Written while listening to Dead Enough for Life by Icon of Coil.
Chicago, Downtown Elevated; UCAS – November 14th, 2072. . . . . Bullets whizzed past and struck the wall three feet above and to the left of his head. Captain Deon “Hades” Smith squinted as the shower of sparks from said bullets striking the smooth metal of the wall momentarily overloaded the night vision on his goggles. What the hell were the bastards using - stick-n-shock rounds? Despite the black gloves on his hands, he had no trouble manipulating the tiny button controls on the side of the goggles and turning on the flare compensation; when the damn eff-comp decided to respond, however, was up to the finicky old piece of junk on his head.
. . . . . “Cap, we've been made!” came a voice in his headset.
. . . . . “No shit,” Deon muttered as another set of sparks set his eyes watering under the goggles. He moved his hand to the sub-vocal mic on his throat and activated transmission. “Copy that. Keep your heads low and fall back to the north stairwell as planned. No heroics.” There would be more cursing, but with the mic hot, he'd keep that to himself. His soldiers had long since learned to stop giving their captain a ribbing about his aversion to public profanity.
. . . . . Flare compensation finally kicked in on the ancient relic he was wearing and he carefully dropped to his belly behind the terminal stand he was using for cover. God bless paranoid corps that chained their worker drones to desks even though interface terminals could be wireless; they were even more of a relic than the decade-old goggles on his face. His team kept the chatter to a minimum while he peeked out at ground level towards the elevators which had seemingly brought half the twenty-two story building's security up at once. Deon hoped it was because they were busy concentrating on getting their asses out of the fire.
. . . . . When he pulled his head back, the man crouched behind the terminal parallel with him raised one shoulder in something between a shrug and a question. The Cajun had always had a way with body language. “Eleven at the elevators, including a troll with what looks like a shoulder-mounted RPG,” Deon reported over the line. “And they're using electrics, so don't go trusting too heavily on those ballistic vests, aye?”
. . . . . Lieutenant Remy “Shark” LeChay chuckled, “Like we'd be testin' 'em 'gainst grenades otherwise?”
. . . . . Another voice cut in, suddenly loud in his ear through the headset, “North wall breached! We've got-”
. . . . . A low rumble followed by a deafening bang, then static made Deon's heart stutter in his chest. “Tina? Tee, report! Tee!”
. . . . . “They're swarming, Cap,” came an unusually quiet, sober response from PFC Renner. “We're humped.”
St. Louis, Downtown; UCAS – November 2nd, 2072. . . . . “It's a cakewalk mission, sir.”
. . . . . “Dammit, Shark, I thought I told you to watch your language!” Both men stared at one another over the vast expanse of Captain Smith's desk for a full three heartbeats before they burst into laughter. “Yes, it was,” he answered the unspoken question about his intentional word choice. Deon shook his head, his rueful, toothy smile a stark white against his dark skin. “I don't like it when you use that word, Shark. Every time that word comes up, the mission goes south. And you know how UCAS feels about the South.”
. . . . . Having grown up in the Confederation of American States down on the bayou and defected after a corporate scuffle LeChay had never seen fit to provide details on, the Cajun just laughed all the harder, slapping his knee in mirth. Deon snagged a pen off his desk and let his lieutenant laugh himself out; it wasn't like he'd get through to him until he was done anyway.
. . . . . Captain Smith's office had a nice view of the wide sludge slick of the Mississippi and being in the border city of St. Louis meant almost half his team were ex-pats from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon. Most commanders in the United Canadian and American States refused to work with ex-pats, which just meant Deon got first crack at the good ones. He had a mixed bag with his eight irregulars on Team Kappa, but they were all loyal to the gates of Hell and back, and more than simply adequate in a crunch.
. . . . . Shark finally gasped for air like a beached water creature and Deon leaned back in his chair, ignoring the protesting creak from the twenty-year-old hand-me-down from some backwater records house. “You know as well as I do,” he followed, his gaze level with his second, “that nothing is ever so easy. It's too close to the CeeZee for comfort. I don't care if quarantine's been down fourteen years or not; there's bugs and ghouls and gangs.” Deon pointed the pen in his hand at Shark's thin-tipped left ear. “You might have the street cred to get by, but I can't get good fake ears in my color even with all the R&D of UCAS behind me.”
. . . . . “Put on a wig an' you could front in the Austin neighborhood.”
. . . . . Deon threw the pen at Shark, who caught it in his teeth with a flourish.
. . . . . “Jackass,” Deon muttered, grinning. “Get out of my office and get Glitter and Hawk putting together an infiltration plan. Command may be acting like this is routine, but I can stall them for a few days until we've got a real plan. And keep the pen; it's got elf cooties now.”
Chicago, Downtown Elevated; UCAS – November 14th, 2072
. . . . . Infiltration of the highrise office building in Chicago's Downtown Elevated had actually been a cakewalk, a nothing-doing ho-hum mission for a special operations team used to sneaking into high security corporate arcologies and rescuing various patriotic defectors who found their loyalty to country trumping their loyalty to the corporation which had been their life practically since birth. The highrise didn't even have back-ups for its internal electrical grid. The city might be a bug-spirit-ridden cesspool of crime, but two simsense companies still clung by ragged fingernails to a nearly sixty-year-old business niche they'd helped build.
. . . . . Federal government had gotten involved, however, when word passed that a subsidiary of Aztechnology had bought up a simsense maker in Chicago and was producing illegal snuff sims. Normally, the occasional snuff sim investigation was given to the FBI, but with this information coming from an insider turn-coat with high level security codes, some clever boots in the UCAS military decided it was time to send Team Kappa in to extract the hapless corporate shill while shutting down the snuff sim operation.
. . . . . Sergeant Anne “Glitter” Savoy and PFC Hawk Nasser dropped on the roof of the building to jack into its local grid and shut the power down. PFC Aaron Hamilton – who would tell anyone listening that his family descended from the famous Alexander Hamilton and his mother had a sick sense of humor in naming him after Aaron Burr – manned the unmarked helicopter, the only air vehicle Team Kappa had.
. . . . . With the building dark in the wee hours of the morning, the rest of the team cracked the front lobby. PFC Ryan McNamara stayed in the lobby with Team Kappa's medic, Hayaki Tsu, and kept a watch on the elevator bank while Shark, Tina, Renner, and the Captain climbed up a dark, dead elevator shaft to the twenty-first floor of the building.
. . . . . The plan had been to nip in, extract the V.P of operations who'd decided to go turn-coat on his employers, and rappel down the shaft with most of the team walking straight out the lobby doors like it was no big thing. Simple, uncomplicated, and – as predicted – quick to go south.
. . . . . It started when McNamara radioed up that the lights on lift three came on.
. . . . . “What?” Glitter barked over the commlink, “It's dark; that can't do that.”
. . . . . “Well, it is.”
. . . . . “Shi-oooooot,” Glitter changed her mind mid-word as she dove into the Matrix grid and tried to find and shut down the errant elevator.
. . . . . Then there was the problem with the V.P. When Team Kappa reached him, he was no longer breathing. Deon bowed his head and made the sign of the cross on his chest before he started laying down orders. “Shake down this office. Behind the pictures, under the desk drawers, flip through the books – anything that looks like a chip, take it.” While Warrant Officer Tina Cole and Shark started through the office with brisk efficiency, Deon reached out his gloved hand and closed the poor corporate slave's wide eyes. From the vomit on the man's chest and the fallen bottle of Jameson near one chubby hand, the V.P. had been poisoned.
. . . . . At the door, PFC George Renner had taken up watch. Renner had a twitch which made him look like he would be unsteady behind the sights, but focusing his manic energy down a barrel turned him into a statue. The soldier shook his head in disbelief as the Captain started murmuring a litany of reverent-sounding Latin over the dead cargo. “We don't have time for that,” he muttered to himself.
. . . . . “Let it be, Renner,” Shark muttered as he passed by, upending a potted plant by the door to check inside the pot for hidden computer chips. “Cap was a chaplain; 'e does 'is thing, we do ours.”
. . . . . Tina recovered a cache of twelve tiny microchips concealed in a paperweight on the V.P.'s desk and the team took those as they left the office, heading back for the elevator banks right about the time McNamara reported the lights. Eighteen, the lights said. “Cover,” Captain Smith said, pointing Tina and Renner back down the corridor to the office, “now.” Nineteen, the lights said. “Move it!”
. . . . . The team split with half of them heading into the corridor to clear the way to the stairwell so they could meet up with McNamara and Tsu at the bottom, and the other half concealing themselves behind computer terminals in the open-floor office facing the elevator bank. Twenty, the lights said. Shark flashed a lazy thumbs-up as he readied his gun in the dark room, his elvish eyes unhampered by the low light. Twenty-one, the ding of the elevator doors said.
. . . . . That's when bullets started flying.
. . . . . Whoever had just come up wasn't in the mood to ask questions, which put Deon in not much mood for restraint.
. . . . . “Cap, we've been made!” McNamara transmitted over the commlink, sounding like he was already in a flat run for cover.
. . . . . The bang from down the hallway where Tina and Renner had gone had the Captain and his second-in-command looking worriedly at one another in the dark.
. . . . . “What's swarming, Renner?” Deon asked, already gesturing to Shark that he would provide cover fire for the lieutenant to get to the others. There was silence in response. “Renner?” Deon growled frustration at the ceiling. Shark would haul them out, though. On a visual signal, the Cajun elf took off for the corridor as Deon stood up from behind the terminal and started firing both of his Ares Predator Vs towards the elevators. At six-foot-four and a very solid two-twenty, Deon was the only man on the team big enough to pull off such a trick without his arms getting ripped off by the recoil of one-handing the heavy pistols.
. . . . . Pain exploded across his chest as his ballistic vest did exactly what it was designed for and kept a bullet out of him and spread the impact out. His goggles flickered and died as the electrical charge from the shock part of the stick-n-shock round danced over his body. Deon had been tased – twice – and electrocuted – once – so he knew what to expect from it. Knowing, however, and actually coping with his muscles locking up on him and his body going redwood tree were two different things. He managed to angle his fall so that he dropped behind the last interface terminal in the room, but he was going to be down seven or eight seconds until the shocks cleared.
. . . . . Of course, that's when the little black metal lime clattered to the floor some ten feet away.
. . . . . The whole team heard Captain Smith's deeply heartfelt “Fuck,” over the commlink.
Miami, Johns Hopkins Institute of Health; Caribbean League – April 24th, 2073
. . . . . “The hell is this, Kara?” Doctor James O'Leary, far too pale and Irish to be living in a sunlit land like Miami eyed the giant crate on the loading dock of his lab suspiciously. “I don't have morgue storage,” he groused at his research fellow.
. . . . . Doctor Kara Ahken shrugged. She was sitting atop the wooden crate with lunch balanced on her knees. “Would you believe a story about a clandestine research project recovered from a destroyed Aztechnology lab in Austin, Texas and a contact of mine in CAS who knows I research eco-magical anomalies?”
. . . . . O'Leary snorted derisively and sat down on the crate next to her. “Tuna and rye?”
. . . . . “Mm, it's good too.”
. . . . . “No thanks. Still vegetarian.”
. . . . . Kara shook her head at the tragedy of it and continued to enjoy her sandwich.
Miami, Johns Hopkins Institute of Health; Caribbean League – April 25th, 2073
. . . . . “Woah,” Kara muttered as she set the crate's top upright against the table and peered into the packing material. It was no wonder she'd had to have three interns carry it in and lift it onto the table. The corpse inside was huge, his dark brown skin gone ashy in death. Grievous wounds littered his body: old scars and new stitches that had to be from the undertaker's pass at him, and the left arm and leg had both been replaced with cyberlimbs. Clinically detached from years of studying the dead, she waved away the fog of cryogenic coolers in the packing kicking into overdrive in the hot Miami air and aimed a penlight at the left arm. “Reaaaaaally nice hardware,” she muttered, inspecting the gleaming metal that looked to be in far better condition than the man it had been attached to. Shiawase deltaware, probably, ridiculously expensive and high-end machinery.
. . . . . “Thanks,” groaned the corpse, “but I'll warn you I can't get it up anymore.”
. . . . . Before the shriek had fully left her mouth, Kara was across the room with her hand on the glass over the emergency fire axe. Corpses did not talk! The lights in the room flickered as the shadows started to converge at her feet. She was not without her own defenses when weird shit started happening, and as an Awakened researcher, she'd dealt with her fair share of extra-normal weird shit. This...this was new, however.
. . . . . “Oh, you meant the metal,” the dead man said almost conversationally, though his voice was hoarse. His metal left hand, a work of beauty in steel and cable, lifted a few inches out of the crate and waved in the general direction she had leapt away to. “Don't suppose you have a towel or dishrag or, God bless me, a pair of pants handy, do you? Size 38 waist?”
. . . . . This is not happening, Kara kept telling herself. Discussion of pant sizes was just way too prosaic for a risen corpse. The sad sigh that came from the wooden crate was so pathetic, though, that she found herself grabbing a blue surgical towel off the counter, balling it up, and tossing it into the crate from across the room.
. . . . . “Marvelous. Much obliged, ma'am.”
. . . . . The corpse's drawl was hard to place; some of his vowels were northern UCAS flat while some of his courtesies sounded southern CAS polite. Why the flipping hell is there a talking corpse in my lab?
. . . . . “Where am I?” the dead man asked as he sat up, shedding flecks of packing foam as he pulled his upper body free of the containment that had been injected around him after he'd been laid in the crate. His hair had started forming a springy cushion atop his head and Kara was starting to rethink the idea that he'd died with it in such an archaic hundred-year-old style.
. . . . . “JHH, Miami,” she answered, half her mind on directing the shadows at her feet to coalesce into a small, sleek panther. Keeping her hand parallel and flat to the floor, she held the shadow panther in a crouch so the dead guy couldn't see it. Did those eyes even work? The left one looked like it might have trouble focusing – the light brown iris almost swallowed by a blown-out pupil.
. . . . . “Why Miami? What's going on?” With his flesh hand holding the towel strategically in place, the corpse started to stand up on her lab table.
. . . . . “Sit down or I will shoot you!” Kara shouted, her voice loud but level. She had no gun in hand, but the warning was clearer than 'sit down or I'll let a shadow panther rip out your throat.'
. . . . . The big man sat back down in the crate, blinking at her in bewilderment. “Ma'am?”
. . . . . “I don't know what you are, why you're up, and whether you're dangerous – so if you want to get out of that crate, you can wait until I know what the hell is going on here.”
. . . . . The corpse pursed his lips in disapproval for a moment, then stared at the wall some seven inches to the left of her ear. His voice was a monotone, like the words were drilled into him. “Captain Deon Matthew Smith, chaplain, United Canadian and American States Armed Forces. System Identification Number UCAS68372126 dash 35 slash 10H.” He jerked suddenly, his gaze going up to the ceiling like he was looking for something up there. After a moment, he shook his head and refocused his slightly off-kilter gaze on Kara's face. “Shall I wait here while you look that up?”
. . . . . Kara stared at him then sidled to the door with the shadowy panther at her feet. Never looking away from the dead man sitting up in a giant wooden crate on her laboratory table, she grabbed for the doorknob, opened it, and edged out of sight.
. . . . . The lock clicked home, trapping him in the room.