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.

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