Bound Fate (Warhammer High)
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
- Someone given over wholly to their slide addiction; analogous to meth-head, tweaker, junkie, dopefiend.
- 1 Bound Fate
- 2 Prologue
- 2.1 Hive Tetra
- 2.2 Trust – Sunday, Septembris 11, 297.M34
- 2.3 A Morning with Miranda - Monday, Septembris 12
- 2.4 A Wild Furia Appears
- 2.5 The Smell of Betrayal
- 2.6 In a Menacing Sort of Way
- 2.7 The Lordly Fitness Test
- 2.8 Fifteen Credits a Kilo - Wednesday, Septembris 14
- 2.9 Familiar Itch – Friday – Septembris 16
- 2.10 Date Night
- 2.11 Anywhere
- 2.12 Monastery
- 2.13 Pretend-Slumming - Sunday, Septembris 18
- 2.14 Glemish
- 2.15 Teenagers
- 2.16 Injury Report
- 2.17 A Brave New Day - Monday, Septembris 19
- 2.18 Far Worse - Tuesday, Septembris 20
- 2.19 More Than Enough
- 2.20 The Taste of Betrayal
- 2.21 Dubhannan - Februarius
- 2.22 Didn't Make It Through the Night - Tuesday, Septembris 20
- 2.23 Something
- 2.24 Eternally
- 2.25 Real Understanding
- 2.26 Something of Man
- 2.27 Courting Habits of World Eaters
Acknowledgments & Dedication
Thanks to Ahriman's Aide and Someone else. for advice on lore, characters and just writing.
- Kudos to DarkMage for first portraying Furia as more than just anger.
- This book is dedicated to Brett.
- Hope you found your peace.
- It is a time of peace.
- The Great Crusade is long over, the epic battles and mythic triumphs of a galaxy-spanning effort to bring Mankind together once more are but echoes in the minds of Imperial citizens.
- But the Primarchs live on, united as they ever were, the memories of war still fresh in their aeonian minds.
- In another time, perhaps, this would not be so; but here the Emperor, the Master of Mankind, knew humility and tolerance, here He listened to Eldrad Ulthan, Farseer of Craftworld Ulthwé.
- In the 34th millennium Terra is whole, the Imperium united; the harbingers of Chaos were cast down from among the ranks of the Word Bearers, and so the Great Heresy never came to pass.
- The Eldar Empire is reborn on the eastern fringes of the galaxy, the Pact of Brotherhood between Man and Eldar symbolized by a Golden Orb which links the seats of their two great realms
- through the Warp.
- But the Primarchs are exemplars of war, and a time of peace causes them to chafe, to scrape at the boundaries of life.
- The Emperor foresaw this after the Farseer's premonition, even before He gathered His lost sons, and at Ullanor, when He made great Horus the Warmaster, the Emperor put His plan into
- When the Primarchs returned from the Great Crusade, called suddenly, an unexpected gift awaited them.
- A family.
- For while they toiled at the outer reaches of the galaxy, the Emperor had toiled yet more fervently that they may have a legacy beyond bloodshed.
- That gift was imparted seventeen Terran years ago and now those Daughters, those Lady Primarchs stand on the cusp of their young lives, only a year yet remaining before they begin the
- march to their own fates.
- But dangers as never before face the Daughters, and all that stand between them are children, their lives abandoned for the Daughters' dream of a normal life.
“The first years of the Great Crusade, the wars of man against man... they were an undesirable circumstance gone too far; only the wisdom of the Emperor, and the foresight of one even farther seeing than he, prevented them from going any further.”
- – Primarch Magnus the Red, at the signing of the Treaty of Material Sodality
“You raise children, you take care of them, shelter them, feed them, put your hopes and dreams in them. You make them feel special. It's what parents do. I think... I think we [the Imperium] treat the Daughters the same way, like celebrities. Like they're our children.”
- – Dova Viriato, Holo Performer
“Greatness is not measured by birth or blood, wealth or power, or even accomplishments, but by the adversity faced to achieve one's ambitions.”
- – Tal Urtė, Honour to All: A Call for Equality
Miranda floated effortlessly through the Warp, the unctuous deep of happenstance and undiluted emotion. She felt peaceful, content in a way she rarely felt in the Materium, the real world. Her father had often warned her against delving into the Great Ocean, but with the rapid increase in her psychic ability she'd begun to do so unconsciously in her sleep.
Magnus grudgingly accepted the necessity of Miranda's trips, but only at home, around him. She'd agreed excitedly, and while her cousins slept only four hours a night, she would often spend six or more treading the currents of the Empyrean.
Miranda had to admit, it felt much safer to do so at home, her father's presence calming the tides somewhat. She felt his warmth and guidance all around her, buoying her up and removing every last trace of insecurity she'd felt in the past. The image of a black diamond passed over Miranda's thoughts, and she shuddered despite the warmth of her bed.
Suddenly everything changed.
Miranda heard a dull roar, felt a blankness overcome her, and the warp went dark. One-by-one points of light emerged into the darkness. So few at first, and so dull.
But then more, and as more appeared each grew brighter, more colorful. They grew into the dozens, thousands, billions. Into a great multicolored star, innumerably more than its component parts.
Soon they spread, farther and farther, a whole galaxy of lights, of stars.
And then they began to disappear.
In a haze of red and black the lights turned malevolent. They began to devour each other, so many lights vanishing to hate and fear.
Miranda felt herself cry at the death, the loss of life.
Just when all seemed lost another light revealed itself, greater and brighter than the others. A light that had been there all along, watching, waiting for this time of need. It drew the other lights around it and the first star was born again, greater and brighter than ever.
The other lights swirled and moved around it, never approaching.
They came close enough to warm themselves, but not to warm the great light. For a time the great light stilled in its actions, then from it emerged other lights, brighter than the myriad smaller lights. They formed a bridge, a middle ground between the great light and the small lights.
And then it exploded.
The brighter lights spread out and the great light sought them, bringing other lights, making them brighter than they were that they might brave the darkness. It was long and terrible, and not all the brighter lights were found, but the smaller lights were brought into the fold. Soon the galaxy of lights was back, swirling around the great light, studded by the brighter lights. It was balanced, harmonious.
It was good.
And yet the brighter lights began to move, to fidget and chafe. They had been made to seek and unite the smaller lights, and without a purpose they grew distressed.
And so the great light made more of the brighter lights. They were smaller and more delicate than the first host, but more beautiful and lively. They formed a bridge, a connection, between the now dancing brighter lights and the galaxy.
All was complete.
Miranda felt herself pulled, jerked away as she saw an imperfection.
She flew among the lights and could see the picture up close.
The lights were still bright, but the subtleties, the inconsistencies began to show. Like an ocean that appears blue and clean from afar, but up close the pollution and grime forms into layers, distinct tracts among the water.
Among the lights.
Miranda saw one in particular as she drifted, a rough blackness, a star of darkness.
Like the great light it sought the warmth of its brood, but the other lights moved away, swirling ever around it.
Miranda wept again, a tear of loneliness.
One of the lights, duller than the others, sought out the blackness and approached it.
The dull light dimmed momentarily as the blackness embraced it.
But happiness came soon, and love bloomed.
The light grew brighter.
They danced, capered and frolicked with each other, even when a tract of red nearly carried the blackness away. The other lights kept their distance, uneasy as they always had been, shunning the blackness and its companion.
Soon the blackness formed into a diamond.
A single, solitary, transcendent perfection among the roughness of light.
Then a single light, smaller and weaker than the others, moved in. It was afraid of the blackness.
But the blackness was contained in the diamond and it was easy to approach. The weak light tore away at the black diamond and grew brighter, a blood red brightness.
Soon the other lights moved in and tore as well.
They each took a small piece of the black diamond and grew brighter, red.
The once-dull light jumped and bounded, but it was too late. The black diamond began to crumble, and with it went a piece of the once-dull light.
The loneliness came, stronger than ever, to Miranda.
The end of the black diamond propelled the again-dull light, and it shambled, stumbled throughout the galaxy of stars. It began to move faster and faster, grow terribly brighter. Not completely red, not fully of anger and blood, but with a terrible purpose. It moved in an indiscernible pattern, swirling around the brighter lights and the delicate-brighter lights. It learned from the weak light how to tear, steal, and it did so. It tore at the delicate-brighter lights one at a time, making them duller, changing their color and movement.
The great light saw this and grew red, more terrifying than any red that had come before, even before it first appeared. But the again-dull light had learned from the dull light, and all the weak lights. It plunged into the great light and the great light was rent asunder, split and carried amongst the galaxy of lights.
All went black.
Miranda instinctively sought out her father, an easy task given the size of his presence in the Immaterium. She was afraid, but not sure why. Like a dream she couldn't remember after waking up. She found him in the library, reading a book, and couldn't help but smile at how content he was with the simple act.
Hive Tetra, Terra. Hab Block #113. Early Septembris, sunset.
One continuous smoky pall covers the hab block from wall to wall, close as it is to the underhive.
Somewhere deep in the gloom an exhaust fan kicks on, drawing feebly at the thick, foul air. A current begins to stir, slowly, reluctantly. Minor eddies appear in the smoke now, swirls within swirls that only serve to enhance how filthy the air is. It isn't just dust and grit, but the bite of the air that defines it.
The long pseudosummer is finally drawing to an abrupt close, far more quickly than any normal weather would on most planets. The once ninety degree weather outside has dropped rapidly in the past few days, and in another week will be below fifty on a daily basis. Even something as basic as this is worse in the lower hive.
The middle hive and upper hive remain fairly warm year-round, but the old exhaust systems and sunkenness of the lower levels ensure that cold air comes into the squalor quickly, and holds firm even into the summer months. Low, chunky buildings–at odds with the newer, more efficient designs above–squat unevenly amongst a perfectly organized grid, roads meeting roads at right angles. This organization is a lie.
Numerous alleys, home to the lowest of the low, cut between the buildings, seemingly at random. Most are poorly lit, if at all, and constant sounds come from the darkness. Vapour rats, some too malnourished to even blend in, scurry from shadow to shadow, seeking scraps of of food in trash receptacles. The occasional bum or dead body provides more nutrients to the rats and their larger brethren than any Adept would admit.
To the north lies a school, larger and cleaner than the surrounding buildings, but only just so. It sits alone, mournful despite its frequent use and current occupation. It is a joke, a distraction, a promise that will never be kept. The children of Block #113 learn many things, but only one legal profession matters here, and this, more than anything, contributes to the prevalence of Slide trafficking. Not far from the school the air turns fouler still, thick with death and industry, with the reality of their future lives.
To the east sits this truth, a massive Soylens processing facility, churning day and night to process the deceased, airtrucks conveying fresh foodstuffs to the area and other blocks above. A smell permeates the air for blocks around, something savory and revolting. The apartments around the plant are the cheapest in the entire hive, an unfortunate truth for the menial laborers needed to run the machinery in the building. Most grow up knowing only the stench of fresh soylens, live their lives eating it and die making it.
After death they became soylens, another product to be processed, packed and shipped.
The overlights, already barely powered, begin to dim along with the ebbing draw of solar energy on the hiveskin far above. They dull in a grim reflection of the outside sun; first from hazy white to orange-yellow, then to a dull red before finally extinguishing completely. Twilight falls, then flees for a brief time with this; it returns as the sparse lumen strips dotting the grime-covered buildings and few streetlamps come to life. Most streets are still well lit, but too many are dark now, appearing as they truly are, larger alleys to hide the iniquity and filth of undersociety.
This close to the underhive disgusting things lurk, mutated and deformed humans simply the least of them. Houses, a dark mockery of the upper hive nobles, organize amongst themselves. They divide up aspects of the black market and criminal economy, vying for control in legal and illegal ways. And even these are merely puppets or prey to worse, far more calculating evils that stud the reaches of the nobility and Administratum high above.
Even on Terra corruption is rampant.
Amongst the dank air, tarnished buildings and darkness, a pair of lights appear, cutting a swath through murk and corruption alike. The black aircar, so clean as to seem at odds with it surroundings, reflects the precious ambient light graciously. Subtle variances of black to gray are offset by navy blue trim, defining and even highlighting the car against the grime that surrounds it. Blocks ahead of the vehicle something resists the light it shines, a flitting shadow in the darkness high above. After a moment another shadow flickers through, and another.
Soon an entire column of shadows, whirling and rotating in a great lazy circle, reveal themselves. Awakened by the vent-borne stir of the tepid air, the carrion bats ride weak currents, ever searching. They descend, nearing their sustenance, then rise again in deference to the predator they seek to scrounge from.
Arbitrator-Patrolman Idiam Thar cracked a window, the vehicle's cabin still warm from its descent. The smell of the lower hive filtered in through the narrow gap between pillar and glass.
His nose caught the air, the scent of grime, old masonry, mold and rancid water.
A slight burnt odor carried through from the exhaust ducts and undercut the smells, nearly hiding the stench of the soylens district he was fast approaching. After another three minutes Thar finally felt it. It was a stink in the air, fouler even than the soylens, and too faint to truly discern. He felt it in his gut: death, not the processed essence of soylens, but real death, messy and unexpected.
Thar grunted in acknowledgement of the smell as he saw the carrion bats. They listed through the air, falling slowly, gradually, then suddenly banking into an upturn, starting a fresh circle. He wasn't worried about carrion bats. He knew carapace armor, a stubpistol and common sense were more than enough to handle them.
Still glad I brought the Lawbringer. Thar patted the weapon in the passenger's seat, almost like a proud father. Many Patrolmen would take the opportunity to kill some bats, any reason to fire off a few rounds, but Thar knew better. He had work to do, real work, not toadying to his negligent Commander like the others. Something was disturbing Thar, something in his gut. Not the stench of death, he knew that well, intimately.
Felt it. Idiam's hand went reflexively to his neck, prodding at the loose bandage he'd changed this morning, before work. It was the product of a vicious fight with a criminal, a killer that slaughtered his partner.
I barely made it out of there alive.
He grunted again, returning to the task at hand. They're not landing. Idiam looked up again, confirmed his instinct. The carrion bats, at least two dozen, were still circling lazily high above. It took a while for that many to gather, more than he'd ever seen before. And I've seen more than enough. Thar pulled the aircar into an alley, turning off his headlights and idling it down onto the landing points. He engaged the positive-action security system before shouldering the Lawbringer III shotgun, checking his pistol and exiting the vehicle.
The distance wasn't far, but it was all alley, all darkness, so the going was slow. Idiam strode forward, surprisingly quiet in his armor and greaves. One eye played around the alleys and streets, the other kept watch on the not-sky above, on the carrion bats. P-23 Patrolmen, his coworkers, would've simply driven up, spooking the suspect, or given up and filled out a vague report, let the body get scavenged by the soylens plant.
He's still there. Thar was sure of it. There were few things that could dissuade a carrion bat from its meal, but they always waited for the killer, for the predator to leave before they took their fill. It was the last task of the day for Idiam, and not even his. It'd been passed up by his cohorts in favor of an early start on the weekend, on amasec and other things, but Thar wouldn't let it remain unfinished.
He stopped, pressed himself into the shadows, then cast an eye around the streets, over the dilapidated buildings and stripped cars. Thar saw nothing, but he trusted his gut, so he waited. Silence, darkness and patience. Idiam had always known how to get the drop on someone, but it was burned into his mind more strongly then ever after yesterday's attack by the cultists. So he waited, and his diligence was rewarded. An alleyscamp, a hive kid whose parents were dead or simply abandoned him, peeked out from behind a car, looking for the Arbites. He brandished a knife, eyes manic with fear and hunger, loneliness. Thar gripped the Lawbringer and he cocked it once, unnecessary to fire it, then caught the ejected round before it could hit the ground.
The sound had the desired effect, a heavy click-thunk! that drove the scamp away as surely as any stub or lasbolt would. Thar waited still, reloading the shotgun, watching the alleys behind and in front of him, peeking down the street. After another minute he was satisfied and began to move once more. Despite the freshness of the autumn season, cold had set in down here, hard, and Thar was thankful he'd worn his overcoat after all. The shotgun was shouldered while his other hand brought up a flashlight. The powerful beam scanned the darkness ahead briefly, and the flashlight was slung back on his belt. Idiam inhaled again, quietly, as he picked his way forward. The soylens was stronger, but he could smell the other now, palpable. Death.
A streak of panic ran through Thar, a memory from his childhood. He hadn't grown up here, but it was close enough. Little Idiam had been playing with his friends, hide and seek, tag, he could barely remember now. But he'd run deep into the alleys, the darkness, and found himself lost. Idiam had wandered for hours, afraid to call out and to draw attention to himself, before he'd finally been found.
His nose started to itch, the pressing stench of fresh soylens almost physical, flavored by the preserved and prepared bodies that would form the finished product. Thar hated soylens, one of the few legally accepted concepts he had trouble with. Somehow it seemed disrespectful of both the dead and the earth.
The stench of death was stronger here, too, and the combined sensory assault began to make his eyes water. Like most residents of the hive, Thar had been born there, raised there. His youthful experience in getting lost drove him to join the Arbites, to reveal the secrets of the back alleys that had nearly overwhelmed him. Idiam liked wearing a uniform, liked the respect it earned him. But, contrary to many others in his Precinct, he welcomed the responsibility the armor brought, welcomed earning the armor. He'd never once thought about leaving the hive, about leaving the neighborhood he grew up in. One of the few things Idiam Thar took true pride in was cleaning up his home block, and keeping it clean.
He stopped again and pressed into an alley, looking around. The carrion bats, high above the squat buildings, were skimming overhead as they banked high once more. Almost there. The smell of death overpowered the soylens now, and Idiam readied his shotgun. He waited, the area beyond silent, the air utterly still save for the carrion bats. Thar heard nothing, felt nothing. No presence to keep the bats at bay.
Strange. The nearby lamps, ever cycling off and on, began to dim again, and Thar made his move. He stepped out into the street in the momentary darkness, moving silently, waiting and watching.
He scanned the area, watching, looking for the predator, whether a giant hive rat, a ganger or something worse. He saw nothing. Thar began to sweep low and his eye caught the body, the last thing he was worried about right now. Instead it consumed his attention completely. The shotgun drooped, then fell, along with his jaw.
Trust – Sunday, Septembris 11, 297.M34
An hour later Idiam Thar was waiting, still standing in the same spot. The shotgun was slung and stubpistol holstered at his side, both ready to be drawn. He'd seen no movement here for an hour, and that disturbed Thar.
He was waiting for the forensics squad and could picture it now, the airvans streaming in, masses of Verispex technicians pouring out. Neat, orderly barricades would be erected, bright portable fluorlights thrown up, a three block perimeter secured. More Patrolmen would show up, ensuring their presence in paperwork and documentation, but they would mill about uselessly. The Verispex would catalog the scene, take pictures, gather physical evidence, note the location and orientation of the body.
Thar looked at the body again, somehow so lonely in the middle of the empty road, like it was still alive. He felt an unfamiliar quirk in his gut. Sick. Whoever did this was sick, an abomination even among the dealers, scavvies and House gangers. Thar had never seen anything this bad, not the entire time he'd been in the Arbites.
This is... insanity. Miranda nodded silently in agreement to his thought, seeming to float alongside Idiam in the Immaterium. She looked him over once again, feeling confusion, anger and sickness, a denial that something like this could happen. Most of all she felt helplessness, that this man was out of his depth here.
It had been late when Thar started the job, he was never one to shy away from the night shift, and as he waited the third shift at the soylens plant started. Vehicles stirred, mostly old, barely functioning airbuses, but Thar had already set up crime scene tape to prevent them from disturbing the area. Still, as a bus passed by and skirted around the impromptu blockade he felt something. A presence.
A tall, thin man in a black coat was standing on the corner, crisply outlined by the streetlamp overhead, one of the few in sight that worked continuously. His shadow seemed to stretch off to the left, merging with the blackness as if explaining how he'd appeared. Thar eyed the man, wondering. Suspect? He simply stood, calmly, under the light, hands clasped behind his back. No. Too calm. Thar returned to observing the shadows, the alleys, looking for anything that could explain what had happened, but let a hand wander to his gun, and kept an eye on the man.
Thar looked at the kid again, at the body. He was pale and surprisingly warm for a corpse, especially one sitting out as long as he had. Fifteen minutes too late. Thar sighed, and wished the precinct could afford to install cameras down here, deep in the lower hive. Too many people died or were robbed, and the perpetrator never found because a concerned neighbor's call came too late. The dead boy couldn't have been older than eleven or twelve, and his head was feverish when Thar had checked for signs of life.
The Patrolman glanced back up to see the man in black staring directly at him, still standing under the streetlamp. He looked back at the kid, eyes unable to avoid the sight. The body was drenched in sweat, and his eyes were so dilated and bloodshot one had simply burst, the globe rupturing and letting vitreous humor flow freely down his face. The boy's blood vessels were standing out even now, still rock hard, having drawn all the blood from the surrounding tissue. Bruising appeared in a spot on his arm, another on his neck and probably more around his body, veins and arteries alike bursting under tremendous pressure.
Idiam looked up at the man again, his posture and bearing exactly the same. But he was closer now, standing on the near corner, only a bare meter from the line of tape. Thar eyeballed the stranger and thumbed open the pistol holster, but the return stare was mild, even pleasant, and he turned back to the body once more.
The kid's tongue stuck out slightly, and was dry as a week-old piece of bread. It was thick, swollen and ripe-looking despite the dehydration, and seemed to crackle at the slightest disturbance. The boy had wet himself as he died and even through the dark pants Thar could tell it was the wrong color, brown and red.
Like all the water was trying to leave his body. But the worst wasn't the ruptured eye, the turgid blood vessels, the profusion of sweat and urine, the too-thick blood leaking.
The worst is his face. Miranda nodded again in agreement, gasping involuntarily as she looked at the body again. She felt something, an answer, even deliverance for Idiam Thar. While he turned to regard the child once more, Miranda felt something sure and confident approach. She traced a strand of fate and saw that, whatever was approaching, it would shape events, play a larger role than either she or Thar in the weeks to come. She turned to see it approach.
The little boy, not even thirteen, was wearing a massive, beaming grin. It was a look of complete delight, the happiness only a child could know, but perverted. The smile was magnified and distorted beyond all reason, as if the child had experienced a lifetime's worth of pleasure in only a few moments. The sweat beading his cheeks seemed almost to be tears of joy, of thanks. Idiam shuddered and stood once more, then felt something wrong with the silence. He turned to see the man in black only nine meters away, looking pointedly at the corpse.
“This is an official Arbites operation and you are in violation of Imperial Law. Charge – Felony trespassing on an Arbites Crime Scene; Verdict – Guilty; Sentence – Immediate detainment and interrogation.”
Thar drew the shotgun and produced his badge, stepping towards the man. He stopped some five meters away, more than enough distance for safety. “Any attempts to resist will be met with harsher sentencing. Imperial Justice Be Served.”
The man moved, far faster than Thar would have thought possible. He reached into the black coat and pulled out something.
Idiam brought the shotgun to firing position, ready to shoot the moment a weapon appeared. Instead a small, black leather square slid out. It fell open casually, easily, to reveal a badge, a golden double aquila. An Officio agent?
The man spoke, his voice quiet even in the utter stillness of the murdered night. It was soft, but precise, and somehow seemed to carry easily despite its hush tone.
“The shotgun will be quite unnecessary, Patrolman Thar.”
Idiam started at that. How does he know my name? Still, he recognized the badge's authority and stood at ease, one hand still on the pistol.
“Thank you. Now.” The man stepped forward comfortably and knelt over the boy. He brought his face down almost flush with the ruptured eye, the swollen tongue.
While the agent inspected the body, Thar looked him over. He looked young, too young for this. He had light brown hair, slightly waved, and strong, if generic facial features. His eyes were black, fading lightly towards the pupil to reveal a hint of brown ringing the center.
“He's been here for an hour and twenty minutes, perhaps thirty.” The hand slipped into his coat again and a pencil-sized piece of flat metal came out. It prodded at the tongue, pushed the thick, stiff protrusion, causing it to crackle and scrape against dry lips. A cloth appeared and wiped down the tool, then both disappeared to be exchanged for a pair of thin plas gloves. “I assume you haven't touched him yet?”
Thar nodded. “No, I haven't.”
“Excellent. He came from over there.” The kid pointed blindly to the west, where the barest outline of the school could be made out. It was the opposite direction he had come from.
“Alright, Agent...” Thar stopped, realized he didn't know the kid's name.
“Douglas Hanlon. I trust you'll keep that–as well as my presence here–between us.” Douglas patted his coat, the spot he'd pulled the Officio badge from earlier, and let a wide, friendly smile appear between his thin lips. “He purchased the Slide near the school, perhaps even within the confines of the schoolyard.”
“What makes you think that? He could've come from anywhere.”
“Well, he is a child.” The agent smiled, gloved hands tracing blood vessels, gently prodding bruised areas. He dabbed a bead of sweat, then rubbed it between his fingers and smelled it. A pair of tweezers appeared and Douglas slid over to the boy's ratty shoes, picking at the accumulated grime. A small rock, different from the masonry grit and rubble that lined the alleys, came free.
“Ah, the covered side is still wet. Excellent.” He turned to display the small rock, gleaming with moisture in the low light. “The schoolyard is the only place containing pea gravel and an open, night-accessible public water source inside a ten-block radius, Patrolman.” I suspect that with an overdose of Slide this large– ” Douglas pocketed the small fragment in a thick plas bag, then sniffed again, taking in the sweat, “uncut Slide, actually–he couldn't have made it much farther than that.” He stood and turned to face Idiam. “It must have been terrifying, to be so happy while he felt his own heart, eye and blood vessels rupture with tension.”
“He was taken before his time.” The agent stood and dusted off his knees, then peeled off the gloves and packed them back into his coat in yet another bag.
“Time, whose tooth gnaws against everything else, is powerless against truth.” The words came out smooth and sure.
Thar felt a chill run down his spine and looked down at the body again. Where before he was disgusted and shocked at the incomprehensibility of it, now he felt a familiar anger, a need for justice. The kid deserves better. Miranda nodded again, herself feeling a little better, relieved to find that illegal chems were behind this, instead of something far worse.
“I think I'll go inspect the corner of Septer and Carmine, Patrolman, and find some truth. Have a pleasant evening.”
Thar turned after a long moment, but the agent was out of sight. He heard the sounds then, the imminent arrival of Verispex airvans, and decided it better to keep his post.
Miranda saw the agent leave and made to follow him, sensing the story of this child's death was far from over, then felt herself stir, felt the world begin to fade around her. She tried to remember his name, but even that seemed beyond her now. All she felt before true sleep finally claimed her was Magnus' presence, a father's care, comforting and warm. Something the dead child would never feel.
“Yes, he came from the block school, number 113.” Verispex Jek had finally returned as the area was being swept one last time an hour later.
“How'd you find out?” Thar seemed a little agitated at this revelation, but not surprised, causing Jek to frown.
After a moment he smiled and pocketed his data slate. “The school's cleaning servitor recorded the victim talking to a man. Not enough to identify him, unfortunately, but enough detail to know the child purchased the substance and used it in the school yard.”
“Where'd he go? The man?”
“Ahh...” Jek brought up the data slate once more. “Looks like... he went north.”
“Towards Septer street?”
Another moment passed as Jek double-checked the area map. “Yes.”
Thar thought about the boy, what the agent said and was again happy he brought his overcoat. Something to keep the chill out.
A Morning with Miranda - Monday, Septembris 12
A strand of fate tugged at Miranda and she focused, trying to remember her summer lessons. She woke up just seconds before the alarm went off, grinning, and thumbed the switch before the high-pitched ringing could start. Baby steps.
The summer break sessions with Mr. Eldrad were different from what her father and Mr. Ahriman taught her. The Eldar's view of the warp bore similarities to their psykers' own, seeing it as a Great Ocean of possibility. But the Eldar also saw the substance of the Warp as something else, a great weave of strands, each one tracing the path of a different possibility. Like the Corvidae they believed that fate was real and malleable. The Eldar learned to react to these strands, to read them, testing each one to find where it led. By doing so they could follow the strand they desired, altering their future. Miranda was gifted, one of the most powerful human psykers ever born, but she had to admit that the the time and patience required to master this particular facet of the Warp seemed beyond her. Only the Farseers and the Corvidae, devoted entirely to the practice of Warp Study, could move with the speed and finesse needed to change their own course with any significance. As well, the Eldar used a collection of powerful artifacts, stones that allowed them to more precisely alter their fate. Even effecting minor changes required years of rote practice
Despite the seeming impossibility of the concept Miranda had found herself able to alter small things: pick out the banana without spots, wake up a little early or even avoid one of The Twins' practical jokes on occasion. She stretched and slid out of the warm comforter reluctantly, bare feet sinking into soft carpet, then traced the familiar path from bed to closet, stopping at the rich cherry-colored dresser. Miranda pulled out white socks and paused. Something tugged at the corner of her mind, and she remembered that today was the Lord's Fitness Test, the yearly standard physical.
The girl had always performed poorly in the past, barely able to breach the ninetieth percentile in most of the activities. Miranda shut the drawer and opened another, pulling out a dull gray sports bra and shorts, then walked to the closet. Although she was far above average by the test's measure, the fact that her cousins exceeded the ninety-ninth percentile almost without exception made her feel inadequate.
A white button-up shirt, maroon skirt and matching armband, all well within the school's dress code, fell into her arms and Miranda headed to her bathroom. She never put much effort into physical fitness, and though Miranda wasn't a hefty girl she'd always been the softest of the nineteen Daughters. That had begun to change last summer, when Mr. Eldrad imposed a strict exercise routine in tandem with his Warp studies. He didn't expect her to keep up with an Eldar's movements, but he emphasized that witnessing the strands of fate meant nothing if you couldn't react to them.
Miranda turned on the hot water, then nudged it here and there to get it to her preferred temperature, feet dancing on the cold travertine tile. Yeah, I've always been the softest, but after months of exercise I'm not nearly as soft as I was last year.
Her black shirt crumpled on the floor, a faded ebon-clad figure on a horse barely visible over the yellow circle, limned in red the same color as the illegible words above. The soft jersey-cotton pajama pants followed and Miranda took a moment to admire the result of her hard work before stepping into the hot water. Her skin, though still pale, had lost its pallid tone, flushed just slightly by exertion and time in the sun. She didn't have definition exactly, but her body was firm, lean muscles stretching easily with her movements and perpetually ready to spring back from strain or tension. Miranda had become much less self-conscious about wearing the skirts the school mandated and, although she wasn't as healthy-looking as Isis or as vigorous as Freya, she felt some small pride at the looks her long legs had been getting recently.
Miranda glanced once more at the hint of a V just showing at the bottom of her stomach, then stripped off and stepped into the steam. The shower didn't take long and she emerged fresh, ready for the day. The sportswear and school uniform slipped on easily enough over her slimmer figure, and the headband her father had gifted her ten years ago slid neatly onto her forehead. Miranda hopped down the stairs, almost bouncing with elation as she snatched up and peeled a banana. No spots. She smiled to herself again. Baby steps, Miranda.
A horn blared from outside, shaking Miranda from her reverie. She scooped up her backpack and rushed to the library to embrace her father–"'Bye, dad!"–give him a peck on the cheek and dash out the door. A sea green gravcar hovered impatiently in the street, and Miranda cursed herself for getting caught up in the bathroom. She ducked into the back seat and the car accelerated to street speed before she could even close the door, nearly throwing her into Petra.
"Hi Selphy, Isis, Petra! Sorry I'm late." Miranda chirped.
Selphy grumbled out a response, distracted as usual by something on her handheld personal adjutor and hidden under the shifting mass of black hair that was her topknot. Isis looked at Miranda around her own spill of pale blonde hair, a little thrown off by the redhead's unusual cheer, then spoke just in time to accidentally override Petra.
"Miranda. Having a good morning?" Orange eyes flashed with good humor at seeing the girl in high spirits. Petra sighed, the words disappearing from her lips, and her blue eyes turned cold.
"I have a feeling today's going to be a good day." Miranda closed her eyes and smiled, taking a few minutes to examine the threads twining and winding from morning to lunch, from home to school.
"You do remember today's the LFT, don't you?" Isis turned back to keep an eye on the road.
"Maybe she's looking forward to it." Petra smiled thinly at Miranda, "You've been keeping up with those exercises Eldrad assigned you, haven't you?" Isis drew around once more to fix Miranda with her orange eyes.
Miranda's smile widened even more and she shrugged. "Guilty." Her eyes snapped back open, purple glow of the warp fading. The irises, once a pale, cloudy gray, had been retaining more and more of the warp's purple essence over the past few months. They were now a tenuous violet all the time. “It's really been helping though, I could barely walk through the house blindfolded-" Miranda snickered. "Well, completely blindfolded four months ago, but now it's easy. Speed up a little, by the way."
Isis turned back forward once more, just in time to see the traffic augur turn yellow. The car's high-end gravinciter hummed as she sped up, clearing the intersection before it finally clicked over to red.
"So you're looking forward to it then?" Selphy sighed gloomily.
Miranda knew she didn't like having to compete with the royal heirs. A lot of the students don't.
Imperator High's student body came primarily from the noble houses of Terra, with off-world noble houses, rogue trader families and important military lines making up most of the rest. Maybe a dozen students came from lower class hives or less than prosperous off-world families. The Emperor planned his granddaughters' education out far in advance, and IH had a strict policy of accepting only the best and brightest of students on scholarship. As such, before the cousins had even thought of going to high school an atmosphere of competitive excellence was fostered there. It had only taken a few years for many noble families to begin sending their children to other schools, unwilling to suffer the embarrassment of a hiver or colonist showing up one of their precious scions.
Although nearly as wealthy as the nobles, the rogue traders brought something else entirely to the table. While it grew safer by the year, the practice of rogue trading was still dangerous, and even the well-established trading houses had to maintain cunning, tenacity and no small amount of physical ability in case things went sour on a deal or excursion. The military lines were already brimming with internal rivalry and graduation from Imperator High was all but a guarantee of acceptance into the best military academies. Like the military lines, some of the nobles that still attended were subject to internal or inter-family rivalry, fostering the attitude necessary to push the otherwise unmotivated to excel. Worst of all, though, were the so-called commoners. Many of the noble progeny had no intention of doing more than the bare minimum necessary to pass their classes and return to a life of leisure. Still, many did not appreciate the royal heirs' presence, and even fewer having to contend with the common-born.
Acquiring a scholarship to Imperator high was nigh-on impossible and of the trillions of young adults throughout the Imperium, scarcely more than half-a-dozen qualified each year. Nearly every student exceeded all expectations in both academic and physical aptitude, though the occasional scandal had occurred. Many dropped out after the first year, the twin burden of advanced classes, expected extracurriculars and social separation more than they could handle. Since the Daughters' entrance the social division had become less stark, with some nobles deciding it better to take up with a low-born baseline than the daughter of a Primarch. Regardless, the pedigree and ability of each of the nineteen, while imposing to the average human being, was much reduced when compared to the best, brightest and most vicious humanity at large had to offer. Their grandfather had intended on giving them an environment where they still had to push themselves to excel, and had succeeded masterfully.
"You know, you're starting to look kinda like an Eldar girl." Miranda swerved back to attention to see Selphy looking over her slender frame, ivory skin and large eyes. "Maybe I should join you with those exercises. Emperor knows a girl can use every advantage she can get, stuck next to your family." She ran a hand through her hair, fluffing the already voluminous mass.
Isis laughed. "Come on now Selphy, at least you've got a boyfriend." She looked back at Miranda, the blush already forming on her cheeks. "I don't think Miranda's even talked to a guy this month, except for Ahzek and her dad."
Miranda's eyes suddenly found something interesting in her shoe laces, "I-it's hard, you know... I mean..."
"Just use your, you know, you mind powers or whatever. Should be easy." Selphy waved her hand dismissively, and it quickly returned to the adjutor.
"That-that doesn't help. When I try to talk to them I can see what they're thinking and then..." Miranda's blush impossibly grew deeper, the heat radiating from her face, and the eye on her headband grew a deep red.
"Miranda, you shouldn't be doing that in the first place, even surface thoughts. It'll just make things harder in the long run. Not to mention the invasion of privacy." Petra was always quiet, but perhaps even more perceptive than Isis in most matters, and the psyker knew she was right.
"I try, but I get s-so nervous, and then I can't help it." Miranda's face dropped into her palms, an elbow resting on each knee. She felt a hand, warm and strong, pull hers, and looked back up to Isis.
"You have to try, Miranda. Even Furia's got a boyfriend, and she can't get within a meter of someone without punching them out of reflex."
Selphy smiled. "Yeah Randi, if little miss hothead can calm down long enough to get some action I'm sure you can rein it in at least long enough to get your first kiss."
The blush appeared again, faster and fiercer than before, and Miranda was happy to see the ominous shape of her high school appear around the corner.
A Wild Furia Appears
Miranda ducked out of the car and slammed the door, still blushing furiously, then started for the steps. She stopped abruptly, turned back around and opened the door, snagging her backpack before running away again as Isis skipped around the car.
"Miranda! Miranda!" Isis jogged easily, catching up to Miranda before she made it halfway to the doors. "Miranda." Isis stepped around in front of the redhead and rested her hands gently on the agitated girl's shoulders. "Miranda, please, just hold on a second."
Selphy caught up to the stationary pair, finally putting her adjutor away and bringing her black eyes to bear after a sidelong glare from Isis. "Look, we're just trying to encourage you, we don't mean anything hurtful by it." Miranda continued to stare at her feet, until Isis gently pulled her chin up, their eyes meeting. "We're not saying you have to jump in bed with the first guy you see, but if you keep pushing people away you're just going to get more and more secluded. You've got to make an effort Miranda, and it's easier than you think. You just have to take that first step. And we'll be right there, okay?"
"Good, now let's get to class. I can't afford to be late to Biology again, Mr. Bile will kill me."
The foursome started moving again as Petra joined them, and a low buzz signaled another message on Selphy's perpetual companion. She glanced down at it
"Ooh, something from the twins!"
“Selphy, you know you can't believe half of what they say.” Isis rolled her eyes. “They get half their gossip from Victoria, lying bitch.”
“Uh huh.” Selphy nodded absentmindedly and opened the message, reading it eagerly as she followed her friends through the two sets of doors into the hallway. Her eyes bulged, and Isis glanced back at the sharp intake of breath she knew signaled Selphy finding out her newest favorite rumor. At the same time, a loud bang echoed from the other end of the vast corridor.
"Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod you guys." Selphy's breathing accelerated along with her heartbeat, and Miranda couldn't help but laugh a little at how worked up her classmate got over gossip. Another loud sound rang out, a crashing thump, the telltale sound of one of the school's plascast trashcans getting tossed or kicked into a wall. A shock of blood red hair glimmered into view and the throng of milling students parted around a striding form: Furia Angron.
"What's got her so upset today?" Miranda asked as, almost unconsciously, she opened her third eye, the veil of the warp draping itself over her view. She grumbled to herself, thinking about Petra's earlier lecture. It's not like I'm prying into their heads or anything, most of them just throw it out there for anybody to hear.
A couple walked by, hand in hand, and Miranda couldn't help but blush again at the feelings and impulses they were practically screaming at each other. She looked back behind her, briefly catching a glimpse of Angela high above, her presence in the aether palpable even from the top floor. Miranda continued to turn, catching glimpses of typical thoughts and feelings.
Oh god, I hope Professor Qruze doesn't throw a pop quiz today, I— Why do I have to work close tonight, such bulls— Wonder if she likes fellwraith blooms? Ah, that's too expensive for me anyway.
Miranda relaxed and the projections diffused, leaving behind rough impressions instead of words and images, spheres of emotion drifting lazily along. Most were multicolored, a swirling frenzy of puberty and stress. Selphy was a mixture of blue and orange, still nervous about the classes to come, but brimming with delight at whatever nugget of information her adjutor had just deposited in her mind. As usual, Isis was putting everyone else to shame as a tranquil globe of shimmering gold, impossibly beautiful in the warp, even as a bundle of unrealized psychic potential among so many others.
Miranda sighed, her world moving at a snail's pace under the haze of fate and fortune. She felt so much more relaxed; at the same time safer and more perceptive of those around her. Miranda knew she wasn't the only one who had trouble dealing with the expectations and social pressures of high school. After three years most of the others have adjusted, found a place to be, a group of friends who understand them. But I only hang out with Isis and Selphy, sometimes Angela or Petra, and always Mr. Ahriman.
She couldn't help but feel inadequate, never as outgoing or friendly as the others. She kept up with her schoolwork easily enough, but the moment she got out of the seat or away from a book she felt awkward. Maybe this is why dad didn't want me to spend so much time in the Great Ocean, she thought, He didn't want me to use it as a crutch or an escape. Miranda began to pull away, back to the real world, when something strange invaded her perception. A large gray cube glided by, stopping neatly three meters away and rotating in place. She focused on it, trying to tease apart the various fibers of sense and reason, but only found more gray. Miranda focused again, words and pictures flitting by, thrown out or slipped away, but the gray cube stayed exactly the same. She stretched out, her mind projecting forward, when suddenly a roiling storm of red flooded the horizon.
"Ohmygod you guys!" Miranda snapped back to earth, turning to see Selphy practically bursting with glee. "I know what's wrong with Furia!"
"Well, don't just stand there and gloat Selphy, share it with the rest of the class." Petra looked annoyed, but Miranda could tell she was starting to get excited by Selphy's enthusiasm.
"The Twins found her in the west entrance, kicking her boyfriend." Selphy paused dramatically, waiting until Isis and even Miranda seemed on the verge of combustion. "She found him in the bathroom with Victoria. Without pants."
Miranda's hand shot up to her mouth, and she turned to watch Furia storm further into the mass of students. Isis rolled her eyes and dropped her forehead into an upturned palm. Petra simply stepped back, giving berth to the coming violence.
"Great." Isis looked up once more, a hint of shimmering orange revealed as her eyes took in the view.
Furia raged through the crowd, a few slow or unlucky students getting a glare or hard push from the statuesque fury. Something suddenly jerked at Miranda's awareness and she remembered the gray cube. She turned back to the opposite wall of lockers and saw a somehow familiar boy, taller even than her.
He's even taller than Selphy's topknot. She thought with a snicker. A large backpack hung heavily from his shoulder, jutting at least a half-meter into the hallway. "Who's that?"
Selphy and Isis momentarily broke their exchange of rumor and speculation about Victoria and Furia's now former boyfriend, Coby.
"Must be new, I haven't seen him before." Isis replied. Selphy mumbled in agreement, fingers dancing over the adjutor after a moment's boredom.
The boy tried to open his locker again, but everyone around him was familiar with #447, the locker that always stuck. He stepped back a little, bracing himself and pulling on the handle, the slightly deformed door grudgingly peeling out of its frame. Miranda chattered along with Isis and Selphy, but couldn't quite shake the feeling she'd forgotten something. She checked her chrono again, and saw they still had a few minutes before Biology. The door down the hall was still closed, no doubt so Mr. Bile could catch a few more minutes of sleep.
They continued to talk, alternating between gossiping about other girls, classwork and talking about one boy or another. Miranda still couldn't shake the feeling, squirming around her head, when someone yelped off to her right. They turned in unison to see Furia stomping ahead, a frightened looking blonde girl sprawled out on the ground behind her. Suddenly it hit her. Miranda turned to warn the boy across the hall, pivoting just in time to see the locker pop open. His right foot slid back incrementally at the release of tension, his backpack edging just a little further into the hallway.
Just enough for Furia to collide with it. Her face contorted, brows knotting with rage, teeth clenching impossibly tighter at the affront. Furia's eye twitched and her mouth curled into a sneer.
"Oh, I need this."
The brown-haired boy started to turn, wondering who bumped into him. Before he could see, though, a foot smashed into the backpack, momentarily exposing his lower back. Furia's fist plowed into tissue and flesh, throwing the unsuspecting senior into the row of lockers, back arched at a disquieting angle. She turned to leave, her expression a fraction less enraged than it had been moments ago.
Miranda gasped, hand shooting back up to her mouth, while Selphy's thumbs capered and frolicked over the surface of her adjutor. Petra guessed no less than a dozen other girls throughout school knew what had happened already. Furia began to move again, left hand already rooting through her bag, trying to find the small pack of lho-sticks she knew was inside. But Angron's daughter stopped short and looked back at something. Her countenance wrenched further into anger as she saw the target of her fury shake his head, still standing. Two more blows hammered into his back, and she cocked her arm for another before it finally happened.
"FUUURRRRIIIAAA!" Dean Yarrick's voice exploded from around the corner. Students began ducking into classrooms, now more interested in avoiding the former commissar's wrath than watching the spectacle unfold. Selphy began to move, dragging Isis and Miranda towards the Biology 440 door as Furia turned toward the heavy clomp of her nemesis' boots. She released her grip on the erstwhile student, who sagged heavily into the still open locker. The wooden classroom door closed and Miranda saw Mr. Bile shaking the cobwebs out of his head.
"Ahhh." The Astartes stretched, lips smacking as he worked his mouth out of its yawn. "Very good, is this everyone?" Selphy and Miranda walked by, but she still heard him whisper, far below the threshold of human hearing, to Petra. "Furia again?" The girl nodded gravely, then took her seat at the front along with her friends.
The screaming continued outside, muffled by the soundproofed walls and the sheer incomprehensibility of straining vocal cords. The voices grew louder and louder, Yarrick eventually eclipsing Furia. Suddenly the shouting stopped for moment, then started again.
"YOU." A low, clear murmur burbled through the walls as Mr. Bile began laying out the day's lesson plan, followed by short, annoyed responses and the shuffle of feet. A locker slammed, groaned and squealed shut. After five minutes the brown-haired student walked through the door, face flushed but otherwise unperturbed.
"My apologies, Professor Bile, I had an unexpected need to use the restroom."
"Of course, Douglas." Mr. Bile nodded and mumbled in agreement, but didn't stop laying out his lesson plan while the student strode to the back of the room and sat down. Miranda glanced back, then dropped into the Warp once more, verifying that the gray cube was sitting a few rows behind her, apparently none the worse for his beating.
Class went quickly until, less than fifteen minutes before the bell, Furia walked in, disgruntled, and took her usual seat, glaring at anyone who dared to meet her gaze. Dean Yarrick waited at the door for a moment, nodding briefly to Mr. Bile, and directed a withering stare at Furia. The contest of wills couldn't have lasted more than a minute, but seemed to drag on for hours. The class held its collective breath until she finally looked away. Satisfied Furia wouldn't erupt into violence at his absence, Yarrick left. The rest of the lecture was uneventful, with Mr. Bile emphasizing the importance of memorizing the nine steps of the primary gluconeogenesis cycle for tomorrow's test. He assigned minimal homework, a few questions about transamination, deamination and the importance of the primary glucol precursors to the metabolism of various lifeforms. Still, this elicited a groan of displeasure from well over half the class and they filed out in a rush. Miranda was the last one at the door, stopping at Fabius Bile's desk as he prepared a neat stack of papers.
"Yes, Miranda?" His head lolled to one side, a single bleary black eye staring at her from under a stray strand of lank white hair.
"How long has that student, Douglas, been attending this class?"
Mr. Bile settled his head down, nestling it comfortably on the stack of ungraded homework. "For two weeks, Lady Miranda, the same as the rest of the class. Why?"
"No reason, I just don't remember seeing him around here before."
The only response was the low drone of Fabius' contented sleep. Miranda hurried out the door. Her next class was at least a five minute walk away, and that was without the press of bodies all moving to their own classrooms. I need to hurry.
Miranda didn't even notice the gentle subconscious pull that quirked her step sideways, causing her to collide with a sandy-haired young man. Books fell everywhere and Miranda leaned down to pick up one she brought from home: 'A Treatise on the Relationship of Conventional Attitude with the Flow of Rogue Aether Currents', by Ulrik Harald. Her hand settled on the book, but before she could pick it up another hand landed on hers. Miranda looked up into the clear blue eyes of a young man, a senior. She blushed and instinctively peered through the warp. At the same time, the boy blushed, but didn't remove his hand. Miranda saw him swirl with embarrassment and enjoyment at the warmth of her hand. They both pulled their hands back simultaneously while she read the complex welter of emotions and thoughts pouring out of him. He opened his mouth, but sputtered awkwardly. Miranda smiled graciously as she stood, then extended her hand.
"Sorry, I just, you know, I got into a rush and wasn't- I'm Miranda."
The boy took her hand gently and shook it. "I- I'm Arthur, but my friends call me Castor."
Miranda blushed again and felt a rush as she picked through the threads winding to lunch, settling on one in particular.
The Smell of Betrayal
Furia smirked to herself as she revved Gorechild, tearing out one last burst of speed before Bullshit High came into view. The look on Roberta's prissy face played out in her head over and over again, and she could practically hear those idiots on the bus laughing while they pointed at her. Gorechild throttled down reluctantly and yielded to her direction, pulling around to the protected parking area.
The Primarch's daughter coasted her rumbling monstrosity easily into the motorbike section, settling uncomfortably close to Hana's comparatively small chopper. She hopped down and took off her helmet, revealing hazel eyes and finely scarred features. A hand slashed through red hair to let some air circulation back in, then rummaged through her bag, setting her blue skirt in motion. The untucked shirt swayed and moved along with the increasing fervor of the search, sleeves rolled up to the elbow in the manner most IH students preferred.
Furia's features began to twist in frustration. Her nose–thin, straight and pointed–twitched. She grunted, and her healthy lips broke free of their grimace as the digging finally ended. A match flared to life on Hana's bike, lighting up the lho-stick and illuminating a broadening grin.
"Pretty good fuckin' day so far." Furia muttered around the tightly rolled bundle of smoldering tabac fronds, inhaling deeply.
Have a smoke with Coby, put away my shit and try to stay sane 'til lunch. She nodded smoothly at the inventory of her daily goals, another hard drag nearly burning out the feeble paper, then ambled up to the school entrance. The helmet received her gentlest treatment, a short free-fall to hard ground, as Furia leaned up against the rockcrete wall. After a few minutes she looked around, then flicked her smoke out into the lot structure before lighting up another.
Where is that dumb bastard anyway? Furia started the fourth lho of the day, then scratched her chin, a sure sign of her steadily increasing annoyance. Stumblefuck probably forgot to set his alarm.
Furia waited a few more minutes, scratching her stomach absentmindedly. She began to pull out yet another smoke, then decided against it, feeling a sudden urge to take a leak. Rough, slender hands scooped up the scratched headgear and pushed the door open, her eyes barely glaring at the seething horde of teenagers. Furia's reputation preceded her, as usual, and the idea got chalked up in the pro list. Some small part of her was satisfied that people went out of their way to avoid pissing her off.
She got to her locker and pulled it open. The lock had disagreed with Furia once, a couple years ago, and, after a few kicks, came to see her point of view. The school had decided to simply let her keep the locker, wisely reasoning it cheaper than giving her a new one to ruin every year. The locker was checked and everything was exactly as she left it last week. Have to be a fucking moron to take any of my shit.
The jacket was hung gently next to a stack of papers and books, the helmet wedged into an almost perfectly shaped dent in the upper corner. Furia's memory kicked into overdrive at the sight, wave after wave of 'stuff, slam, tug'; of the helmet's predecessors slowly forcing the necessary impression onto the thin metal before they broke or were lost. The Lady Primarch shoved a pair of books into her bag, barely remembering to check if they were the right ones, then slammed the door closed before wending her way to the nearest girls' bathroom.
She looked down to her bag, deciding she might as well have another smoke while she was here, and opened the door, too preoccupied to notice the telltale hat hanging on the outside handle. A lho-stick ascended to Furia's mouth, the paper roll sinking cozily into the natural part of her lips. She struck a match on her pleated school skirt, then brought the light up with both hands, cupping it as she tenderly stoked the flame into being. Furia inhaled again, the last scrap of fresh tabac scent giving way to scorched leaf and heady pleasure.
She wrinkled her nose. Furia was by no means as sensitive as her cousin, Freya, when it came to picking out smells, but something was... sweaty. Pungent. Cloying. Even as she heard the voice, Furia realized what that smell was. Victoria. Equal parts honey and smoke, her cousin's throaty laugh sang out between heavy, evenly spaced breaths.
"You think she's still in here?" Victoria continued to breathe rhythmically and Furia focused, rage building.
What the fuck is daddy's little slut doing in my bathroom? The male's breathing became clearer now, as he struggled to keep himself in the game.
"Ooh, come on, baby. Yesss." Furia couldn't help but cringe at Victoria's cheesy, fake-sounding line. Or at how well it worked. The heavy male breathing jumped up a notch.
"Oh, don't do that, baby, I'm having a hard enough time as it i-nnnnnghh-ahh yeah."
Furia stopped dead in her tracks. She recognized that voice.
“See, I told you it'd be good.” A distinctive note of satisfaction rang through Victoria's voice.
“Why'd we have to do it here, anyway, Vic? You know this is Furia's bathroom, she'd be pissed if-” Coby's voice quavered until Victoria cut him off.
“Who cares what that little Slide-shooter thinks. Aren't you more worried about me?”
Furia felt hot. Her eyes suddenly began to wet. Something crisp rang through her head, like the clean snap of a glass rod breaking. She began to inhale.
"So, anyway, I was saying we should just go ahead and get it out of the way tonight. No reason to put it off until the end of the semester, you know?" The other girl nodded sagely, as if her two weeks' experience in high school qualified her perfectly on the matter. She opened her mouth to reply, but something exploded. An inarticulate roar thundered from the restroom, followed shortly thereafter by the room's door and a worn-looking hat. More screaming, the crunch of shattering wood and drywall, followed by a bone-jarring stomping. A quivering mass of crimson anger burst forth and in its wake stumbled a young man, curly dark hair bobbing as he shuffled awkwardly, trying to fasten his fly back together.
"Don't be like that, baby! I wanna fuck you, too!"
The entire hallway went still. There were no noises, no extraneous movement as every eye slowly turned to stare at Coby Trelan. Although a professed “aspiring engineer,” Coby was a landed Martian noble scion. He relied more on the influence of family and friends than any great intelligence to ensure a comfortable career after college. Still, the undeniable stupidity of his own statement slowly dawned on Coby. Just in time not to be surprised when a pale, freshly scarred fist threw him bodily into the wall, narrowly missing the emergency fire alarm. Coby sputtered and tried to verbally backpedal, years of crude guile and hyperbole leaving him torn between avoiding, outright lying or possibly just apologizing. He decided, and an insincere apology began.
"I didn't mean it that way-"
Instead, it turned into a wheeze as Furia's foot solidly connected with his muscled abdomen. She kicked a few more times, halfheartedly, and the anger began to dissipate, saving the young man from any serious injury. Furia staggered back out into the hall, trying to work herself up to another burst of anger, anything to avoid the betrayal and abandonment etching themselves slowly into her mind again. She stalked down the hall, kicking an open locker door off its hinges.
A trashcan, cast from plastic to resemble tasteful limestone, rocked just slightly as she walked through it. Her hand shot out instinctively, lifting it while her right leg swung upwards. The mangled garbage can soared up at a sixty degree angle, catching in the subtly disguised drop ceiling, where it teetered as the girl walked underneath. After she passed it finally gave way, cheap mineral fiber underneath the tile's veneer crumbling and falling alongside its wounded compatriot.
Word of Furia's fresh rampage spread quickly and the hallway parted seemingly as one being, none daring to get within arm's reach of Angron's daughter. The haze started to lift and adrenaline faded, but her heartbeat seemed to speed up, blood flowing from her unclenching hands to her swimming head. Furia's breathing grew more ragged, each exhalation threatening to turn into a sob. She looked down, hand over her eyes. A short blonde girl stumbled and tripped as she tried to get out of the way.
Who the fuck does he think he is?' Furia thought. Stupid, never should've trusted that asshole, always so goddamn smiley. Shoulda stayed with that chickenshit... what was his name? Calvin? So entranced was Furia in her self-loathing she didn't even notice a bulky backpack glide into the middle of the hallway.
At least, not until she ran into it. Furia's face contorted, brows knotting with rage, teeth clenching impossibly tighter at the affront. Her eye twitched, and her mouth curled into a sneer.
"Oh, I need this."
The brown-haired boy started to turn, wondering who bumped into him. Before he could see, though, a foot smashed into the backpack, momentarily exposing his lower back. Furia's fist plowed into tissue and flesh, throwing the unsuspecting senior into the row of lockers, back arched at a disquieting angle. She turned away, her expression a fraction less enraged than it had been moments ago.
Furia began to move again, left hand already rooting through her bag, trying to find the small pack of lho-sticks. But she stopped short and looked back, her countenance wrenching into outrage as she saw the target of her aggression shake his head, still standing. Furia latched onto his left shoulder and two more blows hammered into his back. Almost smiling now, she cocked her arm for another uppercut when it finally happened.
"FUUURRRRIIIAAA!" Dean Yarrick's voice boomed from around the corner. Students began ducking into classrooms, now more interested in avoiding the former commissar's wrath than seeing the spectacle unfold. Students moved towards the nearby Biology door while Furia turned toward the heavy clomp of her nemesis' boots. She released her grip on the erstwhile student, who sagged heavily into the still open locker.
"WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT, SEBASTIAN?" Furia looked at the dean, ignoring the slow, steady breathing of her latest punching bag. Even in the hall the exchange quickly became all but indecipherable, a mass of screams and flying spittle. An observant and experienced viewer would notice the gradual change in Furia's eyes, as the fight-or-flight response trickled away and she began to lose steam. It took Yarrick a moment to notice and drop his own voice accordingly.
"Furia, do we really have to do this again? How many times do I have to catch you beating another student to a pulp before-" Yarrick gestured at the hobbled student. He turned to emphasize his point and stopped dead. The student was regarding him over-shoulder with a mild, curious look as he pulled books from his locker, then stuffed the heavy backpack inside. Furia couldn't help but feel a little amused as the old soldier's single eye grew wide with confusion, then narrowed in indignation. Dean Yarrick turned and grabbed the student roughly, oversized claw scraping crazily against the lockers as he pivoted.
"Yes, Dean Yarrick?" His voice was modulated, even pleasant. An eyebrow crooked up, as if he couldn't possibly be aware of what the administrator needed.
"Name. Now." Yarrick's face quickly regained composure, despite the fresh anger creeping up his neck. Furia could see the veins beginning to stand up there, ready to pulse to life in a literal heartbeat.
"Douglas. Douglas Hanlon." Douglas stretched out his right hand, then apologized quickly with a glance at the power claw, before exchanging it for his left. "Sir."
Yarrick shook the offered hand harshly. "And you expect me to believe she wasn't just laying into you?" The Dean's glare intensified, his eye boring into the young man.
"Well, we did bump into each other, but, I assure you, nothing untoward happened. In fact, I was just about to apologize to miss...?" Doug turned and looked at Furia questioningly.
She glanced at him, then at Yarrick, then back at Doug. Her eye twitched threateningly as she realized the implication of his words. Furia wasn't angry that he didn't know who she was, she could care less about that. But, while Remilia prided herself on her soccer-playing and Venus on her swimming, Furia took great satisfaction in illustrating her physical ability as bluntly as possible, generally with her fists, and his apparent shaking off of her blows displeased Furia. With a supreme act of will she managed to control herself and force a small smile.
"Furia. Lady. Primarch. Furia." She noticed movement and saw that his hand was now hovering placidly in front of her. Her jaw clenched, but Furia saw Yarrick's steely gaze turn back to her and reluctantly gripped the hand. So hard, in fact, that the boy's knuckles popped and whitened, the blood within forced out through overwhelming pressure.
"Doug." He withdrew his hand. "Strong grip." Doug smiled, amused at his small joke, then coughed when he saw the furious looks on the pair facing him. "Is there anything else, Dean?"
"No, that will be all. Furia, my office. NOW." Yarrick grabbed Furia by the collar and drug her away, the sound of a lone locker closing followed them, chased by the patter of fast steps down the hard floor. She sighed, knowing that Yarrick would be ranting for at least ten minutes, and she'd come out of it a month's allowance lighter in her wallet for the damage to school property.
Fifteen minutes later Yarrick finished his speech, the veins on his neck finally boiling down. He and Furia glared at each other in silence for five more.
The Dean pulled out a silvery flask, understated filigree resolving briefly into the Imperial Army's skull-and-wings icon before the angle changed. He took a long pull and paused, still staring. After another minute he nodded and passed Furia the flask. She threw her head back, taking fully half of the ash whiskey down, then handed it back and nodded in turn. The liquid traced a thin, warming line down her throat and into her stomach.
Soon enough the edge started to wane, the anger and other feelings started to subside. A quarter pint of ash whiskey would be more than enough to send the average seventeen year old into a stupor, and even most of her cousins, far more resistant to the effects of alcohol than baseline humans, would be buzzing right now. But Furia was a step above even them, and in the short time she'd known about tabac, alcohol and other things had gone a step further.
She felt only the faintest bit of warmth in her head, the precursor to a buzz. In minutes it would be gone, but the feeling was enough to drive off the violence-need for now. Yarrick began to organize paperwork as Furia stood, a little calmer, and adjusted her bag. “Thanks, Sebastian.”
He sighed and stood as well, “Just... just keep it together, kid. You ready?” She nodded contritely before following him out.
In a Menacing Sort of Way
A tall kid in a black coat stepped off the airbus and hoisted a backpack smoothly over his shoulder. The bus waited a moment, as if in deference to his presence, then the doors started to close. He began to walk just in time for his long black tails to clear the pneumatic hiss of the closing entrance, and the fabric leapt up as the repulsor wells vectored their cargo back into the city. The day was still cool this early in the morning, and Doug guessed it may very well be the last temperate day of the year.
Long legs ate up the clean, squared pavement and dark eyes took in the sights. Startseite was a charming little town, a throwback to the old days of Terra far before the Unification Wars and the Technobarbarian kingdoms. Houses–mansions, really, but still small compared to the massive spires above and the arco-structures below–dotted the area. Each had their own parcel of land and each was surrounded by lush green grass and some form of fence, from stone fortification to rare nalwood picket.
The air breezed easily through the open, comfortable neighborhood, carrying the scents of various trees, plants, animals and open garages. Under it all clung the distinctive bite of pseudoweather, ingrained so thoroughly in the noses of Terra's residents they didn't even notice its presence. Doug, native to an extrasegmental agriworld called Bolanion, couldn't help the pseudoair fouling his enjoyment of the ebbing dawn.
Dark brown eyes, nearly black throughout, but lightening around the pupil, stared lazily ahead. A roman nose sat over thin, almost colorless lips and a clean-shaven chin. The breeze picked up again, stirring short, fine hair the color of palm bark. Doug heard in the distance a massive rumbling–the roar of a powerful engine–and the faint squeak of an embarrassed young woman. He sighed, then brought a hand up to his ear. The minute, flesh-colored comm-link activated at the wave, then received his near subvocal message.
“White, Doug! White!” The voice was clearly ecstatic, and despite how loud it was, Doug could hear many other voices, a bus full of worked up high schoolers. “Roberta wears white p-”
He sighed again. “Was anyone hurt, Callie?” He could almost picture her bright blue eyes wide with excitement.
“No, she's fine. Embarrassed as hell, though. You think she'll try to get back at Furia?” A sound rasped through the earpiece, one Doug well knew. Callie was brushing her golden blonde hair over the equipped ear, each strand scraping and the sound echoing into her eardrum.
The wheels in her head were turning, equal parts remembering Roberta's embarrassment and what she could do with the information. Callie was an attractive girl, an unnaturally flexible gymnast and capable social engineer. She had a talent for knowing just where to place and exactly how to phrase a comment for maximum effect. As well, the junior was possessed of a nearly inexhaustible wellspring of rumor and supposition. She herself was the subject of much of this gossip, at least as many around the school proper as Lady Primarch Victoria. Back-fence talk abounded that Callie had, possibly, slept with nearly every notable member of the student body, as well as a few teachers and school officials.
Unsurprisingly, Callie encouraged these rumors. As of late her attentions had been focused on more challenging targets: Doug, the newest member of her group since three months prior; Karthus Pius, a risky endeavor, considering his relationship with Isis Lupercal; and Vincent Levi DeCare. She'd already known Vin for years, and flirted with him like a smart woman playing the lottery. Callie didn't expect to win, but found it worth the effort for the possible payoff.
“I doubt Roberta will attempt any reprisals against Furia. Vin?”
“Cora and Kelly were delayed by conversation.” The voice was clipped and even, more modulated than Doug's. “They should arrive on time.”
“Cora forgot her lunch.”
“Unfortunate, but not dangerous. Thank you, Vin.” Vincent was as large as Doug, though the Tali native cut the difference between his fellow senior's tall, rangy body and their companion Ev's short, powerful build. A capable athlete and natural tactician, Vin preferred solo events, track and field taking a close second to swimming. This year he'd focused on Ladies Venus and Isis as his 'performance targets.' Vin was a powerful swimmer who far outstripped most of his classmates, but he fell short of the Ladies' literally superhuman benchmarks.
This didn't seem to trouble him and, when pressed, Vin would always reply that he 'preferred to take the long, difficult shot over the easy one.' The rugged, brooding, gray-eyed and black-haired teenager was the subject of extensive speculation by female Imperatores. Much of it centered around the great deal of time he spent at the local coffee and bagel shop, making stilted conversation with one of the proprietors. In Doug's memory Vin was always the first to sign up for morning detail, and always picked Cora and Kelly for the opportunity to spend his short free time each morning at the cafhouse.
“Janus?” Vin's laser-like focus on one job at a time was in stark contrast to Janus' inability to keep on task, especially when Callie or any of the blonde Daughters were around. “Janus?”
“Huh. Oh- oh yeah? A- Affirmative.” Doug could all but hear the boy blushing, whether due to Callie's excitement or the thought of what provoked her state was unknowable.
More than likely both. “Angela, Janus. Her status?”
“Right. She's fine.” If anything the boy's voice became even more distracted.
Still, Doug knew he was being honest. Unfortunate, but he has to watch Angela, she never suspects a thing from him because of his obvious infatuation. Doug himself was always shadowing Miranda Magnus; between his discipline and domus mnemonic Doug had been trailing her every day for two weeks without being detected.
A few blocks away Janus blushed when he realized he was being observed in turn by Angela, and pushed harder on his bike, trying to keep up with the rocket-assisted Daughter soaring away. In his downtime, Janus Sigitine was usually buried in his latest book. At least, when he wasn't fawning over Callie or one of the Daughters.
A voracious reader of everything Emperor-related and many religious texts, no one would hesitate to label the Titan-born Junior as a spiritual person. He somehow eluded the persecution Catherics and Emperor worshipers drew, though this was likely because of his apparent lack of any true religious beliefs. An unsanctioned Epsilon-classed psyker, the shy boy carried himself with a quiet dignity and ignored conjecture about the extent of his psychic abilities or his presence outside the Scholastica Psykana.
Doug cycled to the next frequency on his comm-link, and Chucho heard static briefly precede his check-in prompt. “Chucho?” Janus could always be found at the opposite end of any gathering from Chucho Alexis. The short, pale boy hailed from a Southern Merican hive city and had a drawn, flat face with sunken gray eyes. Most of the other students were quite unnerved by the freshman when they bothered to notice him, and psykers outright refused to remain in his presence.
Still, the withdrawn boy proved to be even more socially insightful than Callie when asked, having spent his life quietly people watching. Most of the group felt sorry for Chucho, but not much could be done besides giving him a group to sit with, somewhere to belong. He had no hobbies of his own, but liked to meditate with Doug, lift weights with Ev, run and swim with Vin and assist or compete with any of the others in their respective pastimes. Chucho was fiercely loyal to his friends, as they accepted him more closely than even his own family had.
“Safe, on time.” The fit young man responded in his gravelly voice; he had no problem keeping up with traffic through the city, even following cars. Chucho drew near his charge once more, and Remilia let out a small shudder, looking around. She saw nothing and suddenly felt better as she took off again, another intersection closer to Imperator High. Chucho smiled to himself, an expression no one saw, before he moving into the next alley.
Doug cycled once more. “Ev, report. Why are you so close to the school already?”
“I dunno, man. Victoria prodded her little gang into gear fast today, in a rush to get there early. You think I'd have a shot with her?” The sandy-haired sophomore's honey brown eyes kept darting around, cheeks flushing at the thought. Ev was by far the most muscular of the group, and exuded a physicality that belied his size. While he stood at only 1.6 m, the handsome boy was more than capable of overpowering most everyone else in school, and had set the school's bench press weightlifting record higher and higher four times in the two years he'd been attending.
Doug sighed. “Unfortunately so, Ev. But you know that's a proscribed activity. We're supposed to observe and protect, never interfere except for their benefit. And as for that... I can only imagine one faster way to get removed by father.”
Ev gulped. “Right, right. Guy can dream though, right? You think she'd ever get into a fight with Fre-”
Doug cut him off, cycling again. “Violet?”
“Yeah?” Vivian 'Violet' Munev was a sophomore with a penchant for biology and chemistry. She commanded twofold notoriety: first, for being the only student ever to best Isis in the yearly Ascension Day baking contest; and second, for her large, startlingly violet eyes.
Shipped in from Cadia, Violet rarely spoke of the military experience she had as a result of living there from birth to the age of six. The olive-skinned, dark-haired girl was perhaps the most unreadable of the group, even within its own ranks. She wasn't stoic, like Vin, or unnaturally composed, like Doug or Callie, but simply unpredictable. She veered wildly from one emotion to the next, almost always one flavor or another of excitement over one of her many hobbies and interests.
“Oh, right, Farah's gonna be a little late. She got stuck in the garage doing something and only left because Johor showed up to remind her it's time to go. You think he's ever going to tell her how he feels? And how do his ears work, is that all genetic or is there some surgical modification? I wonder-”
“That will be quite enough Violet, thank you. I should be coming upon my own charges in a few minutes.”
Doug continued for another ten minutes, privately enjoying the small trip: the town's imperfect reflection of the home he'd left behind months ago, the sights, sounds and smells, before finally putting his earplugs in, the right snugging neatly over his comm-link. With five minutes left in the journey Sol came out of the sparse cloud cover in earnest, quickly warming the air and giving a brisk undertone to the crispness of the dying morning. Life seemed to stir at this new light, though Doug knew more than anything it was due to his proximity to the school: his destination, Imperator High. The building itself finally appeared from around the last great stone obstruction's corner. It was large and, like most public buildings, primarily built of rockcrete. The outside was layered with old-style brick, giving the institution a dignified grandeur at odds with the other visible construction. The roar from before sounded again, this time promptly fading to a low rumble as it entered the school's protected parking area. A sea green gravcar–a top-of-the-line model–zipped by just after, and Doug assessed its contents in turn: Isis Lupercal, daughter of Warmaster Horus, was the driver, obvious from her tumble of pale blonde hair and orange eyes. Selphy Talbot, face downcast not in sadness, but eternal gossip, was in the front passenger's seat, topknot threatening to obscure the driver's view with each swish of her head. Behind Selphy sat a slight and unassuming but attractive blonde girl, whom he guessed by the lavender hairband and frigid blue eyes was Petra Perturabo.
Finally, another face appeared just as the car left sight, a great fall of thick red hair and an even redder single eye just visible before it all vanished. Miranda Magnus, no doubt. Seventeen years, and they are nearly done with their basic education. I wonder how we will be assigned after next summer?
The school seemed almost welcoming as Doug made for the front entrance, unimpeded by any need to park in the rear lot. Dozens of students, a ridiculous number for such a small town, were slowly working their way toward the two-layer double doors. Most are from the upper spires, of course. Doug glanced at the few, for a hive, spires jutting above the hiveskin, each far broader and many times taller than any of the buildings in Startseite's business district.
He slipped through the press of bodies easily, high point of view easing his path through the crowd of students. The journey through the school's interior was just slower, until the last great wave of students piled in behind him, seeming to buoy him forward on a swell of resignation and hope for an easy day. Locker #447 appeared from the great mass of students, left bare just for its occupant, Doug Hanlon. He spun through the combination easily, impeccable memory and sensitive fingers guiding it through the proper numbers and turns.
Despite the effortless unlocking Doug's locker had its own charms. Specifically, it was as stubborn as a mule, and refused to open except to great pressure at the proper angle. Doug shed his backpack and removed his coat, revealing a crisp white button up shirt at odds with the almost identical garments around. While nearly every other student rolled up their sleeves and left their collars up, Doug's sleeves lay long and buttoned at the wrist, his collar fastened tidily down. The shirt was tucked neatly and evenly into flat front black pants, themselves ending over clean, glossy shoes a brown almost as dark as his eyes.
The long coat folded neatly in half and lay over his left arm, the right hoisting the heavy backpack easily up onto his shoulder. Doug's right hand felt around to the side pocket, noting that the squaring clamp was still in place; he'd been planning to fix this locker since his first day, and only recently had the free time and credits to design and fabricate the necessary tool.
The pack slid all the way to his back and Doug braced himself to battle the locker one last time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sea green car's occupants take up position on the opposite wall, chatting while they waited for class to start. He felt a prickle, a feeling he'd long come to attribute to psychic probing.
Miss Magnus seems to have noticed my mnemonic. Just then a loud bang echoed down the hall, then another, quieter bang followed by a near-complete hushing of the student body. A dull slap sounded, the telltale signature of a small body hitting the floor and Doug chanced a look in the offending direction.
A shock of short, bloodred hair snapped into view, swaying gently atop the striding form of Furia Angron. She was clearly on the warpath. Her teeth were clenched, her temple throbbing, her limbs swinging in hard, short motions. The crowd parted, allowing Furia through and exposing Doug to an unexpected sight: he caught a clear view of her eyes.
Furia's brow was knotted in anger, her high cheeks rising further underneath with rage. But her hazel eyes weren't maddened. They were soft, and tears were just visible at the corners. A hand darted up swiftly, removing his left earplug, and Doug heard her breathing. It was heavy, fast, but only in imitation of fury. It was all a mask, hiding a sadness that seemed terribly recognizable to Doug. The plan formed in an instant, and Doug began to pull on his locker again, gauging the resistance.
Should be no more than ten seconds. He shifted his stance, pushing the right shoulder and backpack a little farther into the hall. You shouldn't do this, you know. Doug considered the thought, then remembered those eyes again, a doleful hazel. It wouldn't do to have her storm out of the school. It's far more dangerous outside. Nodding with self-justification, Doug executed his plan nearly to the second. The door broke free of its comrade's tight embrace and Doug slid back, perhaps a quarter of a meter. Just far enough to bump into Furia Angron, who responded immediately with a growl.
“Oh, I need this.”
Beautiful voice. Sultry, even. In a menacing sort of way. Doug thought as he began to turn. But only began when the backpack was kicked away and a prodigiously strong punch, far more powerful than any he'd received in combat training, sank into his right kidney. He felt a peculiar sickness rise in his stomach, and thanked long years of muscle control training as his bladder strained against shock and the pressure ballooning through his midsection.
Doug began to sink forward into the locker's embrace, and heard the rustle of hand in bag as Furia turned to leave once more. We can't have that. Doug stood, making a show of shaking his head, and was rewarded with two more powerful blows. He hadn't realized how much she was holding back the first time.
The locker claimed him fully this time, and Doug returned to his senses minutes later aching, feeling sick and heavy. He became aware of a monstrous roar behind him, No, wait... two monsters, and, as his faculties returned completely, finally managed to separate them out into Furia and Dean Yarrick. Doug breathed carefully, slowly regaining his composure, then hung the coat neatly in his locker. The backpack opened next, the small bag of squaring clamp parts seated themselves on the eye-level shelf at the top of the locker, and books slid out into the lower part.
"Furia, do we really have to do this again? How many times do I have to catch you beating another student to a pulp before-" Yarrick gestured at the victim, then turned to emphasize his point and stopped dead. Doug was regarding him over-shoulder with a mild, curious look as he pulled books from his locker, then stuffed the backpack inside.
Furia's compelling features crooked into an amused smile, and Doug barely hid his own reflexive grin when her hazel eyes twinkled with glee. The old soldier's single organic eye grew wide with confusion, then narrowed in indignation. Dean Yarrick turned and grabbed the student roughly, oversized claw scraping crazily against the lockers as he pivoted.
"Yes, Dean Yarrick?" Doug's voice was modulated, even pleasant, barely concealing the fresh pain coursing through his back. An eyebrow crooked up, as if he couldn't possibly be aware of what the administrator needed.
"Name. Now." Yarrick's face quickly regained composure, despite the fresh anger creeping up his neck. Doug could see the veins beginning to stand, ready to pulse to life in a literal heartbeat.
"Douglas. Douglas Hanlon." Doug stretched out his right hand, then apologized quickly, exchanging it for his left. "Sir."
Yarrick shook the offered hand harshly. "And you expect me to believe she wasn't just laying into you?" Yarrick's glare intensified, his eye boring into the young man.
"Well, we did bump into each other but, I assure you, nothing untoward happened. In fact, I was just about to apologize to miss...?" Doug turned and looked at Furia questioningly.
She glanced at him, then at Yarrick, then back at the senior. Her eye twitched threateningly, but she managed to control herself and force a small smile. "Furia. Lady. Primarch. Furia."
Doug offered his hand to the Lady Primarch and, after a long moment she took it. So hard, in fact, that Doug's knuckles popped and whitened, the blood within forced out through pressure.
"Doug." He withdrew his hand. "Strong grip." He smiled, as if amused at his small joke, then coughed when he saw the furious looks on the pair facing him. "Is there anything else, Dean?"
"No, that will be all. Furia, my office. NOW." Yarrick grabbed Furia by the collar and drug her away.
Doug nodded jauntily, allowing a small smile to the departing commissar and sighing Furia, then slammed his locker shut and and raced to the bathroom. A shaky hand closed and locked the door, and he all but fell onto the sink. His stomach contorted and leapt as the vomit poured out of him.
After what seemed an eternity of retching Doug finally stopped, legs and arms shaking, and looked at himself in the mirror, his features miserable with pain and sickness. Bad move, Doug. You shouldn't have involved yourself with a Daughter. Not part of your operational parameters. His skin had paled considerably, a stark white as clean and lifeless as the wall behind him. The sudden loss of blood gave lie to his dermal treatments, synthetic patches revealing a lifetime's worth of concealed scars and marks etched into his face.
He turned the water on, scarcely able to support himself with a single arm, and sunk to his elbows. Why did you do that, Doug? Cold water splashed onto his face, pulling him out of his semi-torpid state, and he waited. Furia's eyes came to mind again, sad before the encounter, but simply annoyed after.
She is rather cute when she's angry. After another minute of steady breathing the feeling of sickness, of turmoil and upset in his core, finally subsided. As it passed, the dull ache of his lower back swelled to life, carrying a familiar urgency, and Doug darted over to the urinal. His bladder evacuated, the tinge of red slowly fading as the thankfully short process wound to completion, and he cleaned himself up. Doug flushed the bloody paper in a toilet and made to go, pausing only to check the condition of his back before leaving.
Three larger than fist-sized bruises overlapped there, the dark purple fading out to sickly green, and he gently massaged the area, wincing, then tucked the shirt back in and hoisted his books once more. After taking a moment to compose himself Doug pushed back out into the hallway, towards Biology. The effort was almost unbearable, but he hid the limp, pretended the bruising wasn't there.
It was harder to hide the anxiety, even justified as his actions seemed at the time. Doug's initial Appraisal was long past, but the lessons had been drilled into him regardless. He'd interposed himself in the life a Royal Daughter. Even if only in the smallest way, and positively, I have to say. There will be repercussions.
Doug opened the Bio door and walked in, his face flushed but otherwise unperturbed. "My apologies, Professor Bile, I had... to unexpectedly visit the restroom." The words rolled out casually, easily. He'd long learned that lying and avoiding the specific truth were entirely different things, and that the latter was much harder to notice.
"Of course, Douglas." Mr. Bile nodded and mumbled in agreement, but didn't stop laying out his lesson plan. Doug strolled to the back of the room and sat down, wincing a little at the feeling of the seat against his aching back. Soon enough the cool plastic and metal soothed him, if only just so, and he opened his textbook. Doug felt the prickle again, the gentle touch as a psyker tried to sense his surface thoughts. He was sure it was Miranda, the only psyker he was aware of in the class, but said nothing, letting the long built walls of his mnemonic home do their work.
The Lordly Fitness Test
The day was crisp and clear. The air was noticeably colder out than it had been last week, but still mild, maybe the last mild day of the year. Students milled around, some performing their tasks, others simply wasting time. Miranda, ever the dutiful student, panted as she finally finished her last activity, the shuttle run.
Not quite up to Isis' standards. She looked over at the other Daughters. But at least I finished ahead of Faith this time.
Miranda felt eyes on her and looked behind her to see Arthur staring very obviously. He blushed and turned away, leaving Miranda to smile sheepishly as she considered walking over to talk to him.
On the other side of the field, Janus Sigitine was gasping for breath, far worse than Miranda was. Despite the physical conditioning he'd undergone, Janus' thin body never seemed to take to muscle mass.
I should be able to run, at least.
He threw an arm onto the goalpost, bracing himself as long, dry breaths rasped through his throat. Janus felt something, something bad, and looked up. He was surprised to see Angela Sanguinius drifting across the field. Her wings twitched slightly, reacting to a breeze that didn't even rustle her gym shorts. Janus focused on those shorts, on her legs, and Angela turned. He suddenly remembered that she, too, was a psyker.
A blush came over Janus as he tried to pry his eyes away from Angela's torso, the flowing of her hair and her bright blue eyes. He felt the faintest tinge of anger, until Angela saw him, when it turned into barely concealed laughter while she walked away, still seeming to drift over the ground.
Janus sank. I'm not even worth getting mad about. Another pair of blue eyes caught his from across the field and Janus saw Coach Kell glaring as he suddenly remembered worrying about something bad a minute ago, so he began to run again, trying to catch up with the blue eyes, with his friends Callie and Violet.
Assistant Coach Kell eyed the time wasters, watching one start to run again, then settled on another in particular.
"YOU!" Kell separated the flushed student from his peers with an out-thrust finger, amplifier causing his voice to pound through the boy. "HOW MANY ACTIVITIES HAVE YOU COMPLETED?!"
"F-four, Coach Kell." Arthur shivered a little in his track shoes, then sighed in relief as Kell moved on.
"FURIA!" Kell, like Yarrick, was one of the few who could hope to outmatch Furia verbally, though only because of his vocal amplification. "How many events have you completed?"
"Five, Kell. Lay off." Furia exhaled and rolled her eyes, leaning against the wall.
"You're a Primarch for Emperor's sake, now get out there and finish your last task!" Kell stomped away, completely missing the grin playing over her face.
Fine. Furia stepped away from the wall, then continued across the field. Directly ahead, and under Head Coach Creed's direct observation, was a small platform. About three meters in diameter, the stone dais held a pair of students fighting, hand to hand, one attempting to lock the other into a choke-hold from behind. After another moment's grappling the ploy succeeded, and Creed called an end to the bout.
"Good, good, thirty-five seconds, Jonas. Next!" Assistant Coach Kell trundled up. "YOU HEARD THE HEAD COACH! NEXT!"
Creed smiled, clenching an unlit cigar squarely between his teeth. When Furia stepped up and waved, he simply smiled a little wider. He didn't expect anyone to take the challenge, after all. That's Furia Angron. So, when a tall, brown-haired young man stepped forward and waved as well, Creed let out a small laugh. Biting off more than you can chew once or twice is a good learning experience. The look on Furia's face worried him a bit, what with her eyes bulging so. Just as long as you come out the other side intact.
"How high?" One of the first changes Creed made to the athletic program was the inclusion of combat training. Basic stuff, no real weapons, a few minor wargames. Still, the faux stone pillar looked out of place among the tracks, baseball diamond and the high jump stand some six meters away. He'd intended it be taken mostly by those who planned on military service. Every year, though, more than a few kids looking to prove themselves to their buddies had hopped on. And then there are the Daughters. Freya Russ, Furia and Hana Khan stood out, of course, but many of the Daughters had taken a turn or two on the Rock, and physical education's 'No Recording' policy had been instituted only minutes after Freya and Hana's first bout started three years ago.
"Three meters." Furia growled out as she stepped forward.
"And you, kid?"
"Doug, Coach. Four-and-a-half meters, please. If Miss Angron doesn't mind."
"Yeah, that's fine, let's get this show on the road." Furia hopped up on the currently meter high pedestal and Doug did so as well, stepping neatly up and standing on the opposing edge. Creed nodded and Kell turned the crank, manually engaging the lifting mechanism. The process seemed to take forever, the pillar slowly lifting and rotating. It was all part of the program, giving the contestants time to see how high they were going, to stare down their opponent. Finally the platform ground into place and Creed looked down at his stopwatch.
"GO!" Kell echoed Creed's command, and the bout started.
Furia launched herself into the fight without hesitation. She punch and kicked blindly, elbowed and kneed without thought. She threw every attack she knew in every combination she could think of, rage building. Her opponent stepped and juked, almost dancing, deflecting her attacks with contemptuous ease. Slippery bastard. Furia lost herself in the fight, the sheer physical act, each strike pushing him back a little more, a little closer to his side of the Rock. She pushed out unwanted memories, drowned out grief with rage as she'd been doing all day. Frustration set in after only ten seconds, until Furia saw a clear opening: Doug's head dipped forward, and his right leg drew forward in a tight circle around his left. She leaned back onto one foot, the motion pure reaction. The other swept out at his legs in a broad arc only made viable by her inhuman strength.
The boy exhaled sharply and smiled, almost is if saying Thank you.'
Doug's legs barely braced as he launched into a simple hop. Furia's eyes gaped as it all happened in slow motion. The crook of his knees as her last ditch attack failed, gliding directly under his feet. The lazy pirouette as he spun in the air. The crash of his left foot into her sternum, almost gentle to her superhuman physiology, sending her sprawling over the edge nonetheless.
Suddenly a hand snatched hers, and Furia looked up into the now familiar face of Doug, sliding closer and closer to the edge as he strained to halt her momentum. She gritted her teeth, baring a grim smile, and pushed with her feet, trying to pull him off and throw him down to the ground. She succeeded in removing Doug from the Rock, then failed to find purchase with her other hand and begin to fall again.
Furia hit the ground hard, but not as hard as she'd expected. Her head lifted off the grass, still spinning from the fall, the not-so-hard landing. "What the fuck just happened?"
"Hh bhhhehf Hh brhhk hhhr fhhll." Furia looked down to see her sizable chest pressed around something. Something with light brown hair. She got angry.
"YOU MOTHERFU-" Furia drew her arm back and up as she savored the word. She'd timed it perfectly, verbal release coinciding with physical impact. As her fist fell through the air toward the gasping young man, she relished the thought of watching his smug face take the hit. One moment she was free and clear. Then, as Furia looked down to see it all play out, her fist smashed into an inexplicable and well-cushioned umpire's vest.
That's the one they use when I pitch. Confusion marred Furia's finely scarred features for only a moment before she heard the match flare up. Eyes and face bulging with anger, Furia Angron watched as the cigar puffed to life between square, clenched teeth.
Furia sat at Yarrick's desk for the second time that day. Not for the fight: it was part of the LFT, and thus approved, if looked down upon. No, she was in the seat for breaking Clarence Patterson's hearing aid.
I didn't even get halfway to the D.' Yarrick looked at her strangely, but Furia didn't care. By the time I get out of here it'll be time to go home. Where I still have some smokes.
"Your father says you're grounded until the weekend." Yarrick paused. "Of course, Lord Angron. Yes, a low-salt injection."
"No, you don't need the foil, but it'll shorten the cook time." Yarrick took another puff, then passed the cigar to Furia. "About 5 hours... Yes, really."
"I'd say two or three hours with the foil at that temperature. Yep. Alright, talk to you Saturday night. You bet, Guillimore Dew, nothing better." Yarrick took the cigar back as the final bell range, and nodded once more to Furia before she left for her empty home.
The door slammed shut, far harder than necessary, and only remained intact because it was reinforced to handle the frequent anger and monstrous strength of Furia and her father, Primarch Angron.
Furia's hands were starting to shake, and the feeling, the itch, was coming back. Barely made it back here. She dropped the backpack, not even bothering to throw it anywhere, and made for the kitchen. Furia opened drawers, dug through baskets and cabinets, searching frantically. She barely noticed the blood, the knife that cut her while her hands rummaged.
“Where the fuck are they.” Furia's voice was different now, not the roar it had been earlier, or even the quiet menace that appeared after Yarrick showed up in the hallway before first period. It was higher now, quivering and breathless as the lack of narcotic or adrenaline finally caught up to her.
The feeling of abandonment came back, stronger than ever, and Furia fell to her knees. She started to cry, simple tears at first, then tiny sobs. Something cold settled into her stomach, and she pulled a hand away from the counter to scratch her arm. The tears fell and mixed with blood welling out from under her fingernails, warm and hot. Her hand started to slip from the rounded countertop and Furia looked up. The lho pack sat there and it suddenly seemed to take up the whole of her vision. She felt the itch start to fade, the abandonment recede as her hand crawled forward.
Time sped up when Furia finally touched the pack of lho sticks. She began to dig frantically for a lighter, then remembered it was in her backpack. The stove kicked on instead, and Furia drew the tabac to life with it, uncaring of the blistering heat on her face. The first real inhalation finally came, long and comforting. She fell back against the island and drew down the lho, barely remembering to light the next one off of it.
Doug iced his aching back and arms while playing over the memory again, his fight with Furia on the rock. He'd barely managed to hold off her wild attacks. I'm lucky she so severely underestimated me. The damage to his arms, even with properly executed blocks, was considerable. But the ploy worked, and it had only taken a dozen seconds for Furia to get frustrated and take the well-placed bait.
Lead with the head, and an experienced enemy will follow.
He hadn't expected her to be so off balance as to fall from the Rock, and barely remembered grabbing her hand. Doug recalled the look in Furia's eyes when she caught on. First frustration, annoyance and shock. Then she realized her position. A gleam of anger returned, bolstered by imminent triumph, and then they fell. It hurt, but somehow he felt good. I felt fulfilled. I felt... warm. Doug felt an uncharacteristic blush come over his face.
After the fall Furia was dazed, and took some time to sort out what she was laying on. That warm feeling quickly diminished. And the ringing didn't settle out of his ears for another ten minutes, even with the earplugs in. Still, Doug fared better than Clarence Patterson, and Furia ended up in the Dean's office for the second time that day. Yes, Furia was frustrated, angry and annoyed as she left. But she wasn't sad.
Doug Hanlon felt sleep come on more easily than he had in months as he lay down, because he'd done something good today.
A simple kindness.
He could only hope she felt as peaceful right now as he did.
Fifteen Credits a Kilo - Wednesday, Septembris 14
Davin grunted and hefted the fresh slab of auroch into the clean, almost septic display case. A ruddy-skinned, black-haired man, Davin Burrek was short and stout, and while he needed a stepping stool every now and then, the butcher had no trouble lugging about auroch flanks and loins of even the massive Elgik Blue breed easily. He piddled around a little more, not quite eager to leave despite the approach of closing time. He'd hoped to sell to the regular people of the block, but more and more only the less reputable elements of the block could afford his prices, already so low as to barely allow Davin a living.
He stole another glance at the decrepit old TV. The machine's speakers barely worked, and had been slowly declining in volume over the past few months since Davin had taken up shop. He'd turned the volume knob up to maximum during the first hour of his first day, and found it didn't work. Nuthin' some pliers couldn't take care of. Still, it was dying, and soon he'd have creds enough put back to move up to a higher block, where the regular folk could afford to pay twenty six creds a kilo for albic fillet. And I'm barely paying my bills at that rate. His eyes wandered back to the flickering, almost completely desaturated screen, at the great writhing mass of players locked in struggle over the imperceptible oval-shaped ball. Davin smiled to himself. It's getting' good. The teams had been neck and neck since the end of the first quarter, but he had a feeling that was about to change. The lighter colored team pushed hard, evening the score once more. The ball soared, then went wide off target, another miss from the tiny kicker. He's just not playin' hard enough tonight, they're gonna lose if they don't get it together.
A burly, shaven headed man steamed through an opening in the other team's line out, and ran nearly fifty meters to finally touch down. The ball smashed into the ground, then soared high into the air above the ecstatic prop as he roared to his teammates, riling them up even further. Three quarters of the game in and they'd definitively pulled ahead by one point. Davin couldn't tell which team was from which area, and he didn't care. It was about watching the game, not rooting for one side in particular. They're both good, too. Damn good. The massive scrum developed once more, the intervening action barely discernible through the cracked glass and spotty reception. The sudden last quarter score seemed to give the losing side some fresh motivation, and they threw their all into the offense. Injuries came fast and hard to the other team, and it seemed in the blink of an eye the fly-half had been replaced three times. But now that they had the advantage, the darker uniformed team seemed even more determined to keep it. Through most of the game their playing was brilliant and creative, culminating in a last minute distraction that had opened up the opposition's lines at the start of the last quarter.
But this ain't a game of brains or cleverness. Those traits were rewarded in scrumball as much as anywhere else. Davin liked the game because the most steadfast team won, and the winners were showing it now, overflowing with grit and savagery as they began to score their own injuries. Soon second, third and fourth picks were hobbling back and forth over the battlefield, all but leaving a trail of blood in their wake. And it is a battlefield now. The clock was running down, and both teams seemed to grow more and more ferocious with each passing second, the lighter urging forward, making kicks and short runs. The darker team seemed to block them at every turn, kicks failing and players getting smashed aside by brutal counter-tackles. Davin felt his blood begin to surge. He turned away from the slabs of gleaming red meat, moist and fresh, and focused every fiber of his being on the game. He could see it, see the leading side rally, desperate to take the trophy, not to lose it at- “Fifteen credits a kilo, for ground chuck? Now that's a crime!”
Davin nearly leapt out of his pants at the scrunched old woman standing suddenly before him. Her face was wrinkled, eyes shoved up into the folds like two tiny, malevolent raisins. They were quivering with outrage as she turned her gaze from the window to the butcher.
“You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Davin wasn't one to roll over to pressure, he'd been in his share of fights and arguments, and when he got mad he turned into a bulldog of a man, short and powerful in attitude as well as body. Still, he hadn't quite recovered from the appearance of the old woman. When did she open the door?
“I've been in here for three minutes and you haven't even told me what the specials are! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Old Pete McLellan ran the butcher's shop on Tripter for fifty years and never treated me so poorly before he passed, bless his heart!” Her voice was a high, irritating shriek, and despite her drawn, wrinkled face, Davin could see a pair of thick wattles flailing around underneath her neck. Her back seemed wrong somehow, almost lumpy in the way some people became as they aged, and her form bulged with fat under heavy coats.
'Specially when they eat too much black soylens. Davin sighed and let the old woman rant on for another five minutes, keeping an eye on the Slide dealer across the street.
“Twelve creds a kilo! And not a credit more or I'll call the block association on you!” The woman was quivering with rage, but the frantic swaying of her neck wattles only made Davin want to laugh.
“Deal.” The woman stopped, eyeing him suspiciously, then began to rummage through her many pockets and bags. After fifteen minutes she'd pulled together sixteen credits worth of old and mostly run down creds. “One and a half kilos.” Davin took the creds, checked them and portioned out the ground auroch chuck without batting an eye at the two creds she'd shorted him.
I'll let 'er have it. Respect your elders an' all that. Especially one this old who can still throw out that kinda fire. He smiled graciously, only eye-to-eye with the woman because of the two centimeter step-up behind the counter, and she waddled off out the entrance, clutching her prize as if it would be taken from her the moment the door closed. She eyed the dealer warily, and he let out a low chuckle around the dimming lho-stick in his mouth.
He watched her tuck the meat away, the package disappearing into the incomprehensible mass of pouches and satchels. A shaped moved in the blackness on the other side of the street, behind the woman, and strong hands pulled her into the darkness. A malformed shape, thick with grime and mutation, smiled evilly as it dragged her deep into the alley.
A low, guttural voice rumbled out of the scavvie. “You got tha' meat, girlie?” A knife gleamed dangerously in the last flicker of a dying lumen strip, and the woman's breathing quavered with fear. The knife disappeared, and a rope took its place, winding slowly around the thick, wattled neck. “You know where you made your mistake?” The clothed head shook feverishly, frizzy, frayed hair pulling loose of the kerchief.
“Even with all these prosthetics and clothes and the stoop–none of which I like having to wear, by the way– You didn't walk right, Doug.” The voice changed, now high, teasing and soft. “You really have to pay more attention to your inserts.”
“We should mix it up, at least every now and then, Callie. No reason to let useful skills, such as heavy makeup and prosthetic fabrication, fall out of practice. And I assumed yesterday's injury would be more than enough to cover the alterations to my gait.” The old woman looked up at the scavvie, eyes mild, speaking in crisp tones. He returned the stare, eyes twinkling with mischief.
“I still don't get what you were thinking, Doug. You're not that clumsy.” The scavvie rolled its bloodshot eyes.
“It was an accident, Callie. Nothing more.” The old woman continued to struggle, putting on a good show for anyone looking too closely. No one was. “I simply lost my balance on account of the close lunch table.”
“Don't try to pull that with me. Who taught you how to lie?” The scavvie pulled the noose a little tighter, causing the old bag to let out a deep yelp.
The scavvie's smile returned, wide and lustful. “Damn right I did. Besides, even if I did believe you, Doug, you were almost late today. Why was that?”
“I-ghk.” The lumpy hands finally relented, letting the old woman breathe once more. “Thank you, Callie. I was simply looking for a more expedient means of transportation.”
“Yeah, and Gorechild just happened to be there?”
“Well, she did nearly run me over, Callie. It would've been rude to simply walk away.”
“Keep it up, Doug, and I might start thinking you have a thing for her.” Rough hands twined the rope a little tighter. “Not that I blame you, but you know we're not supposed to do that.”
“As if you have room to talk, Callie. If I remember correctly you were brag-” The noose pulled tight again, and the scavvie began to blush, of all things.
“Shut up! Technically I didn't do anything to her!” The old woman continued to thrash for a long time while the scavvie blushed more deeply, lost in memories. The defiance slowed, and the scavvie finally relented.
Heavy breathing came next, deep and ragged, as the proper color slowly returned to the old woman's face. “Of course, Callie. I simply fear Miss Angron has driven away most of her friends and family as a result of Mr. Trelan's indiscretion. It wouldn't do to have her lapse into... old habits once more.”
The scavvie finally let go of the rope, and hands slid down onto the old woman's shoulders. “Fine, fine. So is that the guy or not?”
“Yes, I believe so. Observe the hat and coat, and especially the way he walks. He's nearly a perfect match for the figure recorded by the servitor, indistinct though it was. His name is Winhus, I believe.”
“So, we gonna bust him or not? Let's just get this over with, there're better things for us to do tonight.” The scavvie's harsh voice let out a surprisingly feminine growl.
“I don't think we should. We've been observing the man for three days, and I can see nothing that indicates he killed the child on purpose. I'm beginning to wonder if he even knew the slide was pure.”
“Who'd give a street dealer-addict uncut slide?”
“I don't know, Callie. And that is what makes me apprehensive. Whoever orchestrated this is either indifferent to who was killed, or exerts a great deal of influence over Winhus or his direct superior. Perhaps even both. It seems far too distant to be a simple pleasure killing, and far too organized to be a random accident. Who would stand to gain from a lone child dying of a slide overdose in the lower hive?”
“Whole thing creeps me out.” Doug felt a small chill pass through him. Callie's indoctrination prevented her from feeling remorse or disgust that might paralyze her in the field. To admit that the child's passing had disturbed her at all, much less on a mission, only reinforced how gruesome the event was. “And why are we even doing this anyway? I don't mind slumming it in the lower hive with you every now and then, Doug. But two days in a row? I'd rather be keeping an eye on Victoria or Lyra. Hey, you think she-”
“I'm hurt Callie, and here I thought you might appreciate some alone time with me.” The scavvie's hands began to move along the old woman's shoulders once more.
“Well, not that the alley is my sort of thing, but can't knock it until you try it, right?” The scavvie brought it's lumpy, distended face down to the old woman for a passionate kiss. A loud shudder sounded from across the street, and the dealer, Winhus, took off, eyes wide with disgust.
“It seems we've lost track of our dealer, Callie. I think it's time to leave.” The old woman stood with alarming ease, and helped the scavvie up, then the odd couple retreated into the darkness of the alley, hand-in-hand.
“Please, Callie, come in.” Doug stood tall once more, freed of the prosthetics and heavy clothing he'd been wearing some time ago, and looked no more like an overweight, haggard old woman. He opened the door to his small, bare apartment, then turned and ushered in the slight figure before him.
“Don't mind if I do!” The dirty hood dropped down, revealing a golden blonde ponytail and playful blue eyes. The small form, now bare of lumps and malformations, all but skipped into the tiny apartment. The rest of the disguise dropped, revealing Callie's fit figure. Doug stepped in as well, pulling the door closed, and made to turn on the lights. A delicate hand, its movements now much slower and softer than during the violence they'd displayed before, stopped him. They pulled into another kiss, faster and less reserved than in the alley.
“I knew you'd come around? What did it, thinking about me and Om-”
Doug chortled. “No, I just needed some time, Callie, that's all.” She tugged him gently towards the low bed in the far corner, and smiled as he barely resisted.
Just need to distract him now. A hand slipped up to her head unbinding the long ponytail. Callie shook her hair out, smiling even wider. “Why're we doing this, anyway? Not that I mind mixing it up.” Doug picked her up and carried her the last two steps to the bed, where they fell into a rough tangle of limbs.
“Do we need a reason to do this?”
Callie laughed, white teeth gleaming in the poor light filtering through the grimy window. “Not this, Doug. The drug thing.” She began to move underneath him, abnormal flexibility letting her shirk clothes easily. “We're supposed to be protecting the Daughters, why're we looking into slide dealers and dead kids?”
Doug paused, and Callie nearly let out a sigh of frustration before he started up again, talking around kisses. “Father insists the situation could become a problem for the Daughters if left out of hand. I'm sure what information we've gathered by saturday will be more than enough to dispel his concerns.” The last of her clothes finally slid away, and Callie set to work on Doug's, anxious to complete the task while she and the changes to their operation parameters were still distracting enough. “There is definitely some organization-” His shirt came off, but Doug barely noticed between Callie's lips and the details of block #113's slide trafficking running through his mind. “But I doubt it's anything on a scale sufficient to threaten our charges, even the more susceptible among them.” Callie grinned widely, then let out the frustrated groan as his hand stopped hers from undoing his fly. “Please, Callie, we've been over this.”
“But why not, Doug!” She sat up suddenly, hair and modest chest leaping enticingly.
Doug breathed deep and composed himself, then let a hand on each of her shoulders before looking her coolly in the eye. “This isn't you Callie, this is the indoctrination. I don't want that, I don't want this to just be part of the mission as much as I don't want it just to be physical.”
She brought her hands up and cupped them under Doug's chin, and returned his look as honestly and passionately as she could. “It isn't, Doug. This is me, I want this, not just as part of the fucking mission. Me.”
Doug smiled and kissed her, then rolled around onto the bed behind her. “Then prove it to me, Callie. Let's just sleep tonight, let's just enjoy each other's company.” He kissed her on the lips once more, then wrapped her in a warm, comforting embrace. Callie could feel him calming down behind her, his heart-rate slowing, breath growing more shallow and even, and barely suppressed a frustrated scream. She tried to calm herself down, to go along with his breathing and relaxation, but the indoctrination pricked at her mind, constantly needling and reminding her that there was another advantage to be had here, more influence to be won. Doug exhaled slowly, and Callie went to work on herself, letting his simple presence be enough for tonight. Soon enough she slept as well, warm, content and satisfied.
“Well it's not that easy for me Doug!” Callie jumped out of bed, now screaming. Doug simply sat there, a look of mild disappointment playing over his face as the overlights slowly came to life, signaling the barest start of morning. “I can't just not do it! Why can't you understand?”
“Callie.” His voice was calm and sounded understanding, but it only served to frustrate Callie further.
At least fucking yell, Doug. Do something, anything but sit there and lecture me.
“Just one night, Callie, one night would've been enough for me to be sure, to know there's more to what you feel than... this.” He gestured to a slight discoloration of the sheet, roughly under where Callie had slept the previous night.
“Why does it have to be either-or Doug!” She all but fell forward, and Doug pulled her gently onto the bed. “This is normal, this how people feel. Just because the indoctrination makes me want it more doesn't mean it's not honest! It doesn't mean I'm not being real.”
“It doesn't have to be either-or, Callie.” He kissed her gently on the head. “Not for the rest of time, just for one night. I just want to see for one night that you want us to be together for more than gratification. Maybe to-” “Fine, whatever.” Callie stood up and began slipping into her clothes once more. “I'll see you this weekend. Sunday, maybe. I've gotta get to the bus.”
“At least let me-” “No, we shouldn't be seen leaving the block together, you know that.” Callie gave him one last hard look and resolved to try harder next time, then slipped out the door. The ratty old coat came on again, hood pulled low to disguise her features, and within minutes she'd merged into the bustling crowd of hivers, impossible to pick out.
Familiar Itch – Friday – Septembris 16
Furia scratched her arm, the familiar itch biting at her mind. What the fuck are you doing down here? She wrinkled her nose. Furia could smell the soylens from here, even outside the processing district's official boundaries. It was sick, sweet and savory. She'd smelled real death before, once, a long time ago when Kharn visited. Somehow this was worse, as if the dead weren't worth anything at all, even dying. Like it didn't matter that someone had died. People dying to feed more people, or maybe this was one of the plants that rendered them into fuel too, into promethium for use in war machines and weapons.
The smell wasn't just a smell, either. It was physical, something you felt on your face and clothes. As she drew closer, Furia could see the buildings slowly change, see the rockcrete and stone higher up turn from gray to red or brown, or worse. She'd spent a day here once, almost spent the night after a week like this week, when she pushed everyone away. But after eight hours in the soylens district air her clothes were stained, fingers slippery and she could feel it in her nose. When the guy had offered her a beer and a pack of green Furia decided she'd had enough and went back home. Anything's better than this. She considered leaving right now for home, empty as it was, then sucked down the lho-stick and automatically brought the pack up, hand prodding under the lid. Her fingers found the lone remaining smoke and she swore.
"Fuck. That's my last pack." Furia rubbed her bare forearms. Too late to go back now. Fuckin' Coby. She'd been over to his house that day, more because her own home was empty than anything. It hadn't taken him long to piss her off again and she'd stormed off without her leather jacket. The gloom of the hive increased as Furia walked, eyes downcast, lower and lower into the urban accretion. Fumes collected from years of illegal promethium burner use clouded sight and smell ever more thickly. Furia passed a school, the engraved numbers by the gate fading, barely legible as School #113. The building was dilapidated, wearing its age like an old crone, with streaks of grime and a sagging foundation.
The neighborhood matched it perfectly. Broken down cars, most missing tires, repulsors or inciters, were scattered down the streets in all directions, largely serving as makeshift shelters. Except for a pair of bars most of the buildings lacked visible lighting, drearily matching the anemic streetlights. People walked with hunched shoulders and hoods, more than a fair share scurrying to and from alleys. Furia looked around and spied a heated exchange punctuated by a brown envelop and the clatter of credits. She looked back at the school. Despite the apparent deterioration of the building and community, it still bore signs of recent use.
A servitor, seemingly comprised entirely of rust and grime, shuffled through the structure, mopping in a slow, sloppy routine. A light appeared in an apartment window above, the outline of a head coming into view, watching. Furia lit her last smoke and continued further into the hive. The silhouette watched a little longer before departing, apparently satisfied, and the curtain fell back into place. She started to move again when she caught someone looking at her, the guy who'd just handed off the brown bag. He had bright blue eyes, a round, grimy face and a long scar down his cheek, and he looked at her with familiarity. Without a word he turned and took off down the alley opposite the school. Something's not right about that guy, he recognized me. Furia, pissed, nursing an itch she didn't want and on her last lho-stick, decided pursuing this man was a good idea. Anything to take her mind off the past week and the itch on her arm.
As soon as he disappeared around the corner Furia jogged to catch up, powerful legs closing the distance easily. Her blood was pumping, her adrenaline was just starting to edge up and relieve the itch. She could feel the anger hedging in doubt, sadness and worse. As she rounded the corner Furia felt alive, spoiling for a confrontation, physical or verbal. After she rounded the corner Furia was surprised.
A pair of long arms pulled her off balance, a surprisingly easy task given she was cornering on one foot. The blue-eyed man slammed her against the brick wall and she barely noticed. He pinioned her arms behind her, then looked down, bringing a single hand back to his chest. Furia broke his hold easily, the unfavorable position only causing her the slightest trouble in muscling out of his vise-like grip. The freed hand kept its momentum, balling up and slamming into his jaw at less than half-strength. A spurt of blood shot out of his mouth, and more dribbled down his cheek as he turned to face her again. The other blue contact fell out and into his hand, revealing an infuriatingly familiar set of black eyes. Furia regretted only holding back on the first punch as she remembered his near omnipresence over the past week.
Not just Monday, but every fucking day. Pissing me off. He'd bumped into her in the lunchroom Tuesday, and got knocked over a table for his trouble. Wednesday he nearly walked into Gorechild as she left the parking lot, scared the daylights out of her. Then he fucking asked for a ride. She'd peeled out, left him covered in oily smoke with a satisfied grin. Thursday he was in the hall again, messing with something on his locker, and asked for help. Don't know what it was, but it broke pretty easily. He spoke again, shaking Furia from her memories.
"Of course, how rude of me." Doug allowed himself a small, bleeding smile.
He spoke so quietly only Furia could hear him and produced a small box, the familiar sight soothing just at a glance. She reached out of for it, but Doug deftly avoided her hand, instead opening it with a finger and sliding out a single crisp lho-stick with a short nudge. It was small and factory stuffed instead of hand rolled, but Furia could practically taste it. She eyed his face, slowly reaching out, then snatched the smoke from the box.
I know I felt something break under that punch. He seemed fine, and it was pissing her off even more.
"Come on baybee, you know Ah cain't live without you!" Doug blared the line out with an impossibly thick drawl and a lopsided smile.
The sudden, confusing change in demeanor caused Furia to snort with laughter while she patted her pockets, but the needed match proved elusive. She felt her choler rising again when one suddenly flared up in front of her. Furia puffed the smoke to life and inhaled deeply, the low grade tabac still more than enough to ease her grated nerves. She noticed the other man then, the one holding the bag with a twitching hand, now looking back when Doug talked again.
"Ah missed you!" The junkie shook his head, eyes flickering between envy and loneliness, then walked away, rubbing his arm heavily. He loped with a distinctively odd hitch in his step. "Ah. Very good." Doug reached down to his pants, unbuttoning the fly and unzipping it. Furia's eyes widened at the action, then bulged further with confusion when he pulled out a long strip of dirty cloth.
"What? The fuck? Is that?" Doug's pants quickly reassembled, then he shrugged out of his dark coat, revealing a leather jacket underneath, and began pulling the coat's sleeves inside out.
"The wrap? I had it around my knee, to stiffen the joint and alter my gait." The long coat inverted, revealing a dark blue jacket that didn't match with the the long, dirty tails. Doug's tongue moved around his mouth and he spat out two cheek inserts, his face leaning up considerably. A chunk of plastic felt odd in his hand, and he looked down, remembering the blow Furia had leveled on him. "Yes, I'll have to replace that."
The girl smirked and continued to smoke while Doug shouldered the jacket. He lifted his feet, pulling an insert out of a shoe and further adjusting something in the other. A small case appeared from the jacket, producing a small white cloth that cleaned his face and neck of the fake grime, then he peeled away the scar and rolled it up. Doug continued to adjust and touch up minor details, and Furia grew more and more impatient as the biggest flaw of all remained untouched.
"You're not just going to leave that fucking skirt hanging back there are you?" The comment came out in a haze of tabac and Doug coughed theatrically, waving it away. The smoke cleared, revealing a beaming smile, marred somewhat by the blood still pooling in his mouth.
"Of course not. Observe." Doug reached down and tugged the tails apart, revealing them to be two separate pieces of fabric attached to the upper body of the coat. They slid neatly up into the shoulders of the now-jacket, remaining concealed and subtly changing the profile of the back and shoulders. He then turned to look at her, eyes examining. "Now, for you." Furia glared back, glancing briefly at the swelling bruise on his cheek. "No, no, nothing serious... we just have to cover up that hair."
The hat came off and Furia was barely surprised when it too inverted into a different article, a dark green knitted skullcap. The wide brim folded neatly underneath the hem, and Doug handed it to Furia.
"What, you expect me to come with you?" Furia hissed as she exhaled, then drew the lho-stick almost down to the filter. Doug didn't respond, just looked directly at her for a long moment. "What the fuck are you doing, anyway? Are you a wannabe Arbites?"
"No, Miss Angron, simply a concerned citizen possessed of an... inquisitive nature. Now, if you would, we have a dealer to catch up with." Doug continued to stare at her, completely relaxed.
Furia thought about chasing down the dealer and felt the adrenaline begin to return. She snatched up the cap and tugged it on, "Alright, fine."
The hat fit snugly, but a few tufts of red hair sticking out popped visually, contrasted by the green material. Doug's hands moved quickly and effortlessly, tucking the stray hairs away and pulling it tight. Furia felt unfamiliar heat in her cheeks as his hand grazed her face, then another kind entirely as fingers plucked the still smoldering stub from her lips neatly. Doug put the shrunken stick in his own mouth, then quickly offered another, which Furia lit herself and drew from slowly. Her nerves had settled, as settled as they could be, and she let the rush of nicat linger in her lungs. The near-meditative session was interrupted when a leather jacket flopped into her folded arms and Doug pushed past her, going further into the alley as the blue jacket slipped over his shoulders.
A few blocks later Furia shrugged unconsciously in the leather jacket, too aware of the fact that she was trying to look inconspicuous. "Where are we going?" Her eyes darted around, away from the dealer, as if looking for someone, anyone on the lookout for her.
"Please, Furia, calm down. There's no one looking for us." They ducked into another dark alley, losing sight of the man.
"What do you mean 'no one's looking for us'?" Furia's voice dropped and flattened, mocking. "Why the fuck are we all disguised if no one's looking for us?"
Doug loped casually back out into the street, a slight snag in his step from the folded insert sitting in his right shoe. The lho stub drooped from his lips, teetering on the verge of falling out. "The disguises are so no one remembers us, Miss Angron. No one has a reason to look for us." He turned, shrugging with a grin, hands pointed loosely at his shoulders. "Or at least me."
Furia rolled her eyes. "So, where's the fuckin' dealer, huh?" She walked up and blew smoke into his face. "Didja lose him?" Doug suddenly ducked into a side alley, grabbing Furia's hand when she paused and pulling her low.
"No." He pulled back behind the building's corner as the dealer appeared, weaselly and pale, and snapped his head around, checking for shadows. He paused for a few seconds, and seeing nothing continued deeper into the squalor. Furia felt something warm on her hand and realized Doug had been holding it for the last twenty seconds.
"Hands off, fucker!" He sprawled into the street from her light kick, then stood and dusted himself off.
At least she's holding back now. Doug stooped and picked up the wet paper roll, looked it over then let out a loud Eh! with a tilt of his head and stuck it in his mouth.
"Eugh, that's nasty."
"Of course it is, Furia." Doug muttered around greasy paper, striking up a match. "I am disgusting. I'm a lowerhive ganger, I'll take what I can get." The match finally lit the stick again, and it smoldered wetly in his mouth. "Now, let's not disappoint Mr. Winhus. He'll be expecting a visitor."
Winhus ducked into the shabby apartment building. The borders of the underhive were cheap, he didn't need ID to do anything and could get whatever he needed. Buildings're disgusting. Winhus slipped and twitched over the wet floors, flinching at each door as if he expected a boot or stub to meet him at the junction. He trudged up several floors, then across, stepping over a sleeping bum, a skater. Been here every night for three fuckin' days. Winhus gave the man a kick, then went up several more floors, then down, then across, up, down, across, over and over. When he finally arrived at his dingy apartment door Winhus was gasping for breath, and none too happy to see Agissa waiting. The Patrolman stood calmly, longcoat poorly concealing his bulky carapace armor. Why's he always gotta wear that, he knows I ain't gonna try nothin'.
"Agissa!" The sallow-faced man broke into a broad grin as he approached, hand outstretched. Agissa simply dropped his lho-stick and ground it into the moist, dirty floor.
"I'm not here to play buddy-buddy. Where're the creds?" Agissa all but spit his contempt out, deciding instead to let the lingering low-grade tabac swim about his mouth a little longer. Winhus let his smile drop into a sneer as he moved to open the door. Another stern look from the Patrolman blasted the grimace off his face, and Winhus' voice quavered slightly.
"I-In here, like usual Ag'ssa." The door finally opened and Agissa gave Winhus a firm push, nearly sending him to the floor. "Bastard." Winhus felt the cold glare on his back and scrambled into the other room. "N-not you, Agissa. My boss." He dug through the dresser drawers, throwing aside moldy socks and underwear before finally finding his stash of payoff credits. The dealer thought about leaving a couple behind, but he'd tried that before. Winhus' hand unconsciously went to his knee, to how he got his distinctive hitched lope. He turned, creds in hand, and passed the bundle to the Patrolman. Agissa took them and counted, very slowly and deliberately, then eyed Winhus as he put them away.
"Looks like you get to keep that other knee, Whine-us." Agissa smiled harshly and slammed the door open, then took off at an easy stride down the hall. The skating bum stumbled down the steps, into the Patrolman's path and Winhus let out a crowing laugh as Agissa thumped him to the ground, then made for the stairs. The cackle turned into a wheezing cough, then Winhus grabbed his door and pulled it shut.
Winhus started as an arm jammed into the door at the last second, pulling his knife reflexively. He made to cut the arm, then stopped when he saw the grimy nails and scarred fingers. It was all rough, but obviously feminine. And I like a rough trick. Winhus grinned to himself and let the trick open his door, only to see the bum standing next to her. He dropped the rags he'd been in several times in the past three days, revealing a dark brown longcoat, then briefly flashed a badge.
"I-I already puh-puh-paid off Agissa!" Winhus stumbled back, throat quivering, and fell to the floor.
"And we ain't Agissa." The girl stepped forward. She was wearing a green skullcap, pleated skirt and a leather jacket, long legs bared. Her voice was iron hard and she clenched her hands like a practiced cage fighter. Winhus took one look at the scars on her face, shifting as she let a slow, evil grin come over her compelling features, and began rubbing his arm compulsively.
The door closed quietly.
Winhus thrashed in his bindings, but only for a few seconds. His weak attempts at escape didn't loosen anything, and the dealer quickly surrendered to his plight. The girl was was rummaging through his kitchen, cursing loudly at his lack of any real food. A pack of soylens came screaming into the living room, nearly scaring Winhus back into a stupor.
“Kak! Don't you have anything besides fuckin' soylens!” A drawer crashed to the ground, then a cabinet opened and more soylens spilled out. The man, the Arbites, simply leaned against the opposite wall and smiled.
“Perhaps if you tell me what I need to know, Winhus, I can feed my companion before she becomes any more aggravated.”
“Raah!” The refrigerator tipped over with an almighty crash and Furia stomped back into the living room, anger incarnate.
“I don't know how it happened, I swear!”
“What're you talking about, anyway?” Furia began digging through her bag, looking for a pack of lho sticks that wasn't there. She turned and eyed Doug expectantly.
“Perhaps you should vent your frustration on our friend here, as he seems reluctant to be honest with me.” He leaned forward, smiling, and produced a small brown envelope. “See for yourself, my dear lady.”
Furia huffed at the honorific, but after a moment curiosity got the better of her and she snatched the package from his hand. A scarred finger simply tore apart the tiny, thin metal latch, and pulled out the sheaf of photographs. At first she glanced through them quickly. But, as she realized what she was looking at, Furia's pace and breathing slowed. Doug leaned back against the wall once more, smile widening. She grimaced, then sneered, then went farther. Winhus looked back and forth between the Arbites' satisfied smile and the girl, her face blackening with outrage. Not simple anger, but something deeper, mingled with true disgust and hatred.
“Is this what I think it is?” Her lips peeled apart and the words ripped through the air.
“Unfortunately so. That child purchased a hit of slide from our friend here.” Doug let a hand fall casually forward, as if he was introducing the two for the first time. It felt like a death sentencing to Winhus. “It was uncut, far too much for the poor boy's system to handle. The caused a tremendous fluid pressure differential between his circulatory system and the surrounding tissue; you can see the hard veins, the bruising, the ruptured eye. I'm sure he had horrific damage to his kidneys and bladder, judging by the color of his urine. Terrible.”
Furia turned a shaking eye on the dealer and he paled immediately. “Nonono, it wasn't me!” He started to cry, to bawl like a child. “I didn't know it was uncut I was just doin' what Garlan said, I swear! I swear! I swear! I swear!”
She began to advance, uncaring, but Doug stopped her with a light hand on her shoulder. She rounded on him, only to find a pack of lho sticks waiting. “I believe him. Still, he was selling slide to schoolchildren, and we can't have that.” He turned to the dealer. “You can start by telling me how to contact your friend, Garlan.”
It was Furia's turn to lean against the wall and smile, pulling hard on the tabac as Doug approached Winhus, wearing an ominous grin.
"Yeah, 'please wait right here Furia, I'll return in a moment.' Asshole." Furia rubbed her arms through the leather jacket, less for warmth than for comfort. Gotta get mine back from fuckin' Coby. Asshole. A low rumble sounded, followed by muffled shouting, and an incredibly old promethium burner pulled into the alley. Its exhaust was dark with oil, and the body was black, though by intent or just years in the hive without washing, she couldn't tell.
"Please, Miss Angron, I believe we'll have company in a few moments." Furia stepped forward, taking a moment to rub the old roof, then opened the surprisingly heavy door. The car rocked when she slammed it shut, and Doug wasted no time in cutting a complicated path away from the building, then the block.
"What, you steal this bucket?" Furia snorted, then became sullen. She hated that snort.
"In a manner of speaking, yes." She eyeballed the grinning Doug. "Come now, 'rob the robbers' and so forth. It was a chop shop. Although I believe they were attempting to restore this particular vehicle." Doug turned a few more times and a dive came into view. Called Fulton's, it had window open to the street, menu plastered inside for the world to see. He hopped out, leaving the chugging engine to idle, and after a few minutes he returned with a brown bag, bottom dark with grease. Furia snatched it up the moment it touched the console: a grox burger appeared and half-vanished into her gorge, followed by a handful of fries.
"Charming." Doug smiled and kicked the car into reverse, feet levering off the accelerator and onto the clutch to engage the manual transmission, then shifted into gear and took off, driving nowhere in particular for the next three hours. Furia looked around the vehicle, recognizing it as one of the old model musclecars, the design originating from far before the Crusade.
Aircars–and the newer gravcars, since miniaturized gravitic inciters began to replace vectored repulsor engines–were better for the environment and far outperformed the older models in nearly every way. Still, many liked the sleek lines and stirring rumble of the old promethium combustion engine cars. Furia and Hana counted themselves among this number, as did quite a few nobles and rogue traders, and a small number of the less fortunate.
But this wasn't a pleasure car, or a weekend burn-racing vehicle. The headliner had long ago peeled away, exposing a beige foam that scraped free at the slightest touch, turning into a cloud of itchy fiber-dust. The dash was cracked and only the tachometer gauge seemed to work; the steering wheel was peeled, flaking away; the horn button was fractured and faded, a faint swoop and dash the only mark of whatever logo had once occupied the space. Still, it moved, and though the car didn't have a holo player it did have an audio system, a dash-mounted radio. Doug, smoothly working the accelerator and clutch, shifted back into gear as they pulled away from the intersection. The shabby school that had caught Furia's eye earlier glided mournfully by, just as desolate as before. She finished the grox burger, greasy and cold, and leaned back, satisfied, listening to the radio. The song playing now was too soft for her taste, too spiritual. Instruments aren't half bad, though.
The guitar spooled up into complex patterns at a decent speed after the cheery chorus. Furia took another drag, listening to the tune as the guitar and keyboard took turns playing with the same riff, back and forth, up and down. The refrain started again, the drums sounding almost like clapping hands, then it all dropped back into the verse. "Boatissotvuh? The fuck is that?"
Doug replied with a sly grin, "I don't think you'd be interested if you knew, Furia."
The guitar picked up once more, the song crescendoing with fast tremolo picking. The other instruments sped up to match for a time, and then they all stopped at once.
"Hey listener, you're listening to to KT107.79, Archeorock Classics! Keep. Listening."
The servitor's voice droned with a singularly disturbing cheer, somehow reminding Furia that underneath the servos and cogitators there was a living, breathing person. Or what's left of one. The train of thought quickly fled from the annoying squelch of the next song. Furia fiddled with the knob, trying to find something better, but it spun uselessly, long broken. She slammed a fist into the dash and the radio simply sagged, like a punching bag losing filler, too worn and tired to resist. The song blared on and she felt the irritation flare back up. Furia's hand shot down to the console and snatched up the lho box, pulling out another stick and lighting it up.
"Who listens to this shit." The tone and delivery of the phrase put it solidly in the category of statement, but Doug replied anyway.
"You're just not..." His head rolled slightly, eyes staring into the distance, "...listening correctly."
Furia glared at Doug with one eye, temple throbbing. The look told him that, if the car were to flip or smash into something, he'd certainly be injured, and she'd be fine.
"How the fuck do you 'listen' wrong, what does that even mean?"
Furia sucked down the poor quality tabac, flicked the withered husk out the window and reached for another. Instead her hand lit on Doug's. She felt a quickening of her blood, her pulse just elevating, before his hand rolled over, revealing the desired lho-stick. She took it and another match flared up, smoke leaking out the cracked window.
"Listen to the drums, Miss Angron. Ignore everything else."
Furia happily tuned out the whine of the other instruments and the singer, listening to the slow but lively cadence of the snare and hi-hat, punctuated by the heavy thrum of the big bass drum. Her pulse slowed back down, and the vein in her neck even let up a little.
Doug's voice came again, soft and controlled. "Good, now the bass. Not the bass drum, but the five-string."
The low, relaxed sound of the bass guitar seemed to spread out over the percussion, filling up space, giving the song body. Furia felt her head begin to nod along a bit, foot tapping in rhythm, before the vocals started back up and shook her out of it.
Pick up the pieces!
"Fuck that." Furia hit the radio again, harder, and the sound fizzled out. Her hand went back to the door handle, thumb bracing to lever it open. She felt the itch return, the need for adrenaline, for anything to drown out the returning feelings. A vox buzzed and Doug lifted the one he'd taken from Winhus to his ear. At the same time his other hand plucked the lho pack from the console. A harsh voice rumbled out of the vox, throwing clipped words. To any normal human it would've been a dull chatter, but a Progenitor could hear it all plain as day. Furia wasn't paying attention to the voice, though, she was distracted by something else. Without any hands on the steering wheel the car was starting to veer off to the left, into the oncoming lane. Doug didn't brake or slow down, instead listening intently to the man on the vox while he calmly offered a lho stick to Furia. An aircar appeared from around the block ahead and continued on its path, apparently oblivious to the old musclecar crowding into its lane.
“What the fuck're you doing there's a-” The lho stick quivered again and Furia finally took it, even as adrenaline from the oncoming collision helped tamp down the itch.
The long and complex invective on the vox, punctuated by “Skating- 'Lens-eating- Dumbshit motherfucker!” wound down, and the voice finally asked a question.
"Where are you?"
Doug's throat shook and jumped as he imitated Winhus' quavering peal. "I'm-uh, I'm-I'mI'mI'm by the-the-the school."
"Why aren't you at the fuckin' corner of Septer and Carmine? You stay in your fuckin' territory if you want to keep workin' for me, want to keep the Slide comin'. You hear me?"
"Ye-ye-ye-yes, I just," Doug exhaled with a hearty chuff, as if he was coming to a difficult decision, "the Ar-ar-arbites came."
"Yeah, and you paid 'em off like you do every month, 'cuz you're not a moron. Or are ya? Am I gonna have to find another dealer?"
"No, it wasn't Agissa, I puh-paid him off and another came. Lucky I-I-I didn't have any of the stuh-stuff there at the time." Doug began to hyperventilate, just slightly.
"What, you find a hiding spot or you use it all yourself already?" Annoyance chased after anger, the man's voice almost boiling through the old earpiece.
"Nuh-no, I sold it all, I need more."
The low breathing of the dealer grew louder, heavier. "You expect me to believe that shit? You can barely get the fucking skaters to buy from you."
"I ran into a, uh, a noble." Doug glanced over at Furia, briefly looking over her face and arms, "Real scarred up, dyed hair, black sheep of the family. Lotta money." He looked down at the nearly empty box of lho-sticks. "Cleh-cleaned me out." Doug's tone changed slightly and the quivering almost disappeared, the literal truth of the words masking the context.
The dealer paused, taken aback by the honesty in his voice, "Good. Good. He gonna be a repeat customer?"
"I duh-don't think I'll have to wait long," Doug looked back at the Lady Primarch and winked, "before I 'see' her again."
High above, Arthur Palucs and Miranda Magnus settled into their chairs at Delpeuch and he smiled to himself. No one gets seats at Delpeuch, I was lucky. The restaurant was one of the more exclusive in Startseite, and even his well-to-do family made a point of eating here only on special occasions. Arthur smiled wider as Miranda ordered, hair swaying gently in an unseen breeze.
"Just a water... and the kehpe mushrooms with gallus du Barry, please." Miranda smiled and Arthur's face went slack. He barely noticed the waiter turning to ask him next.
"And you, sir?" Arthur composed himself and acted nonchalant, calmly looking over the menu. After a few moments he realized he had no idea what any of it was, he'd never ordered for himself. Play it smooth, Castor. He inhaled, put a hand to his jaw, then bobbed his head up in sudden revelation. "You know, I'll just have what she's having, water and all."
"Very good, sir." The waiter took their menus and departed, then brought back a pitcher of ice water.
"So, what was it?" Miranda leaned forward just a bit, the perfect image of her knowing grin ruined only by the headband, with its creepy, color changing eye. He could swear that eye bulged a little bit as she looked to the side, distracted by the waiter momentarily.
Why does she wear that, anyway? Arthur shuddered as he remembered a Navigator he'd half seen once, long ago, but shook it off when she turned back to him, still smiling.
"It was 'On the Movement of the Unseen Sphere' in, uh..." His mind blanked momentarily as the lurid glyph appeared in his mind, threatening to swallow him whole. "..well, I guess the language didn't have a name."
Miranda laughed it off, nerves showing through regardless of her effort. I'm gonna kill you dad.
"Well, it's okay, you made it through."
Arthur smiled winningly. "It was worth it, nosebleed and all."
"O'course, Garlan, I'll send her right over." Doug nodded, taking down the murmured instructions, then hung up.
"So, that's why you wanted me to come along? Make it easier to lie?"
"Of course not, Furia. I couldn't depend on you for that. I didn't even know you were here until I saw you standing by the school." Doug smiled. "I must say, I wasn't expecting you to actually follow me." Furia turned, eyes opening just a little farther than necessary. "Or were you following me?"
"What, you gonna give me the third degree?" The words were partially muffled by another draw from the lho-stick, pinched between her lips, "You don't know me, don't know what I've been through." Her hand slid up to the door's handle, thumb flicking the lock over.
"No, I suppose I don't." Doug looked at her evenly. His eyes were examining her, but without judging. "Do you know Selphy?"
"Icy's little toady? Yeah, I've seen her around. Always picking away at that little adjut, trading gossip. Not to mention that fuckin' hair." Furia exhaled forcefully, visibly exasperated, and fingered the door handle. I could just tuck and roll out of here, away from this fucker.
"Yes. She had quite the Slide problem at one point.".
"Bullshit. How would you know that? You've only been here a few weeks at the most."
"Seven months, actually, I didn't have a junior commencement."
"Still, seven months. I would've heard about something like that in the past seven months. Especially with The Twins and Isis, everyone would've known. And then Isis woulda started a goddamn crusade against 'Drugs in thuh Skool!'" Furia waved her arms loosely and heard Doug snort, a grin creeping onto his face.
"Yes, I imagine." Doug turned, his face mild and smiling. "But no, this was longer, about three years ago. Maybe she picked up the habit during her first weeks of school at Imperator High? She's from a noble house. Talbot, I believe, the casino owners. Still, possession of slide in the Upper Hive stays on one's record for quite some time."
"Bullshit." Furia finished the lho stick and started another, more slowly. She was slightly disturbed by how certain he seemed, how casual about telling her. Furia's hand settled onto her lap and her pulse slowed back down a little. Doug tugged something out of his ear, a small earplug, it was followed by another from the other ear and they disappeared into the blue jacket. He slowed, then sped up, then slowed again. Furia's ears perked up.
"Do you hear that?"
"Yeah, like a whining...grinding...squeal."
"Yes." He repeated the action, drawing strange looks from the few pedestrians around. "How many do you hear?"
"Sounds like... three." Furia looked frankly, normally at him for the first time since they bumped into each other.
"As I feared, terrible." Doug turned, then turned again, going back the general direction they came from. "A word of advice, Furia. If you should decide to steal and modify antique vehicles." He looked sidelong at her, smirking. "Promise me you will not overtorque the bearings on your stolen crankshaft. Unconscionable."
Doug floored it and the sudden jerk made Furia's heart jump. Almost immediately a plume of white vapor erupted from underneath the hood, accompanying the low whistle of overpressure shrieking from the radiator cap. "And do put on your seat belt."
Furia braced herself on the A pillar and dash, not trusting the worn old safety apparatus, then smiled as her adrenaline picked up again and the itch faded away. The car whipped around a corner, all steam and squealing, tires screaming across the rough road. It didn't take long for the Arbites to appear behind them, lights flashing, vocal warnings ringing out. Furia pulled the green cap on once more, tucking stray bits of hair back in. Her well-practiced single finger salute sailed freely out the window along with a dazzling smile.
The chase, thankfully, wasn't very long, the car straining more and more as it lost overheated coolant. They rounded the corner, then pulled in front of the very building Doug had picked Furia up by hours ago. The Arbites were catching up fast, only held back by the cloud streaming proud and high behind them. Another cloth appeared from Doug's jacket, darting quickly over various surfaces, including the knob Furia had fiddled with earlier, followed by a bottle of clear, foul-smelling liquid, spraying here and there.
"We should depart, Miss Angron. Ladies first."
Bundling her hands in the leather jacket's sleeves, Furia pulled the handle and opened the door. She gave the old musclecar an affectionate pat before vaulting over the boiling hot hood and barrelling through the building's entrance. A man inside stood at the sound, arc flash hood pulling up to reveal confused eyes. A glowing dot emerged from behind the car he was cutting up and flared as he indulged his own vices.
"The fuck're you doin' 'ere?" His words slurred slightly around the quivering lho-stick.
Furia felt a presence behind her and turned to see Doug breezing in, the bottle and cloth once again vanishing into his blue jacket. He picked through the remains of the shattered door, Arbites lights visible in the mirrors of the car they'd left outside. The chopper's eyes went wide with recognition.
"You!" He ducked back down behind the car, metal clanging as he fumbled for something.
Furia began to move again, adrenaline kicking in as she anticipated the confrontation. A hand alit gently on her shoulder, an almost subvocal suggestion following.
"Let's leave them to the Arbites."
Doug pulled her low once more, and a second later stub rounds began pinging and clanking around the shop above their heads. They crept quietly around to the back, Furia chucking wrenches, bars, pipes and anything else she could get her hands on at the low counter by the door, drawing the man's attention away. The alley came a few seconds later and they quickly made their way towards a side street. A figure flashed by and Doug turned, pulling Furia's cap off and settling it onto his head. A hand settled on her waist, the other gently clasping her neck, thumb under her jaw. His face drew dangerously near, and she felt a sudden urge to close the gap. The figure returned, interrupting the moment, laspistol drawn and readied.
"Halt, in the name of the Emperor!" Furia turned, throwing around her bloodred hair, her expression far more terrifying than any municipal-grade laspistol could hope to match.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" Furia twisted her armband around, revealing the World Eaters' device once more. The gun dropped instantly, and the Patrolman fell back a step as if he'd been slapped in the face.
"My-my Lady." He bowed his head, and Furia couldn't help but smile at the change in his attitude, "We were following a- there was a- we're on official Arbites business here!" He paused, then added. "M'am, I need you to leave."
Furia sighed theatrically, suppressed anger flowing out in the act. The man quailed visibly, as if he could see it wending its way through the air, seeking him out. "Fine. We were looking for some more privacy anyway." She slapped Doug's surprisingly firm rear and he cracked a dopey smile.
"Wimmen, euh? Cain't live wit' 'em, cain't live wit'out 'em, euh? Euh?" Doug laughed, letting his top lip ride up to reveal a pair of enormous buck teeth Furia could swear he didn't have a second ago. She sniggered uncontrollably.
"O-of course." The patrolman replied, now even more confused. Furia pulled Doug bodily, almost jerking his arm out of its socket, and they strode past the man.
Doug slowed her as they drew away, and looked back. "I trust we can count on y'all not ta tell anywon what ya saw back here, right?" He guffawed again, buckteeth looking obscenely fake to Furia. She rolled her eyes, inadvertently enhancing the effect of his disguise, "I hate seein' Fiat muhself."
The officer somehow paled further, eyes glazed, body shaking and hands bucking wildly. After a moment he realized they were still staring, and Doug visibly licked his monstrous incisors. The action seemed to rouse the officer.
He nodded, swallowing heavily, and they departed. "Thankee kindleh!"
Doug clamped a hand on the sliver of flesh visible on Furia's hip, loping off beside her with a hunched gait. She shot him a withering glare, but he simply beamed, buck teeth wiggling, and she couldn't help but laugh again.
"Fiat only applies to the press..."
"An' you 'spect a Patrolman to know that." Doug hee-hawed again. “It's a good thing yer cute!”
Furia looked down at the hand on her hip, laughing. "You're still gonna pay for that."
"So how long has your mom been trying to quit?" Miranda finished talking, then lifted another piece of tender poultry from her gallus, nervously eyeing the legs of the small bird.
It's good, but do they really have to leave the feet on?
"Well, she's tried a few times over the past couple years now. This is the fourth time, cold turkey, and it's been three weeks." Arthur tore into his fowl with a little more verve, uncaring of the feet.
Damn, this is better than I thought it'd be.
"Well, from what I saw," Miranda flicked out her fingers, as if illustrating a mirage, "she looks good. You guys are really supporting her." She smiled.
This is going perfectly, Miranda, just keep it up.
Arthur smiled back, swallowed a mouthful of chicken and mushrooms. "That's awesome. I mean," He looked up, tongue working feverishly at a speck of cheese stuck in his front teeth. Miranda giggled. "-we're really hoping she makes it this time. It's cool that you can, you know, see it working, though. That's awesome."
Miranda beamed, and Arthur smiled back reflexively, revealing the clod of gooey cheese.
Furia was smoking again. "Wasn't that... too much? The teeth and accent?" She was still unsure where Doug pulled the second pack of lhos from, but didn't care as long as she had them.
Eh, doesn't matter. Fucker. Furia thought about the fake buck teeth again and snickered around the smoke.
"The simplest effective disguises, Furia," Doug said, partially covering up the tender reddening, a back-hand shaped swell on his face, "give the observer a single, distinctive feature to focus on."
He patted a random spot on the blue jacket. None of the lines or bulge of a pocket were visible, but this was apparently where he kept his cosmetic occlusions. “I think it's about time we paid a visit to this Garlan fellow. I believe I where we can find him, but getting into his apartment will be another matter.”
“Whatever it takes. But I get first shot at the bastard who killed that kid.”
Doug smiled and finished dabbing at the mark, changing the color of his face entirely and leaving a distinctive crescent-shaped red mark going down his left cheek. He then turned to Furia, eyes gleaming. "Good, now for you."
Some fifteen minutes later Garlan opened the door, revealing a sickly soon-to-be prostitute. She was tall, as tall as he was, and slim. Her eyes were a strikingly pale but listless blue. She had full, dry lips and scars, scars everywhere. She wavered unsteadily in place, knitted green skullcap bobbing gently, her pleated skirt swaying likewise over long, almost stilt-like legs. She opened her mouth, as if to talk, and a pair of empty fingers pressed themselves to her lips. She stopped, looked down and air hissed out of her open mouth as she realized there was no lho-stick there. Still, the act revealed a full set of almost perfect teeth and Garlan smiled lewdly.
Still got 'er teeth. A fresh skater. He pulled her inside and pushed her to the couch. She followed along with his demands limply, and he wondered if she would even try to stop him without the slide. Nah, be easier to get her a hit, then get my fill.
Garlan moved through the apartment, expanded by simply removing walls and infrastructure to open up neighboring flats. A crudely fastened door was opened after four rooms, revealing a view from the second story to the street below as well as a half-dozen men in dirty clothes.
"She followed?" The man nearest the window shook his head, while another grinned, looking behind Garlan.
He leered at Furia, stumbling into the room, and whistled loudly. "What've we got here? She don' wanna wait." Garlan sneered at the man, then turned to the drawn, but not too drawn looking young woman and smiled again. "You wait your turn, Beras." She looked up, just a hint of realization dawning tearily in her eyes, and his lurid grin only widened. Yeah, I'll make her earn the Slide, no freebies.
A light knock rang out from the window, and Garlan turned to see nothing. A scuff sounded from the floor behind him, and the dealer turned back just in time to see a long leg plow into his chest under fierce eyes.
Doug waited outside, counting to five minutes as they'd agreed. I have to say, this has turned out to be an excellent night. He'd panicked at first, seeing Furia alone, cold and scratching her arm in Slide territory. Despite his usual preparedness Doug was completely taken aback by her sudden appearance. He'd drawn Furia's attention as subtly as possible, but didn't have any idea what to do after getting it. But I couldn't just leave her alone out here. Bringing her along had turned out surprisingly well for a spur of the moment idea, taking much of the boredom out of the night's dreary reconnaissance work. Yes, this was a good idea. Doug decided to make his way into the alley at four and a half minutes instead of the agreed upon five. I don't believe Furia's the patient sort. He looked up at the lowest cornice, set just under the second story of the old gothic structure.
The blue jacket opened briefly and a soft white ball, looking like a sock wrapped in plastic, emerged, followed by a pair of black rubber rolls. The rolls were unfurled and stretched over the outer soles and sides of his shoes. Then the sock was taken out of the plas, slapped and rolled between Doug's hands in a small cloud of white powder and replaced in the sleeve to disappear again. He stepped up to the wall and reached high. The chalked fingers of his left hand grabbed onto a sloping protrusion, an unevenness in the ancient stone facade, and he lifted, his other hand pushing down, the chalky palm easily gripping the rough surface.
Doug cranked a leg up, then cocked his foot, pushing the now sticky, rubber-soled outer edge into a bare depression a meter up. His right hand found a vertical edge, and he pressed his palm flat against it, thumb up, fingers curling powerfully around the lip. Doug levered himself away from the side pull, leaning left to bear down on the sticky heel and toe box, pulling into the edge to counterbalance the force of his foot. He reached up high again, easily finding the edge of the cornice from his new height. The fingers of his left hand crimped onto it, then the other hand followed suit. The feet came next, adhesive rand making grip easy to find, and soon Doug was creeping carefully around the building on the decrepit cornice.
He waited near the window for a few seconds, then heard murmurs and a door opening. A salacious whistle rang out, and Doug allowed himself a small smile before he rapped on the cracked plas window.
Garlan nearly flew out the window after the kick, the plas giving way gladly to his momentous bulk. The other men, Beras included, pulled knives or rods and stood, glowering at Furia menacingly. She smiled as Doug stepped gingerly over the unconscious Garlan. The crack of broken plas under his foot alerted Beras to the presence, but only in enough time to take the hit. Thumbed tucked up to his pinkie, Doug slammed the ridge of his hand into the man's temple, the base forefinger joint sinking almost perfectly into tender flesh. Beras dropped instantly, knife clattering to the floor. The others paused momentarily before Furia's palm slammed into the back of one's head and the sole of her boot into another's chest. He sprawled into a couch, gasping for breath as it tumbled over
Doug decided to simply distract the remaining men while Furia wound up for a pair of kidney strikes on the first. The second brandished his knife at her, the larger threat. In response, Doug grabbed his wrist and thumb joint, and turned the appendage sharply. He only had moment to cry out in pain before Furia's fist collided with his temporomandibular joint, his dislocated jaw wobbling loosely as he collapsed. The remaining man decided to run, but didn't make it far before he found a sticky foot in the crook of his knee and a hand wrapped in the upper part of his shirt. A terrible weight rode him into the ground, elbow pressing his head down, and the world flashed into painful blackness.
"That was fuckin' sweet." Furia walked over to the third man she'd dropped, still gasping on the overturned couch, and dropped a single solid punch into his forehead, knocking him out fully. Her hands passed over her eyes. "Those fuckin' contacts itch like hell, though."
"Yes, I'd like to report a domestic disturbance." Doug was talking very comfortably into the vox as he took the contacts and pocketed them in their case. "Yes, violence. It sounds like a dreadful fight occurred." He stopped, looked at his chrono and tapped his foot impatiently.
When did he get a watch? Doug pulled out the cloth and bottle from earlier and passed them to Furia, gesturing widely at the fallen, bruised and battered bodies. She got to work reluctantly, spraying protam onto the cloth and wiping down points where flesh made contact. She began to go faster as she realized what she was doing, removing evidence. Furia paused, then got the window too and turned to see Doug nodding approvingly.
"Of course, I'll wait Detective... Thar, was it? Thank you." The vox disappeared into his blue jacket, followed by the bottle. "Come, Furia, we have no more business here."
"Where are we going?" Furia's hand played idly at the lho pack in the jacket's left pocket, but instead she savored the rush from the fight a little longer.
"Anywhere." Doug opened the door and bowed slightly, then followed Furia out, only pausing to wipe down the Arbites badge he'd taken from Patrolman Agissa. He tossed it into the apartment, then wiped the door's knobs and left.
Arthur walked Miranda slowly up to her front door, wanting to savor this moment: her smell, the dress, her hair, everything. "So, you worried about Monday? I can never tell when Mr. Bile's going to throw out a pop quiz."
"Don't worry about it, Castor. I don't think he's got anything planned." Miranda leaned just slightly into Arthur, enjoying his warmth in the ever colder air.
"Well, I guess, ya know, here we are." He stopped short, let her slowly pull away and turn towards him.
"Castor..." She leaned in, then stopped and turned around, stepping up to the stoop. "Can you wait here, just for a minute?"
"Sure, babe, no problem." Arthur smiled happily, anticipating a good night kiss and plans for next weekend.
You nailed it.
He didn't think much of it when she gently undid that creepy headband and turned to face him again, holding it against her forehead.
Doug stood back from his own apartment door, in hab block 127. "Please, Furia, come in." He looked slightly uncomfortable. "But, first."
He laid his hand out, palm up in front of her face, looking directly at the lho-stick. Furia drew down the remaining tabac in a single enormous drag, then blew it out slowly and spat the stub into his fingers. Doug beckoned her in with a slight bow, coughing sporadically.
"This your place?" The room was tiny, a single combination kitchen-living-bedroom with an adjoining bathroom, small even for a Hive apartment. "It's... uh, nice. I guess?"
Doug closed the door smoothly behind them. "Yes, it is rather cozy."
The kitchen had a sink, a small refrigerator and a single cabinet. There was no stove, but a triwave oven, with a clear, globe-shaped cooking chamber, sat on the cramped counter a meter away from a small monitor and runeslate, both attached to a computer humming quietly on the floor. At the other end of the kitchenette sat a very large pot, smelling strongly of spiced meat and something familiar, savory, something Furia hadn't smelled in a long time. Doug stepped over to the pot and lifted the lid with a small towel, revealing a thick, red mixture inside, then set it back down. She glanced underneath the tremendous pot to see it supported by a pitifully small yellow box, an overhanging white plate just visible between the two.
"Please, have a seat." Doug gestured broadly behind himself as he began to pull things from drawers and cabinets with swift, efficient movements.
Furia turned and was nearly overcome by bewilderment. There was no table or chairs. There was a bed with remarkably sharp corners tucked into the corner and a single cardboard box the exact same height as the short bed sitting square in the middle of the apartment. Doug walked by and laid a thin sheet over the box, and Furia sprawled ungainly onto the floor next to it, tossing her jacket aside. A small wooden container tucked behind the monitor slid out, and a piece of long, crusty bread was pulled from within.
Doug opened the high cabinet and pulled out a lengthy, square-bladed knife with inclined grooves and serrations. He sawed easily through the bread lengthwise, then cut it in half horizontally. Two of the chunks went into the triwave oven and it began to hum along as well, the bread slowly crisping. Doug reached back into the cabinet and produced a tall, thin ladle. The pot opened again, and the smell came with it, stronger.
Furia inhaled deeply. "What is that?"
Doug stirred the pot, then pulled a folded white towel out of a small drawer, tapped the ladle clean and set it down on the partially unfolded cloth. "Loseyn noodles, made from wheat, in a tomato sauce with minced auroch, cheese, pressed garlic, diced onion, chile powder, pepper and, of course, salt." He left the lid ajar on the pot and the rich mixture of scents filled the small apartment quickly, letting it live up to his earlier claim of coziness. Furia pulled out a lho-stick, slipped it between her lips.
"Where the hell'd you get auroch around here?" She made to light it, but looked up to see Doug, eyebrows raised, staring at her very candidly.
After about five seconds Furia began to blush, then remembered. Oh yeah, no smoking.
"Fucker." The unlit lho stick was tucked behind her ear.
"I purchased the meat from a coreworlder named Davin in hab block 113, a stout fellow and capable butcher."
Doug turned back around and opened up the triwave oven with one hand, pulling down a wide plate from the cabinet with the other. The bread slid gingerly onto the plate, with a few waves of his scorched fingers. The refrigerator opened to reveal milk, various juices, vegetables and a few clear plas boxes containing various kinds of leftovers. A brown tub slipped through the air to the counter with a flourish, then the drawer in the bottom of the fridge slid open, disgorging a green plas bag of white cheese. Fingers dipped into the cabinet once more, pulling out a dull knife, and the tub reluctantly surrendered a few slats of butter to the hot bread. The ladle dipped into the pot, stirred again, then a spice container appeared from the other cabinet door, separated from its brethren to sprinkle something off-white over the buttered bread. He adjusted something on the hot plate, then things began to disappear into the cabinets and get cleaned in the sink while the butter melted. The ladle dipped and scooped a few times, and finally a generous helping of the thick concoction dressed the crunchy bread, one piece at a time.
Doug brought the plate over and set it down on the box, then allowed a fair handful of cheese to fall on each piece. He resealed the bag, then turned and removed the ladle once again. Loud crunching and no small amount of slurping sounded behind Doug, and he smiled.
"Mind that you-"
"Fuck! That's hot." Doug's smile only broadened as the eating noises returned, unabated.
Furia wolfed down the first portion, Hell of a lot better than 'rack slop, then started on the other.
Doug turned to sit down, then stopped as he saw the second serving crowd into her sauce-covered chops.
"Ohm, m'bad, whs ths s'posed t'be yers?" Furia flushed with embarrassment and began to pull the food out, but Doug simply smiled wider.
"Please, I consider it a compliment."
The other two chunks of bread entered the clear triwave oven while Furia finished eating. Doug seized the plate and rinsed it off, drying it with a corner of the flour sack towel, then made another course. They ate in comfortable silence and, as soon as she was done with the third piece, Furia excused herself into the small bathroom to clean up. Her hand started to shake, the lack of adrenaline, nicat or anything else bringing the jitters again now that hunger was gone.
What the fuck am I doing here? I don't even know this guy. Cold water splashed onto Furia's face as she thought back over the past week. First goddamn Coby, then dad's gone until Sunday, and then you punch Freya in the face and piss off Hana. No wonder you don't have anyone to talk to.
Another wave of frigid water, and the tap suddenly cut off. Oh, great work Furia, you used up all the water. Just another thing you fucked up this week. She felt the adrenaline start to pick up, the anger, the need for a lho-stick, to scratch that itch on her arm and something to hit. What came next was simply the last straw.
"Furia? Did you-" Doug's voice rang clearly through the door, lilting up at the end with inquiry.
Furia pushed open the door and made to leave the apartment, only to plow directly into Doug, holding up a large jug of water. She tried to push past him, but he put a hand up to stop her, grabbing a bare forearm. An electric current seemed to pass between them, freezing them both in place with some unseen force. Furia went rigid, blood rushing to her cheeks, arteries in her neck throbbing as she turned to look at Doug. His hand remained firmly clasped on her arm and his breathing accelerated just slightly. She shoulder-checked him violently, knocking the full jug of cold water to the floor.
Miranda pulled off her headband, revealing a strange lump in her forehead. Arthur was simply confused at first, Is she a body modder? What is that? The third eye opened then, an unearthly purple, and rolled wetly in its socket, as if stretching after an eons-long rest. It settled on Arthur for a moment, unblinking.
Castor, as his friends and erstwhile girlfriend called him, screamed with bloody horror. He fell backwards into the street, the inhuman sight more terrifying than any he'd ever seen before, made all the worse by the utter normalcy it had shattered. Tears welled up in all three of Miranda's eyes, then increased as the reaction only caused Arthur to scream louder, as if his very soul was being torn asunder. He stood, fell, tried to stand again and finally crawled into a run towards his car. His hands fumbled as he endeavored to unlock the door and start the repulsors, nearly hitting another vehicle in his haste to escape.
Castor shuddered behind the wheel of his aircar as he drove away.
"Holy fuck, that was creepy."
Arthur looked back in the rearview mirror, feeling a hint of regret. But the image of the third eye appeared in his mind again and he accelerated faster, shivering.
Furia pushed Doug onto the low, uncomfortable bed, lips locked together. There was a token resistance and it was no match for her desire and physical strength. Doug began to return the effort in kind, all tongue and hands.
The notion made Furia laugh after all they'd done tonight. Outer clothes shed themselves and their bodies fastened together. It stayed that way for a long time, taste, touch and smell predominating over closed eyes and throat-borne moans.
Doug's hands begin the peel and prod, and Furia cut him off, throwing the bra to the side impatiently and slamming back into him, knocking him against the wall. She saw his eyes roam, his hands circle, felt him respond fully underneath her. He stopped his mouth and focused only on his hands, moving in simple but ever-changing patterns. They never lingered for long anywhere, constantly teasing. They returned to kissing, hands clasped gently around head and waist.
Furia's hands worked down, masking her growing nerves with impetuousness, and Doug started at the sudden touch. His practiced mask of mildness dropped to reveal surprise.
"Hah, look at you, acting like a badass and you're still a virgin."
Doug's hand darted forward, slipping easily down the front of her hiphuggers, and probed gently. Furia gasped suddenly at the unexpected pleasure, her abdominals clenching.
"It seems you have little room to talk, Lady Furia." She flushed abruptly, and let a rush of anger to the fore.
"Shut up." Furia bit his shoulder, hard, leaving a pair of bloody crescents, "And don't call me that, I'm not some spoiled noble. Fucker."
They got back into it, the last garments slipping off. Despite everything Doug was far gentler than she'd been, his hands and mouth going back to familiar patterns, moving synchronously, maintaining a shared rhythm and tempo while their bodies moved more slowly. The first real moan escaped, guttural, primal. No more words were exchanged, no more pretense or artifice, just action, guided by will and want. Furia picked up the pace and Doug countered by increasing the complexity of his movements, now asynchronous. Tongue and mouth and fingers all worked in different rhythms, teasing no longer, fast and forceful. She felt something building inside her, a light tickle mixed with a swell of anticipation.
Doug shuddered, spasmed, and Furia let out a sigh of disappointment and alarm, realizing she didn't have a condom or any kind of birth control. She looked down to see his eyes closed, his face a mask of utter concentration. His thighs and pyramidalis were clenching, tugging the other muscles into tight bunches. They rode the moment out, and suddenly he was moving again, undiminished.
Furia broke the fresh liplock, genuinely surprised, "How the fuck-" Doug cut her off with another kiss, his response rasping around their tongues.
"I studied in a monastery. Meditation and muscle control."
Furia smiled intently and threw herself back into deed, feeling that something build again.
The door opened behind Miranda as she sank to her knees, and Magnus the Red stepped out. Conqueror of a thousand worlds, one of the wisest and most powerful minds in the galaxy, Magnus frowned. He felt helpless, a feeling he didn't like. During his tumultuous childhood on Prospero, and the Great Crusade that followed, Magnus fought many terrible foes.
But he never felt helpless. It was a feeling that had come to him more and more as Miranda, his pride and joy, his everything, grew and flourished. Fatherhood seemed to him far more trying and complex than war, and the many times he had felt helpless, at a loss of knowledge, had humbled him in a way no battle could.
That may have been Father's intention all along.
Still he knew that even at times like this, watching his daughter weep, it was not an undertaking he would willingly relinquish. So Magnus knelt down and took her, impossibly small and fragile, in his arms. He knew many of his brothers would feel anger at what had happened. That, in their pride, they would ignore their daughters to enact punishment. But Magnus was wiser than this. And so he hugged his daughter, the gentleness seeming impossible for his massive frame.
Miranda cried, whimpered and blubbered, making him all the more aware she was still just a girl. A girl whose love and confidence had been abandoned, whose trust had been betrayed.
Some time later Furia smoked slowly, secretly pleased Doug wasn't complaining about the tabac smoke now filtering out through the cracked window. She rolled over to stub it out, a leg resting briefly on the wet spot. The memory sprung to mind, the visceral satisfaction of seeing him too worn out to resist the sensation again. Furia exhaled heavily, the last of the lho drifting serenely from her nostrils. Doug moved in the center of the room, martial forms that didn't seem very useful to Furia.
- "They're meditative, Furia, they allow-"
- "Don't care. You got any more of that bread?"
Doug shook his head with a smile at the thought, then continued with the motions, stretching aching muscles. He hadn't free-climbed in quite a while, and his hands felt particularly strained. He also couldn't deny he felt good right now; not just satisfied, but happy. He remembered seeing Furia scratch her arm, and briefly shuddered at what would've come next if he hadn't bumped into her.
“Why'd you do that?” Smoke drifted out in Doug's direction, propelled by the question.
Furia rolled her eyes, anger returning. “Don't give me that shit, Doug. Why the hell're you out fucking up drug dealers, stealing cars and... doing whatever you did to that patrolman?”
“I framed him, Furia. Winhus was dealing to that school, and Agissa was facilitating that. It's not fair that he's associated with the other dealers, but I'm sure he'll roll over on them to plea down his case and get the punishment he deserved in the first place.”
Furia thought back to the school, where she'd first seen him, and the dealer.
“Yeah, but why you? Are you working for the Treasury or something?” The lho stick flared up.
“I'm... Well, I'm affiliated with the Treasury. I don't work for them, though we have similar goals. I assure you, I am entirely within my legal rights to do what I did tonight. Provided I don't get caught doing it.”
Furia snorted, but the ember floating over the bed dimmed slightly in the darkness.
“And you're just going to keep avoiding the question.”
“I'm sorry Furia.” Doug looked up, his face completely honest, not a hint of deceit present. “But I can't talk about who I work for. Just know that tonight a corrupt Patrolman and a dozen dealers who were feeding slide to children are in Arbites custody, thanks to what we did. It may not be completely legal, but it is right.”
She exhaled again, slowly, and felt the anger still trembling through her. “And what about the car?”
“I liked it.”
Furia snorted again, then started to laugh.
“Besides, those men were stealing cars from people who barely have enough money to live day-to-day.”
“Still think that 'form' shit's pointless.”
“Perhaps, but after everything we've done tonight I could use a proper cooldown.”
That Furia could understand, so she relaxed, watched him step and twist. Subtly defined muscles slid and contracted underneath his skin, the slight sheen of sweat glistening in the low light. Doug turned, revealing a large hodgepodge of discoloration and mild swelling around his right kidney, in addition to the welts and bruises on his arms and legs from the LFT. Furia felt a sudden pang of guilt, followed by a familiar rush of anger. Surprisingly she fought it back with ease, not even reaching for the pack of lho sticks on the floor.
"Sorry about the, uh, ass-kicking I gave you monday. And Tuesday. And breaking your.. uh, square thing yesterday." Furia averted her eyes, the unimpressive sights of the hive suddenly devouring her attention whole.
"Why, Lady Furia, is that an apology?" The anger rose afresh, until she saw the teasing grin playing over Doug's face. A matching smile broke over hers.
"Forgive me," He whispered with mock drama, "I couldn't help myself."
"Never." Furia whispered back. "Seriously, though." She looked down and away as she sat against the wall, drawing her knees up to her head. Doug was there, quietly, quickly, sidling up next to her with a gentle kiss on the nape of her neck.
"I'm fine, Furia. I haven't had a good conditioning session for some time. Although I must admit, yours was somewhat more intense than my standard routine."
Furia let Doug kiss her again, laying her head against his shoulder while his arms wrapped around hers.
"So, why didn't you throw me under the bus?"
"I saw you, when you were walking down the hall. There was... something in your eyes." Doug looked out the window now, his own eyes thoughtful, "You looked like you'd lost everything, and that was the only way I could think to... to let you know someone was there. That you weren't alone." They sat there in the cool air for a time, something strange causing it to thicken, to tense around them. Furia found it unbearable and turned the conversation another direction.
"Why do you talk like that anyway? Most of the nobles don't even sound that... proper." Furia flourished with her hand, the abstract but universally recognized gesture of 'fanciness'.
Doug let out a small laugh. "My parents worked for the post. They raised my brother and I with the intention that we would replace them, in running the local office. As most of the messages and packages were for the few nobles in our area, we were expected to speak appropriately. Formally."
"You have a brother?"
"A twin, yes. However, he doesn't speak with the same articulation I do. He's a capable talker, though. A grifter, born and raised."
Furia pulled his head down onto her shoulder now, her legs sliding back down as they embraced, trading more slow, light kisses.
"You have a twin? Like, an identical twin?"
"Nearly. We're fraternal. We share a strong resemblance, but you wouldn't mistake him for me from any closer than ten meters." She heard his heart quicken slightly, "And you? Do you have any siblings?"
Furia sighed, but didn't find the usual well of anger family brought up waiting for her. "No... well, sort of. It's technically just me and my dad, and my cousins. But some of them are more like sisters. Hana and Freya, Angela, even Miranda sometimes, when she feels like it. Definitely not Victoria, though, fuck that bitch." "I doubt she requires any assistance in that regard."
Furia laughed bitterly at the remark, and Doug pulled aside a short tress of red hair, audibly inhaling the scent before kissing her gently on the cheek. They sat in silence for a while longer, eventually succumbing to gravity and weariness. The cover was thin, the box mattress rigid and the pillow inadequate. Furia felt perfectly at home in the austere bed, listening to the gradual slowing of Doug's bodily functions while her hand ran idly through his chest hair. She tugged him over onto his back and partially splayed onto his upper body, kissing his jaw. He was surprisingly warm.
"Listen, uh, I don't think is really going to go anywhere." Doug reacted only slightly, eyes opening fully as began to formulate a reply.
"Hmm." He seemed to consider it for awhile, and Furia felt a mounting trepidation. She couldn't figure out how he'd react from his pulse and breathing; they remained perfectly even.
"I don't suppose it will, will it?" Furia waited, now feeling awkward, and considered leaving. She began to move, but Doug pulled her back down.
"No, please. I understand. We..." He stopped again, breathing slowly and deeply, "Neither of us is ready to open up." Doug looked into her eyes, frank and honest, "I'm sure you have your reasons, and I have mine. Regardless of why, neither of us is prepared to bridge the gap." He waited a beat, "In the emotional sense, I mean."
Furia couldn't help but smile at the euphemism, and suddenly felt more relaxed. Something occurred to her and she looked up, chin sliding over his pec and shoulder, "Wait. D'you mean can't, or won't?"
"That is an important distinction." Doug thought a little longer, but the answer seemed well within reach, "I... don't think I'm capable of it right now. You've certainly proven yourself a capable partner, er...' He trailed off at the unintended double entendre, but she jumped in before he could continue.
"I know what you mean, and I know what you mean." Furia smiled again and bit his shoulder, not quite lightly, then kissed it. Doug winced slightly, the skin there still sensitive from her earlier champ, but didn't shy away from the touch. "But let's not make a big stink about this at school." He nodded wearily and, after some time, drifted off to sleep.
Furia simply waited, listening to his body bunker down for the night. It was relaxing, and it wasn't much longer until the tug of sleep pulled her away. Two hours later she half-awoke, feeling the minute changes in muscle contraction and body position, hearing the change in pulse. They coupled again, slowly and not for long, and sleep resumed. Five hours after that Doug awoke to an empty room and began warming up. What have you gotten yourself into? Another step, another hissing breath. Panic began to creep through Doug, and his eyes widened. That was not wise. He turned his upper body, then slowly pivoted on his foot to complete the movement, exhaling slowly. What do you do now, Doug, that you've become involved with a Daughter? The composure slowly returned to his face as he considered the matter rationally, eyes becoming mild and blank once more.
Furia barged through the front door of her home, still wearing Doug's leather jacket. Her anxiety was eased by the sight of no new note from her father, still gone until the night to terrorize more neophytes. Furia stopped momentarily, looking back at the front door, then shook her head and continued upstairs.
Pretend-Slumming - Sunday, Septembris 18
The couple moved with ease and happiness through the near-underhive. Kids were always coming down here, pretend-slumming, using the danger to get their blood moving.
"Oh come on, you know you want to-oo. Why else would you be here with me?" Green eyes sparkled with mischief, desire. Golden blonde hair tumbled over young, slender shoulders.
"I can think of a few other reasons." Warm brown eyes looked back under black hair, dismissive and teasing. Her full lips parted to reveal even white teeth and Glemish, watching from across the street, felt something stir in his blood and lower. He scratched a festering scar idly, the motion setting his enormous paunch asway, and his thin lips parted in a fetid, rotten smile.
The girl pushed the boy into an alley, against a wall. Her eyes were lovers' eyes, her hands sliding freely up his shirt. Her body and mouth moved against his, the tight jeans and cropped shirt only enhancing the lean muscle of her form, the wantonness of her manner.
"Come on, right here, and then we can just leave." The words came out around her tongue, heavy with breath. "Forget about everything else."
"I-I don't know, Sarai." He pulled back from her face, long enough to breathe and look around.
Glemish stopped his motions, freezing instinctively to avoid being seen. Like any good scavvie.
The girl clambered up her lover, hair whipping around as she began suck on his neck.
"Oh, oh wow." The boy's hands moved to her back, sliding down the hem of her pants, kneading.
"Shit yeah, that's what I'm talking about Jay." Sarai panted and leaned back, pulling the cropped top off and dropping it pointedly.
Glemish felt the stirring increase, an almost forgotten feeling after years living amongst filth and mutants. He thought about taking the Spur, letting it ripple through his system as he watched, and then took his due. It'd feel good. Her body was amazing, a work of art. Lithe and muscular, but full. So full. Glemish felt the moisture bead up on his patchy-haired head, blotchy and spotted through the grime and scattered working sweat glands.
"Slow-slow down a little bit, hon." Jay tried to pull back, but she was insistent.
"Never." Sarai laughed and grinned fervently, hands and mouth roaming. A hand moved back, an innocuous click! echoed through the alley. The underthing fell softly to the ground, and she pulled Jay's head down onto her bare, rollicking chest. He resisted, settling into her neck instead. "Oh, you fucking tease." A hand raked down his back, hard.
Glemish felt himself pull out the Spur, not even a conscious decision. Jes' a little. He knew, he'd used it before. Too much would shut him down. But a little would put life into his ravaged nerves while he watched and listened. Then take the rest, kill the baser. Take the girl. Mayb' even keep 'er alive. The grin grew wider.
"Oh come on, baby, come on." Sarai pulled his hand from her pants, placed it on her chest. She was rolling, gasping. Glemish could hear every breath, see it as in slow-motion. "Come on, oh." Sarai's hand unbuttoned her fly. The pants broke free and fell slightly, revealing a pink tanga-cut bottom. Her hand moved freely in the front.
"Are you sure?" Jay sounded doubting, questioning. Glemish chuckled a little. The girl gasped and pressed herself against the boy, using him more as a tool than as a lover.
"Alright." His right hand squeezed visibly under the panties' rear, and the girl moaned, shivered.
Glemish felt his blood rise. Now it's my turn. The scavvie scooted down the alley, all but invisible, the Spur giving him speed and power at odds with his lumpy, distended body. Glemish saw the trembling girl, her moans like high chirps as she rode herself against the tall boy and climaxed loudly. The knife fell into his hand in an easy, practiced motion. He thought about leaving her alive, hearing her scream, beg. Glemish decided he'd kill her instead, when he was ready. No amount of plump flesh or firm muscle could match the sight of blood. Of watching the life leave wet eyes. Of the power. But he would take his time before he killed her. You des'rve it, bitch.
The girl collapsed limply, whimpering against the object of her desire. You know better than to resist, Sarai thought, I love it when you resist. Sarai moved with purpose now, gyrated against him, slow, steady and sensual. "You sure you don't want me to finish you, baby?" She spoke around his ear, nibbled lightly by her perfect teeth.
"I assure you, I'm quite alright Miss Lidus." The man's hands slid out of her pants, off her breast. They settled lightly, supportingly on her upper back.
Glemish stumbled a little bit. The man's voice had changed, his eyes were colder, harder. Dangerous. Do it fast, kill the man and enjoy the girl instead a enjoyin' it all.
"Are you sure?" Her voice was low, husky. She heaved against him, a hand threading behind his back, working at his pants.
Glemish almost fell when the man's head turned and stared directly at him, still hidden in the shadows.
"I am quite sure."
The scavvie turned to run, but there was something behind him, something short and powerful. He turned again, but the pouting girl had pulled a small needler out of nowhere and trained it perfectly on the scavvie. She kissed the man again, even as he tried to turn away, biting his lip with a smile.
"That's enough, Callidus."
Glemish barely felt the nick, but he knew the feeling of poison. Fast poison, drawing him down, deep, deep down. He barely saw the one who brought him low, barely heard her shudder with disgust at him. She was shorter than the other, but just as pretty. She had wide, purple eyes and a fuller figure. Glemish felt the Spur burn out and he slept.
Doug deactivated the falsehood once the scavvie finally passed out. Long black hair turned to short brown waves, his chin shrank just slightly, his nose changed from aquiline to roman.
"If you would, Miss Lidus?" He held out a hand to the flexible girl wrapped around him.
"Of course, Doug." Callie snaked the needler back into his pants, but her hand remained down there, rooting around. "Come on, let me show what you a girl can do." Doug clamped onto her arm firmly, his gaze stern, and pulled the hand up. "Well, you know what that codename does to me."
"Get dressed, Callie. We need to ascertain where else this... individual has been peddling his Slide." Doug let out a sigh of disgust at the word and Callie slowly disentangled her body from his. She began to pull on her clothes, 'forgetting' to button up her pants first. She drew it out lovingly, but Doug was already at work binding the mark.
High above them, in a long abandoned room on an inaccessible floor of a condemned industrial storage structure, a scoped stubber pulled neatly inside the window. Vin stripped it down, not pausing to assess or even consider the irony of the term compared to what he'd seen briefly in the alley. He snugged it into the bag, then dropped the ladder. A still blushing and mildly upset Janus Sigitine followed him down, stealing glances at Callie's lithe, progressively more clothed form from across the street when he could.
Why didn't I get to be the bait? Janus sighed. Aw, she never pulls the YPF con with me. And I'd be good at it too. He ran through the list of cons, scams, shams and stings they'd been using while Vin dialed back the cable ladder, which hovered down as a featureless black sphere. YPF, of course, was Callie's idea, and her favorite. She's pulled it with Doug, Vin and Violet. Janus stopped at that last thought, for a long, long moment, then shook out of his reverie and caught up with Vin. Never with Ev, they're like brother and sister, almost twins. They go with the Hustler and Pros routine.
And then there's me. Janus sighed again. I always get the First Date or Thanks-for-Dinner-and-Flake or some other variant, always a fake-out that ends in arguing and her walking away. Again Janus stopped, letting his situalem mnemonic arrange and sift through his thoughts. A collage of dozens, maybe hundreds, of short clips of Callie walking away sprung to mind. Still works though.
Vin always preferred to just observe and dart. He never baits a target, just track and bag.
Ev was always playing a weapons, woman or chem dealer, or a merc or 'slaught junkie. He's got the build to make it work. Janus looked down at his own relatively unimpressive figure, noodle arms and gangly body. I haven't even got a real growth spurt yet.
Violet ran the dealer scam, too, usually involving a 'free sample' of something that turned out to be Tranq, Dream, Torpor or a near overdose of Canna. How does she figure out which one to use? Inevitably the girl would use the drug to which the target had the least tolerance, in the exact amount necessary. Every time.
Janus relished the rare chance to actually make full use of his psychic power. He'd probe and sneak through someone's mind, tease out their fears or desires, and set them up for one of the others. Suddenly the boy froze, complete terror overcoming him. Chuchie, Cu, Cu-Ball. He repeated the nicknames, a mantra of calm and control. Chucho unfolded himself from the other end of the alley they'd staged. His presence had to be hidden until absolutely necessary for best effect.
Chucho's cons were the simplest, more a straight interrogation than anything. He'd just sneak into somebody's bedroom or bathroom, wherever Janus found they felt the safest, most comfortable. And then he'd just be there, asking questions. Works like a charm. Freakin' sweet too. Doug smiled at Janus, and Janus smiled back. And then there's Doug.
The group as a whole was as close as family, but not quite friends. They'd been brought together out of necessity and qualification rather than camaraderie. But after all the tests, the indoctrination, putting our lives in each other's hands... and the Appraisals, especially the Appraisals. After all that it wasn't a matter of friendship anymore, it was a collective dependency. Janus saw Doug put the falsehood back on, the subtle changes to posture and gait making him look like a new man. Janus and Doug hadn't gone through the indoctrination. He wasn't sure why Doug was exempt, but he knew what he'd been through.
I've faced my demons. Janus was a contradiction, the most naive of the group, but between his psychic powers, background and reading habits he had an unexpected wisdom far beyond his years. He didn't quite have Doug's sharp mind, but he was getting closer every day.
Ah... Doug. Janus looked up to Doug, his big brother in most ways. But he hated him for being the target of most of Callie's taunts and games, for the attention. We all hated him at first. The group packed up the mutant and waited for the airvan, Doug and Callie left hand-in-hand, looking for all the world like they were in love. Are they? Janus wasn't sure, Doug's mnemonic had been subject to far more powerful tests than Janus could hope to approach. Even then it'd be wrong to... He's my brother, he's always been there for me since he showed up.
Janus couldn't tell what happened in Callie's head, it was just a blistering riot of sex and calumny, a constant chatter that he couldn't do more than enjoy and feel bad about at the same time. Still, he couldn't help but wonder at whether Doug and Callie were really up to something, despite all his declarations to the contrary. Doug was the second-best liar, only after Callie, even though he called it dissembling. With a smirk and quiet pride. Still, the way Callie insisted more and more made Janus believe Doug. Or maybe I'm just being stupid. The airvan backed into the alley, vector wells humming quietly as the military-grade muffled repulsors held it aloft.
That was Doug's idea. Doug liked bait, too. But he did bait cars, bait electronics and weapons. He would rarely interact with the mark face-to-face unless it was absolutely necessary for time or a last resort.
- "Unnecessary risks, Janus. Avoid unnecessary risks, and you shall know which risks to take."
Janus laughed a little as they piled into the airvan. Doug had a lot of scams, more than the rest of them. Most were just basic confidence, literally becoming a different person and gaining their confidence with words and nothing else except the occasional drink or lho-stick. Then there's the Sur and Black, surveillance and blackmail.
- "Suffer the rat to capture the grox, Janus."
Doug was always pointing out why something worked to Janus, made sure he knew how to do it. Fake Bait's probably his favorite. A mostly spontaneous operation, whenever somebody important died, or something valuable was lost or broken, Callie or Doug–usually Doug–would contact the 'interested party' and offer to exchange information or the item for cash. Almost inevitably, the mark would try to double-cross them.
- "An enemy's deception can be beneficial, Janus, so long as you give the mark a clear course of action.
- Human beings can be detestably predictable in groups, and especially in crisis or urgency."
And they would fall right into the trap, every time. You just have to let them outsmart themselves. Janus grinned at that thought. Then there's the Plant and Rescue. Place incriminating objects or information in the target's home, workplace or base. Usually something worse than they've actually done.
- "Almost compulsorily they will seek someone powerful, their immediate criminal superiors or us." Doug
- smirked. "They will be desperate, willing to take special pains to please that someone and secure their own
- safety. In cooperating with them we are merely expunging all trace of our presence. Neat, efficient."
- "And, if they don't cooperate, they can be the focal point of an Arbites or Treasury investigation that'll catch
- the rest of the targets!" Janus blared out the revelation.
- "Very good, Janus, very good." Doug smiled proudly.
Finally there was infiltration, the one Doug took the most relish in, despite its rarity. Depending on the role to be filled it was usually Ev, as a thug or Callie, as a hanger-on or con artist. Only Callie would try to pull a con by pretending to be a con artist. And make it work every time.
Vin, as the cool, methodical killer. Chucho as an interrogator or enforcer, and finally Doug, filling the gaps as usual. That's his favorite, the different disguises, creating a character with a unique walk, speech pattern or nervous habit. Doug hated falsehoods and only used them on short notice, like today.
Janus laughed as he remembered his own favorite con. Atrisangues.
They'd pretend to be a gang, a rogue's gallery of the worst and darkest Hive Tetra had to offer, the Atrisangues, the Blacksnakes. They'd used that one quite a few times, and the gang had a frankly ridiculous reputation for appearing, causing complete havoc and escaping unscathed, their inscrutable motives achieved.
The others often accused Janus of hero worship for Doug. I wouldn't call it that. Janus had never had a tightly knit family or a big brother, someone to look up to and aspire to. Doug had shown him a way to keep up with the others without relying solely on his powers and without the hyperspecializing indoctrination they went through. He showed him the power of being a generalist, or 'comprehensively thorough' in a group of specialists.
It wasn't that Doug was more capable than the others, but that, without the indoctrination, he was the glue that held them together, as a group and as a force. He was there to defuse the tension between Ev and Violet whenever it broke into more than just banter. He, Vin and Chucho had a movie night on wednesdays, and it seemed to be the only time the stoic and withdrawn duo really relaxed.
Doug was there to keep Callie from losing sight of herself in the search for approval and validation, even if not in the way she wanted. The way I want. Janus frowned again. Doug was the leader, but not in the way of authority or wisdom. Each of them had their own outlook: from Vin's precise distance to Ev's up-close physicality, from Callie's easy charisma to Violet's profound quirkiness.
Doug could reconcile all the different points of view, unbound by indoctrination. He led by council, by taking their advice and strategy, as good as any human could boast, and compiling it, balancing it. Doug led by default, because he and Janus were the only ones who could really compromise, and Janus was still too amateur.
Janus thought back to the Omnis Appraisal, when, from a group of hundreds of the best and brightest of the Schola Progenium, only a few dozen passed through the initial grinder still healthy enough to be considered. Of those, only five survived the indoctrination as anything more than deranged monsters, fit only for murder and war. Those five children, kids, were brought into Janus' adoptive family seven years ago. They'd doubted him at first, as each of them had survived so much, and Janus had simply been there.
But that only lasted until the first Appraisal. The less mentioned about it the better, as far as they were concerned. But when they saw how much more often Janus was Appraised, the price of not being indoctrinated, they accepted him. He was teased, but they knew he was held to the same standards as them. And then, just as they entered the final phase of their training seven months ago, their patron brought Doug into the fold. He had no psychic potential, no indoctrination and he seemed so calm, too calm. Not like Chucho, who simply listened and rarely talked. Chucho was a sounding board, letting people talk out their problems.
And Vin's just... cool. Vin didn't have to say much to get his point across. Doug clearly wasn't indoctrinated, but he could keep up with them, and better them, even.
The worst was how Doug was pitted against each of us in turn. Janus had to invade his mind, try to get around the mnemonic. I've never even chipped it. They competed intellectually, reading books and debating, devising strategies and sifting through information. Callie had to fight him hand-to-hand and lost more than once. But what really struck her was how easily he seemed to pick through her disguises, even with the polymorphine. How he resisted her advances effortlessly, no matter how unexpected, especially outside the challenges.
Doug couldn't outlift Ev, but he could fight him. And when it comes to less abstract strength tests, like physical infiltration or staging, he comes out on top. Vin hated his strategies, his tactics, always so indirect, hard to predict. Doug could somehow pick out the patterns in Vin's planning and prey on it, take it apart and put it back together better, use it against him.
Doug didn't seem to be perturbed the least by Chucho, something none of them could believe at the time. Especially me. He was friendly, almost disturbingly so, to the boy. Chucho could never sneak up on him, never beat him in a fight without the aura. Violet was the weirdest. Her best poisons were counteracted as quickly as she could make them. Doug pointed out flaws in her refining, distillation, then devised faster, cleaner lab and field synthesis methods from hers, always an improvement.
They all hated him at first. But it was Doug who noticed Callie was addicted to polymorphine. He talked to Violet, and they made a batch of De-Tox for her. He researched disguises, went back to Violet and they contrived dyes, pigments, and in-field mask and insert fabrication methods. He brought them together. Doug got Callie off the polymorphine that nearly erased her personality and suggested Violet might like cooking.
He showed them hobbies. Things that might seem nonessential, but could be helpful to the mission and be fun. Doug showed them that they could skirt the edges of the indoctrination, live a semblance of a normal life. He pulled Vin and Chucho out of their shells. Even if you can barely tell the difference between now and then. He was the one who took Vin into the outside world, up close, and showed Chucho how movies and stories could be useful and relaxing. He'd picked up a lot of his interrogation routine from watching cop shows and horror flicks. Doug was the one who showed Ev how to diet while eating well, how to hold himself back enough to play sports, even ones as violent as scrumball. He showed Ev the power of being on a team, that he could rely on us.
And he's my big brother, showed me I'm more than just a psyker. Doug taught Janus to control his body, not just his mind. Doug showed Janus the utility of mnemonic constructs, and that let him relax his powers without worrying about privacy or hurt feelings. Not to mention sped up my repetitions. Doug brought them that last step together and made a group of people into a unit. He made them human again, just by being there.
The airvan pulled into yet another abandoned industrial storehouse, long cleared and secured, and Janus wondered how they would get the information this time.
"I say we beat it out of him." Ev punctuated the statement by smashing a powerful fist into his meaty palm. The sound echoed around the mostly bare, dirty warehouse.
"Ugh, of course you would, Ev." Violet rolled her gorgeous eyes and Ev felt his retort die on his lips
"I don't know... I don't like the sound of that." Eyes turned to Janus and he blushed mildly, but continued, "I mean, I think we're... better than that. At the very least it should be a last resort."
Vin inhaled, a short preparatory breath, but more than enough to draw everyone's undivided attention, "Battery is inefficient." He produced a small set of tools, used primarily to repair and calibrate guns, sabotage machinery and pick locks. Vin was very skilled with the tools and the implication hung heavily in the air.
"Absolutely not. I agree with, Janus. Physical torture is unreliable and best serves as a final recourse. I would... hmm." Doug's eyes glazed over as he stroked his chin.
Chucho looked pointedly at Violet.
"I don't know, Chucho. He's a scavvie, a mutant scavvie. He's loaded with drugs, disease. His food and water are pretty much poison already, even the air is bad." Violet put a hand to her delicate chin and thought for a moment. "I have some Obscura. Even a scavvie would do anything for a second shot of that. But it'd take hours for the first one to wear off, until we had any leverage on him."
"I say you just let me have at him. He looked pretty into what me and beastmaster here were doing. " Callie, her eyes now a lustrous blue again, stretched and turned impossibly to emphasize her point. Janus blanched at the idea and searched his suddenly rampaging emotions for a reason not to do it.
"Without Spur I fear it would be a wasted effort, Callie." Doug looked emphatically at her. "As well, you are better than that. A fact you and I are both well aware of."
Callie didn't miss a beat.
"I know it. Maybe I could show you. Really show you." Her eyes lidded, her voice dropped until it seemed to be made of rasping leaves and honey. "We could put on a show for him. Get the point across."
Doug removed Callie entirely from his attention, focusing instead on Violet. "Violet, I believe you graced us with the answer a moment ago."
Violet's already enormous eyes widened further in confusion. "I just said he's a mutant who...Ohmygod! He's loaded with drugs! Probably uses them morning, noon and night!"
Doug nodded, "And do you have sufficient De-Tox to quickly depurgate him?"
"Uh..." Violet raised herself up, seeming to expand, then deflated just as quickly. "Not by the end of the day." "Indeed. However," Doug stood up and walked to the front of the group, between them and the staircase to the makeshift holding room. "I believe it will be more than sufficient."
A rough slap awoke Glemish. He tried to move and found his hands were bound, his feet lashed to an old wooden chair. He rocked and wiggled, trying to see if he could get out. Maybe if I- "Ahem."
The sound was low, so quiet Glemish could barely hear it, but it was undeniably there. He waited and waited for something, anything to happen. A creeping dread came upon him as the minutes passed, and he began to struggle again.
"I would recommend against that course of action, unless you'd rather contend with my cohort, here." A light flicked on, blindingly bright to the underhiver. Soon the details began to resolve, and Glemish relieved himself.
Before him stood two of the Atrisangues, the Blacksnakes. They wore dark clothes and stood in front of the light, its brightness washing out most of the visible detail about them. He could see the symbol, though, the blackaquila armband they wore like a badge of honor: a black snake wrapped around a golden double aquila, fangs sunk deep, poison welling out. It was a slap in the face to the Arbites, the Treasury, the Munitorum, the Imperium.
The Emperor himself. And they get away with it. They were the most feared gang in Hive Tetra and that was all anyone knew about them. Glemish's terror increased sharply and he could only lament that he had no more waste to pass.
"Whaddya want?" He tried to put the rasp, the old scavvie tone back in his voice, but it came out high and squeaky.
"Perhaps you are not so mentally deficient after all, Glemish." Glemish froze again, and found he indeed had more waste to pass.
They know m'name. Nobody knows m'name! Glemish squeaked once more, incoherently.
"We are very well-informed, Glemish." The voice, low and sibilant, snake-like, said the name with relish, a tender fondness. His every word seemed black with menace, a covenant of monstrous portent.
"Tell me, do you know who controls the distribution of Slide in Hive Tetra?" The voice was honeyed now, smooth. Glemish stammered, stuttered and fell silent. "Come now, it's a simple question." The menace returned to the voice, and the terror returned to chill Glemish's bones and quake his body.
"S-S-S-Stromatol cuntrull thuh Sly-ede rakkit."
The voice laughed like a snake, slithering and slipping, hunting. The other figure laughed, rougher, harsher.
"No." The voice was still sibilant, but now it was deep, unfathomably deep. The terror increased again, a great ominousness looming behind Glemish. "We," The figure moved for the first time, a slight incline of the head, causing the scavvie to jump in his bindings, "control the Slide 'racket.' And you know who we are, don't you Glemish?" Everything went silent again, only the sound of Glemish breathing and his thumping, misshapen heart filled the vast emptiness. "We do not appreciate competition, Glemish." He heard the words and realized he'd made some sort of mistake, but couldn't tell what.
"Now." The figure started to pace, hands clasped behind his back, as if gathering his patience. The other simply stood, stocky and brutal. His body seemed to pulse with breath, but Glemish heard nothing. "We don't want to hurt you, Glemish." Somehow Glemish knew the man was smiling, a terrible smile, a horrible smile. A knowing smile. "Or, should I say, I don't want to hurt you. You've been such a good customer, a friend, until two weeks ago." The figure stopped pacing, as if he'd come to a conclusion. "And then you betrayed us. Glemish."
He squealed and thick, milky tears fell from his knotted eyes. He was bawling, uneven musculature causing his body to rack to one side with each sob, spinning and cranking his spine.
"Do not fear, Glemish." The scavvie started to calm, nodding vigorously as he began to regain control of himself. He felt the ropes binding him move, just slightly. His sobbing had loosened them. "You can make it up to me. And it will be so easy." Glemish nodded, squeaked out an affirmation. But his hands worked, slowly and subtly. Strong, gnarled fingers pulled at the rope, horned skin scraped at it.
"Tell me, Glemish." The man smiled again, stood straighter, impossibly straighter. "How many chems do you take each day, hm?" The small word seemed so innocent, but Glemish jumped at it, terrified. "Yes. I thought so. Now," The figure raised a hand and waved to the darkness, a commanding gesture, "I treat my friends well."
A woman appeared, the girl maybe. The light just picked out her features, her sparkling green eyes and golden hair. She handed something to the man, a needle, then folded herself onto him, arms massaging. He didn't seem to notice in the least, remaining perfectly composed. "Our benefits are many, ravishing." A black hand drifted up to her chin and stroked it. She seemed to lose herself in the simple touch. "But our enemies, Glemish, MY enemies, are subjected to tortures beyond your feeble comprehension." The woman continued to knead sensually, laying her head against his shoulder. The light played through her hair like a halo, glistening and impossibly beautiful. In his other hand was the needle, somehow darker than black, ominous. Glemish licked his glutinous lips, his body and mind confused by the conflicting sensations, opposing ideas.
"Do not fear the needle, Glemish. It is only a simple first step." A jet of greasy fluid ejected from the syringe as he tested it. It had an unctuous, chemical smell. The figure chuckled to himself, and Glemish felt terror, terror he would've found unimaginable only hours ago. "Tell me, Glemish, tell me what you fear is in this needle, what you fear most." He leaned forward just slightly. "Tell me, so that I might dispel your fear, the overestimation of your own knowledge. What is in this little needle is far more terrifying than you can imagine."
The scavvie felt fresh horror wash over him. His eyes flicked back and forth, between the woman and the needle. Beauty and terror. Sex and death.
The figure, Blacksnake himself, Glemish was sure of it, laughed. "I am in an equitable mood, Glemish, so allow me to save you the trouble. Do you think this is Snakeblind? Hmm? Perhaps Inspissate of Betcher's, harvested from an Astartes? No? You are correct." Glemish began to relax.
"It is far worse."
At this the other figure, hulking and monstrous, visibly calmed. He smiled, just enough detail revealed by the light to show his deeply satisfied grin. The terror escalated in Glemish again, throbbing back and forth randomly, unbearable.
"As I said, Glemish. This is simply the first step. But it will be more than sufficient alone, I think." The woman smiled whitely, her eyes wet with sick glee. "I know you have heard of this..." Blacksnake's hand waved, searching through the air, as if there was no word capable of describing the horrible truth. The woman took his hand in her own, and he kissed her gently on the cheek. "This substance before, Glemish. Perhaps you've even seen it." The butcherous silhouette began to breathe again, more slowly, more deeply. Glemish could feel the primal satisfaction coursing through the man. The word finally came out of Blacksnake thickly, heady with assurance.
He may as well have promised Slaanesh itself would come for Glemish. Fresh, awe-inspiring terror tore through him. All else before this was nothing. Glemish could feel the Reaper himself on his back, breathing hotly and whispering foul certainties. The thick, milky tears returned, gobbing on his face, slapping down onto his legs and paunch. He slavered and mewled, howled and moaned. He thrashed and tore at his bindings, feeling them grow ever looser with each twist.
"Yes." The word was low, sibilant again. "I thought that might get your attention. Now." Blacksnake coughed lightly. "We need not resort to this Glemish. My friend. Simply tell me where your new dealer dwells, and all will be forgiven. And... perhaps..." He lifted a single golden tress, let it drift down, radiant.
Glemish swallowed at the implication and almost talked. Almost.
But he knew better than anyone what loose lips got scavvies. Like most who'd been raised with his gang, loyalty was absolute. Even with the implied promise of the woman he couldn't turn in his new dealer, his boss, Klotch.
The terror reappeared and with it came strength, clarity. Glemish burst from his loosened restraints, flinging the chair at his enemies, smashing the light.
Hopefully breaking the needle.
His years of scavving gave Glemish near-perfect nightsight and he smashed through the nearby window, falling to freedom.
"Superb." The ceiling light flicked back on, revealing the broken remains of the chair and the shattered fluorbulb, as well as Doug, Callie, Chucho, Ev and a needle full of mixed cleaning fluid and lubricant.
"Do you have his signal?" Vin nodded in affirmation. Already clad in his black plaskin bodyglove and loaded for bear, Vin left via the preweakened and now-broken window, silent as a cat and just as fast.
"That was AWESOME!" The cry came equally from Janus and Violet, who now bounced about the room like excited puppies, gathering what little evidence remained of their collective presence.
"Enough. This is now an official combat operation." Doug turned and headed for the stairs.
At that the group moved as one, with unrelenting purpose. The building was nearly bare in minutes, reeking of acid and cleaner. Not a single trace of DNA or psychic presence would be left after tonight. The airvan's internal racks were loaded to full with all manner of equipment: surveillance gear of every kind, a pair of cogitator gauntlets, two netfly antrae, various auspexes, audio bugs, sticky remote augurs, a bulky siege auspex, a viewer and even a holo projector.
Weapons abounded as well: needlers and laspistols, Callie's neural shredder, Ev's lovingly detailed Executioner pistol, an ominous black sphere and a glistening black sword, seeming to squirm and writhe, and more still, sealed and locked away. None of it had been authorized for use on their current mission, and so it would all remain nearby only as an absolute last resort.
Instead, Officio Tutamentum Protection Force One, designation Atrisangues, began laying out the mission gear. Simple stub pistols and rifles, selected for their unassuming appearance and reliability; dull black knives and extra armor to be worn under the plaskin, created by spraying light athletic gear with commercial-grade synskin. None of the gear requisitioned for this mission, if recovered, could be traced back to the Officio or any publicly known or unknown Adeptus Terra Officio. The time came to finally suit up for combat, and as one they paused.
In all the frenetic months they had been together as a mission force they had performed only infiltration, capture, remote assassination, intelligence assessment and unbidden escort missions. The dawn of the school year had finally driven their master, ever the practical perfectionist, to finally relent that actual combat operation experience would be necessary. The reconnaissance Doug had performed Friday night was but a precursor to a much larger goal. Vanus-borne intelligence from their larger sister office indicated that 80% of the Slide trade was centralized under one group or individual. Peripherally, an estimated 20% of the hive's Administratum, including the Arbites, Officio Medicae, Senatorum and Treasury were corrupted, the Treasury carrying less than a 0.7% probability of any corruption.
The data was gathered redundantly by no less than three infocytes, a simple matter for their level of ability, and further triply heuristically cogitated to less than 0.1% margin of error. The inter-office invoice amounted to 3.7 million credits, primarily in data transmission and estimated loss of Imperial assets as a result of the operatives' fifteen-minute diversion. A list of so prognosticated distribution and production locations was provided to the group. Between Callie's social engineering, Chucho and Vin's tracking skills, Violet's knowledge of chemical storage and production time frames and, finally, Doug and Janus' localized information projection modeling, the list was further refined and narrowed.
Ev then posed as a junkie or prospective corner dealer several times, gathering yet more intelligence to strengthen the projections. The Friday night reconnaissance, raid and seizure was part of a multi-pronged beta test of the modeling, aimed primarily at dealers located near schools and residential family areas. Each dealer was located where expected and dealt with: Arbites officials in command of the individual prosecutions of all but one case were found to be corrupt. The single exception was Patrolman Idiam Thar who executed his own Commander after discovering proof of corruption. He was, unfortunately, taken into custody immediately afterward.
The statistics bothered them greatly that, in every precinct or area in which a centralized Slide dealer was found, the Arbites was corrupted. It was far beyond the wildest statistical correlation, pointing to an enormous and long-planned operation of incredible subtlety and sophistication. Thus, rather than pass the information on to the Arbites before pursuing matters more relevant to their operation parameters, the group reanalyzed and reaffirmed their data. They then presented the findings to their master. He agreed that, by the new, field-refined intelligence, pursuing and destroying the remnants of the centralized Slide trade fell well within the scope of their mission, and finally authorized combat operations as an allowed element of their future scenario planning.
And so it was that a group of teenagers who'd been living and working together nearly every day for almost their entire lives became apprehensive, for this was the first time all but one of them would be undressing in front of any of the others.
An incredibly awkward moment, filled with rapid glances and eye aversions, drew on for a slow eternity, eating into their preplanned strike time.
"Ev, Chucho, that side of the van; Violet, sorry, but you and Callie on that side; Janus, help me put on the syngear."
Doug was the first to undress after giving the orders, oddly reminded of Friday night as he deftly removed his shirt, stepped out of his boots and dropped his pants. Callie took one hard look and received a stern stare in return.
"Ooh, I didn't know you were that hairy all over. Rrow-ahh!" Violet tugged her harshly around to their side of the van.
"Come on Callie, I'll do you first... damnit." A loud smack, palm on forehead, echoed through the cavernous structure. Callie just smirked and began removing her clothing as casually and quickly as she had earlier that day. In short, almost synchronized motions clothes on either side of the van were removed.
"Callie! You don't need to take it all off!" Violet's voice was louder than she intended, and more disconcerted than alarmed, a fact she would never admit.
Doug snapped his fingers moments before Janus finished turning his head around enough to see.
Every prospective item was selected for a low profile, flexibility and light weight, intended to be nothing more than a vehicle for the synskin. A syn'd thermal hood, shoulder pads, gloves, thigh pads, knee rolls, neck roll, elbow rolls, hip pads, tailbone pad and rib pads were donned in short order, and the store-bought, well-fitted plaskin slid over them easily.
Ev and Violet in a rare–and jubilant for the former–moment of cooperation had worked together on designing a commercially available, field-assembled alternative to Officio-grade synskin that couldn't be traced to them from its chemical or structural components. Minor modifications to the commercial-grade Powerfilm© brand synskin brought its durability up to near Officio-grade, at the sacrifice of some of its strength-enhancing and most of its agility-enhancing properties. The syngear adhered firmly to bare skin, while allowing the plaskin to slide freely over it. Doug found he could move easily despite the sheer number of pads and felt out the minor physical enhancements.
So far, so good. He changed places with Janus, maintaining the same orientation away from the van.
"Dude! How are your hands so cold?" Ev shouted, and the others could almost hear Chucho's apologetic nod. "I like what I'm hearing over there, Chucho! And I like what I'm seeing here Violet, we should hang out more..." Callie's voice was dripping with suggestion.
Violet suddenly squealed. "Ah! Callie! That tickles! Stop it!"
A firm hand kept Janus' eyes forward, and a firmer reprimand kept him on task. Still, Doug had to admit Callie's banter and catcalls had all but nullified the tension and awkwardness of suddenly intimidating puberty and pre-mission jitters. I'll have to talk to her about directing her verbal skills to more productive ends.
Doug thought for a moment about which of the many, many ways she would turn that wording into innuendo, and resolved to modify it later. The plaskin sealed neatly over Janus' skinny back, but even for a boy as rawboned as him the combination of syngear and black plaskin had a flattering effect. The group returned to to picking up tools, now stealing glances and looks ranging from curious to longing at each other. None were surprised in the least to see Callie taking in the sights, except Janus, who nearly fainted when she winked at him.
"Cute butt." An elbow to the rib and a small smile got the boy moving again, his motions quickened by elation.
Callie turned her gaze finally to Violet as she snugged the stub pistol into its holster and slung the autorifle over her shoulder. Callie couldn't decide whether to be jealous or appreciative of the shorter girl's fuller hips and chest. She glanced over at Doug, smiling as he checked the black coating on his 18-centimeter combat knife, also commercially purchased.
Yeah, I bet at least eighteen centimeters.
They had followed Vin's instructions in properly sanding the steel, then Violet's suggestions for choice of spray. The knives had been baked in a still workable furnace deep in the warehouse's basement. Without interrupting the run of his finger over the blade Doug flashed Callie a displeased glare. She took another long look at Violet, then at Ev, and snickered. Ev had practiced and practiced loading himself up for this days in advance, drawing each weapon in turn, reloading, checking for jams. He was absolutely pumped, ready for his first real combat op, or he had been until he finished arranging his gear.
Now he gaped open-mouthed at Violet, the smallest sliver of drool visible on his lip. The syngear and plaskin left little to the imagination, and while his imagination had been fairly generous in the past, he now realized he had been selling her short if anything. Large purple eyes flashed in his direction.
Play it cool, Ev, play it cool.
Violet smiled pleasantly and turned back to fitting her various belts and tools, including several vials, a blowgun and darts and a small bandolier of low-therm smoke grenades. Ev's gaze traveled from round eyes to generous chest to ample rear. He suddenly found himself cursing the outfitters who made the baggy, strictly utilitarian clothing she favored even at school.
So many wasted years.
Doug was aware that, even last week, he would have been just as apprehensive and awkward as his associates. He wasn't entirely taken aback by the revelation behind Violet's figure, he'd long suspected the selection and training process for the more social of their number gave some weight to physical attractiveness. As well, the indoctrinated had all received physical enhancements, transplants, implants and gene therapy. Regardless of why, Doug knew he would have been taking his weekly allotment of glances at her only days ago.
Instead he found himself uneasy.
Doug searched his thoughts, sure it was due to some flaw, some minor imperfection in their strike plan that his subconscious had noticed.
The name suddenly leapt into his mind. It wasn't the first time today she'd entered his thoughts. Normally he allowed himself a certain relaxation of his composure when going along with Callie's feigned, or not so feigned, copulation con, and had been hoping to make tonight a special night with her after Wednesday night.
Instead he'd found himself, distracted, almost guilty the entire time, clearly remembering Furia's words.
- "Listen, uh, I don't think is really going to go anywhere."
At the time he had agreed and not given it a second thought. But as Doug allowed himself to thoroughly remember the moment, catalogued and stored in his mind, he began to pick out small details he'd missed before. Audio and, to a lesser extent, visual cues that made him doubt it would be their last encounter.
She seemed more to be convincing herself than talking to me. Yes, considering the incident with Mr. Trelan, I believe she was merely attempting to create an emotional buffer, even an excuse to leave. He distinctly remembered pulling her back down against him, and the instant relaxation of her breathing and heartbeat. Yes, it was a test, not a planned test, but an unconscious assessment of my attitude towards her.
Doug felt himself grin as he realized he had passed this unintentional test, and relief he hadn't even known he wanted flowed through him. He lingered just a little longer on the memory, but perhaps too long. Doug realized his mistake only moments before the others did.
"OhmygodDoug!" Violet's eyes were unbelievably wide, and her hands darted over her face, failing to obscure that her normally tanned complexion had flushed to a deep red. Janus' reaction was very nearly identical, only with a barely controlled snicker.
"Oh-oh-oh-oh my go-o-od, du-ude!" Ev's face was bright red as well, but only from the rush of uncontainable laughter. Chucho was blushing just slightly, an indication of the most extreme embarrassment of all.
And, of course, Callie is the worst.
She was flushed deeply as well, and abruptly energetic, almost frantic with sudden restlessness. But, as she looked more pointedly than the others at the unhindered-in-the-least-by-the-plaskin-at-ALL swelling of Doug's groin, Callie's face bore an expression of admiration, perhaps even gratitude.
Of course the solution was now simple, obvious, almost... No, not almost, Doug.
The answer is damningly.
Include a cup with the standard assortment of undergear. Doug sighed and shook his head.
Still, not a single one bears any lingering signs of personal embarrassment or trepidation. Doug recomposed himself, marking the incident down as an overall positive event, then drew himself up and clasped his hands behind his back. Very slowly he closed his eyes and gave a short, regal nod. Doug then stretched an arm towards the van and strode unabashedly to the driver's seat. As expected, Callie was in the passenger's seat with virtual instancy.
"Sure you don't want me to finish you off, Doug?" Callie's expression was giddy, her voice now carrying the champagne quality unique to Sarai, enthusiastic and bubbly. Before a response could possibly be formulated her hand moved down to his thigh.
Fortunately Doug did not need to respond, and he thought back to a lesson he taught Janus months ago.
- "Response should be seen as a failure of planning, Janus, not as an end unto itself. Action supersedes
- reaction in every instance."
Callie's hand instead slipped perfectly into his, positioned precisely for an awkward but serviceable thumblock even she couldn't escape from. Her faced meshed momentarily between bewilderment, arousal and the anticipation of two separate or even simultaneous outcomes.
"Perhaps another time, Caroline."
Doug kicked on the repulsors, the grounded vector wells pushing aside dust and dirt. He took a low, slow pass around the building, agitating the dust as Janus stirred the eddies of the warp before they finally peeled away. Ev knocked free the support holding the loading door open with a well thrown piece of masonry and every last remnant of their confirmable presence was erased.
Violet clicked off the wide-band aura-scrye. "Other than a lingering, uh... excitement?" She hunched her small shoulders and squinted lopsidedly. "We're good."
"Very good, Violet, thank you." Doug activated his comm-link while catching and returning the slightest of apologetic nods from Chucho in the rear view mirror. "Vin?"
"Target under observation, moving to hive-underhive border area." Vin's voice was somehow even shorter, more clipped. It carried just a hint of relish; Vin had truly exceptional senses and was an avid tracker.
"Confirming." Doug looked over the auspex currently occupying Callie's attention. Or rather seems to be. From the movement of her fingers on the grip he could tell she was thinking of another object entirely.
"Callie." Doug said the word quietly, in order to avoid drawing the attention of the others.
"Doug." Callie's reply was breathless, distracted, but otherwise completely and utterly normal.
Her normal voice, damn.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah. What?"
"Confirm that the target is moving towards the hive-underhive confluence, please." Doug's voice was cool, his eyes and motions so casual an onlooker would assume they were taking a long-planned trip to the holotheater.
"Ye-yeah. Doug." Callie blushed deeply, and Doug considered sitting her down for another talk. "Confirmed."
"Confirmed, Vin. Altering route and velocity to compensate for unexpected delay in preparation."
Or perhaps I should have a talk with Janus. It could do the both of them some good.
"Was that Callie?" Vin's voice was the same as before, with a pinch of amusement. "Cup?"
"Yes, Vin, and yes. Commencing combat protocols, including burst communication and thermal vision preparation." The well-practiced response was played out perfectly as they broached the true darkness of the near-underhive.
The operation was planned to perfection, every possibility considered and dealt with redundantly. The actual combat should have taken no more than three minutes from start to finish, with a 77% chance of necessary pursuit of the leader, Klotch, when his gang was reduced to 40% strength, assuming zero friendly losses. They took their places; Ev and Violet were hidden at medium distance. Janus met up with Vin in the sniper roost, now on a standard rope ladder, purchased from the same store as the athletic gear and expertly knotted.
Doug and Callie were up close, to her exultation, at ground level. Chucho was hiding above, waiting for his cue. Doug palmed the LT smoke grenade he'd borrowed from Violet, then thought better of it, passing the heavy spheroid to Callie. She nodded, cheeks tinged faintly with received approval. Doug nodded to each of them in turn, taking special care to check on Violet, ready to cut the main power supply on his mark. Now that visual affirmation had been established, the secondary cycle began.
"Callsign Vindicare, affirming." Vin started the final ready cycle. He would be responsible for staining the leader, named Klotch according to Janus, with tracking dust.
"Callsign Venenum, affirming." Violet was next: step two was cutting the power. The change in light level, minor though it was, would still disorient the scavvies long enough for step three to commence.
"Callsign Callidus, affirming." Callie would lob the LT smoke grenade, allowing the perceptual advantage to remain theirs even with scavvie nightsight.
"Callsign Culexus, affirming." Chucho's voice rattled and ground, frighteningly resonant as it always was on missions. He would lead the attack after the lights and smoke dropped, completing the sensory assault.
"Callsign Eversor, affirming." Ev would attack the group from the outside, cutting off fields of escape. Between death and terror, Ev and Chucho would drive them through the cramped room into Callie and Doug's Calpurnia-pattern autogun kill pocket. Janus was next, but he waited. The plan required precise timing, of course, but the inception of their strategy would be most effective after a certain emotional effect had been produced by their accommodating hostage, Glemish. They waited as he finally approached his king.
"You may SPEAK, Glemish." King Klotch nodded slowly.
"Thenk you, yer rotundness." Klotch blinked his working eye at the compliment. He was, after all, The Tetra Scavvie, the king of scavvies. Glemish coughed, an unexpectedly smooth, expectedly thick sound. "I was captored, my leege, but I have escaped to bring you news of our enemees."
"CON-tinue." Klotch rolled his bulging eye, drawing laughs from his attendants. Glemish was well known for his fanciful stories and was only allowed to speak due to the richness of the humor that inevitably followed.
"They.. they want..." Glemish started breathing heavily, sweating again. This agitated the court: he often held his composure until they'd had a good ten minutes of mocking him. "THEY WANT THUH SLLY-EEDE, MY KING!" The words came out thick, thicker and globbier than the sweat plopping down his face and neck.
"CALM yourself, GLEM-ish. WHO wants MY ssslide?" Klotch was not as upset as the others, not visibly.
But Janus could see it through the warp. He's believing every malformed word.
Glemish whispered, so low only Doug without his earplugs and Vin heard it. They both let grim smiles appear, and Doug checked his armband.
They were well-worth learning the basics of jeweling and sewing.
"SPEAK louder GLEM-ish. or I shall MAKE you do so." Klotch now appeared angry, frustrated and more than a little afraid. Doug could see Chucho edging closer and closer to him along the rafters, expertly utilizing his terrible presence as he had done earlier.
"Bluh... Blacksnakes! BLACKSNAKES!" Glemish was quivering now as the terror crept closer, superliterally, his various sores, warts and deformations wobbling and leaking madly.
"Callsign Partium, affirmed." Janus was beaming, feeling the terror swim through the drug dealers, murderers, thieves and rapists.
King Klotch's swollen eye went wide, so wide it began to roll out of its fractured socket. "AND YOU CAME BACK HERE? I SHOULD KILL YOU WHERE YOU QHUAIL!" The room went silent at this.
"Callsign Atrisanguis, affirmed." Doug smiled. He spoke aloud, shouting the low, menacing whisper, the sibilance cutting across the silent room like a knife. "Indeed."
Glemish convulsed and bleated in terror, screaming and squealing apologies, sobbing.
"Commence strike." The specially prepared tracker bullet exited the barrel, the almost inaudible whine of the smart suppressor on Vin's big stubber drowned in the frightened murmur. It was halfway to its target when the lights cut out. The pop of the perfectly arced LT smoke grenade drowned out the sound of the bullet's impact to all but Klotch himself. He could only let out a confused squeak before realizing he still lived.
However, as Klotch began to rally his troops Chucho dropped into their midst, knife and powerful legs flashing. The milling throng turned into a chaotic riot, screaming and fleeing. Ev could see perfectly through the darkness and smoke, the malformed, distended bodies giving off extra heat due to metabolic inefficiency and physiological misconstruction. The great swarm, at least forty scavvies and almost all mutants, poured towards him. He thought briefly of them getting their hands on Violet and became a battle all his own, limbs seeming to fight each other for the privilege of killing them. Legs, knife and stubpistol put down mutants in short, brutal strokes and snapshots. Ev heard a few rounds crack out from behind him and smiled as Violet kept them off his flank. The horde fled with fresh abject terror the other direction. Few noticed as Vin's heavy stub rounds fell from the not-sky, bursting eyes and tearing apart misshapen skulls. Janus himself fired at the fringes of the crowd, his own shots slower and less sure than Vin's, but more than enough to kill his targets.
Doug smiled in bleak satisfaction at the carnage and could see Callie perk up just slightly out of the corner of his eye. In the few seconds since they'd started already a dozen scavvies were dead, a dozen more butchers and defilers removed from the hive.
Some will survive, escape, of course, it is a matter of design rather than percentages. The message they carried would be clear and last for decades in the underhive: Hive Tetra belongs to the Blacksnakes.
The crush poured in Doug and Callie's direction, and the pair unloaded in perfect unison. Doug thought back to his first weeks with the group, before they had a designation or operation, when the indoctrinated kids had only just received their new, real names. He'd thought, hoped, wanted Callie to be something more than she was, but she'd disappointed him. Try as he might, Doug couldn't get her to see why and how easy it would be. It was more than likely the indoctrination, but, knowing Vin, Doug thought Callie could be more, they all could be more, than simply a weapon to be directed and loosed.
The Calpurnia IIIs opened up and in seconds another dozen scavvies lay dead. No suppressors or flashstoppers on these, the weapons lit Doug and Callie up, their bodies black and all but featureless bar the armbands they wore. The gold gleamed fiercely in the muzzle flash, revealing the blackaquila in a strobing radiance that would be burned into the minds of the survivors. Everything was going to plan, and that was what worried Doug. Nothing ever goes to plan, not completely.
He saw something big, then, big and undeniably feminine, a monstrous parody of a human being, somehow both less and more inhuman than the other mutants. She knocked Chucho out with a single powerful blow, and Doug saw the problem. We're still outnumbered nearly three-to-one by the scavvies.
Ev moved towards the big woman, tried to get past her to the king. If Klotch fell their problems would cease, all semblance of morale forever banished from their foes. The immense woman, at two meters, one-hundred and forty kilos of deformed muscle, smashed Ev back with the flat of her enormous axe. He rolled out of it and took to the fight with relish. Violet tried to keep a bead on the monster-woman, but had to keep her shots at Ev's flank, give him the room he needed to avoid her powerful blows.
"Vin." Doug could almost hear the man concentrate his laser-like intensity on the task.
"Affirmative." The first shot rang out, but the axe moved in a flash, blocking the bullet with ease and Klotch began to rally his scavvies.
"Callie." Doug moved in fast, slinging his extra magazines into her pouch.
"I got it Doug, go."
They both nodded, all awkwardness and tension evaporating in the face of possible loss, of damage to their family. Doug pulled his knife and pistol, then waded through the crowd. Expertly placed shots and stabs disabled but didn't kill the scavvies. The carpet of writhing, contorted bodies, hamstringed and gutshot, formed a nearly impassable barrier for the less nimble between he and Callie. Ev dodged another tremendous blow and Doug fired, catching the woman in the shoulder as she blocked another sniper round with impossible speed.
"Vin, the King." Doug fired another shot, but the small caliber stubs seemed to soak harmlessly into the woman-thing's thick skin and corded muscle.
"Affirmative." Vin fired another shot, but the woman's phenomenal reach brought the axe into place again, and Klotch disappeared underneath his massive throne. Doug checked Chucho: weak, but alive. The syn'd thermal hood would keep his blood loss in check and hopefully mitigate the worst of the concussion. Ev fired his pistol, but the rounds seemed to do nothing, so he pocketed it and pulled his other knife.
Ev circled like a predatory animal, but not something noble or regal like a wolf or tiger. He was a badger, small, horrendously overmatched and loving every minute of it. The woman started to take cuts, nicks really, bleeding and slowing incrementally. She continued with her powerful blows, knocking Ev off his feet several times. Still, the boy's reflexes, sheer muscle mass, light armor and implants were equal to the task.
Doug joined in, baiting the woman, striking at where he guessed sensitive areas and important nerve bundles were located. Soon the rest of the scavvies scattered, fearing their champion's failure and more than willing to be gone before it happened. An unexpected, tremendous blow knocked Ev out cold and Doug took the defensive, utilizing agility and angles, dancing back over the carpet of bodies he'd woven moments ago. The woman-thing smiled brutishly and changed its movement, a clumsy imitation of his own capering. She lashed out with sudden speed and Doug barely managed to avoid the axe, taking a scrape on his chest. Her powerful fist impacted next and he was suddenly thankful he'd fought Furia last week, for before her he had no reference for this kind of punishment.
"Doug!" Callie tried and failed to push through the last dregs of the retreating force. Her own knife appeared and began carving a slow path, too slow. The big woman hefted Doug, grinning at him luridly, then spoke in a surprisingly measured and intelligent voice.
"You're the leader, aren't you, pinkskin?"
Doug saw her features closer, and decided she had to be a mutated Ogryn. She was especially odd in that her feminine features were even more exaggerated by mutation, taking her the opposite direction of an Ogryn. Too full lips, too large eyes, too white and even teeth for such a hideous beast.
"That doesn't matter. What matters is, well..." Doug looked pointedly over her shoulder.
He let out a beaming, bloody grin as Ev flew through the air, powerful legs cinching onto her back. His twin knives worked, dragging him up the troglodytic form. The boy seemed to be satisfied when his head drew just above hers, and the knives began to piston over and over into her grossly muscled back and shoulders. He seemed to be building up to something and her crushing grip on Doug's waist was finally broken by the staggering impact of Ev's forehead to the back of hers.
Callie leapt in front of Doug, crouching like a wolverine, only slightly less rabid and feral than Ev. A heavy round impacted the massive torso from Violet's stubber and more shots rang out from Janus and Violet, occupying the axe. Chucho began to stir and the woman-thing finally relented, slowing only long enough to peel Ev from her back. As the big woman moved towards the throne Klotch crawled out from underneath, looking even more pale and sickly than before.
The beastly woman moved with surprising speed, covering the intervening distance in an instant. "Pelagia, dohn't LEAVE me!" Klotch clutched feebly at her leg, weeping and mewling.
"Don't worry, lover, I won't."
The massive axe came down, splitting his upper body vertically into loose halves, and Pelagia trundled away. A single prodigious kick ruined the bracing that held the entrance to the lower reaches of the underhive open. The last they saw as rounds scattered, and Ev's thrown knife succeeded only in scratching her face, was Pelagia's sickeningly womanish smile.
Cleanup was fast and easy after a short break. The airvan mounted pressure hose sprayed protam at the few areas where their blood had been shed. Violet produced a smaller amount of azoic acid and she worked with Ev, still reeling with adrenaline boosted to near-killing levels by implants, to drench Klotch and his throne. All in all the combat took less than five minutes, and cleanup less than three. Physically weary and mentally tired, the group piled back into the van. Doug went last of all, still feeling unsatisfied by what had happened. He was sure Pelagia was the true mastermind behind this arm of the Slide cartel: she seemed far too well equipped and spoken to be a simple thug. Even an Ogryn couldn't take that kind of punishment without subdermal armor and muscle augments.
Chucho was alive, his syn'd hood proving remarkably durable. But he will need serious treatment. The drop was arranged and he was given over to good hands. None doubted they would see him again: a simple concussion, no matter how bad, was almost nothing compared to the Officio's existing investment in the boy. Vin, of all of them, seemed the happiest, he was proud to have killed, or at least witnessed the death of his target. Violet was exhausted and soon fell out against Ev, who finally calmed down from his adrenaline high at the realization she was sleeping against him. The trip was long and complex, the van's chameleon coating changing its appearance in various subtle and blatant ways at different times throughout its roundabout path. Janus was surprisingly alert, but Callie seemed drained, yawning and barely making any innuendo about the woman and Doug or Ev.
"Yeah, that was a real-uughh-ful tower, guys."
Doug felt it too, the weariness, and inwardly groaned at going to school Monday.
The sudden thought brightened his outlook just enough and after Doug parked the van, escorted the group to their townhouse and made it home, he had just enough left in him to write the surprisingly dull strike report.
Operation Arcanus Tuitio - Combat Operation #001 - After Action Report.
Then its subreport: OpArTut - C-001-G - Injury Report.
Doug knew he wouldn't be able to sleep until he finished the task. As he moved into an abbreviated set of forms, he found himself watching the door, wondering if he would hear the knock. Doug crawled into bed some time later, certain he would find the time to talk to Furia tomorrow.
Even as he did so, the thought of what came Tuesday made him shudder.
Perhaps I should have let good lady Pelagia have her fun with my body. Crushed ribs and punctured lungs would be preferable.
Still, despite the trepidation, Doug began to meditate and almost instantly fell into a deathlike sleep.
A Brave New Day - Monday, Septembris 19
Dawn broke cool and crisp over Imperator High. As the hot months ceded to cold, the storm season, the pseudoclash of cold and warm fronts, finally began to die down. Doug and Furia went to their respective lockers, no changes to their respective schedules. When she got to Bio he was already engrossed in his book, prereading the day's assignment. The morning was, thankfully, uneventful. No pop quizzes or tests, the first period Bio experiment a simple enzymatic analysis. They left for separate classes then, sparing only the least of glances at each other as they crossed paths. Hours and a routine game of separate gender soccer in PE later lunch finally came. As Doug put away his books, he noticed someone walking up behind him. He turned, acknowledging his fellow senior's presence before the outstretched hand could tap his shoulder.
"Vincent. And how are you?"
Vincent nodded. "Doug."
His pronunciation was clipped, to the point, devoid of anything nonessential. They headed to the cafeteria without another word. Doug and Vince walked briskly into the lunch room, grabbing plates of reconstituted nutritional paste, colloquially known as 'the goo' by the student populace. It didn't take long for them to transition to their usual area in the nearby gym; few in their group liked eating in the crowded lunch room. The pair walked in silence, getting along precisely because neither was fond of superfluous talk. Doug was capable in that regard, but only because so many people seemed to expect it, and for the many benefits it afforded him. Callie waved them over, far and away the most sociable of their circle, and they sat with their other friends. Despite the largely reclusive nature of their group Caroline, Everett or Vivian were always ready to talk about something. Today it was Ev, as Everett Sior, an Alban sophomore perpetually ready to fight or argue, preferred to be called.
"All I'm saying is, there's no reason to use artificial ingredients when you can use natural. They taste better, they have almost no chance of fouling the recipe, there's just no reason not to use them." Violet snapped the words out, olive cheeks red with frustration and invective, black ponytail bobbing in the noon sun.
"And 'All I'm saying'," Ev's words were snide, a mocking imitation of Violet's slightly nasal voice, "is that synthetic shit has a hell of a lot more kick to it for the price, and you can't get that with plant and animal based stuff." Misguided anger twisted his already bruised and swelling face, the result of a particularly trying fight the day before. It was a poorly concealed secret that he had more than passing interest in Violet Munev, and, despite his brash demeanor and recklessness on the scrumball field, he couldn't work up the nerve to tell her. Instead he provoked her into a shouting match at every opportunity, the heated exchanges a passable substitute for what he sorely desired. The conversation seemed especially vigorous today, likely owing to the position they were in last night.
Or the way Violet wrote it off. Doug thought. A snigger erupted from the other side of Vincent's broad shoulders and junior Caroline 'Callie' Lidus leaned forward, looking from one face to the other.
"I wish they'd just get it on and get over it, or she'd shoot him down so we didn't have to put up with this every day." She flipped her own blonde ponytail and leaned back, bright blue eyes still flitting, looking for a response to her hushed comment or the clearly presented tableau of her slender, inviting body. Doug found himself ignoring Callie, once again thinking about what happened with Furia friday night.
"Hey, where'd you place last week?" Doug was shaken out of his reverie by Ev's question.
"In the LFT, where'd you place?" Ev simply picked up his plate and sucked the mass of goo into his throat. The argument with Violet had given him fresh energy, probably enough to see him through the day.
"I believe fifth, overall, in my class." Ev smiled, always happy to see a boy make a good showing against the Royal Daughters, and Vincent nodded, out of a general respect for athletic prowess.
"I don't think anyone cares about that, Doug." Violet was looking directly at him, and he had to admit it wasn't easy to ignore her striking eyes. "After that stunt you pulled with Furia I don't think anyone here's going to remember LFT Day 297 as anything but the day Angron's daughter got knocked on her ass by a baseline." Callie smirked, and Doug suddenly realized his mistake in coming to school today.
The memory of walking by Furia in the hallway, of the almost imperceptible exchange of glances, came to mind. Vivid in his mental picture now was Caroline Lidus talking to Alpharia and Omegan in the hallway less than six meters away, wearing that same smirk and looking sidelong at him.
"Yeah, you really, uh, tore her sweet ass up there, Doug." Callie laughed knowingly, a behind-the-hand snicker befitting the most blue-blooded of girls.
Doug's left eye may have twitched, slightly, as he fought to retain his composure. In that moment he realized the secret was out. Janus blushed visibly and he smiled, Callie's titter roared into a guffaw and the rest rolled their eyes, except for Ev.
The scrumball player gestured impatiently with his hand, "Dude, come on, we gotta brofist over that!"
Doug refused to acknowledge Ev, and instead tried to think up damage control for later in the day, while picking at his food. He began to consider what Furia would do when, by day's end, virtually the entire school knew what had transpired over their weekend. He shuddered slightly, then set the thought aside and finished his meal.
"Can't believe you didn't tell me, man. You're fuckin' nuts for doing it, though." Ev licked the remaining goo off his fingers happily. "What was she like? I mean, I know she's angr-"
"That's quite enough, Ev."
"Seriously, though. Does she, you know, ha-" Doug sighed.
"Dude, it was the creepiest thing ever! I thought I was going to die!" Castor gestured explosively, the memory of that moment still fresh in his mind.
"Told you she's a freak, man, and not in the good way."
They all laughed a little at this, including Castor, who went on to exaggerate how terrifying it was. At the other end of the lunch room sat Miranda, red-faced and trying her best not to cry.
It wasn't working very well.
Around the room three people in particular took notice of the situation and decided to act on it. The first was Faith. Although she didn't bear a great deal of love for Miranda in particular, Faith knew the sting of mockery all too well. Not far away from Faith, having just returned from a quick smoke break, was Furia. She liked Miranda, Most of the time, but would've taken the chance to vent some anger at a deserving target regardless of why.
However, they both lost out to someone else, someone completely unexpected.
"Shut up! Nobody cares, Castor!" Simon bellowed, using his weighty frame to give his voice a bass even he didn't know he could access. Simon long had a small crush on Miranda, among several girls. But, more than that, he knew what it was like to be made fun of.
And he didn't like it.
"Stop being an asshole and just shut up!" Castor nearly fell out of his chair, having been cut off in the middle of his description, loudly, by Simon of all people. Very quickly his friends rallied around him, and they backed off just as quickly when Furia and Faith showed up behind Simon, looking displeased. The boys scattered without a second thought and Faith, blushing slightly, turned to say something to Simon.
"Hey, what's your name?" Simon blushed as Furia beat Faith to the punch.
"S-Simon." He suddenly felt very warm and sweaty.
"You're in my Bio class, aren't ya?" Simon nodded very slowly. "Good, I need a tutor." Furia gave him a small grin, and he couldn't help but smile widely in return.
In the hallway, some three hours later, Doug turned to regard Furia Angron as she walked up. "Ah, Furia. I was wondering if we could have a word in priva-"
Her form was perfect, her arm cutting through the air. It carried his body upwards in a magnificent display of power. The impact was tremendous, akin to an out-of-control bus ploughing into an intersection. Doug was lifted bodily into the air, his feet clearing a meter-and-a-half vertical as he rolled through the atmosphere, plummeting back down to earth in a limp heap some two meters away. Furia paused only to glare at Doug, teeth grinding, a single eyebrow raised and twitching.
"See what you get when you fucking make shit up about me, motherfucker!" She stormed off to the parking garage.
Doug came out of his daze moments later, but decided to stay on the ground, resting. He was satisfied with this until a large, angry shape darkened his field of view.
"My office, NOW." The last word was not excessively loud, but somehow portended all the threat and danger in the world.
"Of course, Dean Yarrick." Doug replied.
Some amount of stumbling and staggering later, assisted vigorously by the good dean, Doug fell into the same wooden chair Furia had occupied several times only last week.
It even smells faintly of her.
Yarrick sat in his own seat, turning to look out the window, to watch students file dutifully or not so dutifully onto the buses.
"Do you have a death wish, son?"
"I'm sorry, Dean. Again, please?"
Yarrick turned back, ready to dole out another one of his trademark tongue lashings, centered on the importance of paying attention. Instead he saw the young man removing the second of a pair of clean ear plugs.
"I have sensitive hearing, my apologies. Also, it seems Miss Angron's displeasure left me with some ringing. Please, continue."
Yarrick chewed his tongue for a moment, then repeated the question. "Are you a moron?"
"I wonder sometimes, sir. Moreso lately."
"Don't play smart with me, kid, I'm not in the mood for you or any of your little group's shenanigans." Yarrick's face bore down, seeming to swell and fill the whole of Doug's sight.
"We're quite large, actually." He did not flicker, did not break composure once. Even the barest smirk refused to appear.
Yarrick fumed, his organic eye bulging obscenely, wordlessly promising a painful end to another such retort.
"Now, normally, spreading rumors about what you've done or want to do, or what you think is going to sound impressive? That's not my concern. This school has its fair share of gossip. But everybody here knows better than to start scuttlebutt about Furia Angron. Even Lady Victoria and Selphy know better."
Yarrick paused for a moment, producing a stout cigar and puffing it to life. The smoke wallowed out the window. "So, I'm only going to ask you once: did you do it?"
"Do what, Dean?" Yarrick simply turned and glared, augmetic eye whirring intermittently. His stone-faced gaze was legendary, having crushed a thousand students into submission, forced a hundred shameful confessions and broken up dozens of fights. It was also rumored to be capable of shattering the morale of whole squads of Ork Boyz. I've seen some slippery bastards in my time, but this kid's as slippery as they get. Doug stared back almost sleepily, as if completely unconcerned by Yarrick's steely glower. Legend holds that a freshman entered the office unawares at this time. Upon seeing Yarrick's countenance the unfortunate soul evaporated into a mist of blood, brain matter, flesh and bone.
He is considered lucky.
After a period of no less than five minutes Doug's lips parted, the words hissing out, "I admit I made an attempt to mislead others as to the status of my relationship with Miss Angron."
"Nothing." Doug's face was completely open and honest now. "We have no relationship, besides a series of physical encounters of which you are already largely aware." Doug finished, smiling. Yarrick did not release the withering look for some time, sure there was something missing here. But the boy's face betrayed no dishonesty and just a hint of shame. Yarrick dismissed him with a curt nod, then turned back around. Doug got up to leave, but a heavy cough stopped him at the door.
"Just be careful, Hanlon. Furia's a tough girl, but the people who care about her are even tougher. Understand?"
Doug looked back, the corners of their eyes meeting, and nodded before leaving. He hurried through the building, his steps as measured and silent as a thief's, and arrived at the parking garage in short order. Doug was greeted by a black blur, an unstoppable force that raced through the air as quiet as a cat. Even as he realized what it was his reaction proved inadequate to avoid the impending catastrophe. The collision nearly took Doug off his feet, succeeded wholly at knocking the air out of his lungs and reawakened his slumbering stomach pain. A high pitched squeal erupted, grating on the ears of all those present.
"OhmygodareyouokayweweresoscaredwethoughtyoudiedandthenYarrickshowedupanditgotworseandwe-" Violet stopped and looked up at Doug, at the very aggrieved wince on his face. She let go. "Sorry, sorry."
"That's-" Doug wheezed and took another breath, "That's fine Violet. I appreciate the gesture, figuratively speaking."
The rest just stood around, one-by-one turning their collective gaze from the pair to an increasingly ruddy Callie. "Alright, alright fine. My bad. I really thought you guys had... you know."
Doug let his frustration play through in his voice and features when he spoke, "As well you should be Caroline, you know we're expressly instructed not to interfere in the lives of the Royal Daughters. I would request you apologize to her yourself," Callie flinched visibly, an almost obscene reaction compare to her usual cocky demeanor, "but I am keenly aware of how that would play out. I suspect our benefactor's upcoming diatribe will be more than enough. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to rest." With a nod he departed, catching a public airbus to hab block 127.
An hour later as Doug walked along his floor, grimacing with each step, a flurry of tabac smoke and odd scents erupted from the neighbor's room. She emerged, chattering in a barely comprehensible slur of extremely accented low gothic.
"Please, please Miss Hoshiko, I need a moment. I was involved in an altercation at school." She stopped babbling and looked pointedly at him, "Five minutes, please."
Miss Hoshiko nodded and returned to her room. Doug stepped into his own and closed the door quietly, then exhaled. All the pent up stress and frustration of the day coalesced into a warm mist in the apartment's cool air. He shed his bag and books, shoes slid neatly off his feet and he began to doff his shirt when a loud scuff sounded outside the door. "Please, Miss Hosh-" Doug stopped, a strange feeling in the corner of his mind. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't quite place his finger on the issue. He listened, very slowly and quietly removing his ear plugs. Vigilance came from the other side of the door, more felt than heard, a sign that the sounds were too low for conscious recognition.
Low, but not absent.
Doug waited another two minutes while realizing that, whatever was on the other side of the door, Miss Hoshiko would be dealing with it in a few minutes if he didn't now. He picked up a jug of water, cooled by the room's low ambient temperature, and held it high, ready for use as a makeshift weapon. He opened the door, very carefully exerting pressure such that the latch was not in contact with the receiver's inner surface when it moved. He paused with the latch disengaged, invisible from the outside, for another thirty seconds.
Furtiveness is patience, after all.
When he was absolutely sure he was ready Doug flung the door open, the hinges he'd oiled himself ensuring no unwanted noise issued forth. The jug shot up high in his left hand, ready to strike as he stepped over the threshold, his senses on high alert, his mind in overdrive, eyes taking in every detail of his enemy.
Tall, lean-muscled, built for equal amount of strength and speed. Scars show experience fighting, possibly a pathological compulsion to do so, but with enough sense, enough survival instinct retained to avoid truly suicidal action. Leather jacket could be hiding a firearm, but more likely an innocuous close-quarters weapon.
Eyes are perceptive, belying cunning, an atavistic inclination unburdened by thought and reaction. Hair is red, roots showing, died to conceal identity; long, but not long enough to create a weakness.
Lips show signs of biting and dryness, suggestive of impatience and a lack of concern for appearance despite their... fullness and natural part.
Doug stopped focusing on the details and allowed the larger picture to assemble.
This revealed Furia, wearing a look of unparalleled annoyance in addition to his leather jacket. He let his shoulders relax and stood up out of his slight crouch. The water jug dropped from striking position to a level easy for Miss Hoshiko, whose door opened at that exact moment, to grab.
"Tankeh yoo, Hanlon-kun." The sound of children, an impossible amount of children, filtered into the hall from her apartment. The older woman gave Doug a curt bow, which he returned with one hand folded over a fist, then looked over at Furia, dark eyes flashing. She let loose a high crowing sound and nodded again, ducking back through her door.
"What, you hittin' that?" Furia quipped.
Doug turned to her and responded instantly and casually. "Quite the opposite, actually."
Furia's eyes bulged, and a stream of surprised air hissed from her mouth.
"Miss Hoshiko is an unarmed combat specialist–or karateka, as she calls it–and has been teaching me the finer points of certain ancient martial arts."
"You need the help?" Furia raised an eyebrow at the notion, well remembering how capable he was in a fight.
"She requires the water, I have too much hydration and free time as it is. Now, please, come inside." Doug pushed the door back open, a firm wave of his arm ushering in Furia. He looked around again, unsure if she was the presence he sensed earlier. He saw nothing, heard nothing and finally relented as the girl audibly lit up a lho stick. "Please, Miss Angron," Doug snatched the roll from her lips, a single finger deftly extinguishing the few living cinders. "You know better."
Furia, surprisingly, just laughed. "Boy, somebody's panties are in a twist today, huh?"
"It has been a.. relatively unpleasant day, yes." Doug massaged his aching stomach.
"I was thinking the same thing, time to blow off a little steam." She dropped the jacket and pulled in close, kissing him on the jaw. One hand took the smoke back and tucked it behind her ear. She stopped when he didn't react, pulled back and blushed a little at the approving look on his face.
"I see, very good, Furia." Doug's eyes turned thoughtful, his hands now moving up her arms. "I had not the slightest suspicion."
She blushed more at the look of unabashed respect he gave her, and laughed it off. "It's easy to play to form." She started again. "That bitch get the message?"
"Yes, I believe she's been sufficiently rebuked."
"Good." Furia replied between kisses. "Let's get this show on the road."
A few levels below, Arbitrator-Patrolman Idiam Thar sat in his cell, arms crossed, breathing easily. Imperial justice has been served. The images and sounds played through his mind again, proposing a simple sweep of block #113 to his Commander Friday night, starting at the school and moving outwards. He'd already found the overdosed schoolboy last Sunday, then the dealer; Winhus, who rolled over on the other eight dealers they'd found that Friday night. It was clear something was going on, a large and well-hidden slide trafficking operation. Finding Patrolman Agissa's badge at the clearinghouse only sealed the deal. But Commander Baren had resisted, every step of the way. Only the smallest digging and searching yielded a motive: Agissa had been passing his payments on to Baren directly, keeping only a small cut for himself.
Thar smiled, a rare, harsh smile. He deserved it. Crimes – official misconduct; perverting the course of Imperial Law, appended; resisting detainment, appended. Verdict – guilty. Sentence – death. He was honestly surprised when Marshal Courkan had simply thrown him in a cell instead of executing him in turn. The block door creaked open, rusty, dry hinges carrying through easily into his dank cell. A shadow darkened the cell door slit, and the barest glint of grave eyes showed through as it was unlocked. A man stepped in, and Thar immediately stiffened up, even releasing a sharp gasp as he sat at attention.
“Please, relax Arbitrator.” A man, impossibly old and severe, stood in front of Idiam, hands clasped behind his back. Despite his great age, the Judge bore a fatherly air, his movements and voice vibrant, even dynamic. The Judge wore a halo of white hair that perfectly matched his furrowed skin at first glance. Oddly, though, the crown itself was thick and full, as if the baldness had cut off neatly instead of thinning away gradually. His face was alert, intelligent, and the nature of his eyes was unreadable. Like many in the Arbites his jaw was solid, powerful; when he spoke his lips moved with unexpected grace, matching the tone of his voice, smooth and limber.
“Of course, Judge Albrecht.” Despite the affirmation Thar barely relaxed at all, and the Judge smiled at this.
“Do you know why I am here, Patrolman Thar?”
Idiam nodded. “Because I executed Commander Baren.”
Albrecht turned and stepped, evidently relaxed even around the younger and stronger man. “That is correct. You claim he was corrupted, that he was taking payments from a Patrolman. Agissa, I believe?”
Thar nodded again. “Yes, a cursory inspection of security logs showed Agissa entering his office once a month on the fifteenth, which matches up with the dealer's description of his payoff schedule.”
“So you executed him for this, rather than starting an investigation?” The Judge paced the other direction.
“Yes. He would have stopped any attempt at an investigation and likely had me sanctioned for being aware.”
“And you did this, knowing full well what the result would be if you were found in the wrong?” Another turn.
“Yes, I-” Thar stopped, and after a moment his mouth caught up to his thoughts. “If?”
Albrecht faced Thar once more, eyes twinkling with mirth. “Yes. If.”
Idiam sat there for a minute, dumbfounded. “So, you're not here to-”
“I'm afraid not, Patrolman Thar. I'm here for two entirely different reasons. The first is to notify you of your promotion. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you, Arbitrator-Detective Thar.” Albrecht offered his hand, and shook Idiam's graciously. “Second, it is my honor to present you with this, the Tetra Silver Order of Valor, for exceptional courage under extenuating circumstances. May we all learn from your example.”
Thar took the commendation, gleaming richly even in the dark cell, and found himself without words.
“Please, take a day to recuperate Detective.” Albrecht turned to leave and looked back over his shoulder. “Then get back to work, I believe you still have a slide cartel to dismantle.”
Hours later and above once more, Doug was moving through the slow, relaxing forms again, gently stretching and relaxing each muscle in turn.
"Why do you hang out with her anyway?" Furia shrugged into Doug's leather jacket and relaxed visibly.
"Yeah, the blonde one. Real bendy apparently." Furia clapped her hands together and flexed the fingers back and forth.
"Indeed." He shifted into a series of hard steps and rigid arm placements, each a variation of what was known as a mountain block. He winced slightly with the motions, profoundly aware of how often he'd been doing so in the past week. He now had another, deeper pair of marks on his right shoulder, almost perfectly symmetrical with those on his left. "We are in the same group, nothing more. I'm aware of some desire for more from her, but she is too young, her motivations too questionable. I feel that, more than anything, I would be simply be convenient." A small collection of other wounds, not as fresh as his right shoulder, but fresher than the left dotted his body, including a long claw mark down his back from last night. Doug suspected Furia was holding back more anger at the school's awareness of their activities than she let on.
Perhaps shame or embarrassment. Stigma over a simple human need, seen as a weakness. Doug looked over at Furia, clad only in his leather jacket, the only reminder of his family he'd brought to Terra. I must admit I am not displeased that she's elected to continue our affiliation in light of today's events. Doug looked again, admiring the effect the jacket had, somehow an enhancement over her bare form in the low light. Or perhaps it is mere novelty. He thought for a moment, then shook his head. No, there's something more. Furia seemed comforted by it, and that magnified her. She saw him looking, and rolled her eyes, exhaling another cloud of smoke to cover the blush he was sure followed.
"So, did Yarrick let you have it?" Furia smirked, always happy to see someone else on the receiving end of Yarrick's wrath.
"Ah yes, Dean Yarrick, charming fellow. I can see why you two are so friendly."
"Pfft. I'm not friends with Yarrick." Furia shook her head at the notion, as if he'd suggested the moon were to fall on them tonight.
"I might have been mistaken." Doug let out a low, hissing breath as part of the form. "His line of questioning seemed to have a particularly concerned slant."
Furia thought back to the many, many shouting matches she'd gotten into with Yarrick. As Doug moved through the motions of his form she slipped forward in time, noticing a trend in Yarrick's office visits. They'd gone from shouting and accusation to questioning, and finally to a low-key conversation, fraught with suggestions and quiet patience. Despite the rumors, and her overall impression of the situation, Furia realized that her time in the office with Yarrick was probably the most relaxed she felt on any given school day.
Or was, until I started this... thing. Furia murmured very quietly, but Doug didn't hear, and didn't press the issue. "Don't dodge the question though, fucker." The lone pillow soared through the air and was met by a crisp mountain block, sending it in a crazy spiral onto the small stack of water jugs.
"What happened? I heard a freshman walked in and about had a heart attack when he saw Yarrick's face."
"It was... intense." Doug stood at a ready stance, hands clasped neatly behind his back, and shrugged, "I must say, I can see some truth to the rumors that Commissar Yarrick could scatter enemy forces with only a stern look." Doug's face suddenly contorted, bulging madly and convulsing in a frighteningly accurate rendition of Yarrick's trademark evil eye. Furia snorted, almost losing the lho stick as it fell out of her mouth, and laughed long and low. Doug slid back into bed with the pillow and she shrugged out of the jacket, half splaying out onto him again. The air pushed softly through her wild thatch of hair.
She hated her hair. I can never get it the right color, never get it to look like anything decent without 'compromising tactical viability. But Furia also hated the coiffed and primped hair Victoria and some of the other girls had as well and could never figure out how to make it to the halfway point that Isis, Roberta or Angela seemed to reach so easily. As if reading her thoughts Doug's hand settled lightly on hers, twisting in her hair. He pulled it down to his chest, then returned, massaging her scalp gently.
"I'm fond of it. I think it... reflective of you."
"Yeah, ugly and damaged." Furia sighed loudly, a puff of air throwing the offending hair up.
"No, unique. Practical, colorful and, truth be told, a little angry." Furia listened to Doug's pulse, his breathing and smiled. She could tell he wasn't lying or exaggerating, or even skirting the truth like he'd done so many times before. Just speaking what he meant, he felt. They lay like that for a time, and she felt him start to drift off. A question suddenly popped into her head and she asked without moving, head bobbing over his chest as her jaw sunk into muscle and rooted there.
"What's up with her anyway, with them?"
"Hmm?" Doug shook out of his half-sleep.
"You know. Your friends, those kids you hang out with at school."
"They were all selected long ago for an educational program. I was a last minute addition. I... I filled a spot that had been left open." Furia heard Doug's heart quicken a bit and knew he was concealing the truth again. Not outright lying, but beating around the bush. There was something else, though, a flutter, a tremble, something painful.
It'd be better to just let him have this one. She sat up suddenly, her chest dropping heavily and sliding over his, distracting him perfectly. Their eyes met, and his hand slid down to the back of her neck. "Hey, you don't, uh, plan on meeting my dad anytime soon, do you?"
"I understood your meaning last time, Furia." The words rasped with weariness.
"No, I mean... you don't plan on being near him anytime for the next day, maybe two?" The barest hint of apprehension crept into Furia's voice.
"Not that I am aware of."
"Good. 'Night." Furia kissed Doug, lingering a little longer than appropriate for a good night kiss, then laid back down to listen to him again. "Say hi to Freya for me tomorrow."
His heart had sped up a little when she'd excited him, but he was calming down. "I don't believe I have any classes with Miss Russ."
"She'll be around." Furia drew the cover up a little higher, snugging it firmly over her shoulder, "Trust me."
Far Worse - Tuesday, Septembris 20
The duty room at Precinct 23 was not impressive, at least not compared to other duty rooms in other Precinct Courthouses. Its walls described a rectangle precisely fifteen meters wide and thirty meters long, with the ceiling exactly five meters overhead. Long panel displays lined the walls and a single, massive oak table dominated the center. It had seats enough for thirty comfortable Arbites functionaries and Arbitrators, and bore the signs of long years with quiet dignity: scars, pits and discolorations abounding. It seemed alone now, even mournful as three or four tired and sunken-eyed Detectives puttered around, sipping cold, stale caf from staler paper cups. The few patrols Precinct 23 had out at five in the morning trailed along serenely on their respective holodisplays, projecting a half-meter away from the wall to encompass all three dimensions. The table sat empty, a few chairs turned around and set askew, the surface bare save for a half-empty box of old sweetened phyllo, dry and crumbly.
The morning shift began to pick up, the weary night personnel dutifully logging out before shuffling off to home for a chance to sleep. Office workers came in first, simple observers and information processors, they were bored, boring and dressed in plain clothes. They began to move about and perform vague, sometimes meaningless tasks, the room and its work unchanged in their passing. The Arbitrator-Detectives began to arrive next, and the stale phyllo disappeared quickly, eaten and replaced with fresh sweetbuns. The murmur and chatter increased; the 24 hour crime record began to pick up and the display panel promptly filled with fresh data, then began scrolling with yet more. More Detectives arrived, more crimes, the room now nearly at its thirty person intended capacity. The morning report was quickly assembled, the late night and early day's information compiled, sifted and distilled to the broadest patterns and most important actions. There was no Commander to read the summary, the man having been executed for perverting the course of Imperial law. So the report was filed away, waiting to be sent to the empty office, where it would simply wait more.
The stirring slowed, buzz and palaver dulled and ceased. Another Arbitrator-Detective entered the room. He fit in perfectly, flint gray eyes and granite chin set grimly in anticipation of a hard day's work. Recently promoted Arbitrator-Detective Idiam Thar was of average height, powerfully built–despite his unassuming profile–and younger than his worn countenance suggested. He'd worked a disturbing case involving cultists last week, and met resistance when he tried to gain warrant for a twenty block sweep of the area around school #113. It'd taken only a few minutes of questioning to realize Commander Baren was in with the Slide dealers, in deep. At-the-time-Patrolman Thar didn't think twice about pulling his pistol and ending the man. Though the investigation that followed was thorough and blame-seeking, Idiam had ultimately been absolved of all wrongdoing, then given a commendation and promotion for this fine work.
The new Detective didn't ask or think twice about picking up the morning report before it left. About putting in his own careful and thorough report of the overdose, the corrupt Commander and the discovery of the area's drug dealers following a simple domestic disturbance call. Idiam smiled bleakly as he tucked in the last addendum, on the detainment-chastening of Patrolman Ippit Agissa, which had led them to a dozen other dealer nests covering a few hundred blocks. He'd earned a Service Distinctia after that, another commendation to go with the Order of Valour he'd received for dealing with Baren, both now tucked away in his desk. Still, despite everything he'd done, Thar was looked down on, considered too new to the job. He'd brought up concern that uncut slide showed up at a school, and had done the barest preliminary footwork. It didn't take him long to find a number of other such cases, and he had the feeling it would form a pattern with proper inspection.
So Thar left, left the digital records and holodisplays, and headed downstairs. The storage room was massive, containing hard copies of nearly all the bureaucratic procedure they'd followed for twenty years. Every year anything over twenty was sent to the even more massive deep repository under Precinct 15 for final storage.
An hour later, Arbitrator-Detective Idiam Thar sat in the musty conservation room, pathetically small even for a low-hive Precinct, and set down the enormous file he and the clerk had assembled. Every strange, unlikely or unexplained death in Hive Tetra in the past twenty years was in this file. Or at least should be. Thar thought as he took a cursory scan through its contents. At least fifty sheets of hard copy from the past year had been redacted by his former Commander, Baren Radador.
Still have plenty to work with.
A few hours later, and a few hundred meters higher up, a conversation between student and teacher wound down. "Thanks Professor Qruze, I wasn't sure if the Caucasus Wastes were an ethnarchy or a hegemony. I'll see you tomorrow!" Isis strode cheerily out the door knowing that, like every day, Julius would be waiting for her. It was the high point of her day before lunch. Julius saw his girlfriend round the corner from the History classroom, and his eyes softened immediately, growing warm with affection. Still, he Saw something was upsetting her and resolved without question to pry the issue out of her.
"Isis." Julius greeted her warmly, or at least as warmly as he was willing to in public. She shifted her books easily to her left hand, leaving the right free for Julius to take, and thought briefly about giving him a peck on the cheek. The memory of the last and only time she'd done so came to mind. Isis couldn't help giggle at the memory of the normally composed Julius suddenly turning red-faced and uncoordinated. "Julius." She settled for a firm squeeze of the clasped hand.
"I trust Professor Qruze cleared up your question about the Caucasus polity?"
"Yeah, I still think you could call it a hegemony, too. But history's already been made, no reason to argue about it. Especially when an A+ is on the line."
Julius smiled briefly, then probed deeper. "There's something else on your mind, isn't there?"
"Well, I was wondering if you wanted to go try that new restaurant in Solvang District, Galtic Ksine..."
Julius' smile returned, knowing. "Not that. Of course I do. But you know what I mean."
"Well..." Isis sighed, her own composure now relaxing as they left the mass of students behind. I should've known better than to try and hide it. "I'm worried about Miranda." Julius returned the squeeze now, and the physical reassurance pushed Isis to admit her concerns. "Arthur really upset her, and then what happened at lunch yesterday. I don't know what would've happened if Simon wasn't there." Another sigh. "It feels like I'm losing her, Julius. Every time we try to bring Miranda out of her shell, she just ends up deeper inside." "She's a psyker, she can see more than we could ever imagine. She sees inside of people, and believe me few should ever have to see the darkness in the hearts of men."
"But if she doesn't try she's just going to end up sad and alone. I wish she was lucky like Angela. Michael was just there for her whole life."
“All we can do is be there for her, Isis. As long as she has you, Angela, Freya and the others she’s never going to disappear. There’s someone out there for everybody, including Miranda. Someone who won’t care that she has a third eye or the power of the Warp, who will love her regardless.”
Isis thought for a long moment as they walked. "I guess.. I guess I already knew that. I just didn't know if it was right, if I should do more. Thanks, Julius." The hand drifted up to his face, provoking a small blush. "You're my compass." They walked in silence a little longer, before Isis noticed that same knowing smile plastered across his face. 'How does he always know?
"You're worried about Petra, too."
"Yeah... it seems like every time we really start to get close she gets scared, runs away to Victoria or Roberta. And then a couple weeks later she's back. I just don't understand her."
“More people need to realize how smart she is. She’s a genius, but no one ever sees it between you and Roberta. You drown her out.”
"I don't try to, it's just... she never asserts herself. And every time we try to get her to open up, she just runs off again.” Her eyes became downcast. “It's like she's afraid to really be friends with anybody. To trust anyone."
"Just give her time, Isis. Roberta's nice, and she'll be just as good a friend as you. As long as you keep her away from Victoria, Petra shouldn't have any problems coming into her own."
"Well, If she’s anything like her father, she'll be a good friend if I can get through to her. At least, that's what dad told me." Isis finished, and they walked in comfortable silence for another minute, enjoying each other's presence, but eventually Isis had to break off and head to English with Professor Oliton. Julius continued, only to find his path to Cogitator Science interrupted by something blonde.
"Caroline, what can I do for you?" He said, voice polite and measured.
"Hey Julius, Isis around?" Callie stood comfortably in the middle of the hall, a little too close.
"I think you already know the answer to that question. What do you really want?"
Callie stepped a little closer, edging a little more into Julius' comfort zone. "Just wondering where you're going?"
"I have Cogitator Science in five minutes, Caroline."
"Well, that's more than enough time to..." Callie waved a hand. "Talk."
"Well, despite all appearances, you are here to talk." His tone was sure: Julius had already learned to See through Callie's constant innuendo as the distraction it was. The girl let out a frustrated sigh, but saw it fail to provoke any real reaction from Julius and relented.
"I'm just worried about Doug. He seems to have a thing for Furia... I don't know if it's good for him."
"I think Doug can handle himself, if that's what you're worried about. He hasn't seem to have had any real trouble with her so far. You, on the other hand..." Callie's eyes bulged, but only briefly. This wasn't the first time she'd been blindsided by Julius seeing through her, but she still wasn't used to it.
"Well, what do you think I should do?"
Callie laughed bitterly, but it sounded derisive despite her feelings.
"You're concerned about more than just Furia. If you're afraid of him leaving or being taken away, you should be honest with him. Be honest with yourself. This isn't just Furia taking him away, Callie. He has feelings as well, and he's acting on them. Maybe you should talk to him about it, instead of just avoiding it. You may not like the answer you get, but it's better than no answer at all." Julius saw the gears turning in Callie's head, and knew he'd done all he could. "Now, I need to get to class Caroline. Please, think about what I said." He headed off to Cogitator Science, leaving Callie alone with her thoughts and feelings.
A long and arduous day preceded Doug's afternoon, chock full of tests, extra assignments and reminders of semester projects. He'd heard whispers, bathroom gossip confirmed almost joyfully by Callie, that Furia had been in a fight with Hana at the beginning of the day, precipitated by a scratch on her bike. He had seen them talking before, like they were thinking each other's thoughts, sisters almost as close as The Twins.
It seems this relationship is temperamental, the tiniest change becoming a complete swing to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Doug hadn't seen Furia all day and had assumed she'd been sent home for one reason or another; the news of her fight with Hana only confirmed his suspicions. Perhaps that is why Freya never showed up. She had other sororal responsibilities to tend.
He continued to put books away, trying to keep his mind busy, keep it off of what was coming after school. Doug could almost hear it, the rumble of the black car, quiet as a wraith, exuding the lines and antique dignity of the very first luxury cars from over thirty thousand years ago. He could see it now, hovering ominously in his mind, the gently rounded boxlike rear, the long, elegantly sloping vector wells, the massive grill and flat front balancing the gentle curves of the vehicle. The design was not one of performance, at least not the body, but aesthetics, almost proud in their defiance of aerodynamics. Against his will the mental door opened, the inside somehow blacker than the outside despite his experience. Of course it is a neat, charcoal gray in the real world. The darkness is a product of memory, of emotion.
Doug finished placing books in his backpack and closed the locker, then turned. “Ah, Miss Russ.” His heartbeat elevated in surprise, he had expected to see her today, but not so suddenly. “I assume this is about Furia?” Across the hall was a woman, a girl, really. She was there naturally, timelessly, as if she had taken up watch long ago. As if the school were erected and the lockers installed carefully around her.
Freya Russ. Her long hair, a bright, natural red, was braided in a manner reminiscent of the ancient vikings, a major inspiration for the pre-Crusade technobarbarians. Freya was sizing him up for Furia's benefit, amber eyes flicking here and there, and so Doug did the same. She clearly possessed the bearing and presence of a warrior. Her face was sharp and feral, but a noble strain of feral. Long, lean muscle lay thick over her limbs and core. The overall effect was that of a predator. Freya's proud, domed forehead was concealed behind long bangs, hanging down past her eyes. A pair of small cowlicks stood up from the thick tresses at either side of her crown, both completing the wolfish look started by her fangs and complementing the narrowing of her face from prominent cheekbones to pointed chin. She was not made unfeminine by these traits; in fact, they created the opposite effect. The savagery seemed to break the bounds of propriety, but not dignity. Freya's body was athletic, powerful, but also carnal, balancing violence and pleasure equally. She finally moved, her vigil broken, and began to talk.
“Furia's been spending a lot of time with you. Almost since the day Coby let his libido replace his survival instincts.”
“Yes, dreadful situation to be in. But, we didn't spend any... significant time together until friday.”
“I don't have a problem with her being happy. In fact, after what Coby did, it's probably for the best.” Freya crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the lockers behind her.
“Thing is, though... I don't know anything about you. Furia'd never met you before last week. So, is there anything she needs to know?”
"Just that I have only good intentions in mind." Doug smiled, his face open and honest, his breathing and heartbeat normal.
“Are you using her?”
“Are you putting her in danger?”
“No more than she was already in.”
Freya stood now. “Where are you from?”
“A little backwater world called Bolanion.”
“What do your parents do?”
“They work at the local post. Back home, of course.”
“When did you get here?”
“I started this year.” Doug nodded. “My senior year.”
Freya's eyes narrowed. “How did you get into Imperator?”
“I was brought in by a high-ranking member of the Adeptus Terra.”
“I'm not at liberty to say.”
“Stop dancing." Freya said curtly. Her hands fell to her sides, and Doug caught a glimpse of two wolf's-head tattoos on her arms before sleeves concealed them once more. “I'm asking you some pretty basic shit, here. Why are you trying to distract me?”
Doug crooked an eyebrow. “Distract you from what, Miss Ru-”
“Let me make something abundantly clear to you.” Freya cut him off with a snap. “You're actively avoiding answering questions here. Is that supposed to make me trust you?”
"If you find my answers unsatisfactory, please, feel free to ask again.” Doug recalled details long ago cached away in his mind. Freya Russ was more than just genetically enhanced: senses wrought by the Canis Helix allowed her a level of physical perception into behavior and appearance that he simply couldn't match, and thus couldn't conceal. So he didn't. "Am I to believe there is a reason for..." He gestured comfortably. "This?"
"Sure." Freya nodded. "I don't trust you."
“Of course. And how am I to remedy that?"
"You could start by just telling me what I want to know. In fact." Freya said, cocking her head. "Does she even know your last name?"
"Yes. I told her during our encounter with Dean Yarrick last monday. She knows most everything you know. She also knows that I have a twin brother, that I like old musclecars and that I cook an excellent pot of loseyn."
Freya bared her fangs at that, the last in a long line of bullshit answers. The action had never failed to get her to the truth of a matter, and she only rarely used it.
Doug rolled his eyes, and his voice came out thick with frustration. “Please, Miss Russ. If I am to see Furia again, tonight or in the future, I'll have to contend with something far worse than you.”
It was Freya's turn to roll her eyes, then raise an eyebrow. “Angron?” Her voice was dripping with contempt.
Doug sighed and cringed visibly. “That will also be an issue.” He pulled on his coat, each movement bringing a myriad of scents from the garment: the reek of grime, chemicals, urban decay, meat, spices and vegetables, sweat, promethiate exhaust, astringents and a thousand other smells. Below all that, nearly four days old and only just imprinted, was Furia. Like her sisters Freya was worried about the girl, who always seemed on the edge of plunging into a world of chems and excess. Still, she was satisfied he was being honest about this, at least.
"I gather it's too much to assume I'm a... member of the pack now?" Doug was calm, completely composed again.
Freya gave him another once over, a quick appraising look, then nodded to herself. "No, but it's a... first step." Her posture and tone of voice made it obvious she was not wholly convinced he was trustworthy, but relented that his intentions towards her sister were good enough.
"Excellent." Doug moved his right shoulder, shifting the backpack. "Ah, yes. Furia asked me to tell you something." He waved briskly, smiled genially. "Hi."
Freya's demeanor changed again, where before she was almost predatory, now she was more akin to a pup, friendly and restless. "Oh, thanks." She paused, unsure what to say. "So... how many times?" She blanched even as the words came out, patently offensive to most people.
"Two nights, no more. Last friday and monday, yesterday night, of course." Doug's face became slightly surer, no implication of a particular emotion, just an upbeat posture.
"Uh... Great." The conversation turned awkward as Freya realized she knew next to nothing about the man, only gleaning from Miranda today his name and a rough outline of his schedule.
"It's been interesting, Miss Russ." Doug extended his right hand, firm and unwavering. Freya grasped it and he clasped his left over hers gently, pulling slightly and giving the shake three smooth pumps before letting go."But, unfortunately, I have a schedule to keep."
"Oh, alright." Freya was relieved, but not visibly so. Doug turned to leave, but stopped at the sound of Freya inhaling just slightly. He turned back to see her, a single fang bared, her look knowing.
"And tell her I said hi, 'kay?"
"Of course, Freya." Doug bowed lightly, "Have a fine evening."
"You too!" She skipped and bounded away, all fire and furor, barely contained by a not quite mortal coil.
Charming. Doug walked down the hall, around the corner, and was unsurprised to find his lunch group there waiting for him. "Ah, yes. My apologies. I had a-"
"Yeah, we heard." Ev quipped. "Thought we were going to have to bail your ass out." His eyes glazed briefly at the thought of wrestling with the hard-bodied Freya, "Hoped, even."
"Who cares about that?" Callie was smirking again, even more self-satisfied now that yesterday's ignominy, the only blemish on her perfect gossip record, was erased. "I wanna hear about Furia." She stood and stretched from her seat against the locker, a single eyebrow quirking. "Or join in maybe?"
Doug looked at Janus, his stare snapping the suddenly starry-eyed youth back to the present. "I doubt that. I assure you that today's Appraisal will be far more dreadful than any such evening could be worth."
Janus nodded sagely, a nod that not one person in the group would doubt for a second, despite his youth and naivete. The boy was far and away the most familiar with the Appraisals. Vincent clapped Doug on the back and squeezed his shoulder lightly, the simple gesture carrying an entire paragraph's worth of empathy and support from the stoic young man. Doug looked to Chucho, somehow even more despondent than usual, and realized why: the boy had a metal plate on the back of his head. His skull had been almost entirely replaced by metal, and what little hair remained had been shaved clean off.
"Yeah, dude. Check out Metalhead. fuckin' bad-ass." Doug picked up that Ev wasn't lying about his own feelings, but that he was covering up Chucho's insecurity.
"Chucho, I'd like to talk to you later about... something important." Chucho nodded at Doug, movements still slowed by gloom and doom.
Doug's gaze shifted to Callie, whose distracted stare conveyed her understanding of the situation perfectly, and finally to Violet, who was tapping and swiping away on an adjustor, seeming almost like a full data slate in her small hands.
"Inverted Key Lime Double Fudge Chunk... Who sent this?" Violet continued to tap away, completely oblivious to everyone's stares. "From RegCom, 68th Krieg FA, Saghalain, care of A.V.... Ohh." Violet looked up, a smile breaking like dawn over the horizon on her face. Ev's mouth and posture slackened considerably. "Ohmygod! This'll be perfect! I barely beat Isis last year!" Violet raised a quivering fist in triumph, as if she could already see the Prime Daughter and the rest of the class bowing before her culinary prowess. "Isis' Gyptian Rice Pudding Buns aren't gonna stand a CHANCE! I'll win EVERY category this year!"
"Violet." The tone was whisper quiet, but carried a subtle, inherent menace that Doug found even shouting and screaming failed to match. It had served him well this past week, and would again in the future. If I'm still around after tonight.
Janus smirked, he was a big fan of that tone, and more than once Doug had found him practicing, trying to imitate it. Violet stopped, her trance broken, and looked up.
"Shall we?" Doug smiled grimly, arm extended in a neat gesture of departure.
More Than Enough
The car seemed empty, even to Chucho, even though the small group filled its confines almost to capacity the car felt empty. It wasn't a physical emptiness so much as an emotional emptiness, a vacancy of feeling as they all considered what was going to happen. Even though only one of them was on the chopping block not one of them liked to think about it. Even though they wouldn't hear or see what was coming, they knew it existed.
And that was more than enough.
Callie lounged next to Violet and glanced at the girl, already formulating her recipe. She's on her adjutor, as much for the work as the distraction. Violet was ordering sweetened condensed milk, the incredibly rare key limes and, hardest of all, a combination of fats and oils she found almost perfectly imitated pre-Dark Age butter, cows having long gone extinct except in trader-borne rumors.
Chucho sat on the other side, eyes wide, engrossed by the sheer intensity Violet was pouring into her plans, her work. Callie glared angrily at Janus, sitting between Vin and Doug, chattering animatedly. He's the least afraid of all of us. Janus had the most experience with their benefactor, but his chatter was nervous talk, anything to fill the empty space. He's not as scared, but still scared. Her stare softened a bit.
As a group they'd made numerous mistakes, even in their short time with Doug.
Every mistake but one, the mistake Doug made, and the mistake we were told not to make the most. Callie shuddered at the thought. Despite her rumors, and even the actual opportunities she'd had to do so, except for one night not too long ago, she'd never so much as talked to any of the Royal Daughters outside of Imperator High. Callie looked at Doug again, face unreadable to most anyone outside this vehicle, and even as sympathy flooded through her she calculated.
The indoctrination took hold and pushed aside the empathy. Callie's mind churned with all the ways she could turn this to her advantage.
If Doug's released from the group he'll need a place to stay, companionship, purpose. If he's ordered into stopping the relationship, he'll be devastated, vulnerable. Callie wondered if he knew that, if he knew how much the relationship really meant to him. He probably doesn't, he's blind to it, ignoring his own feelings again. Idiot.
The thought barely entered Callie's head to talk to him about this; instead it was filed away, another tidbit, another nugget of intelligence ready to be twisted to her advantage. She continued to think, minor variations on his punishment, his reaction, on her response to both. She let the indoctrination fight away the emptiness, aware that, in nearly every situation, his misfortune was turned to her advantage. I'll comfort him. Support him.
But that comfort, that support was made hollow by the fact that it gratified her physically and emotionally. The reality that it satisfied the indoctrination, the tenets of her mission and mode of operation. Callie felt bad about it, somewhere inside. But the indoctrination took that away, replacing it again with cold satisfaction. The fulfillment of achievement, of a strategic framework followed to the letter, of tactical parameters successfully executed. The indoctrination forced a cool smirk onto her face. Callie felt a familiar empty pang, buried below it all, but made sensitive by repetition.
A cut that never closes. Callie could see something in Doug, something that could help that pang. She could sense it in Vin, something that could fill the void. Callie felt it in Julius as well. Like he can see through the indoctrination, that he understands somehow. That he could help. She often talked to him, and she was sure not even Isis was aware of how much those conversations, the subtext and undertone, meant to her.
Callie looked at Janus, through her peripheral vision, and yearned for him to be able to fill that vacuum. But he can't, he can't get past the indoctrination, the mission. Janus' requirements were known, his importance, his use, signed, sealed and filed away. She already had him, could get him to do whatever she wanted. Janus was useless to her precisely because he was so useful already. Because doing so wouldn't accomplish the mission any more than it already did, and so the indoctrination refused to give him any more consideration, refused to let him through.
Callie barely stopped the tears from coming. In truth, more than any of the others, more even than Chucho, she felt lonely. She'd had planned her initial foray into high school perfectly. In the first two weeks she'd slept with four different boys, one in each grade, and a single pair of girls. It had seemed daunting at the time, and the indoctrination did most of the work at first. But Callie laughed at how easy it was after the fact, at how predictable people are. Doug was right, again.
Callie's reputation spread like wildfire and while her initial marks were good-looking enough and confident, they didn't quite have what she was hoping for. Maybe I was spoiled by Doug, my first taste of real dating. She'd found herself disappointed with these experiences. Soon the suitors were coming out of the walls, and she picked out a few who seemed promising, maybe even long-term. And as Callie talked to them, each and every one, she came to a horrible realization.
I didn't have to sleep with them. She'd predicated her entire strategy around using sex as her primary weapon and the initial salvo had worked well, too well. Rumors Callie started about herself were instantly, easily accepted. Boys and a some girls were willing to bend over backward for someone of her reputed skills. She didn't have to sleep with them anymore, any of them. Whispered words and careful gestures accomplished as much as it was possible to accomplish. Callie could get any information she wanted, spread any lie she needed. She knew absolutely everything about the Royal Daughters, about the social power players, about the fringe groups and loners. But she couldn't put the effort into establishing a relationship with anyone, even just for sex. It was inefficient, time better spent somewhere else, currying favor and subtly manipulating the tides of peer pressure. Callie's carefully planned social life had accelerated all too quickly, and the incredible emotional jerk had thrown her into a depression. The only people she could establish a real relationship with were in this car.
And for awhile it was enough. Unfortunately, the implants, augments and indoctrination hadn't enhanced only her body, physiology and mind. They'd also enhanced her libido. Ev would do anything for her already, they'd been part of the same Schola batch. He and Callie made it through so many travails since they were six years old that they were as true siblings as could be found anywhere. Janus is head over heels for me already, but that's the problem.
That left Chucho, who saw them as family, as everything, already. He'd grown up in an area that was horrifically overpopulated, and his status as a Pariah, or as they said to avoid hurting his feelings, a 'Blank,' had made him reviled. They'd all been uneasy around him until Doug showed them how to endure his presence, that he was still a person. The change was immediate, and so noticeable for how subtle it was. Chucho threw himself into training, testing, anything and everything to keep up. He was the least experienced of the indoctrinated, but he was right in line with them because they were the best thing he had ever known. Friends, family and society all rolled into one tightly-knitted bundle.
Then there's Vin. I pushed hard on him, and it was working, too. But something Callie hadn't even remotely expected turned up. Vin was a deeply philosophical young man, prone to long and deep internal debates on weighty matters of law, justice, equality, socioeconomic class structure and more. He firmly believed in the sanctity of life, it was part of what made him such a precise killer and a capable protector. But he held many more deeply seated beliefs. Almost like some Catherics who believed in waiting for 'the one'. And Vin thought, like Doug, Callie was too driven by her indoctrination.
He's right. That's why I pushed so hard, because he understands me. He'd be gentle and strong and perfect.
But since school started Vin had been getting more and more into debates with an Eldar woman, Terel'da, far older and wiser than her looks would make her seem. Callie had been there a few times. And walked out with a free coffee and bag of donuts after ONE talk with the cute guy behind the counter. Bastard.
What Callie had seen in there disturbed her. Despite the apparent awkwardness of the conversation, Vin and the woman had connected deeply. Terel'da was a psyker, not powerful, but enough to read emotions, to break the barrier that Vin's indoctrinated language imposed on him. She was deeply impressed by the young man, and though Vin was probably not aware of it, was starting to develop the same feelings he had for her. So he was off the table.
And that leaves Doug again. Callie remembered her time with Doug fondly. Maybe the happiest time of my life. It had seemed all too short compared to how long she'd been in training, getting indoctrinated. She'd done something wrong, and she knew what it was, remembered the argument they'd repeated so many times.
- “It's my indoctrination Doug, I can't help it.”
But Doug disagreed, pointing out Vin. He explained that the nature of her indoctrination didn't have to determine what she did with it.
- "That you are a killer doesn't mean you can't pick who to kill, Callie. You should approach the rest of your
- indoctrination the same way."
Callie had tried several times, but never got the rush she'd come to crave from Doug. The rush that replaced all the relationships and emotions she wasn't getting. They just couldn't come to an agreement on it. She'd felt him slowly budging, giving way, despite his claims that she was too forced into it.
And then, suddenly, Furia. Callie thought back to the days they were together, after Doug helped her off the polymorphine. They'd done things, wonderful things, normal things that she still thought about today. Just talking and eating and living. But never went all the way.
Callie still regretted, despite everything, even the indoctrination, that her first had been some may-as-well-have-been-random drunk senior at a noble house party. She wanted more than that, even now. She'd thrown herself into the cons, every chance she got with Violet, Vin or Doug. It was a physical release, one that Callie had come to depend on. But more and more Vin and Violet had been going separate ways. Vin towards more deep thinking, closer and closer to Terel'da.
And chiseled brooding. God, I can't even help myself now. Violet had finally seemed to start opening herself up emotionally, not hiding behind the facade that kept her core self safe and locked away. She'd been drifting, maybe towards Ev, it was hard to tell. I saw it in Doug's eyes, knew why it was working. The more time we spent together the closer we got. Every time they pulled the YPF con together, more of the hormones and signal receptors built in his brain, chipping away at his reluctance and moral stupidity. Every time Doug seemed to let himself enjoy it a little more.
I should've known something was wrong. Callie thought back to Sunday. It'd been a stressful week, her part of the reconnaissance hadn't gone smoothly or easily, so she was stressed. She pushed herself on him as hard as she could without compromising the mission. And it was so good. She couldn't help but shudder now, thinking about it. I should've known then. At first she thought Doug was teasing, playing with her, that he was finally on the verge of giving way.
He was always good at that. But he didn't swing back, he pushed a little farther away. Callie had to run into the bathroom monday to stop the tears. One little glance. Callie had seen one look, one brief half-second glance pass between the two of them. Between Doug and Furia, and knew, and off she went to the bathroom, indoctrinated smirk on her face while she cried. I miss you, Doug.
So Callie followed him home, hoping that the attack by Furia was a sign. It was a bluff. She'd heard the whole conversation, even almost let Doug see her, see the need and loneliness in her eyes. She thought back again, remembering that night. She'd listened the whole time, it seemed like an eternity.
It sounded so good. They sounded so close, so loving, even though they barely know each other. Just talking and being together. Callie had barely made it out of there before the crazy old woman next door noticed something was happening outside.
Somehow Furia had cut right through Doug, right to his core. Looking back Callie could remember the look in his eyes sunday. She thought he was thinking about how to deal with her, about whether he had to worry about an Appraisal over the situation. Somehow, each day he'd withdrawn a little more. The con last week, that Wednesday, had been a really good night. He had so much energy, so much passion.
But it was all for her. Callie was perfectly willing to be a substitute, but Doug would never have that. That was why she admired him. And here we are, Doug's commission of the first, most basic mistake we were warned against.
Never get involved with a Royal Daughter.
Even Callie's many interactions were almost entirely limited to basic gossip and information gathering. Please don't take him away. Please, just tell him that he can't see her anymore. She hoped, hoped that was what would happen. She didn't know what she'd do if Doug had to go. She'd lose all hope. I'll trade it all back, the training, the purpose, the freedom, everything. Just let me have Doug.
Let me have someone.
The Taste of Betrayal
The black car glided along, somehow seeming to go much slower than it was. 'It's probably the Palace, it's so big you never seem to get there. Despite that, the ride passed all too quickly, and soon the Palace's massive shadow darkened the car, matching the sudden drop in mood.
Doug was always a little amazed at how fast the trip was despite the size and complexity of the Palace's halls, made simple with the aether-synaptic mech-intellect guiding them as they entered the structure. They each broke off at different places.
First was Vin, who walked up to a gentle sheet of water streaming down over a wall, relaxing in both sound and appearance. He simply walked through the wall, the stone parting as easily as the water, and disappeared. By the time Doug turned around Janus was gone as well, the slow creak of a great statue's wings the only indication of his disappearance.
At one point they walked through a long, unlit, narrow hallway. Chucho disappeared before they entered, the last in line, and when they emerged Callie was gone. Violet disappeared in a garden room, behind an enormous display of Arasian lilacs. Ev stopped and tried to follow, but found no entrance. How fitting, Ev will wait until it's too late, until Violet is gone, to chase after her. They boarded an elevator next, and Doug stepped off while Ev stayed behind.
He relaxed as the boy disappeared, then concentrated, doing what little he could to reinforce his mnemonic against what was to come. He walked blindly, following the subtle audio and tactile cues of the mech-intellect.
Nelan shorn, opposition.
Doug brought to mind first white.
The purity of everything, every color.
He thought on it for a time, ignoring the many sights and sounds of the Palace, and finally came black.
The purity of nothing, no color.
At first the colors existed simply as two halves of an endless expanse, a perfectly defined border separating them. Doug breathed in, relaxed, and the colors began to merge, moving in orderly lines at infinite speed. For a time lines of black and white stretched from horizon to horizon, and then he squared them off.
And now for the hard part.
Doug beheld now a great checkerboard, an eternity of crisp black and white squares, alternating, all precisely the same size, perfectly square and flush with each other. He breathed out, and, through sheer force of will, expanded black and white. They did not intermix, did not become gray.
Though I imagine that is what Janus, what most psykers see.
Both black and white expanded, grew to fill the whole of his vision, his perception, his mind. All thought and concern was wiped away as Doug visualized the greatest expanse of pure opposition he could. The image was held for a long time and the apprehension that Doug felt, the tension in his blood and muscles, began to relax as he did so. Black and white. Tension and relaxation. Opposites in perfect balance.
Still, Doug felt some apprehension remain. He knew he would need more to face this. Opposition. Doug concentrated, looking for what most rang with him, what most defined opposition to his very core. Furia entered his mind again, freely, easily.
As she entered my life. Doug saw her face, saw the boiling anger as she strode through the hall. He saw himself bump into her, purposely. Doug saw, out of the corner of his own eye, Furia's face turn, twisted by rage. She spoke, the words meaningless, body language and tone everything. She was enraged, furious, and at the same time thankful for what he'd done. Gratitude and anger in enormous measure, perfectly balanced. Even if you don't understand why.
A psyker watched, waiting, as the gray box finally reappeared, stronger and cleaner than ever.
Ten minutes later Doug sat in the Tueor, the base of operations for the Officio Tutamentum and its Protection Forces. But he knew it wasn't home. He'd entered home only minutes ago, the memory of Furia finally opening the door fear had closed.
And I am afraid. He sat there now, shuddering despite an unusually warm fire crackling in the hearth. The lush fields and trees of Bolanion swayed gently outside, the first true frost of the short, harsh winter tinging all white. It's going to snow soon. Doug considered going into the library, but Furia shimmered at the barest corner of his thoughts, flitting by outside the window, and he decided against it. I suppose I should prepare for my guest.
The door opened then, in the Appraisal room where Doug sat. He was vaguely aware of it, but focused on his mental home, his mnemonic construct, honed by years of strict meditation and months of terrible trial.
'And necessity. Nothing is so steadying as purpose. True purpose.
The library door cracked open. Doug walked over, whispered through the crack, then gently pulled it closed. He sat back down in front of the fire to observe the front door. He was somewhat surprised to find himself in his normal, everyday clothes. For months he'd come here to relax, and each time he'd worn the simple clothes of his homeworld, his past. Something has changed. Furia appeared in the corner of his eye again, another memory making itself known, and Doug finally relaxed completely, ready to accept what came next.
He could feel the terrible weight, the sheer mental presence, even through the closed doors and shuttered windows. The house began to rock and Doug stood, having nearly forgotten to bar the library. He returned to his seat feeling the press of intellect seep through the weather-sealed door. Anger, rich and spicy, came first and strongest.
But that is only a cover. More subtle smells began to enter as the mental house swayed under escalating wind and rain, sleet. Sadness. Only a tinge of course, he is not one to feel helpless or lost. The salty scent, almost like crisp ocean air, quickly receded.
And now comes the truth. Betrayal came through finally, the door itself beginning to crack under the immense stress. The others are merely symptoms, reactions to this. To my betrayal of his trust. It was thick, far more so than the others, a physical breeze pushing against him. The fire flickered, nearly guttered.
Well, we can't have that now, can we? I just stoked you properly again. The house began to shake, rocking as if in an earthquake while Doug calmly stood. He took another pair of logs and placed them gently in the fire, drawing warmth, strength from it, before sitting once more. The tremor dulled, lessened, if only so much.
Doug smiled, even as the betrayal came afresh with hints of outrage, indignation and, under it all, fatherly pride. He could taste it now, the taste of betrayal. It was pungent, cloying, like biting into a fresh apple and chewing, only to pull it away and see the rot exposed, watch the worm wriggle and feel it slither down your throat.
Earthy, gruesome, not so unlike death. Doug took a last smell of the fire, rich like anger, but sweeter. Rosewood perhaps? I find it appropriate. He felt it, felt the last shudder as he sweated, eyes bulging with unseen effort, felt the door crack and give way under absolute, unadulterated psychic power. His benefactor entered then, and Doug concealed no pride at seeing his state, having been tried in the smallest way by his entrance.
"Not that I could conceal anything from you in here, Lord Malcador."
The First Lord of Terra, Malcador the Sigilite, entered the Appraisal room. You have failed me, Dubhannan. He felt the slightest echo of the thought from Doug's mind, from the flat surface of opposition. Malcador sat, and the Appraisal began. He knew the children feared the Appraisal. That it drove them to succeed, sometimes beyond their limits. And why shouldn't they? The Appraisal was no simple interrogation, no torture or berating.
It was far simpler, more basic and affective.
I am their father, and no child likes to disappoint their father.
Malcador had no need to speak his displeasure, the full weight of his mind simply smothered most psyches. Whole rooms fell silent when he entered, feeling the power he bore as a matter of course. Without effort he could bring silence to thousands, through his simple presence. Or he could hide it, make himself completely unknown.
And these children depend on me, love me as a father. And they are my children. For them it was different, his mind was a welcome presence, the entirety of a family's love, pride, happiness and more. In his presence they felt it at all times, a warm embrace of the soul. But when the Appraisal came he would single them out, one by one, and let the anger, the disappointment and sadness crush them.
Malcador spoke, but it was only a reflection of the true conversation, happening in the confines of Doug's mind, contained by his mnemonic. Malcador had broken into it in mere seconds, but it was by far the longest it had ever taken him to do so.
"You have betrayed my trust, Dubhannan, the Emperor's trust. Do you have an explanation for this? Why you did it? How did you justify it to yourself, Dubhannan? Tell me, that I may correct you. Your job is to protect the Daughters, as you all swore. You must maintain distance, for their safety and happiness."
Doug sighed, the house flexing and relaxing around him. Still, the fire warmed him.
"Need I speak, Lord? Simply take the answers you seek."
At this Doug gestured to a small table beside Malcador, one that had not been there moments ago. The book submitted to the Sigilite's will, lifting and revealing itself to him. He saw Furia, cold and alone. Nowhere in particular, but a general awareness of her emotional state. First it was at Imperator High. Here she was angry, angry but alone. She thrashed Doug, they fought, each attack thrown a minor relief for her. The week passed in a blur, Doug always there, Furia venting, yelling, punching, laughing even. Then came Friday and Furia was cold, cold and alone. Both literally and emotionally.
Doug was following up on his assignment, locating the #113 slide dealer. He glanced over and recognized Furia, saw her scratching her arm, saw her throw away the empty lho pack. Doug stared, waiting until she noticed, then left. She followed, making no attempt to disguise her presence.
Furia was pinned, again laying into Doug, familiarity only barely softening her anger. They spent the evening together, and for a time she wanted for company no more, the itch of her arm gone. Then it returned and with it came more, something deeper, an entire night together. The weekend, already well known to Malcador, elapsed in an instant, only Doug awakening briefly saturday morning to see Furia leave with his jacket lingering.
The mission came and went, but Furia remained in Doug's thoughts, sometimes distracting, sometimes embarrassing. The attack in the hallway, what happened after. More anger came from Malcador, the overpowering weight of his mind tingling with anger as Doug encountered Freya, then hints of pride and amusement as he maintained his composure and kept his secrets.
"I did not give lifetimes worth of knowledge to you, Dubhannan," Malcador gestured to the shelves lining the walls of the house, full to bursting with books, hundreds of years of knowledge, of history and combat, of arts and sciences, all that he himself had bequeathed, "so that you could duel with a Daughter."
Doug thought back to his departure from Bolanion, when Malcador took him from the jail cell and spirited him away aboard a Black Ship. Months were spent in the warp, months where Malcador stocked Doug's mind with untold volumes of knowledge of all kinds. Much of it was Malcador's own knowledge, but enough was taken, sometimes forcibly, from others. He'd learned the vagaries of combat a thousand times over, he'd learned trades and skills, methods and languages. His meditation had been tested and strengthened as well. Malcador had assailed his mental fortress time and time again while he studied in his mind, honed him into the operative he was today.
"I could not back down, my Lord. Furia needs me, as much as I need her right now." Doug gestured at the fire. Malcador sighed, and for a long moment they sat in the comfortable chairs, the fire now roaring at full strength again. He regarded Doug for a long time, then finally relaxed.
"I suppose it must be so, Dubhannan. Once more I find that luck has given you my blessing. So long as you are necessary, what keeps her from vice and despair, I will allow this." Malcador glanced at the library. "So long as she needs you, and only that long. If you are not removed from her personal life by this time, then I will make it so. This is not an order, Dubhannan, this is knowledge, and once again I gift you with knowledge. Use it properly."
After another long moment Doug nodded, and the Appraisal was done. He stood to leave, but felt an urge to stay. “I will be leaving for some time Dubhannan, there are matters to attend to with the High Lords, and other organizations. I shall return in two months' time. Look after our family.” In the real world Malcador stood and left, and Doug followed shortly thereafter, eager to keep his next appointment.
Malcador settled into his office, so rarely used, for one of his few quiet moments. He thought of them all, of his children. Even Dubhannan, if less so than the others.
He had been searching for something more, but found only Doug instead. The boy's curious warp presence drew him in and, when Malcador realized the potential, not only for Janus, but of the newcomer himself, he tested the strands of fate. The Sigilite saw one strand, far away. A single possibility that would not be without this boy. So I took him from his incarceration, gave him purpose once more, a chance to understand.
He had potential, Malcador knew. He is a rare individual, the kind who always seeks the cause behind something, but, at the same time, does not default to looking for blame.
Open-minded through virtue of being at odds with his rural birth community, he agreed to come on the condition that he would help people. An odd request, considering the circumstances I found him in, but the decision nonetheless bore fruit.
Still, Doug was a consolation prize, and he upset the delicate dynamic Malcador had constructed the team with, to ensure each had a partner. But now, because of him, they are making it work, now less a trio of partnerships and more a unified whole. While the others, besides Janus, have already been indoctrinated, and Janus himself has undergone his trial by fire, Douglas remains empathic.
Not a manipulator, like Caroline, and more cordial than Chucho. He is largely ignorant of this, perhaps the most important of his skills in regards to this cabal. He is the middle ground. He is the only member who is compatible with all of the others.
And this is my fault: the indoctrination causes them to view themselves and others as tools, even pawns. It restricts their emotions, binds them to their tasks. It is unfortunate, but necessary. They have loyalty ingrained in them, loyalty to me and by extension each other. Loyalty, but not trust.
That is where he is most important, why he must remain unrefined, rough, why he must keep his full gamut of emotions. The others are as bricks, they need a mortar to settle into, to unite them. Or they would simply slide apart.
Malcador sighed, a rare event, as he considered his young daughter, Callie. I should have foreseen Vincent's distraction and diverted him from that path, or perhaps encouraged Dubhannan to comfort her. But then where would Furia be?
The Sigilite looked to the ever-changing future and, though he saw much trial, he also saw that Callie would, in the end, be made whole. It was turbulent for some reason, hard-to-read, even for one of his skill, but Malcador felt hope for his children's future, and let it flow over them.
You will find what you seek, Caroline, you need only be patient. You need only wait.
Dubhannan - Februarius
The black shuttle sat ominously outside the small town, dominating the view for nearly the length of main street. Wind rustled through trees and the sun shone brightly in the sky, as if glad to have returned, however briefly, during the short, harsh Bolanion winter. To the east rose a hill, covered with colorful native wildflowers, themselves concentrated more in the rolling meadow to its south. Everything was wet, just drying from the previous night's heavy rain. Despite the fair weather, lush greenery and tasteful houses, all eyes fell on the ship.
There were two guards, both of them wearing heavy black carapace armor, both with sizable backpack generators tied into the hellguns they bore. Both men, standing on either side of the unfolded entry ramp, wore riot masks as well, ready to filter gas and dim any kind of visual flare instantly. Despite their calm demeanor the storm troopers knew they possessed enough firepower between them to kill everyone in the small rural town, enough even to demolish most of its buildings with time.
Their lord and master appeared then, a few dozen meters away. He strode from a low, stone building, the only truly defensible structure in the village: the jail. The townspeople regarded him warily, but not fearfully. They cared more about the dendrite collar and the Burning Aquila-topped staff than the man who bore them. He was average, unremarkable save for the unimpressive robe he wore, the pale brown garb of an Administratum functionary, one among untold billions in the galaxy.
And yet this unassuming guise only cemented the depths of Malcador's power. Few among the townsfolk even guessed that he may be a psyker, yet his mind was among the most powerful in the galaxy; among Mankind he was second only to the Emperor himself. So it was that the townsfolk paid him no heed, as he intended. Instead their gazes, fearful, angry and doubtful, were set upon the boy who followed him. He was a shell, a pale reflection of the townsfolk; of his own parents, standing deep within the crowd; of his twin brother, standing farther away still. Separate from the crowd stood a small group of monks in black robes, detailed thinly with gold.
He walked slowly, shuffling, his shoulders sloped with defeat. His eyes were haunted, fraught with loss, confusion and sadness. As if feeling their gaze he stopped and let his eyes travel upwards; when he saw the townsfolk, his eyes changed. Now they shone with hate and anger. The townsfolk bristled at this, seeming to recede before his gaze without moving. But they murmured and muttered. Fear and doubt began to be supplanted by anger once more, as it had earlier that day, and the day before. The monks remained impassive.
“Dubhannan.” Malcador's voice was as unassuming and unexceptional as his dress and bearing, but it somehow demanded obeisance.
Still, Dubhannan did not move; instead, his eyes mirrored the growing anger in the crowd. The emotion seemed to catch and reflect between the two groups, the dozens of townspeople and the boy, intensifying with each invisible pass. The villagers began to rally, to draw courage from numbers and adrenaline, and this only served to infuriate the boy more. He drew himself up to his full height, leather jacket rustling, and his breathing escalated. His hands, dirtied by long hours of recent work in the earth and still chained together at the wrist, suddenly began to chafe at the iron. The two troopers began to bristle now, gently flicking their hellguns to a lower setting. They wouldn't need full power to put down the villagers. Malcador sighed, signaling only the very least relaxation. The change was immediate.
The seething anger–thick between the crowd and the boy–vanished as if it had never been, and was replaced by fear. The villagers fell back and stooped. A few fainted or simply collapsed as the physical weight of mental power, of ages-heavy psychic might, pressed down on them. The boy sagged as well. His shoulders sloped again, his hands drooped and slackened once more. His eyes returned to the ground. Still, Malcador could not help but feel pleased that the boy had remained standing.
He has potential. The pair began to move again, now both occupying the horrified stares of the people, and ascended the ramp into the shuttle. The storm troopers followed the boy up and the entry ramp finally closed. With a low whine the Arvus Lighter's twin rockets fired up. The whine increased to a roar as its stout wings actuated, and the blunt, boxy transport reluctantly lifted off. It hopped, suddenly bursting upwards, then settled into a slower but steadier acceleration, now unstoppable until it reached its destination.
The townspeople watched for a time, until long after the black shuttle was out of sight. Only then did they begin to move, singly at first, then in progressively larger groups until a scarred few remained. These were the angriest among them and they departed as well, not for home, but for the distant rise to the east.
They had to bury their dead.
Dubhannan awoke in a cold sweat, as he had been doing for days, since the night before he left Bolanion. The nightmare seemed to cling to his mind, keeping the memories as fresh as the day they happened. He looked down at his hands, still stained with earth from the digging, and began to brush and swipe at them. Somehow the sweat hadn't turned the dirt to mud, instead his hands just slipped over each other, the sweat making his slack, shaking grip even weaker. He sat up, feet on the cold floor, and continued to rub and and pull feverishly, putting his nails into it, desperate to get the dark, stinking earth off of his hands. Blood started to well up, his short nails passing straight through the dirt and cutting into his skin. It too refused to discolor the mud, simply slipping over and down his hands, onto the cold metal floor. The sight of pooling blood finally threw Dubhannan out of his daydream, and he snapped back to the present. His hands were scraped and cut, rubbed raw in some places. Warm blood mingled with cold sweat, running far too easily down his hands and onto the floor, where the almost inaudible thrum of the engines caused it to quiver gently. He'd changed his sleep patterns, but nothing worked; even sleeping the bare minimum–two hours at a time every four hours–the nightmares came without fail.
Dubhannan watch it fall for a long time, the measured cadence of thick red joined by something clear and thinner, a little faster and more insistent. After a time he inhaled heavily and began to ignore the small puddle at his feet, the Black Ship's vibrations sending red swirling throughout the mostly clear mass. A slow, drawn out exhalation followed, and warmth began to creep into the room from atop the small bed. He continued the slow cycle of inhale/exhale, seeming to prolong each breath for all its worth, and then a little more beyond. His body temperature continued to elevate, and the cold sweat began to do its job, evaporating, each bead taking a small portion of that heat with it. After a half hour he was relaxed enough to enter the second phase of his meditation. A part of his mind flickered briefly back to a time before, when he didn't need to fall back on the basic methods just to get started. Despite the warmth rolling off of him, Dubhannan shivered.
The black came first, far too easily, and the white took its time, ever the opposite. Just last week this process had taken only seconds from start to finish: the mental conjuration of opposition, his mind sealing itself off, protecting him during his daily routine, washing away fear and doubt to allow his world to be seen as it truly was. The image in his mind quivered, and it took Dubhannan some time to recover, to see the two colors in equal measure once more. Slowly, too slowly, they began to merge and interweave, not the square and perfect checkerboard of days past, but a confused, swirling riot mirrored in the mixture of blood, sweat and tears at his feet. After a time they finally began to expand, each swelling to envelope his mind completely, comfortably. The house began to resolve around him, as if his eyes were opening from a long, deep sleep. He saw the fireplace, barely crackling, saw the trees outside, a lush green swaying gently in the heavy early spring breeze.
The last of Bolanion's bleak, sporadic winter had died down, and though he was now far from his physical home, a lifetime of living there, of looking out the windows of the house that became his home, had ingrained the patterns into his mind. The fireplace was old and dirty, but some spots were clean. One in particular, the high corner, and it didn't take Dubhannan much time to cover this up. A finely wrought needlepoint tapestry, depicting a field of wildflowers was pulled off a shelf. As he touched it a happy memory came to mind, of a day long ago on that field, one he knew lay just on the other side of a hill seen through the window. The drapery was dusted off, bringing a small chuckle to Dubhannan. How does a memory collect dust? He savored the recollection a moment longer, the mixture of fear, curiosity and hope as confusing now as it had been that day.
The embroidery was folded gently under one arm, and he took the time to slowly dust off the fireplace once more, going over the too-clean corner quickly. The tapestry was pulled, stretched as only a memory could be, malleable and yielding, until it formed a perfect covering for the stone fireplace mantel. Other objects were collected from the shelves, a bracing picture of a dark-skinned man in black and gold clothing; an impossibly worn and old, but happy family photograph, depicting a pair of smiling children, not five years of age, and two loving parents; a proud old daybook, unbelievably full of notes and schoolwork of all kinds, all well-regarded and commended. These and more settled onto the embroidery, happiness piled upon happiness until the mantelpiece was covered up, almost completely forgotten. Almost.
Outside the confines of his mind, Dubhannan's eye opened and checked the chrono on the far wall. Despite how long the preparations had taken in his mind, only a few minutes had passed in the waking world, and he smiled gently. He had another seven minutes before his benefactor showed up, before the Appraisal started. Dubhannan had no idea what that was, but the way Malcador said the word somehow chilled him to the bone. Regardless, he settled easily back into the house, into a comfortable seat. The fireplace was warmer now, higher without the fear and desperation of the open mantelpiece holding it down. He looked at the door to the library, and felt an odd mixture of pride, apprehension and anticipation. His first task was to banish that from his mind, and he had only succeeded partially, had only portioned it off. But he knew this was all he could do, it was something he would never give up. Dubhannan stood and the door to the library cracked, as if expecting him. That peculiar mix of happiness and pining, of nostalgia, nearly overwhelmed him, but he slid the the door open just enough to slip through, before closing it gently behind him.
The boy opened his eyes seven minutes later, seven minutes that had been just over an hour in his mind, his mnemonic home. The puddle had grown as well, the red now far out-measured by the clear. He slowly became aware of a presence in the room, a dark-robed figure, the burning aquila atop his otherwise unadorned staff casting a flickering light about the room.
“You are prepared, Dubhannan.” Malcador spoke, his voice unassuming yet somehow commanding. The question was phrased so, but the way he said it told the boy it was neither question nor command, a simple statement of knowledge.
“Yes, my lord. The fireplace has been covered, the shelves cleared of the unnecessary and... other things. Most of it has been moved to the library or cellar.”
Malcador looked at him for a long moment, and Dubhannan sighed.
“I have done all I can, the library is closed and locked for now, and it weighs on my my mind no more.”
He regarded the boy for a time, then finally nodded. “Then we begin.”
The process seemed to take hours but the boy knew that only minutes had passed. He sat in the comfortable chair, the fire now crackling along dimly. Malcador produced yet another book and faced the shelves.
“What do you know of science, Dubhannan?”
He grimaced and sweated in the chair. “Not much, we don't learn any more than we need to for-” The book touched the shelf, and the house shuddered as if besieged by a whirlwind. Long groaning creaks ran through the walls, and the bookcase itself shook as the volume settled into place. It seemed to resist somehow, the shelves and framing flexing away from the book as Malcador pushed it with greater and greater force into place. Dubhannan let out a small cry as the fire dimmed, his eyes bulging with unseen effort. His face began to turn red, veins standing out; he started to sweat and quiver. The book finally slid neatly into place and, ever so slowly, the house relaxed. The groaning died down and ceased, the bookshelves became square and straight once more; the fire began to brighten, burning purposefully. Dubhannan calmed last of all, his face changing to its normal color, his veins receding, his eyes lidding with fatigue. The Sigilite smiled and an unmistakable feeling of pride crept into the room. It felt comforting, and bolstered the boy's waning resolve.
“You are becoming more resilient with each book, Dubhannan. But... perhaps twelve is too many for one day.” He looked at the figure in the chair, his simple clothes soaked through with sweat. A leather jacket hung in the corner, a coat rack that hadn't been there when they started. He thought for a moment to take it up, to find comfort in it. He yearned for it, but fought the urge down. He had to do this himself, under his own power. The feeling of pride became stronger, then swelled again as he spoke.
“No, I can handle more.”
“Are you sure?” Malcador gestured at the empty bookcases lining the walls, at the twelve books already in place, sitting in a neat row, so few compared to the hundreds of empty spaces. “If you need an interruption...”
“No.” Dubhannan eyed the door to the library again, and the fire to his side roared to life once more, redolent with determination. “We only have months, and if what you've told me is true, I have much farther to go.”
Another book appeared in his hands, seeming to emerge from within the brown robe, and Malcador smiled as he pushed it into place. “It is true, they are all very capable. You have much to learn in the sciences, arts and ways of war if you are to match them.”
“And the boy, he's a... psyker, like you?” Dubhannan rolled the word about his mouth, it was new to his vocabulary. He'd heard it before, but only minutes ago had the full knowledge of what being a psyker entailed been forced into his mind. He glanced at the book, the third one his lord had shelved, and shuddered at the hours it seemed had passed.
“He is not my equal, not yet. Should you succeed in teaching him this,” Malcador gestured at the house, then more specifically at the bookshelves, “he will come to be so. Greater, perhaps.” The book slid into place, and Dubhannan found something trickling through his mind, foreign words that were somehow familiar. Harsh and guttural, associated with a long history of cold living, survival and brutal war.
“What is this?”
“The language is known as Juvjk, the world as Fenris. Your name will not do, Dubhannan. You must blend in. Have you thought on one to take, on your new name?”
Dubhannan shook his head, bracing himself for the next book, the next swath of knowledge to be forced inside his psyche. A tear ran from his eye, a simple reaction to pain. It was not a memory-construct as so many things in the room, but a reflection of the real world. He could barely feel the wooden spar he knew was clenched between his real teeth, sinking deep into it with stress and strain.
“Then we will take the simplest route, Dubhannan. From now on your name is Douglas Hanlon, and to others that is how you will be known.”
Didn't Make It Through the Night - Tuesday, Septembris 20
Furia flopped onto her bed, computer chair still spinning crazily with the momentum imparted by Doug's jacket. Her hand dug around the covers, under the mattress, beneath the pillow.
"Fuck." The word was muffled by the thin pillow. No more goddamn smokes. Furia had hoped to patch things up with Hana, though she'd never say it.
It didn't go well.
She heard something, a light rustling outside, barely more than the wind through the trees. Her blood picked up, her father's legacy flooding adrenaline through Furia at the slightest provocation once more. When a gentle tap came at the window, she could only smile and wave a hand lazily through the air. Doug stepped in neatly and shut the window behind him.
"I take it your father isn't home?" He sat down on the bed next to her, and Furia rolled over.
"Nope, said he was going out to get a new grill. The last one burnt his grox ribs and didn't make it through the night." She grunted slightly as her own pained ribs, still throbbing from the fight, made their presence known.
Doug pulled on her hip, and the bed shook slightly as Furia rolled onto her stomach once more.
"Oh, my. I take it the fight with Hana went well?"
"Eh, could've be-ah!" Furia jumped as his hands parted the union of shirt and skirt. Fingers brushed her discolored skin gently. "Could've been better."
She sighed into the pillow, relaxing as Doug's hands, feeling like large spiders, played out a warm, gentle massage over the bruises. After fifteen minutes Furia was all but asleep, the stress of the day forgotten. She didn't stir again until his hands slipped under the skirt, pulled it down just slightly and started massaging again. Furia sat up suddenly, pulling him into a passionate kiss, all need for lho or fighting forgotten, subsumed.
"Ehrhehm-Furia." Doug managed to reluctantly pull away, face already flushed. "I'm afraid I don't have much time here, for now. I have more work to do, but I will be back later. If you're still up for it?"
She thought about it for a minute, then suddenly remembered what she'd been trying to forget. "Yeah, yeah. I actually have something to do too. Almost forgot."
"Excellent, then I shall see you in a few hours, my dear Furia." Doug kissed her again, as gentle and lingering as the earlier massage, and left through the window, stopping only to take his leather jacket.
Furia laid back down on the bed, smiling as she tucked her button-up shirt back into the skirt.
Far below, A-D Thar's chin worked back and forth, a slow near-grinding of his teeth as he thumbed through page after page of deaths. He'd been at it for nearly twelve straight hours, only pausing to use the restroom and grab a bottle of water. There were a lot of unknown-cause deaths, plenty of overdoses and no shortage of unexplained murders. Idiam stopped as he came across a recent unexplained homicide, recognizing the name on the file, his partner. It had been redacted as well. I'll have to wait for the new Commander to open the file.
He set that thought aside for now and continued, hands bulling through the paper, sorting: unknown, overdose, unknown, unknown, unexplained murder, overdose, miscellaneous. Over and over Idiam pulled, analyzed, sorted and stacked, his bloodshot eyes steadily growing more saturated. After another half-hour he'd finished. The overdose pile was snatched up, and set down roughly at the other end of the table. The dull thud echoed noisily through the room, disturbing the established balance of silence and whispering paper.
The old display crackled to life, dim and thick with imperfections in the holograph. Idiam began to input data, slower and even more a chore than the sorting. He read the data, input, read again, and double-checked before moving on to the next. The time seemed to wear again, and Thar felt himself begin to slip into the fugue state once more, his body finally accepting that the chore would happen despite its protests.
“I believe you may have the wrong idea, Detective.”
Idiam jumped, almost knocking the enormous slab of paper to the ground. He turned slowly, hand at his pistol. The voice sounded familiar, and it wasn't until he saw the tall, thin kid in the black coat that Thar relaxed. If only a little. How did he get in here?
“I'm afraid most of your compatriots aren't as observant as you are, Detective Thar.” Doug strode crisply forward, hard heels making no sound against rockcrete. Idiam blinked at the apparent reading of his thoughts.
“What do you mean?” Idiam turned back to the slowly appearing map of deaths, of overdoses. “There's a pattern to these overdoses, I just have to find it.”
“Indeed, I can think of no reason a street dealer would give a child an overdose of slide. Uncut, much less. You think he intended to kill the child?”
“Yes.” Idiam returned to the task, given fresh energy by the shock of Doug's sudden appearance.
“I... spoke with the dealer, Winhus. I believe you met his cohort, Agissa. He's no serial killer, and he's not the type to give out uncut slide. I suspect he wasn't aware it was uncut. His dealer knew nothing about it either, only that he was to pass that particular package to Winhus, with instructions that it be sold to a child.”
Idiam suddenly remembered where else he'd heard that voice. That domestic disturbance call.
“Congratulations are in order, I hear you quite cleared out that cube. They must have given you a Distinctia for that.”
Thar nodded again. “Broke over thirty slide rings in #113 alone.”
Doug looked over the other piles for another three minutes, then suddenly nodded.
“Tell me, how many overdoses does Hive Tetra have in a year?” He looked pointedly at the massive stack, then back at Idiam. “How many do you think are from uncut slide?”
“I'll find the pattern, if it takes me all night.”
“I admire your work effort, Detective Thar, but there is simply too much noise to pick out a pattern. Is this normal?” He gestured at another stack, the smallest, but still comprising hundreds of unsolved cases.
Doug picked through it, quickly separating several sheets out of the pile and arranging them into a neat stack.
“Yes, I assume that spontaneously bursting into flame is quite rare, even among lower hive inhabitants.” He lifted a single sheet from the fresh stack and held it straight for Thar to see, then quickly began to file through the rest, picking out more and more spontaneous combustion cases, until over two-thirds of the stack was sorted into a new pile.
He began to look through these with alarming speed, throat barely moving as he subvocalized each detail, committing it to memory. “Observe.” He stepped neatly over to the display, then tabbed over to a fresh map, activating the tactile marker interface. Doug's spidery fingers danced over the surface, pinching and drawing to align each three-dimensional position in turn. “Ah, there we are. Far too many spontaneous combustions to be coincidental.” The deaths happened in clusters, always cycling through different hab blocks. One such cluster was centered around school #113. Another swam lower in the hive, somewhere near the underhive.
“How did you get access to the other blocks' crime records?”
Doug smiled and said nothing, then paused, a look of recognition coming over his features. “Now, that's interesting.”
Idiam finally stepped over. “What?”
“There was a rather large group of scavvies operating there a few days ago, breaking in to the slide trade as it were.”
“What does spontaneous combustion have to do with scavvies?”
“Nothing, Detective Thar. But if we overlay the #113 slide rings you broke up with the spontaneous combustions...” They both began to add now, and Idiam didn't even bother asking how the boy knew where the rings were. Finally they were done, and the clusters of fiery death overlapped almost perfectly with the slide rings. A stray agglomeration sat near the underhive border area, and Doug drew a line here. “Scavvies who had recently broken into the slide trade were here.”
Idiam looked it over for a long minute, but couldn't find any way to justify the overlap as a coincidence. “But... what does slide have to do with spontaneous combustions?”
Doug turned his head, eyes glinting in the low light. “A most excellent question, Detective.”
No one ever accused Furia of creativity. Still, there's a, uh, homespun elegance to her words. These thoughts swam through Coby Trelan's head a half hour later on the darkening surface as he received yet another blistering invective.
"WHERE THE FUCK IS MY FUCKING JACKET YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKER?!"
Coby cringed, dark curls quivering and bobbing as if they were trying to free themselves from the boy and flee the presence of this raging monster.
"I-I left it over at Victoria's." The words were small, too small, his lips pinched and narrowed.
"WHY THE FUCK WAS MY JACKET OVER AT FUCKTORIA'S?!" Furia clenched her hand around the grapefruit-sized granite stone, picked to be thrown through his window. It cracked and flaked under her grip.
"Uhhhhh." Impossibly, Coby shrank more, his whole body seeming to retreat into itself. His voice grew quieter, smaller somehow. The only exceptions were his eyes, now like great moons orbiting a doomed planet. "She... she liked me wearing it saturday when... uh... we..."
A great crack! burst over the posh neighborhood. Down the street a man fell, crying out with hands over his head as he looked for the origin of the gunshot. A window broke, a flower pot was knocked over, an expense gravcar's alarm went off. Coby cried as well, as a spray of gray and black dust and pebbles scattered over him, the stone having shattered under Furia's apoplectic rage before she could be bothered to throw it. Coby cringed there for some time, weeping, only roused by the smell of his own waste when it reached his nostrils. He risked a glance, a look, and saw nothing. Still, some small part of him was disappointed that he didn't get to watch her walk away. Coby always liked the way Furia's angry stomp tossed her skirt just high enough to see.
Furia slaughtered her way down the sidewalk, for if slaughtering air and dust, concrete, sunlight and good cheer was possible anywhere, by anyone, it was Furia Angron on this day, at this time. The soles of her boots flopped, her stomping having long since blown out all arch support and most of the structure. Her hair stirred crazily, as if an updraft of pure rage was flowing from her eyes, nose and mouth, streaming back over her head and carrying it aloft.
No less than three lho-sticks were in her mouth at any given time for the half-hour following her talk with Coby. She had run out a block back, but a man opening a fresh box had seen her eyes and found truth, a brush with death so terrifying he'd given up the habit altogether. The box was almost empty now and, as the storm clouds gathered behind Furia, more and more people hurried inside. Logically it was to avoid the rain, but somewhere deep down, at the core of their very being, they knew something far more terrible than any natural disaster was coming with the setting sun.
Victoria's house wasn't far from Coby's, or Furia's for that matter, but the trip seemed to take an eternity. Perhaps it was the scraping, the flaky mouthfeel of her grinding teeth; perhaps it was the pounding of blood in her ears, as if the moon had dropped two thousand kilometers and the oceans swelled, leapt from their rude cage and crashed down on the world in a mad, futile bid for freedom from the tyranny of tide and time. Whatever the reason, the trip seemed to stretch, slower and slower, time freezing over as Furia walked the last block. The burnt, smoldering remains of lho-filters were seized by her teeth and ground mercilessly, more thoroughly than any pestle could hope to dare and under pressure no mortar could have the audacity to bear. The last trace bits of nicat bled into her mouth, the scream of a dozen inanimate objects almost audible, so palpable was their agony.
Furia walked through the gate uncaring, heedless if it was locked, or even a gate at all and not a tasteful barred window to the splendors of Fulgrim's wondrous personal gardens. She simply continued and the inert matter gave way, with no thought as to how, why or if it was even logically possible. There was one thing and one thing only of which Furia was absolutely sure in this moment, as she spit the fist-sized of wad of fluff and agony into a patch of gentle, timid Ayndle Hook Arctic Heather, chosen by Fulgrim for its subtle and delicate looks, an inherent contradiction to its renowned hardiness.
She was sure that, no matter what happened, she could not be angrier than she was at this moment. When she looked up into the second floor of the Fulgrim Villa and saw Victoria, Furia remained exactly as angry as she had been a minute ago. When Victoria dropped her robe, lips moving playfully, eyes batting and flashing with unimaginable promise, Furia maintained the precise level of fury she had shouldered ten minutes ago.
As the physical weight of her unmasterable rage bore down, she saw Victoria's latest boytoy step into the window frame. He was tall, with light brown, wavy hair. His facial expression could be described as irritatingly mild and unreadably neutral. He spoke in visibly formal and complex sentences, each word enunciated thoroughly and pronounced meticulously, each syllable inconceivably precise and definite. Furia had to physically stop herself from pulling an eye out of her head.
So stupendous was her disbelief she thought it more likely, more physically possible, that she would find a small, Doug-shaped stain on one or both of her eyes, capering and waggling as the globes moved in their orbits, making Victoria's latest conquest appear to be him. But Furia didn't, because she was already in a particularly self-loathing mood. The overwhelming self-reproach allowed her to see the world as it truly was.
So, when Doug stepped forward and traced a long, slender finger tenderly along Victoria's perfectly sculpted jaw, Furia could at least take solace in the fact that she was right. She wasn't more furious than ever, no longer a frothing cauldron of wrath. She watched Doug push Victoria gently down onto the bed. She saw his long black coat stir gently behind him, as it had only two hours ago out her window.
The world blurred and distended, but it wasn't reality coming apart, it was her.
There were... tears.
Furia wasn't angry.
She just wasn't.
An hour or a minute later, she couldn't tell, Furia walked home, the direction that felt like home.
She couldn't tell.
It was the rain, that was the problem. She couldn't see it or hear it or hear anything, really, but she could feel it flowing over her lightly scarred cheeks, running down the imperfect cut of her jaw, pooling under her not completely feminine chin, dripping onto her second-rate chest.
It was warm.
Rain wasn't supposed to be warm.
Furia felt Someone behind her, a presence, a familiarity, seeming to be from an eternity ago, welled up from her mind.
The rain got worse, made it hard to see. Someone touched her shoulder and she lashed out, the punch flying straight and true, but failing nonetheless.
Something wrapped around her arm, Something she couldn't wriggle out of or power through, Something she couldn't break or smash or tear.
Someone stepped around and Something slithered over Furia's other shoulder, Someone patting it gently. Her arm flailed, rocking along with her body.
"Shh, shh." It was a strange hiss for a Someone, not nearly as snake-like as she thought it would sound.
Someone tugged her arm, ever so gently threading it through the unbreakable Something.
Furia still didn't look, her eyes blind, not until her left hand dipped down into the leather jacket's pocket.
She shuddered and felt something break loose. Not the clean snap of a glass rod breaking, but the thundrous roar of a dam failing. Not shattered into pieces, but abrogated completely by a simple act of kindness.
Furia buried her face in Doug's shoulder, torrents flooding from her eyes and nose and sobbing mouth. Her right arm wrapped around him, feeling the familiar heartbeat, thumping oddly with concern, and feeling the arms wrap around her in turn, comforting and loving.
Still, she was angry, even as she sniffled and convulsed Furia tried to fight away the rush of emotion with incandescent rage.
"WHY-agheh-WHY DON'T YOU GO FUCK MISS PERFECT AND LEAVE ME ALONE YOU BASTARD?!"
A chin, jaw and neck settled onto her bowed head, soft and vulnerable.
"I'm afraid I never had much interest in spelunking, Furia." The words were impossible and impossibly soft, seeming to originate from inside her ears, mellifluous and warm.
"What the fuck is spelunking?" Furia sniffled again, and pressed herself tighter.
"Cave diving." Doug quipped.
She started to sniffle, but it mutated, transformed into a snort, the snort she hated so much when she laughed, really laughed. She felt his mouth curl into a smile against her scalp as he kissed it, and she cried more.
Furia and Doug walked towards her house side by side, their pace agonizingly slow because time seemed now to be passing too quickly. Her hands were in the beat-up leather jacket's pockets, and she refused to take them out. His arm was threaded through hers, and she also refused to let that go, a notion he was happy with.
Furia sniffled again, the lho-stick burning bright and clear. "So how'd you get it out of her house?"
"Ah, yes. You'll like this." Doug reached over and patted her arm with his free hand, then cleared his throat melodramatically. "I suggested to her that our, ah, evening would be better spent in her father's room."
Furia's eyes flew open. "What?" She stopped walking, staring at him with a mixture of complete shock and unmistakable mirth.
"Hush now. That is only the beginning." Doug tugged her slightly, resuming their snail's pace. "And so, we left her clothes in her room and departed for her father's. I then requested that she," He looked down, coughed lightly into his free hand, "warm herself up for me." Furia blushed more than a little at this, turning and exhaling heavily, the fwoosh turning into a soft chortle. Doug capitalized on the reaction. "I must admit some alarm at the... ardor, the fervor with which Victoria took to task." He shuddered, only slightly, but more than enough to get the point across. After she finished laughing he started up again.
"It was then a simple matter to take the robe, slip out the door," Doug opened his coat and produced a small case. He thumbed it open, revealing a small assortment of picks and tensioners, and a wicked-looking rigid breakdriver, "and lock the key-only, pin-and-tumbler latch closed from the outside."
Furia started to laugh again, a long, evil cackle, warm breath pouring into the cold air.
"I returned to her room, retrieved the jacket and was out the window before she, ah, finished."
"That's gonna suck, for sure." Furia felt herself warm at the story, and sidled a little closer to her walking companion. "Bitch got what she deserved."
"Yes, I do not envy her position, to choose between facing her father in that... messy situation, or to break the elegant door and explain the reason behind the act to Terra's premier perfectionist." Furia tossed her cigarette aside as the long-awaited sprinkle started, and looked over at Doug, wearing a small smile, stepping jauntily in the light rain.
He looks so stupid in his black coat. So much older and more noble than he is.
"Still I feel, I must apologize." He turned to look at her, a fat raindrop hitting him directly on the nose, spraying water everywhere. "I should have let you know, rather than risk your feelings. I wanted to surprise you, so much so that I ignored your feelings." His face turned somber. "I'm sorry."
"Eh, it's fine. It turned out pretty good in the end."
Doug stopped at that. He turned, left hand cupping her cheek gently, lifting her chin, eyes boring into hers one at a time. "I'm sorry, Furia."
She smiled in response, a bright streetlight gleaming off her teeth, off the water streaming down her face, dripping from the tip of her nose. Furia looked achingly beautiful, and the rain seemed to wash away the sadness and despair she'd experienced.
He couldn't help but smile back. It's nice to have a good memory in the rain.
The rest of the trip passed in a comfortable silence, interrupted occasionally by small talk, and they were soon at the gate to Angron Manor.
"I would have to say..." Doug put a finger to his lips, then gestured suddenly, pointing to the sky as if the answer had just descended from the heavens. "Her father's obsession with Old Earth art and decor."
"How did that make it easier?" Furia smiled, sure the explanation would either be ridiculous or simple, sure that it would make sense, to him at least, either way.
"How many Primarchs do you know who willingly install pin-and-tumbler locks in their homes? Form follows function, after all. Or at least it should." Doug shook his head woefully, as if lecturing a millennia-old galactic conqueror were par for the course. Furia looked nervously through the gate, at the fallen letters on the mailbox. At the, for a Primarch's residence, cozy and understated rustic home.
Most of all, though, she looked at the enormous red truck in the driveway, an old combustion model, like her bike, and far too large to fit in the capacious garage.
"My, uh, my dad's home. Maybe?" The word trailed off. Furia looked up, her eyes imploring, even though the risk was terrible.
Doug couldn't turn her down. "Say no more." He pulled out her right hand and kissed it gently, the sensation oddly dry as his lips pushed away the rain. He slipped easily away as Furia turned to look back at the house, to see if her father was watching.
When she turned back Doug was gone.
Furia hung up the dripping jacket, then peeled off her sopping clothes, spreading them out over the cluttered desk and tilted chair. She turned back around to see Doug looking out the just-closed window, hands clasped behind his back. He whispered gently.
"Marvelous. Not as inspiring as the genuine article, but impressive weather nonetheless."
"What are you doing? It's not like..." Furia suddenly realized why Doug had whispered, barely audible to her from a meter away above the patter of rain. She started again as he removed his earplugs, now in a loud whisper. "It's not like you haven't already seen me naked."
Doug turned at that, slowly and steadily, his eyes meeting hers and anchoring there beatifically.
Furia felt oddly offended, so she stretched luxuriantly, like a cat. Doug knew his anatomy perfectly, the information burned in his mind, and relied on it to distract him. In his peripheral vision he saw triceps straining against chest and shoulder muscles, flexing and emphasizing the contents of her damp striped top, itself suggestively revealing her midsection. Furia put her legs into it as well, feet levering up, pulling her calves into sharp relief, initiating a sequential tension that shot through the thigh muscles in a teasingly slow inward progression, finally coalescing in the remainder of the still concealed hip flexor muscles.
Doug's eyes remained firmly on hers, as if exploring.
Furia's midriff seemed to lengthen, ascending from underneath the already dangerously low-cut shorts, she relented for just a moment, to let the last piece slide off and then, one leg at a time, step out of the wet bicycle shorts pooled around her feet, leaving only the hiphuggers. She finished stretching and held the pose easily, satisfied when she felt, more than heard, the surging blood and heartbeat, the quickening and deepening of Doug's breathing as his attempt to distract himself failed.
Even compared to Doug's previous speech the response was barely audible and only the slightest bit suggestive.
"Fetching." His eyes still did not waver, did not move, but they seemed to suggest something, urgent almost to the point of begging. Something deflated in the back of Furia's head, a sudden realization, a resurgence of what she felt an hour ago when she saw Doug in Victoria's room. It was quickly accompanied by an awareness of her father's presence. Furia looked down behind her, pointedly, and he nodded.
"We should talk." Furia began to step at his words, and Doug timed his own movements with hers, deftly slipping out of the coat, the shoes, the shirt and pants.
He lengthened his stride to catch up, feet arching and flexing to remain as quiet as possible, to mask the sound of his movements under hers, and reached the bed just before Furia, sliding in nearly at the same time. For a long moment they were separate, silent. Doug, comfortable at the wall quarter, she less so at the open edge, thinking, her mind now tinged with despondence again.
They began to talk, the words susurrant like the rustle of silk sheets over bodies.
"So, how was she?" Furia turned her head down, a finger circling lazily on the side of the bed, hand searching for the pack of lho-sticks. Oh, yeah. Not there.
"Pardon?" Doug was relaxed, completely relaxed. He was primed to deliver honesty, completely and thoroughly. It is necessary.
"Come on, you saw her naked. Where does she rank?" Where do I rank? Furia realized after the fact how transparent it was, but she had to know.
"I will admit, she has her charms. She seems to be almost too charming, in fact." Doug stopped for beat, reconsidering. "No, not almost, exactly that. Too charming, too attractive. 'An embarrassment of riches,' so to speak." The words poured out, slow and sure as honey, even dribbling at the end.
"What the fuck does that mean, are you saying she's too hot? Like it's a flaw?" Furia was loud now, unexpected anger surging freshly in her mind. She reflexively pictured how easily a limb could break, bone could splinter.
Doug's heartbeat and breathing were steady despite his keen awareness of the same.
"Not precisely. She is..." He drew the last syllable out as he tried to find another word. He failed. "Inhuman." Doug continued, rather than letting the idea sink home in Furia's already distraught mind. "I've seen, in some of my seedier assignments, men and women who purchase a luxury servitor."
His eyes rolled back slightly, the visual cue sharpening his memory. "A literally perfect simulacrum of a human being. Yet, I could always pick them out of a crowd easily. No matter how rigorous their design and programming, no matter how elegant their construction."
Furia frowned, not quite sure where he was going with this, "And?" The images remained in her raging mind, limb twining in limb, a travesty of intercourse. Love replaced by hate, carnal unity twisted into violent, bloody struggle.
"Well, you see, they were too perfect. Every person, no matter how composed, has their subtle flaws. Even Isis has her share of inadequacies, and while only she may recognize them consciously, on some level we are all aware of such foibles." Doug relaxed a little more, speaking comfortably, easily.
Furia snorted at the last word, and covered it by taking a drag of her lho stick. When did I light that? She slid onto the open quarterline of the bed, a little closer, a little surer.
"Furia, when I looked at Victoria, even my subconscious couldn't notice any deficiencies in her appearance. It's almost as if she is a... parody, a mockery of a human being.” Doug paused for a moment, then added , "I firmly believe that our flaws define us as much as our virtues."
"I just... I don't see how that's bad, a bad thing." Still, Furia scooted again, the pressure of her body against Doug's rolling him over, spooning around her. The seething, razor heat in her head began to subside, diffusing to a comforting warmth. "I'm not the only one who notices, Furia." Doug let a hand slide up to her arm, then brush hair from over her ear. It returned, gliding gently up and down her tricep on spidery fingers, an imitation of the afternoon massage.
He looked pointedly down at her, "I may have," He waved his free hand, his other miming the gesture against her side, tickling, "picked up on this more quickly than most, but I'm certainly not the only one who has noticed. Haven't you ever wondered why she has so many suitors?"
Furia snorted again, but listened, "Why her friends are poorly looked upon by their peers?" She began to inhale, then pulled the lho-stick from her lips and looked at it strangely. She licked her left hand and stubbed out the nearly whole lho stick, then tossed it easily into the small trashcan in the corner.
"Bravo." Doug took the hand and gently blew on it. Furia giggled, a wholly agreeable sound to his ear. A momentary pause ensued, filled with quiet listening, then a simple resumption, as if the interruption never happened.
"What're you doing?" Furia didn't resist as his arm slipped a little further, down to her stomach, gently tracing the high linea semilunaris outlining her abdominals.
"I want to smell you, not tar and nicat." Doug blew again, more gently, then inhaled, drawing his nose along the length of her arm. "Ah. Much better."
Furia slapped him on the head, a little harder than necessary. He'd come to expect it by now. They stopped talking, breathing even, waiting to see if the sound roused the slumbering beast below. All remained silent, a largely enjoyable silence.
Doug's arm appeared under her armpit, as if springing fully formed from her body, and snaked along her free arm. His hand twined in hers.
"So what, you're saying I don't like her 'cause she's too perfect? And that's the source of all her problems?" Furia scoffed and pantomimed brushing away an invisible annoyance fluttering in the air above. She let her hand fall on his against her stomach, still gently plying the tissue there.
"Not exactly. She seems perfectly composed, perfectly collected, confident far beyond the point of arrogance. By the grace of her pedigree she even appears to fulfill that promise at a second glance." Doug stopped the tracing as he thought, and started again when he finished.
Furia felt warm inside.
He leaned in just a little closer to her ear, breath warm on her in the cold air. "Her looks would guarantee envy from the less secure. However, the rest who dislike her are explained by something more complex." He stopped moving again as he formulated his larger response.
Doug inhaled deeply, now fully prepared. "In a nutshell, Victoria is compensating, Furia. She's been unwittingly raised with impossible expectations by Fulgrim, himself attempting to live up to the unattainable standards of his own father. I suspect she suffers from tremendous self-esteem issues. Victoria attempts to counteract this by delving further and further into her father's goal of objective perfection. What she does not understand is that Fulgrim considers it unattainable, not a goal of its own but simply a motivation; whereas Victoria believes it her birthright. She falls ever short of this goal that, in her mind, should be easily within reach. This only increases her drive to attain the absurd ideal, intensifies her hidden self-loathing and propels the cycle ever further toward breakdown or... insanity."
He exhaled deeply, slowly after the talking. "Suffice to say she will fall from her perch eventually, if her father does not help her down. It will be devastating."
"And I thought I was fucked up." It was Furia's turn to breathe, in time with his breathing, so deep and calming.
"That's the point, Furia." Doug clenched her a little tighter, their bodies now sculpted together. "We are all damaged in some way, we all have problems. Denying the problem only exacerbates it. Ignorance is weakness, and whether Victoria will admit it or not, she is weak."
They lay for a little while longer, the long day spooling down, finally releasing all the tension of the school day, of the fighting, the work, the feeling of betrayal.
"That is why she snubs you, Furia. Why she admires you. Why she tries to emulate you by theft, the lowest form of imitation. That is why it was so simple for me to deceive her, with your smell on me." Doug sighed, the sound thick with pity. "She envies you, Furia, because you are strong, because you don't hide your flaws. You embrace them." He caressed a scar gently, one of a thousand crisscrossing her body.
Furia turned after a moment, a rapid movement. "You sound pretty sure about that."
"I speak from experience, Miss Angron." Doug smiled. "I admire you for that as well."
She smiled back and kissed him on the lips, only once and only for so long, then turned away and drew his arm tighter. She suddenly felt something blossom. Not sadness, but empathy, the smallest sympathy for Victoria.
"Do you think she can be... helped?"
"Yes, of course. But it will be a monumental effort if she isn't removed from her father, or if he isn't goaded into action first." Doug kissed the back of her neck. "Victoria still has a chance to mature, to ripen."
Furia snorted again, now not hating it so much. "I think she's 'ripe' enough, Doug."
Doug smiled against her, his hand massaging her diaphragm gently, fingertips just grazing her bosom, "If Victoria is given the proper care, by her father or another, if she can find someone kind, determined and understanding, she should be able to... mellow. Become normal, content with herself."
"It's a good feeling." Furia whispered, so quietly she knew even Doug couldn't hear it.
Furia awoke the next day, refreshed and not surprised to see Doug gone, the exits closed and locked. She could hear her father moving around downstairs, crashing and bulling needlessly through the extra-large house. Like a pig, rooting and wallering, but happy.
Furia threw on fresh schoolclothes and began to head downstairs, then stopped.
She turned to the leather jacket.
It hung lovingly on the only intact hangar in her closet.
Furia reached into the left pocket, fingers clasping as gently as they were able . She fished it out of the jacket, together the only two things she still had to remember.
Furia Angron opened the locket and looked at the faded picture, ensconced eternally behind rose-colored glass, and smiled sadly, a tear just broaching the corner of her eye.
It was late Tuesday night, early Wednesday morning, the twilight hours when one day merges into another. Callie was in a dirty motel room, wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing. Doug had been allowed, allowed, by Malcador to continue his relationship with Furia. It was within operation parameters. And now I'm alone.
Callie had seen him, followed him to Victoria's. She saw him give the jacket to Furia. It meant the world to her.
She saw him walk her home. I saw him sneak into her room.
She couldn't go home after that, couldn't bear to see Ev and Violet draw ever closer together. She couldn't bear to see Vin smile, just barely, to himself while he thought about Terel'da, what they'd talked about that day. Couldn't bear to see Janus, to see him love her, but not understand her. The room's lock clicked open and Callie was thankful for the diversion. It was too late and too early. She hadn't slept, and the sun would be coming out soon, the rain finally stopping.
So Callie waited, knife in one hand and silenced stubpistol in the other, out of view of the door. She heard walking and breathing, somehow familiar, and rounded the corner, ready to strike. Doug's hand latched onto her throat, a look of anger, disbelief on his face. He threw her back to the bed, then composed himself.
"I'm sorry Callie."
Callie sat up, confused and happy. "No, it's okay Doug, I-"
Doug put a finger to her lips. "No Callie. I'm sorry." Callie's heart leapt as he kept the finger to her lip, the sadness on his facing slowly twisting into a smile. "I should've been more considerate of you, of what we share. What only we can give each other. Real understanding."
"Oh, Doug." Callie lunged, kissing and pulling at him.
"Callie, wait." Her heart fell again. Here it comes, he's just going to try to convince me to 'work around the indoctrination'. She sighed, the breath heavy with disappointment.
"Just promise yourself to me, Callie." She turned, surprised. "Promise yourself to me, and only me. Your body." Doug ran a hand over her shuddering back. "Your mind." He whispered into and kissed her ear. "Your heart and soul."
Callie kissed him back, pressing herself against him with a lifetime of urgency, most manufactured, inculcated, the rest all too natural and real.
Doug threw Callie back onto the bed with a powerful backhand. She spun and landed face down.
He's punishing me for what I've done. Giving me what I want, and what I deserve.
Callie heard his pants drop, the angry grunt as he ripped her pants down, her panties tearing away. He filled her, larger and stronger than she could've imagined, hoped for. He was raw, savage. It was rough, painful, driving her face into the mattress with each thrust.
And she reveled in it.
Hours later, at lunchtime, Doug sat at the bleachers, eating his goo while the others finished their own assessments of the upcoming operation. It had been long planned and reviewed by the group several times already. He was anxious to get through the formality and share a table with Furia in the lunch room. As the short but interminable process finally wound down Callie sauntered gracefully over to Doug and sat down.
"Yes, Callie?" Doug wiped his hands with his napkin, then prepared to leave.
"I just wanted to talk about last night." Callie smiled. She didn't feel as good as she thought she would, but she felt better, the pang lessened. She was looking forward to the next session.
"Okay, I understand. You going to be there again tonight?" Her finger twirled through her hair, blue eyes lit up.
"Perhaps. I haven't decided yet." Doug's face was perfect. He looked completely ignorant of what happened last night. The undeniable competence only made Callie want him more.
"Well, I'm sure there'll be someone there, waiting for you." Callie smiled, the old sensuality peeking out again, and sashayed away, hips swinging. There was something funny about her gait.
Janus gaped, wondering for only a moment what could've provoked this before realizing.
"Doug, did- did you?" His voice reeked of oncoming betrayal and sadness.
"Of course not, Janus. Last night I was at Furia's." Doug paled slightly again, looking around, then decided to let the revelation remain free.
Janus slowly nodded. He thought for a long moment about trying again, letting the warpsight show him what Callie was thinking, feeling. But he was afraid of what he'd see. Nah, maybe Callie's finally just happy to see Doug happy. It wasn't perfect, but it was believable. And that was all Janus needed to keep his hope alive.
I suck at derivatives. Janus hated math, though he wasn't bad at it. He'd just never liked it, never got into it. Half the time he spent lunch finishing up his math homework last minute.
- "All the potential in the galaxy is insignificant, Janus, if you do not try." Malcador finished, looking into his
- adopted son's eyes. The suffocation of his presence relented, patience and encouragement washing over
- "Yes, Father."
Janus shook away the memory and stole another look at Callie, sitting next to the window. She was writing feverishly, and her ponytail fell down her shoulder. Callie flicked her head back, the hair describing a golden arc through the air, sunlight glinting off it. She's having even more trouble than me. Maybe... maybe I can help her. Janus returned to his work, his effort redoubled with fresh motivation.
Gotta help Callie. She looked up, noticing his scrutiny out of the corner of her eye and smiled, briefly, before returning to her own paper. Janus relaxed, then grinned to himself. Fresh eyes looked down at the paper, his mind coursing with energy.
Two hours later, Victoria's perfect features were twisted, but only slightly. Various emotions played across her face, each revealing a different kind of beauty, but she settled on satisfaction, in the end.
This will be satisfying. The smirk turned into a wide, almost manic grin, mirrored on the faces of the Twins behind her. Farther back still was Kelly, along more for the sense of belonging than because she particularly liked any of them. Last of all was Petra, who could never decide from one day to the next whether to take up with Isis, Victoria or Roberta.
"Victoria?" The statuesque blonde turned, hiding her annoyance at Petra.
"Yes, Petra?" The words rolled out in her signature voice, seductive and dangerous, honey and smoke. Alpharia laughed at Omegan, who was blushing at something as a slight blonde figure walked away.
"Is this really... necessary?" Petra strode forward, drawing even with the slightly taller girl.
"I have a reputation to keep, Petra." Victoria tossed her hair. The gesture was entirely unnecessary, but effective at drawing slack-jawed gazes from freshman and senior alike. "I don't know how..." Victoria's highborn features twisted again with rage, and her forehead just began to wrinkle before she composed herself. She stopped at an open locker with a mirror, easily pushing aside its occupant. Platinum blonde hair fluffed and danced over high blue eyes. "I don't know how the Twins managed to let... what happened yesterday get by." Victoria's anger appeared again as she fixed the abashed twins with an icy glare. "But I can't let it slide, Petra, darling." The beauty mark on her cheek, perfectly out of place, turned as Victoria admired it. Her hands moved down to the dark button-up shirt, adjusting it, ensuring everything was in place. Lavish cleavage was checked once more, framed flawlessly from below by the loosened purple tie and above by the Torien amethyst necklace. "No boy has ever walked away from me, and I refuse to let some... some agriworlder ruin my perfect record!"
Victoria's composure vanished and Petra fell back, as if expecting a physical blow. Instead, Victoria simply straightened up, her flawless face again taking on its familiar smugness. Satisfied, she set off again, the lingering crowd of Daughters picking up and following her.
Janus was the first notice, although Doug and Callie were the only ones who didn't seem surprised when Victoria showed up. Janus had been by his locker, finishing up his Calculus homework ASAP, bolstering his notes so he could help Callie later. As a result he'd been late to the garage, and saw Victoria heading that direction as he finally made to leave.
Why's Victoria going to the parking garage? Janus well knew that she didn't have to drive, that she was picked up, along with any of her friends who hadn't displeased her that day, by Geoffrey after school.
Still, Janus didn't stop to question it too much. His eyes glazed over as Victoria walked by, blue eyes sparing him the barest of glances. The Twins came next, as confident together as Victoria was alone. They were smiling and chattering, holding hands and giving Janus terrible, wonderful ideas. He thought back to a night two weeks ago, when Callie'd come home late and reeking of beer. She'd been happy and cheerful, and Janus couldn't help but read the thoughts pouring out of her. Foreign memories flashed through his head of Callie, Omegan and another girl, and Janus shifted his backpack just so to cover himself. He'd secretly wondered, hoped even, that it was actually Alpharia that night, but even seeing Callie talk to the Twins every day he couldn't tell.
Kelly walked by next, absolutely laden with spikes, chains and all sorts of bare metal jewelry; the adornments' rattling and jingling shook him out of his day dream. The overall effect was a little intimidating to Janus, but he knew better. Kelly's not mean, she's just withdrawn. Last of all was Petra. She was quiet and unassuming, but always seemed to have a better grasp than anyone of what was going on. She smiled briefly as she passed, and Janus could swear he saw Petra blush a little when he did.
It took Janus a few minutes and a splash of water from the fountain to compose himself. He quickly caught up to the group, following them from a respectful distance. He couldn't quite make out what they were saying, but Petra and Victoria seemed to be arguing about something. It's hard to tell with Petra, she's not very forceful. They stopped briefly, and Janus found something interesting in his notes to look at. It's polite to let them go first. Yeah. He swallowed, using his peripheral vision for all its worth while Victoria primped herself in the mirror.
Janus could swear one of the Twins noticed him, but Victoria said something to them, then finished preening and they moved on. He stopped again, making minor corrections to his homework, and didn't arrive until after it had started.
All Janus saw was Victoria grinning, Ev angry and Violet flustered, almost crying. He didn't know what to do, so instead he watched as Callie and Chucho pulled the pair away from the confrontation, leaving Doug and Vin.
Are they... is this gonna turn into a fight? Janus briefly imagined it. Victoria and her friends weren't the most talented fighters, and he'd only heard rumors of a long-ago catfight between Victoria and Furia, back in their freshman year. But a guy can dream.
Victoria smiled when Vin stepped to the fore, even more composed and disciplined than Doug. Her hand instinctively went to a fair tress at her shoulder, twirling with interest.
"And who might you be?" She purred the question out, but didn't expect an answer from the boy. It came instead from behind her.
"Vincent... Vincent DeCare." Surprisingly, it was Omegan who stepped forward and talked, not Alpharia, who blushed and waggled her fingers at the strapping young man. Petra blushed as well, looking away, and Kelly suddenly found her various chains and rings all needed adjusting. Vin nodded quietly in affirmation.
"I haven't seen you around." Victoria stepped forward and let a hand drift out onto his muscular chest. "If I'd known you were here wouldn't have wasted my precious time with him." The words came out thick with disgust, overblown. "You aren't in any of my classes, but I'm sure we can find something else in common, hmm?"
Vin thought for a moment, hand on rugged chin. His eyes were glazed over, but they were looking far beyond Victoria.
Victoria didn't step back, the only change in her expression was the barest gleam of something feral in her eyes. "And why not?" Her eyes chased the cut of his jaw, the chiseled muscles visible under his shirt. Perfect. "You're perfect, I'm perfect. I think we'd be perfect together." The hand drifted along once more.
Vin shook his head disapprovingly. "No." He looked frustrated, and turned to Doug. "Kay, Gee."
Doug nodded, then turned back to Victoria. "I believe he's trying to quote an ancient Terran poet." Vin nodded.
"Advance?" Vin nodded once more, and relaxed. "Very good. 'Advance, and never halt, for advancing is perfection.'" Doug smiled, and Vin did as well, drawing more blushes from the girls and a few looks from across the parking area.
"Augh, Victoria. Can't you just let it drop for once?" Janus blushed as he recognized the voice, slowly turning to reveal Isis Lupercal standing next to him. He gulped. "How long's she been here?"
"F-five minutes." Janus fought down the quiver, and smiled to himself. Then Isis turned to regard him. Sharp orange eyes expanded to fill the whole of his vision. Shoulda brought a map.
"Hey!" A snap of the fingers brought Janus back to the world, and he realized Isis had been asking him a question. "What's your name?"
"Juh-Janus. Janus Sigitine." Isis smiled at how awkward he was, and it was enough to calm Janus down. She put her hand out, and it took him another moment to realize he was supposed to shake it.
"Isis." Janus' grip was limp and a little sweaty, but he managed to make it all the way through without too much trouble.
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Victoria finally tore her eyes from Vin's mouth to look at Doug.
"Perfection cannot be achieved, Miss Fulgrim, something your father is aware of. It is in reaching for perfection that one finds excellence. Is that it?" Doug turned to Vin, who nodded once more.
"I am perfect."
Victoria shook out her hair in response, sending it tumbling over her svelte shoulders, around the pale flesh of her neck and above her rolling cleavage. She smiled, perfectly confident, as a freshman across the garage stumbled into a car, distracted, then cursed his knee for having pain receptors. "That is how."
Vin pointed at his eyes, and Doug nodded. "Of course, 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.'" He smiled, as if this explained away what was on display.
Victoria scoffed. "My life is perfect. My father adores me, my family envies me. The world is mine to take." She smiled. "I was born perfect and beautiful."
"Vin, if I may?" Vin nodded and Doug continued, "Perfection is a moment, not a lifestyle, Victoria. Your father knows this, that perfection is a means rather than an end unto itself."
"Don't worry about it." Isis' voice once again shook Janus out of his reverie, his absorption in the poetry of Victoria's moving body.
"Huh?" Isis laughed, and Janus blushed further still.
"They're not going to fight. Victoria got in one fight, a long time ago, and figured out she's not perfect in every way." Isis smiled and leaned back against the wall next to Janus.
"If your life is perfect, why are you here now? I don't believe Isis over there envies you." Doug gestured across the garage to Isis and Janus. "Come now, Victoria, admitting your own limitations will bring you far closer to perfection than this." Victoria blushed fiercely, remembering the last time she heard those two words from Doug.
"She'll get fed up in a minute here." Isis leaned forward at the waist, finally catching Petra's eye, and waved her over. The girl took one look at Victoria, getting more and more red-faced as she ran in verbal circles with Vin, and backed away, walking silently over to Isis, "Hey, Petra? Ready to go?"
"Yeah, let's, let's just get out of here." Petra and Isis took off, only the slightest wave to Janus given. He turned back just in time to see Victoria storming away, as flustered as Ev was a few minutes ago. Janus walked over to find Doug talking to Chucho as Vin started the airvan up. Vin's probably anxious to get back to the cafhouse.
"I've already convinced Furia we should bring you along. You'll like it, Chucho." Doug looked up at the metal on the boy's head. "I think you'll find Metaldammerung a far more accommodating environment for your augmetics than high school. Ah, hello Janus."
Doug pulled out a white cloth, stinking of rubbing alcohol, and wiped off his cheeks, nose, mouth and chin. The slight color to his face suggested he'd done it a few times already in the past fifteen minutes or so. "Hey Doug. What was that about?"
"I believe Miss Fulgrim has come to understand perfection a little better, at least in a sense." Doug glanced over. "I have to go, Janus, I'll see you later."
They waved and nodded goodbye, then Doug headed over to the bike area, where a motorcycle the size of their van was idling next to a grinning Furia. They kissed, then she smashed a helmet into his solar plexus as the airvan pulled around the corner, heading for the townhouse. Janus looked over at Callie, smiling dreamily and he felt a smile come over his face at the thought of helping her in an hour's time.
Something of Man
Arbitrator-Detective Idiam Thar could barely suppress the urge to gawk at the size of Precinct 15 headquarters, Judge Albrecht's personal courthouse. And he was getting a ride straight to the top of the massive, fifty story structure. He'd often wondered why, when so many precincts barely had enough manpower to put out patrols, others were flush with extra credits, superfluous personnel and redundant equipment. But this was something else, Precinct 15 was the center of Terra's Arbites fleet direction, the nexus for Hive Tetra's real law enforcement.
Two of the Judge's personal guard, the Enforcer-Protectors, stood solemnly at attention behind Thar. The elevator ride seemed to take forever, longer even than he would've expected seeing it from the outside. The Enforcer-Protectors were stoic, even for Enforcers, and he didn't doubt for a second that they'd lay their lives down for the Judge. The elevator finally began to slow, and a small ding! rang out just before the doors slid apart, revealing a hive of activity. No less than two dozen Arbites personnel were running from cubicle to cubicle, and every one was fully armed and armored.
“Checkpoint Primarium.” Thar received a few suspicious glances, in particular from a churlish looking woman with an air of undeniable authority. “Enforcer-Protector Mulcanis.” The detective's escort stopped and saluted, and she glared at Thar when he failed to follow suit.
“Is this the guest?” She spat the word out, and it did nothing to help Thar's opinion of the woman. Still, the floor's activity was neat and orderly, and he barely had time to wonder why it was so much smaller than the other three he'd seen lower before she comm'd the next elevator open and he was ushered inside.
“Why are the elevators... arranged like this?”
After a long moment one of the E-Ps responded; his mouth formed words, but he was otherwise completely disciplined and unmoving. “The checkpoint elevators are staggered for maximum security, Detective.”
Idiam opened his mouth to talk, ask why the floor was so small, what other security measures were present, but thought better of it. Soon enough the second checkpoint came with a ding! and the door opened to reveal an array of automated defenses. “Checkpoint Secundarum.” Another dozen E-Ps were stationed here, along with four automated turrets and another dozen servitors, bearing all manner of heavy weapons, including plasma guns and bolters. And they were all trained on him. After a long, awkward moment the defenses finally relented and the humans settled down as well. The other elevator door opened as they approached, and once more Thar found himself waiting in grim silence.
Finally the third ding! came and went, the doors opened. “Checkpoint Tertiariis.” Once more Detective Thar found himself unprepared for what waited. The room was stuffed beyond capacity, at least thirty fully armed and armored Enforcer-Protectors shuttling about. But what dominated the room were the holodisplays and cogitator banks, each cycling through multiple feeds, each connected to an augmetically enhanced E-P, only their heads unarmored to reveal data ports and pseudo-synaptic nodes along their necks. The entire building was secured and observed here, every coming and going recorded and logged, every visitor seen and catalogued. No suspicious eyes were cast at Thar, and the floor commander was already waiting by the elevator. Idiam walked straight through the mass of Arbitrators, his escort calmly following. They didn't disturb anyone in the least as he passed, the crowd seeming to part around him without interrupting the steady, coordinated flow of their tasks and duties. The elevator door opened just in time for him to enter and closed as the escort stepped in after him, only the briefest nod of acknowledgement came from the floor commander before it all disappeared from view once more.
This short trip seemed the longest of all, despite it being only a single floor, and the ding! rung out with ominous cheer. The doors slid apart, slowly, far too slowly, to reveal another pair of Enforcer-Protectors, shotguns brought to bear. They didn't flinch or react until Judge Albrecht's voice fairly boomed into the elevator from across the well appointed room.
“Please, don't delay my rising star any longer.” The guards immediately relaxed and Thar stepped out. His escort took up positions by the elevator along with their brethren and Judge Albrecht gave a friendly wave, his brisk movements ever at odds with his withered appearance. “Come, Detective Thar, I have a few questions to ask you.”
Idiam began to walk towards the large, stately desk centered at the end of the Judge's room. An enormous display screen monopolized the far wall; it was arranged to imitate a large window with a tremendous view of the hive below, and here stood Albrecht, gazing with fatherly care over his city. Thar took a quick look around the room, and nearly stopped walking altogether as he took a second, more thorough chance to inspect the area. Books were more prevalent than anything: treatises on philosophy of all traditions and branches, from aesthetics to politics to design disciplines; omnibuses of law of many kinds, Imperial, pre-Unification Wars, and even a few Xenos empire, Eldar included; shelves and shelves of anthologies of old literary works from every genre and historical analects of every era from every segmentum. Almost as prevalent were the guns, ranging from the incredible variety of old earth stubpistols and rifles to newer models, some still in use and a few so new Thar had only heard of the preceding model. Plasma guns were in special abundance, including a section of Ragefires, seven different models in all; a simple MkV Mars-pattern; a Mk35 Magnacore from Cadia; and one that looked like the burnt and blasted shell of a larger plasma gun, at odds with the clean, whole weapons around it.
'A Barrage model? More guns, a variety of flamers, from hand to heavy; a smaller collection of meltaguns, including another burnt and broken relic, an inferno pistol. A Cthellean Cudbear, masterfully preserved and positioned, stood guard in one corner, shaggy purple hair lending an air of majesty to the savage creature. Other curios and curiosities dotted the area, some on small desks or stands, other, larger pieces merely taking the floor by themselves. The only thing that confused Thar was a complete lack of Arbites gear or memorabilia: not one thing to let an unaware observer know that this was the office of a Judge, a Hall of Judgement.
“Do you like my collection, Detective?”
Thar drew near, then stood next to the aged Judge, joining him in gazing out over the city below. “It's remarkable, but...”
“But there is nothing Arbites?” He laughed, a hearty young laugh, brimming with life and good cheer. “There are fifty floors, a maintenance floor and a roof to this building, Detective. And all but one of them is dedicated wholly to the Arbites. This-” A hand swept out, taking in the many sights, “-is my retreat, where I go to gain distance on matters of the Law. It can be easy to become... stuck in the Arbitrator's mindset, to forget the many years of knowledge and history we have to draw on beyond the current laws of the hive.”
After a long moment Thar nodded in acknowledgment.
“But I did not bring you here to listen to an old man ramble. Please, sit.” Albrecht sat comfortably in the large chair behind his desk, and Thar settled easily into a guest chair on the other side, far more relaxing than his own customary seat back at his new office in precinct #23. “I hear you found something disturbing?”
Thar braced himself, then began to explain. “Yes, it appears the slide trafficking situation is far graver than we assumed. Much larger than we expected. The group dealing to the school in block #113 was only a fragment of what works in the deeper reaches of the hive. Not two days ago a large group of scavengers was found dead. The few survivors claimed it was the work of the Blacksnakes, the kings of the slide trade in Tetra.”
Albrecht's visage knotted in confusion at this, but he nodded to the Detective to continue. “We've been looking over slide distribution patterns, and found a level of cooperation unprecedented among the houses. Each is sticking to their own areas, and what little we've been able to confiscate is of consistent cut and quality.” Thar leaned forward, his voice dropping gravely. “They're being supplied from one central source.”
The Judge leaned back, his eyes turning thoughtful. After a time he stood and turned, hands clasped behind his back, to regard the hive once more. “Tell me, Detective Thar: before all this happened you were involved in a... terrible case. It was the day before you found the first victim, was it not?”
Thar exhaled heavily. “Yes, Judge.”
“Please, tell me what happened.” Albrecht's voice was granite on granite, unreadable and menacing, a voice truly befitting a Judge.
“My partner, Dalas and I, were investigating rumors of a group of squatters near the underhive. We came across a...” He paused, and looked down, then continued. “It was death, Judge. Death. We don't know if they were cultists or not, that was our fear. They fit the bill.” Albrecht let out a palpable tensing at this, but slowly relaxed as Thar went on. “But they were all dead, and not in the manner of a sacrifice. There were no symbols to the Primordial Annihilator, no scrolls or parchments, no savagery in the deaths. The kills were clean, clinical and perfect. Each was felled with a gun or knife, one or another of their own. No return wounds were inflicted on the killer. We tracked him, found him. Or at least we thought we did. He ambushed us, killed Dalas and I barely made it out alive. He moved so fast I could barely keep an eye on him, and every time I fired he dodged, like he knew exactly where I was firing. I only let off three shots before the blood loss took me down, and when I woke up there was no sign of him. I found the... the kid the next day.”
Albrecht turned, his features drooping with sorrow, revealing him for a moment as he truly was, an ancient man, a man who'd done far more than his share and kept going. Still, even in this his eyes glittered with resolve, and he drew himself up, become lively once more.
“I have seen many things in my time, Detective, even Chaos, in all its depravity, is known to me in a small way.” He shuddered, and Thar had no doubt of the words' truth. “But I fear for our city. Something down there is evil and powerful. Something not of Chaos, but of our world entirely. Something of man. But I encourage you to search for Chaos. The spawn of Nurgle revel in death and decay, and these strange deaths make sense in that regard.”
Courting Habits of World Eaters
Gorechild screamed its unearthly wail as it tore down the streets, Doug clinging on for dear life even more than he thought he'd have to. Furia only grinned as she felt his heart pick up with the acceleration, his arms wrapping even more firmly around her. The grip Doug had was necessary for him to stay on the stable and ungodly fast battle bike. While a normal person would be gasping for breath right now, or even feeling the strain on her ribs, the compression was like a strong hug for Furia. It only served to remind her of what they didn't do last night.
"So, Furia, tell me. What exactly will happen if I don't pass your father's trials?" Doug shouted over roar of the wind, but his erstwhile girlfriend could only hear him due to the press of his chest into her back, the words rumbling through his sternum and into her spine.
"What, you havin' second thoughts about this Doug? Don't you turn shitbird on me like Calvin did." Furia grinned. She knew Doug would agree to face her father in ritual combat for her, or at least it felt like that after what he pulled on her last night. Fucker. Her grin spread wider under the helmet.
"I'm simply curious, Furia. I'm not familiar with the, ah, courting habits of World Eaters."
She laughed at how calm he was. The last boyfriend I had, well, before Coby, dropped a load in his pants when dad brought out the axe.
"Well, it means I get to fuck whoever I want, and if you do something I don't like I tell daddy you hurt me. Fair?" Furia began to truly laugh now as his hands dug into her firm stomach, fingers strong enough to tickle her through the leather jacket. She swerved Gorechild to throw his grip, but he compensated by moving lower.
"Doug!" The word came out as a high squeal, and Furia felt him grin against her shoulder. "You keep this up and he's gonna be the least of your worries."
Doug's hands prodded again and she thought back to the session they'd had in the very bathroom Coby had cheated on her in. Furia smiled larger still. Gorechild finally began to pace down, the massive promethium burner turning only reluctantly as it accepted the task of slowing.
Furia gently patted the mechanical monstrosity as she parked. It's alright, buddy, we'll get some more action later. They dismounted and began walking for the door and Furia felt a firm hand on her shoulder.
Doug spoke lowly, the near subvocalization she was now so familiar with. "Tell me, Furia, and be honest." Furia nodded in assent, more intent on lighting up her lho-stick than his current words, anything to calm her nerves without Gorechild's distraction.
"Has your father ever struck you?" She almost laughed, having seen people thinking that very thought so many times, throwing it out into the world with their eyes like an accusation.
At least he asked now, instead waiting until dad can hear.
"N-" Furia turned and saw his face.
His expression had changed: Doug's face was almost always mild, unreadable. But around her today it had a positive cant, a tangible happiness. Furia froze as she looked at his face, glowering darkly at Angron's house, waiting for the the Primarch to appear. The change was so subtle, so ineffable that very few would have noticed. It was as if his personality rotated over to just the other side of complete neutrality, from happiness and love to hate and anger. But to Furia he seemed to be a tower of darkness, a singular malevolence that caused a brief chill to pass over her neck.
"NO!" She grabbed his hand, thoroughly unnerved, and her heart pounded in her chest. She looked at the door, unwilling to imagine what would happen if her father saw that face. Furia briefly wondered if she would have to mourn her father or her boyfriend, and laughed flatly that she'd considered it at all. Without looking she could tell Doug had returned, his hand steadying her, calming them both at the same time. "No, no, never!"
"Marvelous." Doug gave Furia a quick smile, his face back to normal, and she was all the happier for it.
She slipped her hand back out of his just before Angron's minacious form appeared in the bay window, trundling towards the back door. Furia opened the gate to the back yard, and together they stepped into the Primarch's domain.
The backyard was spacious, a forest visible just on the other side of the closed-in fence. A humongous grill sat near the house, closed and smoking. Angron stood here, prodding at a hunk of sizzling meat. His brief appraisal of the entire auroch flank apparently satisfactory, Angron turned and spoke.
"ALRIGHT YOU LITTLE BASTARD." He passed Doug the axe, enormous and ponderous. The boy took it easily, muscles visibly straining, but his posture did not alter.
He laid the massive head gently down in his free hand, scrutinizing the grain of the wood, the blade. The implement turned over with unexpected deftness, and Doug nodded as he finished his quick analysis of the other side.
Still looking angry, but with an undercurrent of amusement, Angron continued. "NOW. HOLD YOUR ARMS OUT ALL THE WAY.” Doug did so hands barely trembling with exertion. “ALL THE- GOOD. NOW-" At this the Primarch smiled, elephantine teeth exposed. Muscles flexed under Angron's outdoor clothes, stretched taut, resembling more than anything to Doug a holotheater hot dog squeezed into a too-small wrapper.
Furia rolled her eyes and shifted from one foot to the other, ripped jeans rustling.
Angron smiled wider as Doug held the pose, an exceptionally distressing sight. It was like watching a warp storm erupt into being, like seeing an Ork Space Hulk violate itself into reality.
"KEEP YOUR ARMS STRAIGHT AND TOUCH THE AXE TO YOUR NOSE. AND DON'T TURN CHICKENSHIT ON ME."
Doug nodded began to do just that, in a manner best described as very rapidly staying still. The tool descended and began to gather an unquenchable bloodlust, a terrible momentum. Although weighing perhaps no more than twenty kilos, the vast majority of the weapon's weight was in the head, exerting maximum leverage. He nodded with resignation, the air itself seeming to still in the eternity it took for the Thing to bulldoze through the now-thick atmosphere.
Furia stopped breathing, her eyes widening more and more, a silent roar of stark denial, unwilling to believe the reality before her. She began to step in, to try to grasp the axe, but Angron caught her without looking. His grin was now raging, as alive and full of menace as the dreadnought making its horrifyingly certain way towards Doug's fragile skull.
The cessation of Angron's breathing caused every animal to give pause, showing deference to the area's apex predator. The wind halted to allow vindication and grisly relish to play over his face. The trees, long suffering from his ravening presence, seemed to rest. All was silent as the sweat beaded on Doug's brow and temple. His lips clenched, a sudden hiss! of breath bursting through as his entire body shuddered and flexed.
The axe began to halt, all too slowly, until it seemed the head was already past Doug's nose, already through the bridge, its momentum so great that it was not slowed by the crushed cartilage and rent flesh. A loud, ghastly crack! sounded as the instrument of deific wrath finally stopped, something visibly flying off to the side. Doug's face was now hidden behind the gargantuan hunk of steel.
Angron simply smiled still, letting Furia go. She ran to Doug's side, whispering close to him, uncomprehending. She stood there for a long, long moment. Her head dropped, crestfallen, and for a moment Angron felt sadness for his daughter, empathy. But it was quickly wiped away by the certainty of his victory, of ensuring his daughter didn't end up with another chickenshit loser or spineless, cheating noble. His face was almost serene, flush with the satisfaction of protecting the most important part of his life.
So, when Furia started to laugh, a drawn out, relieved chuckle, mirrored in the rankling smirk of her annoying-little-prick of a boyfriend, Angron felt an enormous tightening of his features. When the little bastard had the audacity to turn, revealing the axe resting heavily, but gently on the bridge of his nose, Angron's neck swelled.
The sight of a single crack, a flaking and splitting of the axe's wood, was merely an excuse for him to vent his rage.
Doug stood calmly, slowly working the strain out of his arms with measured breathing and stretches, while Furia managed to rein in her father through no small effort of her own robust vocal cords.
Charming girl. The air finally cleared, though Angron appeared only slightly less angry than he had for the past fifteen minutes. "Apologies for the axe, Lord Angron, I assumed a tool you employ would be more durable."
"WELL FINE, THEN, SMARTASS." Angron thrust the axe out, the intervening three stride length a perfect distance for his overawing reach. "JUST SPLIT A DAMN LOG." Doug took the axe, rocking back on his feet at the enormous momentum the simple action translated. "AND DON'T BREAK MY AXE."
Doug complied effortlessly, setting the axe one one shoulder, ignoring the pain of the old bite mark. He turned his head, as if inspecting one of the logs, but peripheral vision of Furia was his true intent.
She seems anxious, yes, but it's now of a slightly different character. She believes I can complete this senseless endeavor and impress her father. Another lho-stick crumbled from Furia's lips, and Doug noticed for the first time Angron puffing gaily on a truly stupendous cigar. I shouldn't disappoint her.
He briefly wondered where Angron could've pulled the cigar from, then thought better of it and returned to the task at hand. Doug inspected each of the half-dozen 'logs' in turn. He poked and knocked, eyes darting and scanning the bark, the wood. He moved smoothly and efficiently, seemingly unimpeded by the hulking axe on his shoulder, and finally seemed to settle on the largest among those arranged. Doug looked over a chunk of timber quickly, fingers prodding and dancing. It was enormous, at least a meter-and-a-half tall and of such girth he could not wrap his arms around it. He tested its weight. It's light, too light for its size. He looked again at the top, seeing a slight but recognizable discoloration.
He allowed himself a small smile.
Doug suddenly stood up again, checking the wood once more, now for spalting, the presence of fungal growth that colors and pigments wood. Properly tended and stabilized, pleasing patterns of various colors emerge in the lumber, giving the wood a distinctive appearance. He looked again at the axe, with its winding lines and streaks of red, dotted throughout in black.
"Lord Angron, did you cut all these logs from the same tree?" He gestured at an array of three logs, his own taken from the middle of them.
Angron scratched his chin, and nodded testily.
"Excellent, very clean cuts." Doug reassembled the tree in his mind, overlaying the discolorations, noting their intensity and placement, with special interest in the bleaching. He then knelt and tilted the log against his left shoulder, hefting it one-handed onto the enormous stump. Yes, very light for its size. It was adjusted for a long minute, coming closer to the edge, turning just so. He set the axe down gently and Angron snorted in a rare moment of humor, reminiscent of Furia's quirk. Doug cupped his hands in front of his body at his navel, then inhaled and lifted them slowly. He was visualizing the air filling him as if he were a wine bottle, freshly approved and fully laden.
It was Furia's turn to snort as a ridiculous image appeared in her mind. She visualized as well, the tall, disciplined Doug now replaced by a haggard old spinster, enormous sagging breasts draping like fried eggs on a nail to her hips. The crone inhaled, drawing herself fully to her unimpressive height, hands lifting and supporting her wobbling, misshapen teats. Angron turned a beady eye on his snickering daughter and the prominent artery on his neck, already disturbed by its recent travails, threatened to rupture and cut her in half through sheer blood pressure.
Furia looked back at her father and somehow he only completed the picture, incongruously threatened by and angry at the diminutive old woman, as if her impudence was an affront to his pride and lifestyle. Tears rolled freely, her stomach twisting and racking with laughter, pain unable to contain mirth. Doug exhaled sharply, a prelude so familiar from last week's LFT that it shook Furia from her daydream.
He tapped the top of the log as he slid back over the ground, twisting to apply torque to his planned strike. The scene played out in perfect choreography as Doug closed his eyes. It began to tip, slide down the facing side of the stump. As it drew level, half atop and half below the lip of the fat stump of birch, Doug rebounded, driving the heel of his palm into a precise spot above the center of the log, just offset from a bleached spot.
The punky core of the tree gave way after only a moment's hesitation, the white rot exposed, the weakness and lightness of the log now given justification as it tore neatly in half. Half of Doug's log slid down the stump and the other was levered up by its brother, placed on display.
"Please, Lord Angron, allow me to square our accounts." Doug plucked the axe from the ground, then darted to the other side of the stump, scraping gently, hewing away the punky, bleached wood. After a few expert strokes with the heavy blade, he stood back, satisfaction evident on his face. Angron took the thick stogie between two fingers, exhaling a car-size cloud of smoke, and stepped over in four great strides. His rough hand brushed away more fibrous white wood, revealing a great burled eye surrounded by an oblong swirl of red zone lines dotted throughout with black specks.
Angron exhaled again, "NOT BAD FOR A DUMBSHIT." A buckler-sized hand clapped down on Doug's shoulder, his knees visibly buckling. "BUT I'LL TELL YOU WHAT I TOLD THE LAST ONE." The Primarch inhaled, drawing the remainder of the cigar down in one prodigious breath. "YOU MAKE HER CRY." Angron leaned in close, smoke coming out of his mouth, nose and tear ducts. "I MAKE YOU CRY. GOT ME?" "Of course." His face again mild, neutral, Doug bowed slightly. "Lord Angron."
Angron trudged back over to the grill with his prize in one hand and lifted the lid. He hefted the still blistering flank of auroch, thick black bark deposited from hours of smoking, and bit into it, juice dribbling and spraying everywhere. A great horking noise accompanied the obscene bulging of his throat as Angron swallowed a human head-sized clod of meat. "NOW GET OUT OF HERE." The Primarch turned back to the house, a tantalizing trail of glistening fat and pungent sauce marking his wake. He began to bite into the meat again, then stopped.
"And take my little muffin out somewhere nice." Angron was in the house now, mouth full of muscle fiber and gristle. "She's a growing girl, needs to eat."
"Indeed." Doug proffered his arm to Furia, who took it. As soon as they were out of Angron's sight the enervation appeared, his right arm jarred and bruised through, his left quivering and the bruised deltoid tender.
Furia shouldered up under the boy, practically carrying him back to the battle bike. "Let's get some beer and barbecue."
Doug stopped for a moment, finger pointed on his chin. "Brisket." Furia nodded in agreement, stifling a laugh as she settled in front of him and revved up the engine.
"To go." Furia smiled giddily and bestowed a not-quite slavering kiss on her boyfriend's lips, the rumble of the engine drowning out a gleeful cackle as they sped off into the unburdened evening.
Doug and Furia finished the off the first paper dish full of hand-shredded auroch brisket. Her hand rummaged around the greasy brown bag holding the other plate, still wrapped, and pulled out a napkin. It quickly fell to the floor, soaked through with grease and sauce, and she took another, wiping her mouth and chin off.
"Here." Furia was still panting a bit, cooling down as she passed Doug a napkin.
"I'll decline, thank you." She looked over at him, pausing in the task of unwrapping the second plate. He was breathing more heavily than she was, chewing the last of his brisket. Not a speck of sauce or meat was visible on his bare torso.
"How do you do that-" Furia slapped at his hand, the brisket nearly being flung all over, "-you bastard?"
Doug gasped, chewed. "Monastery, remember?"
"Fucker." Furia tossed aside the wrap and rolled up on top of Doug, straddling him once again, the cover falling away to reveal her own bare form. Her fingers dipped into the fresh, steaming brisket, a healthy portion slopping out and mostly into her mouth, the rest plopping down to her chin and chest. Doug smirked at her slovenliness, happy for an excuse to visually inspect the afflicted areas. "Don't look at me like that." Another portion of brisket slopped out, dropping onto his face, chest and stomach.
Doug lifted himself up, sucking down what brisket he could as Furia giggled madly, feigning a struggle against him complete with mock screams. He pinned her down, and smeared brisket onto her lips and cheeks from his own. She began to lick and slurp the fare down in response, and he joined her. They continued long after every trace of barbecue disappeared. Furia turned the tables soon enough, straddling him a little farther back this time, only slowing long enough to dip down, her chest dropping onto his, her hair sweeping over his face, to bite his shoulder. Doug bucked slightly, still not quite used to the ritual, and she grinned at it, finding her rhythm soon after.
You can find the conclusion to Bound Fate here: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9580671/29/Bound-Fate