Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zarkov, Chapter 8

The next day greeted us with soreness and discomfort, and most of us returned to the hostel to get something approaching rest. Ignace decided to stay with the corpse for a while longer; he was still taking samples and doing analysis. The rest of us had no desire to impede or even witness his work.

All paths lead to Terra, they say, and we were convinced by all the clues we’d unearthed that the Alms House was something more than a place to receive a meal. Something was very wrong there, and we would have to find out just what it was. Such was our mandate, and our duty.

Ignace re-joined us at lunchtime, and a short strategy session ensued. We decided to visit the Alms House that night and take a good long look around. We spent the remainder of the day preparing ourselves, as Sila and Ignace searched Imperial Records for all entries relating to Coscarla’s Alms House. Finally, the night cycle approached, and after a nearly lethargic day, we moved out with a quickness.

Sila and Ignace had used their skills to good measure, and we had a printout of the building’s floor plan. We decided to enter through the refectory rather than the front or rear…if challenged we could just ask for a handout, like so many before us. We intended to go as quietly as possible. Funny how things turn out.

I was loaded for bear, wearing my full turnout. My harness was strapped over my flak armour, sword at one hip and laspistol at the other. The lasgun and shotgun rested in their customary spots on the magclamps on my back, and I still had the revolver at the small of my back. I’d even brought along a couple of frag grenades, just in case…I’ve found in my lifetime that it’s never a good thing to wish you’d brought your grenades along to the party. All that gear makes for a heavy load, but I’d grown accustomed to it on too many battlefields to count.

The rest of the team were as loaded as they ever got; Barrick with his combat shotgun, Ignace with his hotshot-loaded lascarbine. Sila clutched her revolver, and Venus appeared to be unarmed…but was likely the most potent of us all with her mindcraft. We seemed a motley crew indeed, three in robes and two in combat armor. We walked with purpose, ready to do the Emperor’s work.

Entry was simple, as Venus defeated the simple lock with a mere thought. We spread out, not really knowing what we sought beyond “proof of heresy.” That is a fairly wide swathe of possibilities, but if it was easy they wouldn’t need us.

Only minutes into our search, Ignace raised one hand, fingers splayed. We rushed to him, and he pointed to an odd device in the food service line.

“What the frak is it?” Barrick asked in hushed tones.

Ignace answered him quietly. “It appears to be a rudimentary bio-auspex. See here where it couples to this cogitator?”

Barrick gave him a blank stare. Ignace punched a few buttons on the cogitator array, and the Arbite nodded in sudden understanding.

“It further appears that it is programmed to track identification and biostatus of anyone receiving food from this establishment. To what end I cannot say.”

I held up a closed fist and all conversation ceased. I had heard something from the kitchen door, and I held my hand out, palm down, to let the team know to stay put and stay quiet. The door had a circular window in it, and I crept slowly over to peer through it.

It was a typical kitchen, all stainless steel and ceramics. A man in the green robes of the Alms House was working, bent over a large vat, and I nearly turned away. Then I noticed a glint of metal through a sleeve, and my head whipped back around. He had an autopistol in a shoulder rig, and I’d caught a glimpse of it through the gap of his robe. I pointed at Barrick and motioned him over, and he joined me quickly and silently.

He took a look through the window, then nodded to me. I mouthed a silent countdown from three, and we burst through the door together, leveling our weapons at the poor bastard.

Startled, his eyes flew wide open, and his hands went up over his head. He was a scruffy man, his filth and demeanor at odds with his pristine robes.

“Good evening.” I said it conversationally. “Let’s keep those hands up, and we’re going to answer a few questions.”

His answer came in a rush, as he grabbed the barrel of my lasgun with one hand, the other going for the pistol. He wasn’t quick enough by half, and Barrick spoon-fed him a blast from his shotgun. It was loud as hell, and I winced, sure that our stealth was blown.

I reached down and plucked a microbead out of the corpse’s ear, hearing a voice asking for a status report through it. I graveled my voice and rubbed a finger over the mic to simulate static as I replied.

“Sorry boss, that was an accident,” I said into the mic.

I thought I heard gunfire?”

“Just the one shot, sir. It was a damn big rat. I missed.”

Don’t let it happen again, Furnik.”

“Yes sir.” I heaved a sigh of relief, the stress of having to lie my ass off draining away from me. Then I smacked Barrick in the back of the head. Hard. An old sergeant of mine used to call that slap a “training aid.”

Barrick whispered to me “Did you want me to let him shoot you?”

“You’ve never heard of a buttstroke with your weapon?” I replied.

“Good point,” he conceded.

The others had filtered in, weapons drawn, and we continued our search in the kitchen. Moments later, Venus said simply “Here.” We gathered in one of the cold storage lockers, and she showed us some large barrels with numbers on the side. The numbers matched some of those we’d just seen in the cogitator, and my stomach flipped once. Sila covered her mouth with her hand.

The tech priest opened one of the containers, and quickly confirmed that it was filled with meat. “Human remains,” he said. Some of the team looked a little green, but nobody lost their dinner.

“Close it.” I said. “That’s enough…somebody goes down tonight.” I handed Ignace the microbead I’d collected. “Here, monitor this. It’s their comm freq.”

“Excellent,” the tech priest replied. He performed a quick ritual of attunement, and adjusted his own vox to monitor both our channel and theirs. I trusted him not to broadcast on the wrong one.

We made quick work of sweeping the rest of the first floor, finding nothing of interest. Our sweep took us past the main entrance with its lift and grand stair, through more storage areas and a conference room, and to the back staircase. We wasted no time heading up to the second floor, Barrick and I taking point.

We opened the door to a long hallway, with several doors along its length. We filed out of the stairway and into the gloomy passage, its sickly yellow sodium lights fighting to dispel the darkness. A general sense of creepiness hung in the air, and I looked to Venus to see if there was any warpcraft about. She shook her head gently, her blue eyes darting from door to door.

As a team, we moved from door to door, slowly and quietly clearing each room in turn. Minutes crept by, closing in on an hour. I felt an anxiety building; we’d been a long time with no contact. There’s a feeling in the air when a fight is about to happen, intangible but intense. That feeling was stirring now, and I reminded the team to stay alert.

The very next room we entered was the director’s office, and we gave it a bit more attention in our search for clues. Ignace noticed that one of the desk drawers was locked, and pried it open with his multitool. I heard him say “Interesting,” drawing the word out to leave it hanging among us in the room. We all looked at him, and he held up a small book from the drawer. On its face was the symbol of the Logicians, the heretical cult that had been crushed once before. Sila spoke first.

“That about cinches it then. Definitely heretics.” She spat the word, her righteous hatred dripping from it.

Suddenly, Ignace held his hand up, fist clenched. We all fell silent instantly. He tapped his ear, letting us know he was listening to vox. Then he said the words that changed our method for the night.

“We are discovered. There is a man just outside the door, reporting our presence.”

“We are go for active,” I replied, letting the team know we were now in a shoot-first-ask-later mode.

Barrick and I rushed the door; I took care of the opening part while he handled the pointing a shotgun through it part. Our target was in full flight, running hellbent for leather down the hallway. Ignace rolled through the doorway just before I stepped out into the gloomy passage, and we all sent rounds downrange. The green-robed runner staggered once, but made it to the end of the hallway, opening a steel door. Our next volley caught him just as the door slid open, and he crumpled to the floor.

From within that room, we heard a mighty crash and breaking glass, and a green fog issued from the door. I kept a sight picture on the doorway, assuming that all that commotion was a bad sign. Some days, I hate it when I’m right.

My eyes flew wide open as a huge humanoid thing charged through the doorway. It was a mass of vat-grown muscle, its right hand replaced by a meter-long chainripper. A low growl issued out of a mouth full of pointed teeth, and it showed no signs of slowing down as the chainripper revved up.

I fired as fast as my trigger finger would allow, trying to maintain fire discipline. I heard the booming of Barrick’s shotgun next to me, saw blood spatter and paint rip from the hallway walls. I heard the sharp crack-whine of Ignace’s lascarbine, watched a hole open in the thing’s chest. It seemed not to notice, closing the distance to us with preternatural speed. I felt the pressure of fear in my chest, but forced myself to stand firm and keep shooting. It still seemed not to notice, and it raised the chainripper high over its head.

Finally, Barrick caught the charging thing in the eye, and it crumpled a mere 3 meters from us, the chainripper digging a hole in the wall before sputtering out. Its torso heaved one final breath, and it fell silent. I released the breath I’d been holding, and felt the euphoria of certain death avoided flood through me.

I looked at Ignace, still on one knee beside me. “Rolling?” I asked.

“It seemed the most appropriate strategic procedure,” he replied. All I could do was laugh.

We cleared the rest of the hallway without incident, including the room that had recently held our rather enthusiastic attacker. Its containment vat had been shattered, and nutrient slime coated the floor, thick and green.

“Nothing else here,” Barrick said.

Sila, being careful to stay out of the slime-coated room, added “There’s a third floor.”

“Then we go up,” I said.

Ignace tilted his head to the side for a moment, and I knew he was visualizing the floor plan in his augmented mind. “The only entry point for that level is the lift. It is our only option.”

“No other options?” I asked. I was met with a chorus of silence. “That’s about what I thought. Let’s get this done.” We had no idea our night was about to get much, much more interesting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Zarkov, Chapter 7

It was late afternoon, and we’d regrouped together at the hostel. Barrick had provided a plate of sandwiches we were tearing into, though I honestly didn’t want to know what was in them. Some things are better left unknown, especially downhive.

Venus was first to speak, once we got down to business. “Lili was fearful when we found her. We managed to put her at ease, but it took some doing.”

“She was most irrational,” Ignace added.

Venus continued, running a hand through her dark hair. “She told us she hadn’t noticed Saul’s disappearance at first, evidently he liked the bottle and wouldn’t come home sometimes. When she did notice, she became frantic. She’s got the same story we’ve been hearing since we arrived; disappearances in the dead of night.”

“We used our cover, and bought her a ticket out of here,” Sila chimed in. She looked at the floor. “We told her we knew Saul was dead. She deserved to know.”

Barrick and I nodded our agreement as Venus went on. “Something is very wrong here, that much is obvious. Lili, however, didn’t have a lot to add to our knowledge.”

“Well, I might know where Saul was last seen,” Barrick said. We all looked at him expectantly. “I was asking around, and I met a guy taking shelter in the Templum. Evard Zed. Saul’s best friend.” He was now grinning like the felid that ate the canary.

“Do tell,” Sila said.

“To make a long day a short story, Evard last saw him going into the Alms House. No other useful info.” He sat at the table, lighting a lho stick and taking a long drag.

“Well,” I said, “that’s quite interesting. I met with Luntz, local narco-runner. He wanted to hire us to take out a woman who crossed him. Guess where she keeps shop?”

“Alms House,” Barrick and Venus said in unison.

“Prize to the pair,” I said. Barrick stood within the smoke cloud he’d created, grabbed his combat shotgun, and started for the door.

“Where are you headed, lawboy?” I said.

“I’m going to recon the Alms house while it’s dark.”

“Not a bad idea,” Ignace said, looking thoughtful.

I nodded agreement. “Well, do me a favor and keep your vox bead on. Night cycle gets rough here, you know.”

“I will,” he said, and left the room. The rest of us attacked the sandwiches like pack-hounds.


An hour later, the vox went off, Barick’s voice driving into my ear.

“Frak! Contact, two contacts! Red eyes!”

I ran to my room, harnessing up and grabbing my weapons from the makeshift rack in the closet.

“Where are you?” I asked into the bead. Off the bead, I yelled into the hallway “Saddle up, Barrick’s in deep!” and was rewarded by a flurry of activity from the others. I headed down the stairs as Barrick updated us on his position, and I could hear his shotgun hammering over the voxcast.

It took us only a couple of minutes to reach the young Arbite, and we found him hard pressed by two of the rag-wrapped things. He was furiously backpedaling and using his shotgun like a club, parrying their grasping arms.

“Down!” I yelled, and we opened up on them as Barrick dropped to the ground and rolled toward us. The tech-priest’s hot shots seemed to be doing the most damage, but his rate of fire left a lot to be desired, since they’re a single shot mag. Venus was able to distract them with her peculiar abilities, and Barrick reloaded once he was clear.

For my part, I just kept pulling the trigger, my lasgun on semi-auto. I stuck to a disciplined fire drill: front sight, slow squeeze, reacquire, repeat. I’d done it so many times over a lifetime of merc work that it was reflexive, like breathing.

The damn things soaked up a lot of damage, but finally both fell to our combined fire. We stood over them, taking a breather. That’s when I heard more scraping in the darkness. I looked at Venus, and she closed her eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. Then she held up 7 fingers. I cursed, and grabbed one of the rag-wrapped things.

“Let’s go” I said, and put thought to action. I hoisted the corpse into a fireman’s carry and we moved out, all of us with weapons at the ready.

“They are ahead of us, Zarkov,” Venus said. “Closing like a trap. We won’t reach the hostel without more of these things.”

We were near the Union Hall, and Barrick pointed it out. “We can hole up there, get a good defensive position.”

“Best idea you’ve had all day” I said.

We hit the back door like a wave, Sila pounding on it in a frenzy. The same ganger answered as before, and I brushed him aside as we poured in. Barrick slammed the door shut behind us, as the ganger gaped like a landed fish.

I dropped the corpse like a sack of tubers, and Ignace set to work immediately unwrapping the rags that hid it from our view. Under all the cloth, he found a hive dreg, just a man, with cheap bionic eyes. “Night vision modified,” Ignace said, pointing to the augmetics. That accounted for the red glow.

Barrick leaned in closely. “What do you want to bet we find one of those organ things in there?” he asked. There were no takers.

I kept watch at the door, and could see no figures approaching through the viewslit. I looked at Venus, the question on my face. “None” she said. “They have either dispersed or moved toward the hostel, I’d guess.”

Just then, Luntz blew into the room like a stormfront. “The frak is going on in here?” Then he saw the body on the floor, and his face went pale. “What the…you can’t…you can’t have that here!”

“Luntz” I said. “Man up. We needed a spot, we got cut off.” He looked at me with murder in his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”

“The bloody sump it’ll be fine. You trying to get me killed?”

Ignace stood from his macabre work. “Good sir. You will note that this is no monster, but merely a man. It is nothing to fear.”

“Who the frak is afraid?” Luntz replied, his voice rising an octave. I decided not to answer his question, and shook my head slightly so that Ignace wouldn’t either. He’s a little soft on the concept of rhetorical questions.

“We’re going to need to borrow this room for the night, Luntz”, I said.

He gave me a long look, looked down at the body on the floor, and seemed to make a decision.

“Yeah, yeah that’ll be fine. I can send my boys through here, let them see the boogeyman’s face. Maybe they’ll quit pissing themselves at night.”

He turned on his heel and strode from the room, his dignity restored. We found ourselves alone.

“So”, Venus started, “Alms House?”

“Alms House,” I replied. All the clues pointed to that place as the source of Coscarla’s cancer.

Ignace waved the auspex over the body, and it chimed with a cheery tone, indicating the presence of the modified organ. “I do believe that would be the place to visit. May I suggest we go in the morning, and I will retrieve a sample of the organ from this poor soul?”

We all agreed, and settled in to get some rest. Sila grumbled about not having her bed, but none of us wanted to head to the hostel in the night’s darkness. A grim reminder of what awaited us outside lay on the floor, slowly revealing secrets under the tech-priest’s knife.