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Court of Darkness (chapter five): Kill Switch
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 14 December 2006, 4:22 pm

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Court of Darkness (chapter five): Kill Switch

Justice. It is often portrayed as a beautiful woman wearing a blindfold and holding scales—but what if that image is all wrong? What if justice is actually terrifyingly ugly and can see everything? What if it doesn't use its rotting hands to hold scales, but rather to tear the guilty apart like a kid pulling the limbs off a grasshopper? And what if it scraped against your house each and every night; whispering your name tonelessly through dead and decaying lips?

What if you lived on Tethra?

It came as only a rumor at first; like a gentle breeze before a hurricane, whispering horror and destruction into the ears of the wary. Among the children, nightmares became epidemic—and only hardened skeptics could ignore their eerie similarities. Sinners settled their business with God, mothers hugged their kids a little longer, and dogs barked day and night at a sinister, invisible foe.

In the spring of 2544, a mysterious plague swept through Tethra and the nightmares became reality. Beginning in the city of Lifford, it struck the poorest neighborhoods first and then spread through the dense, urban environs like flames through dry timber. Cries of mourning filled the air day and night as Death came first for the very young and the arms of countless mothers ached with emptiness. Health officials tried to set up quarantines, but their efforts were confounded by the fact that the plague had no discernible symptoms. About fifteen hours after the contagion entered the body, the brain would abruptly cease functioning and the victim would collapse. No sores, no nausea, no bleeding and no pain: just death.

During the first days of devastation, Tethra descended into chaos as millions took to the streets in a campaign of looting and violence unprecedented in human history. But just when it seemed that anarchy would prevail, Lifford Police Chief Philip Beerman devised a plan that almost single-handedly restored order to the planet.

In a savvy mix of media and muscle, he managed to broadcast a message of reason and calm, while simultaneously placing the planet's meager armed forces in all the right places. Within days the chaos abated, and Beerman was hailed as a hero. The following week, it was he who announced to the masses that, against all odds, they had managed to produce a vaccine. It was he who hammered out the complex distribution plan that would get doses on the street twice as fast as others had thought possible. It seemed that large scale devastation would be averted after all.

But Death had yet to play its hole card.

When Tethra's powerful upper-class saw the Silent Plague invading their plush, secure existence, they became desperate; and in the eyes of a corrupt official, wealth and desperation went together like peas and carrots. Deals were floated, fine print was agreed on, and cash was exchanged—and just like that, a life-saving vaccine became nothing more than an extremely valuable commodity. Philip Beerman, the Hero of Tethra, again took to the airwaves and, utilizing the same confidence and charm that calmed the planet just days before, lied to the impoverished masses. With a trembling voice and compassionate expression, he explained that the vaccine had turned out to be ineffective.

In the end, wealthy families bought at least three vaccinations per person. The poor received nothing.

Betrayed and abandoned, Tethra's working class was devastated, losing a staggering seventy percent of their population. By the time the virus burned itself out, bodies of men, women and children were piled in the streets like rotting sandbags, five and six layers high. But where the poor saw only death and sorrow, the rich saw a business opportunity. Mass graves were dug outside the cities and—for a modest fee—grief-stricken survivors could have their loved ones plowed under without memory or marker. However, as the warm, soft soil opened wide to embrace the fallen millions, there was something that the rich did not know and the guilty had completely overlooked. Something that could not die, would not forgive and had no concept of mercy or compassion.

Can a vendetta be born in a grave? Deep within the pitch black of Tethra's moonless nights, the court of darkness answers through decaying lips and toneless whispers. Listen closely: does it whisper your name?

Waves of pain coursed through Helljumper's head with every heartbeat; blurring his vision and nearly causing him to pass out. After closing the channel to O'Carrol, he let the COM fall to the floor and glared at the little man before him with his remaining eye. Pressing the combat knife hard against the pale skin on the rebel's neck, he spoke in a deep, angry growl.

"There's a lot of blood in here. Is Sagus dead?" Darkness lurked outside the hotel room's open door with pregnant menace, and Benny Gunderman began to get a very bad feeling.

"No," the rebel said, shaking his head as much as the razor-sharp blade allowed, "He's with O'Carrol. He's alive."

Helljumper had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth, but he had no doubt David could have survived. Men simply didn't come any tougher than Sagus. "Take me to him."

"Now?" The rebel shook his head in terror. "No! We c-can't go in the dark!"

The ODST pulled the knife away from the rebel's neck, slipped it into it's sheath and palmed his pistol. "I guess we'll have to use a flashlight. Now lead the way."

Benny looked at the disfigured man in front of him, and then at the blackness outside the door—and his brain decided that panic was the only rational choice. Adrenaline flowed into his veins, his heart raced and his mouth became so dry that his tongue refused to work. But his legs worked just fine, and moving faster than at any other time in his life, he ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Minus an eye and nearly out of his mind with pain, the ODST made the transition from impatience to wrath almost instantly. He smashed his black boot into the door, busting the jam into splinters and nearly tearing it from its hinges. The whimpering rebel cowered in the bathtub; hugging his knees like a grade schooler in a tornado drill.

Grabbing the man's collar, Helljumper lifted him out of the tub and hurled him into the living room. The rebel jumped to his feet—but the ODST was waiting, and the same boot that splintered the bathroom door collided with Gunderman's chest, knocking him backwards into the front door. Benny collapsed like a dropped doll, and his head smacked the floor between the slightly opened door and the jam—and in the silent instant that followed, he heard it.

Somewhere in the inky black darkness outside, boards creaked as something drew closer. A putrid odor assaulted his nose and a voice—a whisper—unlike he had ever heard hissed in his ear.

Benneeee Gundermaaan. Benneeee Gundermaaan.

As terror's icy fingers clawed at his sanity, something began pushing against the other side of the door and reality became a living, hissing nightmare. Embracing panic with every fiber of his being, he jumped to his feet, slammed the door and ran toward Helljumper like a child running to his mommy after a bad dream.

Of course, the hardened ODST was not the rebel's mother. Benny's mom was far too loving to shatter her son's cheekbone with the barrel of a UNSC issue M6C. And although Mrs. Gunderman believed in discipline, she would never have gone as far as severing both of her son's Achilles tendons or torturing him for information. No, Helljumper was definitely not Benny's mother—but compared to the punishment that waited just outside the door, the ODST's actions were downright maternal.

A marathon of dark, soured dreams finally came to an end, and sleepy eyes opened to a white ceiling. Where was he? An attempt to look around the room brought only pain as his head tugged against tight, immobilizing straps. His legs and left arm would not budge either, but for some reason his right arm had been left completely unfettered. Moving slowly, he lifted his free hand and probed his aching head for injury but came up empty—completely empty. No matter how much he searched and grasped, he couldn't locate his head, his shoulder or even the bed he was on. It was as if his right arm existed in a completely different dimension.

And then Mr. Black remembered.

A door opened and a man approached wearing a surgical mask. "Good morning. I'm Doctor Richardson." The mask wrinkled slightly as the mouth beneath it smiled. "Glad to see you're awake."

"My right arm is gone, isn't it?"

The man nodded slowly. "I'm afraid so. I apologize for the restraints, but frankly, patients who wake to missing limbs often panic and cause themselves even greater harm."

Mr. Black grunted, and the simple action caused his head to throb. "I need to get out of here. Is there a guard posted at the door?"

"A guard?" The doctor's forehead wrinkled. "Are you in some sort of trouble, sir?"

Mr. Black's eyes opened a bit wider. "Doesn't the Governor know that I'm here?"

"Sir," the doctor said, speaking as if addressing a mental patient, "you were brought in here by a good Samaritan who found you bleeding in the street. You were carrying no identification."

The ONI spook shut his eyes and sighed. "Is my shoulder closed up?"

"Yes, but—"

"Then let me off this table."

"Sir, I'm afraid that isn't possible until—"

"Let me go!" Mr. Black yelled, pulling against his restraints. "Let me out of here now!"

Dr. Richardson pulled an injection gun out of his pocket and emptied it into the patient's arm. "That should relax you for a while." Warmth flowed over Mr. Black's body like a liquid blanket. Muscles relaxed, eyelids shut halfway, and thoughts became peaceful.

"Don't be embarrassed. I've yet to see a patient who didn't freak out from a lost or mangled limb." The doctor pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed. "Losing an arm or leg alters your existence. You've lost something that's been with you your entire life and you'll go through the same stages of grief as a man who's lost a wife or a child."

Mr. Black heard the words, but they echoed as if in a tunnel. "What did you gib me?"

"You mean the drug? Oh, it's just something to help you calm down. So, how long have you been on Tethra?"

Some faint, distant voice warned him not to answer, but to Mr. Black, that seemed the height of silliness. After all, he was asked a question; why not answer? "I been here 'bout fwee weeks."

"If you don't mind me asking, what is your name?"

"T. Stephen Bwack." Mr. Black giggled. Answering questions was fun.

Richardson nodded pleasantly. "And what does the 'T' stand for?"

"Taywor." He smiled. "I nebber did wike dat name. Too much wike habbing two wast names, you know?"

"I bet. So, Stephen, what is your current rank within the Office of Naval Intelligence?"

"Colonel." His voice was dreamy and drunk. "And I can't go no higher. I've done too many tings dey want to keep quiet." Mr. Black chuckled. "But dey tol' me to do'em! Don't make sense to me."

"No, it doesn't. Didn't ONI implant some sort of location device in every Spartan?"

Taylor Stephen Black laughed out loud and turned playful eyes toward the man beside him. "You're Wiwey, aren't you?"

Wiley laughed in return. "You didn't answer my question, Stephen. Is their such a device?"

"Yeah. Id's just a beacon."

"Then why haven't you used it to locate O'Carrol?"

The patient chuckled. "Because of da UNSC. Dey'd see da beacon too, an' den dey might take her awive an' ask her tings."

Paydirt. "And that would be bad?"

If he hadn't been restrained, Mr. Black would have doubled over with mirth. "Of course! She knows tings dat weeb done; tings dat would make da UNSC upset."

"Things that happened when she was leading Red Rage?"

The head restraint squeaked as the drugged man tried to nod. "Yeah, awot of stuff den, bud we also tink she knows aboud da Siwent Pwague." Mr. Black paused and looked up at Wiley like a child about to spill a juicy secret. "We starded id on purpose! It wud ONI's pwague!"

The assassin's mouth dropped open. "On purpose? Why did you do that?"

He listened in stunned silence as ONI Colonel T. Stephen Black wove a tale so disturbing and improbable that, under any other circumstances, he would have assumed it to be a lie. When the spook finally finished, Wiley stepped away from the bed and began wrestling with a strange and unfamiliar emotion: outrage. More than a decade of killing for money had numbed his conscience and created the emotional callousness that came part and parcel with his line of work. Still, he had his limits—and they were spelled out clearly to every client. He wouldn't kill children under any circumstances, and was very picky when it came to eliminating women. He was, nevertheless, a stone cold assassin who could kill a man during dinner without suffering indigestion.

But this was different. Millions of men women and children had been wiped out—all because of a decision made by some suit-wearing demon in an air conditioned office light years away from the eventual consequences. It was more than mere murder: it was an atrocity.

With a silent, fluid motion, he pulled a pistol from the small of his back and released the safety. Lifting it slowly, he leveled the gun at Mr. Black's worthless head and considered ending their tenuous financial relationship with a cheap lead slug. For what seemed like an hour, he stood with sweat dripping down his face as he tried to force himself to administer justice and, for once in his life, kill for something more valuable than money. In the end, however, he took his finger off the trigger and lowered the weapon. Try as he may, he could not bring himself to kill a client—even one who kept historical company with the likes of Stalin and Hitler. Wiley loved what he did, and assassins who killed their employers invariably found themselves unemployed.

Again, he came up beside the bed and, with great difficulty, spoke in a friendly voice. "Stephen, how do you activate a Spartan's locater beacon?"

"Aw you need id a UNSC COM an' da wight code, an' den evwy Spartan awound you will show up for fwee hours. Da UNSC don't know da code, bud dey will come to a Spartan beacon wike kids come to a ice cweam twuck. Did you know dat onwy fwee people in da whole gawaxy know dat code?" Sunshine flowed through Mr. Black's soul. Now the famous assassin would know how important he was—and it all came from answering questions. "Wanna make it four people? You wan' me to tell you da code too?" He nearly burst with sweet, satisfying self-importance. Why hadn't he done this sort of thing before?

Wiley pulled a pad and pen out of his pocket. "Sure. Who knows, it might come in handy." The drugged man spoke, and the assassin took notes—and instantly wished he had used a serum that caused less slurring. It was like getting ten minutes worth of technical jargon out of a drunken Elmer Fudd.

"And that's it? Just type that into a COM?"

Mr. Black smiled. "Yeah. Oh, an' did you know da UNSC wud after you, cuz dey are."

Wiley looked up from his notes. "No, I didn't know that."

"Yeah, an I tink dey know dat you're here, bud dat's just a guess. You went too far, you know."

"Too far?"

"Kilwing Ackerson an dat Admawal." He began to giggle. "Dey made you a pwirority!"

While the spook was still giggling, the assassin pulled out another injection gun and emptied it into his remaining arm. Within moments he was unconscious, and Wiley walked out of the simulated hospital room with mixed feelings. In a few hours, he would drop the ONI officer off at a real hospital where he would awake with little or no memory of their conversation. If he remembered anything, it would be the few words they had spoken before receiving the first drug: that he had been dropped off by a good Samaritan, had no ID, and had been tended to by a Dr. Richardson.

And, of course, all of those things would be true—more or less.

Bleary-eyed and still hurting from his fight with Sagus, Sean Flannery sat on a chair in O'Carrol's room and struggled to keep his eyes open. It wasn't easy. Over nine hours had passed since the mysterious call from Helljumper, and Cairren had yet to speak a word. For his part, Sean wanted nothing more than a nice soft bed—but even though she didn't want to talk, she didn't want him to leave or sleep either. The huge Irishman didn't know what to make of it. Either the ODST Captain was more trouble than he had guessed, or Cairren was starting to act like an honest-to-God woman. At the moment, he didn't know which he dreaded more.

Couch springs squeaked as O'Carrol shifted her weight slightly and turned towards Sean. "I was his student." The words were spoken with a soft vulnerability that they seemed completely out of place on her lips.

Flannery sat up a little straighter and rubbed his eyes. Finally. "Helljumper's student?"

She nodded. "Red Rage was his idea. It was a way for the UNSC to bring down rebel governments without getting their hands dirty. He handpicked me to lead it, and then spent two years teaching me how to make an ONI operation look like a grassroots uprising. It was sheer brilliance."

"Two years?"

"I was his only student the entire time." O'Carrol took a deep breath. "I swear he knew more than the AI's that taught me growing up. I was learning how to lead a popular army, and even though there wasn't much emphasis on singular combat, he still set aside at least an hour a day for us to go against each other. He said it was to keep me sharp, but I think he was looking for a challenge."

Sean chuckled. "A normal man against a Spartan?"

"There was nothing 'normal' about Helljumper. And it wasn't a boxing match, so my speed and strength were only an advantage if I survived long enough to get my hands on him." Cairren's eyes sparkled. "I wasn't used to losing, and beating him each day became an obsession. We went head to head hundreds of times."

"Then I can't see why you're so worried. After two years, you should know the man inside and out." Flannery leaned forward. "And don't forget that he's badly wounded."

"You've never seen anyone like that ODST. Out of all the times I faced him, I never saw a single discernible pattern. His tactics were impossible to predict with any assurance." She sighed. "So you've got it all backwards, Sean. The fact that I fought Helljumper helps him, not me. He learned how I'd react in just about every situation, and I learned that I was tactically outclassed."

Sean shook his head. Here he was, looking into the eyes of a person he had vowed to kill—the woman who had murdered his best friend—and by some ugly twist of fate, it was his job to cheer her up. And for what? A cause that he found harder to believe in with each passing hour. He looked at the floor and sighed. I'll just sort it all out later.

"You underestimate yourself, Cairren. You've got an entire planet looking for you, and you're makin' them out to be fools."

"They are fools, Sean, but Helljumper isn't. I told you I faced him hundreds times. Do you know how many times I won? Once. It was two o'clock in the morning and his night vision goggles failed. Other than that, I rarely even came close."

"So, what are we gonna do? There's no doubt that Benny told him where we are, and we can't do the emergency evac because of a single man; not after all the time and hardware we sunk into it."

To Sean's surprise, O'Carrol smiled. "We're not going anywhere. Unlike the past, this isn't a one-on-one exercise. We have him grossly outnumbered and we also have his partner—and that ODST would never even consider leaving him behind." She stood to her feet. "I once asked Helljumper how to defeat an enemy of superior knowledge and skill, and his reply was so simple that I was surprised I hadn't thought of it myself. He said to give them someone or something else to fight, and then attack while their 'superior skills' are focused elsewhere." Cairren snatched her twelve millimeter automatic off the table and ejected the clip. "We just place something between him and his partner, and wait for the fireworks."

Moaning painfully, Sean stood to his feet and looked at his leader with a wry smile. "Any chance he's gonna fall for that?"

"No," she said, chuckling humorlessly and thumbing bullets into the silver clip, "not a chance in Hell."

"Sir, I request permission to go back in."

Captain Vance sneered, but not too much: unlike most junior officers, this kid had grit. "Negative, Lieutenant. If that suture pops, you'll be tripping over your own guts just in time to get your brains blown out. Besides, I got nobody to send in with you."

"I don't want anyone goin' in with me, and with all due respect, I'm not leaving Hawkes and Bizzard with those rebels."

The officer bristled. "Soldier, you'll do whatever I tell you to do, and I'm tellin' you to stay put!" Vance looked up at the planet's small moon as short bursts of gunfire echoed through the darkened forest. "We got beat, kid, plain and simple."

"Only because they surprised us." The young man's eyes lit up like fire. "That won't happen again, Sir. Not to me."

"So," Vance said mockingly, "you're just going to walk right in there badly injured, grab our men and waltz out?"

"No, Sir. First I'm gonna kill every filthy one of them rebels. After that, I guess I'll do whatever I please."

Helljumper woke to an excruciating headache and the fresh realization that he no longer had a right eye. Bio-foam had managed to keep the wound closed, but the damaged tissue was beginning to swell, and with the swelling came distracting pain. Beautiful, numbing relief was a mere injection away—but the ODST knew he couldn't do it. Any drug strong enough to put a dent in his agony would also render him useless as a soldier.

The bullet had apparently entered through the right eye socket and exited out the side of his head at the temple. Helljumper was encouraged by the fact that, given the point of entry, the bullet had taken a path of minimal damage. Nevertheless, the extent of his injuries remained unknown; and in his present situation, ignorance was far more troubling than pain. He seemed to have normal control of his body the night before, but that brought little assurance. Head injuries were notoriously unpredictable, and Helljumper knew that even a little swelling could be enough to cause serious brain damage.

Swinging his legs off the sofa, he stood—and it seemed that the room swayed beneath him. After a few moments, however, his balance returned and he took a moment to silently thank God. From this point on, every ability he retained was a gift.

The ODST walked into the bathroom to check on his captive. Benny lay asleep in the tub with his mouth taped shut and both Achilles tendons sliced. Helljumper was not a cruel man, but faced with the possibility of blacking out at any time, he had to make sure that Benny never had the option of running away or attacking him. Besides, these animals had beaten and captured his partner: for all he cared, they could rot in Hell.

"Hey," he said, waking the rebel with a nudge, "I'm gonna be leaving you here. If the information you gave me is good, I'll be back for you. But if you lied to me, I guess this is goodbye. I'm leaving the front door open, and when night falls, those things will come right in to get you." Helljumper winced as the pain in his head nearly caused him to black out. "Benny, this is your last chance. Did you tell me the truth?"

Eyes wide with terror, the rebel nodded his head forcefully.

"Good. Of course, if something unfortunate should happen to me, you'll be on your own." The ODST walked to the bathroom door, looked back and somehow managed a smile. "Wish me luck."

A thousand things could go wrong, and nobody knew that better than him. If the events of his secretive life ever made their way into a book, the casual reader would no doubt consider him a daredevil or gambler; a rogue James Bond figure who had luck as his genie and made things up as he went along. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes, Wiley's career demanded that he take risks, but he was more cardsharp than gambler, and found that stacked decks, marked cards and the occasional bottom deal were more efficient and predictable than dumb luck.

This time, however, there were more variables than he could possibly control. Once he activated O'Carrol's beacon, he would have very little time before troops arrived from the small UNSC base outside of Lifford. He usually planned his movements down to the second, but when it came to predicting the response time of the UNSC soldiers, he might just as well have thrown darts at a clock. Everything appeared to be working against him.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Fact was, Wiley didn't care when the UNSC showed up; he was just glad they were coming. Going after O'Carrol alone would have meant months of posing as a rebel and moving deeper into her network so that he could get close enough for the kill—and that was time that neither he nor his client could afford to spend. Merely knowing where she lived meant little since she was too smart to expose herself and too well guarded to attack. No, he needed a third, unexpected party to flush his prey out into the open and create enough chaos for him to complete his job undetected.

The assassin took one last look at the ninety-eight character activation code he'd just typed and smiled. Thank God for the UNSC.

He pushed the button on his COM and looked intently at the map of Lifford on his data pad. A moment later the code worked its magic—and Wiley's mouth dropped open in shock as not one, but two beacons began to blink: one five klicks south and the other two klicks east. And then, in that horrible moment that defied all of his contingency planning, he remembered what Mr. Black said earlier that day. How he had gotten the UNSC's attention by killing Ackerson and Kraft: how they had made his elimination a priority.

The nearest beacon suddenly stopped blinking—and the stone-cold assassin began to get a very bad feeling.

Few Spartans were aware that ONI had placed beacons inside of them during augmentation, and of those few, only one had a kill-switch. The big man looked at the remaining light on his data pad and quickly gathered his gear. He'd been told that Wiley was good—even downright magical—but he hadn't believed it until now. Good thing the Admiral was paranoid.

Whether the signal had been activated by ONI to help the assassin they'd hired or Wiley had acquired it on his own was purely academic. After weeks of waiting, the Spartan finally knew exactly where his target would be. And even though most of the galaxy knew that Wiley was good, ask any of the thousands of ghosts on Erebus and they'd grudgingly tell you:

Lexicus was the best.

C.T. Clown