Marian woke up in the hospital. Or rather, she woke up on a gurney. In what looked like a warehouse. Strapped down, though this was rather unnecessary as she couldn’t seem to move from the neck down.
Not the best way to wake up. On the other hand, she didn’t have a headache. For a moment, she thought that her life might be at an end – until Alain’s face swam into view. Marian blinked up at him through the gloom, and said, “I think I might have fallen on my head.”
“Yeah, she’s all right.” Dawson’s head popped into view. “I don’t think even the drugs could make her sound that goofy.”
And to be fair, high priestess of bloody revenge though she might be, she was never one for witty…anything. “Levity,” said Marian, wrinkling her nose. “Just what I wanted to hear.” She looked to Alain. “Am I paralyzed for a reason, or did the worst just happen to me?” Calmly put, but the kernel of fear that appeared in her heart was white-hot. She did not want to be a vegetable.
“No, you’re fine, Commander,” said Alain with a shake of his head. “Precaution only. You did fall on your head, after all, and we had to get you out of there before planetary security arrived. Got you to a black clinic in the lower levels, checked you out, and then…” He took a step back, looming over her a little less as he did so, and spread his arms. “Here we are.”
Marian tried to lift her head a little, and found that her head was strapped down as well. “Can you take these straps off?”
Dawson stepped up. His arms moved out of her line of sight, to the sound of metal on metal. Alain produced an injector pen from his belt and sank it into her neck. Almost immediately, pain lapped up her body like flames as the paralysis wore off, causing her back to arch – but only an inch or so as a couple mikes of dopamine analogue that followed flooded her body. “That…is…really pleasant,” she gasped through the wall of pink warmth that fell over her. “Thanks.”
Alain shook his head. “Well, it’s just a patchover, I’m afraid,” he said. “I mean you’ll be able to lose your legs and roll to victory with this stuff in your body, but you did sustain some head trauma. We need to get you to a proper clinic once we’re done here. I know you won’t want to let the work alone.”
“Always the work,” Marian said, blinking her eyes against the endorphin waves. She tried to sit up, found that her body was mostly made of wood, and decided against it. She looked between the two men and asked instead, “Lawson. Is he still here?”
Alain and Dawson shared a look. “I’m afraid not,” Alain said. “He left soon after your accident.”
“But not long enough that we expect a signal got to him.” Dawson stood over her again, arms folded over his chest. “More likely his business here was brief. Maybe that’s why his secretary was out slumming in spacer’s bars.”
Marian wanted to kick herself, which given the boneless state she currently found herself in she might well be able to do. “I’m an idiot,” she said to the ceiling. “I can’t believe I thought that was going to work.”
“We’re not exactly secret agents here, Top,” Dawson said with a snort. “It was a good shot, what you did. She must have just sniffed us out.”
Alain coughed softly. “If she sniffed something out,” he said, “She hasn’t left the planet. You’d think that after what she did, she’d at least fear getting her head blown off, biting off the Commander’s earlobe. Even if she wasn’t anything negative, she’d at least have to fear assault.”
It was a good point. What business could keep Lawson’s secretary on ArcCorp while went off to God knows where? Especially when she’d avoided what she obviously thought to be some kind of attack or kidnapping attempt – something which had been neatly handled with planetary security, Alain pointed out. No charges, no police investigation. Oh no, officer, my rented Greycat turned into a goddamned road bullet and but please never you mind. Marian wondered how much money or power was required to make that happen. Lawson certainly had both. They would just have to find out, even if they had to break out the thumbscrews.
Marian closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. Sensation returned to her body, and with it, a very distinct kind of anger, focused like a laser and twice as hot. “I just wanted information,” she said, surprised at the sound of her own voice, just she always was when the anger came. Stupid, really. “Now I’m going to have to go see her again.” Dawson and Alain looked at each other again. “I don’t know if she’s going to have information, Top,” Dawson said, but Marian shook her head.
“No,” she said as she sat up. “I don’t care if she doesn’t. I’m going to get that earlobe.”
There was a tick of silence before Alain said, “…I don’t think she has your earlobe, Commander.”
Whatever expression she wore when she looked at them, it made both men step back. “I didn’t say I’d be going for mine.”
Corinne Cho stayed in a luxury suite in a hotel tower in Area 23, which had the dubious title of ‘Emerald Gardens’. The Gardens were a magnet for corporate visitors doing business with ArcCorp, which would normally give Marian pause, but the old hatreds and the new rage over her mangling had bubbled up and formed a very solid defense against the monster that was common sense. In this moment, rational thinking was behind her; the almighty power of grudges and hate, the old-time religion that she had cleaved to when the Al-Yasmeen first went down, had risen up again. She rode the zealotry rush, and with Dawson and Alain had come up with a new plan, far more daring and risk-filled than anything they had come up with when they arrived at ArcCorp.
Where they had intended to spirit Lawson’s secretary away for questioning, they were going to have to go in and drag her out by the hair. Certainly they could wait a few days if need be, but if Lawson was already gone, chances were that Cho would be following after – and she knew where he was now. Insane, rash measure as it might be, Marian knew very well what they were going to need to do: they were going to have to infiltrate the hotel, interrogate Cho on site, and get out before word could be sent to Lawson that they were coming.
And they were coming.
Dawson found them an arms dealer down in the lower tiers of Area 18 that would get them the kind of gear that they needed: personal stunners, Advocacy-issue restraints, collapsible batons. Arclight IIs in the event things got nasty. Trembler sensors, antilock packs, the works. This was no longer just a brute-force snatch job, and they couldn’t go in guns blazing. Marian hadn’t done a covert entry in a long time, but there really was no way around it. In the hours between her body returning to normal and Dawson’s gathering of equipment, Marian recounted every trick that she’d learned in the old days. Old equipment, old tactics, old security knowledge – not a problem for Dawson and Alain, both younger extracts from the Marine scout corps, which made her the rusty hinge. She couldn’t let them see that, though. Not with her already getting a chunk torn off and her head cracked open. She would have to make the best of it.
They hired an illicit taxi that ferried them across to Area 23, sublevel 47. They would enter a furnace complex and make their way up through the tower’s waste disposal infrastructure and into the tower’s upper levels. From there, they would enter the tower via its ductwork, infiltrate Cho’s suite, and after extracting the information they wanted, disguise themselves as guests and make their way out to where another car would be waiting for them. Quitting the taxi, they made their way through another maze of industrial plants and factory corridors to the entry point. The furnace complex was like a vestibule to the underworld; filled with incinerators, all of which burned behind their shut gates, the cavernous furnace hall was lit by the conflict between the flames behind the metal shutters and the factory lights that struggled valiantly against their stone-age cousins. Here, Marian though, was a place with significance. Into flames and fire, when they already had Hell burning at their backs.
Dawson led as they counted down the gates, to the incinerator that their information told them would be shut down. Sure enough, the yawning mouth of the furnace gate was open, its cavity cold and dark within. They keyed headlamps and Dawson checked power levels and the drop duct from above, then signalled that all was well.
< God help us if someone decides to dump the trash as we climb up,> Alain said over the private commsnet they had set up. < Or turn on the gas. >
< My man says this system’s been cold for months. And even if they started it up, it would take hours to get going again. > Dawson swept the duct with his headlamp one more time before ducking out. < Okay. Top? What’s the call? >
Marian took a deep breath behind the mask of her infiltration hood. The three of them wore matching gear: black fatigues, no armor, gear packs at their thighs and the smalls of their backs. Infiltration hoods with built-in lamps and low-light goggles. Mag boots if they needed them. < You take point, Dawson, > she instructed. < I’ll take the middle. Alain, you watch our backs. >
< Yes ma’am. > They said it in unison, which made her feel a little better – even though she’d made a fool of herself getting her head smashed, she at least still had their respect. Dawson took the duct first, stepping into the mouth of the incinerator and pulling himself into the duct, the toes of his boots magnetizing with a soft clank as he began working upward. After a few moments, he was entirely in.
But for the grace of God go I, Marian thought to herself as she stepped into the furnace cavity. She thought about the vision she had the day before, of her body erupting into flames, burning away to nothing. It would keep her from committing murder if the furnace came on, right now, burned her and her sins to nothing – she might even welcome it. But even though she hesitated a moment, something in her willing the flames to start, they did not. She was committed, and she reached up and pulled herself into the duct.
Coriolis. Lawson. Cho. Three more names attached to the rest of the mystery, that long litany of death that spelled the end of so many innocents. And like the force for which it was named, she felt herself being drawn toward the ship, slowly but surely, into whatever storm that brewed behind its disappearance. She knew, somehow, that she would live to see it resolved. She just didn’t know if anyone else would live to follow her in.
But first, she thought, following Dawson’s boots into darkness, the climb. Christ, it’s a long way up. A long way up, and then…blood. She’d get her earlobe, all right. And answers. It was almost as if it were ordained. Destiny was like that. Destiny and curses.
Marian imagined she knew which of the two that it would be.
For what felt like hours, they scaled the guts of the waste processors. Years of cycling the incinerators had left the ferrous pipes coated with a thick carbon residue that made the climb hazardous on occasion – more than once Marian’s boots slipped on the stuff, causing her to wonder just what genius of the space industry decided that mag soles couldn’t go easily through an inch or so of carbon scoring. The lateral sections were easier, but badasses though all three might be they all had to stop and rest from time to time. Not too long, though They had a target, and the longer they took to get to her, the more likely she could just up and vanish on them. That wasn’t going to happen. Not on Marian’s watch.
When they finally made it up to the lowermost maintenance level of the hotel, and emerged from the waste portal, they looked as though they had rolled through a coal pile. What wasn’t already black going in was now coated with carbon, and they all looked more like terrible spectres than armed infiltrators. Which, she supposed, was all to the good, but there shouldn’t be anyone who would see them.
< I’m going to hack the hotel’s network, > Alain announced, jerking a thumb down the maintenance room to a panel by the exit hatch. < See if our guests are still there. >
Marian nodded, and Alain went to crack open the panel. For their part, she and Dawson checked over their equipment to make sure that everything was fine – there were no cameras on this level, at least not until you went through the hatch into the rest of the basement. Hotel security didn’t seem to count on three determined killers climbing through the incinerator ducts – nor should they, as it was something you’d probably only otherwise see done in holographic films. But here they were, and after only a few minutes of splicing data lines, Alain announced that they could continue their climb to the top. And so they did – but not before Alain looped the video feeds in the sub-basement to cover their tracks. Bit of a low-tech approach, Marian thought, but sometimes the old ways were best. Even in their line of work.
They unsealed the exit hatch and entered the rest of the basement. The rest was more maintenance and storage; the atmosphere filters and ductwork began on the level above. They moved quietly, one after another like some terrible black snake, negotiating the maintenance corridors as if they had been born to them thanks to the purchased maps projected on the inside of their goggle displays. Alain muttered as they turned the corner and passed a block of laundry machines, humming peacefully away.
The moment the words left his mouth, Marian knew that he shouldn’t have spoken them. The three of them passed the laundry block, the last turn before the elevator, and as they did they found themselves walking straight into a trio of ArcCorp security officers standing in the hall, backs turned, red armor glinting red and slick like freshly butchered meat in the dim light of the hall. It really was the worst thing to find – save for if the officers were facing them.
Dawson moved. Blurred, really, the Marine training kicking in. Before the men could say a word, his baton appeared in his hand and he whipped it across the unhelmeted neck of one of the guards, bringing him down like a felled bear without so much as a bellow. The next one caught the end of the baton square in the center of his brow, knocking him cross-eyed as he went. As he moved to take out the third, however, there was a bright flash and the smell of ozone; Dawson stuttered, then dropped, falling onto his back with a smoking hole square in his chest where his heart had been cooked by the guard’s laser. Dead before he hit the ground.
The blood veil fell over her eyes. Marian drew her own laser and fired – as did Alain – and for a brief moment, the whole corridor glowed like the inside of a bad frontier cathouse, all of the Devil’s red neon lit up at once. What was left of the security man tumbled back, smoking from a dozen wounds or more, and fell onto the ground, a charred husk.
The veil retracted, and Marian found herself staring at two corpses – one of hers, unmissed by staff – and three men who would most likely be checked on very soon. However you wanted to look at it, through the numbing shock that buffeted her senses, the situation was not good. For a long moment Marian stared at the bodies in the corridor, her own man and the others, smelled roasted flesh and ozone, tasted iron on her tongue. Then the old instincts kicked in and she stepped forward.
< Help me dispose of them, > she said, her voice flat and cold, like Gladwell’s eyes had been when he delivered Lawson’s name to her. She knew in that instant what he had done to get the name. She might well have done it herself. She sure as hell didn’t feel anything for the man she had just killed.
Waste disposal. They were only waste to her just then, that’s all. And then…the climb. There was nothing else but the operation.
She would sort out the rest later.