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Cardinal Sins: Chapter 3
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 7 April 2006, 3:31 am

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       Michael Taylor watched the dull rays of light that crept slowly around the edges of the heavy curtain which must have concealed a large window. He heard outside his door the muffled rustlings of the other cell members awakening. Checking his watch which he had placed on the desk beside him, he saw it was still just six o'clock. These people made an early start of it.

       As he had expected, it had not been a restful sleep. Though his accommodations were uncomfortable enough, his normally active mind had more than usual to dwell on. While at first shock and incredulity had been foremost amongst his feelings, fear had since replaced them. His mind had wandered uncomfortably to his rescue from the Militia, and the memory of the terror returned. Was that just another night for this cell? Was such violence commonplace?

       Michael could not kill anyone. It had taken him twenty-two years to find it out, but it was an undeniable truth to him now. All his youth he had wanted to join the army, more eager than any to defend Vesta's sovereignty in the name of the Colonial Independence Front. No one had attended more of the Front's rallies, nor joined so enthusiastically in the condemnation of the UN, nor defended more fanatically the Party's disastrous first term in office in 2496. Upon leaving high school with grades that barely permitted his passing, he had signed up for the Colonial Army and had been put into a unit whose lieutenant shared his political views with equal fervor. He had felt more at home in the army than he had ever felt anywhere in his entire life.

       He had spent four years in training before seeing his first action in a remote forest town far to the south. He recalled, with some unease, the feeling of pure adrenaline as his unit had closed in on the small settlement in the dead of the night, his night vision goggles bathing the scattered buildings in a faint green glow. The town was said to be a separatist stronghold with an unknown number of civilians. His unit was meant to be a surgical strike, to take out the hostiles and secure the others for detainment and questioning. It was to be a simple operation, no more than ten minutes from beginning to end, though as he had since learned, nothing is ever so simple.

       When the first bullet fired, all had descended into chaos. Civilians ran from their homes and were cut down in the crossfire between the soldiers and the separatists. As men, women, and children were shot in the streets, his own rifle had stayed quiet. His lieutenant had been furious, and under the pressure of the moment Michael had snapped and struck him down. While usually striking an officer carried with it a minimum punishment of imprisonment, the failure of the operation had compelled his superiors to merely drum him out of the army with a dishonorable discharge to keep him silent about the incident.

       The events of that day had shaken him to his very core. He no longer believed that separation by any means was the right answer. He decided the unhealthy compromise that left Vesta on the edge of the independence yet officially attached to the UN was breeding these violent separatists. Exemption from several universally binding laws allowed the fiercely insular people of Vesta to exact their own form of brutal justice, and it was clear it was not working. While attending university after being discharged, he also learned violent revolutions were a problem unique to the Outer Colonies whose ties to the UN had faded. The Inner Colonies enjoyed more stability and boasted greater quality of life under the governance of the UN. It became clear to him that accepting United Nations administration was the only path to peace.

       While this was how he justified his sudden and radical departure from his previous political ideologies, he knew the more fundamental reason for his dramatic shift was the conscious and subconscious association of the CIF with the events that day in the woods. Following their tenets himself and led by a likeminded officer, it had been in the CIF's name that all those people had been killed. He felt the desperate need to wash his hands of the incident, and it was in the United Party that he had sought his absolution.

       A sharp knock on the door shook Michael from his bleak reverie.

       "Are you up?" asked a deep voice he recognized as Eric Edwards'.

       "Yea, basically," he said somewhat groggily, looking around his room through the gloom.

       "We have some clean clothes for you outside your door. Now get up," he ordered gruffly, and walked down the hallway towards the common room.

       Michael let his head fall back on to the pillow and rubbed his face vigorously with his hands in an attempt to compensate for the lack of sleep he had gotten. What on earth did they need him up for at quarter past six? A cold sliver of fear shot across his chest, though he quickly quenched it. He would have to get up eventually; in any case, as he had learned since his departure from the army, the best way to stay ahead of his fear was to keep moving. Grabbing the clothes piled on his doorstep, he pulled on a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt, and a gray pullover sweater. Gazing at himself in the mirror, he decided he looked almost suspiciously casual.

       After stopping briefly in the bathroom where he found his own toothbrush in a helpfully labeled container, he made his way to the common room at the end of the hall. Not sure quite what to expect, he was vaguely surprised to see a scene that resembled a college dorm room. Jennifer Wright and David Hall were sitting on one of the leather couches, jocularly criticizing the censored newscast they were watching on a flat screen television. Amy Bishop and Eric Edwards were discussing something in slightly more subdued voices as the latter was frying some eggs, sausage, and bacon.

       "Ah, Michael," Amy said, noticing him after he spent a few uncomfortable moments in the doorway. He noted that while she did not speak to him with the same hostility she had displayed after his rescue, she still regarded him with a somewhat detached gaze. "Our resident chef here is cooking us a breakfast fit for kings."

       Edwards cracked what Michael assumed to be a rare smile. "Southern eggs this week. All natural."

       "We start every morning with a healthy breakfast," Amy said a little more seriously. "Get as much food and sleep as you possibly can while you can. There may come a time when it will mean the difference between life and death." She softened this dismal advice with a heartwarming smile.

       "I'll keep that in mind," he answered, unconsciously returning the smile.

       "Dinner is about to be served," Edwards announced, and the pair on the couch lowered the volume of the show and approached the kitchen counter, still talking loudly. Edwards doled out equal portions of the scrambled eggs, sausage, and bacon, as well as two sliced of buttered whole wheat toast, on to five generously sized plates. They then took a seat at the maple dining table, Amy and Edwards at either end, Jennifer and David sharing a side, and Michael left to his own side.

       Before anyone ate, Amy held her juice in the air and turned her attention to Michael. Her comrades followed her gaze. "I would just like to take this opportunity to officially welcome you into this organization, Michael. May you have a successful – and hopefully long – membership in the Cardinal Cell."

       It was a clear allusion to the man killed the previous night saving him, and it was with a palpable heaviness that the other members exclaimed, "Hear, hear!"

       They dug in all at once, Michael's hunger suddenly awoken by the sight of food in front of him. It was by no means gourmet, but it was all fresh and adequately prepared, and most importantly it settled his empty and uneasy stomach perfectly. As he slowed and his appetite became satisfied, he began to consider asking about the man who had died. He did not want to overstep his bounds, but was curious about the person who had been killed trying to get him to safety.

       "Who was the man last night?" Michael asked, and everyone looked up from their meal to look at him. "The one who was killed, I mean."

       He looked around at their faces, which all stared back with empty gazes. At last, Amy answered. "His name was Samuel Lewis. He was with the Cardinal Cell since its inception."

       The terse reply left little room for conversation on the matter. Feeling it awkward to leave it there, however, he finished by saying quietly, "I would just like all of you to know that I'm deeply grateful for his sacrifice."

       "Well, I'm sure he'd really appreciate that," Edwards shot in a low growl.

       "Eric!" Amy interjected sharply, though said nothing more.

       There was no more conversation after this exchange, the only sound accompanying them being the clanging of silverware and the low chatter of the reporter from the news program. As the hour approached seven, Amy finally broke the silence.

       "We have an errand to run this morning," she said suddenly to Michael. "The cells are running low on ammunition and supplies, and we have to obtain some through a proxy."

       "Who's coming?" he asked lightly, purposely avoiding Edwards' glare.

       She gave him a small, almost undetectable smile. "Eric will be dumping the car we used last night. David, as always, will be running logistics. That leaves you, me, and Jennifer." She finished the last of her juice in a final gulp. "Finish your meal and follow me. I'll get you suited up."

       Likewise finishing his drink, he left his dinnerware for the others to clean up and followed Amy into an adjoining room. He couldn't help but give a small exclamation at the contents of the small storage space; hung on brackets on the walls and piling the pair of tables were dozens of firearms and assorted ammunition. A shelf on the back also displayed an impressive array of explosives, a discovery that made Michael back up an involuntary step.

       "It doesn't look like you need any more weaponry to me," he breathed.

       "There's certainly been no shortage of guns since the imposition of Martial Law," Amy said as she examined a pistol from one of the tables. "Law enforcement and the army have been moving huge shipments of confiscated weapons out of the city and even bigger shipments of supplies into the city. It wasn't too hard to get all these." She seemed to settle on a small black pistol and slipped its corresponding clip into the hilt. "Trouble is, the CIF has of course prohibited the sale of ammunition to the civilian population, and we go through that like you wouldn't believe. It's extremely hard to get, but we're well connected." She handed him the pistol and smiled, likely at the stunned expression on his face has he hesitantly took the proffered weapon.

       "Turn around," she ordered suddenly.


       "I need to implant a subdermal in the back of your neck, for tracking purposes," she explained offhandedly, taking a needle instrument from the shelf. "It won't hurt," she reassured him, as he showed considerable reluctance in obeying her. The pain was certainly not what he was worried about, as she no doubt knew. Being implanted by someone he had just met the previous night was an unsettling prospect.

       He heard a small popping noise behind him and it was done. As she had said, he had not felt a thing, though he unconsciously rubbed the spot anyway, to her amusement.

       "Lastly, we have this ultra-light Kevlar for you," she said, and held up a gray vest slightly thinner than his sweater for him to see. "It's available only to members of black ops cells. Put it on and meet us in the warehouse." With this, she left him alone in the room, a hand still on the back of his neck and eyes glued to the vest he held limply in his hands.

       Once more, he felt the sensation of being left far behind. This was happening almost too fast to comprehend it as it happened. Shaking his head, he slipped off his sweater and put the vest on. It was much lighter and thinner than the military issue he was used to, though he guessed it was also a good deal less durable. Still, it was better than nothing and ensured discreetness. He put his sweater back on, slipped his pistol into the back of his pants, and headed through the common room, where David had settled into his communications niche and Edwards was clearing the dishes, towards the elevator at the back of the hall.

       When he reached the warehouse, Amy and Jennifer had pulled up in a cheap black car outside the elevator doors. "You're in back," Jennifer said helpfully, and he entered the rear with gritted teeth.

       It was seven thirty when they left the warehouse, which was exactly when curfew lifted. The industrial park they were in seemed almost as abandoned as it had the night before with the exception of a few commercial trucks that had a tight schedule to follow. They passed a Militia van along the stretch, causing Michael the snap back in his chair from the view he had been admiring from the passenger window.

       "Take it easy, would you," Jennifer said, offering some more helpful advice. Michael said nothing.
       He turned back to gazing out his window after a few moments. Massilia was a beautiful city in many ways, though these days it was a beauty to be admired from a distance. The newly risen sun bathed the distant downtown Massilia in morning's pale light, the skyscrapers, gleaming with fresh frost, casting long shadows across the city, with the bay sparkling beyond. The residential sector to the north was equally attractive, its low built houses sprawling endlessly along the slope of the northern mountains, hidden beneath the branches of the trees that lined every street. He settled back in his seat and shook his head. It was a beauty wasted on its people.

       "Where are we going, anyway?" he asked, turning his attention from the view.

       To his surprise, it was Jennifer who answered. "To see an old friend of mine."

       "Who?" he ventured, when no further explanation was offered.

       "His name is Alexander Lansing," she explained. "I had a professional relationship with him back on the force."

       "What manner of relationship?"

       Jennifer didn't answer, so Amy carefully elaborated. "Jennifer had the opportunity to discuss many unsolved crimes with Alexander, on a civilian basis."

       "You mean he's a criminal?" he said incredulously.

       "Of course not!" Jennifer said lightly. "He was never directly accused of anything."

       "Look, Michael," Amy said to placate him. "No one was harder hit by the imposition of Martial Law than organized crime. Everyone with a record was immediately taken in, and the Militia took a great deal of liberty in arresting even those who were clean. The Red Mafia is a shell of its former self, so it is obviously in the survivors' best interest that democracy be restored to Vesta. Alexander happily uses his many contacts to assist the PLC in our efforts."

       "Also remember that the weeding out of all those with a record left only the smartest members," Jennifer added. "Lansing is one crafty fuck, always has been. Christ knows how he avoided the CIF witch hunt."

       As they made their way towards lower downtown, Michael contemplated what he had been told. That his first task with the PLC was to buy illegal weapons from a mobster was not so objectionable in itself as was the precedent it set for the future. Doubtless bringing him along was a sort of initiation, which indicated the jobs ahead would only test his morals further. And he had worked so hard to keep them safe.

       They pulled up to a two storey restaurant on a one way side street that lay in the midst of the busiest commercial sector in the city. The street was relatively empty, however, for most people had not completed their commute so soon after the curfew had lifted. The only car actually on the road was an army truck that noisily passed them as they parked.

       The two women got out and Michael quickly followed them. As they walked towards the entrance of the restaurant, he noticed two Militia officers walking down the sidewalk towards them. His heart jumped in his throat, but Jennifer was quick to say, "Just keep walking." Following her advice, he turned away from them and focused with an unnatural intensity on their destination.

       Amy knocked three times on the door, and immediately movement could be seen through the pair of stained glass windows that adorned its front. The door opened and a small, dark haired woman stood in the doorway. "I'm sorry, but the Chateau Briand does not offer breakfast," she said curtly. "We open at noon."

       "We're here to see Mr. Lansing," Amy said, as if she had not spoken. "Tell him it's Bishop calling."

       "Just a moment, please," she said, sounding hesitant. The door closed.

       "For Christ sake, can't he tell the new staff to just let me in?" Amy muttered, annoyed. The two officers were approaching quickly.

       The door reopened moments later and the woman held out an arm to beckon them in. "Mr. Lansing will see you now." As they entered, the two Militia outside peered into the darkened restaurant suspiciously, but Michael quickly averted his eyes.

       The woman led them arbitrarily towards the back, for it was clear Amy knew the way. Michael, meanwhile, took in his surrounding with quiet admiration. Though he had expected nothing less than high class, the dining area had an old world, almost nostalgic charm. Dozens of mahogany tables interspersed with wine cooling spaces graced the floor under low hanging lights, each decorated with ornate green lampshades. Two dark wood bars could be seen at either end of the restaurant, and a low platform at the back seemed set up for live entertainment. He had never seen a place like it on Vesta.

       They were led to a closed door past the kitchen and bathrooms. The woman nodded towards the door. "Please, go right in," she said.

       Past the door was a small room that looked much like the rest of the building. The hardwood floor was arranged in an elaborate, lavish pattern, and the equally gilded walls boasted half a dozen paintings, most depicting beautiful, half-clad women. On the right was a generous mini bar, on the right a granite fountain, and in the center, a large, marble-topped oak desk with a man of fitting stature seated behind it.

       "Ah, Amy," he said genially in a deep, imposing voice, turning his attention from his computer screen to look singularly at her. "How have you been?"

       "Just fine, Alexander," she said with a smile, and took the proffered seat. Michael and Jennifer were left to stand.

       "I must say, I was not expecting you," he said, his voice losing its friendly tone with startling speed. Although he said nothing overtly intimidating, the force of the man behind the words added much weight to them. It was clear he was a big man, well over six feet and with broad shoulders. Alexander Lansing's face was hard, probably middle aged but looking much older. His hair was probably once light brown, but it was barely visible through the dark grey that had long since overtaken it. His most striking feature, however, was his icy blue eyes, which appeared so pale that they almost looked in the dim light to be white. Certainly, they looked to be as hard and unfeeling as the marble of his desk.

       "We have been in greater need of your services lately," Amy said, with the same professional voice. "We have more members than ever before, and we are stepping up our efforts."

       "I'm sure," he said, blowing smoke out slowly from the cigarette held loosely between his fingers.

       "We need another shipment. Our supplies are running low."

       "Have you perhaps forgotten our arrangement, my dear?" he asked, slightly more diplomatically, yet somehow no less intimidating. "You said two weeks ago you wouldn't be back here for a month. Every time I tip you off about an arms shipment I run the personal risk of exposure."

       "You run the risk of exposure every time you draw breath, Alexander," Amy returned gently.

       Lansing's eyes narrowed as the intensity of his frightening eyes grew. "You know, with the obscene amount of ammunition you ask for, sometimes I think you must be killing an awful lot of those bastards. And sometimes," he continued, exhaling another lungful of smoke, "I think you're just wasting my fucking time."

       Amy never broke her gaze with Lansing, but a long silence filled the smoke laden air before she answered. "You know, there was a time one could find such things out on the news."

       Another silence drew on for a time before Lansing broke out in a barking, mirthless laughter. When he finished, he turned his gaze for the first time from Amy. "And who is this?" he asked with a slight nod towards Michael. "Did somebody die? Or did they just have the sense to leave a freedom fighting organization everyone else thinks is a terrorist group?"

       "Do we have a deal?" Amy asked coldly.

       Lansing continued to smile. "Did you bring what I asked for?"

       "Of course." She handed him a small, folded piece of paper.

       He looked at the piece of paper briefly, than, apparently satisfied, reached into his desk and placed it carefully within, at the same time retrieving a small datapad. "A civilian convoy is bringing military grade weapons into the city from Mason Air Force Base tomorrow morning, trying to keep a low profile. The details are all in here." He handed the device over to Amy, who took it quickly and put it in her pocket.

       "Thank you," she said and stood up to leave.

       "Until next time," he said with a smile, and the three of them made their way to the door.

       "Oh, and Amy," Lansing said, as she was about the close the door in leaving. She stopped and turned around. "If you come back in less than a month, I will not admit you."

       She regarded him with a blank expression for a brief moment and then closed the door behind her.

       As they walked back towards the front door, Michael could not contain his burning question. "What was that slip of paper you gave Lansing?" When she ignored him and continued walking, he insistently repeated his question. "Amy! What was on that piece of paper?"

       "Security access codes," she answered shortly.

       "To what?" he pressed.

       "What does it matter?"

       He stared at her for a moment with an incredulous gaze. "We're helping murderers make a living now, are we?" he asked, exasperated.

       "Just what the fuck did you think we were doing here, Michael?" she asked fiercely, rounding on him as they reached the door. She lowered her head to calm herself and ran her hand through her raven black hair. Suddenly she looked up at him with an inscrutable expression, her chestnut eyes like deep, black wells. "You think you know yourself. You think this should shock you. Well, if you didn't believe in the greater good before, believe it now. If not, stay the fuck away from us."

       With this, she turned from him, and walked out into the cool, sunny morning.