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.

Thursday

Into the Dark: Ten

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

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

The water hit Ciarente behind the knees and she staggered, managed to keep her balance for a second and then fell. It wasn't deep, not yet, but the force of it tumbled her over. She got a mouthful of water, spat it out and got to her knees as the light on the other side of the cavern toppled over.

Everything went black.

Cami, Cami, Ciarente thought frantically. She could feel the water rising around her. Where are you, Cami? Where?

The lamp. Fumbling, she managed to find the switch on the light Amieta had fastened to her wrist and its glow weakly illuminated the cavern, casting the bones into grotesque relief.

Ciarente could see Amieta's second-in-command, Sarakai Voutelen, still on her feet, heading across the cavern, looked in the direction she was going and saw Camille floundering as the cascade of water pressed her against the opposite wall.

Ciarente didn't bother to even try to get back to her feet. She flung herself forward, letting the water carry her, swimming diagonally with it rather than trying to fight.

You can't fight the river. No-one can. You have to let it take you.

And hope for a friend with a good rope.


There were no ropes here.

Sarakai was swimming as well now, still heading for Camille. Thank Fortune she can swim, Ciarente thought. Ami can too, I remember her saying. That's something.

It had been months and months since Ciarente'd been in the water, in fact, this body had never been in the water, but it came back to her, the easy rhythm, body turning as her arms lifted, feeling the torsion drive her forward. Hours upon hours of practice, when my name came up for the Local Emergency Service roster, hours and hours up and down the pool, right left right breathe, left right left breathe.

She reached Sarakai, passed her, timed her last stroke to bring her to Camille and grabbed a handful of sodden shirt. Got her other hand on the wall of bones in front of her, gripping a femur, and pulled.

Camille came up, gasping.

"Up," Ciarente urged her. "Climb, cherie, climb the bones, climb!"

Camille nodded and started climbing. Ciarente pushed her up and started up behind her, then paused and reached down as Sarakai reached the wall. The small Caldari woman took her hand and scrambled out of the water, pulling herself clear and reaching up to steady Camille.

"Did you see where she went?" Sarakai asked. "Amieta?"

"No," Ciarente said. She turned as best she could, craning to see. "No." No, I didn't see. I was thinking about Camille. I didn't stop to think that Ami ...

The water was still rising, its surface choppy, the weak illumination of the wrist-light casting shadows too deep for Ciarente's gaze to penetrate.

"Can you see her?" she asked Sarakai. "Can you?

"There!" Sarakai said with a jerk of her chin, and Ciarente saw Amieta break the surface and start swimming towards them, her powerful strokes closing the distance quickly.

And behind her ...

Papa.

"Ami, look out!" Ciarente yelled.

Camille turned to see and slipped a little with a squeak. Ciarente grabbed her at the same time as Sarakai and together they boosted her back up. When Ciarente looked down again Amieta had reached the wall, Jorion Roth right behind her.

"Papa, stop!" Ciarente screamed at him. "Stop! Stop it!"

"What? Where?" Camille asked, and lost her grip entirely.

Sarakai's grasp for Camille was fractionally too slow, Ciarente's own even slower. Camille dropped back into the water and went under. Ciarente pushed herself away from the wall and jumped after her, seeing Amieta turn her head and start swimming toward Camille as she hit the water. 

The current pushed her down, hard. Ciarente got a grip on the bone wall and pulled herself sideways, out of the worst of it, and kicked for the surface. Camille. Ami She shook water from her eyes and saw Amieta lift Camille out of the water so she could climb back on the the wall.

"No!" Papa shouted from somewhere near as Amieta hoisted Camille. "Get away from her!"

Ciarente swam the few strokes to Amieta. "Are you - " alright?

A hand closed on her throat and cut her off before she could complete the question. Ciarente clawed at her neck, trying to prise the fingers free, went under, hearing Camille screaming her name. The water around her was a turmoil of legs and arms as she struggled to get to the surface.

Suddenly the fingers loosened and she kicked hard, sucking in a desperate breath as she got her head above water. Amieta and Papa were struggling, first one under the water, then the other.

"We don't - have time - for this, Roth," Amieta snarled. She headbutted him, but he kept his grip, one arm hooked around her neck, hand clutching ...

The grenade.

The grenade with little flashing lights on the side.

"Cia!" Camille screamed, barely held to the wall by Sarakai's grip. "Cia! Do something! Cia!"

Do something. Ciarente trod water, staring at the blinking lights that were flickering out the last seconds Amieta had to live. Me. Do something.

That's got to be Fortune's best joke.

"Cia!" Camille screamed. "Help her!"

I can't.

And in that instant ... Burning

Ciarente went under as the pain hit her, inhaled a chestful of flame, fought her way to the surface again and coughed. In front of her, obscuring her view of Amieta and Papa, was a familiar face, a familiar lack of face, skin blackened and cracking away, eyes seared always open, lips drawn back in a soundless scream that could never end. Do something.

"I - can't!"

You're so weak. You were afraid of the pain, so you made me to hurt for you. You were afraid to be angry, so you gave me your anger. Weak.

"Cia!" Camille screamed.

"I can't," Ciarente whispered.

No, you can't. I could. But you sent me away. You didn't want me.

How's that working out for you?


Camille was screaming wordlessly now. Ciarente struggled to lift her arms from the fire, dragging herself towards Amieta. She kept pace. Help her. She came here for you. She came here to save you. What kind of a friend are you if you can't help her?

What kind of a sister?

Ciarente gasped, slipped under. A hand closed over hers, blackened flesh cracking open to show the bones. You can't, though, can you? Can't help her.

You should. But you can't.


She got her head into the air and gasped. "Then help me!"

Help you? Don't you have enough people helping you?

"Help me help her!" Ciarente floundered closer to Amieta. "And f'fortune's sake - hurry up!

It will hurt.

"I don't - care!" The grenade was flashing faster now, but Ciarente was almost there. "I don't care! Help me! Right now!"

It was true.

It hurt.

Hotter than fire, colder than space, it hurt, like every kind of pain Ciarente had ever known, if I see you again I'll have no choice but to set you free ... seeing Nerila shake her head and turn away ... Je suis ici, cherie ... I hate you and I want to go home! ... you’re that girl in the picture ... death shall have no dominion ... millions of people each day ... you’re a weapon now .... dead men rise up never ... there’s a seven second delay on the telemetry readout, I wrote it up as interface failure .... though they go mad they shall be sane...lose your original body and it's all test-tubes and birth-bays at best ...I could have got them out with one more minute .... I'm sure every young capsuleer falls ...From too much love of living .... there’s nothing I can do .... from hope and fear set free .... why can’t Papa come and take care of us since you can’t .... I'm going to cross that river ... the knife goes in so easily and she's not expecting it because she thinks I'm hurt, she wants to help me ... only the sleep eternal in an eternal night .... don’t want what you can’t ever have .... it was poison looks like it was him .... I'm going to live forever ... feed us and we will go away .... Though they be mad and dead as nails...tell me about how that felt .... that’s normal for you now .... you’re a pilot ... you’re a weapon ... stars at elbow and foot ... You've got to save me, spirits, I think they're coming ... I'm going to touch tomorrow now .... you couldn’t go back even if there was somewhere to go back to ... though lovers be lost love shall not ... I’m sorry ... ... I’ll have no choice, cherie, je suis ici, cherie, je suis ici, je suis, je suis …

Je suis.


Ciarente raised her hands out of the water, seeing them sheathed in gloves of flame, ghostly fire that no river could extinguish. Je suis. She took hold of Papa's hand and prised his fingers back, feeling bones snap. Je suis. The grenade came loose into her hand.

Pain, new and sharp, exploded across her face. Ciarente felt her body slacken, felt it as something far away and belonging to someone else, heard Amieta's voice.

"Cia!"

Je suis ici, ami. Je suis ici.

The water closed over her head.

It was cold. Not fire. Ciarente turned her head slowly and saw the grenade in her hand, flashing fast and faster.

I should probably not be holding on to that, she thought distantly, and opened her fingers.

The grenade fell away. Slowly, Ciarente kicked toward the surface. She had almost reached it when a wave of water hit her, tumbling her over. Almost out of air, she righted herself and kicked up again, lungs burning, kicked and kicked and finally felt her head break the surface.

For a moment all she could do was float and breathe, tasting blood. Finally she gathered the strength to lift her head and look around. Amieta. Camille.

Camille was still clinging to the wall with Sarakai. A moment later Amieta surfaced with a gasp. All right. Wearily, Ciarente turned over in the water to swim towards them.

The movement brought her face to face with Papa.

The glow of the light on her wrist showed him as pale as the bones that lined the walls. He opened his eyes.

"Cia?" he asked. "Cia, is that you, cherie?" He coughed. "I'm - hurt. That Sansha bitch ... Cia? Are you there?"

Am I here?

"Oui," Ciarente said. "Oui, Papa. Je suis ici."

Her hands were fire, her eyes were full of flames, as she took hold of him and kicked, kicked hard, kicked down, dragging him under with her. Somewhere behind her Camille was screaming, Amieta was shouting something, but the sounds were lost as the fire closed over her head. Papa struggled weakly as she pushed him down, the fire peeling everything away from both of them, skin, flesh, lies, the river washing them away, sweeping away the deceptions of her childhood, the love and the cruelties, the fear and and anger and the hope until at last he was still, and she could see in his open eyes that finally, finally he knew her, finally he could see her.

Je suis ici, Papa. Je suis ici.

Je suis.


She opened her hands and let him float away from her into the dark.

Wednesday

Into the Dark: Nine

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

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

The breaching charge went off with a dull thud. Sarakai Voutelen knocked in the lock-plate of the metal door with the stock of her rifle and kicked open the door.

Light flooded out into the tunnel, bright, glaring. Amieta's implants rapidly compensated, filters automatically running interference between her eyes and brain. Through the door she could see a metal trolley, some shelving, the foot of a cot, all cast into sharp-edged intensity by bright lamps set up around the room.

It had an instantly familiar feeling. Field medic station. Whether set up in the corridors of a station, in a jungle, or in a spirits damned tunnel, they were all basically the same: boxes of supplies, instrument trays, portable autoclave, lights.

What exactly was the sick fuck doing?

"Looks clear, sir," Sarakai said. There was an uncharacteristic hesitance to her voice, and she kept glancing toward the cot.

Amieta took a step into the room, bringing the cot into view.

It wasn't empty.

Amieta recognised the - Not patient. Victim - immediately.

Cia.

Cia lay on her back, motionless, although Amieta could see she was breathing. IV stands stood on either side of her, the lines snaking down to needles in each forearm. Her head was shaved in places, and dark sutures zigzagged over recent incisions. Her feet were bare, and the collar of her shirt stained with blood.

Spirits, Cia, what did he do to - she cut that line of thought off as useless speculation. No time. We're running out of time.

Amieta gestured to the door. "Sarakai, see if you can find which tunnel he went down."

As Sarakai nodded and ghosted out down the tunnel Amieta hurried to the cot.

"Cia? Cia, can you hear me?"

Not a flicker of reaction.

With her free hand, Amieta gently turned Cia's head. The implant jacks were clearly visible, plugs missing, the metal seeming slightly discoloured, or even corroded. Not another copy, then, like the one Sarakai left unconscious in the tunnel.

She pressed two fingers to the side of Cia's neck, feeling the pulse there fast and thready. Swearing under her breath, she studied the IVs.

After a terse conversation over her internal com with the medical staff aboard the Utopian Pattern far overhead, Amieta carefully removed one IV, then the other. Cia's eyelids fluttered almost immediately.

She put the hand not holding her gun on Cia's shoulder. "Cia, can you hear me?"

Cia opened her eyes and stared up at Amieta with an expression of stark terror. "No!" she gasped. "No, no, no - " She jerked away from Amieta so violently the cot overbalanced, sprawled on the floor and began to scramble away. "No, no, don't know, can't tell, don't know!"

"It's okay, Cia, it's me!" Amieta said. "It's Ami! It's okay."

Cia shook her head. "No, no, Cia had to go, he was going to make her tell, she had to go!" She pressed her back against the wall, drawing her knees up to her chest. "He'll make you tell too! You should run! There isn't room for all of you to hide!"

"He isn't going to make me do anything." Amieta moved slowly toward Cia. "Cia had to go? Then... are you the burned girl then?"

Cia huddled away from Amieta. "She was scared of being hurt. So she made me to hurt for her." She smiled, then, an expression more nasty than Amieta had ever thought to see on Cia's face. "Didn't work out how she planned."

We're in the damn tunnels, which are about to be under water, her psycho father – who thinks nothing of pistol-whipping a seven-year-old - is off somewhere with an unconscious Camille, and Cia has finally gone all the way off the end.

"Look," Amieta said, hunkering down in front of Cia, "You and Cia will both die if we don't get out of here soon. Do you know the way out of the tunnels? If he has managed to seal the entrance in the church?"

"He wants me to tell. I would, if I knew. But I don't. Can't tell. Can't tell!" Cia said, shrinking away from Amieta.

I do not have time for this, Amieta thought. "We need to get out of here. If you can't be useful and won't bring Cia back out here, I'll knock you out and when Cia wakes up she won't be a clone you live in anymore."

Cia shook her head. "He'll make her tell. It's important she doesn't tell. I don't know why, she didn't say why!"

Amieta's hand snapped out and closed around Cia's wrist. Cia yelped and tried to pull away, but Amieta hauled her to her feet. "We have to go." We have to get out of here.

Out of these spirits-damned tunnels before they fill with water and there's no way out at all ...

She put the thought aside, hard. "Come on."

Cia stumbled behind her as Amieta dragged her towards the door, babbling that she couldn't tell and mustn't tell.

Amieta gritted her teeth. "Can't tell what?"

"I don't know! Cia knows!" Cia hung back, resisting, as Amieta yanked her forward. "Not safe, not safe, have to hide, he'll make her tell..."

"Shut up for a second, okay?" Amieta snapped. "I need to think."

Sarakai was waiting for them where the tunnel branched into three. "That way," she said, pointing left. "Recent footprints."

Amieta studied the tracks, the dim light coming down the tunnel more than enough for her implants to work with.

"Let's go," Amieta said shortly. She let Sarakai take point, following behind with Cia in tow. Was it her imagination, or was the tunnel narrowing?

Cia stumbled and would have fallen if not for Amieta's grip on her wrist. Amieta hoisted her to her feet again, realising belatedly that without the standard rewiring that let Sarakai and Amieta negotiate the darkness, Cia couldn't see a thing.

Should have thought of that. She took a small light-stick from her belt and fastened it around Cia's wrist. Can't let things slip. Gotta concentrate. "There. Keep your hand low, you'll be able to see your way, okay, Cia?"

"Cia's not here, she had to -"

"Go, I know, you said." Amieta pulled her onward again. "You know who I am?

"You're the one he wants to know about. Who you are.Where you come from. I don't know! I told him I don't know! That's when Cia had to go."

"He asked about me? And that's when Cia had to go?"

"She promised she would never tell," Cia - or whoever is living in Cia's skull at the moment - said plaintively. "He was going to make her."

She promised ...

She promised me.

Sitting in her kitchen in Debreth, surrounded by all the food she made for the family who weren't coming home, saying "I won't tell anyone, Amieta, I promise."


"She kept her promise," Amieta said.

"She asked me to help her, and I did. She hid in the fire. And she left me here to hurt for her." Cia's mouth twisted in a snarl. "Like always."

"If you hurt for her so much, I don't think she would hurt so much normally," Amieta said, glancing upwards. The ceiling was definitely lower. It was barely above her head now, and soon it would be pressing down on her and ... She closed her eyes for a second, and when she opened them the ceiling was where it had always been. "I need to talk to Cia now though. She might know what the hell is going on with these tunnels."

"He'll make her - "

"I'm here to protect her now, he won't make her tell," Amieta said. "She's safe. He'd have to get past me to get to her, and if he managed that, Sarakai would kill him. Safe."

Cia shook her head silently, fearfully.

"Look, whoever you are in there, I need to talk to Cia. We've got to get out of here, and she might know the way. So will you wake her up, or whatever?"

"I can't, she can't, she had to - "

Amieta stopped and swung Cia around to face her. "Listen to me. Cia, too, if you're in there, if you can hear me. Cami's somewhere in these tunnels with your father and there's a spirits-damned flood coming that's going to fill all of these tunnels with water, right up to the roof, do you understand?" She swallowed, aware her voice had risen. "I'm trying to get us out of here, all of us. And I need to talk to Cia. She might be able to help."

Cia stared at her, the wrist-lamp casting such strange shadows on her face that Amieta couldn't tell if she understood. She gave Cia a little shake, harder than she'd intended. "Cia! If you can hear me! It's safe now! Will you for once give me some help!"

Cia blinked, and swayed a little. "Ami?"

Amieta steadied her. "Cia? You there?"

"Ami?"

"About time. Hey. How do you feel?" Stupid question. She's been filled full of stims and kept under chemical restraints for Spirits-know how long. 'Traditional methods'. She feels like shit, and she's going to feel worse when she crashes. If we don't all drown down here first. "Never mind."

Ciarente looked confused, and then grabbed Amieta's hand. "Ami, Papa - Camille!"

"I know, Cia, I know," Amieta said, squeezing her fingers gently. "Do you know anything about these tunnels? We need to get Camille from your father, then get out of here."

Ciarente looked around dazedly. "Tunnels? Where are we?"

"Under Fortune of the Waters. Old tunnels? Debreth?" Amieta tried to smile, but it felt more like she was gritting her teeth "We made it to the festival after all. Unfortunately, the flood is in just a little while."

"Commander," Sarakai said quietly. "We need to keep going."

Amieta nodded, and they started forward again, faster now that Cia was co-operating. The tunnel was definitely narrowing, a shelf edging out from the wall, forcing them to walk single file. Amieta glanced at it uneasily and found herself staring straight into the empty eye-sockets of a skull.

"Ancestors!"

Sarakai turned, fast, gun ready, and Amieta swallowed hard, gesturing to the skull which she could now see was one of many, a long tangle of bones scattered along the shelf. "Lovely," she said.

"The cemetery flooded, a long time ago," Cia said. "All the bodies washed in here. Then later, people came down and got the bones. Rather than reburying them, they ... decorated. That's the story." She looked at the bones. "There's a rhyme. A children's song."

"A rhyme?" Amieta asked.

"Find your way under Fortune's skirt, follow her pretty bones, and the river will spit you out Fortune's mouth."

"Fortune's mouth? Any idea what that could be?" Amieta asked. "The skirt was in the church, the entrance to the tunnels was under Fortune's skirt."

"Fortune's Mouth! It's what people call fifth bridge." Cia said. "There's a face carved on it, the water goes through Fortune's mouth."

"So if we follow Fortune's pretty bones ..." Amieta said. "I guess we are going in the right direction. Well, hell of a time to go for a swim."

Cia opened her mouth to say something, shaking her head, and then stopped as a faint sound drifted down to them from the direction they'd come.

"Oh," Cia said, going white. Whiter. "Can you hear that?"

Sarakai tilted her head. "Sounds like ... singing?"

"We don't have long," Cia said frantically. "If the singing's started ... the water ... it'll be soon."

Amieta queried the Pattern above over her internal com. The answer was not optimal: the operatives on-planet hadn’t been able to source diving equipment. With a terse instruction to abandon attempts to keep the operation covert and just hurry, she cut the connection and turned to Sarakai. “Let’s go.”

Another turn in the tunnel revealed light ahead. Amieta raised her finger to her lips, and Cia nodded. Amieta flicked the switch on the light fastened to Cia's wrist, so not even the faintest glimmer would betray their presence to Roth, and crept forward cautiously, Sarakai with her. Ahead she could hear Camille: "I will not! I want Cia! And Ami!"

"Be quiet, Camille," Jorion Roth said.

Amieta and Sarakai moved forward, weapons at the ready.

The tunnel opened out into a large cavern. Whether it was natural or not, Amieta couldn't tell, for the walls were completely lined with bones, hiding any tool marks or signs of construction. Bones, not skeletons. They were arranged by type, not as bodies - a fan of femurs, a stack of scapulars. They formed elaborate patterns, rising to a roof of skulls forty or so feet above.

Amieta couldn't see another entrance. No way out.

Jorion Roth stood on the other side of the cavern, gripping Camille tightly by one arm, wedging something into the bones with the other.

As Amieta and Sarakai swung wide to either side and approached quietly across the cavern, Roth dropped the object he held and swore, bending to pick it up.

Camille took the opportunity to kick him. Good girl.

Roth jerked her sharply by the arm. "How did you get so ungrateful, cherie?"

Below Roth's voice, Amieta could hear a distant, low, rumbling roar coming from the tunnel that had brought them here.

So could Roth, obviously. He looked around, and saw Amieta and Sarakai.

Amieta abandoned any attempt at stealth. "Having trouble, Jorion?" she asked.

Roth pulled Camille to him and Amieta saw what he had been trying to wedge in the bones as he pressed it against Camille's head. A grenade.

This just gets better and better.

"Stay where you are!" Roth said. "You won't have her!"

Camille wriggled.

Amieta could hear Cia's bare feet on the stone floor behind her, barely audible over the rising roar.

"Papa!" Cia cried. "Don't!" 

"Your friends aren't leaving me any choice, cherie," Roth said calmly. "Tell them to - "

"None of us is going to have a choice in a minute Roth," Amieta interrupted.

"Papa, please, let her go," Cia begged. "I'll come with you. Let Camille go with Amieta. Please."

Amieta edged closer. "Just put down the grenade, Roth. Looked like whatever you were doing, you should be able to tell neither of them have any implants they shouldn't."

"And even without them, you've turned them against me," Roth said.

"You tried to kill her!" Amieta snarled. "What did you expect? Just fucking let them go, so we can get out of here. No-one has to die."

"I'd rather see them both dead than in your hands," Roth said. "I raised them to understand the importance of family."

"Should have thought about that before poisoning anyone," Amieta retorted. The noise was growing louder, closer. Amieta tried to judge how far away it was, but the acoustics of the chamber and the tunnels made it impossible. Not far. Not far enough. "Now is not the time to have a talk about it though, Roth."

Cia had obviously come to the same conclusion. "Papa!" she cried. "The river's coming! Papa!"

Amieta heard her move and stepped sideways, keeping her gun trained on Roth, grabbing Cia's arm as she tried to run towards Camille and Roth.

As her hand closed around Cia's forearm a wall of water roared out of the tunnel mouth. 

Amieta let go of Cia's arm and ran toward Roth and Camille as water surged out of the tunnel. It lost a little force as it swept across the wider floor of the tunnel, but it was still moving fast and nearly waist-high. And behind it was more water.

Under water. All these tunnels, under water.

Cia lost her footing and fell with a splash, struggling to get back to her feet as the current tumbled her over. 

Roth pushed Camille away, knocking her down, and turned back to the wall of bones behind him.

Amieta had one clear image of Camille, face down, as the water rushed around them, and then the rising river knocked over Roth's lamp and plunged them all into the dark.

Tuesday

Into the Dark: Eight

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

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

There was pain.

There had always been pain, of course. It was what she was for, the pain, the burning. But this was different.

Sharp, cutting pain, sometimes. There were people talking. People with needles. People with knives.

And questions.

Je suis ici, cherie. Je suis ici.

It was a lie, had always been a lie.

No-one was there. Except him, and his questions.

More knives.

They said too much damage. And then they weren't there anymore, with their needles and their knives.

After that it was worse.

Lassitude ran into her veins from the tubes to her left, drip, drip, drip, coiling through her body like thick tar. She tried to sink into it, away from the lights and the questions and the things that he did, but what was in the tubes on the right kept her there, nerves buzzing, heart pounding, straining for the shelter of sleep like a swimmer trapped in the current strains hopelessly for the shore.

When the needle was in her arm, she couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't tell him I don't know, Cia knows, I'm not the one who knows.

When he took the needle out she tried to explain.

He never believed her.

He went away, and came back. He went away, and came back.

He went away.

There were noises. A dull thud. The clang of metal on metal.

A woman's voice. "What exactly was the sick fuck doing?"

Another. "Looks clear, sir."

The first again, closer. "Cia?" A hand touched her, cool and gentle. Not like the hands that brought the needles and the knives. "Cia? Can you hear me?"

But Cia had gone. Cia had gone into the dark.

Monday

Into the Dark: Seven

Co-authored by Ciarente and Silver Night

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

"Get up, cherie, quickly now," Papa said, taking Camille by the arm. "Cia, as we planned, remember?"

Cia nodded. "Yes, Papa," she said, the way she'd said to everything Papa told her since Camille had woken up down here in the tunnels with Papa and Cia had stopped being a pilot.

As Cia picked up the gun Papa had given her and went away down the tunnel, Papa started switching off the lights.

"Papa?" Camille asked. "What's going on?"

"The bad people are coming, cherie," Papa said. He left one light on, turning that one to shine down the tunnel. "It'll be fine. I won't let them get you." He grabbed Camille by the arm and pulled to her stand with him in the shadows behind the light.

The bad people.

Camille felt her heart give a little thump of excitement. He means Ami. Ami's here.

She promised she'd come. And now she's here.


Camille wanted to run down the tunnel towards where Ami must be, but Papa had her too tightly by the arm for her to pull away. She bit her lip and strained to hear, but there was no sound except the thump of her pulse and the sound of her and Papa breathing, and the river.

There was a hint of movement at the turn in the tunnel.

"You may as well come forward, Commander," Papa said. "I have quite a clear shot as it is. Did you think I didn't have the entrance alarmed?"

"Ami, he ca - " Can't really see you, Camille was going to say, but Papa let go of her arm and put his hand over her mouth before she could get the words out.

"Hey Cami," Ami called, just like they were on the Fortune's Smile and Ami was coming for dinner. "You ok, kiddo?"

Camille tried to say Yes but Papa's hand was too tight. She squirmed, trying to get free enough to bite his fingers, but he held her too hard.

"Given what day it is, Roth, I thought I didn't have time to **** around." Ami said. "Just give me Cia and Camille and we'll go."

"An interesting day for you to visit, Commander. Now, step forward, and throw down your guns," Papa said.

Cia's voice came from further down the tunnel, behind Ami. She must have gone down the tunnel that branches off to the left, Camille realised. It comes back around.

"You should do what he says, Ami," Cia said. "That's the best thing."

Camille wriggled enough to make Papa take his hand from her mouth and grab her by the back of her neck. "Cia, stop it!" she yelled. "It's Ami!"

"Be quiet, Camille," Cia and Papa said, almost in unison.

"Don't think that's really your sister, Cami," Ami said. "Think that's a fake your dad made to fit his delusions."

"A fake?" Camille asked. How can a person be a fake?

Papa's grip tightened on her arm, hard enough to hurt a lot. "That's enough, Commander."

"Sarakai," Ami said. "Just don't kill her."

There was a shot, and Cia yelped. She said something that Camille couldn't hear, and then there was another voice. Sarakai. That was the lady at Ami's birthday party, the one who Cia said worked for Ami.

Camille strained to hear what she was saying, but Ami was talking again. "This is a no win for you, Jorion. My people and the river are both on the way."

"I know the way out," Papa said. "Do you? Does Camille?"

"I made you sing like a bird last time we met, Jorion," Ami said. "I'm sure I could do it again. Just give me Camille and the real Cia and you can walk away."

"Last time we met?" Papa asked.

"When you visited Goinard, Jorion. I suppose you wouldn't remember. I don't take kindly to attempts to kill me Jorion. Even sloppy ones. I had hoped that the lesson would be enough to get you to back off, but..."

"Oh, that was you," Papa sid. "Elegant. If unoriginal."

"Caldari," Ami said. "That's us in two words, isn't it? Now give me the girls and walk. You're outnumbered."

Camille felt something cold against the side of her head. "Or alternatively," Papa said. "You turn around and leave and you won't be responsible for two of my daughters getting hurt."

"Papa?" Camille asked, squinting her eyes sideways to see what was pressed against her head. She could see Papa's hand, holding his gun, if she turned her eyes as much as she could. That's why it's cold. It's metal. It's his gun.

I want to go home. Right now.


"It's okay, Camille," Ami said, but it wasn't in the voice she used when things really were going to be okay.

Camille felt her heart beat faster. Ami, I'm a little bit scared.

Ami, I'm maybe a little bit more than a little bit scared.

But she couldn't say that. Because then Papa would know, too.

I don't want to be scared! I hate being scared!

She was mad at being scared and suddenly that helped her find her real mad. "Papa, stop it!" She wriggled, trying to make him lose his grip on her neck. "Stop it! I don't want to stay with you! I want to go with Ami!"

"Be quiet, Camille," Papa said tightly.

"I will not!"

Papa shook her a little. "You know who these people are. You told me -"

"They're my friends!" Camille shouted at him. "And Cia's friends! And you're too stupid to know I was lying to you! But I was! Let go of me!"

She shifted her weight onto one foot, just like the teacher at Fit To Fly had shown her, and kicked out sideways as hard as she could with the other, putting all her mad into it, putting hearing Cia crying and the way her stomach had felt lying to Papa about Ami and being alone in the dark and everything into one kick.

She felt the kick connect, felt Papa stagger a little and heard him grunt in pain.

Good! Camille thought.

Then stars exploded behind her eyes. She thought she heard Ami shout her name, and then the bright flash of light and Ami's voice and everything else faded into the dark.