Posted By: vector40<email@example.com>
Date: 6 December 2004, 8:04 AM
"No, really. It won't be necessary." Angus pushed the man toward the door, gently but inexorably. "We appreciate the offer."
"It's really no--"
"Thanks again." He shut the door and immediately locked it.
It was early on the morning after the attack, and while they had declared emphatically that nobody was to bother them before dawn, since then Terminus officials had been calling on them almost continuously--the investigating officers from the military police, multiple apologetic representatives from the city goverment and the Terminus un post, and LaGrange, who had made the third (by then) offer to detail them with a security detachment, only leaving after they had made it abundantly clear that they weren't interested. Baker was no help, only able to tell them that their attacker, who had been sent to the base medical section for an expedited forensic examination, was Savid Jameson, a local reseller of technical supplies, with both a streetfront and off-world distribution, had no criminal record, no family, no time in the service, and absolutely nothing of interest on his record.
"Deep cover?" Angus asked into the video screen of the transcom.
Baker's tiny image shrugged. "Your call. Fleet counterintel screens all of the colonists on vital posts like Terminus, but that sieve is only meant to catch certain kinds of people. Either he came here as part of a sleeper element or he was turned after he arrived, no big difference."
"Or he was hired on-task for this job."
"Aye, or that." Baker gave him a beady eye, and only half in jest, asked "You know something we don't?"
"Just thinking," Angus replied in a deadpan, and killed the connection.
They were both coming down from the adrenaline peak and crash of the night before, and it was not the best time for intensive thought. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep had helped, though, and in any case, there was no avoiding it: they had to move on this immediately, or lose the trail.
They had already made plans to "walk the streets" today, and needed only to modify them slightly to follow up on their new data. Only two things had been on the body of their attacker that they hadn't shared with the investigators when they arrived. The first was a simple electronic key, with a color-code id that could match any shop in Terminus City or none of them.
The second was an encrypted radar beacon, small and unmarked. It had been plugged into Catherine's portable computer throughout the night and well into the morning, with Sophitia's brute-force modules trying unsuccessfully to break through the coding.
"I'm going to leave this running today," Catherine said, "but don't get your hopes up. We could get better odds with more power, but not much better, and we can't ship in more hardware soon enough to make a difference."
"They probably have a Superarray on the opr. We--"
"Not a chance." Even with Baker pulling strings, they both doubted that they would be able to get the resources they needed without delay, and if they did give it to unsc, odds were just as good that Intelligence would simply sit on it until they could hand it off to a team of their own.
Baker was able, however, to supply them with the names of the contractors responsible for installing the electronic door locks for most of the prefab shops in Terminus City, and after a few hours of calling around, along with heavy invocations of governmental authority and a few unsubstantiated threats, they had compiled a list of the possible buildings that might fit the key they had found.
"Christ," Angus said, as he watched the list peel off the printer. "This is half the city."
They were in the streets by noon--"Just in time for the rush," Catherine commented, citing a claim in the information files that the peak period for business was between 12:00 and 16:00, though the official business day did not end until 22:00. This had surprised them both until they realized that the Terminus sun didn't set until midnight, ushering in the 12-hour duration of "subnight," a tacked-on period that served only to permit the inhabitants of Terminus Prime to use the standard Earth-based unsc clock without major modification. Generally, sleep and indoor recreation was done during subnight, under shelter from the nearly pitch black and very cold nighttimes, allowing the workers to hit the streets promptly at sunrise, ready for another 24-hour day. But at midday, the main tide was just starting to swell, and the two mercenaries found themselves bracketed on all sides with teeming masses of brown-clothed merchants and buyers.
They had determined in their casual reconnaissance the previous day that the vast majority of the vendor stalls lining the main drag were virtually identical: built and owned by the government in vast swaths, then leased out at easy rates to any citizen with a product. Rows and rows of the squat, cloned buildings streamed up the endless road like a colossal railway, at times drifting off into the rest of the city or interjected by the outskirts of a factory development. They had decided already to concentrate their efforts on the main road--Tarehart Boulevard--for straightforward reasons of prioritization: more than 90% of the public shops in Terminus City were located somewhere along its range, and it would be a simple matter to work through them systematically. If they failed there, they could spread their net more, but that would mean many days lost.
If they were forced to move their investigation outside of Terminus City, into the surrounding rural sprawl or even another city entirely, they would have to try another approach--they had nowhere near the resources for a planet-wide canvass, even with the relatively small colonial base of Terminus Prime when compared to a major population center like Earth or Reach. Certainly they did not have the ability to follow the scent to the opr; if the trail took them there, they would be forced to hand over the reigns to unsc's hard-nosed internal teams.
In the meantime, they blended into the crowd and began to move through the street, assuming the roles of local merchants out for their daily acquisitions. They had picked up enough of the local language and customs the previous day to present a fairly convincing front; it would not hold up if pressed for long, but they had no intention of striking up any hour-long debates.
Their routine was unoriginal, but effective. More importantly, they had enough experience with it to pull it off in their sleep.
As they approached the first shop, Angus bled off wordlessly and let the swarm of the crowd carry him several feet away, turning instantly invisible as he assumed his "aimless drifter" aura and began to wander. Catherine headed straight for the shop's entrance and assumed a face of mellow professionalism, turning over several of the wares and pretending to be impressed.
The owner came over, digipad and stylus in his hands. "Fair shopping. Interested in a load?"
In truth, Catherine had no idea what she was handling. They were fuzzy brown spheres, slightly lopsided, similar to coconuts. She coughed, stalling, and then asked, "How much?"
"Twenty credits a tenweight. Buy a hundredweight and I'll have it shipped to you anywhere in the city, no charge."
She made a face. One didn't need to know the product to know how to barter. "Twenty credits? What is this, the finest crop in the last fifty years?"
The man squinted at her, sizing her up, then set down his pad and folded his arms. Behind him, without moving her eyes, Catherine saw Angus slip away from the crowd and drift silently toward the side door of the building. She could see him try the electronic key, then shake his head at her; she looked away, but watched in her peripheral vision as his hands disappeared into his pockets, coming out with tools, as Angus began to work on the door.
She resisted a smile. He was the only man she knew whe could look completely appropriate and nonchalant while breaking into a building.
"Not fifty years, but at least twenty," the vendor was saying. "It's been an excellent year for sayas."
"Really." Her eyes didn't waver.
"Absolutely. But for you, I'll tell you what, I'm feeling generous--eighteen credits, I'll give you a load for eighteen."
Shaking his head, the man scowled as if she'd offered him a dead fish. "Surely you jest, miss. You trying to kill me? I could sell these on the trans-market for twenty, twenty five..."
"Sure, if you weren't a poor bastard without the capital to ship in bulk. You're not getting more than seventeen, eighteen for these on Terminus, and--" she picked up a saya and rolled it in her hand "--that's selling to fools and the blind. You'd be be lucky to get ten credits for this garbage." Angus had the lock open, and he noiselessly cracked the door and darted inside.
The vendor covered his eyes for a moment with his hands, then dropped them again to stare at her piercingly. "You're mad, miss. This beautiful crop! Look at the color, the weight!" He grabbed a large saya from the table and shook it at her. "See how smooth! Washed and tumbled--there is none finer on the street!"
She canted her head and squinted, unimpressed. "Sixteen."
Hissing in pain, he dropped the sphere and tossed up his hands. "Ruin. My God. Fine, fine! Take it all, take everything. Sixteen credits, and my dignity."
She couldn't help but smile, but Angus was already slipping out of the building and shutting the door with a quiet click. Smoothing her hair back, she said, "Well, I'll think about it. Have to check the rest. Fair shopping--" and she was gone before he could sputter a reply.
Angus merged to her side a moment later and leaned in to say, "Nothing. Fast lock, though. This should be easy. How was the owner?"
Smirking, she replied, "Not much of an actor. I think we got a deal on... things."
They continued down the street, repeating the routine with each shop and storefront on the map. Rusty reflexes quickly loosened, and both sides of the job grew faster until they were getting in and out in less than a minute. Catherine had to remind them both not to start moving so fast they became sloppy.
Hours passed, though the glaring light of the Terminus sun barely seemed to waver. The difference in upbringing between the two mercenaries--who had lived on Earth-normal worlds the majority of their lives--and the natives of Terminus City, who had grown up with a daylight cycle half again as long as Earth's, continued to manifest itself. After hours working the street undercover, they found themselves growing more and more weary, ready to turn in for a nap and a shower.
"A nap," she hissed at him when he had relayed that particular thought. "We aren't elderly."
He gave a low, rough laugh. "Not exactly the flower of youth, either, my dear." Furtively, he glanced around, then muttered, "Moreover, unless I've entirely lost my eye, there are maybe six people on this entire goddamned boulevard who aren't young enough to be our children."
She glanced up quickly, but he was looking away already, not willing to broach that subject again, not today. It was true, though; the Terminus population seemed to have an unusually low mean age. She guessed that most of the natives shipped out to work for Fleet on the opr or off-world before they passed their prime. She filed the thought away for future reference.
The crack on their age had not gone unnoticed by her, though, and she grabbed him by the collar and goosed her thumb into his brachial plexus, muttering into his ear, "Why don't you haul your aging joints over to this next building, Master Reverend? If we hurry we should be able to get you out of this sun before you burst a blood vessel."
He squirmed away from the hold on his pressure point, which had not been particularly gentle, and with a "Just so." was gone into the crowd. She shook her head and made her way to the storefront, this one indoors.
"Ho there!" she called out cheerfully as she entered, having gotten well into the mood of Terminus commerce hours earlier.
The man, tall and wirey, with a natively dark complexion but incongruously large and wandering blue eyes, glanced quickly up upon hearing her voice, seemingly startled. "Fair shopping," he murmured, looking her over vacantly for a moment.
Spending a minute looking over his wares, which included several varieties of local grain and two or three fruits that were probably imported from one of the more temperate continents, she frowned slightly. The grain was dried and packed, which was common enough, but the produce looked several days old at best, perhaps as old as a week. So far, everything she had haggled over in the shops had been fresh to the point of being ludicrous, as one would expect on an agricultural planet; they had seen several motorized carts zooming through the streets while they worked, stopping at different shops to deliver new loads of their goods. Deliveries and resupply seemed nearly constant.
She cleared her throat, and the man jerked his head up again, as if she had disturbed a reverie. No point in being subtle; anybody who stopped into his door would have noticed the state of his wares, though likely few would have bothered saying anything, there being no shortage of alternate suppliers.
"These fresh?" she asked brightly, trying to catch his eye, which kept wandering. When she spoke, he finally found her gaze, narrowing his own slightly.
"Been trouble," he said.
She waited, but he seemed to have no interest in continuing.
Looking at her harder, eyes dark, he replied shortly, "Back on the farm. Lifter broke."
She opened her mouth to speak again, but at that moment the tiny tranceiver in her right ear canal began to vibrate minutely, and she had to cough and turn away, pretending to check her pockets.
Angus's voice, generated in her tampanic membrane canal millimeters from the drum, sounded like the voice of God. The inside-ear receivers were fantastic for covert work, but she had never gotten used to them.
"Something new here," his booming voice hummed out, and she had to resist the urge to look around for its source. "This door's solid-core steel and it feels like it's slatted. Going to try the key in a second; what's it look like on your end?"
She didn't need to glance up; her impression was already cemented. Brushing a loose strand of hair back with her left hand, she hid her lips for a moment while she subvocalized into the hidden, wireless throat microphone. "Not right."
"Yeah." He was probably shaking his head, and she suppressed the urge to tell him to be careful. "I'm trying it now. Out."
Pretending to give up the hunt for whatever had disappeared into her pockets, she turned back to the vendor and gave a campy smile. "Oh we--"
The rolling bbam of a firearm discharging inside the small building swallowed her words, and the man's eyes shot open wide; his stare froze on her for a moment, then he broke and spun, starting to lunge for something under the table. Stunned but reflexive, Catherine twisted to open a break in her clothing and expose the top of her inner-waistband holster, then swept out the flat black pistol and fixed it on the man. "Don't!"
He hesitated for a moment, flickering his gaze up to see her again, and she opened her mouth to speak, but then another gunshot slammed through the building and she saw something desperate snap in him as he dove again under the table. Without thinking, she squeezed the trigger, and a jacketed round nailed through his left shoulder like a divot. He spun sideways from the force, but didn't stop, and with his right hand found what he was looking for and began to draw it into sight: A stubby, wide-barreled "roomsweeper" carbine, barrel sawed off so short that it was nearly a handgun. She fired again as he turned toward her, catching him this time dead-center in his sternum, just below the heart, and that one was a finisher, but he kept swinging the carbine up mechanically, and so she emptied the rest of the pistol into him, squeezing over and over, seeing the bloody holes appear like magic on his chest, stomach, one in his right bicep, one in the nape of the neck... by the sixth round his gun, though still rising, was barely moving, and aiming carefully with a death grip she centered her sights between his eyes and fired three times, emptying the rest of the magazine into his face. He disappeared as if swallowed by the ground; for a frozen moment she stared down the barrel of her empty weapon, seeing the blood splattered on the wall in front of it, like a grotesque telescope--eyes, back sight, front sight, blood--then she unstuck and dropped the empty magazine, pulling another from under her blouse and slamming it home, then vaulted over the table. She held her weapon on the body on the ground for a glance, but a moment's attention showed he would never be moving again, so she quickly kicked away the carbine and then darted toward the door leading into the rear of the building.
Hurrying but cautious, her left hand went to the knob, considering a traditional piece-by-piece room entry, but the sound of gunfire was harsh in her memory, spurring her on; instead, she simply slapped at the doorhandle as she kicked it open, leading with the gun in her right hand, and lunging into the room.
Bright white overhead lights illuminated the space, which seemed cavernous; it was clearly a holding area for supplies, but not a crate or bale was visible. Instead, a large table was centered in the room, chairs surrounding it, an unfolded paper map spread across the top, pens and other markers littering its surface. Other bags and supplies were scattered across the rest of the room, and--
Slumped against the wall, blood staining his shirt and jacket, was Angus Reverend, hand clutching his tiny escape derringer, a one-shot .50 palmgun that he usually wore around his neck or up his sleeve, like a trick card deck. "Angus!"
She shot forward, releasing her gun and dropping to her knees at his side. Throat frozen, she slapped at his face hard, finding the carotid artery at his neck with the other hand. "Answer me! God damn it, Angus!"
His eyes flickered. Her heart skipped a beat. Underneath her fingertips was a faint but steady pulse.
As his eyes opened slowly, pupils contracting, he found her distractedly, taking several seconds to steady his gaze. He smiled slightly.
She slapped him again. "Don't you dare grin at me, you fucking--"
In the slim pack at her waist was her trauma kit, nothing more than several wads of clotting gauze and an adhesive bandage. While she found it with unsteady fingers and slipped out a roll of gauze, her other hand jerked out the slim knife from her left boot and began to carefully slice away Angus's upper garments with the razor-sharp blade. Immediately she could see the wound, a single bullethole that had driven through the thick fold of muscle above his shoulder, missing the nearby bundle of nerves but apparently nicking an artery; it was still pulsing with blood, a fresh surge with each beat of his heart. She immediately began packing it with gauze, and he surprised her by lifting his opposite hand to hold it into place. His eyes were still motionless as he watched her every motion wordlessly.
Adding more gauze and pressing hard directly on the wound--noting his grimace with clinical satisfaction--she began to apply the bandage, a highly adhesive cover that maintained continuing pressure by virtue of tension. By the time she was done, the bulge of gauze (a sterile packing seeded with a blood thickener to accelerate clotting) was sealed on all edges and pressing firmly into the wound, though she could see it already beginning to soak through with red.
She could hear sirens. Someone had reported gunfire.
Angus tried to clear his throat, then screwed up his face in pain and grunted. She touched him on the side of his face. "Don't talk. Try not to move your chest. You're just making the skin slide around."
He grunted again, shook his head convulsively, then parted his lips and spoke again, voice hoarse as a dog. "No... Cathy... you have to search him." He lifted his good arm weakly.
Turning, she saw the man crumpled on the cement floor, nearly hidden by the table, slumped next to a chair in a pool of his own blood and the remains of what looked like vodka. The now-empty bottle and a pistol lay by his side. She hadn't even seen him. There was a neat hole in his forehead.
"Drunk but quick... check him before the civs get here..."
She let his head rest back against the wall, then stepped quickly over to the motionless figure and began feeling down his pockets, dumping everything she found into her shoulder bag. Angus kept mumbling.
"Must've heard me... barrel on me when I came through..." He pushed his chin down idly and eyed the seeping red bandage on his shoulder. "... nasty bleeder, eh..." His head fell back as his voice faded away.
Satisfied that she'd cleaned the man out, she grabbed the map off the table and bundled it up, including everything that had lain on top, and stuffed it into her bag as well. Then she disappeared into the front room for a moment to check the first man. The sirens were deafening now; they must have mobilized half of the civilian response force. With so much unsc activity here, it was probably a fairly quiet city, most of the time.
She returned to the back room and shoved the ill-won door open, then carefully gathered Angus's fluid-soaked and limp body into her arms and carried him outside.
Fifteen years ago, during a diplomatic legation to Nimravus--not when they had finally decided to run, but another, long before, though still years after they had fallen in love--Catherine had awoken in the middle of a frozen night, bitten by the deep temperatures brought on by the Nimravus winter, and walked out onto the stoop of her guest room in the low-sprawling imperial palace. Shivering in the cold, she had stepped through her door to find Angus in the dim white and gray speckling of the meditation garden, wearing only a light silk cover around his waist, torso nude, but seemingly oblivious to the touch of the still, stingingly chill air. In one hand was his wingsword, sleek and slender, a sliver of flicking light, like he held a stroke of creation, Zeus for a moment; in excruciating slow motion he was stepping gracefully along the flat, gray flagstones of the garden path. Perfectly poised and delicate, he looked to her like a bug crossing the surface of a pond, afraid to break the surface and shatter the implicit agreement between gravity and magic.
As she watched, the sword came up, a silky drop of oil, neither running against nor cutting through the air, but seeming to slide between it, and he directed it into a smooth strike along an imaginary axis, blade and body a single motion, like the snake and its fangs. His bare skin was scarred but still smooth, and as it moved across the lean ridges of muscle, the sword shifting in space, Angus's eyes seemed to pierce his imaginary target and plunge past it, through the disappearing point, to something far deeper, Catherine felt the entire image was frozen and preserved, a moment stuck in time--if she lifted a hand, plucked at its seams, she could pull it away, fold it, slide it under her pillow, save it for all eternity.
But when she moved, the spell was broken, and he lowered the weapon, mere mortal again--beautiful, the king of a world, as perfectly in place as the sun in the sky, but just a human being, just the man that she loved. They spoke for a long time, and he explained about the wingswords; how they were crafted after conception and tempered at the moment of birth, bonded to their master, carried for his entire life in peace and in war, and in death, broken, the shards laid upon his body in the place of rest.
"They say," he told her, "that our souls are tethered to the hilt with invisible string, and the metal keeps it anchored to us while we're alive. When we die, the wings"--he gestured to the crossguard, which had the traditional form of two upswept wingspans--"carry us away from our bodies, into the stars."
He gave a sardonic wink, but it seemed forced. "Thus the fearsome risks of a life of sin--which would make the soul heavy to carry, and the journey long and treacherous--or of shallowness of character, which would make it so light, it might could blow away with the wind."
He stepped toward her, raising the hilt to his lips in a fencer's salute.
"And to love, why, naturally--that is worst of all."
She sought him out in his eyes, as she often did, and this time found a strange gleam that frightened her and drew her in all at once. "And what then?" she found the strength to say. He swept the blade back, as if to acknowledge a return salute, the tip now downward, pointing into the dark earth.
"What then?" He smiled mirthlessly, but in his eyes, though she searched, she saw no regret. "Why, then, of course, the soul will be hopelessly tangled with its mate, the poor wings rendered helpless; and the luckless soul will be bound forever to the earth, sentenced to wander this existence for all eternity, tied to its partner in knots it cannot undo, and never will they see the stars."
They stood in silence for a moment, then Angus spun the sword back to the front of his body and reversed it in his grip, then, holding it in both hands with the point hanging, stepped toward Catherine and offered her the hilt. "Would you like to try?"