the kicks to the old thinker again, though.

I couldn't afford to carry a pistol, and Ashte's crew had a couple of old local copies of Federation sporting rifles.

Every one of the couple dozen people with Dun was holding some kind of assault rifle. Looked like they knew how to use them, too. Two of them were in light powered armor.

Dun smiled, and he looked like something out of a nightmare. Not my nightmare, though.

I'd never been so happy to see blooders in my life, and I hope I'm never that happy to see them again.

I limped for the door. As I passed Dun he grinned wider and said, "I owe you Rordon."

I winced. Probably the cracked ribs. It didn't seem as funny anymore though.

I limped all the way back to my office, locked the door, washed a couple painkillers down with a lot of scotch, and went to bed.

In the morning I felt like a Nyx had fallen on me. I got a strong coffee and settled behind my desk before I noticed the box, sitting there in the middle of my office. Metal. 2m tall, by 1, by 1.

I mention the kicks to the head I took?

There was a note on my desk too. From Dun. It was sitting under the Stun-stick I'd left behind in that compartment:

Rordon,

Thanks for the help. I'm in your debt.

-Aravusa


Great.

I sent a message off to Kaita, let her know she could pick it up, along with a bill for the balance - in ISK.

I sent Dun a bill for 500 Syns for my services. Some debts I can do without holding onto.

I sent Auvy a message, asking her when she'd be free for that dinner.

Found myself at a rare loss as to what to do. Stared at the box a while.

Curiosity is an occupational hazard.

It took me a minute to find and open the view-port on the box, and I looked inside.

Grey eyes looked back at me with a surprised expression. Lighter than I remembered them, but maybe it was just the cold. The Kaita in the box looked innocent. Maybe that's why the Kaita that was paying me wanted her back.

Or maybe not. Podders... there are some things you're better off not knowing, not if you wanted to sleep through the night. My line of work, the stuff you're paid to find out about is bad enough. I snapped the view-port shut.


Kaita's people came and picked up the box, and paid in full.

Noone ever saw Bruve Ashte or a number of his associates on the station again.

Dun sent the money.

Someone anonymously set up a trust to make sure Henri Gellique's mother got the care she needed.

Dinner with Auvy was great, until it got interrupted, but that's a story for a different time.

Friday

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 4

((Part 3))

I had trouble focusing on anything but those squirming tattoos.

They moved, crawling around and across each-other like so many pointy ended, occasionally bifurcating caterpillars. It took me a minute to realize that wasn't just the pop to the head I'd taken; the tattoos were actually moving.

I blinked and things came into better focus. The face behind the caterpillars was young: late teens or early twenties, and a smile of nervous relief hung like a ghost of innocence on those lips. A Blooder smiling in relief is like an expression of vicious blood-lust on your grandmother: a bit off-putting. She spoke, brisk and businesslike, over the slightly worried tone, "Good, you're awake."

She gestured and I noticed track marks on her forearm. Old and still fading, like footprints in sand. Must'a quit before joining up - I'd heard that Dun didn't like his troops sampling the product, and they had a real short recovery program. 1 step, in fact.

I was lowered to the ground by a bulky guy with a nose like a cargo hook and a permanent sneer. He had a few less of the Rak' cavorting across his face, and a scar pulling down the corner of his left eye. He wasn't really the chatty type, I could tell right away.

He cut off my restraints and lifted me to my feet like a sack of beans with legs. Maybe I was still a little wobbly, but I was coming to my senses quick - waking up surrounded by blooders'll do that to you.

They escorted me through the small room's only door. It opened onto a wave of thick, fragrant smoke from dozens of hookahs. Low tables were scattered around, most of them crowded with people. I recognized the place, its quasi-Amarr trappings and its mix of Empire and Kingdom ex-pats and local-born Intaki: Kalorr's Delight. It was a bar and lounge with a good reputation among those who enjoyed a pipe, a drink, and ignorance about who the powers on the station were. For the rest of us, it was blooder central, and the back rooms enjoyed their own reputation.

Trackmarks and Hooknose hustled me through the mixed, sweet haze, conversation dipping as we went by and picking back up behind us, a wave of interrupted susurration tracking our progress. Maybe the normal clientele knew more than I credited them with. Then we were through one of those notorious doors to the back, down a short hallway, through another door, and there was the man himself.

Dun was somewhere in his fifties, Minmatar, mixed tribe. I've heard it said he is just a little more of everything than anyone should be, and that's maybe true. When he was put together, they added a bit of extra everywhere. He's huge, powerfully built, a good half meter taller than me, and I'm not a short guy. He's also ugly as the morning after a bender and charismatic as a - well, as a cult leader. The Rak were swimming across his face, atop the faded remains of gang and tribal tattoos.

The Rak'esme, the fearsome reputation for fanaticism, even the garishly ornate tent Dun wore as a robe - it was all just branding. The man leaning back in a throne-like chair across a wide, design-inlaid desk from me had seen the Blooders and he had seen potential. For money, for power. So, he threw on the robes, rose in the ranks, and made up some scary tattoos. Before Dun, Blooders were non-existent on the station as movers and shakers. Strictly small time. Now even the local Cartel is wary of them.

No doubt he had wielded the knife himself, any number of times, and splashed around in rivers of blood, but Dun was an ambitious businessman, not a fanatic. At least, that's what my gut told me, and I hoped I was right. My life depended on it.

Dun dismissed his lackeys and gestured to a chair, "Rordon, I have a problem."

His voice, his manner, invited confidence - even trust. Like a dear old friend just rediscovered, or a well liked boss. Maybe there's a reason I'm self-employed. I took a seat as he went on, "I understand that you've been asking questions about the followers of the Faith. That someone told you we stole something. Even that one of my people might have attacked you. I thought if we could sit down, we could clear up this little misunderstanding."

"Whacking a guy over the head and stringing him up doesn't say 'let's have a chat' to me, Dun."

"Regrettably, when I made it known that I would like to see you some of my people took it upon themselves to actually capture you. I will make sure that they understand their mistake. Something to drink?"

"Sure."

He might have been telling the truth about how I ended up hanging up-side down in his club, or the whole thing might have been an exercise in pointing out how I could have ended up. I don't think I'll ever know. The important thing was he didn't want me dead.

Unless he just hadn't decided yet.

He pressed a button and spiced wine was brought in, piping hot - and blood red, of course. Hell, it did do wonders for my headache.

After a minute or two, he went on, "I can tell you categorically that none of my people were involved in this. In fact, I'm more than a little unhappy with whoever it is that is sullying our reputation, and I would consider it a personal favor if you would let me know anything you find out." Tempting. In Syndicate, a personal favor meant a debt that would be paid. He smiled, looking like some huge, Gothic, late-Doule-era gargoyle dressed in a brocaded, silk robe, "If I want podder corpses, I can buy them. Again: sorry about the rough handling."

An obvious dismissal. As I stood, the door was opened by the girl with track marks who indicated I should follow her. Before I left, I turned back to the Blooder high priest, "Just a question, Dun. The Rak, they always move?"

Trackmarks looked bit shocked anyone would speak after being dismissed, but her boss took it in stride, "Yes. They represent the power that rests in our blood. If your blood is still, you're dead, aren't you?"

You sure are. It might be bullshit, but he managed to make it sound good. I headed back to the office.

I checked behind the door first thing. No one waiting to clobber me.

Thursday

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 3

((Part 2))

The next morning, my coffee was interrupted by Sergeant Eniver. He cruised into my office like a Dominix on afterburner: not quickly, but with a certain sense of implacability.

That wasn't where his similarity to a Dominix ended. Eniver was on the short side, but built big, with a face I'm not sure even a mother could love. Maybe he had more hair when he was younger, but these days the scattered survivors clung to the edges of his head; cut to short, gray bristles. Theoretically there was a neck to be found between his wide jaw and wide shoulders, but evidence was scant.

The Sergeant was also that rarest of creatures: a semi-competent, mostly honest cop. Easy to spot, because after 25 years on the force, he was still only a sergeant, and that's as high as he would ever go.

His eyes glittered, suspicious, "Wanna tell me where you were between 1000 and 1100 yesterday, Tarva?"

"In a hangar, one of the podder ones. There're visitor logs and witnesses, if you can get the podder to cough them up. Kaitane Ihonoka."

He chewed on that for a minute, "Client? And can you explain why you were in the compartment of one Henri Gellique?"

I faced away from him, pouring him a coffee, so he couldn't see my face as I answered, "Confidential, and I'm afraid I don't know anyone by that name." Never got the chance to know him, after all. I could tell Eniver didn't believe me, but you never admit anything. He was fishing. If he actually had evidence I was in that apartment, I'd have been in cuffs already.

"So it's just coincidence that we can place you near the scene on the day of the murder, and you're working for his employer?"

I tried on a surprised expression as I set a paper cup of coffee in front of him, "Murder? What happened?"

"He was killed, heart removed. You're tangled up in this, and the sooner you help me, the better I can help you." I wished he could help, as I sipped my coffee and he went on, "You remember anything, you give me a buzz. And don't be trying to leave the station, Tarva. I might want to chat more."

He drained his coffee and stumped out. I hoped he wouldn't be a problem. Worst came to worst, I could get his superiors to divert him somewhere else, Kaita could afford it. I would feel real bad about it though. Eniver was an alright guy, in his way.

I finished my coffee and caught up on message traffic: Bills, bills, a reminder about my rent, and mail from Auvy: No reports of large groups of cultists running around the station, according to her sources. About what I expected, but confirmation didn't hurt. Pieces of this case just didn't quite match up. Blooders, at least our blooders, weren't usually sloppy. Hell, no evidence they had been sloppy, except that half-assed attack on me. I felt like I was walking near a badly calibrated grav generator: off balance and annoyed. Well, something would come loose. It always did if you grabbed it by the collar and shook it long enough.

First stop was Kaita's hangar. It was that or find some blooders to hassle, and I wasn't ready to be an altar-jockey in a real short, real high stakes race just yet.

A couple hours later I had found out the following: Henri Gellique was a nice, average guy. Kept to himself, decent to have a couple rounds with after the shift, supported a sick mother back in the Fed. Couldn't seem to find anyone close to him though. Too average, like a ghost, hollow even before someone cored him like an apple. Did he belong to someone, maybe? One of Kaita's rivals or one of the criminal organizations? I made a note to have Auvy look into the financial records for me, see if there really was a mother in the Fed, or anything else and headed out of the hangar.

I nearly ran into my podder employer as I was leaving. She had traded a form fitting flight suit for a only slightly less form fitting mechanics jumpsuit, which was unzipped just to there. The artful smudge of grease on her cheek completed the picture, but I noticed the hangar staff nearby were still wary of her. So, a show for my benefit. Podders who got their hands dirty - out of the pod - remained a myth in my experience. I was touched that she cared what I thought of her. I think I might have ruined it with my first question, "Kaita. I was hoping to run into you. So, who's in the box?"

Her welcoming smile went cold as winter on Caldari Prime, "That isn't important. Just find it. I trust you are making progress Mr. Tarva? I'm afraid that corporate business will be taking me away from the station indefinitely soon, I can't delay over this."

I managed to keep the surprise off my face, "You're leaving? The hangar staff know that?"

She looked confused as to why I would even ask, anger disappearing as quickly as it had arrived, "My crew, of course, and the local hires... I would assume so. They would have been notified their last pay was coming. Does it matter?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Thanks for the chat. I'll let you know once some leads I've got firm up." There was something about Kaita that made me nervous, and not in a good-looking piece of work way. Well, not entirely. I made a dash for the exit before she could take back the initiative.

I finished up sending Auvy the new info I'd gotten, to see if she could make anything of it, right as I got back to my office.

I stepped through my door, something hit me in the back of the head, and I went out like someone flipped a switch.

When I woke up, my head felt like someone was having a neo-tribal concert in it, I was hanging upside-down, and a face dark with Rak'esme was floating in front of me. Smiling.

((Part 4))

Monday

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 2

((Part 1 Here, Co-authored by Ciarente))

As I showed my back to Kaita's hangar, my neocom buzzed. My government contact had some info for me and wanted a face-to-face. We arranged for a meet, later. First, I needed to have a talk with Bruve Ashte, 'CEO' of Ashte Security and Consulting.

I've heard on some planets they have big predatory fish - twenty, thirty, a hundred meters long, to hear some tell it. They are the biggest, baddest, meanest things where they live, and not an animal alive in those oceans would screw with them.

Swimming along behind those big fish, you've got little fish. They eat the scraps and enjoy the shade. Scavengers and hangers-on that live at the pleasure of creatures larger than they are. Maybe they even begin to believe the lie, that they are really under the protection of the monsters.

For the big fishes' part, I suspect the only time they notice the little fish is when they casually snap one up.

Bruve Ashte was, on his best day, one of those little fish. He was a small-time thug with pretensions toward grandeur. I didn't know the man well, but I knew the type. Slippery as a lawyer but not as bright. He hinted darkly at connections, sometimes in Venal, sometimes in Curse, but if he ever met a real Angel or 'Rista he'd probably need a clean pair of pants. The cleverest he ever got was bribing a few people to recommend his merry little band to incoming pilots for security.

Ashte ran his operation out of a low-rent office in a warehouse that had been illegally converted. 'Hiving' they called it. Just stacks of hexagonal containers linked with jury-rigged walkways, like a huge, dark, unusually fragrant beehive. I risked the climb - his office was well up the stack - and a sullen looking Sebbie kid buzzed me in.

The CEO himself was pacing nervously in the back room, drink in hand, when I walked in. He was powerfully built and blandly good looking, like a DED recruitment poster, a comforting stereotype for a security company. He stopped abruptly when he saw me and started babbling before I could even open my mouth, "Look, Tarva, you've gotta know, I didn't have a choice man. I mean, what could I have done? Guy like that shows up, offers to pay, you take it and go blind, right? You know me man, I can't mess with that kinda crowd."


I was expecting bluster and denials. I felt like I'd ordered the steak and gotten the vegetarian quiche instead. I held up my hands, "Whoa, whoa. Slow down. Guy like what? Just take it from the top."

He took a deep breath and a sip of booze, "Me and my boys were keeping an eye on that podder's hangar, like we was supposed to. Some guy with a face fulla' Rak' shows up with like, thirty hitters. Serious types. He offers me a tenth-kilo of crash, pure, if we find somewhere else to be for fifteen minutes. I took it and ran, man. Those freaks give me the creeps."

Rak'esme were facial tattoos favored by Blooders on-station. Their leadership claimed it was an ancient tradition, I suspected it was just a local affectation. They probably even made the name up, but Rak' were great for intimidation. Course, Ashte would have sold his mother to Blooders for a tenth-kilo of crash. I'd like to think if there were thirty Reds running around the station in a crowd, I'd hear about it. The rest might not be all bullshit though. Cult involvement would explain why he looked like he'd just seen the Void and she'd flipped him the bird.

Assuming there was a reason for Blooders to want the crate in the first place.

I worked on Ashte until it was past time for me to meet my government contact, and he didn't give me anything else. More like the Ashte I remembered, slippery as soap in a bath full of oil. I headed out, climbing back down past pimps' stables, black market pharmacies, and all the other Syndicate cottage industries. Hurrying by all that usual background noise. I was late for my meeting.

They hit me as I passed through the rat's warren of lean-tos and shanties that came about knee-high on the Hive. Two from behind, and one in front of me with black scrawls thick across his face and a curved knife in hand.

They showed their hand a little early though. I dashed toward the guy in front of me. He slashed wildly, and I grabbed his wrist while he was off-balance and used my momentum to smack him into a bulkhead face-first with a crunch like a walnut being cracked underwater, then I was off running again.

I managed to stumble out of the labyrinth of do-it-yourself shacks fifteen minutes later, and I headed for a section of the station I knew better. I kept an eye out, but there was no sign I was being tailed. I was now really late to my meeting, but I took the long way round, just in case.

My contact was named Auvergne Zarafa. You might wonder: how do you end up with a name like Auvergne Zarafa?

Couldn't tell it by looking at her, but she was Amarr, blood so pure that slavers would lick the ground she walked on. Her family fled the Empire before she was born for reasons they'd never wanted to talk about, and settled here. Her father wanted a 'Gallente sounding' name for her, so he picked one he had heard in a holo. I was a friend of the family after my folks and her folks helped each-other out, which is a whole other story, before I left to find my fortune and all that garbage. Auvy had been a gangling, cute-as-a-button ten year old when I left. By the time I got back she was all grown up, and had a job in the station's admin section.

I skidded to a stop and straightened my coat, taking a couple deep breaths (to make it clear I had not been sprinting to get to the meeting) before walking around the corner and approaching a certain cafe situated at the edge of a huge, open marketplace.

Auvy had already arrived, and was watching the swirling human tide of the market. She smiled and waved when she saw me, all in shades of yellow and cream and white. Hair so blonde it was almost silver brushing the shoulders of her pale yellow jacket, all of it in the latest Crystal Boulevard style, although if I knew Auvy, at nowhere near Crystal Boulevard prices. She looked as sparkling and fresh as a glass of the Guaranteed 100% Planetary Pure water they served in the kind of fancy restaurant I couldn't afford to take her to.

Or, if you knew her, as clear and sharp as a tumbler of Pator vodka.

The designer knock-off jacket might be buttoned over what I'd been surprised to notice, when I came back home to Syndicate, were curves that had a certain graceful economy, and she might have only missed being 'pretty' by a knife's edge, but it was the edge of the kind of knife made for carrying up a sleeve and slipping in between somebody's ribs.

The kind of knife you see in certain shops all around the cluster, guaranteed sharp for a life-time, stamped on the handle: "Caution: Product of Syndicate."

Just like Auvy was.

I saw there were already two cups of coffee on the table, and she nibbled on what looked to be a candied scorpion-on-a-stick as I made my way over through the crowd and sat. "Hey kiddo, what've you got for me?"

She sniffed, "Hardly even say hello? And here I am bringing you gifts."

"Don't count as gifts if I have to pay for them, and I sure pay." I put on a martyred expression.

Auvy threatened me with the candied scorpion, but couldn't keep a straight face, "Molok's balls Rory, you are full of it. Pretending you don't get off light."

I smiled and sipped my coffee, dark but sweet, "Well, maybe I do. I do appreciate it. This deal goes well, I'll buy you dinner, somewhere nice. Now, I need your help so I can afford it."

She raised an eyebrow but slid a folder across the table, "You didn't give me much to work with. Any idea how many 'Gelliques' there are on this station? Think I narrowed it down though, Henri Gellique, longshoreman, his address is in the folder. As for your body bin, no-can-do. If the station does have systems that could detect it, it's nothing I can get access too."

"Wait, what?"

"I said I can't get access, I'm an administrator, not a miracle worker."

I shook my head, "No, the other thing, body bin?"

She smiled, "Oh, you didn't know?" As if she didn't know damn well I didn't, "The box, I ran the stuff you sent me by a friend in the engineering section, he said it's a self-contained, cryogenic stasis unit. They call them 'body bins' because podders use them to store trophies."

This whole thing was beginning to make a nasty kinda sense. Podders are even worth something dead, after all. Particularly to Blooders.

I thanked Auvy and told her to say hello to her folks. And left a fifty on the table after she gave me a look. Like I said, Syndicate born and raised - I was lucky I got a discount. I left the market and headed for Gellique's address.

It was in a nicer, quiet part of the station, one of the blemishes in the otherwise familiar expanse of corruption; remarkable only for unusually clean corridors and a near lack of transients slumped in the alcoves and against the walls. No-one answered when I knocked at the door, so I entered the override code that Auvy had thoughtfully provided for me and slid into the place with a telescoping stun-baton at the ready - firearms costing more than my usual means in bribes. The smell hit as soon as I was inside. It smelled like blood and fear and worse things. A smell I recognized: violent death.

It was a single room and the place had been trashed. It looked like there'd been a cage match between exile addicts. Brownish splotches of dried blood were spattered here and there, among a mess of broken furniture and the detritus of Henri Gellique's life. The blood led to the closet sized bathroom, so I skirted the worst of the debris and carefully slid the door open with my stun-stick.

I recognized Henri Gellique from the picture in Auvy's file, even though he was hanging upside-down. He looked a little bit surprised, and very dead.

Someone had hung him by his feet from the light fixture with wire. He was shirtless, and there was a hole where his heart should have been. I got out a light and checked the floor. There was a ring underneath him, probably where there had been some kind of bucket to catch the blood. Quite a bit had gotten on the floor anyway, and the ring was smeared, as if the bucket had been pushed further into the room at some point. I took some pictures and left, making sure not to touch anything, trying to maintain good habits. Probably a wasted effort, since if the local cops had any forensics equipment that hadn't been hawked, it'd be able to detect I'd been there. Having to answer a few questions, or pay a couple of bribes, wasn't the foremost problem in my mind. I didn't like where this was pointing, not at all, even for podder money.

Dead men don't need cash, after all.

I made it back home - which happened to be the room behind my office - without any incident, and spent a long time in the scrubber before collapsing.

I dared Fortune and hoped tomorrow would be a better day.

That's me. Rordon Tarva: optimist.

((Part 3))

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 1

I was just minding my own business, leafing through a case file in my office, when trouble walked in and asked in a breathy voice, "You're Rordon Tarva? The detective?"

I knew she would be trouble. Maybe it was the curve of her lips, maybe it was the flight suit that fit a little too well. Who am I kidding, it was the podder implants. I stood and waved to a seat. Podder or not, a client's a client, and rent was due, "Call me Rory, Ms...?"

"Kaitane Ihonoka. You can call me Kaita." She sat with a nervous smile and a flip of her short, black hair. There wasn't any smile in those pretty gray eyes though, and I'd bet dirt against Exile that I'd never see nerves in them. Gray as a Raven's soul and dangerous, so much so I near missed what she said next, "I've been told you find things. Something of mine has disappeared."

I flipped open a notepad, "Can you describe the item?"

"A metal crate. Two meters tall, by one, by one. It has an on-board power source. It disappeared from my hangar floor. I have some diagrams."

She passed them over. Hardcopy, and there was pages of stuff. And lots of pages missing: The ones that showed the insides. For the rest, well, it was a metal box. I'm a simple guy, so I asked the obvious, "What's in it?"

"Nothing illegal." She laid it on thick, wide eyed, and even a little tremble around the mouth, "And I want it back badly Rory."

I wasn't falling for it. Not much, anyway. This is Syndicate, where "not illegal" means your bribes are all up to date. Still, a podder, she should be able to pay, "I'll look for the box for you. Now, I charge five hundred a day, plus expenses. Two days in advance is your deposit. That's whether I find it or not."

"The money is in your account." I thought she had been laying it on before, until she smiled. Cut through a man like a laser, that smile. "And if there is anything else I can do for you..."

I have rules, about relationships with clients and with people who give a bulk discount on massacres. Those kinda relationships get messy. So I got a few answers about dates, times, who might have access, things like that, scheduled a talk with her Hangar Chief and shooed her outta the office quick as I could.

The whole thing had gone colder than a priest's soul before she'd even got into my office, the box had been gone two days before she was desperate enough to bring in an outsider. I needed to get moving, but first thing's first. I brought out my neocom and checked my account balance. And nearly choked. She'd paid in isk, not syns - Syndicate Credits. I did a quick bit of math: With current exchange rate I could live like one of Quafe's pet senators for a year on that. Maybe even afford to hire a secretary.

Money like that, normally I'd say it stunk like three weeks on a shuttle full of cattle, but podders, right? She probably didn't even notice. That's what I told myself anyway. Money has a blinding charm all its own.

I squared things at the office and caught a ride down to Dockland. The bar nearest Kaita's hangar was a run down affair wedged into what was supposed to be the clear space between two internal bulkheads. If it had any kind of operating license, it was the cash-in-an-envelope sort, and the place didn't even have a name. Longshoremen who looked like they hardly needed help from a loader to move a few tons of ore around were lounging at rickety tables outside. I sidestepped as a man and a woman rolled out of the dimly lit interior. I'm not positive what they were doing, but the man spit out two teeth. I took the opportunity to slip inside.

The interior was crowded with a restless, shadowy mass of shapes. I pulled my coat a bit closer and tried to blend in, but I felt like the furrier in the slaver pen as I moved to the bar. The bar tender had a Caldari look to her, and seemed hard enough to do her own bouncing. I motioned her over and flashed fifty syns, "Anyone been showing a lotta credits round here lately? Last week or so? And a brew for me."

She pulled me a beer and gave me the usual: a hard look, a sneer, and a "Maybe."

I held out three fifties, "Got a name for me sweetheart?"

"For these, yeah, Gellique." She jerked her head at someone behind me, "And for calling me 'sweetheart,' this. You come back sometime honeycheeks."

I was grabbed from behind, and I got a look at the bouncer as I flew out the door. He looked like he might be a cargo loader. At least I didn't have to try the beer.

I dusted myself off to the laughter of the patrons at the tables outside, rallied my dignity like the Amarr at Atioth, and headed out. I sent a query to a friend in what passes as the station's government about the name 'Gellique' and whether the station's internals had a chance of detecting the power plant attached to the box.

It'd take a while for her to get back to me, so I set my sights on Kaita's hangar. I gave my authentication to her security there and got passed through. The guys manning the checkpoint looked tougher than the top shelf body armor they were wearing, and had a look I remembered from the days when I was drawing a corporate salary. Not amateurs, so how did someone sneak a man-sized box past them?

Well, that's why I was getting paid. I met Kaita's hangar chief, Oiman Mastako, in his office adjoining the main hangar. He had a face like a Veld 'roid: Lumpy, grayish, and begging for a laser hole. He radiated smugness like an antimatter charge radiated hurt. I wondered how well he knew someone named Gellique.

I took a seat without being asked and started right in. "Just got a couple questions for you. Tell me what happened."

He twisted his mouth like I walked in with a fedo conga line, but I knew my authorization from his boss was there flashing at him, "It was Tuesday, when myself and most of the rest of the regular hangar staff have the day off. We came back Wednesday, and the box was gone. There are no cameras or sensors on the hangar floor, for obvious reasons."

'Obvious' because a little run of the mill pilferage by hangar staff was nothing compared to creating a record of the things that transpire in your average podder's hangar, "What about security? The checkpoint on the way in didn't seem half-assed."

Mastako had the grace to look embarrassed at least, "Those are new, ex-Home Guard, mostly. At the time of the, um, incident we had contracted out to a local company. Ashte Security and Consulting. They came very highly recommended by the local contacts."

I'll bet they did. I knew of them. "And the box, you know what was in it?"

He hemmed and hawed and all I could get out of him was, "It's a bio-preservation unit, so something biological I guess."

Something 'biological.' Great. I pressed for a bit longer but didn't get anything useful until I was half out the door, "Last question, I wanted to talk to one of your guys..." I pretended to flip through my notes, "Gellique?"

His answer wasn't much of a surprise, "Henri Gellique hasn't shown up for work since Tuesday. You see him, tell him he's fired."

((Part 2))

Wednesday

Jungle

Where the hell did that come from? Amieta risked a quick glance at the clearing. Her last squadmate lay just a couple meters away, red still glistening on his chest. He had hardly made it a single step. The leaves and shadows opposite her seemed to rustle and laugh despite the lack of wind, that jumble of foliage taking on a sinister feel in the splotches of late morning light. Amieta restrained herself from firing into it wildly.

The battle had started off well, most of the enemy eliminated in the first few ferocious minutes of fighting, just their commander remaining unaccounted for. Then Amieta's people started getting picked off, one by one. Adazai, Tukaya, Mitohnen, until it was just her and Sidreke left. And now he's lying there in the clearing.

She leaned her head back against the tree she was using for cover. I'm not going to lose this thing. She half crouched and began moving, tree to tree, circling around the clearing. The open space was a half-oval, transected by a sheer cliff face, gray stone sweating in the humidity. Only one way for her opponent to go. No way was she getting dropped from behind.

The rain forest was new growth, the trees only ghosts of future majesty, the spaces between them full of brush, ferns, saplings, low branches and tangled vines. Amieta slipped through it all quietly, the stock of her weapon tight to her shoulder, scanning for any movement in the dappled jungle all around.

She heard a sound or felt a disturbance in the air on some primitive level, and instinct had her moving, twisting to aim upward. It was already too late. The sharp crack of impact, red droplets falling across her helmet's visor, and she was falling to her knees. She toppled backward, felt her helmet tumble away. The sun peeked at her from cracks in the canopy overhead, more yellow than the light she was used to.

There was a thump nearby, and her victorious enemy walked into view, the sunlight turning the woman's short, feathered hair into a halo as she stood over Amieta. Well below average height, female, Caldari, face solemn. Rifle, with a too-fat barrel, slung over one shoulder, her helmet under her arm. She spoke, "That fall was really dramatic. How'd you get your helmet to bounce away like that?"

"Didn't have it buckled. Too damn hot out here, I don't know how you aren't pouring with sweat, like a normal person." Amieta adopted an expression of mock outrage as she squinted up, "Can't believe I let you get the drop on me, and at your age too, Sara. I should just resign."

"Well, pick your disgraced ass up. Your team will be buying at the cantina, as I recall." The woman - Sarakai - offered her hand, pulling Amieta easily to her feet, "You should have checked the trees, you know I don't get that many chances to look down at the world. After most of my guys went down so fast, I was a little worried. They are mostly desk jockeys, but I had hoped they would take a couple of yours with them. You had Sidreke too, thought even just the two of you might have me."

"Yeah, I kinda thought we might have you too." Amieta shrugged as they walked back to where the hovercraft waited to return them to the resort, "Well, make sure you tell your people what a good job they did, taking all those paint rounds for you. Team building, remember? Can't get good toadies these days, you know you're supposed to lose to your superiors Sarakai."

Sarakai snorted, "Never been near good enough at that game."

Amieta chuckled with a shake of her head and spoke into her com, "Attention, fun's over. Everyone back to the pickup site, I'll be buying the booze when we get back. If you've got bruises, bother CMO Nari about it at your own risk. Everyone remember, water polo at 1600 in the large pool. That's all. Invelen out."

Tuesday

Mr. Popular

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

*****************

"All right," Amieta said grimly. "You know what to do. Let's hope this time we'll see the last of him."

Colonel Sarakai Voutelen nodded, and spoke into her com. “That’s a go on Operation safeguard. Repeat, safeguard is go.”

**********

1

Detective Rudaert Carlan surveyed the body. Male, average height, fair hair. Might have been Intaki looking, when he was alive. The detective sipped his coffee and released an annoyed sigh, "This is just what I need with a turf war going on. What have we got, Brere?"

The forensics tech looked up from where she was squatting next to the corpse. "Well, we're almost done here. Minor injuries, signs of a struggle. Then this," she indicated a jagged wound starting near the waist and stopping only slightly below the diaphragm. "Which would have been fatal, though it missed the major blood vessels. Very deep, a good sized combat knife, I think. Whoever did it was strong too. Strong enough they could probably bench press you."

Rudaert snorted, his impressive girth was a running joke in the force, "You said 'would have' been fatal? That didn't kill him?"

"That's the weird part. " Brere wrinkled her nose, "Seems like someone must have gotten impatient." She pressed down on the dead man's chest. "See that froth? He drowned. It gets better too, Rude."

She carefully turned the body until the back of the neck was visible. "How about that?"

The detective grunted, "Shit. A podder? Does Fortune hate me? Do we have an ID?"

"Yeah, it just came through, positive match. Jorion Roth. He was FIO."

"FIO?" Rudaert considered for a moment, then smiled, "Good, it's their problem. I'll give them a call and let them know about the steaming pile they are about to get handed. I love inter-agency cooperation."

**********

Sarakai stopped respectfully just inside the hatch to Amieta's private quarters, "Drop-off was successful. The authorities found the body a short time ago."

Amieta looked up from where she was adjusting one of her prosthetics, the fingers of that hand twitching rhythmically among a scattering of tools, "Good. That information should hit the cloning bank any minute now.” She frowned down at the twitching fingers, tightened a screw. “Just make sure that he isn't killed after they wake him up - Spirits know he isn't exactly Mr Popular. We may not get another chance, if he gets wise to it."

**********

2

Jorion Roth walked through the sparsely populated corridors, headed to the transportation terminal. Running a hand over his bald, new clone scalp, he brought up the time and date.
A month out of date. A month in which I died twice. And anyone who could tell me what happened ... He shivered slightly at the recollection of the holonews feed, the flattened buildings where the FIO office had been, the desperate efforts to contain the lethal virus ...

Roth kept a wary eye on his surroundings. He hadn't just died twice in the last month, after all. Someone killed him twice. Still, he wasn't excessively worried when he came to the police checkpoint. Four officers in full unpowered armor, mirrored face plates covering their expressions. The sergeant in charge, no helmet, looked bored, "Identification please."

He dug his ID out and handed it over, "Things with the State have gotten worse? I was just cloned, and..."

The officer smiled and handed back the ID as he interrupted Jorion, "I know."

'Police' grabbed him on either side, and he felt a cold pinch on his neck.


**********

Amieta leaned on the railing, looking down at the hanger, cigarette dangling from one matte metal hand. Sarakai cleared her throat politely, although she had no doubt her CO had heard her footsteps on the catwalk as she approached. "Everything is going smoothly, sir."

Amieta nodded and drew on the cigarette. "Time to give our pet Angel a call then."

**********

3

Two marine privates dropped Jorion none too gently, unconscious, in a heap at Commander Amieta Invelen's feet. She looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and disgust, then shrugged, "Alright, get him down to Sanik for surgery."

She turned to her other guest as the marines dragged Jorion away again, "They will remove the podder implants and install a TCMC. I think you are familiar with those Ms Rask?"

Ollada Rask nodded, "So, he is the package I will deliver?"

"Yes. He will be very... docile, after the surgery. In fact, I imagine he will do anything you ask him to. Those are the specifications. I trust your contact in Curse can deliver what we require?"

Rask snorted, "Eagerly. Normally they would have to pay, and here you - we are paying them. He will have adequate medical care, and his 'correspondence' will be allowed out. He will not ask for help?"

Invelen smiled, nearly the same smile she had worn when she had explained to Rask not so long ago that Rask, and Rask's organization were hers now, "The part of him - and the doctors assure me that it will still be there, able to see and hear and feel everything - that you would think of as him will not be able to affect the outside world at all. The personality that will be in control is rudimentary," Invelen laughed, "but it's not as if the work he will be doing is complicated. The messages will be simple too. 'I'm making progress.' That sort of thing. Let people know he's alive a couple times a year."

Rask gathered her courage, "There's the matter of my pay? There are expenses, travel documents, transportation..."

"Ballsy, I like that Ms Rask." Invelen eyed her, "Your compensation will be that you will be a step closer to being my friend. Isn't that nice?"

Rask chose not to make an issue of it.

**********

"It's confirmed she left the system with the package?" Amieta lifted a report from the pile on her desk, studied it, and put it back.

Sarakai nodded. "You sure she'll be able to deliver?"

"She doesn't have much choice, Sara.” Amieta found the file she was looking for and flipped it open. “She'll do what needs to be done."

**********

4

Rask looked at the man seated behind the desk with something like distaste. Oil from his slicked back hair stained the collar of his too-loud shirt. A gold tooth glittered under eyes that always grinned, the way a slaver hound always grinned - devoid of anything human. Acts like he is just another pimp because that hides something worse, something the rest of us would run the hell away from. Makes my skin crawl. Perfect. That Sansha bitch won't have a thing to complain about.

His name was Kuhol Airail. He was studying Jorion Roth, or what had been Jorion Roth. The Intaki was standing in a corner, his eyes empty too, though not in the same way as Airail's, "You want me to buy him? What makes you think I can afford another in the stable right now, Rask? There is the initial costs, then drugs to keep him under control and usable. Medical costs. My clientele's... particular tastes make each addition a substantial investment."

"Your tastes, excuse me, your clients' tastes, are why I picked you, Airail. I'll be picking up the tab, including medical costs. Think of him as a gift with a few strings attached."

"Gift?" Arail raised an eyebrow, "What strings though? You can't try and..."

"I'm not trying to muscle in Arail. I've got my own thing going back in the Heath, you know that." Rask lit a cigarette, as much to mask the man’s cologne as because she wanted it. "Just simple rules. I don't care what you do with him, but he needs to stay alive, understand? You'll be paid to get him top notch medical care, and he better get it. We'll be keeping an eye. No drugs, that's another one. He's to stay sober. You won't need them anyway, he does whatever anyone tells him to do, pretty much." She grinned. "He'll be Mr Popular. And he'll want to send communications sometimes, let him. Ain't no-one going to come and save him."

"You're sure about the drugs? Some of my clients have very unusual habits, and..."

Rask cut him off, "No drugs, I told you it wouldn't be a problem, and it won't be. You try to screw with me on this though Arail, and you end up like him, understand? He dies, it will go poorly. I have some... new friends. Friends who do things like this," she jerked a thumb toward Jorion, "to people who piss them off. Myself, I wouldn't want to be one of those people." She drew on her cigarette. “And I’d advise you not to be, either.”

**********

5

"Are you sure?" Ciarente asked, turning her glass between her hands. "That he ... that it's over?'


"I'm sure, Cia," Amieta said. She sipped her own drink, felt the welcome burn of the rum for the few seconds before her Spirits-cursed Zainou liver got to work scrubbing the alcohol out of her bloodstream.

"Is he ..." Ciarente hesitated. "He's still my father, Ami. I ... "

Amieta leaned forward and put her hand over Ciarente's. "He'll lead a long and healthy life, Cia. You don't need to worry about him." She smiled. "Not ever again."

Monday

Into the Dark: Fourteen

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

*****************

The stone of the bridge flashed past, so close Medic Atad Rorkulo could have reached out and touched it. If we so much as clip a wing at this speed ... She shuddered, remembering burnt and broken bodies pulled from shuttle wrecks, and looked back to the two women clinging to the end of the rope ladder, distracting herself from just how close Captain Night was cutting it by concentrating on her job. Even at this distance she could see injuries that would need medical attention. That graze on Commander Invelen's face looks deep .. better check for concussion ... the Intaki girl, Ciarente Roth, doesn't seem to be able to move her right arm ... a break? Dislocation?

Then they were in clear air, the shuttle lifting and slowing. Atad had an instant to see empty space below them, water cascading over the lip of the weir and crashing down a hundred feet to a wide lake, before the rope ladder snapped taut and the two women went over the edge.

Two screams, one shrill and terrified, the other sounding suspiciously like exhilaration. The shuttle climbed further, slowing to the edge of a stall, minimising the swing. Atad saw Ciarente Roth look up, face white, then down. Her voice drifted up, barely audible over the engines. "Oh no, oh no, oh no ..."

The shuttle banked gently, heading for the shore of the lake, and shedding altitude. As they dipped toward solid ground Commander Invelen released her grip on the ladder, stumbled backward one step and fell over. Ms Roth clung to the ladder until Captain Night lowered the shuttle enough for her feet to touch the ground, then she let go and thumped to the ground, as if her legs couldn't support her weight.

Captain Night brought the shuttle in to land a safe distance away.

He was out of the cockpit and brushing past her before Atad had grabbed her kit. She followed him as he nearly jogged down the ramp.

Commander Invelen was sitting up, arms wrapped around her knees, looking up at the open sky above them. Smiling. Colour's good, Atad noted. Grazes ... superficial head injury... that ankle's swollen...non-priority.

"Ami, Ms Roth, are you alright?" Captain Night asked, looking concerned.

"Not ... sure..." Ciarente Roth murmured faintly. She rolled over and sat up, wincing and clutching her right arm, then looked up at Captain Night. "Silver. How nice .. to see you?"

"Your arm okay?" Commander Invelen asked, her expression becoming one of concern.

"It ... hurts?" Pilot Roth said, sounding puzzled.

Captain Night waved Atad forward. She knelt beside the Intaki woman. Shoulder definitely dislocated. Shocky, too. Those medications Commander Invelen queried us on ... and Void knows what's been done to her head. "Do you know where you are, Pilot Roth?" she asked, tugging a silvery emergency blanket from her kit and wrapping it gently around the girl's shoulders. Colour's bad, need to get her fluids up.

A hovercraft landed nearby as Pilot Roth murmured a vague affirmative. Atad glanced away from her patient long enough to see Colonel Voutelen climbing out, turning to help a little girl down after her. The girl pointed towards them, and then hurried forward, breaking into a stumbling jog and then dropping back to a walk, the Colonel following.

"Cia! Ami!" the girl said, coming to a stop beside Captain Night.

Atad took a re-hydration kit from her bag and snapped the warming seal. "I'm just going to hook you up to this, Ms Roth," she said. "It'll make you feel a bit better. Then we're going to get you to a hospital, okay?"

Behind her, she could hear the others talking. "Hey, Cami, how was your flight?" Commander Invelen asked. "Make sure the medic takes a look at her and Sara too, Silver."

"Is Cia okay, Ami? Are you okay?" the little girl asked.

"I'm fine, Cami," the Commander reassured her. "Cia's going to be fine too. Little banged up is all. How about you?"

Pilot Roth pulled away as Atad flicked the hypodermic open. "No .. I ... no ..."

"You need some fluids, Ms Roth," Atad said, taking her arm.

"No, no needles ..." Pilot Roth jerked her arm away, harder, and Atad looked around for help, as Camille said fretfully:

"I want to go home. My head hurts."

She leaned forward and vomited on Captain Night's shoes. Void take me, rumor is he doesn't even like being touched Atad thought with fascinated horror, but the Captain's expression showed nothing but concern.

"Sorry," Camille said sadly, looking up at him. "I didn't know that was going to happen."

Captain Night frowned, and squatted down in front of her, scrutinizing her face. "Medic, can you take a look at Miss Roth here?"

"One moment, sir," Atad said. Get Pilot Roth stabilised first ... I don't like that pulse rate, not at all ...

"I want to go home," Camille said. "I'm tired!" She retched again.

"Now, I think," Captain Night said, and the note in his voice made Atad move.

A glance showed her what had alarmed him. The girl had a swollen lump on the right side of her head, mark of a serious impact, but far worse, her right pupil was three times the size of her left.

Atad looked over at Commander Invelen. "How long ago did she get this injury?"

The commander paused. "Ninety-seven minutes," she said, "Pistol-whipped. And she has been ... quiet. Not herself. With what she's been through .. I thought she was just worn out."

Intracranial hemorrhage - likely subdural, then, with that time gap. Atad pulled a neck-brace from her kit and fitted it to Camille. "We need to get her to a hospital fast, sir," she said to Captain Night.

Camille closed her eyes and mumbled "Can you wake me up when we get there?"

Not good. Atad squeezed her shoulder. "Wake up, dear. Come on."

"I don't know," Captain Night said, "That there is time. The intercranial pressure is clearly dangerously high. It needs immediate decompression."

Atad glanced at the Captain. I hope he knows what he is doing, he's a research scientist, not a field medic. Brains though, he does know brains better than most.

Camille opened her eyes drowsily, then closed them again, going limp. Atad caught her.

Captain Night touched the girl's head, above her right ear. "Prep here for surgery as best you can."

"For surgery? I don't have - " Her voice died away. Captain Night was already running back to the shuttle.

Commander Invelen put her hand on Atad's arm. "Give her to me. I'll hold her steady." She sat cross-legged and gently lowered Camille so the girl's head rested in her lap.

"Ami?" Pilot Roth asked from behind Atad. "What's wrong with her?"

"Silver said pressure. There must be bleeding," Commander Invelen said with a glance at Atad. Atad nodded confirmation, opening her kit. She spread out a sheet of sterile gauze, and Commander Invelen lifted Camille a little to let Atad spread the gauze beneath her head. Not the best sterile field I've ever managed, Atad thought. Not the worst, either. And infection's the least of the kid's worries right now.

She wiped the spot Captain Night had indicated with a disinfectant wipe and unrolled the field kit's portable instrument tray.

"Oh, fortune," Pilot Roth said, trying to get up and then crawling toward Camille.

Colonel Voutelen stopped her. "Give them room, Ms Roth."

Atad looked up as Captain Night returned, holding ... That's from the maintenance locker, she thought. That's a gods damned tie-down drill.

Commander Invelen carefully fitted her hands around Camille's head, her metal fingers gentle but immovable.

"Are you sure there isn't time?" Pilot Roth asked shakily. "To get her to a hospital?"

"Yes," Captain Night said. He handed Atad a squeeze bottle of sterile saline, wiped the drill bit with a disinfectant wipe and carefully laid it on the instrument tray, then picked up a scalpel.

"Don't - don't cut her - no - " Pilot Roth said, her voice rising. "No knives, no - "

"It'll be all right, Ms Roth," Colonel Voutelen said. I wish I were as confident of that as she sounds, Atad thought.

Captain Night ignored Pilot Roth's incoherent protests and made a quick, precise incision above Camille's ear, exposing the bone.

"Sir," Atad murmured. "Have you done this before?"

"Yes," Captain Night said. "Although under slightly more controlled conditions."

He set the scalpel aside, picked up the drill, and positioned it against the girl's skull without hesitation.

The drill whirred to life. Atad watched as it bit through the bone. The Captain stopped and backed the drill out carefully, she irrigated with the squeeze bottle, and he resumed. I guess that means it is going well?

Captain Night stopped the drill a second time. Carefully lifted it away. A trickle of blood followed it, more, Atad thought, than could be accounted for by the incision. She washed away the new blood, the flecks of bone. All the way through.

She craned to see the child's face as Captain Night set the drill down on the instrument tray with a clatter, hands starting to shake.

"Cami?" Pilot Roth said tremulously. "Cami?”

The little girl’s eyelids fluttered.

Now,” Captain Night said, his voice tired, “We need to get to a hospital.”

Camille opened her eyes. “Ami? What happened?”

“Oh, thank fortune,” Pilot Roth said, and began to cry.

He just.. Loki! and it actually worked.

“You hit your head, honey,” Commander Invelen said. “It made you go to sleep, but Silver fixed it.”

“Oh,” Camille said. “How?”

“There was pressure in your head making you sleepy," Invelen said, her voice matter-of-fact, "So he made a little hole.”

“A hole? Cool!" Camille said. "I wish I hadn’t been asleep. Can he do it again now I’m awake?”

“I don’t think that would be wise, Miss Roth,” Captain Night said with a questioning glance at his XO. Commander Invelen shrugged.

“ We are going to take you to hospital now, okay?” she said to Camille. “You get to fly there in an assault shuttle even.”

Camille, who had been looking disappointed, cheered up immediately at the mention of an assault shuttle. "Can I fly it?"

"Perhaps not today, honey," Commander Invelen said as Atad fetched the stretcher.

She and Colonel Sarakai lifted Camille onto it. Commander Invelen got to her feet and took one end of the stretcher with a nod to Colonel Sarakai, who picked up the other end.

As Sarakai and Invelen started towards the shuttle, Atad turned back to Pilot Roth, who still sat on the ground, sobbing helplessly. Past her limit, she thought. Well and truly.

She knelt down.

"We're headed to the hospital, Ms Roth," she said gently. "That shoulder needs to be looked at, it's dislocated, and all the other... you'll need a check up too. Routine."

Pilot Roth nodded, and tried to get to her feet. Commander Invelen gave Captain Night what the crew called a Look and he hurried over, awkwardly assisting Pilot Roth to her feet on her left as Atad steadied her on the right, careful to stabilise her right arm.

They ushered her toward the lowered ramp of the LAS.

“I’m sorry,” Pilot Roth wept as they helped her into the shuttle. “I - can’t – stop!”

“It’s okay, Cia,” Commander Invelen said. “Been through a lot. Everything will be okay now.”

Captain Night glanced toward the cockpit. “I have to – ”

Commander Invelen nodded, and said with what almost sounded to Atad to be permission, “Sir.”

Captain Night hurried forward, and a moment later the engines began to hum.

Atad steered Pilot Roth to sit beside the stretcher. The Intaki woman looked down at her sister. “I can’t – believe – he just ... He saved - her life!”

Commander Invelen snorted. “Well, he is supposed to be a doctor. Still, it is nice he’s good for something.”

The trip to the hospital was short, and far less eventful than their earlier flight. Medical staff were waiting, and Atad saw on their shocked faces her own earlier reaction to the sight of the bedraggled four.

As they clambered off, Captain Night yelled from the cockpit, "I have to clear the pad. I'll be back soon as I can, alright Ami?!"

Commander Invelen nodded, and a moment later the shuttle was disappearing into the distance again.

Atad hesitated as the medtechs surrounded them.

“Go with Camille,” Commander Invelen ordered, and Atad nodded.

As she turned away she heard Ciarente sob: “Can - we - never - ever do that - again? Please?”

“I sure as hell hope not, hun,” the XO said.

“I – do you think – she saw?”

The doors closed behind Atad, cutting off Commander Invelen’s reply.

She gathered her thoughts and gave a medical history as Camille was wheeled down the hall, watched the girl whisked away to be scanned and stabilised.

Atad scrubbed in, sticking to the XO's order, and watched as the surgical team stopped the hemorrhaging and patched the hole in Camille's skull. Scans confirmed that the child was out of danger, 'good as new' as one of the doctors put it.

When Camille was resting comfortably, Atad went back out into the hall. She saw Commander Invelen talking a group of ten or twelve doctors. As she approached she heard one of them say something about TCMC, another use the word barbaric. The XO looked up and spotted Atad, a warning shake of her head telling Atad to keep her distance. Brief snatches of the following conversation were audible: something about damage, burns and implants.

With an order to Colonel Voutelen about ‘clean-up’, Commander Invelen disappeared into a nearby room. Curious, Atad drifted closer, but all she could make out through the closed door was the occasional word, Pilot Roth's voice rising shrilly as she talked about Papa and about needles and knives and questions. Commander Invelen telling her It’s okay, Cia, you’re safe now. Stick with me here. It’s okay now. Silver and some people are going to take a look, and we need to figure out what to do.

Atad stepped back to a more discreet distance as the door opened.

“Rorkulo,” the XO said. “The docs have been convinced to let us out of here. Make sure the medical records are transmitted to our people aboard – scans, tests, the lot.”

Atad nodded. “Sir,” she said.

Invelen turned to Pilot Roth. “Look, Cia, there’s Sara and Cami.”

Colonel Voutelen was waiting by the exit with the little girl, who was in a wheelchair, swinging her feet. As Commander Invelen and Pilot Roth neared them, the Commander limping slightly, Camille bounced excitedly in her seat.

“Cia! Ami! They said we can go home! And see Pierre and Mathilde and I bet Mathilde made pear cake, it’s not as good as yours of course Cia but Mathilde’s pear cake is still pretty good! Ami, you’ll love it!”

“I’m sure I will,” Commander Invelen said with a grin. “I’m starved!”

“They said I had to stay in the chair but I don’t know how it’ll go up the stairs and it’s boring anyhow!”

“How about I carry you, Cami?” the XO said. “That better?”

Camille nodded and held up her arms. Commander Invelen picked her up easily. "There we go," she said, her arms tightening around the little girl. "I've got you now."

“ Can we go now?” Camille asked, wrapping her own arms around the Commander's neck. “Can we?”

“Yes, Cami,” Pilot Roth said, her voice breaking a little. “We can go home.”

Atad watched as the four of them made their way to the exit.

The doors hissed back, opening on the glorious summer’s day, the sounds of the local festival drifting in on a warm, fresh breeze. For a moment the four of them were silhouetted, Camille cradled in Commander Invelen's arms, Pilot Roth beside them with her hand resting half on Camille's back, half on the Commander's arm, and Colonel Sarakai flanking the Commander on the other side, a step ahead. The little girl said something that made Pilot Roth and Commander Invelen laugh, and even won a smile from Colonel Sarakai, and then as Atad watched, they were through the door and the figures dissolved into the light.

Sunday

Into the Dark: Thirteen

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

*****************

As the tunnel met the river, the competing currents swirled around the swimmers, forming a deadly maelstrom. Amieta had a glimpse of Sarakai fending herself and Camille off from the wall before the churning water separated them.

She twisted desperately to avoid a pylon, instead grating her back against the wall and striking her head a glancing blow. Stunned, she felt herself pulled down by the current.

A hand gripped her arm. Cia. Amieta grabbed for her, trying to find the surface. There was stone above her still, always stone, no air ... She gritted her teeth, the hand clasped around her wrist helping her keep focused, keep the panic down. Keep from going back. Cia pulled her down and forward, and then suddenly there was light above them.

Amieta kicked hard and her head broke into the air, under the open sky.

"Thank... Spirits... out... of there..." she gasped, looking up at the bright blue sky.

Cia nodded her agreement. The slap of a wave pushed her away from Amieta, and she kicked exhaustedly back towards her, clutching at Amieta's shoulder with her left hand, right arm hanging limp.

Further downstream Amieta could see Sarakai and Camille, Sarakai keeping Camille afloat. The little girl was doing her best to help, or at least not to hinder Sarakai, but Amieta could tell she was struggling. No-one I'd trust more to take care of her than Sara, she thought. Hold on, Camille. Not much longer, honey.

I hope.


No, not much longer. She could hear an engine. Looking up, she could see a small hovercraft swooping towards them. It headed for Camille and Sarakai, and a figure leaned from the open door. A harness attached to a cable splashed down in the water beside Sarakai and Camille. Sarakai hooked it towards her with an economical movement and fitted it to Camille.

The words from the woman leaning from the open door of the hovercraft were barely audible over the roar of the river. "Hurry! Fourth bridge!"

Sarakai pulled the harness tight, gave a thumbs up to the hovercraft and took a firm hold on the cable. As the cable tautened, Amieta initiated contact with the Utopian Pattern holding station above the planet. When the connection was completed, it was the pilot - her employer - Silver Night, whose voice she heard:

Ami, what's the situation down there? Shuttle is lifting off as we speak.

Could be better. They better come down prepped for a water rescue, just in case.

Copy, anything else? Silver sounded annoyingly calm

Hurry. Amieta cut coms, attention returning to her immediate surroundings.

She could hear Cia muttering "Come on, come on ..." and followed the other woman's gaze downstream, where another bridge, this one high and wide, was rapidly coming closer.

Sarakai and Camille were pulled from the water, the hovercraft holding steady. Amieta and Cia were swept beneath them as they were winched up to the hovercraft.

Seeing the bridge come closer, Amieta said, "I don't know if we're gonna make it Cia."

"The other side ..." A wave slapped Cia in the face and she coughed, went under the water and surfaced again. "The houses, they're too close. The river bends. They can't fly it. There were too many accidents, trying."

"We'll wait until the houses aren't so close, then," Amieta said. How far? Cia was clearly weakening. Can she stay afloat that far? Can I?

"They're close ... all the way to first bridge. And the weir."

The hovercraft dipped towards them, and then pulled up and circled away as the shadow of the bridge fell over them. Stone overhead again, briefly, and then they were out and Amieta could see what Cia had meant by 'too close'. The river narrowed to not much more than thirty feet wide, and on either side, blank walls rose twenty feet to a row of tall, narrow houses that turned the river into a canyon.

A sharp bend took them out of sight of fourth bridge.

"What's a weir?" Amieta asked.

"It's like.. "Cia went under again, and Amieta pulled her up. "It's like a dam. The water goes over the top. And a long way down."

"Oh," Amieta said.

An indicator flashed in the corner of her vision, an incoming communication, from Silver. She made the connection with a thought and his voice spoke in her head again:

I am on my way. Been a while, thought I would fly this myself. Sitrep?

Situation is you better hurry, old man. If you have me on locater, we're in a no-fly zone for the local hover jockeys. Structures on both sides, close. Then there is some sort of waterfall or something. I hope you aren't too rusty when you actually have to fly instead of lazing around in a goo-bath.

I prefer to think of myself as experienced. Silver's tone would have seemed perfectly serious to anyone who did not know him so well. I will be there as soon as I can, I just need to remember which of these is the throttle.

Ancestors help us. Amieta cut the connection after getting in the last, dry word, then spoke out loud to Cia,

"Silver is on his way."

"Silver?" Cia asked, looking confused.

"To pick us up."

The current was much faster with the narrowing of the channel. Another bridge flashed overhead, and Amieta and Cia were dragged rapidly around the sharp turns and bends of the winding river.

A muffled but still incredibly loud thump echoed overhead.

Cia slipped under the water again and surfaced more slowly than before, coughing. Amieta tugged her up, nearly going under herself, and looked skyward.

"Sounds like that's him," she said encouragingly to Cia. "Showing off, as usual."

"I hope ... he hurries ..." Cia said. "That's ... second up ahead ..."

A light assault shuttle shot towards them on afterburner, barely above the roofs of the city, a visible ripple in the air behind it, accompanied by a supersonic roar and the tinkle of thousands of breaking windows. As it approached the river, the nose lifted and the shuttle decelerated brutally, matching their speed as the river whipped them under the next bridge. It dropped down delicately between the houses as Amieta and Cia came out from under the bridge.

Cia went under again and Amieta lunged after her, pulling her head above the surface as the back hatch on the shuttle opened and a rope ladder tumbled down. The LAS veered, narrowly missing a line of buttresses.

Amieta got Cia in a lifeguard's hold and kicked for the ladder.

"Ami... "Cia gasped. "Can't .."

"Hold on, Cia. We're almost there."

The river twisted and turned sharply, the shuttle dipping and darting around the bends without slowing. It tilted, sliding sideways and just avoiding clipping a stone balcony. As Silver corrected with a wobble, one of the craft's stubby wings smashed through a bay window without slowing. There goes some poor bastard's breakfast nook. Amieta got her hand on the ladder and pulled Cia closer as the LAS steadied. Cia got a grip on the ladder with her left hand, her right arm still hanging limp. Amieta tightened her own hold on the ladder and Cia both.

Cia looked downstream. "Ami! The bridge!"

Amieta could see it, filling the space between the houses ahead of them. A broad low bridge that they seemed to be approaching impossibly fast. "Oh, shit!"

Cia looked up at the shuttle, then back at the bridge. "He can't ... it's too close ... we won't get clear ..."

Amieta could tell Cia was right. If the shuttle pulled up now to clear the bridge, the trailing ladder would strike the stone - as would the two women at the end of it.

Silver ... she said.

I know, he replied tersely. Under.

"Hold on," Amieta told Cia. "Silver's going under."

"It's too low!" Cia said. "He'll crash! Ami!"

"No he won't. He knows if he crashes I'll kick his ass."

The shuttle dipped forward and down, keeping a steady tension on the rope ladder to avoid snags, and hurtled under the bridge, the top of the craft barely clearing the underside of the bridge, wavelets from the churning river nearly brushing the bottom, vanishing from view in the shadows beneath the bridge.

Cia gave a yelp of fear, face white, eyes wide, as they followed the shuttle into the dark.

Saturday

Into the Dark: Twelve

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

*****************

Ciarente surfaced with a gasp, pulling Camille up with her.

"You okay, Cami?" she asked.

"Yes!" Camille said, dog-paddling to keep her head above water.

Ciarente raised her arm to let the wrist-light shine on the tunnel around them. The steep upward slope was limiting the rise of the water, and she guessed that cracks in the rocks below were letting some of the floodwater seep away, slowing its advance. A few strokes brought her to standing depth, a few more to where Camille could put her feet down.

Sarakai bobbed up behind them, closing the distance quickly.

Ciarente looked back, then looked at Sarakai. "Ami?"

Sarakai looked back as well as Camille coughed and then threw up water.

Ciarente waited, counting. One, two, three ... seven, eight ...

Too long.


"Camille, stay with Sarakai," she ordered. She glanced at Sarakai, and gestured to the roof. "Keep moving. There's no waterline. The water ... will keep coming."

As Sarakai and Camille splashed off down the tunnel, Ciarente took a couple of rapid breaths. Not too many. You don't want to pass out.

It was a million years since water rescue classes with M'ser Kirau. At sixteen she'd thought she knew exactly how her life was going to go, had known with absolute certainty that the most difficult thing she'd ever have to do was fulfill her obligations under the Local Emergency Services draft and learn how to pull people from the river. She could remember with piercing clarity sitting on the edge of the pool, the sun on her back and glaring off the water into her eyes, M'ser Kirau explaining to his fifteen students the difference between swimming down and swimming across the water, the girls next to her giggling to each other about their shared crush on him.

"M'selle Roth, you go first."

The dummy at the bottom of the pool weighted to imitate an unconscious body, the fight to remain calm as her lungs ached for air ...

"Well done, M'selle. Wait after class. I'd like to talk to you about a volunteering as a rescue swimmer."


A million years ago. And as far as she'd gone and as strange as her life had become - as strange as she had become - here she was in the flood waters of Debreth ...

Ciarente took one more breath, and dived.

The current pushed against her as she went deeper and she pulled herself along the jagged rock wall. The tunnel didn't branch, did it? She can't have gotten lost!

There. Movement below her, at the limit of the light. Ciarente swam towards it, Amieta coming into view. She was thrashing, tearing at the wall, movements uncontrolled and almost jerky, bits of the sedimentary rock chipping away, but she wasn't moving up the tunnel. Pinned by the current?

Ciarente reached her and tried to grab one of her flailing arms to pull her towards the surface. Amieta didn't make it easy, struggling wildly, as if Ciarente wasn't even there. And when Ciarente finally got her hands around Amieta's wrist and pulled, the other woman didn't move towards her.

She must be caught on something.

Ciarente's lungs were beginning to ache, and for a moment she considered whether it might not be wisest to resurface, take another breath, and try again. But how long has she been down here?

No. She can't have much air left, and she's burning oxygen thrashing about like that. There isn't time.

She pulled herself down Amieta's body, trying to dodge her lashing arms. She felt a glancing blow to her temple and for a moment she lost her grip, the water pushing her away. Frantically, she grabbed, got a handful of shirt, felt the material tear and got a firmer hold on Amieta's holster.

She hauled herself downwards, trying to see what held Amieta fast. Amieta was kicking at the wall with her left foot as frantically as she beat it with her hands but her right foot was immobile. Trapped, the boot wedged between an outcrop of rock and a crevice. Ciarente tried to pull it free, tried to get Amieta to turn enough for her foot to slip loose, but Amieta didn't seem to understand. Hold still, Ami, hold still and turn...

Colours were playing in front of her vision Time to go. Stay past the limit of your air and they'll recover two bodies, that was what M'ser Kirau had said in their class.

Desperately, she began to pick at the laces of Amieta's boot. Swollen with water, they resisted. Ciarente tugged and picked, snapped a fingernail then another, lungs screaming at her now with the need to breathe, need to breathe now. She ground her teeth together, fought the panic, pulled again at the stubborn cord and felt it finally give.

The boot loosened and Amieta's foot slipped out. She kicked out wildly, narrowly missing Ciarente's head, and swam upwards.

Ciarente pushed off from the wall and followed. It seemed far further to the surface than it had on the way down and as her ears roared and sparks of colour trailed across her sight she was visited by the terrifying conviction that the water had risen so much further that there was no air to reach, only an endless tunnel filled with water to the roof.

And then she was up.

For a moment all she could do was float, legs moving feebly, sucking air. Ahead of her Amieta had reached shallower water and staggered up the slope. Ciarente followed as Amieta tottered forward and then folded over, retching and gasping.

Ciarente pushed herself to her feet and stumbled over to her. She tried to speak, didn't have enough air, and put her hand on Amieta's back instead.

Amieta spun. Ciarente had a half-instant impression of a metal hand held stiffly flat, stabbing towards her at killing speed, of Amieta's eyes blank and mindless. Empty. Before she could even flinch Amieta jerked sideways. The blow whistled past her and Amieta overbalanced and fell backwards into the shallow water.

Ciarente dropped to her knees beside her. "Ami?"

Amieta blinked and shook her head, gasping.

"Ami?" Ciarente reached out tentatively, cautious in case Amieta swung at her again, or worse, flinched. "It's okay. You're okay."

Amieta turned blindly toward her as Ciarente touched her shoulder, shuddering with sobs. "I was there!" Ciarente could barely make the words out. "And they had me, and there was so much blood and...and...and ..."

"Ami, it's okay, it's okay." Ciarente drew Amieta closer, holding her as tightly as flesh-and-bone arms could. They had me. So much blood. "It's not there." Don't like small places much .... "We're not there."

Amieta subsided against her, her ragged breathing steadying a little as she clung to Ciarente.

Ciarente rubbed her back, as if she were Camille waking from a nightmare. "You're not there. It's over. You're - " Safe, she would have said, but the word died on her lips. "You're okay."

"I'm sorry, I just ..." A choked half-sob cut short Amieta's words.


"It's okay," Ciarente soothed. "Shhhh. It's okay."

"I'm... it's okay..." Amieta said, the tremor in her voice giving the lie to her words. "I'm... I'm okay. I'm better."

"Ami," Ciarente said, hating herself for saying it, but feeling the water creeping higher around them. "We have to go. I'm sorry, we have to. Can you get up?"

Amieta gulped air. "Yeah," she said, loosening her grip, and then letting Ciarente go entirely. "Yeah."

Ciarente got her her feet, drawing Amieta up with her, steadying her. "Come on," she said, taking Amieta's hand. "It can't be much further." As if I know.

Amieta took another deep breath and then her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, spirits, I almost ..." she said with horror. "I'm sorry, Cia, I didn't mean it, I didn't ... see you."

"I know." Ciarente squeezed her fingers. "I know, Ami. Of course I know."

They started down the tunnel together, Amieta making good time despite her missing boot.

Camille and Sarakai were waiting for them where the tunnel dipped downward again. Ciarente let go of Amieta's hand to gather Camille up in a hug.

"Sara, can I borrow your sticker?" Amieta asked, and despite her breath still being a bit ragged her voice was nearly normal, the tone self-possessed. Sarakai handed her a knife, and Amieta cut the laces on her remaining boot and kicked it off.

"Cia, I want to go home, I'm tired!" Camille complained.

"Soon," Ciarente promised. "Soon, cherie. It isn't far. Can you hear the river?"

"So it goes under again," Amieta said grimly, eying the tunnel ahead.

"We must be close," Ciarente said. "When we get to the river ..."She took a deep breath. "If the rhyme, if Fortune's mouth, means fifth bridge ..."

No one comes alive from Fortune's Mouth.

"We'll be under water," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "The river goes higher than the channel. And it's fast. Very fast." The current has her in an unbreakable grip, dragging her toward the bridge at breakneck speed. The man in her arms has stopped struggling at last, but his panic has cost them too much time. The hovercraft lifts away, and Ciarente takes a desperate breath and dives, dives for the narrow channel that is her only chance, that is the only chance for the foolish tourist whose misadventure brought her here ...

"There are pylons," she tried to explain. "The walls ..." The water hurls her towards the unforgiving stone, churning, tumbling her down, and she kicks, blind, feels the impact and feels something break in her side ... "The current, it's ..." There weren't words to describe it, a force no human strength could oppose.

"Well, we'll be careful then," Amieta said. "Should I tell my people up there to do anything?"

"Alert the LES - the local emergency services," Ciarente said. "They have rescue 'craft to pull people out."

Amieta nodded. "Done." She managed a shaky smile. "Shall we go? Wouldn't do to be any later to the festival."

Ciarente took Camille hand, squeezing her cold fingers, feeling a feeble pressure in reply. "Do you want us to go first?"

"That might be better, in case..." Amieta said. "It would be better."

Ciarente saw Sarakai frown slightly.

I was there. And they had me ...

"Sarakai," Ciarente said, "Can you take Camille? I'm ... I'm tired. I might need Amieta's help."

Sarakai glanced at Amieta, who nodded, and said "Of course."

Camille looked at Ciarente reluctantly, but held out her hand to Sarakai. "It looked like fun when Cia did it that time," she said dully. "I wish my head didn't hurt. Then I'd enjoy it properly."

"Well, we can get you some medicine for that once we're out of here," Sarakai said.

Camille sighed. "Okay," she murmured.

Ciarente watched as Sarakai and Camille went forward, diving under the water where it met the roof, then turned to Amieta. "Ready?"

"No," Amieta said. "But you have to do what you have to do, don't you?"

She stared at the tunnel ahead. Ciarente could hear the hiss of her breath between her gritted teeth.

And she doesn't even know what's waiting for us... The churn of the current, the rocks ... waiting to break bones, skulls ... it was so easy to imagine, the impact, the weight of the water, the light fading ...

She tried to think of something to say. It'll be okay was a lie she couldn't get past her lips. I won't leave you here was an extravagant promise she had no idea if she'd have the courage to keep.

And Ciarente knew all too well how hollow reassurances sounded when they came from those who couldn't see past the shadows to the dark.

She touched Amieta's arm gently, and settled for saying something that she meant, even if fell far short of the comfort she wished she could give. "Thank you for coming for me, Ami."

Amieta turned, startled enough to be distracted from the prospect of the tunnel in front of her. "You're my sister. You don't abandon family."

"No," Ciarente said. Real family. The ones who know you, not what they they think you should be. The ones who come to pull you out of the dark. "No, you don't."

She waited, trying to ignore the water rising past her waist.

Amieta started forward, hyperventilating slightly. She glanced back, face set, but fear in her eyes, then squared her shoulders and dived into the dark.

Friday

Into the Dark: Eleven

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

*****************

Amieta heard the *click* as Jorion Roth armed the grenade and time seemed to slow down. Not the artificial deliberation imposed by implants - those had been running since she had entered the tunnels - this was something else. Something older. The gift of enough time to consider, to analyze, to rail against irreversible fate as the trap door drops away on the gallows, or the last handhold at the edge of the precipice crumbles away. A sudden all too human clarity, an age between heartbeats to feel every contour of the cold metal surface pressed into her neck, to see every detail of Roth's snarl as he killed them both.

Then that eternal split-second was past, and she did the only thing she could. She headbutted Roth in the face.

She felt his nose break against her forehead, felt the spatter of something warmer than the water around them. Spirits, I seem to be making a habit of this.

Amieta could see he was stunned, but he held on doggedly. It was enough though. She was able to reach her knife. Amieta could hear Camille yelling in the background as she yanked it from its sheath and drove it into his gut with as much force as she could manage, pulled up viciously, felt the tip skitter along vertebrae. Bastard won't let go.

Then Cia was there, prying at his fingers, trying to pull away the grenade. Amieta saw Roth deal her a brutal backhanded blow, but he was too late. As Cia sank from sight, dazed or unconscious, she held the grenade in one hand.

"Cia!"

Amieta desperately twisted the knife and shoved, finally freeing herself of Roth. She pulled away and tossed the knife out across the water as he floated backward. She queried her internal clock as she flipped and dove down after Cia, shocked to find it had been less than five seconds since that sinister *click*. She had barely gone under when she was buffeted by a shock wave in the water. Thrashing, tossed around like a leaf in rapids, she struggled to regain the surface. Ancestors shelter her. Hang on, Cia.

As she broke through, back into the air, she gasped, struggled to regain her orientation, then dove again. She saw Cia, some current holding her to the wall, teasing thin streamers of blood from her to disappear between the bones that lined the entire interior of the cavern. Amieta felt despair as she saw the open, staring eyes. The only wound she could see was on an out-flung arm. Maybe it's not too late. The shock wave - if the wall isn't hiding -

She cut off the thought and took hold of Cia's arm, tugging her free of the current and kicking toward the surface. Cia was limp, lifeless, in her grip, her head lolling -

It took her a moment to realize what she was seeing. What she wasn't seeing. No podder implants. This isn't Cia, not the real Cia.

"Shit."

Amieta pushed the dead body - Roth's madness made real - away from her as she surfaced. With a breath she dived back down again, searching with decreasing hope for any sign of Cia. Surely there would be something left? Even just... pieces?

She looked until her lungs felt like they were trying to claw their way out and surfaced again. About to dive back down, she was startled to see Cia - the real Cia - treading water not twenty feet away. Near her father. Thank you ancestors, I owe you a visit. But what is the girl doing?

Roth said something, too low for Amieta to hear. She drew breath to shout a warning, but it died in her throat as she heard Cia’s reply:

"Oui, Papa. Je suis ici."

The words were strangely calm, even tender.

Then Cia dragged the dying man under, both of them disappearing into the water, leaving only a welter of ripples. Amieta hesitated, then plunged down, following. By the time she could see the two figures in the water again, it was plainly over. Cia was holding Roth to the bottom, but Roth's eyes were empty, lifeless. Just like that other 'Cia' Amieta thought with a shudder.

Amieta put her hand on Cia's shoulder, shaking her when she failed to respond. Cia finally looked over her shoulder, and Amieta jabbed a finger toward the surface. Time to fucking go.

To Amieta's relief, Cia released the body and they swam to the surface together.

"Ami, are you alright?" Cia asked a little distantly.

"I'm fine, are you ok? The grenade...." Amieta glanced up at the roof, which was still getting slowly closer

"I dropped it," Cia said slowly. "That was the right thing to do, wasn't it?"

"Second best thing to do with a live grenade." Amieta managed a smile. "Since you were under water, I guess it was the best thing to do. Now we need to find that way out."

"The water has to be going out somehow." Cia eyed the ceiling. "Or Fortune on the Water would flood every time."

"I think there must be a blocked up hole or something, where Jorion had Camille when we came in."

Cia swam wearily toward the wall, "Follow Fortune's bones, that was the rhyme. It's all bones in here."

"Cia, can we go home now?" Camille said as Cia and Amieta reached the wall. "I'm tired."

"Soon, cherie. Soon," Cia said, "Fortune's bones, does that mean anything to you?"

Camille nodded. "It's the song. We skip to it. You taught me, remember?"

"How did it go?"

"I don't remember." Camille's voice was tired, frayed.

"Try, cherie. Please. It's important."

"Soldier and sailor, merchant and tailor, Fortune's pretty bones all." Camille leaned her head against the tibia she was clinging to. "Cia, I'm tired."

"Just a little while longer, cherie." Amieta saw Cia looking around, "Soldier and sailor... Did you see anything like that? Before the water?"

Camille nodded, "The skull had a sword. Where Papa was."

"Wait here, cherie, with Sarakai, okay?" Cia said.

Camille's assent was only a tired whisper, too faint for Amieta to make out.

"That's the exit right?" Amieta said. "It is down there?"

"Soldier and sailor, merchant and tailor." Cia looked puzzled, "Camille said there's a skull with a sword. Maybe there's one with, I don't know, an anchor. Fortune's pretty bones."

They dived again, down to where Roth had been standing. Cia pointed to a skull with a sword sticking from one of its eye sockets, and Amieta nodded, began searching. Skull after skull in the murky water, most of them featureless except for the marks of time, but they found three more: chain, needle, and anchor. Cia pushed one and gestured to Amieta.

Like the stones in Fortune's skirt.

With each of them pushing two skulls, a section of wall swung back, and suddenly the mild current became a monstrous force, pulling at both of them. Amieta grabbed the wall, and reached out to grab Cia, a hand snapping around her wrist before Cia could be pulled away by the rushing water.

Cia was gesturing toward the surface, a bit wildly, as Amieta tried to get her out of the main current. They had been down too long already, Amieta could feel it too. She curled her arms inward, pulling Cia closer to herself, and herself closer to the wall, until Cia could grab on and begin climbing up. Then Amieta pulled herself sideways, out of the tumultuous water in and around the exit itself, and flung herself up, scrabbling along the wall for handholds to speed her to the surface.

As she surfaced, she looked around, and was relieved to see Cia bobbing not far away, safely hanging onto the wall.

"We have - to - hurry," Cia gasped. "I don't know - how long - those tunnels - are." She turned to Camille. "We have to - swim - cherie, okay? Hold your breath. Hold my hand."

Amieta watched as the other three disappeared beneath the water.

She hesitated a moment.

Spirits, it had to be more tunnels. Tunnels under water.

"I don't know how long those tunnels are."

They could just go on. We might not get out, under all this rock, no air and the walls all around and-

You'll die anyway if you don't go, marine.


Amieta set her jaw and dived down, feeling the current whisk her into the tunnel's narrow mouth. The tunnel went on, and on, and Amieta could feel the walls getting closer the entire time. She reminded herself it was only rock. Not metal, not slick with - not slick, just rock. Concentrating on swimming forward. Always forward. Even as the tunnel narrowed enough that she couldn't fully extend her strokes, and she knew it wasn't just in her own mind that the murky walls constricted around her. She tried to ignore her arms scraping against it, the feeling of being trapped. It has to end ... there has to be an end ... It has to end

But relief, when it came, was paltry at best. A pocket of air, barely enough room to float on their backs and raise their faces inches from the water. Amieta felt her breath, fast and harsh, concentrated on it, closed her eyes, and tried to forget the rough stone her face was almost touching. Tried to picture herself in the middle of a vast sea under an open sky. Tried to convince herself the breath swirling back at her, made cold by the touch of the indifferent mass above her, was just a breeze.

It was a shock when Cia spoke. "We have to keep going."

Amieta swallowed, but nodded her agreement, not knowing or caring if Cia could see her. She heard the others take their breaths and go on. She steeled herself to follow.

Just a little further. You can do this, just like you've been doing. Fear is a thing to be faced.

The panic still welled up as she dived, but she shoved it down, she was here and now and it was just a hole in the rocks. Just another obstacle to be overcome. Camille can do it, so can I. She could feel desperation in her thoughts, feel the terror trying to rise, to choke her, to put her back in that place and finish the job. The current was still swift, a sharp turn ahead, the rock walls ragged and fissured. She saw the others make the turn, and kicked off the wall behind them, trying to follow. She felt a tug on her boot, realized she had stopped.

Trapped.

She felt something break loose inside her, felt the terror rise up, overwhelming everything else. She thrashed, tried to get free, felt the tips of her fingers slip and grind and chip away the edges of the rock. Her vision filled with red, and she realized it wasn't water she was drowning in. Too thick and so, so sickly warm. She needed to breathe, needed to scream, but there was no air. She clawed at walls gone smooth, metallic, and red as rust as the weight at her foot dragged her. She could feel herself being pulled down, deeper, always deeper. She could taste it, salt and copper, even though she could hardly see it around her as blackness crept in, edging out the red. As motes began appearing in her vision, she realized she was back, that she had never left, never escaped the close, dark, metal. Everything else must have been a dream while the nightmare never ended. Then someone else was there. Cia? No no no no... Amieta found new reserves, felt her fingers scoring the walls. They can't have you, you were a dream, you can't be here, I can't get you out. Can’t get anyone out. Can't even get me out. She fought with all her failing strength, but it was no use. It was never any use.

She felt herself being pulled back into the dark.