"So… Daemon. How've you been?" Hanin asked the crumpled mess on the floor.
The crumpled mess moaned pathetically.
"Really? How fascinating. I've been thinking that I really need to branch out more too. Maybe revisit my fear of ambition. I mean, I just stay in this nice warm home, with people I care about, eating and drinking and trying my best to make the world a better place. But I get it. At the end of the day, what do I have? A sense of purpose, true. A feeling of belonging, correct. The backing of a generous benefactor, ding. Yet it's all so… what’s the word…? Suffocating? Speaking of, how's the breathing going there good buddy?" Hanin kneeled down over Daemon, surveying his injuries in detail.
She took Mishka to one side of the lobby. Remnants of the old interior remained, the glass partition to their side was cracked and finished in grime, but the odd lapse in opacity was present, revealing the dim silhouette of a desk, filing cabinet and various piles of clothing. Beneath their feet lay a faded red carpet, one which once shone with a pattern of black diamonds and stars, now they were all-but lost beneath the boot-stains, beneath the dust, and amid the frequent torn holes. Hanin looked towards the small wooden staircase behind her, it was the one part which still looked new, mostly because they had to repair it a few years back when it started claiming a few too many legs through its five steps. She hit her Cynet and broadcast to the room where she'd left the newcomers.
"Fawkes, Loomis. First of all I'd like to take this opportunity to whole-heartedly welcome you to the team. The CSS is committed to offering employees a once-in-a-lifetime experience which not only rewards, but also builds within you the traits and skills needed to achieve greater things. Between us, the future will be bright. Secondly, could one of you bring a first aid kit up to the ground floor lobby, and maybe a mop?"
She whispered into Mishka's ear that he looked pretty bad. She told Hanin he'd be okay, but that was only one of a whole list of problems. They needed to get back downstairs. The enhanced security would reinforce the front doors and windows from attack, but if Daemon was right, they'd be needing somewhere a lot less exposed.
Mishka paced around the lobby area, seemingly uninterested in any of the unfolding drama. Hanin counted the seconds until she heard the elevator arrive, and the click of the wall from the other room sliding back. Two sets of footsteps approached as the wall returned to its position, keeping the underground access-point hidden.
Fawkes came down the small wooden staircase first. He was the smaller of the two men, around twenty-two years of age. His hair was blonde, short and spiky with black tips. Light-brown eyebrows over-lined his kind-looking blue eyes. His gait seemed to just bleed a carefree nature. The file she'd briefly read on him was full of glowing recommendations from previous employers. One guy named Colossus even said: "He makes me want to forget this life, settle down, have a brood of screaming children. Then one day I can fix up my daughter with him and welcome him into the family." Another said "His face make happy, good man." Literacy wasn't ubiquitous in Core. He wore dark blue shorts which stopped half-way down his shins. He paired these with a grey t-shirt and which looked like it had writing on once, but now was just a random assortment of black smudges. Over it, he wore a black jacket.
Loomis stood in stark contrast, brown skin, shaved head, around six-foot-two tall. His facial expressions always seemed to be perfectly measured, conveying only the information he wanted it to. No sly smiles, no sneaking glances. He even looked women in the eye when he addressed them, consistently. Hanin's first impression was of dependability with scant chance of fun. In short, the perfect merc-for-hire. Fawkes was carrying the green first-aid kit. She was slightly saddened to see her appeal for a mop was ignored. Walking over soiled carpet was far less tolerable when you could name the stains.
As they walked down the stairs, their thick boots loudly smashing against the boards, Hanin approached them. She gestured for the men to come close. "He's hit pretty bad. Might be spinal injuries. I need to move him downstairs, but I can't risk him twisting anything. There's a doping compressor in the kit. I'll keep him distracted."
Distraction was unneeded since Mishka had already approached Daemon and was kneeling besides him. She vacantly watched over him, stroking his forehead gently. "… Who did this to you Day? What do they think you did?" Daemon hadn't said anything intelligible since his two-word greeting, but he managed to muster something.
"You need to get him out of here," he said, making each syllable seem like the most painful thing in the world. Mishka stopped stroking. Her presence seemed to return to the room.
"Him? They're coming for Staff?" she said loudly with surprise.
"We can't let them… They'll never stop… Run…" He was so focussed on Mishka, he didn't see Loomis approach from his back. In one swift movement, he pushed the compressor against his neck, hitting the button the instant it touched skin. Daemon fell unconscious as the drug pumped straight to his brain.
"All ready for transport Ma'am," he said.
Mishka raised her eyebrows, lifting her cheeks in feigned disbelief. "Ma'am? Don't tell me you're a ma'am kind of guy. What if you start slammin that? Will you call her ma'am then? 'Oh yes ma'am, I live to serve ma'am, please spank me harder ma'am'."
For the first time, the sense of decorum completely vanished from Loomis' face. "I don't…" He stammered for a while. Mishka had that effect, she seemed to have a laser-guided ability to throw people off-balance. Hanin saved him any further painful grasping for words.
"Mishka! You know the rule on spanking while HQ is under attack."
"Yes ma'am," she replied, making her best attempt at a salute while thrusting out her chest and standing unnaturally upright. Hanin caught Fawkes subtly taking notice of Mishka's posture out of the corner of her eye. At least one of them was normal.
"Gentlemen, Mishka, it's time to earn that generous wage of yours. Newbies, take the unconscious one to bedroom five on the second sub-level. You'll know it by the unconscious woman lying in the second bed. May I add that anyone else who takes it upon themselves to fall unconscious, will have their pay deducted. Mish, you and I have got our other occupant to deal with."
The women led the way towards the elevator. Mishka bounced up besides Hanin. "Are you gonna kiss him again?"
"Shut up Mish."
"Kiss who?" Fawkes asked.
"That's classified," Mishka said abruptly.
"You boys can get the next one. We need some girl time," Hanin said.
Using her own Cynet, Mishka accessed the elevator for them. To the unknowing eye, it looked like minor hand-waving, but Hanin knew the dance: The authorised Cynet interacts with the door, the user's HUD overlays an always-cycling complex keypad on the wall's surface, enter the right code and the wall slides into itself. Enter a distress code and very bad things happen. Enter a wrong code and you're just an idiot feeling up a wall. The room itself was stripped bare except for a raised platform which occupied the opposite corner. The ceiling stretched out into a dome far above them, room enough for a few jutting balconies ten metres up to comfortably fit. The second floor was only useful as a handy way to access the roof for a little stargazing now.
The doors closed behind them, leaving roughly four-metres-cubed to house the two of them. Her arms folded, Mishka retreated into a shell, just slouching back against the wall. With an audience, you couldn't shut her up, one-on-one, she was a ghost. The big red button stared back at Hanin. Her fist slammed into it, bringing the elevator sleekly to a halt, Mishka barely batted an eyelid.
"What was that about?" Hanin squared in front of her, leaving her nowhere else to look but at her. Still Mishka continued her deep examination of the floor, with extra shrugging. "First you embarrass Loomis, then you go blabbing about Staff. You know Simone didn't want them finding out about him until she was sure about them, then to top it all, 'that's classified'? Hey, why not show them the secret barn of mystery and forbid them to look!"
"What's a barn?"
Hanin grabbed her arm softly, getting her attention in this kind of mood was always a challenge. "Mish, hunny, talk to me," she said soothingly.
"About what?" Mishka's flicked her eyes up in an instant and locked them in a determined glare. "Shouldn't we be protecting Loverboy downstairs?"
"Is that what this is about? Do you like him or something?"
The glare continued, then with perfect enunciation, Mishka replied, stretching out the words. "Fuck you!"
Four-metres-cubed of space vibrated with the sound of a slap, the reverberation briefly hanging in the air. Hanin looked at her hand as if it was something which belonged to someone else. Her hand was the lightning, her anger the thunder; As the impact stung the palm of her hand, Hanin registered the rage which powered it. Two hands pushed her backwards against the wall. Her brown hair frayed in all directions in front of her face, Mishka rushed forward. Hanin braced, but all that came was a sharp blow to the white metal panel behind her. Mishka's breath burned hot against her face, but Hanin didn't shrink back.
"You wanna hit me again. Well fucking go for it. Little, Miss, mother, fucking, perfect. I dare you."
Hanin didn't need to reply, once the train left the station, there was point to changing its direction. Her silence was all the fuel the fire needed.
The fist stayed placed on the panel where she'd hit. It was probably bleeding, but there was no need for her to look right then.
"I wouldn't let that fucking Beacon bhonsda screw me if my ass was on fire. But I'm sure you'll be ecstatic together. All four of you can go fucking frolic through fragrant fields of fucking foxgloves." It was hard to avoid spraying with the letter F at the best of times.
A longer silence persisted. At this point, Mishka could go either way on the rage-o-meter with alarming speed. Hanin gently took hold of the hand on the wall besides her neck. She examined the bloodied knuckles and held the white fingers in her own. She pulled Mishka towards her and wrapped her arms around her. "I'm sorry I hit you hun."
Most of the tension in Mishka's body dissipated. A few seconds later a reply came. "I'm sorry I got your face wet."
She returned the embrace to Hanin. "Do you know how long the average guy talks to me for before he starts trying to put his hands up my skirt? At last count it was working out at around eighty seconds. He gave you weeks for one kiss. One kiss from you is worth over two-thousand times everything I have."
"That's not true. What about C…" Hanin didn't finish the sentence, it was one she immediately regretted even beginning.
A pause, it was ended by a voice wrapped in melancholy. "When a constant is removed from an equation, the answer can't stay the same," Mishka said, pulling her head from Hanin's shoulder. "I can't… stay the same."
"You wanna know who my constant is Mish? You. That day you and Tarak found me, you became a hero to me. All anyone else saw was a snivelling little blonde girl who was destined for the weekly corpse-fire. You never stopped being one for me. You can't express that worth with an equation."
Mishka stood still, a smile faltered through her lips before it vanished again. "The only heroes I believe in are dead. They never fade, they never waver. Everyone else, we're just villains clinging to our good deeds, hoping they're enough."
She shut down again after that, slumping against the wall, crossing her arms across her chest, adopting the same thousand-kilometre stare Hanin had perfected already. Still, it was enough for now, she restarted the elevator and headed down to sub-level three. A ping had located Staff in the dining room down there.
They'd only used enough dope to knock Daemon out for ten minutes or so, after that, she needed answers. There weren't many places to hide. Anything above ground was a no-go. On sub-one, the garage offered a handy exit, but was too exposed: one door, two elevators. Sub-two was mostly comprised of the sleeping quarters: five rooms set up, each with enough room to contain a double-bed, storage panels and then some spare space for whatever.After that, there were a few spare rooms, and the showers and toilets. Lots of rooms, but very little strategic advantage. Sub-three was where everyone spent their down time: rec-room, dining room, kitchen, gym. Again, if they were armed with ballistic weapons, they'd tear through the walls in seconds. The lab was the best safe-zone on sub-four. That, and the gardens on sub-five. Both floors were kitted out with as-yet impenetrable security. They had to be, since without either, HQ would wither within weeks.
After convincing Staff to get locked in the lab, making doubly sure he promised not to touch anything, they returned to sub-two. Daemon was coming around already and Simone was awake. She looked confused to see him there, but her body was giving her other problems to contend with when they walked in.
Nodding at Loomis on the way in, she asked him for an update. Fawkes was already by Simone's side, offering comfort.
"Ms Channing's lucidity is improving Ma'am." Loomis looked over at Mishka, waiting for a rebuke, but none came. He continued: "The male has extensive external damage, but no spinal injuries, no internal bleeding and no breaks. Barring a few scars, he'll make a full recovery."
Hanin excused Fawkes from his vigil and sat on a small chair besides Simone. Bedroom five served as a medical ward of sorts when needed, they had three single beds lined up against the wall with a limited amount of supplies. All the equipment they needed was already implanted in Hanin and Simone. Loomis was fitted out with an extensive range of med-scans. Mishka claimed to be religiously opposed to the concept of relieving the pain of others, and refused any med-tech outright. Hanin whispered to Simone: "Channel four, key Quebec-Mika-seven-nine-Charlie."
Simone's voice came over her relay. "Daemon? what happened?"
"He got hit, I think by his new employers. There are people coming for Staff. He made it here to warn us," Hanin relayed.
"We have to-"
Hanin already knew. "We've put Staff in the lab, on complete lockdown. No one's getting to him without you," she relayed. "Simone, I need the panic-mode key. Things are about to get pretty interesting here."
"Not yet. When P13 goes live… there will be some extreme events. Besides, I want to see what game we're playing first," Simone relayed.
"The Heisenberg…," Hanin's thoughts trailed off, she didn't really have a question, she just hoped for an answer.
"You'll understand one day Hanin. Sometimes you have to make the hard choices, even when it means hurting the ones you love. You don't just shake those off," Simone relayed.
Her words sounded like she meant Canti, yet her eyes strayed for the smallest instant over to Daemon as she relayed. Simone's voice picked up again in her head: "There are a lot of people who want the boy dead. I should have never gone outside the family though. That mechanised troglodyte had to go and decide that my compensation wasn't generous enough."
The doping had almost worn off, Daemon was starting to move. He pulled the uniform white covers off himself and gingerly stretched his legs over the side of the bed. His bare feet grazed the light blue carpet, swinging slightly. He seemed to be deep in thought, although Daemon always seemed to be deep in thought. When Simone first hired him, he just stayed in his quarters, ever the consummate professional. Hanin thought he was starting to feel at home. But then maybe some people are scared of finding a home.
As his capacities returned to him, Daemon looked alarmed, panicked even. "Where's Staff?"
Switching off her relay channel, Simone answered. "He's safe, we've got him locked in the lab."
"It's no good," Daemon said urgently. "The man, they call him 'Skeleton Key,' nothing ever stands in his way. We have to get him out of here. We have to run."
Simone sat upright, then gave her orders. "Daemon and I will go retrieve Staff. Hanin, you're with me. The rest of you… If we're going to be having guests for dinner. Let's make sure they're well attended to, shall we. Gear up."
She jumped up from her bed, the hem of her dress fell down, settling above her knees. Still after all these years, Simone never wore anything except for dresses. She looked like a woman out of time in Core, not that she saw much of the streets. She corrected the broad blue straps with their slight sheen. White and red leaf patterns ran down the fabric, which cut into a deep V at the chest. She brushed her hair down with her hand before extending it to Daemon. He grabbed it, and together the three of them headed for an elevator ride down to sub-four: the laboratory.
The trio stood by the main door. It looked like normal glass, but no weapon forged by man could get through that stuff. Every force exerted upon it, it reflected back at the attacker. For this exact reason, Canti had often found it amusing to play tennis against. The door invariably won, although Hanin wasn't convinced that Canti even knew the rules. He kept yelling 'touchdown' every time the door repelled the ball out of court. They caught sight of Staff a fair distance away at one of the sandboxes. He was trying out a few different weapons, mastering the ability to look both expertly adept and ridiculously ineffective at the same time. Hanin knew he had some skill, he just had no idea how to use it. A life spent in utopia leaves little room for inner-strength. He carried on, oblivious to their watching eyes.
"I've got a contact," Daemon said. "He can give us a place to lie low for a bit."
"Then what?" Simone replied.
"Then we can see about taking the fight to them," Daemon said with a slight smile.
"I can't wait…," Simone said as she placed her hand onto the glass. A beam of light swept down, rapidly taking a scan of her hand, face and eyes. "Entry code is 'Judecca' Daemon."
Daemon nodded, stepping up to the keypad besides the glass. He entered in the code, and hit the large green key.
An immense hand of amps violently grabbed Daemon's skin, sending searing electrical pain through his spasming body. He writhed in agony for a few seconds. Hanin stepped back, looking around, then she saw Simone's reaction: amusement. The amps ceased, and for the second time that evening, Daemon slumped to the floor. This time though, he was still conscious, conscious but paralysed.
Simone stood over him, looking down with contempt. "For nearly eight years I've created the most powerful tech known to Core. Do you really think I'm stupid enough to fall for a Trojan Horse!"
Daemon shook on the floor slightly. He tried to turn away from Simone.
"Look at me Pooky Bear!" she said in a sweet voice laced with viciousness. Daemon was still trying to move away, still very unsuccessfully. "I SAID LOOK AT ME!"
He stopped in his tracks. It took him all his strength to turn his face a few degrees to meet Simone's. His eyes wide and frantic. Simone smiled at him, it was the most disturbing smile Hanin had ever seen: the lips turned with sweetness, but beneath the surface, pure hatred.
"I opened up my home to you. But just because I opened up, don't think that I will EVER forgive you for what you've done."
Hanin wondered if there was some kind of telekinetic warfare going on between then, so intense was their concentration on each other.
"I don't need your forgiveness," Daemon said. "I worked for you, now I work for them. How many times did I say that you were inviting a deluge of retribution. So many powerful enemies Simone. I went beyond my duty to you by coming in first. But it seems that plan failed. So I guess… Knock knock."
A chime sounded throughout the entire complex, the sound of a doorbell. Hanin didn't even know they had a doorbell. Daemon tried to restore feeling to his legs by rubbing vigourously. "Here comes Plan B," Daemon said with resignation.
Simone walked towards the elevator. Her heels clicked on the stone floor as she went, then her voice called out with an air of nonchalence. "Tie him up will you Hanin. No need to be gentle."
Hanin grabbed a metal strap-tie from her pocket and bound his wrists. The straps cut into his skin as she dragged him to the side of the entrance room, finding a stray metal pipe to secure him to. The elevator opened.
Simone turned as she entered through the door, selecting a floor. "And hurry up will you Hanin. Can't keep our guests waiting."
The five of them crowded around the screen which had been activated on the ground floor. Most of the walls in HQ were capable of transmitting sound or light, as well as recording either. Right now they were viewing the footage from the data-strip above the main entrance where Daemon had landed not so long ago. The street outside was dark, no moonlight, no starlight, and no streetlights. Simone switched the data-strip to beam white-light, illuminating the exterior. A figure stood some way back from the door. Everything around him was tainted, dirty and dull, but there he stood in an impeccably-tailored white suit. Spotless. Beneath his jacket, a black shirt and a white tie. His black shoes gleamed from the security light. With his arms folded, he looked at the data-strip as if it were a window to the group watching him. There was a tiny amount of stubble around his chin, the hint of a moustache, but besides that, he was cleanly shaven. His hair was perfect: neatly cut, not one follicle out of place above his pale pink face and eyes so dark they were like miniature black holes. Hanin wondered if there was any chance that this was just a conveniently-timed visit to sell them a new kitchen unit… in the dark… when nobody actually sold door-to-door anymore… it was a long-shot.
"Hi there," Simone said, after activating two-way audio on the strip.
"Well good evening to you Miss Channing," the suited man replied.
"Please, call me Simone, and to whom do we have the pleasure of talking?" she asked.
"You can call me Phil. This is a lovely home you have here Simone. A lot of people around here leave the exterior to decay, but not you. It's understated, of course, your location demands it, but it is certainly a treat to see. You really do care about the little things."
"Why thank you. If you'll forgive my abruptness, is there anything we can help you with tonight?" Simone asked.
"The boy, I've come to collect him," he answered. "Could we talk about this inside, this night really does have quite a chill to it. Gets right to the bones."
As Simone talked, the other four exchanged glances with each other. The whole thing was unsettling. Loomis was transfixed, watching every single movement Phil made, studying him. Phil seemed forlorn after his rejection. He cocked his head, turning up one side of his lips in a smile of acceptance.
"I see," he said. "Well, thank you anyway Ms. Channing."
With that, he brushed his hand down the shoulder of his jacket three times, turned to the side, and walked away.
The group watched him disappear from the screen.
"He…," Mishka said. "…seemed nice?"
Only Simone and Loomis weren't relaxed. Simone turned around to them. "We should really start running now," she said.
Fawkes, Loomis, Hanin, Mishka and Simone swiftly headed for the elevator. Mishka seemed somewhat confused, she tried to ask exactly what they were running from, but Simone gave no answer. The only other voice was Loomis' as he started muttering something about his death-bonus.
Hanin pushed for the lab, they'd be safe there. She breathed a little easier as the elevator started to descend. Any relief was short-lived, it stopped just one level down, the garage level.
The doors opened.
Two rows of gleaming white teeth greeted them, the same shade as his suit and tie.
Mishka, Fawkes and Loomis all reached for their Teslas. Fawkes got the nearest, his index finger reached the grip of his.
One hit to the throat with Phil's extended fingers, and Loomis collapsed, wheezing. Mishka took a swift blow to the stomach, doubling over so quickly she didn't even get an obscenity beyond her lips. As his finger grazed the grip, a punch to the side of Fawkes' head sent him straight into the metal panelling of the elevator. He fell hard.
Phil walked inside, Simone made no effort to attack him, she stood gracefully with her hands interlocked.
"Ms. Channing, your captures do not do you justice." He straightened his tie, surveilling Simone's figure methodically. "You look, enchanting."
In the second between the elevator stopping and the doors opening, Hanin had leapt up to the ceiling, aided by a boost from the N-disperse of her boots, then clambered through the emergency hatch. As Phil approached Simone below, she watched, waiting.
"I assume you've locked the boy in the laboratory," Phil said to Simone.
"Of course," she replied.
He grimaced slightly. "A complication, although not unexpected. I was most reluctant to give up the element of surprise, but your Daemon did insist so. He foolishly thought this could all come to pass without violence."
"Foolishness does seem to have become a pattern for him," she said.
"And for you. You understand what comes next?" he said.
"Do you?" she replied. Her posture remained unflinching, her sight locked fiercely on Phil's black eyes.
"The conductor of the orchestra always knows what will transpire," he said, his advance had stopped less than a metre from Simone. "The maiden will sing, or else we go da capo and climax with a seventy piece arrangement: a coda drowned in blood."
Simone smiled at him. "You have a felicity for making the beautiful, grotesque."
"It's what I do." He quickly dropped to a knee to retrieve Mishka's Tesla from the floor whilst maintaining a careful watch. "I must apologise Ms. Channing, normally I would never shoot an unarmed lady…" He used the Tesla's small control screen to alter the weapon's power output as he stood. "…But normalcy must be set aside when the situation demands it."
He fired a burst from the Tesla at Simone, without a sound she collapsed to the floor, her back sliding down the rear wall of the elevator. Phil kneeled once more next to the unconscious woman, gently pulling down the hem of Simone's dress which had ridden up to her thighs. He sighed slightly, then angled his view marginally upwards.
"That was your chance dear," he said in the direction of the elevator's roof.
"Yes, I suppose it was," Hanin shouted down. "Isn't it funny how loud those Teslas can be to the person firing."
Phil stopped, stood up and looked around. He saw a small cube – barely one centimetre across each face – by the door of the elevator.
"Fermata," he said in a downcast manner.
The cube clicked open and filled the entire floor with light. When it faded, Phil had joined Simone, Fawkes, Loomis and Mishka, slumped on the ground. Hanin jumped down via the hatch and searched Phil's pockets. He had nothing on him except for the Tesla in his hand. Gently she removed his fingers from it. Locking her hands under his arms, she pulled him across the threshold of the elevator out into the garage. Out of curiosity she ran a terascan on him.
"Error! Invalid target," her HUD read.
"Nevermind," Hanin said to herself. She adjusted the output on Mishka's Tesla to full and aimed it at Phil's chest. Without hesitation she pulled the trigger. A pulse of lightning ripped through the air towards the suited man on the ground. It scorched apart his tie, burned through the chest of his shirt and sent the body inside into a surge that lifted it a few centimetres off the ground. Then his eyes opened.
Hanin was falling.
Her legs were forced from their stance by a graceful sweep of his foot.
She fell sideways, her shoulder hitting the concrete, barely managing to keep her head from making contact too. Upon impact, she rolled to a support pillar. hiding.
"Well played Hanin," his voice called out. "No ones even so much as scuffed my shoe before. Although in retrospect, perhaps the electricity wasn't such a smart strategy."
She said nothing in reply, her mind raced. If Phil had come in through the ramp door, it was locked now: the switch was back over by the elevator. He'd just proven that any amounts of amps she threw at him would be dust in the wind. She needed a plan.
"So are we playing Hide-and-Seek now?" Phil shouted out. "You were always so fond of children's games weren't you! First it was Bad Egg, then Semordnilaps. But you just couldn't cut it on your own could you Hanin. So you had to find somebody for Follow the Leader."
"Actually, I prefer Simone Says," she shouted in reply.
Phil stopped and chuckled to himself. "You all have quite the spirit out here. Always such a shame to crush it."
After checking all her pockets, all she had was her emergency knife hidden in her leg, a few metal tie-straps and one final cube. The previous one had been blue, stun; this one was red, explosive. She synced it to her Cynet, then palmed it. After ejecting the knife, she waited. Her back against the pillar, she strained to listen for any sounds marking the location of her seeker.
Silence and minimal light.
The elevator door closed.
Silence and darkness.
Tentatively, she leaned sideways around the pillar, trying to make out any movement. It wasn't like Phil was camouflaged or anything.
She switched to night-vision mode on her retinas. It was risky, anyone with a flashlight could blind you for long enough to lose the upper hand, but groping through the abyss of the garage seemed like a less-desirable option. She looked out again, holding the emergency blade tightly in her right hand. She just needed a sighting.
Beads of sweat began to form on her forehead and she felt drops sliding down her back. She repressed her breathing, trying to minimise the noise she made.
Something hit the floor just to the left of her pillar. An obvious decoy, she raised her knife and spun around to the right of the pillar poised to strike.
Only the empty garage faced her.
She was exposed. The noise…
She felt the pain for a millisecond as her body was gripped by amps. Then she fell, the knife slipping out of her hand. The echo of the blade against the concrete segue her transition to unconsciousness.
* * *
A blurred version of the floor passed by below Hanin. She struggled to lift her eyelids further, they were so heavy. Brief slithers of light came in. She was on his shoulder. She moved her left hand a small amount before passing out from the effort.
Someone picked up her world, spun it around, then let her go. She felt so dizzy as she opened her eyes. She couldn't feel anything in her hands except for a small pain across her wrists. Trying to move just made it worse for Hanin. Every muscle in her body ached and the light was so bright. She opened her eyes anyway, it hurt at first. After a few seconds images began to take shape in front of her, they were in the rec-room, she could just about make that out. One hazed-silhouette of white, and another of white on top, black on bottom came into focus. Her heart leapt as she started to recognise Daemon, then she remembered.
"Welcome to the party Han," a voice she eventually identified as Fawkes' said. "We're on round four of I-Spy. My go: I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with C."
The aperture of her eyes kept decreasing until her sight returned. Arms tied behind her, she was sat in a chair. Simone was to her right, Mishka to her left, then Fawkes, then Loomis. Simone's head was slumped forward, Hanin shouted at her but she didn't move.
"Don't worry dear, she's just a little slower with the recovery. You were supposed to be out for quite a while longer too," Phil said.
Struggling to move again, her wrists hurt more and more, it felt like metal cutting into her. Phil must have used her own ties on them. Daemon was leaning against the far wall in front of them. He avoided making eye-contact. In his hand Hanin could make out a small ballistic gun. A laser-sight came from inside the barrel and he seemed to be drawing patterns with it on the floor. Phil stood with his arms crossed. He tried to look smug, but it seemed more like he was trying to cover the burn on his shirt.
Phil started to pace from one end of the room to the other slowly. "Your friend Daemon tells me that only Simone knows the code to access that laboratory. I must say, I'm somewhat humbled. I've never met a door I couldn't open before."
"That's funny," Fawkes said. "'Cause I heard there's lots of things that never open for you."
Phil stopped in front of him. "Mr. Fawkes. Is this your attempt to show your resilience through humour? It's completely unnecessary, you are no part of this plan, and I have no cause to harm you."
He approached Fawkes while sliding the blade of a ten-centimetre knife through his thumb and index-finger. "You made no choice to stand against me. Just a boy in the wrong place at an unfortunately bad time." Towering above the seated Fawkes he grabbed his chin. "So don't make an enemy out of me boy!"
The knife slashed through the air until it reached the flesh above Fawkes' knee. It slid right through to the hilt. Fawkes screamed through clenched teeth as the others looked straight ahead. The second Phil knew who he could use to make an impact, things would get much worse. Hanin knew that emotions get you nothing in situations like this.
"This is the problem with torture today," Phil said, letting go of the knife in Fawkes' leg and wiping his hands with a cloth. "People just link in to the CNS and flood the receptors. There's no love in it. It's masturbation, biologically it's the same, but when you've held a woman you've loved for years in your arms as you reach that moment inside of her. Truly nothing can compare to that. Care, attention, anticipation, escalation, technique and artistry: all of these things lost to a few wires."
Mishka sighed melodramatically. "If you're trying to make me horny, it isn't working."
She found herself facing Phil. "Oh little Mishka," he said to her. "Always the outspoken one. Just terrified of being the invisible person in the room aren't you? To think that no one notices you, no one looks at you, no one cares for you. Where does that kind of attitude lead? The streets out there are brimming with tales of the cheap, worthless tramp who bounces from place to place in her desperate search for validation. It's no wonder that your brother grew tired of you. I can barely stand to look at you even now. Day after day after day of your unrelenting neediness, risking his life to provide for you, and for what? What kind of person does he get in return. I think I'd be quite inclined to draw lines on my wrists, and trace them with my favourite razor-blade as well. Just how much did he truly care about you? Did he even take the time to write his little sister a note?"
Phil saw Hanin's expression of shock and smiled. "She didn't know? Your best friend and you didn't tell her. Doesn't she deserve to know what happens to everyone who has to endure your pathetic existence? I saw the look on that other boy's face as that bullet ripped through his brain: freedom. No more evenings of listening to your insipid whining. All he ever wanted from you was something to keep him warm at night, but you held out, thinking that he actually cared about a single useless thought that ever passed through your ugly little head. I think he probably prayed every evening for that bullet I gave him."
Mishka remained silent, her face staying in the same smile which went with her words before, but the spark in her eyes which accompanied it had melted away.
"Would anyone else like to add their sparkling repartee to the room?" Phil said.
"Yes," a voice called out from besides Hanin. "You're a dick!"
Simone was awake. Hanin didn't know for how long, she hadn't looked her way in a short while. It seemed that Phil hadn't noticed either.
"Ah Miss Channing, sorry, Simone. At last the main event can begin." Phil's pace picked up, his gait became more buoyant. He was actually excited about this.
Positioning himself in front of her, he knelt down, looking at her from an even angle. They examined each other for longer than anyone in the room considered comfortable. "You and I, Simone, we are people of action. Lies do not become us. So please consider all my statements to be truthful, and I would like to be able to expect the same from you."
Simone smiled sweetly, nodding to the affirmative.
"Now, the question of whether you live or die is not up for discussion. My employers were quite specific on that. They did not, however, stipulate any manner in which I should complete that part of the task. So, from me, you stand to gain a quick, dignified death. From you, I want the access code for the laboratory. Efficiency: that's what we need from each other. You could be strong and resist, true, but it won't gain you anything. I can simply get a few of the many, many guards currently waiting beyond the door, station them downstairs and then all they have to do is wait. Stafford's cocoon will become his prison until he dies, tries to escape, or we find a way in. All you can ever take from me is time Miss Channing. Time I could be spending with my wife and daughter."
As he started his speech, Daemon looked startled. Before he looked like he was humming a song in his head, gently swaying in time to the melody. Then he stopped still. Hanin had a feeling that this part of the mission criteria had been kept from him. It didn't take him long to revert to his previous behaviour, but it seemed more for appearances sake. The laser from his ballistic-gun stopped roving altogether, steadily trained on one single spot on the floor, shaking almost imperceptibly.
"Personalisation!" Phil said abruptly. "That's something else the modern world has lost. Torture has become a one-size-fits-all commodity, and I do not believe in that. See, I could threaten you with the knife currently in your friend's leg-"
"He's my employee, not my friend," Simone said.
"Of course… your employee's leg, but I don't think that would intimidate you one bit. Just like I could make promises of extreme sexual violence to your little Typhoid Mishka over there, but at the end of the day, it'd be like threatening a cup of tea with a biscuit."
The same sickly smile was still etched on Mishka's face, the same covert attentiveness was equally written on Daemon's.
"Which brings me to your Achilles' Heel, Simone. Why would one of the most esteemed scientists in all of Beacon just get up and leave one day? She tells none of her friends, none of her family. Sells everything she can as quickly possible, then moves to one of the most downtrodden, loathsome and repulsive places on earth, why does she do that? And what's her first course of action upon setting up her new 'home'? Spending years on a device to protect women from rape. 'For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks'. It reveals such closely-guarded secrets does it not?"
"Kinda obvious really," said Fawkes.
"Yeah, I got that on my first day too," said Loomis.
Fawkes continued. "Ooh, do me next Dr. Phil! Did my daddy not love me enough? Did the other kids tease me? Could I never live up to Mother's expectations? Tell me…," he raised his voice psuedodramatically. "…Do I sleep with a hairbrush because Mittons the kitten died when I was a child?"
Phil smirked, leaving Simone to return to Fawkes. He grabbed the hilt of the knife, twisting it vigorously inside his leg. His screams filled their ears once more, but then he started laughing as well. The usually calm and collected Phil started to show his frustration.
"Daemon! Outside, get me something to blindfold and gag them all with unless you'd prefer I shoot them all in the face."
Daemon left the room quickly, returning shortly after holding various lengths of dark fabric.
"Him first," he said gesturing towards Fawkes. Hanin looked towards Simone who'd gone slightly pale. She clicked her tongue to get her attention. As Simone looked at her, she bit the side of her lip hard enough to draw blood. Simone nodded and did the same. The bite triggered a safeguard they'd built in, a pre-programmed relay channel to communicate on when they couldn't access their Cynets. As Simone's voice started to broadcast in her mind, Daemon stood in front of her, forcing the strip of black fabric around her eyes.
"Don't you fucking touch me!" she shouted. "When I get out of this chair… and believe me, I will. I've got the perfect image in my head. I'm sat at a table watching a Newton's Cradle go back and forth and back and forth. Four little spheres, two eyeballs and two tiny little testicles knocking each other on wires all day. And boy are you gonna make my dreams come t-"
He cut off her words by abruptly gagging Hanin with another piece of the fabric.
"It's alright Hanin," Simone relayed to her. "Calm down. I need you to get out of this. Please don't antagonise him, you'll only end up with a knife in you too."
"Simone, I think it's fair to say that we're presently enjoying a cruise down shit creek with only our tongues for paddles. Now would be a perfect time to tell me the panic code," Hanin relayed.
"I can't. There is no code to tell," Simone relayed.
"What?" Hanin relayed.
"What I can tell you is that the garden on sub-five has an exit you can use. Turn off halide lights one, four, eight, twenty and fifty-two. One of the trenches will turn, giving you a way out. You have to keep Staff alive Hanin, at all costs. They have weapons which could destroy our country in seconds, all they need is the proof that one of their elite was killed on Core soil, and the show's over. They'll get all the support they need to declare war."
The clattering of a trolley entering filled the room. One of his men must of brought it, since Hanin heard neither of the two leave. The vague sound of whispering came next.
"Whatever happens," Simone relayed. "Don't make a sound. Nothing you do right now can make a difference."
"I won't," Hanin relayed. "Simone, you're going to make it through this. If you can get Phil to leave the room, I might be able to get us out of here."
"You will get out of here Hanin, I promise you. I ask one thing of you when you do."
"And that is…?"
"Daemon, Phil, Rupert Channing, Edward Westworth, Tiffany Westworth and Harrison Tyrion. I want you to make sure every one of them pays for their crimes."
"What crimes?" Hanin relayed.
"You'll know soon enough. I'm cutting now, I don't my my thoughts transmitting when he starts, not with what he's holding. Hanin… you're like a daughter to me. I hope you'll continue my work. Take care my darling."
The voice cut out.
"Shall we begin Simone?" Phil said. A clattering of metal resonated followed by a scratching noise. "Take a look at this, I find it's always advantageous to know the things you're about to become intimately acquainted with. Sterile of course, wouldn't want an infection would we."
The silence was unbearable. Rapid breathing soon began. For ten minutes nobody said a word.
"Just as I thought, no fear whatsoever. Let's try a different sensation shall we," Phil said.
The compressor of something pneumatic fired, then it was like a tap was running on full before a short, sharp cutting sound started to intermittently cut the water. Words ceased to be spoken once more, just the same rapid breathing. This time though, Simone started to gag, she sounded in so much pain, like she was trying to cough but she'd forgotten how. The slight rattle of a chair leg wobbling uncontrollably came next, like a drummer building a crescendo on his snare. Hanin wanted to scream out, but she'd promised. She wondered what all the others were thinking. Fawkes and Loomis had probably gone through this a fair few times each. It seemed to be their life, only Fawkes even listed a next-of-kin on his file: some woman named Jasmine. Loomis, apparently, had nobody. Simone remembered how to cough, then she did nothing but for a while.
"I was hoping your endurance would impress so Ms. Channing," Phil said. "When the future holds nothing but pain, most people start saying anything to make it stop. Sometimes even the truth. Do you have any truths you wish to tell me?"
"As you wish," he said.
The hum of a motor, distant yet screeching. Every few seconds it made a low-frequency rumble followed by a rat-a-tat. Hanin could tell Phil hadn't approached her yet, but Simone started to shiver as she was taking in breaths. Hanin wished she had left the Heisenberg Loop in her. She tried to connect the sounds to an object. Not knowing what was happening made it all the worse. Another aeon passed by, soundtracked by Simone trying her hardest to suppress her pain.
"For my next trick, I'm going to need a little audience participation. Daemon, the scissors. If you wouldn't mind removing the dress please."
A metal object was placed on a table in the corner, it must have been the ballistic gun. Footsteps. Metal lightly scraping, then fabric being torn by blades.
The breathing got heavier, she was scared. He was about to play his trump card, Hanin could feel it.
"I have a name out there: Skeleton Key," Phil said. "You have seen how easily I entered your home, but perhaps you believe trickery is at play? As I understand your invention, Miss Channing, this would normally elicit something of an electrical response."
Something was picked up from the trolley, it sounded softer than the other items. A few more indistinguishable noises and then Hanin heard something for the first time: Simone Channing crying. Sobs delivered in a rhythm as if she was trying to repeat a phrase with them. Hanin bit her lip until she tasted warm coppery blood. She felt blood begin to trickle over her wrists too as she pulled and twisted against the ties.
"Now you know my name is well earned Simone. Years of your work, undone with only a week of mine. Now don't misunderstand me, I am a happily married man. I would never defile that even with a lady as lovely as yourself. There are, however, over seventy men currently occupying your home. Men who hold themselves to no such moral standards. Men who obey any order, no matter how horrific it may be. It is men like that who afford true power. Those who act, yet never reason, never question. I will call them into this room…"
The crying became so rapid it took the place of her breathing.
"…And I will introduce them to you one-by-one Simone. You will learn their names and their darkest fantasies as your friends sit by and do nothing."
Another sound of an object being picked up lightly came to Hanin's ears. Distant.
"That's the worst part, isn't it, knowing of the people so near to you who won't help. They could stop it all if they just wanted to enough, but no! Nobody will go that extra step for you Simone. The remainder of your life will make anything else you've experienced seem like a visit to the petting zoo. It could even go on for days. There are no limits to the violation you will feel as one-at-a-time they spread-"
Ringing. Hanin's ears hurt. The pain swirled around in them like water in a drain. The world went quiet. It had sounded like an explosion in the room. Suddenly, the texture of the sound triggered a memory from a few weeks ago in her mind. It was a ballistic gunshot.
"YOU FU-" Phil shouted.
Another shot, somebody slumped to the floor wincing in pain. The door opened, then it closed again.
Phil's voice roared through the room again, directed away from Hanin and the others. "Romeo. Foxtrot. Tango."
Hurried feet approached the rec-room and the door opened again.
Phil addressed the new arrivals: "Take the blindfolds off. Stand them, then slit their throats. Make them watch each other die… intimately."
A hand brushed against Hanin's ear and the black fabric was removed. Light flooded her eyes, it was a familiar sensation by now. As images formed, she scanned the room. Blood was everywhere, by Phil, on the floor and then…
She was facing a hurricane, trying to breathe but her lungs were taking it nothing. Slumped in the chair, a neat round hole decorated the centre of Simone's forehead. Behind the chair, more blood and bits of skull. Stripped down to her underwear, her face was still stained in tears. She still looked so scared, so afraid, so alone, but she would never feel any of those emotions again.
Hanin was pulled to her feet, her hands still tied. She saw Fawkes and Loomis experience the same horror of the scene, Mishka's face betrayed nothing. Daemon was gone. Somewhere in the building, a clock ticked through the hundred seconds of a minute since the first shot was fired.
Then the lights went out.
"Panic mode enabled," a mechanical voice blared into the darkness.
Then Hanin felt it.
First she lost all sensation throughout her entire body, yet stayed standing. Every one of her senses shut down. From nothing, the pain began. Her head felt like it was being crushed under a metal door and then spun around in a vortex. Nausea came quickly to give the pain an unneeded boost. If she could've screamed, she would have destroyed her vocal chords in one instant. Locked in darkness, with a volcano erupting in your mind, time has little meaning. At first she thought Phil had turned his attention to her, but then as the pain faded, she knew this couldn't be the case. She knew a lot of things.
N1O4M8E20A52D, that was the code to the laboratory and gardens. The word 'Ragnorarc' became lodged in her mind. Then her senses returned to her, but only three: sight and hearing and touch. All of them felt supercharged. As she opened her eyes the room in front of her formed only a part of her vision. It still appeared the same size, yet above it was another room, then besides that another room, then another. She was patched in to the surveillance throughout HQ. Right now Staff was singing a song to himself about love on a pirate ship, she saw and heard it as if she was in the room with him: he was badly off-key yet ever-so adorable. The image bank revealed also that Phil was not bluffing. Countless men were taking up positions in every single room, all of them carried large black rifles, all of them were wearing lightweight helmets, all of them had fingers resting firmly on the triggers of their rifles.
She felt Phil's eyes on her: a mixture of curiosity and fear. He made a gesture to the man holding Hanin with a flick of his hand. The man moved a knife to her throat, as it was about to make contact with her skin, she felt a static shock. The knife hit the floor, then soon after, its former holder. First he had to travel across the room in mid-air before smashing into the wall. She tensed her wrists and felt the ties that bound her begin to loosen before they dropped off her arms, melted.
The curiosity disappeared from Phil's face. He backed out the room, ordering their deaths once more as he left. Four men were standing against near the doorway across the room already. They trained their rifles on Hanin, then fired.
She watched as little spinning lumps of metal emerged from the barrels of their ballistic rifles, lumps with little flashing red dots on them. She knew from experience how fast these travelled, yet to her it was like watching somebody walk across the room lethargically. Her HUD flashed up a message "Multiple Incoming Projectiles – Average Speed 841.31 m/s: Panic mode enabled – Select evasive action". Under this it listed four separate frequencies of communication. They were smart bullets with built-in guidance adjustment controls. Something else she was unsure of how she knew. She held up her hands and one-by-one swiped a new course for each of them in the air. "Threat Averted" flashed up, then time returned to normal as the four bullets smashed into the walls around her. Their owners were very concerned, lowering their rifles in perplexedness.
Ragnorarc, the word wouldn't leave her mind. She needed it, a longing which felt like being parted from a close friend. She well knew that feeling. All eyes were on her as she typed the word into her Cynet. Her HUD read "Tracking Location for Deployment… Recreation Room… Area M/15… Weapon Deployed." A hatch opened in the ceiling directly above her, then something dropped into her hands: a sword, its blade length about eighty-centimetres, split down the middle where a tube of transparent metal ran, it was filled with fluid which looked the same as Okada's arm had, only this one ran red. It was a superconductor, designed to deliver all forms of energy to the blade with almost one-hundred-percent efficiency. More knowledge of unknown origin. Its handle was a black moulded touch-screen activator, designed to impart controls based on hand and finger position on the hilt.
It was at about this point that she noticed the power readout on her HUD had changed dramatically. Usually it hovered around seventy-percent, now it read "942,653% – connected to external source (HQ Panic)." She felt energy drain from herself to the Ragnorarc in her hands, the power readout carried on dropping swiftly. She didn't have long. The core of the Ragnorarc began to glow.
"Can I play too?"
Mishka's voice dragged her back to the reality confronting her. Hanin smiled, grasped the hilt tightly in both hands, changing her hand-stance to Anchor mode. She ran up to the guard nearest to her, he didn't have time to raise his impotent weapon again before she buried the blade in his chest, she hit the control for Lock, then threw herself into a backflip with the aid of N-disperse. As the blade pulled out, a trail of red electricity bridged the gap between the top of the blade and the guard's mortal chest wound. She swung the Ragnorarc on a horizontal plane as she flipped, the fast-fading guard was locked into place like a huge weight on the end of a lengthy chain, he followed the course of the blade around Hanin before she hit Release. The bridge vanished, leaving nothing but an almost lifeless man, hurtling towards the second nearest guard with the kind of velocity approaching what the APC could muster. The impact sent the other guard straight against the wall behind him, his necking snapping instantly before his ruptured body started to leak blood over the wall and floor. She landed perfectly.
Hanin aimed the blade at the third guard, firing a pulse at him. A ball of red lightning shot from the fluid centre of the blade, only stopping when it hit the wall behind the guard. He looked down momentarily as a perfect circle was burned through his stomach. No longer able to support the weight of the torso, his body split, collapsing in a smoking heap.
Guard number four knew he was dead by this point. Men do many things in the face of death: some cower, some reason, some bargain, some seek forgiveness others escape, some face it head on. He selected the latter category. Hanin watched the determination in his eyes as he charged towards her with only a knife drawn. It was her knife, the one she'd dropped in the garage. As he closed in she slashed the air with the Ragnorarc, a red wave of vertical arcing light tore forwards. For the left blade she held 'Gravity Propulsion,' for the right, 'Gravity Impulse.'
The wave made contact, almost dead centre.
As it connected, it was as if two hands had grabbed the man, the left pushing his body away, the right drawing it forwards.
Both hands got their wish.
Blood covered the three living people still tied to their chairs as his body ripped into two pieces. The right side of his body settled at Hanin's feet, she kicked it away before picking up her knife and slotting it into the scabbard at the back of her skirt.
The spark was back in Mishka's eyes as she cut her restraints. Then she released Fawkes and Loomis. As he stood, rubbing his wrists, Fawkes removed his jacket, and handed it to Hanin. She looked at him inquisitively until he nodded over to the last chair of the row. Hanin told him to toss it, fearing what would happen if she made contact with him.
Nobody said a word as she stood herself in front of what used to be Simone. Hanin swept her hand down her face, closing her eyelids. Blood and tears clung to her fingertips. She cut Simone's restraints, then pulled the body forwards, slipping Fawkes' jacket onto her. She zipped it up, covering her down to her upper-thighs. Hanin softly kissed her cheek before remembering the power still draining from her.
She picked up the four bloodied rifles, tossing one to Loomis, one to Fawkes and then the other two to Mishka.
"Don't be jealous boys," Hanin said. "It's only your first day."
Mishka looked at her rifles. "Point and shoot, right?" she asked.
"That's the gist of it," Hanin said. "Watch out for the recoil. It'll raise your aim."
"Aim for the balls. Check!" Mishka said.
The two men winced slightly before briefly familiarising themselves with their weapons.
"People," Hanin said assertively. "We have two primary objectives. One, escape the premises before the copious amounts of explosives which are presently being fitted to our lovely home have time to be connected. Two, retrieve Mr. Stafford from the laboratory on sub-four. Both tasks require the use of an elevator. Between us and said elevators await many many men with balls just aching to be shot at."
More wincing from the men.
"Loomis, can I ask a personal favour?" Hanin said.
He nodded. She typed a code into Loomis' Cynet.
"That will get you to our escape route via the gardens on sub-five. Will you give her a proper burial in one of the plots while we release Staff from his air-conditioned, peril-free prison and bring him out into this wonderful blood-stained, tragedy-filled existence we call home?"
"It would be an honour." Loomis slung the rifle over his back, the strap crossing his chest. He lifted Simone off her chair, gently placing her over his shoulder. He clasped the bottom of the jacket tightly, making sure it covered her modesty. He pulled the rifle back into his other hand.
Mishka and Hanin led the four of them out of the rec-room. The hallway stretched both ways. Five men trained rifles on them from the left, seven from the right.
Sending a frequency scan out, Hanin's HUD logged sixteen Smart Bullets locked and loaded. Ignoring the four friendly, twelve bullets were simultaneously sent the command to pre-emptively detonate by her. The guns exploded in their hands, taking a few hands in the process. Shouts of agony and seven rifles hitting the floor echoed around the hallways.
Hanin nodded to Mishka and Fawkes. Fawkes took the left, Mishka the right. In just over eight shots, Fawkes sent his side to their graves. Clean, fast and efficient. Hanin would use none of those words to describe Mishka's methods. The first guy got two rounds to his groin, he fell to his knees. The other six men decided to try their luck at rushing her. She fired a wave of bullets at knee-height from both guns, sending all of them sprawling to the ground. She seemed interested by the fact that the bullets she fired changed course if she moved the barrel after firing. She stepped back, fired a round to the ceiling above the kneeling guard, then swung the rifle down: the bullet followed, swooping down to hit the prostrated merc through the crown of his head. He was probably glad of the pain relief. She tried the same trick with one of the others, but her rifle was empty. She threw it at his head instead and aimed the other rifle towards her incapacitated captives.
Fawkes had cleared his side by then. He walked past Hanin, past Mishka and fired six shots into the heads of the men struggling from their wounds.
"I bet you used to pull the wings off insects too," he said to Mishka. "This is just a paycheque for them Poena, don't take it personally."
Two thoughts crossed Hanin's mind. First was how little Mishka liked being told off, if she was insulting you, you were okay. If she stayed silent, it wasn't ever a good thing. Secondly, she was rather impressed that Fawkes seemed to be able and willing to read… maybe.
Fawkes was sent off to clear the rest of the rooms on sub-three. Hanin watched him through her feeds. Just as efficiently, he took out the four guards stationed in the dining room and the one in the kitchen. Then she watched as another four fell to his fire in the gym.
The other three of them made their way to the elevator as gunshots rang out behind them. Hanin Cynetted the elevator, told Loomis and Mishka to stand back, and then smiled as she watched the duo of mercs prepare themselves inside the elevator as it pulled down to their level. She shot an Anchor bolt from the Ragnorarc to the ceiling above where the doors opened, then used Impulse to pull her up. She crouched upside down on the ceiling. Waiting.
Two barrels emerged nervously as the doors slid open sideways. A few centimetres at a time they advanced, checking every way but up. The others had sidled out of sight around a corner.
"I got nothing," one of them said. "Switching to infra-red… What the fuck? I'm getting a white-out here! Did we just step into hell, 'cause it sure feels like-"
Releasing Anchor, Hanin deftly dropped down behind them. She thrust the Ragnorarc into the first's back, then hit Propulse, the gravity surge sent him flying down the hallway. As his feet left the ground she swung the blade round, slashing the other merc in half: a neat diagonal line from one shoulder to the other side of his waist. She started to feel less and less like doing the clean up afterwards.
She motioned to Loomis as Fawkes rejoined them from his hunt. "Take this down to sub-five, you've got two mercs waiting. One at your nine-o-clock, the other at zero-and-eighty minutes behind cover. We'll get the next ride, less chance of us getting hit on open."
He nodded and carried Simone's body into the elevator, settling it down in the corner. He checked his rifle as the doors closed behind him.
That dreaded beep burst into her head again. "Incoming Projectile – Speed 711.40 m/s: P.R.A Activated."
With her back to the threat scorching towards her, she had no time to lock onto a frequency. She braced herself for impact as the Pre-emptive Reflex Arc threw her sideways. She heard the bullet hit the metal door as she hit the wall, hard. It knocked the wind out of her, leaving her dazed on the floor.
She rolled over and lifted her head to see Mishka raise her rifle. She pulled the trigger, but it only clicked, she'd wasted all her rounds. The merc fired another round towards Fawkes, who was just about to return fire. The bullet hit his shoulder, sending him sprawling backwards, his counter zipping harmlessly into the ceiling. From the floor, Hanin managed to detonate his loaded bullet just as it left the barrel heading for a kill-shot towards Mishka. The barrel ruptured, the merc dropped the gun from shock, but it hadn't injured him. He pulled a knife and rushed the party.
"I got the fucker!" Mishka shouted.
He slashed middle, she slid low, taking his feet out from under him. He faceplanted the floor, but pushed himself back up. Mishka kicked him square in the base of the spine, sending him reeling back down again. She flicked her bracelets over her wrists and gripped them in the palm of her hands. They locked around her fists, sending the blades shooting out, three a-piece. She skewered the back of his right shoulder as he lay on the floor, dragging him to his feet before throwing him face-first against the hallway wall. With her other hand, she punched the other shoulder. With both sets of blades penetrating, she pulled him back as she withdrew, he stumbled back into the opposite wall.
"Any final requests Shitstain?" Mishka said.
He choked up some blood. "My wife, tell her-"
"Eh-Uh," she said in a mechanical tone. "Boring."
She slashed with both hands at his neck, leaving six deep cuts above his clavicle. The merc slumped down, straining for breath that never came.
"Holy shit!" Fawkes said, limping over to Mishka as he held his wound.
"Pretty impressive, no?" Mishka said with a note of triumph. "Much as I do love those rifles…"
Fawkes wasn't impressed though, his attention was fixed on the merc dead on the floor, specifically his neck. Mishka saw his complexion and released the bracelets, the blades retracted.
"Six knife wounds to the neck. Three from each side with a slightly descending angle," Fawkes said, lost in recollection.
Mishka backed away, shock coming through every line on her face. "It's not… I'm not… I didn't… Please…," she stammered.
Fawkes was shouting at her now. "Some of them were my friends! Mine! Did they deserve it!"
"I… They… I'm sorry Fawkes… They just…"
"DID THEY FUCKING DESERVE IT?"
She increased the speed of her unsteady retreat. A single tear slipped from her eye down her cheek. Her back hit the wall, she had nowhere to go.
"ANSWER ME!" he shouted right to her face, before cutting his volume to barely a whisper. "Did they deserve it?"
Mishka was trying to look up to him, but she couldn't. She was a kitten cornered by a monster. "No… Not all of them," she answered in a voice soaked in fear, shame and pain. "I just…"
"Will someone please tell me what is going on?" With the utmost difficulty, Hanin had left her restful daze before staggering over to them.
Fawkes raised his gun to cover Mishka as he spoke. "What's going on, is out there in Core, some sick fuck has sadistically tortured and executed nearly thirty guys. I knew five of them personally. They were my fucking friends and every one of them was murdered by six wounds to the neck, exactly the same as this psycho just left on the dead man there."
Just like the merc had a minute ago, Mishka sank to the floor. She didn't show her face, and spoke only in frantic muffled tones. "Hanin," she said in staccato bursts. "I'm sorry. I tried to stop."
There wasn't time to even begin considering any of this. "We can sort this out later," Hanin said.
"Fuck you," Fawkes replied. "You know how many lives she's destroyed. I know kids who lost the only parent they ever had, the one person who kept them safe in this godforsaken pit because of her. I'm not moving a single centimetre until they get the justice they fucking deserve. You do remember the part where the CSS is supposed to be making a better place! That part played pretty vividly in your introductory video. Help the helpless, bring order to chaos and restore justice. You can't wash away blood with an apology and a few tears. Blood for blood, that's how it works!"
He trained his rifle on Mishka. "This is for Blake, for his little boy, hiding in a basement with strangers now. For Domino, the girlfriend who cries for him. For Jak, for Xander, for Dante and all the others who suffered because of YOU."
Finally, Mishka met his white-hot glare and shut her eyes. "I'm ready…"
The red dot from the barrel hovered on her forehead. His aim was steady. "I liked you, I really did. But you're way beyond help. Be thankful you get a peaceful end at-"
The dot disappeared from her.
Two blades separated by a thin red fluid burst through Fawkes' chest. Hanin superheated the fluid as her power shot below two-thousand-percent.
Starting from the chest wound, the Ragnorarc gave Fawkes his own standing cremation.
She pulled out the sword as his ashes fell to the scorched floor where he stood. Seeing Mishka's tear-stained face, she knew she had no other option. She had to protect her, no matter what. Enough of her family had gone already, she wasn't losing the last one.
Leaning in, she grabbed Mishka by the wrist. She pulled her close, still holding her hands. Gently she slipped the bracelets over Mishka's hands, over her fingers, sliding them both off. Mishka offered no resistance, she offered no communication whatsoever. Hanin stashed the bagh nakhs in her pocket, then led her charge back to the elevator. She called it, and the two travelled down to the lab without a word.
There were three men stationed in the area outside the lab, Hanin dispatched them quickly, then keyed in the code, releasing Staff. He surveyed their party of two.
"Where's everyone else?" Staff asked as he stepped out.
"Loomis is downstairs securing our escape route," Hanin replied.
"What about Miss Channing, Daemon and Fawkes?"
"Daemon's a filthy traitorous whore, the other two didn't make it," she answered abruptly.
Staff wrapped his arms around her. "I'm so sorry." For some reason, Beacon equated emotions with the need to touch each other. It was nice. For a second, Hanin forgot everything, then the second ended.
"Sounds like I might need this…" Staff nipped inside the lab and grabbed a bottle of homebrew. "Never tried it before, seems like a good time to start."
"After we escape…," she said.
Bound for sub-five, Hanin dreaded facing Loomis. Her guilt consumed her as the elevator descended. They stepped out into the gardens, plot after plot of soil harbouring various ingredients they grew, all lit by metal halide. Some placed in their own environmental isolation. Five of the halide lights were turned off, and one of the plots had shifted, revealing an exit tunnel. Loomis stood by the plot next to it, flattening the soil. He scanned the party in front of him, immediately noticing the missing member. His eyes asked the question for him, Hanin simply shook her head mournfully.
Loomis dropped the spade. "Jasmine… I need to tell her. His sister needs to know."
His words struck a chord with Mishka, she smiled dimly as she wiped her eyes. "Yeah, she should know that her brother died a hero. A hero who believed in love and justice whatever the cost."
Hanin struggled to compose herself. "We need to go. Now."
The four of them left through the tunnel, hitting a switch to lock it behind them. There was no getting back now without going through the guards still left via the front. The tunnel had no light so they groped against the circular concrete walls as they went. After about fifty metres, they reached an opening which led to a platform at the bottom of another circular tunnel which stretched vertically upwards farther than Hanin could see. She synced the platform to her Cynet and powered it up. It lifted their small group upwards. After a lengthy journey with only Staff making minor attempts at conversation, the platform stopped. They stepped off inside a derelict building and the platform descended, the ramshackle floor closing over the hole.
All she could do was focus on the future now. Simone believed that Core could be better, that Core should survive. Staff could make that happen, she just had to work out how. Somehow they had to get him back to Beacon. Hanin had to get there.
She kicked the door to the building open and they walked out into the street. A few moments later, as they stood alone with nothing around them, they heard his voice.
"Right on schedule!"
The voice came from the rooftop across the street where a figure in a white suit crouched behind the parapet, a long-range rifle in his hands, aimed squarely at Staff's head.
A muzzle-flash lit up the shadows in the distance. The bullet headed straight for Staff. Hanin's sensory-processor kicked into overdrive seeming to slow the bullet as it drew closer. The power drained on her HUD indicator, it was down to 289% and sinking. She raised the Ragnorarc, hitting the gravity propulsion button. The force sent the bullet spinning into the wall a metre away from Staff's head.
The sound of laughter came from behind the parapet of the roof.
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men," Phil said loudly. "Don't think for one second that this means any kind of victory. You're still two people down, exactly as it was written, but now I will make it my personal mission to eradicate every last one of you. I won't make the mistake of underestimating you again. Enjoy your last moments of life, because next time we meet, you'll witness the full force of both me and my employers."
"Hey Phil!" Hanin called out.
"I'm also just a huge fan of Hot Potato!" she shouted, labouring to filter the rage from her tone.
Phil stood up and limped a few steps to the edge of the roof, a look of dread on his face. He swallowed hard, then straightened the charred stump of his tie.
"Fine con fuoco," he said lightly, as he closed his eyes.
From within his inner jacket pocket, a small red cube split open.
"Power Out – Panic Mode Complete," her HUD read before the words and all her augmentations faded.
The strength suddenly withdrew from Hanin's legs. She controlled her fall, making it seem like an attempt to sit gone slightly awry. The other three joined her, watching as the orange light faded from the roof across the street. Pieces of white fabric fluttered down to the ground, burning like candles in a ten metre radius of the detonation. One down, five to go, Hanin thought. She could smell the cold air with a hint of smoke, her senses had returned.
"This isn't over," Loomis said in a wearied voice through gritted teeth. "I'll make every last one of them burn for what they did to Fawkes."
Placing his hand on Loomis' shoulder, Staff followed his eye-line to the flickering candles of light. "Damn right. Tonight they knocked on our door and brought their war to us. We may have watched from both sides as that wall went up, but we'll smash it down from the very same side." He tightened his grip slightly on Loomis. "Then we'll watch them cower in the basements as we go knocking on their doors, one by one."
Hanin stifled a sob as she held her face in her knees. Mishka didn't even look over at her.
"To our fallen family," Staff said, as he raised the bottle of homebrew.
to be continued…