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.