Court of Darkness (chapter four): Aimee and the Clown
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 3 November 2006, 10:30 am
Court of Darkness (chapter four): Aimee and the Clown
Jarred awake by the blast, people poured from their homes to find smoke rising over the Pallisades like a guilty fog. Sirens blared as the crowd stood silent and still—save for the shivering. Few had taken the time to grab a coat, and their thin pajamas and robes were no match for the cool morning air. Parents who had brought children quickly realized their mistake and covered innocent eyes with trembling hands. Body parts were everywhere: lying in the street, hanging from trees and even jutting out of the wreckage like grotesque props for a low-budget movie.
This was nothing like the evening news.
Amidst the despair and chaos, firefighter Brian Fogarty ran from the rubble cradling a two year-old's blackened body and screaming for a paramedic. The small child convulsed violently, but he held her tight; whispering words of comfort as his tears fell on her bloody face. A moment later, the convulsions stopped, the body relaxed, and the little girl's agony came to an end. Gently lowering her lifeless frame to the pavement, the man pulled off his gloves, held her tiny head in his hands and wept. She had died in agony; writhing in the arms of a complete stranger. It was no way for a two year-old to go; it was no way for anybody to go.
A Protestant minister as well as a firefighter, Brian had seen tragedy from all sides—but this was different. Someone had deliberately blown up the Crown Heights condos; and that someone must have known that the building was full of young children. The government would call this an act of terrorism. Terrorists would call it a necessary sacrifice in their fight for freedom. But as Brian gently closed the eyes of a dead and broken little girl, he knew that both labels rolled far too easily off the tongue. What do you call something that burns children alive, butchers women and makes no effort to discriminate between the guilty and innocent? That was easy: evil.
And he didn't need his seminary education to figure it out.
Several kilometers south in a rundown hotel, the sirens amounted to little more than background noise. Helljumper stood just inside a bathroom door, his weapon leveled at the large man holding a gun to his partner's head. Two additional intruders stood near the far gray wall, pointing their guns at the ODST Captain and acting extremely nervous.
Looking at the one sitting on the couch next to David, Helljumper smiled. "Your men aren't as tough as you," he stated flatly. "They're standing over there wetting their pants and hoping to God that you'll handle this for them."
Although Sean would have liked to dismiss such talk as mere taunting, he knew the ODST spoke the truth. Both of his men were new recruits who, despite their claims to the contrary, had probably never pointed a gun at anything more threatening than an empty can. Seeing the man standing before him, he realized how big a mistake he had made by bringing rookies. In many ways, this confident soldier reminded Sean of O'Carrol—and that gave him more than a little pause. But unlike the men shaking behind him, he knew how to keep his feelings hidden.
Swallowing his doubts, he returned Helljumper's grin and pressed the cold barrel hard into David's temple. "Tough talk will only dig your partner's grave. If you kill me, I'll die holding a dead man."
The ODST shook his head. "That's one heckuva plan 'B', kid." Seeing David's left hand moving slowly towards the knife strapped to his side, Helljumper decided to kick the sarcasm up a notch. "What's plan 'C', suicide? You sure wouldn't be much without O'Carrol looking out for you. I'm kind of surprised she'd send you out alone. You know," he said, his voice dripping with mock concern, "this might be her way of getting rid of you."
In a sudden, fluid movement, David batted the gun away from his head with his right hand and swung a combat knife around with his left—but the big man was too fast. Jumping out of the weapon's path with amazing speed, Sean clamped a powerful hand on Sagus' upper-arm and tossed him violently to the floor.
On the other side of the room, the nervous henchmen tried to find their triggers as Helljumper moved into firing position, found his own trigger with no trouble, squeezed—and his gun jammed. It seemed as if time itself slowed down to watch as the rebel pistols boomed and a bullet slammed into Helljumper's head; splattering blood across the bathroom door like thick red paint and spinning him around in a grotesque about-face. David watched in horror as the legendary ODST's body collapsed to the floor like a dropped marionette.
Sagus tore his eyes away from his fallen friend just as the big man rose from the couch and, flanked by his newly confident lackeys, began moving towards him. Scurrying to his feet, he found himself backing into a corner; once again alone and beyond help—but not helpless. Stopping abruptly as his shoulders touched the converging walls, David gripped his combat knife and, for the second time in less than a day, released the reigns of sanity and succumbed to a horrible, bottomless rage.
Governor Donald Sisson ignored the phone ringing on his big, solid oak desk, leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. After spending the entire morning answering questions and releasing statements to the press, he decided that he had earned a break.
Since Tethra was one of Earth's colonies, it was not ruled by a sovereign government, but rather by a governor under the authority of the UN. Although Don had held that high office for nearly fourteen years, today it was different. It was no secret to him or his superiors back on Earth that the real leaders on Tethra were the industrial owners and executives. They made sure Sisson had a fat bank account and a nice house, and he made sure that policy never got in the way of large profits. It was a fine tradition that had existed uninterrupted for decades.
First, he got word that Blige Edelson—the CEO of StellarCorp and the de facto leader of Tethra—had been killed while visiting his old home. Normally, the new Chairman of the Industrial Board of Governors would have inherited his position as "consultant", but half of the men on the shortlist to succeed Edelson had died that morning in the Crown Heights explosion. And, just when he thought it could get no worse, he learned that Lifford Police Chief Philip Beerman had been found dead in his home.
It would be weeks before the Industrial Board appointed new leadership, and until that time he, the Honorable Don Sisson, would have to make honest-to-God decisions for the first time in his career. And given the fact O'Carrol had just declared that Sisson and his entire government were enemies and targets of the rebel resistance, his decisions would have to be good.
Sometimes, life just sucked.
A flustered female aide barged into his office holding a small note as if it were lit dynamite. "Sir, I've been trying to contact you for over an hour."
"I've been busy." She handed him the note—and his face turned pale. "Mr. Black?"
"He's been calling all morning, and he sounds upset. Why weren't you answering—"
"That'll be all, Missy," he said, giving her a stern look. She turned on a heel, and walked out without a word. Looking carefully at the note, he dialed the number and tried to calm himself down.
It rang only once.
"Yes, and I'm sorry Mr. Black. I'd have contacted you sooner, but as you can imagine, things are pretty chaotic."
The man on the other line grunted. "I suppose you're feeling vulnerable, sitting in that thin-skinned building in the middle of downtown Lifford. That's O'Carrol's playground, you know." He knew. "I hear you've considered breaking our agreement. For your sake, I hope I've heard wrong."
As Don searched for a reply, his pulse pounded in his ears. "Well, I, um, I was just going over all our options."
"A-and," Don stuttered, "I-I don't know. This isn't just some rebel. This is Red Rage and that means O'Carrol is Aimee Peal."
Mr. Black let out a disgusted sigh. "And you think that's news to me? I've known O'Carrol's identity for months, Governor Sisson. This changes nothing."
Hardly able to believe his ears, Don momentarily forgot to be scared. "Changes nothing? Peal overthrew governments that had fortifications and standing armies! Do you honestly think we are prepared to deal with her?" Sisson scoffed. "No, I say we try to open negotiations and consider giving in to at least some of her demands."
"You do? And which demands would those be? Handing over control of a planet brimming with weapons and classified technology to a rebel element? I suspect the UNSC would take a rather dim view of that. Or maybe you were thinking about telling the good people of Tethra that their families died to make you rich." It was Mr. Black's turn to scoff. "Do you think you'd find forgiveness, Governor?"
Don sighed. "No, but I don't want to sit around waiting to die either."
"You won't die. O'Carrol's days are numbered. She won't rush into things. It isn't her style. No, She'll take her own sweet time—and time is something she doesn't have."
Don wanted to laugh, but settled for rolling his eyes. He'd heard predictions of O'Carrol's demise almost daily for the last year, yet she was still very much alive. "You sound pretty sure about that."
"I am. You just keep your head down for a few days, and let me take care of the rest. Oh, and let me make something clear. If you break our agreement for any reason at all, I'll punch your ticket to Hell so fast that you won't have time to say 'oops'. You have a nice day, Governor."
As Mr. Black clicked off his COM, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He'd met kids with more common sense than the idiot he'd just talked to. But then, middling intelligence was one of the prerequisites for being governor of Tethra, and by that measure at least, Donald Sisson excelled.
Sitting in the back of his limousine in the northwest corner of the Pallisades, Mr. Black watched smoke rising into the air several kilometers to the south. Due to safety concerns, he had avoided the area all morning, but like most intelligence officers, he possessed an almost childlike curiosity—and it was not satisfied with seeing mere smoke. He pressed a button on the cherry wood panel beside him.
"I think it's time we had a closer look at the blast area, Hendricks."
"Very well, Sir." The powerful engine came silently to life and Mr. Black felt a slight lurch as the car was put into gear. But before they'd traveled a meter, the front window shattered and his driver's head exploded; covering the thick glass between them with blood and brain fragments. With no time to think, he dropped to the floor and fumbled for his pistol—and heard his COM begin to beep.
"Good morning, Mr. Black."
"W-Wiley?" he said, hoping to God that he was wrong. He wasn't.
"Open the door and step out of the car."
The ONI officer actually laughed. "You've lost your mind! Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?"
"I'm dealing with the man filling my crosshairs with his head." The voice was cold as death. "Start moving now or join your driver."
Sitting up slowly, Mr. Black straightened his expertly tailored black suit and exited the car.
"Very good. Now put your hands in your pockets and walk slowly up the street."
As he started moving, he silently cursed the lack of people and traffic. "Son, you just made the biggest mistake of your life."
"It's your mistake that brings us here, Mr. Black. You withheld vital information regarding O'Carrol. Your lack of candor could have gotten me killed."
"That's what this is about?" the ONI officer scoffed. "So? Now the whole planet knows that O'Carrol was the leader of Red Rage. Is Wiley the Great afraid of a woman?" He chuckled, trying to mask his growing dread. "Maybe I overestimated you."
"The planet might know who she is, but I know what she is—and that is what you failed to disclose when I was hired."
"That information was classified."
"Not from me; not when I'm being paid to eliminate her." Wiley paused for several seconds and then spoke as a teacher would to a flippant student. "I don't think you grasp the enormity of your error, Mr. Black. My relationship with my clients is necessarily based on trust. It's what keeps me alive."
"Are you trying to tell me that you're not going to do the job?"
Wiley sighed. "I'll still do the job, but it's going to cost you a lot more than we originally agreed."
These guys are all the same. "Fine. What do you want?"
"An arm or a leg. I'll let you choose which one."
"What?" he asked, as the inside of his mouth turned to cotton.
"It's not that complicated, Mr. Black. It's going cost you either one of your arms or one of your legs."
"Now just wait one minute, you punk! You're working for me!"
"That's right," he replied icily, "I'm working for you, but you screwed up. You broke trust and it's gonna cost you dearly."
Beads of sweat formed on Mr. Black's forehead as he scanned the rooftops and windows all around him and came up empty.
"Choose now, or I'll be forced to choose for you. You're right-handed, correct?" Wiley chuckled. "That's something you ought to take into consideration."
Mr. Black checked the block-long building to his right, but he couldn't see a single entrance. By contrast, the opposite side of the street had plenty of doors and even a few narrow alleyways. Could he make it? Once again, he looked all around for his tormentor, and once again, he found nothing.
With those awful words still ringing in his ears, the ONI officer tore for the other side of the street like a spooked horse—hoping to get away; to somehow make him miss. This day, however, fate and irony walked hand-in-hand, and such haste would prove wasted. Indeed, Mr. Black had chosen Wiley for one reason and one reason alone: he was the best. He had gone to great expense to hire an assassin who could finish a tough job; an assassin who was relentless; an assassin who didn't miss. As an explosive round slammed into his right shoulder and performed an instant, messy amputation, one thing was made abundantly clear.
He had chosen well.
Smiling never came easy for Benny Gunderman, but as he sat on the couch across from O'Carrol, it was difficult to keep a straight face. After months of taking orders from lesser men who lacked the will and courage to act, he was finally getting his due. Sure, Connor O'Neill had been a nice enough guy, but he didn't mourn his passing. Not only had it come as fair punishment for betrayal, but it had also led to Benny's speedy promotion. And while he might not be as brutish as Sean or as smooth as Connor, he had something that both of them lacked: the will to strike at their enemy without hesitation or remorse.
"Yes," he said nodding, "I think it's brilliant Cairren, but why wait?" Benny finally allowed himself a smile. "Why not give me a few lads and have it done tonight?"
O'Carrol scowled. "Because we're not mindless fools looking for nothing more than bodies and blood, you idiot! Everything we do has its time and purpose." She shook her head and for a moment regretted killing Connor. Only the beep of his leader's COM spared Benny a further dressing down.
"What is it?"
"Sean just came in."
Finally. "Good. I'll be right down."
The towering redhead left the room and Gunderman followed behind like an obedient dog. After going down two flights of stairs and through half a dozen doorways, they entered the large, main floor gathering room.
Sean sat in a soft chair, holding an icepack to his swollen face. In the years she'd known the massive Irishman, O'Carrol had never seen him bruise anything but his knuckles during a fight. The man sitting before her, however, had taken a serious beating.
For the second time in ten minutes, Benny had to fight off a smile.
She didn't even bother to sit down. "You were gone all day! What happened?"
"We had to kill Helljumper," Sean spoke through swollen lips, "but Sagus is in the holding room."
O'Carrol's eyes brightened at the news. She'd never expected them to take the legendary ODST Captain alive in the first place. "That'll do fine, Sean. Where's his body?"
"We had to leave it."
Sean didn't even blink. "You wanted the other guy alive, right? Well, that's what it cost us. After we shot Helljumper, the three of us went after Sagus." He shook his head in disbelief. "I've never seen anything like it. He fought like a crazed animal. If I hadn't rushed Dale to a hospital, we'd have lost him." Flannery's gaze fell to the floor. "Shane didn't make it. I did all I could, but Sagus was just too tough."
"And you didn't go back for the body?" O'Carrol threw her arms up in disgust.
It was the first time Sean Flannery had ever seen her this concerned about an enemy, and part of him enjoyed it. "Why are you so worried about this guy?"
"Because," she hissed, knocking the icepack out of his hand and stooping to get in his face, "Helljumper is somebody you should worry about." She stormed out, leaving both men behind.
Benny picked up the bag of ice, handed it back to his fellow leader and sat down on the couch.
"Thanks." Sean said, realizing that it was the first useful thing he'd ever seen the little rat accomplish. "So I hear you got Connor's position."
Gunderman nodded nervously. Sean Flannery was the biggest man he had ever seen, and Connor O'Neill had been his best friend. "Yeah, she told me a few hours ago."
Sean grunted. "I guess there was no use in waiting until his body got cold. Anyway, there's something I need you to do, and you'll have to hurry to make it back by dark."
"We never avoided the darkness before," the little man said nervously.
While at the hospital, Sean had watched non-stop coverage of the Crown Heights blast. Images of dead children, weeping family members and bewildered orphans were forever etched in his mind. He looked over at the naïve rookie and spoke ominously.
"If you know what's good for you Benny, you'll avoid it now."
With his arms chained to the wall above him and his dangling feet shackled to the floor below, David watched helplessly as a man approached with a long, thin piece of metal in his hands. He was alone today, and that meant he wanted to have some fun—and for Stephen Thanatos, nothing was more fun than somebody else's pain.
"Do you know what this is, David? Hundreds of years ago, they used this to insert probes into a patient's body. But, since it's little more than a hollow tube, you can use it to insert pretty much whatever you can fit inside." The former ONI scientist smiled. "Want to guess what I put in there?"
Like so many other times in the past weeks, Sagus felt the icy grip of fear take hold of his already traumatized body.
"They're known as dermestes maculates, but personally, I think 'flesh eating beetles' paints a more vivid picture, don't you? " David screamed as Thanatos made a hasty incision and plunged the tube into his flesh; injecting the hungry little insects into his abdomen. Skin peeled off his wrists as he pulled against his chains; maddened by the sheer idea of what was happening.
And then the real pain began.
David awoke in an empty white room; alone, disoriented and screaming at the top of his lungs. Both hands were cuffed to the back of the steel chair he sat in, and he didn't have to look to know his legs were bound as well. His heart continued to race as sweat rolled down off his forehead and stung his eyes.
He hated dreams. Stephen Thanatos may have died on Erebus, but he was alive and well in David's nightmares.
A door swung open and he watched with sleepy detachment as a huge red haired woman entered the room. She began looking him over, and it was only then that Sagus realized that he was covered in cuts, bruises and dried blood.
"Are you ONI Lieutenant David Sagus?"
He looked up, but said nothing. Many months before, he had vowed to never answer another question under threat—and David didn't make empty vows.
"Go ahead and be a hero, but if you don't talk, I'll put you through more pain than you could ever imagine."
David couldn't help but laugh. "Then you've got you're work cut out for you, ma'am. The sooner you get started, the better."
Now it was Cairren's turn to smile. This guy's every bit as tough as Sean said. Moving faster than Sagus' eyes could follow, she smashed her fist into the side of his head so hard that his cheek split open. David felt like he'd been hit by a truck, not a woman who had to be in her forties—and then something else hit him just as hard: the truth. He spit out a mouthful of blood and then looked at her as if for the first time.
"Let's try again. Were you sent by ONI?"
"That's quite a question coming from you. You know, I've never met anyone who could move that fast." He smiled. "Well, maybe Chuckles, but I didn't have any eyes at the time so you'll forgive me if I didn't notice." Sagus saw her face change at the mention of the Spartan's name, and his suspicion was confirmed.
He laughed and then looked at her as if sharing an inside joke. "And you asked if I was sent by ONI?"
O'Carrol's face turned red with anger. Grabbing his shirt just above his chest, she ripped it off—and nearly fell over from the shock. Deep, horrible scars were everywhere, covering his torso front and back like some evil work of art.
Sagus chuckled humorlessly. "Kinda hard to find a place to work, isn't it?"
"My God," Cairren said, shaking her head back and forth, "who did this to you?"
O'Carrol's face softened. His pain somehow touched what was left of her humanity, and that reminded her, if for only a moment, that she hadn't always been a monster. "Erebus?"
"Yeah." The cocky smile disappeared. "But at least I made it out alive. Chuckles died saving me, and now Helljumper
Tears began filling David's eyes, and O'Carrol saw something familiar in his face—something that made her shudder. His outward expression was a picture of the way she'd felt inside for years—even before the plague. After all this time, she finally found someone who understood—an ONI agent who had been sent to kill her.
"So Chuckles died on Erebus." She stated matter-of-factly, all threat and anger gone from her voice. Like everyone else, she'd heard about the events on that awful planet, but the UNSC never reported Spartan casualties. It just wasn't good for morale.
Cairren turned, and looked at the ground as pictures from her so-called childhood flooded through her brain. Back then, she was Aimee Peal, not a monster named O'Carrol. She'd met Chuckles on the very first day—and that was the last day anybody teased either of them about their bright red hair. It cost him nearly a month of harsh punishment, but he established that he was nobody to be messed with; and that went for his friends as well.
By the time she looked back up at Sagus, she knew she wouldn't torture him. He'd suffered enough, and although she'd become a monster, she still did not derive pleasure from the pain of others. No, he would die quickly—she owed Chuckles that much. Turning around, she pulled a pistol from the small of her pack, chambered a round and aimed it squarely between David's eyes. She began squeezing the trigger—but stopped as the door flew open and Sean ran into the room.
"For the love of God Cairren!" he said, shooting Sagus a harsh look, "Will you stop turning off your COM?" He handed her a small receiver. "It's Benny, and he says he'll only talk to you."
"I though Benny was with you."
"He was," Sean said, suddenly nervous, "but I sent him back for that ODST's body."
O'Carrol lifted the device to her ear. "Hello?"
Her blood ran cold as she realized the voice on the COM wasn't Benny's—not by a long shot.
Several kilometers away in a small, rundown hotel, Benny Gunderman looked up at the man holding a combat knife to his throat and wished to God that he had never become a rebel. Bio-foam oozed from a hole in the man's head where his right eye should have been. Combined with the dried blood saturating his hair, he looked as if he were wearing a Halloween costume.
"You started a fight you won't survive, Miss Peal—a fight none of you will survive." Helljumper waited for his words to sink in and then spoke with pure venom. "I'll be seeing you soon."