Court of Darkness (chapter three): Red Rage
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 13 October 2006, 8:33 am
Court of Darkness (chapter three): Red Rage
"Pity is treason"
Only a few minutes before, Jennifer's body had arrived in the trunk of her brother's car; bound by chains and wrapped like a mummy. Even though her death had come as a complete surprise, the body had yet to lose all of its warmth. Anywhere else, such haste would have seemed highly unusual, but to Tethra's numerous funeral homes it had become commonplace. Still, as Fenton Halloway looked into the eyes of the old man sitting in his office, he was reminded of something his father used to say. Fear rushes forward in panic, but grief reaches back in love. It wasn't hard to see which emotion enjoyed the upper hand in this situation.
"John," Fenton said with a gentle smile, "I think it's a beautiful choice, but that is a very expensive casket and there are other ways to go about this." The mortician let his words sink in a moment and then, in spite of his efforts to the contrary, spoke with a nervous tone. "Have you considered cremation?"
He shook his head. "No, Jen would never approve."
"I knew Jenny for over twenty years, John, and I'm sure she wouldn't want to be the reason you went bankrupt."
Looking down at the table, the elderly man shook his head again. "No, it ain't right. It just ain't right."
Fenton tried to think of something that would make John understand, but he came up empty. Ever since the Silent Plague burnt out eight years before, death brought more than just grief to the families in this community; it brought an all-consuming fear. Windows were boarded up and the streets were emptied before sundown as everyone hid behind their doors and locks. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, families started asking him to wrap their dead loved ones in chains or lock them away in steel coffins—all due to the absurd belief that the dead came back to life. It was enough to make him walk away from the whole business, except that he loved these people too much leave them in less caring hands.
But it was a load of rubbish, and who would know that better than him? Forty-two of his sixty years had been spent as a mortician, and he was yet to see a body get up and walk away. Sure, there had been strange occurrences since the plague ravaged the planet, but zombies did not even appear on Fenton's list of possible causes. Even so, he had recently spent a small fortune on cremation equipment in an effort to remove the symbol of their fear, if not the silly fear itself. Since cremation meant no body, and no body presumably meant no zombie, it seemed to be the perfect placebo.
But Halloway had underestimated just how deep the terror went. These people had become so fearful of the deceased that they ordered their lives differently to keep from offending them. Thus, they didn't see cremation as the elimination of the body, but rather as another way of angering the dead.
Gently taking the hand of his grief-stricken friend, Fenton decided to give it one last try. "Jenny was a good Catholic, wasn't she?"
"Yes, of course she was."
Halloway smiled. "Did you know that the Church lifted the ban on cremation nearly six centuries ago? I'm quite certain Jen wouldn't call into question hundreds of years of sanctioned doctrine."
John waved his head back and forth, tears forming in his eyes. "But you don't believe that they come back, do you Fenton?"
"You know that I don't."
"But I do, and it's something I can't ignore." John began to weep, and Halloway instantly wished he hadn't pressed the issue. "Do you think I like living this way? I haven't played cards or drank since Maggie died, and now I have to stop smoking that pipe Jenny hated so much."
"I know that, John, but—"
The usually gentle man slammed his fist down on the table, causing the mortician to jump. "Have you ever thought to ask me why I gave those things up?"
"No," he replied, slightly embarrassed, "I guess I haven't."
Fear flickered in the old man's eyes as he began to speak in hushed tones. "Maggie was one of the last to die of the plague, and that was before we started to lock our houses and come in before dark. One night, I returned from the pub to find my door open, and my house filled with a horrible smell." His voice began to tremble. "But I was drunk, so I collapsed on the couch without even bothering to find out why. I w-was," he stammered, "awoken in the middle of the night by a voice."
Halloway was incredulous. "You heard her voice?"
"No, it didn't sound much like her at all. But it sure looked like her, and it was wearing the clothes Maggie was buried in."
This was starting to go in a direction that Fenton wanted to avoid. He smiled and spoke kindly. "But, you said it yourself; you were drunk."
Reaching into his vest pocket, John pulled out a wedding ring—and Halloway nearly fell out of his chair. "But I wasn't drunk when I found this the next morning."
Eight years before, it had been John's wish that Maggie's wedding ring be buried with her—and it had been. Fenton had seen it with his own eyes.
"I just told you how!" He grabbed his ears like a frightened child. "I'll never get that voice out of my head! I'll never forget her words!"
"What did she say?"
"Th-that sh-she died because of the s-sins of men, and that vengeance would c-come." Tears flowed down John's face as he began weeping in earnest. "Don't you understand? She blames me! My drinking, my smoking, my gambling, my sins!"
Halloway reeled as if sucker punched. John was a lot of things, but he was no liar. The idea that he would come in to his office with a fake ring, or for that matter desecrate his wife's grave to get the real one, was even more far-fetched than the dead coming to life.
"John, regardless of what you saw or heard that night, you need to understand something. Maggie loved you as much as any wife ever loved a man, and her death doesn't change that one bit. If she really did whisper in your ear about sins and vengeance, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with your card playing or your pipe." Fenton reached across the desk, grabbed John's left arm and looked him straight in the eye. "Maggie was a good woman, and you were a good husband. She's not coming after you for revenge." John's eyes brightened. It had been so long since he'd heard anything resembling hope that he latched on to Fenton's words like a starving man grasping for bread.
"That may be," he said, wiping tears from his eyes, "But if she wasn't talking about me, who was she talking about?"
Philip Beerman had no illusions concerning his plans for this night. He knew that, contrary to popular depictions, suicide was neither romantic nor courageous. A romantic man would have followed his wife to Earth and fought to win back her affections: a man of courage would own up to his hellish lies, rather than choosing the easy out. In a way, however, suicide fit Phil like a glove. It was a supremely selfish act that would cap off a singularly selfish life.
Without bothering to turn on the light, he walked into his study and sat down behind a beautiful, solid oak desk. He pulled his service automatic out of his coat, and it sat cold and heavy in his sweat moistened hand. His fingers almost slipped as he chambered a round with an echoing, metallic clank. No need for a suicide note: who would read it? He'd never had any children and his wife was back on Earth, living with his best friend. With despair and guilt urging him forward, he released the weapon's safety and pressed the cold, steel barrel against his temple. Closing his eyes tight, he began to squeeze the trigger.
A lead slug exploded from a silenced barrel; searing the darkness with a gout of flame and slamming into Phil's wrist with a sickening thud. Pulverized muscle and bone splattered on Beerman's face, and the would-be suicide weapon fell from a hand that now dangled by two thin tendons. Blood spurted from severed arteries in thick, dark streams as a man emerged from the shadows.
"I thought policemen were supposed to know first aid," he stated coolly. "Just place your good hand under your upper arm and pinch it together beneath the bicep." Holstering his gun, the stranger reached over the desk and pointed. "Right there. That will shut off your brachial artery." Beerman followed the directions, and after a couple of tries, the blood stopped.
"See how easy that was? Now let's get your legs propped up." Walking behind him, the man pulled back his chair and placed Phil's feet on top of the desk. Apparently satisfied with his work, the stranger sat down on the other side of the desk and started dishing out advice like a school nurse.
"Don't look at it and don't think about it. Stare right into my eyes and take slow, deep breathes. That's it, just concentrate on me." After a few moments, Beerman calmed down and his breathing became normal. The stranger seemed pleased. "Feeling better?"
"Yeah," he said with a nod. "But why—"
"Because I can't question you if you're dead or in shock."
"Question me?" the suicidal man laughed. "And what if I don't want to answer?"
A smile snaked across the stranger's face; chilling Beerman to the bone. "You obviously came here to die, but you wanted it to be quick, right? You chose a bullet to the brain, but there are plenty of other ways to check out; many of them slow and unpleasant." He leaned back in his chair and the scary smile was gone, replaced now by a look of genuine understanding. "I know an awful lot about you Philip, and I don't think it will come to that. Who do you really have to protect?"
Phil's gaze fell to the desk. "Nobody. Nobody at all." He wasn't sure what was worse: facing the prospect of torture or having nothing left in his life worth suffering for. Maybe Judas felt this way. He sold his soul for money, and he wasn't worth anything either. He looked at the man, and as their eyes met, he almost smiled. "Who sent you?"
"Never heard of him."
The man chuckled. "Oh, but he's heard of you. Philip Beerman, the hero of Tethra. The man who brought order to an entire planet by offering nothing more than hope."
"I offered lies."
"Yes, but you did it so well. Unfortunately, exploits from the past do not excuse failures of the present. Those two men sent by Admiral Denning weren't taken care of, even though they visited your office today. And, of course, O'Carrol is still alive and kicking as well. You've lost your edge, Phil, and now your tasks fall to me." A cruel grin stretched across his face. "You weren't even able to kill yourself. But don't worry, I'll see to that in a few minutes. First you need to tell me about O'Carrol."
The man's arrogance stirred anger in Beerman, but he dared not show it. For years he had held cowardice with one hand and selfishness with the other; and now, even as he faced certain death, he dared let go of neither. After a few moments, he replied through colorless lips.
"O'Carrol is like the wind: you hear of her being here, then there, but by the time you respond she's gone without a trace."
"You've never even come close?"
Beerman shrugged. "Once. Last month someone called in an anonymous tip. Said he saw a huge red-haired woman walking into a hotel around the corner from the Police station. Seven officers arrived almost immediately and stormed her room." Phil looked at the man hired to kill O'Carrol and smiled. "She slaughtered them with her bare hands."
"What makes you so sure it was her?"
"Well," Phil chuckled, "how many women on this planet could kill seven armed men without firing a shot? Besides, we have the video feed from their helmets."
The man's eyes brightened. "It's here?"
"In the bottom drawer of this desk." Beerman took a deep breath. "Now you know as much about her as I do."
The stranger eased out of the chair and once again palmed his silenced pistol. "You've been cooperative, Chief, so I'll make this quick. You want it in the brain or the chest?"
Phil pulled his legs down from the desk and sat up straight in his chair. "The brain. But first, could you at least tell me who you are?"
Two bullets whispered out of the pistol, slamming into Beerman's forehead and exploding the back of his skull like a firecracker inside a prize-winning tomato.
The man who had killed Colonel Ackerson, Admiral Kraft, and several heads of state, holstered his gun and walked around the desk. He opened the lower drawer, located the disk and placed it inside his black coat. Just before walking out the door, he turned to the late Phillip Beerman and smiled cordially.
"Wiley, Chief. My name's Wiley."
For the last year, anger had been a way of life for O'Carrol; but as she sat in her room poring over the documents she'd taken from Blige Edelson, a deeper, darker rage began to rise. Thus far she had been able to master her indignation, using it as a means to an end without losing touch with her humanity. But Cairren was not made of metal; she was flesh and bone like everyone else—and like everyone else, she had her limits. As she continued to read, each horrible fact stripped away another layer of the person she had been and put in its place a terrible, unflinching resolve. O'Carrol knew that she had attracted the UNSC's attention; but only as an elusive, tactically gifted rebel. Fact was, they had absolutely no idea who they were dealing with.
That was about to change.
She spoke into her COM with quiet urgency. "Sean, grab Connor and meet me in my room immediately."
Nearly half an hour later, O'Carrol finished talking and the two men stared at her in silence; almost unwilling to believe what she had just proposed.
"Cairren," Sean finally said, "I know that you're upset, but this is not our mission. This'll turn people against us, and it might even turn us against ourselves."
Connor nodded. "I'm with Sean. We can make the guilty pay without throwin' in with the Devil."
"After all they've done, you still pity them?" O'Carrol said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I suppose you'd pity a man holding a gun to your head as well."
"No," Connor replied, "but I won't burn the innocent along with the guilty; not while I still hope to have God on my side."
O'Carrol laughed. "Did God protect your family eight years ago?" Her eyes suddenly went cold and her voice dripped with poison. "Can he protect you from me now?"
As he watched the conversation unfold, Sean felt a growing unease. "There's only friends in this room," he said, looking at Cairren with open concern. "Let's not talk of spilling each other's blood, even in jest."
Ignoring his remark, O'Carrol leaned forward and looked at them like a farmer sizing up cattle. "You're both good men. If that weren't so, I'd have never brought you in with me. But you're not here because I need your advice or friendship; you're here as a means to an end. If you ever lose sight of that fact, I'll kill you before you have the chance to betray me." She sat forward, looking back and forth between them. "So then, are you both with me?"
Few things in the universe could put fear into Connor's heart, but as he looked at the woman sitting before him, it took all of his strength to keep from trembling. O'Carrol never spoke empty words; she never resorted to bravado. Connor knew that she would make good on her threats, but he also knew that he could never do what she was asking. Due to the greed and negligence of others, he'd lost a wife and four children during the Silent Plague. He'd joined O'Carrol so that he could fight for justice and thus honor their memories. There was a fine line between justice and revenge, and they had crossed it many times—but this time was different. This time it was nothing short of cold-blooded murder.
That left him but a single option.
Being a sane man, he knew that he stood little or no chance in a fight against O'Carrol. But Irish flowed thick and stubborn in his veins, and for one final time, he felt the thrill of the fight.
Springing to his feet, he snatched the pistol from his belt and fired it at the towering redhead—but she was too quick. Blurring forward, she somersaulted through the air and slammed into Connor's chest with two booted feet. The impact snapped his ribs like pencils and hurled his body violently into the wall. And just like that, the fight was over.
Like a fallen drunk, he tried to get to his feet, but O'Carrol placed her foot on his neck and forced him back to the ground. To Sean's horror, she pulled out her gun and leveled it at Connor's head.
"You still think God 's on your side? Where is he, Connor?" Her eyes danced with fire. "Maybe he keeps company with the wealthy. Maybe he doesn't like you anymore."
The condemned man actually smiled. "And maybe you're runnin' your mouth because you're afraid to pull that trigger." Connor shook his head in disgust. "Have you lost all dignity Cairren? The gun's pointed at me, but you're the one cursin' the Almighty like a fool! If you have any regard for me at all, shut up and be done with it already!"
She chambered a round, and Sean turned his head, unable to bring himself to watch. An instant later, her gun thundered; snuffing out the life of his best friend as if he were no more than a stray dog. With utterly dry eyes, O'Carrol walked back to the couch and sat down.
"How 'bout it, Sean?" she asked flatly—as if Connor's brains weren't littering the floorboards behind him. "You with me?"
Tears rolled down Sean's face as he balled his right hand into a fist and brought it up to his mouth. "Yeah, I'm with you. But Cairren," he said, rage burning in his eyes, "someday you'll answer for Connor's blood. God as my witness, when this is over, I'll put a bullet in you."
"When this is over Sean, you can use my gun to do it."
Wiley watched the video he'd taken from Beerman with an ever-widening smile. It contained footage from the helmets of all seven officers slain by O'Carrol—and it was breathtaking. The first few frames showed a slightly hunched woman who, despite her extreme height, looked unremarkable and even a bit frail. And then, an instant later, she sprang to life, dodging bullets as she fought back; literally killing with each and every blow.
It all made sense now. No wonder ONI wants you gone so badly. You're the one that got away.
He knew who this woman was, and he knew what she had done in the past. In a rare turn of events, Wiley realized that he was going after somebody much more skilled than himself, and that knowledge was more than a bit sobering. Cairren O'Carrol, which he now knew wasn't her real name, had survived assassination attempts from many capable and highly paid men. She was never surprised, never taken off guard and, as far as he knew, never even wounded.
Although Wiley understood that his clients could not risk telling him everything, there were some bits of information that, for him at least, could mean the difference between life and death. Mr. Black had knowingly withheld just such information, and that was something that he could not overlook. ONI officer or not, he would have to make an example of him.
But such niceties would have to wait. For now, he kicked back in his chair and started to watch the video again. He lacked only one thing: popcorn. That salty snack always seemed to make a good movie even better, and its absence was a crying shame.
Because this movie was awesome.
Although most thought them a part of Lifford, the Industrial Pallisades were actually located on a hill just outside the city limits. The large, gated community contained the corporate offices of Tethra's many weapons manufacturers, a park and several towering condominiums where owners and executives lived with their families. Of these opulent condos, Crown Heights was the largest and most—and that was saying something. Since it wasn't even six o'clock in the morning, almost all of its two hundred and ninety-four occupants in its seventy spacious units were sound asleep—including the many children and infants.
A large, black truck belonging to Epic Security was parked in front of the condominium, as it was every night. But unlike usual, there were no security guards inside. No, they were all back at their company's main building; riddled with bullets and far too dead to protect their wealthy clients. No matter. Given the size of the bomb sitting in the back of their truck, there wouldn't have been room for them anyway.
Like nearly everything else in the Pallisades, the massive condo was visible from just about anywhere in Lifford—a fact that brought Sean Flannery little comfort. Sitting on the roof of cheap hotel, he lifted his binoculars and then checked his watch. This was it. In a few moments, it would no longer be a matter of debate, planning, or conjecture: it would be done—and over two hundred men, women and children would be ripped apart as they lay in their beds. Could he actually allow this to happen? He remembered holding his own babies years before. He remembered their wide trusting eyes, and their frail little bodies.
Nausea came over him like a wave, and Sean bent over and spilled the contents of his stomach all over the roof.
What was he? A freedom fighter? A father? A terrorist?
What kind of man could sit back and watch the killing of innocents? Women. Children. Babies.
Using his sleeve, Sean wiped his mouth, raised his binoculars—and began throwing up all over again.
Sagus sipped cold coffee from a thin plastic cup and stared holes into the rotting wall before him. It was nearly six in the morning, yet he hadn't slept a wink all night and it had nothing to do with the attempt on his life or the dangerous streets outside. For David, the danger lurked inside a twisted maze of memories that he dared not enter and tried his best to ignore. They were memories of Erebus; memories of Hell. What had happened to him on that planet was too horrible for the human mind to grasp; but like the Jewish Holocaust, it cried out for remembrance and memorial, for it was also too horrible to be forgotten.
It was an uneasy paradox, but he had managed to make it work—until his suicidal outburst the previous night. For the first time in his life, he had lost control while on duty, and it had nearly gotten both him and superior officer killed.
He drained the cup and crushed it in a trembling fist. For six months David had told himself that he was sane; that he had escaped the clutches of Stephen Thanatos with his wits more or less intact. Sure, he had become somewhat withdrawn and suffered from recurring nightmares, but that was to be expected. What happened to him several hours ago, however, was not as easily set aside. He had blacked out for almost a full minute as his mind succumbed to a bottomless rage. Of those few moments, all he remembered was holding the bartender by the throat as reason returned in the form of Helljumper's booming voice. But it wasn't the barkeep's face he saw as he awoke; it was the smiling face of his tormentor. It was Thanatos.
For the first time in his life, he understood why people got drunk.
Sitting a few feet away, Helljumper watched the young man's agony silently unfold. And as much as it pained him to do it, he was about to make him feel even worse.
"David?" Sagus turned two sunken, red eyes towards the legendary ODST. "We need to talk about what happened."
Sagus shook his head. "There's no way you'd understand."
"Son, I was on Erebus too."
"You were there by choice. You had a mission, and you accomplished it." David turned his gaze back to the wall. "But I was tricked. I thought I was going Earth. After I landed, they bound my hands and feet, put me in a pitch-black room and left me for days without food or water. I hadn't yet learned to cherish neglect, so when the lights came on and four guys entered, I was relieved. They took turns beating me with large, rubber mallets. I'd pass out from the pain, they'd revive me and then start all over again. They did that for the entire day without asking any questions or making any threats. When it was finally over, they hung me on the wall by my wrists, put a bag over my head and plugged my ears. I'd come to look back on that first day of beatings with a sort of fondness." He chuckled humorlessly. "After that, it started to get bad."
"I have two hundred and thirty-eight scars on my body. Do you have any idea how it feels to have your chest or stomach cut open while you're awake? They'd feed me pieces of my own organs, and I was so hungry that I ate them as if they were steak. Some of it was done to obtain information about the creature I'd been transporting, but most of it was simply for pleasure. Thanatos got a real kick out of seeing people in torment, and I became his special project. But that's all I was: entertainment." Sagus nodded towards Helljumper. "You were there doing your job. I was there because he was bored. I was there because Thanatos wondered if a man could survive a rat chewing its way out of his flesh. I had no choice in it at all. I was helpless, so I had to take it. But when that little rebel spat in my face," David shook his head back and forth as rage twisted his face into a Halloween mask. "I was no longer helpless, and I wasn't about to become someone else's sideshow."
Helljumper took a deep breath, dreading what he was about to do all the more. Sometimes I hate this job. "We need to get you back to Earth, David. I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Sagus said, staring at the floor. "So am I. Maybe the Admiral can still—"
David stopped short as a tremor rattled violently through the building, followed an instant later by what sounded like deep, rolling thunder. Since the there were no windows, both men ran out the door and stared slack jawed at the huge, fiery cloud billowing into the sky over the city. Somehow Helljumper knew that something had just changed. If indeed this was the work of O'Carrol, it was more than another attack on Tethra's industry: it was a message—and it was written it blood.
Halfway across town, a call was placed to The Lifford Daily News, the city's only major newspaper. The voice was angry and female.
"This is Cairren O'Carrol. I take full responsibility for the bombing this morning in the Pallisades, but I accept none of the blame. That belongs to the UNSC, ONI and all the wealthy criminals who have grown rich off our suffering. Decades ago, I was the leader of a group known to you as the Red Rage. It was a guerrilla element used by ONI as a weapon against the human enemies of the UNSC. Well, I am no longer under the oppression of ONI or the UN, but I want them both to know that the Red Rage and its leader have returned. I personally orchestrated the collapse of three powerful rebel governments, and Tethra's week rulers will fare no better. I give them this ultimatum: surrender power and reveal the truth about the Silent Plague or you and your families will die. Anybody unwilling to help me will be seen as a friend to this corrupt government and therefore an enemy. Consider this your only warning. The blast this morning in the Pallisades killed many people, including women and children—and it will only get worse. Whatever happens, do not pity them. They heaped judgment upon themselves with bloody hands, and it is only fitting their innocent suffer their fate as well.
If this message in its entirety is not immediately made available to the people of Tethra, the Daily News will be a pile of bloodied concrete before the day is through."
Of course, some concrete had already been bathed in blood and some innocents had already suffered the fate of the guilty. As Sean Flannery watched the fire he had kindled through the blur of his tears, he had few doubts about his own guilt. O'Carrol talked of pity as if it were treason, but what would they become without it? Would they be any better than those they fought? Would they even be able to tell?
Using a fire escape ladder, Sean climbed down from the hotel's roof and met twp men in the parking lot. He pulled a black automatic out of his coat and chambered a round, and the rest of them followed suit.
"Have you seen them yet?" he asked, glancing over towards a door at the end of the building.
The henchman nodded. "Yeah, they came out for a moment after the explosion. One has light hair, and the other dark, just like they said."
"Remember, she wants them alive. Don't fire your guns unless absolutely necessary." Without a moment's hesitation, Sean walked up to the door and kicked it as hard as he could, and knocking it clean off its hinges.
A blonde man sat on a couch in the middle of the room, and Sean rushed forward and shoved the pistol in his face.
"Where's the other one?" he yelled, as his lackeys began searching the apartment.
A voice answered from behind. "I'm right here," He turned to see a man pointing a gun at his head from just inside a bathroom.
"Heard you were lookin' for O'Carrol," Sean said, as the other two turned and aimed their weapons at the man who had to be Helljumper. "That true?"
If the man was scared by the show of force, he didn't show it. "Yeah, we're looking for her," he replied with unnerving calm. "You here to help us?"
Sean smiled. "If you cooperate. You'll have to give up your weapons and wear a blindfold." At the mention of the blindfold, Sagus bristled.
Helljumper merely shook his head. "I don't think you'd survive trying to put a blindfold on my partner, and if you lay so much as a finger on my gun, you'll be too dead to lead us anywhere." The legendary ODST smiled—and Sean's mouth went dry. "Son, I sure hope you have a plan B."