Black Mountain: Of a Sentence

Draea felt rather uncomfortable. Her team was making its way to the warehouse area on an Angel station, and at any moment she expected to see a familiar face, someone who'd known someone she'd killed. Not that she probably needed to worry much, considering the company she was in, but it paid to be careful.

She looked around at her teammates. There was Krezek the tech-sadist, Falau the brawler, Yorlas the bounty hunter and Polok the chem-tech warfare dude. Krezek was an ex-sniper with a gift for electronics and infiltration who liked torturing his subjects without ever being in their presence. Falau was a survivor of a million little wars, ranging from barroom brawls to rush-squads on conquerable stations, and had, by his own account, had an eager hand in starting many of them. Yorlas was a considerably more careful opponent whose activities, as with Krezek's, had included sniping, along with various manners of assassination both individual and en masse. His only real goal in life was to terminate as many people as possible before his own end of times, and while he had a stated interest in experimenting with methods, he drew his pleasure from the successful taking of a life and the individual marking of his kills, and not, as Falau did, in the bloody preamble to death. Polok, a rather more personable individual whom Draea liked quite a bit, was heavily into chemistry and the myriad alterations of the human body it could bring forth. He had a preference for being called the Plague Doctor, and had stuck to it right until he told Draea about it, at which point she laughed so hard at him that she nearly collapsed on the floor. He never mentioned it again.

Supposedly the Book wouldn't work on them. They were too far gone, the violence and darkness too ingrained in the very fabric in their personality, for the Book to do anything more than give them a bad headache. If the device ever got into the wrong hands, Draea thought, they would be the first ones put against the wall.

They'd all studied the plans, although some of the data, such as where Arak kept his merchandise, had only been revealed to them just as they were getting off the ship. Some information came through Yorlas, who apparently had friends in the area. All Draea's team needed to do now was get to the warehouse, and get inside it. Krezek had vowed to take care of the last part.

As they were walking towards the station's storage areas, Polok, whose stalker instincts matched Yorlas's, turned to Draea and said, "One of the Angels is following us."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." Polok described him in detail.

Draea thought hard, and eventually an old splinter of a memory dislodged itself. A duo of Angels had appeared on her colony a while back, recruiting miners. She'd monitored their progress, then gone dark and caught one of them alone and unawares. He'd been a stocky man, and she'd later sprained a back muscle shoving his corpse into the incinerator. The other Angel, unaware of her part in the murder, had raised a fuss and even called in some people of his own to investigate, but the corps had backed the cops and she'd stayed clean. Misplaced faith was a wonderful thing.

She called her team mates closer, and told them of all this. They grinned at each other, and Yorlas said, "Can't have him screw this up. Let's fade out. Look for the bullet."

The group split in two. Draea and Polok continued walking, but slowed their pace to an amble, and changed their route to darker streets. Krezek, Falau and Yorlas faded into the shadows.

Draea worried that the guy would have contacted other Angels, but Polok assured her they were safe. The man might have sent some message, but if he really had reported them to the active forces in the area, they'd long since have been scooped up and thrown into quarters. They kept looking around while talking, and eventually spotted a likely-looking side street between two warehouses. Everyone in the group had murderer instincts that they'd learned to trust implicitly, and those included finding the best spot to do something nasty, so it was no surprise when they came closer and saw a bullet lying at the entrance.

They walked into the alley, Draea subtly kicking the bullet away, and the Angel followed shortly after. He was closing in on them, Draea realized, and it would only be a few breaths before he engaged. The street was dark and deep.

"Don't turn around," Polok said to her, and she didn't, but she heard the sounds: There were the faintest of steps from the Angel trying to sneak closer, then a swoosh in the air, a gasp, the briefest of scuffles, and a muffled thump, followed by a gurgle and something that sounded like a wet piece of paper being torn up.

They stopped, and now she turned around, eager to inspect someone else's handiwork. She walked up to the corpse and gave it a professional's look. She wasn't so much interested in the stab wounds on his chest, or the gaping hole in his groin - everyone had their peccadilloes - but she was intrigued by the rim of shredded skin on one side of his throat, which matched neither a garrote pattern nor the serrated edge of a blade. She looked at Yorlas, who was busy cleaning off his knife.

He looked back at her, shrugged, unslung a gun that hung in a strap from his shoulders and handed it to her, saying only, "Missed. Aim needs adjusting."

She inspected the gun. It was a pressurized shotgun with six slanted choke tubes arranged radially. Each tube was lined with a magnetizing agent that helped keep its shots in line when they exited the barrels, making for longer range. The clips were twofold, one capsule of supercompressed gas and another capsule holding the ammunition. The magnetizing agent would only work on tiny metal pellets, but in Draea's view, that kind of ammo shouldn't have torn up the side of the Angel's throat like it had. Not unless the pellets had special, non-standard features.

"This ammo you have," she said to Yorlas, "Change-state, by any chance?"

He nodded.

"Activation on high-speed contact?"

Yorlas nodded again. "With skin," he said, and handed her a clip from his belt.

She inspected it, then gripped both ends tight and pushed in. She felt the internal safety dislodge, and one end of the clip became loose. She reached for one of the dead man's hands and pulled it close, removed the clip top and poured a handful of ammo into his cooling palm. They were little spherical pellets, and as soon as they touched his skin, several tiny, angled blades shot out from their surface, the blades curved in on the centre like the slanted path of a meteor falling to earth.

"And when they go into someone's skin?" she asked Yorlas.

"They spin," he said. "Work through his veins. Make a mess."

"So you could hit anyone anywhere on their body with this, and..."

"And the orbs will go in, make their way through the bloodstream and pulp everything they touch," Polok said, walking up to them. "Just one gets into you and you're in trouble. Close to an artery and you're dead, but even if it's just in your toes, they'll still cause pain so agonizing it'll drop you on the spot."

He picked up one of the silver pellets lying on top of the victim's palm, and looked at its blades. "These are regular issue. They got heat-seeking ones as well. Bronze-colored, I think. Nasty little things."

There was a beep that startled Draea far more than it should have. Yorlas pulled out a communicator, and Polok said, "Not again. That's, what, the third time you pull out that thing?"

Yorlas, ignoring him, said, "My contact on station. Says the Sisters are going to the warehouse. We should hurry." He got the gun back from Draea and said, "I fire the first shot."

Falau said, "The hell you do. Next one's mine."

Yorlas clapped the gun and said, "I need to test the aim. Problem?"

Falau got in his way and said, "Might be."

Polok stared at the two of them, then said, "By the gods ... all right. All right. Hey!"

They looked at him.

"Yorlas gets the next shot, because we'll need to stalk these people, but once we're safe and good, Falau can have all the fun he wants. Happy?"

The two men looked at one another, then back at him and nodded.

"All right," Polok said, and turned to Yorlas. "At least turn off that communicator of yours. I'm tired of having you spill our plans to everyone on the station."

They set off, Polok muttering to Draea, "You know that execution test to get on the team, the one we did right at the end? Yorlas thought of that. Idiot."

"You've got nothing to compensate for. Why on earth are you bitching about him?"

"He just rubs me the wrong way."

"Polok, you've killed at least four hundred people."

"Your point?"

***

Once at the warehouse, Krezek took to the fore and did his magic, though not without mumbling comments to empty air. "Guns, yeah, fine. Gimme a circuit board any day of the week. About time I got something to do here."

Draea, standing nearest to him and feeling impatient, said, "Want me to tell Yorlas of that attitude?"

"Not on your life."

"Then hurry it up. And add an automated opener for the doors, too, in case we need to make a getaway."

"Sure. Want them to explode?"

"No, thanks, just make them open."

"Roger."

He rose, keyed in a combination on the lock, and the doors slid open. The team walked in.

Yorlas's informer had not given them the precise location of the Book, so they decided to wait for the Sisters to show up, and to shadow them. The team took its positions, deep enough in the shadows that they wouldn't be spotted, but with access to walking paths so they could follow the progression of anyone walking through the warehouse. Draea made sure she was in visual range of everyone else, and settled in to wait. There were other entrances to this place, but she expected the Sisters to come in through the main one.

It wasn't long before the warehouse doors opened again and the Sisters came in, flanked by two guards. Draea's team stayed on them until they got to the box's location, and watched as they called it down from the scaffolds. Draea noticed that while two Sisters walked up to the box, and two more looked on curiously, one the Sisters stayed very definitely at the back, looking around a bit. She grinned in the darkness. However Yorlas had managed this, he'd earned his place on the team.

She pulled out her gun and saw the other team members do the same. A few paces away, Yorlas took aim. She watched as he relaxed his shoulders, took a breath and held it, and leaned a little into the shot. He closed one eye, and fired.

One of the Sisters guys started spouting blood from his throat. The other Sisters faded from view, and before she could react, Falau had sauntered up to the box, picked it up, and started to inspect its contents. Draea was about to get up and go to him when there was a bang, and Falau crumpled to the ground. He dropped the box as his body fell, and she saw the catalyst roll out of it. People not her own started moving in the shadows.

Draea exclaimed, "Shit!" and ducked just as something was fired at her head. There was a mad scramble as her team tried to rush toward the doors, provide cover fire for each other, and not get shot, all at once. Once they got in view of the exit, Draea saw Krezek manically working on his mobile interface to activate the doors, and she realized that as soon as they went through their silhouettes would be easy targets. Polok caught up with her, and as they ran she hissed at him, "Lay down interference!"

He reached for the bandolier on his shoulder and pulled off a couple of multiburst grenades, set one to thermal and another to electromagnetic, and tossed them. The thermal one bounced towards the attackers who were following them, flared up and sprayed a thin drizzle all around that immediately caught fire. The chemical wouldn't burn the surfaces it coated up, and only flared up for a few moments, so Draea hoped the warehouse's fire extinguishing system wouldn't immediately start dropping anti-inflammatory powder. She risked a look back and thought she saw the hunters stopped in their tracks for a few precious seconds.

The EM grenade, set to visible-light focus, blasted off behind them. It skewed light and caused such massive refraction that aiming at a target became next to impossible, like trying to find the one true reflection in a shattered mirror. It was possible to set these things to near-lethal levels, but apparently Polok had taken the wise stance that blinding everyone in the room wouldn't be good procedure. Shots were fired, but none of Draea's people got hit, and at last they escaped through the doors, blinking frantically in the fake sunlight to rid their optic nerves of the grenade's refracted remnants, and quickly made their way down the street.

***

They were back on the ship. The team was setting up their gear and preparing for launch. Draea, in her quarters, was rapidly planning their next move. After they'd undocked from the station, blessedly unnoticed, and set off in a random direction, she filed several questions to her Society contacts. Some were about mission minutiae, and had Draea thanking the gods for her mining colony experience and the knowledge of ship statements and docking logs it entailed. Others were about certain individuals on the mission, based on a dark intuition that had begun growing in Draea's mind. She put a high priority on them, knowing that the team would soon have to plan its next move.

Her answers arrived shortly after. They commended her for her insight, and gave her an unofficial promotion to team leader. They also included some very interesting information on her mission and personnel concerns, along with suggestions on how to deal with both.

Draea drew up a flight route and sent it to the main console onboard her ship. Afterwards, she left her quarters and walked through the ship, eventually making her way to a little-used maintenance area. In there she went to a repair parts cabin and, from way at the back, removed a small, circular item with a red, opaque button at the center. She returned with it to her quarters, sent off a quick message to base, and received an immediate reply. The item in her hand lit up and blinked twice. She pressed firmly on its small button. The item lit briefly once more, then went dark again. It was now coded to her fingerprint.

Draea sat there for a little while, then pocketed the disc, sent out a call for people to meet her on the bridge, and headed off. On her way there, almost on instinct, she stopped by one of the hi-tech weapons cabinets and retrieved another disc, this one with a number of sockets and wirings on its surface.

Once they were all settled on the bridge, Draea spoke up. "First off, the Society has made me the de facto leader of this group, if there ever was any doubt. Problems?"

The assembled group shook their heads.

"Good. We're taking off."

"Back to base?" Polok asked.

"Far from it. We've found the Book, for real this time," Draea replied. "And we're off to get it."





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