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The Dawn Patrol


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#1 FullAuto

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Posted 05 October 2005 - 08:34 AM

MegaPrimus.  0530hrs.

  "Charlie Alpha, this is X-ray Bravo."
  Joh Matsuda checked his mic and started the bike's engine.  It throbbed to life, the whole chassis shuddering into a hard constant tremor that soon grounded itself in his bones.  He revved the antigrav, letting it float the bike higher, watching the levels nudge up.  Edward DeSoto, pale and pasty as dough, gave him a thumbs up from the sidecar.
  Joh frowned at him, raising a hand from the controls and twirling a forefinger. "Spin 'em" He shouted over the growl of the turbine.
  DeSoto frowned at him, then turned back to his own control panel and jabbed a button.
  A high keening whine slowly cycled up in pitch as the 40mm cannon's multibarrel rotated, quickly building to full revs.  Joh stood, leaning as far forward as he could, visually checking the barrels.
  Projecting from the nose of the sidecar, the three barrels were nothing but a dark blur, crying out to be let loose.  Joh sank back into the soft foam seat of the hoverbike and waved downwards vaguely.  The electric whine soon sighed back down under the sound of the engine, and Joh nodded, satisfied.  No overheating, no fluctuations, everything steady and in the green.
  "Charlie Alpha, this is X-ray Bravo.  Comms check."
  "X-ray Bravo, Charlie Alpha." Joh eased back on the antigrav and sank down, closer to the floor of the hangar than the ceiling now, letting the turbine inch them forward towards the exit tube.
  "Nice to hear from you, Charlie Alpha."
  It sounded like Bodanovich, but the encryption took the soul out of everyone's voice.  Then again, it could be an android.  There was supposed to be a new 'droid about.
  "Hey, DeSoto."
  DeSoto turned from fiddling with something and frowned at him.
  "New bot?  In the comms centre?" Joh leaned over as he spoke, closing the distance between them.
  DeSoto shrugged. "Let's get going." He thumbed a button and the armoured plastic slid up, enclosing him in the sidecar.
  "Charming." Joh stabbed a button and leaned down, letting the transparent plastic sweep over him, passing inches over his head. The designers obviously hadn't taken anyone over six feet into account.  It cut out most of the engine noise, and the hangar smell of fuel and lube was gone, replaced by the vague stink of odour-eating foam.
"Charlie Alpha."
  Joh lost his temper.  He wasn't even out of the hangar yet. "What?"
  "You're flying-"
  "I know what I'm flying." He switched the comm channel off. "Sweet zombie Jesus."
  "Assholes." DeSoto offered over the intercom.
  "Shut up." Joh let the engine out a little, boosting them toward the exit tube a little faster than the regs decreed.
  "Nets clear?" DeSoto asked.
  "Why don't you check them while I fly the bike." Joh suggested.
  -five minutes in and I'm grinding my teeth-
  A Phoenix dropped in from the entry tube, engine still roaring.  It slewed in, past them, a bright red sleekly aerodynamic slab of armoured hovercar.  The bike rolled a little in the jetwash, and Joh countersteered carefully, checking three-sixty for wandering engineers and loose tool racks.
  "Is that Morgan again?" DeSoto asked, twisting awkwardly to look back.
  The sidecar was even smaller than the bike.  Desoto had to sit with his legs half-bent, straight out in front of him, somewhere between laying back and sitting up.  At least riding the bike Matsuda could turn around and stretch any cramped muscles.
  Joh didn't reply, just gunned the engine and got them into the base of the exit tube.  He did another three-sixty, checking the bike was in the centre of the circle, then twisted hard on the antigrav.  The bike's hum increased in frequency as they rose, jet-scarred concrete flashing past, display clicking angrily as the computer registered he was still within the hangar space and breaking Regulation 233; that no craft must exceed ten (10) kilometres per hour (kph)-
  He thumped the base of the display angrily, jolting the warning off-screen.  Another quickly replaced it.  Apparently, he didn't have clearance to exit the hangar, contravening Regulation 257-
  Joh slammed his fist down on the display again, grinning fiercely and jamming the accelerator right back as the bike cleared the lip of the tube.
  The turbine growled and then bellowed to life as the SuperDynamic fuel injection finally started working.  The bike surged forward, speedo jumping, sending the bike rocketing up at a sixty-degree angle.
  "Holy.  Shit." DeSoto snarled. "Do you really need to do that?"
  Joh ignored him. "How are the nets?"
  He checked his radar, then the skyline, then the altimeter, making sure he was well clear of even the tallest building.  Acceleration still dragging at him, he eased off on both antigrav and jet, checking levels again.
  "MegaPol and MarSec nets are clear." Joh only half heard DeSoto's voice, too busy checking the space around him for threats. "Sensovision have a sanctioned raid against the Cult later on.  They've been hijacking the Sensonets again."
  Joh checked speed and altitude, both above sea and above ground, engine revs and fuel level, radar and comms.
  There wasn't much in the air.  A bulbous SolMine Liner floated overhead like an airborne steel whale, wallowing over as it came in to land.  AirTaxis flitted below, bright yellow flashes, as busy as bees.  An AirTrans shuttled past, livid green bulk juddering along a descent.
  Joh levelled out and throttled all the way back, letting the bike coast.  Ground traffic was minimal, it was early yet.  DeSoto yawned. "God, it's too early for this."
  "Let's just get on with it." Joh eased the bike over a road, letting the altitude ease down. "Come on, lock up a ground target."
  DeSoto yawned again, thumbing buttons. "Frequency agile my ass.  My wife is more agile than this piece of shit.  Fat bitch."
  That almost startled a laugh out of Joh. "Get on with it."
  The display began beeping.  Joh almost broke the 'mute' button pressing it, before checking over his shoulders for threats.  Focusing too hard on getting a lock on your target left you open to attack.  Left flank was clear.  Right flank held only a MegaPol hovercar, keeping pace several hundred metres away.
  "Got him." DeSoto sighed, rubbing his face.
  "With the laser, too."
  "We don't need-"
  "You don't have to like it, DeSoto, you just have to do it." Joh throttled up, a jerk of acceleration that snapped DeSoto's head back.
  The sudden shift lost the target in ground clutter.
  "Can we pick up another target?" DeSoto asked, focusing the radar again.
  "Same one." Joh brought the bike down and swung it around in a slow curve, circling a building, sticking close to the road.
  DeSoto groaned, but got on with it.  He reacquired the target, then activated the 40mm cannon.  Servos hummed, he felt their vibration through his feet as they moved the gun mount.  The guncam flickered to life, zooming in on the target, a battered AutoTaxi so old the paint had started to fade.  The targeting laser hit, splashing a red blotch over the rear window.
  "Here we have AutoTaxi One Three Nine, radar lock confirmed, exactly three hundred and twenty seven metres away." DeSoto slaved the cannon to Joh's controls. "All yours."
  Joh throttled up steadily, closing the distance as he swept lower, directly over the road now, tall rounded spires flashing by on either side, gleaming like jewels in the rising sun.  A quarter of the display was usurped with the guncam view, graphic overlays in cool blue telling him range, wind speed, ammunition remaining and gun temperature.  He curled a finger around the trigger.
  The canisters situated directly behind the gun, right under DeSoto's seat, held three thousand rounds of 40mm ammo, a custom mix of high explosive and armour piercing, every tenth round a tracer.  By no means the most fearsome weapon in the X-Com arsenal, it was still more than a match for most vehicles.  It could, if necessary, chew a sizeable hole in a building.
  "Hey, DeSoto, remember when you had this thing set on hispeed and you blew a hole in the recyclotorium across the road?"
  "Oh fuck off, Matsuda." DeSoto's pale cheeks flushed with colour.
  Joh grinned. "The whole base smelled like shit for a week."
  He depressed the trigger.  A warning flashed up on screen, telling him the trigger cap was still engaged.  Joh laughed, bashing the display with the heel of his hand. "Eat me."
  Another warning, this one about the number of warnings he had received.  He chuckled, hammering his fist down again. "Raw"
  "You're crazy." DeSoto sighed, shaking his head.
  "Slave the controls to the target." Joh engaged the AI and leaned back, letting the comp do its stuff.
  The program brought the bike in closer, totally dedicated to keeping the target locked in while avoiding anything it might crash into.  A nearby AirTaxi caused a sudden ascent, and the looming bulk of a tower mall a deceleration.  Joh watched the range counter click up, lips pursed.
  DeSoto observed the pilot.  He was tall and thin, dark hair pulled back in a knot so tight it looked like it was stretching the skin of his face.  What little there was of his Japanese ancestry could be seen in the slight epicanthic folds of his eyes, and the dull bronze of his skin.
  Joh grunted as the range hit a klick and a half. "It's back at one-five again."
  "Softechs keep resetting the 'ware." DeSoto shrugged, ending the lock.
  Joh boosted the engine, sweeping them back up high in a hard climb.  DeSoto never enjoyed getting that sensation in the pit of his stomach, like he'd just left his guts behind for a second.  But Joh got them level again and eased back on the throttle, letting him enjoy the view for once as the sun came up.
  It was glorious, even through the polluted air outside MegaPrimus, the sunlight shone gold.  Grass and trees were a verdant green below, curving links of PeopleTubes bracketing the roads and buildings like borders, keeping the artificial from invading the natural.  Buildings swelled up like growths, shining green and blue, reflecting light like oil on water.  Lacquered grey concrete and dark steel, plastics in primary colours, glass tinted black, an organised riot of colour, all according to regulation.
  "Comp can't hit shit at one-five." Joh took them back in a slow swoop, tilting the bike so he could look to his left and look straight down to the fields below.
  DeSoto was glad he had chosen to strap in.  He kept his eyes firmly on the display. "I'll alter the range parameter again, then."
  "Okay.  Set it to nine hundred." Joh checked his right flank again.
  The MegaPol hovercar was still there, pacing them.
  He gave the bike a little more throttle.
  The hovercar paced them, putting on a little burst of speed before settling back into cruise.
  "Charlie Alpha, this is Mike Papa One Two Two."
  Joh sighed. "Do you want to talk to them?"
  DeSoto shook his head, pushing his commset off. "No way."
  Joh grimaced. "Fucking joey." He got on the radio. "Mike Papa One Two Two, Charlie Alpha."
  "No threats.  Normal Psyke and Diablo activity.  No sign of Osiron today.  Clear board."
  "Alright."
  The MegaPol hovercar waited for a few more seconds then peeled off, a grinning blue steel shark diving into a shoal of traffic.
  "Assholes." DeSoto opined, pulling his commset back into place. "Is that why we're up here?  The gangers?"
  "Well done, DeSoto.  You're a fucking genius." Joh surfed through the nets. "Anything on the gang nets?"
  "We don't have the new freqs yet." DeSoto flicked through a couple of screens. "Old freqs are dead, no one but wannabes on them.  Want me to search?"
  "No.  If Base hasn't found them, you won't.  And if you start a search in this thing, you'll freeze the targeting comp.  Which will mean rebooting it.  Which will mean crashing the aviation comp which will mean me doing an emergency restart as we fall out of the sky." Joh put them into a steep dive for a few seconds, pointing the nose directly at the ground before yanking back on the controls. "Like that, but longer.  And maybe with us hitting the ground instead of me pulling up in time"
  DeSoto felt sick. "Point taken."
  They cruised on, higher than most traffic, engine just above stall speed, watching the sun chase away the shadows and cast them outside the city walls.  The armoured plastic of the windshields polarised in the rising sun, taking on a faint greyish taint as the light strengthened, rendering everything outside a shade darker.  Sealed in away from the biting wind, feeling only the faintest buffet of turbulence, held in their small cocoon of steel and plastic, they sat and waited in silence, alone despite the fact that mere inches separated them.
  Smelling metal and plastic, oil and fuel, sweat and morning breath, they flew on, circling their base, their territory, looking not for prey, but for other hunters.

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#2 FullAuto

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Posted 30 July 2006 - 08:19 AM

0545hrs.

"Did I tell you what happened yesterday?"
Joh ignored him, enjoying the quiet as the bike slid through the air, with only the rumble of the engine and the faint hiss of air passing over the canopy.
"Hey, I said.-"
"I heard you." Joh gave in. "And no, you didn't mention it.  Thrill me."
"Enough of the sarcasm.  You're a Rationalist, right?"
"Right." Joh turned the controls smoothly, easing the hoverbike into a wide turn.
"We went to church."
"What? Sirius?" Joh turned his head and frowned at his gunner.
"No, a real church."
"Don't let the buggers hear you say that."
"Very funny.  Anyway, we had lunch there, and they only served salads.  They don't eat meat on Fridays."
"Why not?"
DeSoto shrugged, looking back to his console. "How should I know?  But they don't.  They don't even eat soy with blood sauce."
Joh frowned. "But don't they do that thing?"
"Could you be any more vague?" DeSoto rarely got one in, and relished it.
"That thing.  Body of Christ.  Transubstantiation."
"You mean Communion?"
"Yeah." Joh replied vaguely, increasing throttle a little, eyes constantly moving from console to the view around him. "Surely that's eating meat, right?  I mean, technically that's cannibalism too, but we're talking about religion here.  Don't sweat the small stuff."
"Ah, I don't know.  The wife's more into it than I am." DeSoto shrugged. "Speaking of buggers, I have a pair liv-"
"Charlie Alpha, X-ray Bravo."
"X-ray Bravo, Charlie Alpha."
"Disturbance at Mieville Apartments.  Possible Cultist activity, MegaPol in attendance."
"Attending, X-ray Bravo." Joh grinned at DeSoto. "Sounds like our number's up."

Joh landed right outside the front entrance, allowing the engine to die and flaring the antigrav at the last second, settling them neatly onto the lawn.
"You can't park on the grass." DeSoto informed him, already shutting his console down.
Joh leaned back, sitting up straight as the canopy split and hissed down into the bike chassis.  He shut the bike down, made sure the comms were set to relay and jumped off onto the grass.  The commpost at the entrance to the apartment block bleated at him stupidly.
"You are breaking Regulation 558, no vehicle-"
"X-Com.  Fuck off."
The commpost went quiet.
"Now that's the maturity I like to see in an elite soldier." DeSoto said, levering himself out of the sidecar.
"Fuck off." Joh repeated, drawing his gun.
The Lawpistol hummed, holographic sights blinking to life, laser painting a vivid green dot onto the lacquered concrete pavement.  He checked the chamber loaded indicator, made sure the manual safety was off, glanced through the transparent panel in the side of the gun's magazine and counted the rounds there. "Let's go."
-no body armour, only pistols-
DeSoto, still checking his own gun, followed him to the front door.  Joh walked quickly, gun in both hands but aimed down, there was no need to move tactically yet.  The commpost buzzed a welcome as they mounted the steps to the entrance. "State your business, please."
"Fucking X-Com." Joh snarled. "Disturbance?"
"Third floor.  MegaPol in attendance.  Rescue Transport en route."
Joh reached for the handle, but the door swung open and he staggered inside, kicking the commpost in passing.
"Doesn't do any good to get angry at them." DeSoto said, bumping into him as the door swung shut  a little too quickly.
"Machines." Joh spat, and headed for the escalator.
The lobby was a polished cavern of black, red and chrome, a swollen oval of comfort and relaxation.  Joh smelled the fresh air piped in direct from a recyclotorium, and soft chiming sounds tinkled from furniture-integrated speakers.  A man was on duty, back to the wall but stood up straight, halfway between the relaxed curve of a bar and the escalators.
"We've had a-" One hand rose to point upwards.
"We know." Joh ignored him, hurrying across the soft polished floor.
"It's up on the-"
"We know." Joh reached the escalator and stepped on, swaying slightly.
A small speaker in the handrail switched on automatically, spilling bright, happy music as the escalator carried them upwards.
Joh ground his teeth.

The body was sprawled face-down in the middle of the corridor, arms flung out, legs splayed, diving for cover it would never find.  There wasn't much blood, a small slick of it around the torso and one long spurt that had arced over a wall.  A ragged mass of dark holes between the shoulder blades had clotted.
"Help you?" Someone called.
Joh looked up, raising his gun automatically.
A MegaPol officer, Lawpistol in hand but not aimed.  Like most, this one eschewed full body armour, preferring to wear just the torso cover.  The fat plates of dull ceramisteel bulked the officer's appearance considerably.  He approached slowly, neither threatening nor welcoming.
"X-Com.  What have we got?" Joh holstered up.
DeSoto pushed past him, skirting around the corpse and viewing it from the other side.
"Cold at your feet lies Andy Holms, Catholic, married, hardtech and sometime Osiron associate." The officer scratched his head thoughtfully. "Cause of death looks like nine or ten slugs in the back, wrecked the heart, lungs and spine.  And in room three-twelve we have Martina Jane, single and up until about ten minutes ago, an informant and Osiron front runner.  Go and have a look."
Joh stepped around the body and hurried along the corridor, DeSoto falling in behind him.  The officer called station as they passed. "X-Com in attendance, liasing as ordered."
Joh spotted the careless spray of spent casings around the door well before he reached it, and knew what he would find when he looked in.
The apartment was expensively furnished, a little too expensively, even for such a rich block.  There were actual paintings on some of the walls, at least four of the six chairs were made of  wood, and Joh thought the rug might even be real animal skin.
But the centrepiece of the room was Martina Jane herself.
She had died sitting against the wall to the left of the door, not two metres away.  A great sweeping smear of blood led from the doorway to where her body now rested, stinking, in a mixed puddle of her own blood, piss, and shit.  Legs trailing in front of her, slathered in crimson, head tilted back, eyes and mouth open idiotically wide.  Blood had bubbled up out of her insides, and the drying remnants stained her chin and the corners of her mouth.  A gory nipple peeked obscenely through a hole in her robe.
"I think I've worked it out." The officer, young face shiny with sweat. "Holms and two others turn up, getting access to the building through Holms' job.  They come up here, knock on the door.  When Jane comes to answer it, they shoot through the door."
The officer leaned into the apartment, and swung the door shut.  Tight clusters of holes patterned the cracked plastic.  Joh glimpsed blood and a limp hand through them.  DeSoto came closer, crowding Joh.
"Holms, for some reason, makes a run for it, and the other two shoot him." The officer turned, and drew his Lawpistol, aiming it down the corridor. "Not even five metres.  Easy shot.  They blaze Holms, then go back to Jane."
Joh noticed the handle of the door was gone, blasted away, scorch marks and melted plastic all around where it should have been.  The officer noted his look. "Breaching rounds.  They reloaded at least once, judging from the number of casings.  Blew her door open, shot her some more, just to make sure, and exited out the back."
Joh knelt, taking a closer look. "Lawpistol rounds." He picked a casing up, and examined the rear end.
MGPL - 73 - 11mm.
"MegaPol issue." Joh handed the casing to DeSoto, who gave it a glance and tossed it. "Well, this is all very nice, but we were told this was possible Cultist activity." He stood, waving a hand at the bodies. "This looks like straightforward ganger stuff, so it's all yours."
The officer ran a hand through his sweat-damp hair and nodded towards Holms' body. "Check the sole of her left foot."
Joh stared at him.  The officer stared back, undisturbed.
Joh shrugged, and stepped into the apartment.  He took care to avoid the swath of drying gore, stepping across it and sidestepping around its thick curve before kneeling down.
The colour of her toenails matched the drying crusts of blood on her soles.  He lifted up the left foot
-still warm- and looked closely.
There was a tattoo, on the ball of her foot, small, almost hidden by a crease of skin and some streaks of blood.  Taking her foot in both hands, he bent her toes back, stretching the skin taut, and rubbed the blood away with his thumbs.
-foot-rubbing a corpse, that's got to be a new fetish-
The blood came away in crumbs and drops, sticky.  The tattoo looked like a cartoonish representation of a fish skeleton, a horizontal line with vertical spines parallel on both sides, and an arrowhead tail.  But with an X for a head.  It meant nothing to him. "Ganger tat?"
"Nope.  Not that I know of."
Joh looked up at him. "No offence-"
"But I'm a rookie?" The officer grinned. "I cold-exed the ganger sigs course.  Did you?"
"That's MegaPol business.  X-Com handles more important orgs." Joh looked back at the tattoo.
It wasn't fancy, nothing like the intricate, colourful designs used by the gangs.  It was simple and precise, done in thick black ink.  It wasn't meant for display.
"Hold her foot while I get a scan." The officer pulled a cam from behind the stun grapple on his belt and aimed.
Joh leaned back, holding the foot higher.  The officer took two shots, checked the image display on the side of the cam and nodded. "Good.  I'll scan it and see what the nets sick up."
"I still don't see what this has to do with the Cult." Joh set the foot down gently.
The warm, rich stink of shit and the ammoniac whiff of piss combined to make him dizzy, and he rose and stepped away from the body.
DeSoto leaned into the apartment. "Osiron don't hit their own people.  They use other gangs for enforcement.  They've got a code, they always do it that way." His gaze slid over the body. "This looks like the Diablos to me."
"It does, does it?" The officer smirked.
"It does." DeSoto eyed him. "Eight years in the slums.  Not six months guarding a communal, like you."
The officer stopped smirking. "I'll go run this tat." He pushed past DeSoto.
"Kids." DeSoto murmured, moving into the room. "Unusual, though.  If Osiron hired the Diabs to carry out the whack, the Diabs sent idiots.  They did a noisy, public job."
"Making an example?" Joh sat down in the nearest chair, relishing the subtle flex of the wood, the faint creaks.
"Osiron don't make examples.  They're respectable businessmen," DeSoto winced at the corpse, "and women.  You rip them, you go to the recyc.  They don't blaze you in half at home.  And there are never any Osiron gangers involved."
"Holms was only an associate."
DeSoto shook his head. "There are never any links to the gang.  Never."
Joh shrugged, resting his elbows on his thighs as he leaned forward. "So maybe Osiron wanted them both cold.  I don't know what we're doing here."
"It's unusual.  Unusual means us." DeSoto pointed to the body. "Look at the shot placement.  All torso hits.  That's not pro.  You shoot centre mass, they go down, you want to put them out.  What do you shoot?"
"Head, double tap."
"Exactly.  Two in the vault." DeSoto moved closer and leaned over the corpse. "No head wounds in either.  If Holms or Jane had been wearing a beepeevee, they'd be alive."
Joh rested his chin on his fists. "So?"
"So say Osiron did hire the Diabs.  The Diabs either sent a pair of joeys, or they subcontracted a pair of joeys.  Neither makes sense." DeSoto rubbed his forehead. "What kind of front did she operate?"
Joh shrugged. "Ask the blue boys."
"Well, whatever it was, it got her cold." DeSoto's turn to shrug.
The officer reappeared in the doorway. "Slabwagon is here."
DeSoto's gaze didn't move from the corpse. "We need the profiles for both of them.  Bounce it to Charlie Alpha."
"Will do." Coldly professional, the officer nodded and disappeared back down the corridor.
"Kids." DeSoto said again, and crossed his arms.

0605hrs.

The voice was muted, synthetic, asexual. "It is safe to proceed."
Ten sweating men turned to face the screen.  Wired lopsidedly into the wall of the autotrans, it remained dark, but the audio was unhindered.
"It is safe to proceed."
They looked at each other, faces gleaming wetly in the dim red safety light.  Crowded close, with the humid vapours of hot food and bodily wastes thick in the stifling interior, they rubbed and nudged, bumped and shoved, struggling around each other into readiness.  Two buckets were shoved to the front, supposedly airtight lids leaking the mixed stench of spicy Nepalese food and sour vomit, the twin reek of alcohol and piss.
Strange, fleshy weapons were uncovered, checked, and covered again, concealed under rough robes of thick hemp.  Eyes blinked rapidly, pupils dilated with drugs.  Nostrils flared and smelled nothing but sweat.  Chests heaved, struggling for air in the claustrophobic squeeze of bodies.  Shaven heads shone with perspiration.
"It is safe to proceed." The voice said again, and channel clicked over to the hum of an open line.
The cargo door rolled up, and the men spilled out into the icy air.  They shuddered, shivering and steaming, their armament twitching and dripping strange, sweet fluids that tingled on their skin.  One moved out from the pack and turned to face the others. "The Sefirot.  From nefesh to yehidah." He intoned, and the gun bulged tumescently under his robe.
The remaining nine chanted back. "From nefesh to yehidah."
The weapons seemed to sense their intent, and became muscularly rigid, taut with shared arousal, pulsing.
The Sefirot split up, and went their separate ways into the sub-level of the Gentle Tower Mall.

Erfworld - the finest comic about turn-based gaming ever.


#3 FullAuto

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Posted 26 August 2006 - 12:35 PM

0610hrs.

They perched on the hoverbike and waited.  Joh wiped his hands clean of blood, and tried to ignore the emtechs as they loaded both bodies into the rescue transport.  A few people came to their windows to gawk.  A few even had jacks buried in their temples, backing up the experience in the hope of selling it to Sensovision.
"Pluggers." DeSoto snorted, getting to his feet and scowling at the nearest example until he went away. "Can't believe there's a market for micro shit like that."
Joh inspected under his nails, then went back to wiping his palms.  They still felt dirty.
"Think what we could make, if we could record what we do."
Joh laughed. "Eight hours on a hoverbike, twiddling our thumbs.  That'll set their jaded pulses racing."
DeSoto ignored him. "Verdict?"
"Those two cold ones?  I don't know.  Tell me."
"It's not like any Osiron job I've ever seen.  If they were fucking and putting a business in jeopardy, they would have been blazed separately, to minimise any possible connection.  Whack both at the same time and place, you forge a link.  If they were ripping, same again. The whole modus stinks.  Osiron pay for the best.  The best don't use traceable 'Pol tech or brass, they don't come in the front door, they don't forget to crack the vault-"
"I get the idea."
"Maybe they hired someone else to do it.  Psyke, or one of the smaller gangs.  Amateur night at Mieville Apartments."
The sidecar console bleeped politely. "See what that is." Joh watched the MegaPol officer emerge from the apartment block and talk with the emtechs.
DeSoto turned and slid into the sidecar, worming his bulk into the narrow space.  Thumbing buttons, he unlocked the console and reviewed the display.
"Well?"
DeSoto switched the audio on.
"-twenty-three offences; thirteen counts of operating as a hardtech without a license, four counts of attempted evasion of arrest, two counts of actively resisting arrest, one count of passively resisting arrest, one count of avoiding implantation of fertility suppressant, one count of attempted illegal procreation, one count of interfering in the moral education of a minor.  Suspected ongoing association with criminal elements-"
DeSoto cut the audio. "Last offence was in seventy-nine.  MegaPol haven't seen much of him since then.  Jane is a different story." He leaned back, rubbing his chin. "She opened a minor import-export trade in seventy-three, and was co-opted into Osiron in seventy-four.  The 'Pol picked her up in seventy-eight and they turned her.  She was a conduit for surplus from MarSec, with some small nuggets of Elerium into the bargain.  Brass, concentrates, tech, even raw materials she picked up easily and legally, and sold them on."
"Any details?  Maybe she ripped someone on an Elerium deal." Joh leaned closer, looming over DeSoto to look at the display.
"Doubt it.  It's not like stim, you can't cut it with sugar and pretend it's pure." DeSoto shifted uncomfortably. "Holms and Jane had nothing in common.  Osiron hired Holms through a cardboard man-"
"A what?" John frowned.
"A cardboard man.  A cut-out.  A safety measure, meaning there's no direct, provable link between Osiron and Holms." DeSoto glanced up at him. "Who did you fuck to get this job?"
"Fuck off, DeSoto.  I didn't plod around the slums grappling fucking kids."
"No?  What did you do?" DeSoto pretended to be absorbed in the displayed information.
"MarSec.  Five years in the colonies."
"A stormtrooper." DeSoto's lip curled.
"No.  I had a quiet term.  I didn't put down any riots, I didn't massacre any miners." Joh felt his cheeks beginning to heat up, and turned away from the argument, starting the bike up. "Give me the rest when we're in the air."
He used the jet on purpose, leaving a long black scorch mark seared across the lawn like a third-degree burn.

0620hrs.

Hod stopped, for a moment, and leaned on the walkway rail.  Looking over, into the levels below, made him feel sick and he looked at the floor under his feet instead.  He knew he was drawing attention to himself, knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't help it.
He was cold, his robe was scratchy, and he didn't know what he would do first; throw up, or wet himself.  The weapon twitched, swinging down by his leg.  He felt the fin sprout and tickle his thigh.  It took his mind off feeling ill.
-what if it doesn't work what do i do-
Hod stood up straight, glancing up at the clock that hung in the centre of the mall, rotating slowly.  He gritted his teeth as he counted how long was still to go.  He looked around, slowly.
The second level of the mall was mostly concerned with clothing, chameleonic shirts and skirts that mirrored the hues of the people browsing.  It was too early for a big crowd, but there were quite a few people at a NutriVend stall waiting for companions.  An ad for Gravball flashed up, startlingly loud, surrounding the clock display with spinning figures, more robot than man.  Hod watched them, then remembered what he was here to do and looked away.  He steeled himself, and looked down into the level below.
He spotted Yesof instantly, chatting with a group of young girls.  Smiling, talking pleasantly, he somehow did not seem too out of place among the bright constellation of women.  Hod gritted his teeth.  He couldn't see Malkuth, but he was down there, somewhere.  Their job was to provide security, isolating the mall from outside interference.
Hod looked across the central shaft of the mall, and found Netzach glaring at him.  He knew that look intimately.
Stand up.  Look happy.  Smile.  Don't be nervous.  Do as you're told.
Hod turned away and walked around the concourse, circling the central shaft.  He knew that each level was open-plan, with few interior walls.  A rough square, with a people tube in each corner of the central shaft, two ascending, two descending.  There were four more tubes, one on each exterior corner of the mall, accessible through hatches which only opened in emergencies.
Chokma and Kether, up on the top floor, would take care of those along with the rooftop access.
Netzach was pacing him, so they were always on the opposite side of the central shaft, and although that gulf was smaller than their personal rift, Hod would still have liked to be closer.  Just for reassurance.  Netzach was a bully and an idiot, but he was big, and not easily intimidated.
A man bumped into Hod, shouldering him out of the way.
Hod staggered, too miserable to say anything.
"Bugger" The man called back without looking, and Hod felt his cheeks flush with hot blood.
His hand tightened around the weapon's slippery grip, and it seemed to tense in sympathy, stiffening against his leg.  But Netzach was watching, and when he made eye contact, he shook his head, once.
Not yet.
Hod looked at the floor and kept walking.

0625hrs.

"I'm getting a fucking headache with all this recycled shit." Joh wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead. "Let's go arrest some Osiron members."
DeSoto shook his head. "And what?  Beat them with rubber hoses until they confess?  Not our job.  We are meant to be covert.  Low profile."
"Which is why we were sent to a routine crime.  And why our vehicles are painted bright fucking red, too, I suppose.  Oh, and never forgetting the truly genius decision of building our base under a Christ-damned warehouse.  Real covert.  We couldn't be any more low profile if we were invisible."
"I'm getting the feeling you disagree with some of the operational decisions." DeSoto's eyebrows raised.
"Not at all.  Five-by if you ask me.  We're so secret we don't even get our own building.  That's pretty damn secret." Joh switched the hoverbike to autopilot and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Why didn't they go the whole nine and build it in a fucking volcano?"
"The nearest volcano must be a thousand kilometres from here." DeSoto reminded him.
"Well, it'd be pretty fucking secret then, wouldn't it?"
"I can't talk to you when you're like this." DeSoto turned back to this console.
They flew on, the autopilot taking them in a wide loop around the centre of MegaPrimus.  DeSoto pecked at the console with his fingers, opening, enlarging, shrinking and closing windows on text, video, and audio files in a constant flow of information.  Just watching him irritated Joh.  He wasn't an investigator.  He didn't have the patience for this kind of work.  DeSoto was different, a curious, investigative animal, quick to worm through intricacies.  DeSoto had the advantages of prior experience and training.
"There was no connection between Holms and Jane." DeSoto broke the quiet between them, ignoring any residual awkwardness.
"Apart from the fact they were killed at the same time, at the same place, by the same people."
"Apart from those, yes.  Prelim forensics identified two hitters or at least, two guns, from the casings.  They're digging the bullets out now.  No prints on the casings.  All of the brass was MegaPol issue, seventy-three to seventy-five, fine vintages all."
"Any brass get stolen in or after those years?"
"Officer Vincenz has already checked, and apparently not."
"Well, I'm out of ideas."
"You mean you actually had one?"
"Fuck off." Joh resumed control, giving up on the conversation.
He put them back on the regular patrol route, a tight loop around the X-Com base.  It was still early, but the air was busy, the last rush of automated traffic before the people started to wake up and go to work.  Joh was hungry, and already tired with frustration.  He took them up, watching for threats,  occupying himself.  DeSoto carried on tapping away, entranced with his console.
"Charlie Alpha, X-ray Bravo."
"X-ray Bravo, Charlie Alpha.  News?"
"Seconded to investigation.  RV Officer Vincenz, MegaPol Station Twenty."
"Understood." Joh said glumly, and felt his hopes of a nice simple shift evaporate.
"Christ, that little blockage isn't going to be giving us orders, is he?" DeSoto asked, not looking up from the screen.
Joh made a small course correction and took them down, a steep descent that coasted the hoverbike directly under one of the main traffic streams, apparently contravening Regulation 334, which required him to request permission from TraffCon for such a maneouvre.  Joh felt a small but undeniable burst of delight as he thumped the screen.  At last, he got to hit something.

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