By Maggie Finson
"But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in meanders,
He makes his moan,
And calls her ghost,
For ever, ever, ever lost!
Now with furies surrounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows.
See, wild as the winds o'er the desert he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
Ah, see, he dies!
Yet even in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue:
Eurydice the woods
Eurydice the floods
Eurydice the rocks and hollow mountains rung."
The Age of Fable
Erinyes: (Greek) noun. Pl. Furies. Divinely inspired females who seek vengeance for wrongs and destroy who the Gods will. Vengeance incarnate. Spirit and warrior.
Oh how I wish for soothing rain.
All I wish is to dream again.
My loving heart
Lost in the dark
For hope I'd give my everything.
Nate Esposito was at the end of his endurance. His right shoulder was numb, probably a blessing given that there was a bleeding hole in it, and at least a chipped, if not broken, bone beneath that. His Japanese military issue Ishima 7mm sub machine gun was out of ammunition, and he’d emptied the last mag in his Colt Commander at his pursuers five minutes earlier.
He’d discarded his vidcam, thrown it far away, actually after the shot that caused the wound in his shoulder had shattered it. At least he had the precious memory stick that held everything he had seen through the cam’s lens. The proof, the terrible, awful truth of what someone was doing in the half drowned, sometimes Stygian darkness of the sections of Topeka, Kansas that were underneath the immense platform holding the New Town above the often flooded Undertown that had once been the north and east sections of the small city.
He’d left a partner behind. A lover. A professional colleague. Elise Hammond had been all of those to him for over five years. She and Nate had been one of the best field news teams North Am Net had ever fielded.
But this time they had taken a bite that not even they could chew, let alone swallow.
Nate hadn’t wanted to leave her, as the black armored guardians of the horror the pair had found dragged her back into the Hell he had caught in images worth a Pulitzer, and his life. After emptying his deadly little Ishima auto into the six who had broken off to pursue him, Nate had no choice but to run.
One of them had to get this news out. Not for the ratings, or notoriety. Just to stop what was happening. A hail of Projectiles chased any thoughts of a heroic rescue away, and almost threw him into the black waters of the Kaw river and shattered his cam.
Merciful God! Hethought while burrowing into a noisome pile of trash and elbowing the dog sized rats out of his way. Mama Esposito didn’t raise her son to die in some damned trash heap while fighting off rats that would scare a respectable lion.
Chaiama Ariyundakata watched the surrounding area while thinking about the general unfairness of contract obligations and constraints. She dismissed those thoughts with a sigh. “Well, at least this isn’t a lost dog or deadbeat spouse deal. But with a quarter million Nubuck bill to pay off I still get stuck pulling a couple of nosey newsies out of some soup they fell into. At least North American News Net is paying decently for it.” She grumbled to herself, then cast her Ki sense outwards for some clue as to where her erstwhile charges might be. The company had interrupted a well earned vacation to tap her for this mission, mainly because she had grown up in Topeka, and all the local Erinyes were tied up. She wanted to grouse about that, but the extra bonus, plus comp time promised eased that somewhat. But she had to find the reasons for her job before any of that would happen.
“There you are, my pretty.” Letting out a soft cackle reminiscent of a green skinned wicked witch in an imaginary land named OZ, she began moving to intercept the object of her contract.
To find him in a very undignified situation. With mixed amusement and exasperation she watched the bedraggled, obviously exhausted newsie burrowing into the trash heap and spoke quietly into her button mike. “Got a fix on subject number two, he’s being pursued by unidentified mercs. No sign of subject number one. I’m moving in.”
Chai watched the area for another few seconds, then unsheathed her primary silent weapon. A Dai-Katana made of molecularly aligned crystals with the individual chains interwoven and a monomolecular edge that would cut through anything she cared to face. Then she settled, her attention on the darkness the man had come from, ready to move or not as need dictated.
She felt them before seeing them. A trio of armored figures following the traces the newsie couldn’t help but leave behind. The arrogance of their approach told her a lot. The denizens of this area were either afraid of the organization they worked for, or had been scattered at some earlier time. Chai could see no visible markings or insignia on the flat black armor, but did notice that it was some form of carbon matrix that was both very advanced and effective. Their weapons were Mil Spec, too. Not an oddity when dealing with Mercs, she thought, but handling them might be a challenge. The odds as they stood weren‘t going to get any better though.
With an internal shrug, Chaiama Ariyundakata silently and gracefully left her vantage point to do the job she’d been hired for.
Nate heard his pursuers and tormentors getting closer. Willing himself to breath softly, to ignore the pain from his shoulder and the unpleasant creatures he shared his makeshift hiding place with, he silently prayed to any god willing to listen to his pleas.
Evidently all those were busy elsewhere.
Heavy footsteps from the men in combat armor neared his hiding place, and passed it. Even before he could let out a small sigh of relief, a booted foot kicked at the pile he was hiding in and others joined in until his refuge was exposed. Which also exposed him to their weapons.
“Come on out.” A slightly distorted voice came from one of the armored figures. “Don‘t make this any harder for yourself than it has to be.”
“Hanson says that Dupre wants the disc and the cam.” Another announced to the group in general. “Didn‘t say a thing about him, though.”
“Dupre wants him, too.” The leader almost shrugged even in the heavy armor. “No loose ends.”
Nate drew enough breath to gasp out. “Go to Hell.”
“Out.” The merc, unimpressed with his bravado gestured with the ugly snout of the weapon he carried. “Now.”
A portion of the shadowed wall smoothly detached itself to move into the midst of the trio so quickly Nate wasn’t sure he’d seen anything. Then things got really confused for a while.
Chai did a rapid threat assessment of the situation then acted. The one looming over the newsie was priority one. But simply hitting him, even with the blade held the danger of the weapon discharging and hitting the newsie before she even got started.
So she moved the merc by the simple expedient of hitting his side with both feet extended in an arcing leap that would have put a hole in a stone wall.
The Merc’s weapon did discharge, but the slugs missed the newsie by inches, which in that case was good enough. She rebounded from that with a gymnastic twist and almost casually took the arm off one of the other mercs with her extended blade as she passed him. A quick flick of her wrist nearly bisected that one just to make sure and she landed with knees flexed and ready to move any direction needed.
The third merc had his weapon, a combat grade shotgun, raised and several shots boomed into the general cacophony of the fight. Either a lucky shot or a very good one slammed into her side, throwing her into a tumble that took her past the first merc, now recovering and bringing his own weapon to bear.
Even with the armor she was wearing distributing the impact it sent waves of near agony through her whole side for a few moments. She used her training to isolate the pain in a place that wouldn’t impede her, landing on her feet several feet to the side of the first merc and staring right into the leveled muzzled of his weapon.
Chai hurled herself to the side as a staccato burst of heavy caliber rounds whined through the spot she had just occupied swinging her blade in a looping arc that bisected the weapon first, then the merc, who remained standing for several moments before realizing he was dead.
The last one was raising his weapon and the distance was too great for her to reach him before he fired. So, she used the only option left. Breathing a quick prayer to whatever deities she happened to be giving some lip service to that week, she snapped her sword arm back and forward, sending the deadly blade flying at the merc.
Who lowered his weapon to stare at the quivering hilt protruding from his chest and beginning to feel the blade that had pierced his armor as if it had been no more than cloth. His severed heart finally noticed it had been catastrophically violated and stopped, but he remained standing for another few seconds before muscles went slack and tumbled him into a heap on the ground.
Retrieving her blade, which slid out of the body it had impaled with a little resistance, Chai glanced at the dents and scratches marring her armor and grimaced to herself. “Great. I just bought this stuff, too.”
Cleaning her blade with quick flick of her wrist, then sheathing it, she turned to examine the bodies of the men she had just killed. Then turned to check on Nate, lifting her visor as she did to reveal an oval face that was fine featured and lovely in a cold way as she regarded him almost curiously. “What did you get into down here, Sunshine? Those were pros, and well equipped ones, at that. You okay there?”
“Been better.” Nate responded shortly as he ran a shaking hand through his filthy sandy blond hair while shooting her a questioning look with dark circled brown eyes. “And who are you?”
“Your guardian angel for now.” She told him while tilting her head to one side and continuing to watch him while idly deciding that he‘d probably clean up pretty nicely and not be all that hard to look at once he was.
“Where the Hell were you two days ago?” He muttered.
“On vacation.” Came the answer, with a quick grin that warmed her face and filled her green eyes with a sparkle of mischief that made her seem much more human.
“On vacation.” He repeated with a grimace as his injured shoulder decided to let him know it was not happy with the present situation.
“That shoulder looks like it hurts something fierce, Sunshine.”
“It does.” His answer was bitten off as another stab of pain shot from the body part under discussion that added nausea to his problems.
“Let me have a look at it, I have some med-paks that might keep you going for long enough to get you to where my people are.” Without waiting for a reply she began checking the wound with fingers that were oddly gentle given the violence she had just finished with. “It’s a fairly clean wound, entry and exit both pretty well bled any foreign material out. Been in the water since you got hit?”
“Yeah, a couple of times.” Nate answered, wincing as she applied a med-pak to both sides of the wound. “Been dodging these bozos for a couple of days down here. Couldn’t do that without getting wet off and on.”
“Right. Got a broad spectrum antibiotic here, so don’t go ballistic on me when I inject it, okay?”
“Do it.” Nate nodded, not needing to tell her that infection had been a constant worry since his own supplies had been used up or lost.
“There you go, Sunshine.” her musical contralto interrupted those worries as an injector hissed against his wrist. “Take a minute to catch your breath. You been dodging these goons for two days?”
“Feels more like two weeks, but yeah.” Nate let out a small sigh as the pain killers in the med-paks bagan to ease the pain in his shoulder to a dull throb. Then other parts of his abused anatomy started letting him know they weren’t all that happy either. But that he could deal with.
“Good for you, Sunshine.” The look she gave him showed respect, and some halfway grudging admiration. Ex military?”
“Yah, Marine Recon.” Nate chuckled mirthlessly. “I went into the news business because I figured it would be safer.”
“Usually is.” His rescuer agreed with a small shrug and half-grin, then turned towards the three bodies of his onetime pursuers. Get it together, Sunshine. I’m going to have a look at these goons, they’re wearing mil-spec armor and their weapons are top of the line, too. Maybe a look see will tell me something else about them, but that’s a long shot. Then we‘ll have to move.”
Nate allowed his breathing to even out, then watched as the young woman searched the bodies in a manner far too professional to have really been acquired by someone who looked that young.
His rescuer vented a stream of expletives in several different languages he recognized as Asian, lifted one of the helmets off a body and scanned something inside it with a wrist terminal on her own armor, then turned to him with a frown.
“We have to move now, Sunshine. These goons had emergency tracers in their armor and used encrypted comm frequencies my terminal can’t crack. But these three are going to have friends on the way real soon, and my friends aren’t close enough by half. Are you going to able to walk?”
“I think so.” Nate struggled to his feet, took a tentative step, then nodded. “Yeah, I can walk.”
“Then let’s move.” She gestured in a direction that seemed no different than any other in the semi-darkness. “Got to put some distance between us and here real fast.”
“Shadow One to Shadow Group.” She spoke softly while touching her throat to activate the mike there. “Been blown here big time here. I had to take down three, repeat three bad guys who were using mil-spec equipment. Rendevous at point B. Repeat, meet me at R point B. I have half the package, but it’s damaged. We‘ll need the doc pod for him, and have Cutter ready with his stuff, too. Got encrypted communications to break into. Sending a sample now.”
Nate shook himself, feeling marginally better, but still weak, and began scrambling through the surrounding trash. “Disk, and the memory stick from the cam. Can’t leave them behind. Proof.”
“These what you’re after, Sunshine?” Her hand held both objects, and his emptied out Ishima. Her voice held a hint of exasperated amusement when he snatched them back. “Now come on. And you better be able to walk, because I don’t want to carry you all the way back.”
“I’ll walk.” He reassured her, finding the implication of physical strength in her last statement every bit as chilling as the known fact that she showed nothing at all like remorse for the men she‘d just killed.
Or any more concern for him than was necessary to make sure he could walk under his own power.
Bring me home or leave me be
My love in the dark heart of the night
I have lost the path before me
The one behind will lead me
"Ghost Love Score'
Some time later, how long he wasn't sure since his wrist terminal had also been a casualty of the abuse he had taken in general, his companion stopped him with a light touch to his unwounded shoulder. “Hold on, catch your breath here, Sunshine. I need to check on some things.”
With that she left him to slump into something like rest while she stared into the flickering light and darkness of the ground they had traversed. It was a warren of streets, mostly abandoned buildings, and the massive pylons supporting the platform that the newer part of Topeka stood on to keep it free of flooding when the river rose, which it did with almost clocklike regularity. Her eyes closed and he got the idea that she was searching their back trail with something other than the normal senses humans generally came equipped with. He did feel something in him stir, as if answering a distant call, when she did that, but wasn’t at all sure about what had responded to whatever she was doing.
“Ki.” She answered quietly, once her search of the way they had come was completed. “Everyone has it, some are just more able to make use of it. When those do so, others who are close by notice on a level that isn’t even quite subliminal. And we have some problems behind us, Sunshine.”
“Why doesn‘t that surprise me?” He responded with a tired flash of a white teeth in a tired grin.
“Six of them, probably formed into a Hunter-Killer team since the first three went down, about nine hundred meters back and moving in on us like they’re homing in.” She answered slowly, then gave him a piercing visual examination. “You aren’t bleeding any more, so you have to have something on you that they can track. What is it, and more importantly, how critical is it that you hang on to it?”
“Very.” He responded with a sigh while pulling out a bundle of memory sticks to show her. “Elise and I got into their research files, from a distance, and downloaded them to these. Guess we downloaded the tracking routines when we did. That would have started the ‘Here I am‘ components in the sticks for the deck tuned to them in case they get misplaced. They must have figured out how to track those.”
“Research files?” Shaking her head, she muttered something in another language that was probably another curse. “Illegal research, I suppose? I won’t ask how you hacked into the database, that isn’t important just now. But can you dump those things, or copy them to something that they can’t track?”
“With what?” Nate carefully placed the sticks back in his personal pack and shrugged. “You just happen to have something that can transfer data and kill the encryption that protects the information on you at the moment? And yes, these are important. I need to get them to Federation authorities as soon as possible. I won’t say any more just now. It’s also the hottest story I’ve ever been involved in, by the way.
“Well, this hot story is doing it’s best to get you killed, Sunshine.” Staring into the distance, she didn’t even turn to look at him. “You downloaded a damned trace along with the files there, like you thought just now and whoever they belong to has sent people to get them back. Give them to me. I can at least shield them for a while here.”
"Arguing with you over this won't help, will it?" He grumbled while digging into his pack, then handing the items to her.
"Not a bit, Sunshine." She sounded almost cheerful while taking the sticks and disk then placing them in a small, flat box she pulled from her own well hidden pack. "If you insist on keeping them, I'll just leave you here to fend for yourself again. But since you handed them over nicely like I asked, I'll keep doing what I can to keep you alive here."
"Thanks." Nate answered with less force than he really felt over the surrender of the items that he had been hunted for over the past few days.
"No prob, Sunshine."
“So what do we do now?” Nate questioned, steeling himself for another run through the general darkness of Undertown Topeka as he forced himself to stand up.
“You stay here.” She pushed him back down with a curious gentleness considering the other things he’d seen her do so far, “I’ll lead them off on a false trail and hopefully put the finish to a few of them while I do.”
“Don’t argue with the active professional here, Sunshine.” She retorted, then handed him a pistol and several clips for it. “Be careful about who you point that thing at. It’s loads are AP sabo, so if the bad guys do happen to find you I’m sure you know what to do with it. And I do have friends on the way. If someone shows up and says Furies do Myrmidons, for God’s sake, don’t shoot them. That would really piss them off and I think you have enough people after your butt just now as it is, don‘t you?.”
Nate nodded while repeating the phrase, then began examining the weapon she had given him. “Glock 11mm. Don’t worry, I won’t shoot at your friends if they do make it before you get back.”
“Okay, hunker down, stay out of sight, and wait.” She instructed, then just seemed to vanish.”
“Wonder how she manages to do that when someone‘s watching?” He idly wondered to the air, then did as instructed, finding himself a reasonably comfortable position that wouldn’t induce him to fall asleep.
Chai worked along their back trail carefully, alert for any sign of their pursuers. The sophisticated decryption routines included in her own communications setup with a quick burst transmitted from the group of Myrmidons she was working with had managed to finally break into the coded, and nearly undetectable bursts of communication those people were using. She was at last able to listen in on their operations chatter, not that it was all that informative at present.
More to the point, she was able to pinpoint some of their positions, and one group was a lot closer than she cared to think about. Almost on top of her, in fact. She muttered to herself while silently moving to intercept that one. “Take care of immediate business first, woman.”
As she moved, she took a small, flat, electro-magnetically shielded case out of her small fanny pack and carefully set the memory sticks and disc inside with a feral grin as she heard the reactions from the pursuers when she closed and activated it. Then it was time for action.
Cliff Hanson and his group of mercs had been near the end of their operational existence, using outdated weapons and armor that they couldn’t even keep in decent repair until their present employers had approached him with the job of running guard for an enterprise that smacked of illegality.
But the job offer had come with state of the art armor, weapons, communications gear, and more money than he or anyone in his marauders had seen in a long, long time. Niceties were forgotten, or at least pushed aside as he and the other command officers had considered the offer, then taken it.
Up to this point, the job had been a milk run. Bullying the locals into staying away and keeping their mouths shut had been a simple matter.
Then those two newsies had shown up and things started going to shit.
They’d managed to take one of the pair, but the other had so far eluded their search and kill teams, even with the trace and broadcast programs in the files the pair had stolen before their actions had been discovered.
“Shit!” He breathed as the trace, which had been meandering back towards one of his teams, suddenly dropped off the screen he was using to follow the search progress. Worse, something, or someone had taken out a three man squad not long before. “Heads up H/K three! The trace just went off the screen and it was still headed your way.”
“Roger that one, base…” The communication was abruptly cut off and nothing Hanson tried to restore it worked. In the beginnings of a cold sweat and swearing, he directed the other two nearest teams to find out what had happened.
Chai coolly regarded the second team of hostile mercs, six people in a carefully set up skirmish line moving towards her present position, then worked into a position directly behind them.
Constanzo Acres watched the surrounding shadows nervously while his squad checked out the remains of Burrus’ search team. He couldn’t quite put a name to what he was feeling, other than the uncomfortable, spine crawling sense of being watched by hostile and deadly eyes, but he was uneasy for the first time since Colonel Hansen had brought them all to this sinkhole to watchdog some science types that made even his well inured skin crawl.
It had turned out to be easy duty until a few days ago. Mostly bullying what locals there were into staying clear and quiet, while running routine patrols through the surrounding areas of the half sunken old town that Topeka had covered over like an embarrassing scab.
“Damn!” Asura, his second in the squad swore, then let out more expletives. “They’ve been cut boss. Nice clean cuts, too, like a monofilament line or mono-edged blade did it. These guys were dead before they even noticed they’d been hit.”
“Yeah, I can see that from here.” Acres pointed out. “You getting anything off their helmet cams?”
“Pretty scrambled.” Asura responded. “Whatever hit them did it so hard that it really messed up the storage, but I’m pulling some images that we might put back together with the base mainframe.”
“Get them and let’s get the hell out of here.” Acres ordered. He didn’t need to tell the others that anyone handling a blade like that with such deadly efficiency wasn’t someone they really wanted to run up against out in the dark of undertown Topeka, even armed and armored as they were. Not without more than six people to handle things. “Hanson needs to see those vids, and we need to know more about what we‘re up against out here.”
Listening in on their comm bands told Chai that the bad guys were more than alert, and a little nervous at the moment. The group that had found the bodies she’d left during the Newsie’s rescue were taking information and beating it back to their HQ. Not so with the bunch she was now following.
The six armored figures were working their way forward carefully, with little or no chatter and using hand signals to coordinate movement. Mindful of her last encounter with a group of these people, Chai carefully gauged distances, tossed a flash-bang grenade into the front of the group, then moved against the drag man, or last in line who generally walked backwards to watch their rear. That one had involuntarily turned towards the light and noise for that one critical instant she needed.
Her crystalline Tantos slid neatly through armor, flesh, and bone from two directions, leaving the man she had hit dead while still on his feet. The next one in line was nearly as easy, though that one had turned at some slight noise she had made, was raising a weapon and beginning to shout a warning. Leaving the two dead, and a hail of gunfire where she had just been, Chai rapidly and silently moved to their left careful to remain hidden in the shadows until positioned where she wanted to be for the next gambit in the deadly game of tag she was playing.
Once there, the Erinyis set a trip wire that would be spotted with careful examination, though it was connected to nothing but another flash-bang. Knowing that real professionals would know that the booby trap they could spot was probably meant to be spotted, she also carefully hid the real booby trap, a pair nasty little flechette throwing anti-personal mines that would go off when the trip wire was stepped over or disconnected, and set the complex proximity fuses carefully to make sure those would also go off seconds after someone began backing away from the first wire. With those in place, Chai made just enough noise to attract attention before fading back into the shadows to vanish once again.
They didn’t fall for the first trap, no more than she’d expected while watching from a safe distance, but the second one, the real one, got two more when the armor piercing flechettes penetrated armor and flesh. Noting that they were moving back the way they’d come from originally, she decided to let them go, made sure they weren‘t going to double back, then moved west some more before opening the shielded case that held the memory sticks.
“The trace is back.” Hanson announced needlessly to his search teams and cursed to himself as another four status indicators went to the red that represented dead soldiers. “Approach it with extreme caution, repeat, extreme caution and deal with what you find with extreme prejudice. Repeat, Extreme prejudice. Just get those files back.”
“Problems?” A quiet, cultured voice intruded on his thoughts as each search team sent in their acknowledgements. Hanson wished he could ignore the man in the command shack with him, but knew better. Aaron Dupre was not someone to be ignored if you wanted to keep breathing without medical assistance.
“Nothing we can’t handle.” He assured the other, wishing he felt as sure of that as he sounded.
“Good.” Dupre, a lanky man made more so by his six foot four inch height and thin mop of dirty blonde hair nodded, then gave Hanson a chilling smile. “I expect to have those stolen files in my hand within the hour, and that damned newsie in the labs with his partner. Got it?”
“Yes sir.” Hanson nodded with a growl he knew didn’t impress the other at all. “You’ll have them.”
“With no more complications cropping up.” Dupre commanded, as if the entire world would heed him.
“No more, sir.” Hanson agreed while thinking the salient point here was that the part of the world involving him and his team did have to take immediate heed of the man’s words. Their livelihoods, and avoidance of a stay in a Federal Pen depended on that. But they’d known what they were getting into when agreeing to watchdog an obviously illegal, if well bank rolled operation.
Once Dupre had made his almost unnervingly silent exit, Hanson worried that another complication had already shown up. One that was killing his men as easily as if they were untried recruits instead of the hardened, if down on their luck, mercs they were. “All teams, proceed with caution but continue the search. We don’t know what we’re up against out there yet, but Whatever it is has taken out seven people already.”
“God Damnit!” Hanson shouted as he watched the vids recovered from one of the lost search teams. “Someone hired the Erinyes to pull those newsies out!”
The lithe, undoubtedly female form wielding the Dai-Katana in the vids left little doubt about what she was. He stabbed the intercom and almost bowled over the non-com who answered with the volume of his order. “Get Dupre up here. NOW!”
Nate sifted his position a little and started as he noted movement to his left. He lifted the Glock and took very careful aim, not lowering it until a feminine voice whispered. “Eryines do Myrmidons.”
That was followed with a grumbled, “Next time I choose the password.”
His unnamed savior appeared out of the shadows with the same unsettling silence she had used in his initial rescue and lifted the visor of her combat armor to regard him almost quizzically. “How you holding up, Sunshine?”
“Well enough.” He answered, then in a small fit of pique added, “And my name is Nate.”
“Fair enough.” She answered with a small grin. “I’m Chai, short for Chiaiama, Aryiundakata.”
“Think I’ll stick with Chai.” He answered.
“Most people do.” She agreed, then reached to help him to his feet. “Really, how are you doing here? We need to get out of this spot quick and I need to know if you can walk or not.”
“I can walk.” He assured her, though not at all that certain he could back up his words.
“Good enough.” She replied, the gestured in a direction he thought was north. “We need to head that way. Your pursuit is a little afraid of going on just now and we need to take advantage of that.”
“Give me a sec,” He muttered, levering himself up with her help and beginning an unsteady progress in the general direction she’d pointed to.
“Damn!” That was followed with several pungent curses and more in languages he didn’t know. “I Knew I’d end up carrying your carcass.”
Hanson Glared at Dupre and wouldn’t be overawed this time. “Look, boss. My people held the perimeter secure. It was Your computer security that messed up. We’ve held up our end of the deal, but now things are getting a little more intense.”
“Intense?” Dupre lifted one eyebrow and waited for a response.
“North Am News Net contracted the Erinyes to get those newsies back!”
“You’re sure of that?” Dupre questioned, with more interest than he’d shown in anything Hanson had said so far.
“Watch this vid.” Hanson brought up the recovered images from the dead merc’s helmet cam. It showed a figure, definitely female, and moving so fast the image blurred, wielding a long sword in the middle of the formation before the image went to snow.
“You tell me.” Hanson answered.
“An Erinys, here…” Dupre seemed almost pleased with the news instead of worried. “So what do you want, Hanson? This is a play for a bigger payoff, isn’t it?”
“A percentage of the take here.” The merc commander answered, expecting argument. When none came, he went on. “Our asses are on the line out there, Dupre, for whatever it is you’re doing in here. I want something more than simple pay for my people on this thing.”
“How much?” Dupre’s voice was flat, but not at all surprised or resistant to the idea.
“Workable.” Dupre nodded, then gestured to the screen. “Now, since you and your people are shareholders, I’d suggest you take care of that problem. One way or another. Or your investment goes down the tubes with the rest of us.”
“I’m on it.” Hanson promised.
“See that you are.” Dupre favored the merc with a wintry smile. “If that information gets out before we finish the project, nowhere on the face of this Earth will hide any of us. You got that?”
“Yeah, I got it.” Hanson answered, then turned back to his display, ending the meeting on his terms for a change.
Dupre had a hard time concealing his glee. An Erinys! The perfect way to test out his theories in the field. Providing one of the subjects survived the process.
Nate stiffened as they walked right into a group of armored mercs, willing his exhausted body to run, but stopping when he heard his feminine savior rasp out. “Erinyes do Myrmidons.”
One of the armored figures responded. “And we love every second of it. What took you so long, Chai?”
“I had to play with the pursuit a while.” She answered flatly, the gestured to Nate. “Get him into the med pod, he has a pretty nasty shoulder wound, and get me a reader for mem-sticks and discs.”
“Got it.” The leader answered, waving two other figures forward to help Nate towards a long, thin, capsule that opened up invitingly. How bad is this?”
“Won’t know until I check the files he swiped from them.” Chai muttered, taking the reader and opening up the shielded box to withdraw the mem-sticks and the disc. She glanced up and smiled sweetly. “And Zach, next time, I pick the password.”
“I can hardly wait.” The big merc chuckled.
“Well it can’t be any worse than Erinyes do Myrmidons.” She muttered.
Zacharias Sinclair threw his head back and let out a booming laugh. “Knowing you, Chai, it will be.”
“Shithead.” She mumbled with a chuckle while speculatively watching the med pod. “He was playing hide and seek with those goons for almost two days out there, Zach, and those guys are pros.”
“Good weapon.” The big Myrmidon said by way of answer as he examined the Ishima Nate had been carrying then rummaged through the small bag it had been put in. “Nice rate of fire, thirty round magazine, and damned accurate with three shot bursts. Got ten mags in here too. All empty.”
“Yah, I think he got more than a few bad guys past couple of days.”
“One tough sumbitch.” Zach admitted with a shake of his head.
“Yah, he is that.” Chai agreed.
Nate emerged from the pod some time later to find the majority of the group arrayed almost casually in a very professional defensive perimeter and the big leader lounging in the center dividing his attention between them, the slender female figure at the reader, and the pod.
“Feeling better now, boyo?” The man questioned as Nate gingerly checked his shoulder to find it not only healed, but limber as if it had never been injured.
“Yah.” He responded, then nodded. “You guys have good equipment.”
“Themis doesn’t stint when it comes to the troops.” The big man agreed, then held out a ham sized hand covered in an armored glove. “Zacharias Sinclair, Major Sinclair if you stand on formality.”
“Nate Esposito.” taking the offered hand gingerly, he gave just enough pressure to show he wasn’t intimidated while thinking that made him one of the world’s biggest liars. “North Am News Net.”
“Nate.” The other nodded, then gave a half distracted glance to the slender, and stiff shouldered, female figure who shared the inside of the defensive ring with them. “What the Hell did you get into here? It’s sure got Chai tensed up. She’s been reading those things for hours and just seems to keep getting more angry as she goes.”
“Forced Nano Enhancement.” The newsie answered with a frown.
“Instant Super Soldier.” Sinclair nodded. “No wonder you stirred up such a hornets nest down here and why Chai is so pissed off over there.”
“How can you tell?” Nate glanced at the slim figure still peering into the reader.
“The set of her shoulders for one thing.” Sinclair responded, then frowned. “Trust me, Nate. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of one of her moods. That can be painful, or fatal.”
“I saw her in action, remember.” Nate responded, then found a convenient crate to sit on. “She’s an Erinyes, right?”
“Oh yeah.” Sinclair nodded with a small grimace. “Us Myrmidons usually tend to be at odds with that kind, we consider them to be showboats and glory hogs. But Chai’s different.”
“She was a Marine Captain, then a Navy Seal for ten years before volunteering for the Erinyes corp.” Sinclair answered. “Why a guy like that would volunteer to take Dragon's Blood when he knew he'd become a woman because of it is beyond my understanding, but he did, and Chai came out. She’s pissed right now because Erinyes in general take a very dim view of people messing with Nano enhancements illegally, and most of that research is very illegal in just about every country in the world.”
“Yeah, I know.” Nate nodded, then shook his head. The process that created the Erinyes was a combination of genetic enhancements and nano technology developed by the SAS of Britain. “Whoever is running this op is either really ballsy or really stupid to be doing it a hundred klicks from the Federation Capitol in Kansas City, though.” He put in as almost an afterthought.
“Money and influence, boyo.” Sinclair agreed. “If, and that’s a really big if, the research and -- umm -- field trials down here pan out, someone is going to make a damned fortune.”
“How is it that you know this stuff already?” Nate questioned. “When my partner and I just cracked their data base a couple a days ago and haven’t gotten the information out to anyone?”
“Oh that.” Sinclair tilted his head towards Chai with a grin. “She mutters.”
Chai was pale and shaking by the time she finished reading the data and viewing the vids contained in the mem-sticks.
Pale from what she had seen done to the test subjects. Shaking from scarcely contained rage. Pulling back from the reader she grated out. “These bastards have to go down hard, Zach. Really hard.”
“See for yourself.” her answer was flat, almost emotionless but undercut with a storm of subsurface feeling. “Don’t bother reading the files, just have a look at the vids. I’m going to be sick for a minute or two.”
Sinclair spent only a few minutes at the viewer, stopping with a grimace and visibly pale, he forced a swallow and glanced over to the still bent back of the young woman and the retching sounds that came from that direction.
“We have to get this to the Feds, Chai.”
“Do it.” The muffled response came back. “But put in an option on the contract based on failure to respond. I want these bozos, Zach. I want them bad.”
“Got it.” Sinclair nodded, turning to a communications array and beginning to open channels. “But don’t you think you’re letting this get a little too personal?”
“Maybe so.” She admitted, then shook her head. “I spent five years in the Marines, then another ten in the Seals, you know that. Some of the things I saw and did still give me nightmares at times. But this…
This is something I can feel right down to my bones, Zach, and it hurts like Hell.”
Nate watched her turn towards him, still struck by her almost unnatural beauty and grace, though he did have a basic knowledge of Themis’ Erinyes Corp and what they were, and more to the point, what they had all once been. She gave him a wan smile that faded as she began speaking. “We’re calling in transport to get you and this stuff out of here, Sunshine. You’ll be home safe in a few hours.”
“I’m not going.” He straightened his shoulders and returned her hard stare with one he hoped was just as determined. “They’ve got my partner in there, Chai. I won’t leave her behind.”
“I don’t see that you have a lot of choice here, Mr. Esposito.” She returned in a low voice. “You’re going. That’s part of our contract, to get your butt out of here safely, and we’re going to honor that if I have to knock you out and pack you in a shipping crate to do it.”
“Then I’ll come back. On my own.” He answered quietly. “Elise and I served together in Brazil, and I won’t leave her with those people. And you’d have a loose cannon to watch out for down here on top of that, because believe me, I won’t come back without some real firepower. I haven’t been a civilian that long, you know.”
Chai snorted something in another language he didn’t understand, but recognized as a curse, then regarded him levelly. “You'd do that, too, wouldn't you?"
“Damned right I would.”
“Shit.” Turning to Sinclair, she gestured at Nate. “Find some armor that’ll fit this idiot, and see if some of our ammo will work in that Japanese jigsaw he calls a weapon.”
Sinclair regarded both of them, shook his head in resignation, and waved Nate towards the crates that held the team’s spares. “Come on then.”
Some time later, after some searching in the surrounding dimness, Nate found her. Chai was seated on a pile of concrete blocks and staring into the surrounding darkness but noted his presence. Her greeting sounded both distracted and a bit weary. “Pull up a block and sit.”
“Thanks.” Nate answered, doing just that and giving her a long, speculative look. “Navy Seals?”
“Yah.” She answered with a drawn out sigh. “I got my Masters in Asian languages while I was in, and spent a lot of my time in Asia as a result of that. Got to know the people there really well over time and generally liked them.”
“So how’d you end up joining the Erinyes? If that isn’t getting too personal.” Nate questioned out of a genuine curiosity.
“I’d spent my life proving things, Nate. To myself mostly, since others seemed to take what I was at face value. A decent officer and one nasty SOB in a fight. Part of myself that I was trying to shut out reared it’s head once I finally did muster out in Washington, and civilian life bored me to tears, so I sent my resume to Themis in hopes of getting a job that would let me use my abilities without becoming a languages teacher for a bunch of snot nosed kids who wouldn’t really care about what I was trying to teach them, you know?”
“Yeah, Elise and I got into freelance reporting for a while, until NANN decided they liked our stuff and that having a pair of reporters who could cover the really nasty stuff with a chance of surviving was a good idea so hired us on permanently. But go on with your own story here, please.”
“Any way, my psyche evals with Themis showed what I’d been trying to hide, and running from all my life, and they had a way for me to finally be able to answer it.” Chai went on quietly.
“Dragons Blood.” She told him. “SAS developed it for making ’super soldiers, but it had a nasty quirk. Males it was used on came out of it as females, and over seventy percent of the females who tried it died. Since most men wouldn’t give up their manhood, even for God and Country, SAS sold the process to Themis, who went after the Transsexuals in the country who had the qualifications they needed for their newly envisioned Erinyes Corps. There were a lot of us, it seems. The waiting list of applicants is still so huge it takes a computer just to sort through the names within a reasonable amount of time.
Anyway, the process softens bone to the point where it can be manipulated like soft clay, and before the process starts the successful applicants can choose what they’re going to look like and the docs and techs shape the body to order. Which is probably why you never see even a plain Erinys anywhere, there just aren’t any. Vanity, go figure on that one.” She chuckled.
“Right.” Nate shrugged, then joined her with a chuckle of his own. “So you decided to become the little Asian babe I’m sitting beside right now?”
“Thai,” She corrected with a shrug of her own. “But basically, yeah, that about covers it. The process also really awakens the Ki sense in a person, and with me, it really came out. But I’ll tell you something now that very few Erinyes will ever admit to anyone.”
“We come out stronger, faster, and tougher than unenhanced humans.”
She almost whispered then her voice rose a notch. “But I can tell you that even with the heavy sedation and massive pain killers they give us during the transformations, part of us is still aware of what’s going on, at least I was. And it’s agonizing. Some of the transformees don’t come out sane even with all the precautions, so I know I’m not the only one that happened with.”
“Shit. And you wanted this badly enough that you went in knowing something like that?” Shaking his head in what he hoped was sympathy and no little respect as she silently nodded, Nate decided to press the issue a bit more. “All right, and this is leading up to why you’ve taken such personal issue with what’s going on in that place down here?”
“Yeah, it is.” Chai turned to him and her green eyes blazed though her voice remained quiet. “The people you stole this information from aren’t using Dragon’s Blood, just unassisted nanos to force the transformations, and they don’t use much in the way of pain killers or sedatives in the process. They’re torturing innocent people in there, and probably for nothing.”
“Because,” Rising with a long shuddering sigh, Chai turned back to the makeshift camp the mercs under her command had set up. “Anyone who does manage to survive their process will probably be homicidally insane.”
“Yah, my sentiments there, too, Sunshine.” She replied heavily then turned to look up into his eyes and still didn’t seem at all small physically when she did. “You played tag with their hired help for several days, okay. They’re pros and your good, I’ll give you that. But we’re done playing tag here, my friend. You up to that?”
“Are you?” He turned the question back on her and got a sour grin for it.
“Damned if I know, Sunshine.” Was her answer. “But we’d better be, hadn’t we? Knowing the Feds, it’ll be days before they get involved here. By then the bad guys will have picked up after themselves and gone somewhere else. We can’t let them do that.”
“No we can’t.” Nate answered her retreating back soberly while working to get the cold rage he felt threatening to overwhelm him under enough control that he wouldn‘t be a liability in the coming events. The immediate problem was that he couldn’t decide whether the rage was for Elise, his partner, or the diminutive but intense young woman he had just spoken with.
Aaron Dupre watched yet another failed experiment turn to fine ash inside the industrial grade microwave they used to clean up after themselves with a twinge of despair. Not for the loss of lives his work was causing, but for the lack of validation on his theories so far. Dupre considered people as a resource to be used as needed, without a care for the suffering some of his research had caused his subjects. He did care about results, and so far not one of his team’s attempts had yielded anything significant other than physical deformities so gross that the subjects died either during the transformation or shortly after it.
But the next subject was showing promise. No physical deformities had shown up visually, or in the carefully precise internal scans performed hourly.
Turning his attention to the metal and ceramics cocoon used to help control the transformations that the next one was due to emerge from in a few minutes, he mentally crossed his fingers while hoping he’d gotten the altered genetic sequences right this time around but held his coldly clinical expression on the outside. It wouldn’t do to show his staff the he was beginning to have doubts of his own. No, that wouldn’t do at all.
Zach moved away from the comm unit and shrugged for the benefit of both Chai and Nate, who had been following the conversation he’d had with HQ with no little interest. “Well, you heard. HQ can’t pull anyone from current contracts for another forty-eight hours, not even for this. What we have now is what we’re going to have until then, but they will ship us any extra equipment we need. Vicki is kind of pissed about us ’losing’ the one newsie you did pull out of the mess, though.”
“She’ll get over it.” Chai shrugged in her turn. Victoria Long was her current case manager and immediate superior, an Erinys who had finally managed to pay off the quarter million Nubuck bill from her own transformation and had elected to stay on as an agent supervisor. “Vic knows how field work goes.”
“Yeah, she does at that.” Zach agreed, with a halfway wicked smile. “She’s the one pulling the strings to get that contract on the illegal research facility down here rammed through for us, and bullying the other staff into getting us at least more equipment if we need it.”
“Guess that’ll have to do, then.” Chai nodded, then shook her head. “One angry Erinys, a tired out Newsie, and six Myrmidons.”
“Is that going to be enough?” Nate questioned both of them.
Giving him a long looking over along his six foot two frame, Chai gave him a lopsided grin while placing one hand on a hip and waving with the other in a way that had the blood rushing from his head to supply another part of his anatomy. “Hell yeah, it’s enough. It’s going to have to be.”
Zach lifted an eyebrow at Nate as he noted the reaction the newsie was having and gave him a ‘Down boy!’ look, then grinned. He knew all too well from experience the effect an Erinys not in fighting mode had on a man. He’d experienced much the same thing more often than he was willing to admit even to himself. “We’ve worked worse Ops, Nate. This group can manage it if anyone could.”
“Yeah, okay.” Nate answered absently while watching Chai’s retreating backside in something like the fascination a cornered mouse watches a stalking cat with. Much to the Myrmidon’s well hidden amusement.
Dupre watched the scan of the first success he and his team had achieved with a thrill of both pride and anticipation. He recited the readings in a low mumble. “Bone density +40 per cent. Muscle density + 38 per cent. Nervous system efficiency +50 per cent… “
He noted the net-like filaments of the nano formed wiring harness around the brain and the electrical activity that was showing as the subject was programmed through that for obedience. After all, why trust to mere drugs or the subjects willingness to be loyal when it could be enforced through externally applied commands? The gleaming nodules of the control chips in that net glowed as they received the commands that would allow them to exert the needed influence over the mind they were embedded in.
“Shaping up nicely here.” He commented to everyone involved.
“I worry about the long term viability on this one, though, Dr. Dupre.” His assistant, Marjo Lee, petite, and with green eyes flashing with intelligence along with some doubt, told him.”
“Why is that, Marj?”
“The subject has gone through so much pain that I don’t believe she’s rational any longer. She could simply go homicidal on us, or suicidal in the best case of the two.”
“The subject’s sanity isn’t a concern here.” Dupre answered with a shrug while watching the lithe blonde slowly being disconnected from the tank that had both formed and tortured her. “We can program and direct her towards a target, can’t we?”
“Yes, Doctor.” Lee let out a sigh. “For the time being anyway.”
“You worry too much, Marj.” Dupre shook his head and grinned. “This is a real step forward for our research and I have the perfect test for this one.”
“She isn’t stable enough to send out now, you know that.” The other protested. “We’d need to test and retest the controls on her, the implants and…”
“That’s enough, Marj.” Dupre frowned. “We don’t have time for that just now. Get her ready, and send her after that other damned newsie.”
“All right, Doctor.” Lee shook her head but did as she was told. With what she was getting paid for this job, she’d might have willingly kissed the guy’s bare ass instead of simply doing so figuratively.
“You sure you’re up to this, Sunshine?” Chai questioned as she and Nate prepared to leave the encampment.
“Yah, and besides, I’m the one who knows where the place is. You could look for a week before you found them without me along.”
“Okay.” She answered, then flashed a wicked little grin at him. “Just remember, we’re only scouting the place out this time around. Then we beat it back here so Zach and the boys can work out a battle plan to take them out.”
“We’ve been over this already.” Nate grumbled. “I agreed, no stupid plays or heroics trying to get anyone out of there this time.”
“Right.” Chai nodded. “Then let’s get going.”
“Watch your ass out there half-pint.” Zach cautioned, then ducked to avoid the glare she returned for that comment.
“Yah, and you guys watch that damned tracer in case we get into something we might need help with.” Chai shot back, then grinned again. “At least I got to choose the password this time.”
“What kind of a password is Greek Love?” Zach grumbled.
“Think about it.” Chai chuckled. “You’ll figure it out, big boy.”
“I already have.” Zach muttered, then waved them off. “Go on, times wasting here you two. We’ll track you, don’t worry, and we’ll be there if you get your tight little butt into a sling.”
“You’d better be.” She growled in mock threat. “Themis’ll have your hide if you don’t. And worse, I’ll make it a point to come back to haunt you.”
“You can haunt my bedroom anytime, short stuff.” Zach laughed, then got a serious look on his face. “Be careful, Chai. I don’t like the feel of this one at all.”
“You and me both.” She replied, then led Nate into the shadows. “Come on Sunshine. We have some hunting to do.”
Dupre nodded in satisfaction as the last sensors were placed on female subject. “Good, turn her loose and let’s see how she hunts.”
Marjo Lee glanced at the now misshapen dura -steel threaded metallic restraints that were barely holding the woman in place, along with the feral rage in deep blue eyes that would have been lovely had they belonged to a sane person. The presence of three well armed and ready members of Hanson’s security detachment did very little to ease her worries but Dupre would listen to none of that. With a sigh, she announced to the room in general. “Okay, everyone stand back. Security team, be ready. I’m releasing the restraints in ten seconds on my mark. Ten…”
Dupre’s first success fairly leapt off the table she had been confined to with an almost animal snarl of rage. Dupre would have none of sharing credit, and Marjo thought with some satisfaction, would thus take all the blame if things went south on them.
The subject scanned the large preparation room, not seeing what she had been programmed to find, stayed to glare at the security people for a moment, then moved to the open exit with a speed that frightened everyone there except Dupre.
He was ecstatic as she left the prep room and headed towards the opened gate in the fence. He turned to the techs with the question. “Telemetry?”
“We have it.” One announced.
“Full visuals, but they’re fuzzy.” Another announced.
“Now.” Dupre smiled, and the expression wasn’t at all pleasant. “Now we vindicate all the time spent on this project, silence all the doubters, and make our fortune, people.”
“What’s wrong?” Nate asked as Chai abruptly halted in front of him.
“I don’t know.” She answered, with the faraway expression on her face he had seen when she had felt their pursuit earlier. “But something’s coming, and it isn’t good.”
“Where is it?”
“Coming our way.” She answered shortly, gestured in the direction they were headed, then added. “It’s Ki is really screwed up. All pain and rage. It‘s so powerful a projection I can‘t tell for certain how far away it is, only that it‘s getting closer.”
She drew the crystal Katana from its scabbard at her back as Nate made sure the safety on his Ishima was off.
Chai took the ready stance, with feet set at shoulder width apart with the blade behind her and raised above her head while Nate brought the deadly little automatic weapon that had served him so well recently up to ready position.
“What the Hell is it?” he questioned while peering into the darkness for any hint of movement.
“Don’t know.” Chai’s response was tight and abrupt. “But it’s making a bee-line straight for us.”
The sense of wrongness grew until it was nearly enough to make Chai physically ill, when a figure emerged from the shadows, striding with a confidence and purpose that belied the terribly jagged emotions and Ki it projected.
“Elise!” Nate called, and began to move towards the tall, beautiful young woman coming out of the darkness.
“Stay back, Nate!” Chai warned.
“It’s Elise.” He answered, ignoring the warning.
“No.” Chai grated out as the emerging figure became clearer. The well shaped blonde wearing a snugly fitted suit of some kind that glittered at the major joints and head with something that wasn’t healthy at all let out an inarticulate little snarl. “This isn‘t your friend. Not anymore. Get BACK!”
Nate’s hesitation and half turn at her vehemence very likely saved his life.
The newcomer’s eyes widened at the sight of him, and she let out a low moan rising into a scream that held a note of forlorn loss and pure rage while launching herself at him.
The kite meant to break his neck glanced off his armored shoulder with enough force to throw him several feet backwards and to the side. A second figure blurred in front of him as he shook his head to clear it as Chai moved to intercept the other woman’s next attack. Both women were moving so fast he couldn’t follow the ensuing fight.
Chai hit her opponent full broadside while Blocking another strike at Nate. The solidity of her target, and the strength of the blow she had deflected with one arm staggered her for a moment.
She barely managed to avoid a spinning kick aimed at her head with a back flip that she used momentum from to spring forward to strike the other in the chest with both feet.
Elise staggered back several steps and shook herself, but otherwise showed very little ill effect from the attack while her rage increased into a frenzy of blows that left Chai nearly on her back.
“Nate, get out of here!”
“No.” The man shouted back. “That’s Elise. I won’t abandon her again!”
“She’s trying to kill you, dammit!” Chai screamed and threw herself between the other two. “Run!”
Chai blocked another killing strike with her left arm, which went numb from the glancing blow, then threw another flurry of strikes and kicks against her frighteningly strong and fast enemy. The only result of that was an even greater frenzy and blows raining on her faster than she could deflect in a few cases. Already abused ribs sent sharply jagged protests to her brain, while the numb left arm awakened with complaints of its own.
“Dammit, Sunshine!” She risked using enough breath to warn him one more time. “I can’t hold her for long. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
Nate finally noted the unevenness of the fight, and that Elise was no longer paying attention to him other than to scream her rage in response to his presence. Watching both his one time partner and the Erinyes taking such a beating for his sake, he at last backed away from the area of the fight, then turned to run.
No you don’t, bitch. Chai thought when the other woman turned to pursue the man and she used a football style tackle to stop that. Both of them tumbled into a pile of debris and Chai managed to get in a strike at a nerve center at the other’s shoulder that did manage to slow the constant attacks.
The larger woman shook her unresponsive arm, and turned away to seek the direction Nate had gone. Chai took advantage of that distraction with another strike just above the other’s kidneys.
The fight degenerated into a clawing, kicking whirl of frenzied effort to simply hurt the other at that point. Chai didn’t bother to count how many times the pair rolled into or bounced off walls, through piles of refuse, or the mud spread over the slowly decaying pavement. All she was interested in at all by then was surviving the fracas.
What Elise had become simply lashed out in still frightening fury. Chai felt her injured ribs protest more as they slammed into a concrete wall, garbage flew every direction, concrete walls cracked and crumbled when they flew against them, and less substantial things in the area simply crumpled in the rolling, snarling frenzy the fight had degenerated into. Chai blocked a piece of rebar her opponent had swung viciously at her faceplate, with her injured arm and felt jagged lances of pain shoot up her shoulder. She finally managed to land a solid strike at the other’s solar plexus that threw Elise away from her .
Elise arched her back, flipped backwards, and went down momentarily. Thanking whatever god was watching that particular combat for even small favors, Chai fought to submerge her pain with only negligible results. Her armor shot an ampoule of morphine into her gloved hand as its internal telemetry showed that its wearer was in dire need of some sort of pain killer.
Chai hated using drugs, but saw the need for the ampoule, and was mentally commanding it to dispense a small amount when the other renewed her attack. The morphine ampoule was still in Chai’s hand when she was forced to counter that move, and the injector hit the side of her opponent’s neck, dispensing the entire contents because it hadn’t been properly metered.
More blows rained down on Chai, but with less and less intensity as the drug began to have its effect. Weaving, the woman stared at Chai while shaking her head.
Noting a precariously leaning brick wall held up by nothing more than lack of anything better to do, and a few overworked and rotting boards Elise was standing almost right beside, Chai took the suddenly offered chance to at least slow this fight down. A sudden kick to the miraculously still untouched board closest to Chai resulted in an alarming creaking, a very satisfactory cracking of overworked lumber and the clatter of bricks falling.
Chai didn’t pause to see if her opponent managed to dig her way out of the pile, just turned, wiped mud and less tolerable things off her visor, and ran for all she was worth.
“What just happened?” Dupre demanded as the images from his organic killing machine flickered and briefly faded to snow.
“She’s unconscious.” One monitoring tech answered, then after reading some more incoming telemetry added. “Some kind of powerful pain killing drug has been introduced into her system, probably morphine, and a damned wall just fell on her. Most people would be dead from either one.”
“She isn’t, though.” Dupre answered with a triumphant glint in his eyes. “Damage?”
“Bring her back in so we can check things with her?” Lee questioned as she leaned over the shoulder of another tech to watch the incoming telemetry.
“No.” Dupre responded flatly, while internally exulting that his brainchild had not only held it’s own against one of the nearly fabled Erinyes, but had been close to winning the contest when luck had seemed to intervene. “Get her awake and on the trail again. We can’t afford to wait here, Marj. Use the goads if you have to, just get her up and overcome that drug in her system.”
“Do you really think using the pain goads is wise?” Marjo Lee gave the man a long look. “She’s nearly uncontrollable as it is.”
“Prototypes always have these little problems.” Dupre answered, then nodded decisively. “Yes, do it. We can make changes in the next version to overcome that difficulty.”
“All right, Doctor.” Marjo acquiesced, hiding her feelings of disgust as she sighed and began the required procedures.
“In the meantime I’ll get Hanson’s people on the track that she gave us. Maybe they’ll get lucky, find the bastard and get that information back.”
“Greek Love.” Chai gasped out once she reached the encampment set up earlier, then staggered into the welcome light and company. Nate had made it back she noted, and the others were preparing to move, evidently to find her.
“Good God!” Zach breathed as he saw the apparition covered with mud and less identifiable matter staggering into the perimeter. “Stanz, get your med kit up here now!”
“Good to see you guys, too.” Chai answered as she carefully settled onto an empty crate with a long relieved sigh, then glanced towards Nate. “Glad you made it back, Sunshine.”
“Is Elise…” The newsie trailed off before he finished the question.
“Don’t know.” Chai shrugged then winced. “Dropped a wall on her then ran like hell. All I do know is that she isn’t following me, or you just now.”
“Let’s get you out of this armor so I can take a good look.” Stanz, the team’s medic ordered after watching her for a few seconds.
“Whatever.” Chai arose from her seat with a small groan and let the medic and Zach begin releasing the catches and remove the separate parts until she stood there shivering in her underwear.
“Damn.” Zach breathed when he saw the livid, ugly bruising on the left side of her ribcage and the equally unpleasant purpling of the wrist on the same side. “What the hell hit you? A frigging tank?”
“No.” Chai winced again as Stanz explored the damage with gentle fingers. “It was the project Sunshine and his friend found down here.
“Well whatever it was, it messed you up pretty good.” Stanz announced. “You’re getting into the med pod, and I mean now.”
“No time for that.” Chai just shook her head. “Just wrap the ribs and wrist.”
“Make time.” Stanz loomed over her five foot two frame and frowned, his grey eyes and posture giving no ground. “You’ve got a hairline fracture in that wrist with a bone fragment working into a tendon, and three broken ribs. Move around much with those, and they’ll puncture a lung, then you will be in the shit for real. It’s either the med pod or I scrub this mission here and now.”
“You can’t do that.” Chai complained. “I’m running this op.”
“It’s in our contract.” Stanz grinned nastily. “The medical officer of a team can and will determine the fitness of any and all team members to continue the mission. Besides, it should only take a couple of hours to get you good as new in there.”
“You’d do that, too, wouldn’t you?”
“In a heartbeat, Chai.” Stanz nodded soberly. “You’re one of the good ones far as us Myrmidons are concerned. The guys and I down here would never hear the end of it if we managed to lose you. Now get that shapely little butt of yours into the med pod. That’s an order.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Chai glowered.
“Which, seeing you in your underwear, or giving you orders?” Stanz questioned with an innocent expression.
“Both.” The Erinys grumbled.
“Damned right.” Stanz grinned, then waved towards the waiting, and open med pod with an expectant look.
“I’m going, I’m going.” She muttered,then gave him another glower just for her own ego. “I’ll get you for this, Stanz.”
“Whatever you want.” The man chuckled. “After you get out of that pod.”
“Okay troops, lets get this stuff packed up.” Zach ordered. “Chances are good the bad guys have a line on where we are.”
Nate stared into the surrounding darkness, then at the med pod and its contents being loaded into the Cummins Electric Van the team had brought with them. “Is moving it while she’s in there going to be a problem, with the healing, I mean.”
“Nope.” Zach shook his head then grinned. “Worried about our little hellion there?”
“She’s saved my butt twice now.” Nate let out a long breath. “What do you think?”
“Doing her job, Nate.” Zach reminded him quietly. “We were all hired to find you, then keep you alive until we can get you safely out of here.”
“Guess my refusing to leave kind of complicates that, doesn’t it?” The reporter asked.
“Only a little, you can handle yourself from what Chai was telling me.” Zach shrugged. “You have a bigger stake in this mess than we do. We know that, and how it feels from experience. None of us would want to be standing on the sidelines if we were directly involved either.”
“I appreciate that.” Nate answered.
“Yah.” Zach nodded, then added. “Just don’t go getting heroic on us down here, my friend. Chai didn’t pull your tail out of the fire just so you can hare off and get it shot again, you know?”
“Don’t worry about that.” Nate gave the big merc a wan grin. “Once was enough for me this time around. More than enough.”
“Don’t doubt that one at all.” Zach chuckled without mirth. “Once is generally more than enough for anyone with brains.”
The big merc tilted his head as his comm buzzed, and swore. “Get things buttoned up all, and move it! Raj says we got company coming, and they’re pretty close already.”
The pace of the loading increased and the space was filled with the clicks and snaps of armor being closed up and weapons readied. Nate put on his borrowed helmet and checked his own weapons.
“Huh uh, boyo.” Zach shook his head. “This time you move out with the gear in the van.”
“Look, I know how these guys work.” Nate insisted. “And the extra weapons wouldn’t hurt either.”
“Don’t get stubborn on me here, man.” Zach shook his head. “We were just talking about you being a hero, and I’m not going to leave things so I have to tell Chai you got yourself killed while she was in the pod. Now get in the van.”
“No arguments, I don‘t have time for it.” Zach waved to the van, then added. “Stanz is going to need someone with their hands free in case of trouble anyway. My people are already a team that I’d rather not split up any more than I already have.”
“Okay.” Nate turned towards the van and began to climb in, but turned once more to see Zach Sinclair and his four remaining team members spreading out and taking cover. “Good luck, guys.”
“All right people.” Zach’s voice came over the comm. “Watch your fields of fire. We got civilians living down here.”
Hanson watched the screen as his troops moved in on the target. “All right people, proceed with caution. These have to be Myrmidons you’re going up against.”
The reputation of Themis’ military arm was something that carried a mystique all its own. A dangerous one if someone was in opposition to them.
Hanson had come with his attack force just for that reason, and noted with sour humor that their opponents had made no hostile moves, even though he was sure they knew his troops were moving in.
“Got a van leaving the target area, boss.” One of his squad leaders, Van Voort came on the comm. “Orders?”
“Take it or take it out.” Hanson told the man.
“That’s a roger.” Van Voort acknowledged.
Hanson looked into the gloom ahead of him, tried to picture what a small group of defenders might try in such conditions, and made up his mind. “Units three and five, do a frontal probe and keep the pressure on them.
Unit one, flank them on the left and wait for my command. Unit two, do the same on the right. Unit four, stay back in reserve. Go!”
With the orders given, Hanson waited in his command module to watch developments.
Nate saw the muzzle flashes and heard sporadic gunfire that rapidly increased in tempo as the van pulled away from the compromised camp.
The firefight dwindled in the distance but the echoes of the gunfire reverberated through the huge artificial cavern the ground level that part of Topeka had become.
Thoughts about the Myrmidons left behind fled as something hit the side of the van like a huge sledge hammer wielded by some angry giant. The vehicle slewed, and tilted alarmingly, running on only the three wheels on the right side, then slammed back to where all six wheels gained purchase.
“Heads up back there.” Nate faintly heard through the furious ringing in his ears and realized that Stanz was talking to him. “We got company and they didn’t come for coffee and doughnuts.”
Nate was already peering into the dimness behind them through the still open back door and saw several shadows moving up on them fast with the characteristic growling of internal combustion engines. Two four wheeled buggies, fortunately not mounting their own weapons, but rapidly overtaking the van and each holding three armored figures not engaged in driving with weapons at ready resolved out of the shadows as they loomed closer.
Making sure of his balance in the rocking, closed in platform the cargo area of the van had become, he raised the deadly little Ishima and sprayed the vehicle to the right with a full clip. That one veered away, and crashed into a crumbling building. Nate saw several figures stagger away from the vehicle, but the other was still closing on them rapidly.
Worse, a third vehicle had closed on them from the side and two armored figures were clambering into the back of the van under cover of suppressing fire from the buggy to the rear.
Zach Sinclair only watched the departing van long enough to make sure Nate stayed in it and the vehicle was on its way to hopefully more secure environs. He had more immediate concerns at that moment.
“I make four groups of six moving in on us.” Roger (Raj) Clements reported from his forward position. “Two from the front, one to each side.”
“Got that Raj.” Zach acknowledged. “Fall back to where the rest of us are if you can do it without drawing fire. I have them on sensor sweep now.”
“Roger that, boss.” Raj returned. “Coming in.”
“Five of us, Twenty-four of them.” Claire Boone, standing nearby shrugged. “That’s not fair at all. These guys are going to need reinforcements.”
“Don’t get cocky, Boone.” Another teased. “Someone might make the mistake of thinking you got balls or something.”
“More’n you do, Yakuma.” Boone answered while taking up a position behind a tumbled pile of masonry.
Sporadic shots began spanging off tumbledown walls and the Myrmidons got down to the job they were justly famous for. Answering fire was returned from their positions with an accuracy that had the attackers diving for cover.
The first wave began firing from cover while a second moved forward and shots began hitting from their flanks.
“Hold your positions until I give the word.” Zach ordered, taking time to fire at an imprudent attacker and seeing him gratifyingly twist and tumble into an unmoving heap.
Other attackers fell, but the numbers were on their side. Within ten minutes they hadn’t overrun the Myrmidon’s position and had lost five of their number, but Raj had taken a wound to the leg, and Boone was dead.
“Get Boone, and help Raj.” Zach ordered. “No one gets left behind, No One.”
That fighting retreat was harrowing, but the surviving Myrmidons continued taking out their atagonists with precisely placed shots taken as they moved.
“Low on ammo here.” Raj announced.
“We all are.” Zach answered, thinking that no matter where they moved, unless the attack slacked off they would all be dead within a few more minutes. He began looking for a way out of the firefight for his people other than walking out with hands up. That, he rightly thought, would just give the others easier targets.
Nate didn’t have time to ram another clip into the Ishima before the first one was on him, grappling of all things, and seeming determined to overpower him.
Backing against the med pod, he managed to bring both feet up, set them to his assailant’s chest, and thrust out with all his might. The man staggered, lost his balance and tumbled out the back of the still van.
The other had no intention of grappling as he raised his weapon and growled. “Now I get you, newsie, and whoever is in that pod.”
The little Ishima was sliding along the floor and well out of reach. Nate grabbed for his sidearm finding the Glock Chai had loaned him when they first encountered each other and snapped off a shot without taking time to aim. The intruder’s visor exploded into shards and the man was hurled backwards into the oncoming Buggy like a strong line from there had yanked him back.
“Too much talk.” Nate muttered, diving for the Ishima as the van violently swerved back and forth, then bounced over an obstacle. The pursuing buggy swerved violently itself, bounced off a pile of rubble, and overturned.
“You okay up there, Stanz?” He questioned while saving the Ishima from sliding out the back and onto the cracked street.
“Yeah, had a passenger for a minute there.” Stanz answered, then chuckled. “I convinced him to get off.”
“So that’s what that bump was.” Nate grinned to himself. “Had a couple of those back here, too. They got off in kind of a hurry.”
“I noticed.” Stanz answered. “Sunshine, if you ever get tired of the news business you can run with me anywhere, even if you aren’t a Myrmidon.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” Nate responded, then laughed. “But the news business is lively enough for me just now.”
Hanson watched his people falling, and listened in on the abortive attempt to halt the escape of the van.
“That’s one crazy sucker in the back of that thing.” The one conscious driver in that attempt reported. “Stood straight up and hosed down Rigg’s buggy, ducked when we started laying covering fire, then literally kicked Rodriguez out the back and beat Linz to the draw. Perfect visor shot, lucky son of a…”
“All right, I got the idea.” Hanson cut that off. “Casualties?”
“Four dead and six injured, sir.” Came the answer.
“Shit. Get the wounded, round up the bodies and equipment, then head back to base.” Hanson swore again, to himself that time before opening the comm to the troops attacking the retreating, but far from beaten Myrmidons. “Break off. I repeat, break off! Get the dead and wounded, along with their equipment then rendevous at the command post here. We’re heading back.”
Time it took the most of me
And left me with no key
To unlock the chest of remedy
Mother, the pain ain't hurting me
But the love I feel
When you hold me near
"Higher than Hope"
Stanze drove the van into a brick garage attached to a ramshackle house and shut it off. "Okay we're here. Now we wait for the others to reach us. Don't unload things yet, we may have to bug out before the Major and others get here."
"Right." Nate checked the readouts on the med pod and nodded. "Chai's doing good, should be finished in there pretty soon."
"Good." Stanz answered as he got out of the van and stretched. "Someone else is going to be needing it when the rest get here."
He didn't add the if that was hanging there as Nate jumped out of the back. He didn't need to. "Got one dead and another wounded coming in, Nate."
"Crap. I'm sorry." Nate answered, feeling responsible despite knowing things had progressed past his own responsibility for the mess.
"So am I, Sunshine." Stanz let out a sigh. "I liked Boone, but she knew what the deal was when she signed on, just like the rest of us."
Sinclair returned carryng an inert body over his shoulder that Nate recognized from the shape was Boone, while the other two uninjured Myrmidons helped the limping Raj. Carefully laying his burden down, Zach looked over the house, then nodded tiredly to Nate. "This place could use some remodeling, huh?"
"Yeah, it could." Nate agreed softly, giving the body of the dead Myrmidon one quick look, then turning to peer out the broken window. "At least no one lives here right now. Though someone did not to long ago."
"Leave anything useful?" Zach questioned.
"Couple of beers, and half a bottle of bourbon." Nate answered with a shrug. "Looks as if they left in kind of a hurry, other stuff scattered around, but it's junk."
"Probably got run out by our recent playmates." Zach responded with a shake of his head. "Those people are good, by the way. Now that I know how good what you did before Chai found you is even more impressive."
"What, running, hiding, and praying?" Nate shook his head then offered a wan grin and nodded. "But thanks."
"Yah." Zach agreed, then checked on Raj, who Stanz was looking over and taking care of. "So where's that bourbon? I'll reimburse the former owner, later."
"Here you go." Nate passed the bottle over with a shake of his head. "And, no, I haven't had any of it. But it tests clean."
Taking the bottle, Zach drank with a grimace then passed it along to one of the others. "Good enough for me. Now let's get the van unloaded people, we need some of the supplies in there and Stanz is going to need the med pod for Raj once Chai crawls out of it."
The nano speeded healing of the med pod did its work in less time than several hours, and Chai emerged actually feeling like a human being. Her armor, cleaned and once again gleaming was waiting for her beside the pod.
She got back into it without the visored helmet, and worked through some stretching exercises, then went seeking Nate. She found him, sitting a bit apart from the others and seated herself beside him.
“Glad to see you’re doing better, there.” He greeted her, then continued staring into the distance.
“Hi to you, too.”
“Thanks, by the way.” He told her in a distant sounding voice. “I guess you saved my butt again out there. Getting to be kind of a habit, you know.”
"From what Stanz tells me, you evened that out some on our way here." She shrugged, then moved so she was able to look into his face and see the misery etched on it. She even knew why it was there. “Nate. Listen to me here. She isn’t the Elise you knew any longer, the one out there. You have to know that.”
“Maybe not.” He responded heavily. “But how can you be so sure of that?”
“Look, Sunshine.” She gripped his shoulders with a strength that nearly pulled him off his perch on the crate. “This version of Elise is stronger, faster and a LOT meaner than I ever thought of being. She can take a horrendous amount of damage and just seems to shrug it off. And she’s trying to KILL you.”
“If I hadn’t left her behind…”
“Did you have a choice?” Chai questioned harshly. “If you’d stayed to get her out, you’d be in the same situation she’s in now. No one would have any idea of what’s going on down here, and those bastards would just keep doing the things they are. Now, we can stop them.”
“Yah, we can.” Chai gave him a grim look. “But it isn’t going to be pretty, or easy on either one of us. You want to opt out? I can still get you out of here in less than an hour, you know.”
“No.” Nate shook his head. “I’m in till it finishes, one way or another. I owe Elise that much at least.”
“Your choice.” Chai answered. “For what it’s worth, I think you made the right ones through all of this.”
“Doesn’t help much at the moment.” Nate shrugged, then gave her a wan smile. “But thanks.”
“Just don’t go haring off on your own in some idiot heroic attempt to fix things all by yourself, okay?”
“I’m no hero.” Nate sighed.
“Yes you are.” She answered softly. “That’s what worries me here.”
After some thought while watching his people copying files and readying to destroy the data in the mainframe, Dupre went to the comm and called his security detachment. “Get me Hanson.”
“Here, sir.” The mercenary’s voice, rough from shouting commands on battlefields and the cigars he insisted on smoking responded.
“Start preparations for abandoning this site.” Dupre told him.
“When?” Hanson questioned, then added. “We can be gone within ten minutes, sir, once your people are out. Just give the word.”
“Not yet.” Dupre responded, then with some difficulty, added. “You and your people have done an exemplary job here, Hanson. I don’t want to lose any more of you if it can be helped. When the Federal Police, or army starts moving against us, I’ll know. Then you will. Just be ready.”
“Roger that one, sir.” Hanson answered.
“Well I’ll be dipped in shit and used for a fudgesicle.” Hanson shook his head. “The big man actually complimented us.”
“So I heard.” Clarice Biggs, his XO commented. “What’s he going to do with his new toy if it comes to bugging out, I wonder?”
“Who knows?” Hanson shrugged, taking out one of the Cuban cigars he smoked, carefully snipping the end off, then lighting it. After drawing in a mouthful of smoke and letting it out, he went on. “Long as she doesn’t decide to come after us, why worry?”
“Yah.” Biggs nodded and Hanson noticed there were threads of white in her deep black hair. “But I’ll tell you, if that comes back here, I’m shooting first, then worrying about what the boss says once she's dead.”
“Don’t blame you there.” Hanson agreed, then sucked in another draught of smoke. “She gives me the heebie jeebies, too.”
“Hell.” Biggs grinned mirthlessly. “She scares the shit out of me.”
“We sure as Hell can’t leave her running loose out here.” Chai insisted to Zach. “What someone, something like that would do among civilians is something that doesn’t bear contemplation.”
“No, it doesn’t.” The Myrmidon agreed, then shrugged. “So what do we do? Hunting her is going to be counter productive, and give the people who turned her loose time to pull up stakes and move somewhere else.”
“We have to let her keep hunting us.” Chai let out a long, heavy sigh. “Or at least hunting Sunshine. I think they’ve taken the rage that is consuming her and directed it at him. But she won’t quit until either she kills him or we neutralize her one way or another.”
“Tough job that, with the way you came back yesterday.” Zach observed.
“If she tore you up that way, I wonder if the rest of us would be enough even with our weapons.”
“If enough of you guys shoot her at the same time, it’ll work.” Chai told him. “She isn’t indestructible, I’m sure of that much.”
“But that isn’t what you want to do, is it?”
“No.” Chai admitted.
“Chai, you can’t play tag with this one.” Zach argued. “If you try, she’s going to kill you.”
“Don’t worry about that. You just cover Nate’s ass while I do it.” Chai shrugged. “I don’t have enough information to neutralize her yet. The morphine worked, but damn, I pumped enough into her to knock an elephant over and it only slowed her down. She has to have another weakness of some kind.”
“No one is invulnerable, Zach.” She insisted.
“No, but like I just said, finding those chinks in her armor is likely to get you very dead.”
“If I’d wanted immortality, or living to a ripe old age and drooling on myself in my dotage, I’d have chosen a different profession.”
“You are one damned stubborn woman, you know that?” Zach shook his head and grinned. “Worse than you ever were as a guy.”
“Bullshit.” Chai grinned back. “You and I butted heads often enough in the Seals for you to know that much. I was a stubborn bastard then.”
“True.” Zach chuckeld. “But now you’re a stubborn bitch.”
“But I’m still not stupid.” She sobered and gave the Myrmidon a penetrating look. “There has to be a way. And I’ll find it.”
“Even if it kills you, I know, I know.” The big merc sighed. “Just promise me that won’t happen because you’re trying to go easy here, okay?”
“I dropped a damned wall on her, Zach.” Chai grinned. “Does that sound like I’m going easy?”
“Point taken.” The other shrugged. “Just don’t get pissed if I take the trouble to watch out for you pretty little butt, too.”
The Erinys stalked off muttering obscenities Zach understood if no one else in the the team did, and he laughed softly while watching her walk away. He’d never really understand what had prompted his friend Roy to become a female, but she was still his friend.
“So now what do we do?” Nate was still sitting on the crate staring off into the dark when Chai found him.
“We’ve got to draw her out again, Nate.” Chai’s voice was almost gentle as she noted the waves of emotional pain from the man.
“So you can kill her.”
“If if comes to that.” She nodded. “I hope it doesn’t, but Nate, think about it here. I know she’s in constant agony, and her sanity is gone. What would she tell you to do now?”
“Yah, I know what she’d say.” He replied heavily. “I just can’t say it, you know. She and I were together in one way or another for a long time, hauled each others ashes out of way too many fires…”
“Yah, been there myself, Sunshine.” Chai agreed. “But it’s no kindness to leave her in the state she’s in, you know.”
“So tell me what I need to do.” He answered without answering.
“You’re the bait.” Chai told him, not pressing the other issue. “You’re the one she’s after. I’ll be waiting in the background along with the guys for backup. One way or another we have to settle with her soon. The ones who did it to her will be pulling up stakes and running to hide somewhere else if we take too long with this.”
“We can’t let that happen.” He meant it, with a fervency that shattered his previous hesitation. “Let’s get the one done so we can do the other.”
“Come on, then.” Chai held out a hand, and he surprised both of them by taking it in his. “We have work to do here.”
“Yah, we do.” Minutes after she’d let go of his hand he still swore that it tingled with some kind of electricity.
“Our telemetry on her shows no real damage.” A tech reported to Dupre and Lee. Dupre grinned in triumph while Marjo Lee nodded. “She’s up and ready to go again, Doctor.”
“Good.” Dupre was still gloating over the results of his project and the subject’s toughness. “Did you get a track on what direction that Newsie headed when he bolted?”
“Yes, sir, got it.”
“Then get her moving.”
“Then use the goad.” Dupre commanded. “That’s why it’s there.”
The insistent buzzing in her head grew slightly less annoying when she turned in the direction where the grid superimposed on her vision was brightest. The one she hunted was in that direction. But so was the woman who had inflicted even more pain than her already dangerously overloaded nervous system was already dealing with. She hesitated, animal instincts for self preservation and dimly recalled memories of a time before the pain warring with her rage and the insistent prodding from the ones who had made her like she was.
A sharply defined sense of wrongness was torn away from her in an intense flash of agony that was like a blinding light coming out of complete darkness. Gasping as the new pain subsided, she saw the grid pulsing brightly in the direction THEY wanted her to go. The direction that held more pain.
With a scream mixed of fury and anguish, she began moving in the direction THEY wanted.
Chai and Nate glanced at each other as the inhuman, unearthly scream echoed through the darkness. The absolute wrongness she had felt the first time they encounted the creature Elise had become returned with a strength that was almost overpowering. The pain and rage projected to the Erinys’ Ki sensitive nerves felt like the worst toothache imaginable to her.
“Hell’s coming to breakfast.” She warned the others, mostly needlessly. “Be ready and don’t let her get within twenty feet of you guys back there.”
“I suppose now isn’t the time to run?” Nate questioned in an attempt to lighten the moods of all concerned, then let out a long sigh at the hard glance he received from the woman beside him. “Guess not.”
“Shut it, bait.” Chai growled as much as her soprano allowed, then grinned back before she grew serious again. “She’s close, real close.”
Elise erupted from the darkness with a howl that would have chilled the blood of a wolf, barely skidding to a stop when Chai stepped between her and Nate and swung around in a deadly kick aimed at the interloper’s head. “Not this time, either, hon.”
Nate retreated to the relative safety provided by the Myrmidons fifty odd feet behind them as the pair left in the cracking street went at one another.
The other dodged Chai’s first attack with a backwards lunge and responded by lashing out from the crouch she had landed in with a flurry of kites and closed fist punches that even the Erinys had trouble following. With the expected results.
Chai went sprawling as several of the attacks hit home with enough force to jar her teeth to her toes, but sprang back up to return a flurry of blows and kicks the others watching had no hope of following.
Once again appalled at the solidity of her opponenet in the face of strikes that would have felled an armored man twice the size, Chai resorted to the manuver that had been successful the time before. But her adversary had learned, and avoided the flying tackle. Barely.
As she flew past, Chai planted one foot squarely in the small of the other’s back, though without real purchase for launching that attack only staggered the other.
Elise turned with a snarl, radiating enough pain to have made Chai naseus if she hadn’t already been so occupied with staying alive, and landed two solid blows to the Erinys’ rib cage.
But in getting that close, she exposed the unarmored back of her neck to the air injector Chai had held tightly in one closed fist. That attack failed as the blunt end of the device collided with gleaming metal, but since it hadn’t contacted flesh, the injector didn’t give up its contents.
Elise swept Chai’s legs out from under her with a stunningly fast spin kick, but the Erinys recovered in time to block the following blow with a section of steel girder she had fallen on. The girder bent with the force of that strike, and the injector containing morphine skittered off into the trash strewn darkness from the numbing impact.
Swearing to herself, Chai didn’t dare take the time to locate the thing, and hurled herself up into spring that catapulted her over the other, incidentally giving her the chance to land a kick at her opponent’s head.
Momentarily stunned by that attack, Elise shook her head and hesitated long enough for Chai to scrabble around in the debris and find the injector.
Just as the other gathered for another attack a bright flash made her flinch away from the source with tightly closed eyes.
Chai took note of Nate, holding a camera’s flash unit in one hand and wildly waving for her to move aside. She did, as the Myrmidon’s opened fire with their weapons, shotguns to lessen their reach in the still populated area, and loud enough to make her ears ring.
Elise ducked her head, as if protecting it from something other than the loads from the shotguns, then covered her ears before whirling away into the darkness with a wailing scream.
“Damn. Now what?” Chai panted as Nate and the others joined her.
“Sensory overload.” Nate answered with a smug grin. “I recall you mentioning how fast she is now. That means a hyped up nervous system, right?”
“Well, her eyes and ears would be connected to that hyped up nervous system, too, don’t you think?”
“You’re crazier than they say I am.” Chai shook her head, then gave the newsie a wan smile. “She could have killed you right there, you know.”
“But she didn’t, did she?” Nate shrugged. “And the light and noise drove her off.”
“Yeah, this time.” Chai agreed, then grimaced as more pain shot through her from once again abused ribs. “But she’s really adaptable. So don’t try that one again, okay?”
“You’re welcome.” Nate turned away with the air of someone who hadn’t been given the credit deserved for working out a very knotty problem in a class run by a demanding teacher.
“Thanks.” Chai belatedly called after him. “I’d have been toast if you hadn’t come up with that idea. But I‘m the one who‘s supposed to be going in harm‘s way here, not you.”
“Well, you’ve been doing a bang up job of that so far.” The reporter threw back over his shoulder.
“I hate smart asses.” Chai grumbled.
“Especially when they’re right, huh, little lady?” Zach put in, not bothering to hide his amusement.
“I especially hate it when two of them gang up on me.”
“Come on.” Zach urged. “Let’s get you back to camp and get Stanz to have a look at you.”
“Not so bad this time around.” The medic told her with a grin. “They’re only cracked.”
“Oh shut up.” Chai grimaced as he probed her side again, then held up a hand. “I know, I know. The pod. Hey! That isn‘t a rib!”
“Sorry, hand slipped.” The medic answered. “But it’s bruised, too.”
“Yah, it is kind of sore.”
“So get your butt in the pod so you can get fixed up and quit bitching.” Stanz grinned at her, then watched as she stalked across the small compound in her underwear to reach the med pod.
“Men.” Chai muttered. “One damned thing on their minds, even in the field.”
Nate was staring back into the darkness again, trying not to think of Chaiama Ariundakata. With predictable results when someone is determined not to think of something or someone. His non-thoughts of the woman were disturbed as someone seated themselves to his right and he turned to see Zach watching him with a speculative expression on his broad face.
“Well, Stanz says she’ll be in the pod for at least a couple of hours.” The merc told him, then shrugged. “We’ll probably move camp while she’s in it, instead of waiting. Too much chance of the bad guys figuring out where we are if we don’t.”
Nate nodded, then looked towards the med pod, closed now and working on healing the Erinys up once again. “Your medic has wandering hands.”
“Be honest here.” The Myrmidon chuckled. “If you had the chance would you pass it up? Chai is one fine woman.”
“Yeah, she is.” Nate answered slowly.
“Jealous are you?”
“Me?” Nate shrugged, then shook his head. “I haven’t got the right to even feel that way. Besides, she’d probably tear my head off if I was.”
“Got that one right.” Zach laughed.
“Why does she do it?” Nate changed the subject.
“Do what?” Zach questioned. “The Erinys thing, or playing tag with your old friend like she’s been doing?”
“Both, I suppose.” Nate turned back to give the big Myrmidon a long searching look. “Any ideas?”
“Well, I know why she’s playing tag with your friend, but I don’t think you’re going to like the answer much.”
“Her, your, contract specified both of us, I know.” Nate nodded.
“Only partially right there, boyo.” Zach returned the level stare he was getting. “Think about that one. You’re a bright guy.”
“I have been thinking about it.” the reporter answered quietly. “I just don’t quite know what to make of it right now is all.”
“What’s to think about?” Zach asked. “We can all see the sparks flying between the two of you. Or is it that she used to be a guy that has you so tied up just now?”
Nate’s silence answered that quite clearly and the big merc shook his head. “If that’s it, Sunshine, you’re a damned fool. The operative phrase in that one line is ‘used to be’. As in isn’t now, won’t ever be again, and never wanted to be in the first place. That’s why she went through the Dragons Blood process in the first place, and took on the quarter mil Nubuck debt that gave her. I’ll tell you this one time, boyo. Chai is my friend, she was my friend before the change too, and a more miserable guy I’d never met in my life, even when he was bar hopping and whoring with the rest of us. She’s happy with who and what she is now, and comfortable with it. Not to mention being one Hell of a woman.”
“Yeah, she is that.” Nate agreed, then questioned. “So what is this all driving at? You don’t strike me as the match maker type, you know.”
“Only this, Sunshine.” Zach answered easily. “If you hurt her, other than to say ‘no thanks’, and she doesn’t break you in two for it -- I will.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Nate drew in a breath, then let it out slowly. “Is that the end of the ‘big brother’ speech?”
“Yeah.” Zach let a slow smile spread across his face. “I like you too, Nate. Just get your shit together where she’s concerned one way or the other, okay?”
“Yeah, but isn’t a bit early on for a lecture like this?”
“You tell me, Nate.” Zach rose from his seat. “While you’re at it, tell yourself. We’d appreciate some help getting stuff together for the move, by the way.”
“Be there in a minute.” Nate promised.
Watching the big merc’s back as that one walked away, Nate went back to working out his feelings, gave up on that as going nowhere for the moment, and joined the others in packing up gear and readying for the move.
Chai emerged from the med pod, stretched luxuriously, then took in their new surroundings with a satisfied nod before getting giving her armor a critical looking over. Sighing and muttering darkly, she padded to the field fresher unit that had been set up, checked to make sure it was functioning, and stepped into it.
Nate was watching, while trying not to be obvious about it as the sleekly lovely Erinys did all that and Zach gave him a gentle nudge in the ribs to get his attention. “Not at all hard to look at, is she?”
“No, she isn’t.” Nate agreed, then added. “But she looks so, so tiny without the armor on.”
“I know.” Zach nodded, then grinned. “Attitude, confidence, skills, and sheer cussedness tend to make up for what she lacks in size.”
“Really?” Nate grinned back. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Zach’s only response was a deep, rumbling laugh.
“Stanz.” Chai walked up to the medic who was checking over the med pod. “Can you do it?”
“Sure, Chai.” Stanz nodded. The security locks are simple, every pod has the capability of being locked from the outside, it just isn’t used often. The programming is fussing about the dosages of Morphine and sedatives though, and I have to admit that those worry me.”
“Look, if what I have in mind works, we don’t want the occupant waking up halfway back to HQ. Even locked from the outside, I don’t know if the pod would hold her. I pumped a full five cc’s of Morphine into her the first time and all it did was slow her down a little. I dumped a brick wall on her and that didn’t stop her for long either. We need those dosages if this is going to have a snowball’s chance in Hell of working, believe me.”
“Yah, I do.” Stanz nodded while still keying commands into the med pod’s board. “I saw the mess you were in after the first go round with Nate's old friend, and watched the second one. Just give me a little time to convince the pod here and we’ll have it. Just hope it’s enough.”
“You got that one right.” Chai gave him a companionable pat on the shoulder. “Just do what you can with the thing, okay?”
“On it, Chai, I’m on it.” He muttered as she walked away.
A few minutes later she was on the comm with HQ. “Vic, I know it sounds crazy, just get me the tranq rifle, and the other stuff I asked for. I know you well enough to know that you at least skimmed those files I sent to you, before you forwarded them to the Feds and our Med people in the labs.”
Chai listened to what must have been some sort of harangue from the other end and shook her head. “Backup? Who’s available just now?”
“No, I definitely don’t want Val in on this. That glory hog would ruin everything trying to poach on the contract we already have set up. How about Vangie, Kait, and Ayumi?”
“Vic.” Chai interrupted another tirade. “This isn’t some damned lost dog thing down here. This is dangerous, and it’s on the loose. I don’t think the bad guys have as much control over her as they think they do, and leaving something like that running around anywhere just doesn’t bear thinking about. She‘s homicidal, Vic. Period. Unenhanced humans wouldn‘t stand a chance against her and you know it as well as I do.”
“Just get the stuff to me, Vic.” Chai listened some more, then added the kicker. “One last thing, this is the second newsie we were sent in here to get. Yah, the other one is still safe. Thanks, Vic.”
“Vicki going ballistic on you there?” Zach questioned with a grin.
“Only a little.” Chai chuckled. “I’m going to really hear about all this once we get back though.”
“Success makes up for most things.” The big Merc shrugged. “And I’m pretty sure we can pull this off.”
“Me too.” Chai nodded with a frown. “I just hope we’re right.”
“Brooding won’t help, you know.” A voice came over Chai’s shoulder as she glowered out into the dark and worried that some critical part of her plan would fail. She turned to see Nate standing there watching the darkness himself.
“Can’t help it.”
“Look.” Nate sat down next to her, and was gratified when she didn’t move away. “Elise was my partner, my friend.”
“And?” Chai turned a bit to look into his face. “What’s this driving at Sunshine?”
“Don’t get yourself killed trying to save her, Chai.” Nate answered softly, then stood up to walk away. “That’s all.”
“Damn.” The Erinys shook her head and allowed a tiny grin to play with the corners of her mouth as she watched him walk away.
“We need a barge for this.” Chai looked over the black expanse of the Kansas River as it ran through what had come to be called Undertown Topeka. I don’t think Elise would float all that well, and if we get her out on one we might be able to contain her there until everything starts hitting her.”
“Chai, people live on those things.” Zach pointed out. “We’re trying to keep this away from places like that, aren’t we?”
“You got a better idea?” The Erinyes asked shortly. “I don’t know about you, Zach, but I don’t feel like risking my life again if we can’t contain her in one place for long enough to take her down.”
“You’ll be risking your pretty ass either way we do it.” The Merc shrugged. “But we’re trying to keep civilians out of this aren’t we?”
“Zach, it’s only a matter of time before she starts going after civilians down here. She still needs to eat and drink, after all. Homicidal as she is, do you think she’s just going to walk in on some family and ask nicely?”
“I get the point.” Zach let out a long sigh. “We’ll probably have to buy the barge, you know. If this encounter is anything like the last two it’ll end up pretty well trashed.”
“Yeah, I know.” Chai responded. “Get someone on that soon as you can, okay? I don’t like it either, but it’s all we have for options if this whole thing isn’t going to flush like so much fecal matter in the toilet.”
“Why are you trying so hard to keep her alive?” Zach asked, curiosity and some anguish in his voice. “For Nate’s sake?”
“No, not entirely.” Chai snorted. “Zach, she’s a victim here too. I can’t just kill her without trying whatever we can to help her. Don’t ask me to explain that, it just is.”
“Okay, you’re the boss. The guys and I‘ll back your play for now” Zach told her. “But if this goes south, and it comes to losing you or killing her, you know damned well which choice we’ll make.”
“Yeah, I know, and thanks.” Chai laid a hand on his arm. “Not quite like it was in the old days, is it?”
“No, it sure isn’t.” The big merc answered. “Hell, I don’t think we could have survived something like this in the old days. And things have changed besides you.”
“Yeah, haven’t they?” Chai let out a mirthless chuckle.
“But far as I’m concerned, you’re still the Major, and one stubborn so and so on top of that.”
Chai laughed at that one. “I think bitch is the word you’re looking for there, Zach.”
“You know I‘m too polite to say that.” Waving her away with another laugh, Zach headed towards the barges to do what she wanted.
“So how much did this cost me?” Chai gave the beat up barge a dubious looking over from the dock while the former owners were still moving their things off it. “And will it even float once it’s out of shallow water?”
“Thousand Nu-Bucks. And those folks lived on it, Chai. Be nice here.” Zach told her then added. “The guys and I pitched in too, though. And it will float. For how long, I honestly won’t venture a guess. Especially with the guest we're setting it up to receive. Just have your breather ready to kick in automatically once this damfool scheme gets going, all right?"
“A THOUSAND?! Nubucks?” Chai spluttered.
“Relax, Mein Commandante,” Zach chuckled. “Your share is only a couple hundred. Nate even tossed in a hundred. The rest of us have a stake in all this too, you know. And NANN could be convinced to pony up for it, or we can work the bill so they do anyway.”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s true, but a grand for this?” Chai shook her head and let out a long sigh.
“Hey, like I said before, someone was living on it, Chai. It ain’t much, but it was their home.” Zach pointed out.
“Good point, I suppose.” Chai admitted, then shrugged. “Well, now that we have it, let’s get set up for our party.”
Chai checked the equipment for the tenth time, closed her eyes and silently mouthed a short prayer, then turned to the assembled Myrmidons and Nate. “Okay, this is as good as it’s going to get here. Got that tranq rifle ready?”
Nate held it up and flashed her a grin. “Locked, loaded, and ready for action.”
“Just don’t miss, okay?” She warned him. “I won’t have a lot of room to dodge around on this thing and if she doesn’t get slowed down more than just you and me could end up dead here.”
“Recon, remember?” Nate grinned. “Sharpshooter on top of that. Don’t worry, just get her here and stay in one piece while you do that.”
“Trust me, both of those are real high on my current priorities list, Sunshine.” Chai grinned.
“You know…” Nate quietly said while watching her fade into the shadows and distance. “If something does develop between the two of us, I’ll have gray hair within a year.”
“No prob there, Boyo.” Zach thumped him on the back “You just do what I did here. Hell of a lot easier than dye.”
Eyeing the merc’s shaven head, Nate closed his eyes for a moment before answering. “There is that option.”
Thanks to global warming and the subsequent rise in sea levels, the Mississippi River was now the Mississippi Sea, with its former tributaries as estuaries. The Kaw, or Kansas river wasn’t one of those, but its level had risen considerably because of the larger volumes of water elsewhere and the collapse of several dams to the west.
Chai considered the river for a while, watching the murky waters churn with small tides and treacherous looking turbulence in the shallows as she wondered how it would be out in the deeper, faster running original channel. She made herself stop worrying about that with a muttered. “Just hope that rattletrap barge holds together long enough to get this done.”
Focusing her own Ki, she cast about for the distinctive, pain and rage ridden signature of her quarry.
“Where is she?” Dupre demanded of his subordinates in the mostly dismantled ops center.
“I don’t know for certain.” The tech who was enduring his boss’ anger responded. “We never could get a really accurate fix on her location other than using the optic receivers. Those aren’t working right now.”
“Then use the recall.” Dupre commanded.
“We have sir.” The tech answered with a heavy sound to his voice. “She isn’t responding.”
Dupre cursed, then uncharacteristically softened his manner. “Well keep trying, I don’t want to leave her down here when we pull out.”
“The rest of you.” Turning to the remainder of his Research team he waved at their surroundings. “If you can’t pack it, destroy it. The Feds are moving to close off access to this area and will be in place within six hours. I don’t need to tell any of you that we don’t want to be here when they decide to move in, do I?”
Making sure they were doing as he’d ordered, he gestured for Marjo Lee to follow him and left the ops center. “Well, this hasn’t been a total failure. I was sure our girl was going to kill that damned Erinys out there, she sure gave a lot better than she got.”
“No, not a complete failure.” Lee agreed, then grimaced. “We can’t just leave her out there running loose, Aaron.”
“If she won’t answer to the recall what choice do we have here?” Dupre snorted. The Feds or that Erinys will get her before she does too much damage to the dregs who live down here.”
“You could send Hanson’s people out to find her.” Lee suggested.
“And thereby alienate one of the two people involved with this project who are both loyal and have the guts to stand up and voice their concerns to my face, Marj? I don’t think so. I need both of you. This project isn‘t over, even if it has come to a standstill at the moment.”
An armored figure went to attention as the pair approached the merc’s ops center and Dupre waved the sexless figure back to duty. “Get Hanson over here.”
A quick call, and the merc leader was there within a minute. “We bugging out now?”
“Soon.” Dupre nodded. “The Feds are finally moving and our transport won’t sneak past them if they’re really looking for us in strength. Your people ready?”
“Been ready, sir.” Hanson nodded. “Just say the word and we’ll cover your leaving, then get our tails out, too.”
“Consider it given.” Dupre told him. “Oh, if that subject comes back… Kill her. Period.”
“Got it, Doc.” Hanson gave the surrounding darkness a troubled look. “Finally slip your leash did she?”
“So it would appear.” Dupre agreed without bridling as he would have even hours earlier, then became brisk again. “Stay alert and when the word comes, we go. There won’t be time for stragglers.”
“Understood, sir.” Hanson nodded. “Now, if you’ll excuse me? I have some orders to pass along.”
“Get to it, Hanson.” Dupre waved him away.
“Yes, sir.” Hanson opened his comm link and began issuing the orders.
What little remained of Elise Martinez’s mind fought off the compulsion to return to the place of pain. THEY wanted her back, and she dimly knew that meant even more agony than she was going through already. So she resisted with all she could manage.
Hunger had been a problem, but that was secondary to other things. The one who had abandoned her to the pain was still out there, along with the other, the female who protected him. The female who dealt out pain and some surcease at the same time. That confused her, and confusion angered her even more than the constant pain.
Finishing the scant meal she had frightened one of the pitiful lurkers in this dark place from earlier, the creature arose and cast out her newer senses for the ones she sought.
With a scream of pure, undistilled rage, she found a trace of one, and began moving in that direction.
Somewhere deep within her damaged mind, the original Elise prayed for death, for an end to the suffering. But the newer parts of her were determined to take her perceived betrayer into oblivion with her.
Chai made no attempt to hide, or even conceal her presence in the dim reaches of Undertown Topeka. In fact, she walked with the outward aplomb of someone taking a pleasant stroll in a well tended park.
Inwardly, though, she was alert and tense as a tightly drawn piano wire ready to break with even a bit more pressure.
Stopping for a moment to make sure of her bearings, all this would be for nothing if she got lost among the warren of crumbling buildings and narrow debris clogged streets and couldn‘t lead her quarry to the river front and the carefully prepared barge, she took rapid stock. Her locater was functioning, as it should, but like all professionals, Chai much preferred being sure of things for herself.
She was checking her electronic map of the area when the raging, agonized sense of her quarry and an ear shattering scream of purest rage nearly made her drop the thing. Fighting back the naseau and internal pain to her own Ki sense, she nodded and keyed her throat mike on. "Show time, people."
My only wish to leave behind
All the days of the Earth
This everyday hell of my Kingdom come
Chai was breathing hard by the time she leaped the distance from the rickety dock to the equally ramshackle barge. The previous ten minutes had been filled with dodging, running, fighting progress through the dimness of barely lighted streets and she had never worked so hard to keep ahead of an opponent.
Tumbling on the planking then springing to her feet, she said nothing, simply tensly watched the darkness she had come from. Standing still, without trying to conceal where she was turned out to be the hardest part of the entire plan so far, but she had little time for either cursing herself for the damned fool she knew she was, or worry about the very real fear she was feeling.
Quarry turned huntress and hopefully soon to become quarry again, leaped out of the darkness with no more warning than an abrubtly intensifying surge to Chai's Ki sense and landed on the barge with a solid thump that shook the whole thing.
The creature who had once been Elise Martinez made no move for a few precious seconds, searching for the one she had been set to hunt an eternity of days ago. Not finding him on the barge, she returned her attention to the other one, the pain and surcease giving woman, with a snarl that held nothing human in it.
"Come and get me, bitch." Chai invited as she readied her jangled nerves and abused system for another confrontation. "You still have to go through me to reach him."
Without voicing her crushing need, or rage and pain, Elise launched herself at the tormentor she could see.
"Now!" Zach quietly ordered through his communicator.
Several things happened at once on that command. Nate, waiting with the Myrmidons on the dock fired the high powered tranq rifle, and the bank of intense strobes carefully arranged on the barge flashed at Chai's back while concealed speakers let out a roar of recorded gunfire.
"Let's move!" Zach shouted this time, leaving his own well concealed position and running towards the barge. Nate and the surviving Myrmidons moved with him.
Elise let out a snarl of pure hatred mixed with agony when the hurtful lights and noise barraged her raw senses. Jerking out the stinging thing that had hit her bare neck, she threw it to the deck with enough force to drive the needle all the way into the planks, shook herself, then recovered enough to continue her interrupted charge.
Chai didn't wait. In concert with another flash of the strobes, and more booming sounds of gunfire from the speakers, she hurled herself forward to meet the attack.
"Chai!" Nate screamed as the Erinys literally threw herself at the charging frenzy of his former partner. "NO!"
He could only watch helplessly as the entangled pair of female figures tumbled off the barge and into the black, turbulent water of the river.
"Damn you, Chai." The newsie almost sobbed. "I told you not to throw yourself away for this."
Watching the churning water, deep where the two had gone in, he felt a heaviness in his heart that he knew wasn't for his former partner. "Damn you, you crazy little bitch!"
He wasn't even aware of the tears coursing down his cheeks.
The woman's vise-like grip on her neck pulled Chai down faster than she would have normally sunk in the water, even in her armor. She felt the hard, slick material of the armor at her throat beginning to unbelievably give and struck hard at the other's face in the faint hope that might dislodge the killing grasp she was caught in.
Water cushioned that blow, but the grip slackened a bit. Kicking out in an attempt to free herself completely spun the Erinys over until her head was pointed downwards at the quickly approaching silt of the river bottom.
At least her throat was free.
Chai swam for all she was worth, arching her back and feeling the scrape of clawed fingers against that as she angled away from her adversary.
Elise kept clawing and found an ankle even as Chai kicked to move away. She grabbed that and wrenched, bringing her tormentor back into full reach, aiming a solid blow at the faceplate of the armor the other wore.
Her faceplate cracked under the impact, but held. Chai cherished no illusions about what would happen if another such landed in the same place. Her armor was the best anywhere, but the faceplate was the weak spot, and it wouldn't take another such blow. Worse, her breather had been damaged by that same blow and her air was in short supply. Ears ringing and filled with the frantic calls from both Zach and Nate, she brought both hands under the other's chin and pushed away with all her fading strength while thrusting against unyeilding flesh with both feet to help.
Nate and the others were still watching the water in stunned disbelief when an apparition burst out of it, clutching at the dock and fumbling with the cracked faceplate of its armor. Chai let out a gasp that was more of a moan, then forced herself halfway up. Nate was there ahead of anyone else, but not by much, grabbing her arms and pulling her onto the dock with more force than he'd intended. The Erinys flew over him as he fell backwards and landed in a limp heap. But at least she was out of the water.
"She's alive." He heard while rolling to his feet, and turning towards the boneless looking form he'd just pulled out of the water.
"Chai, dammit, what did you do?" He questioned without really expecting an answer.
"Drowned the bitch." A hoarse whisper responded.
"You are insane, you know that don't you?" He responded while gathering her into a hug for the first time since he'd met her. "We all thought you were dead."
"Just about was." Her voice was regaining strength, but she made no move to leave his embrace. "She cracked my faceplate and broke my respirator. Was getting a little tough to breathe down there. Just outlasted her. Barely."
"Why do I always fall for the ones that give a guy heart attacks?" He mused, tightening his hold on her to convince himself it was real.
"We can discuss that later." Chai replied tiredly. "But personally, I think you like the excitement. Oh, here, reel her in. I don't think she'll be any trouble now."
Nate passed the small reel of monofilament line to Zach. "You mind doing that, Major? I seem to be busy here."
"No prob, bro." Zach replied with a grin then turned to glare at the gathered Myrmidons. "Okay, she's alive and our other newsie is ready to reel in. Stanz, get that damned med pod up here. The rest of you have your weapons ready just in case. The bitch twitches, you blow her ass to the next world, clear?"
"You really mean that?" Chai looked at Nate with a curious glint in her green eyes.
"Yeah, you're certifiable." He replied with a grin.
"No, the other thing. The 'falling for' thing." She watched him with a steadier regard than he thought himself capable of just then.
"One thing I've learned since I met you, Chai." He shrugged. "Never let a chance to love go, and yes, this matters to me. A lot. I meant it."
"About time." She let out a little sigh and closed her eyes. "Think I need a little nap here, Sunshine. Don't let go of me here. I want to wake up with you exactly where you are, got it?"
"Sure thing, sweets." He grinned as she winced at the appellation then closed her eyes with a contented little sigh.
An angel by my side
But no Christ to end this war
To deliver my soul from the sword
Hope has shown me a scenery
'Higher than Hope'
Nate watched the sealed and locked med pod being loaded into a waiting van for transport to Erinys HQ. "Do you think they can help her?"
"I don't know, Nate." Chai softly answered, wrapping an arm around his waist and leaning her head against his chest. "But if anyone in the world can, they're where she's going now. That's all I can tell you."
"It'll do." He answered with a shuddering sigh. "At least she has a chance. I can't ask for any more on that."
"No one can." Chai shrugged.
"All right you two!" Zach bellowed cheerfully. "Play later, we still have work to do down here after all, and the Feds are closing in. Don't want them to beat us there, do you?"
"After what I went through?" Nate almost growled. "You don't even need an answer from me do you?"
"Let's move out then." The Myrmidon nodded. "We all have some payback to get here, don't we?"
"They're getting ready to bug out." Nate observed as he, Zach and Chai observed the ordered but hurried activities in the compound less than a hundred meters distant.
"It won't do them any good now." Zach answered.
"Think we can take the gate down?" The Newsie questioned idly.
"Leave that to me." Chai quietly ordered then flashed a quick grin at the pair. "Just move when you hear the loud boom."
She was gone before either could form a retort. Nate shook his head. "How does she do that?"
"Special Forcesand Black Ops training, not to mention the general Erinys thing, buddy." Zach shrugged then checked his weapons and armor one more time. "Trust me, better not to ask."
"What have I gotten myself into here?" Nate muttered.
"Second thoughts?" The big merc questioned.
"Nope, just kind of wondering how I'm going to keep up with her is all."
"Same way you have down here." The other chuckled. "Hot, sweaty, and out of breath."
"Think nothing of it, pal." The merc's answer was muffled by a loud, hollow boom from the direction of the compound. "Showtime."
The mercs guarding the compound didn't give up easily, or even quickly. The situation was what has been charitably called fluid since there was combat between more than two people.
Chai flitted through the gunfire and explosions like a shadow. A shadow possessing deadly claws. She'd just finished off one of the opposing mercs who had thought he'd drawn a bead on Zach when a burst of three rounds pulled her attention to the space behind her. A merc who had been hidden in a jumble of crates had come up behind her, but was now in a bloody sprawl of shattered armor as Nate darted up to her. "Saved your ass some pain that time."
"You can thank me later." He muttered as she flashed him a grin then vanished back into the shadows. "Or not."
The Myrmidons hit then shifted, continually, in the manner they were justly famous for and more comfortable with. In a moving fight, they were nearly unstoppable and the defending mercs slowly realized that fighting them and the Erinys who was like an avenging shade in their midst would only result in their deaths and began throwing their weapons down.
While the Myrmidons rounded up the dispirited mercs, making sure they were neutralized in one way or another, Chai moved towards part of the compound the defenders had been most tenacious about protecting with a light in her green eyes that was far from pleased with the victory.
"Oh, shit." Zach noted where she was headed and pointed Nate that direction. "Follow her, Sunshine. Try to keep her from killing anyone else today, okay?"
"You the commander of these guys?" Hanson questioned while gesturing at the Myrmidons as Zach Sinclair walked up to him.
"Yah. Major Zach Sinclair." The big merc nodded. "Your people gave us all we wanted, I can tell you that."
"Hell, we had you outnumbered at least five to one." Hanson shrugged. "We should have been able to take seven or eight of you."
"We had better equipment and supply. Along with a few physical enhancements your people didn't." Zach shrugged. "So now we have to figure out what to do with you and your people."
"I expect you'll just to hand us over to the Feds." Hanson answered quietly.
"Not if I have anything to say about it, Hanson." The Myrmidon shook his head. "Look at it this way, you and your people were just doing a job and didn't savage the locals while you were doing it. Article Six in the Universal Mercenary Codes covers that well enough, so does Federation law. You forfeit your equipment, and walk, that's all."
"Yeah." Hanson nodded, seeing a bleak future for himself and the people in his band, if they even stayed with him after this. "We'll just have to figure out where to walk to, I guess."
"Well, you could walk right into the nearest Themis office and sign a few papers." Zach thoughtfully rubbed his chin while staring into the distance before looking back at Hanson. "That is if you and your people don't mind going through another boot camp to be Myrmidons. Seems someone has called ahead about you guys and gotten an okay on that if you're interested."
"Why?" Hanson questioned without any real heat, but curious and starting to feel a glimmering of hope for himself and his people again.
"Like I said, you guys are good." Zach shrugged. "If your people can let go of their losses, mine can. Face it, both sides here were just doing a dangerous job is all, job's over and it's time to move on from there, don't you think?"
"Yeah, it sure is." Hanson nodded, taking out a cigar and offering one to Zach, who accepted it with an appreciative nod. "Still have to face the Feds, though before that can happen."
"Piece of cake." Zach winked. "We both know you people are in the clear for anything but some compensation money to the locals, and Themis'll cover that without really fussing much because the company will just pass it along to the client in fees."
"Providing we sign on with Themis." Hanson nodded.
"So, you have a better offer in the running?" Zach questioned.
Nate was hurrying after Chai even before Zach had told him to do that, worried at what the Erinyes might still run into and what she might do to whoever or whatever that was. Cursing, he broke into a run as she entered one of the prefab buildings.
She emerged from the building, pale and wearing a grim expression just as Nate reached her, then looked into the open doorway.
"You don't want to go in there, Nate." Her voice was hollow, strained as he moved past her. "No one alive in there now, and no I didn't kill them. Gods know I would have if they'd still been alive but the people in there were dead when I got here, and it was a mercy directly from God, believe me."
"Is that where they...?"
"Ran their experiments, yah." Chai nodded, then reached down to pick up a combat grade shotgun discarded by one of the compound's defenders and idly checked the loads in it as Nate failed to take her advice and stepped inside the door. He returned quickly, wearing a sick, murderously angry expression.
"Should have listened to me, Sunshine." Her voice was gentle and she reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. "There were three more going when things went south. Bastards trashed everything, dumped their cookers, and took them away. Just left the damned garbage for someone else to clean up."
"Yah, I saw that." Nate tightly nodded. "The people who did that haven't gotten away, tell me they haven't."
"Nope." Gesturing to another larger building where the sounds of a turbine cranking up came from she shrugged. "I'd say they're all in there."
"Hang on, Chai..." He stopped his cautionary warning when she moved away so rapidly he barely saw her move. Carrying the shotgun.
He started running after her again just as more lights filled the compound and an amplified voice commanded. "This is Colonel Alexander Xaing of the Federal Police. This compound is now under federal jurisdiction, stand down. I repeat, stand down."
"Screw you and the lame mule you rode in on." He muttered, still charging after Chai when several hollow booms that could only have come from the shotgun she'd been examining reverberated from the building she'd moved so suddenly towards. Nate noted the lack of turbine sounds once the echoes died with a feral grin on his face.
He entered carefully, only to see Chai covering a group of obviously frightened people with the shotgun and two ground effect vehicles trailing smoke from obviously smashed engines. The Erinys nodded at his entrance and grinned as she tossed the shotgun aside. "Super Magnum, AP. Nice loads."
"These guys the crew that was in that other place?" He questioned, careful to rein in his own anger and wish to lash out at the unarmed group in front of them.
"Yup." Her reply was punctuated by the hiss of her Katana being drawn from its sheath as she moved forward. "Which one of you is the head honcho here?"
"You?" She centered her attention on a tall, slender man in a white lab coat some betraying glances had strayed to at her question. "Answer me now, I'm in no mood to be nice here. Lie to me and I'll kill you where you stand with no more grief than I'd give a cockroach trying to crawl into my food."
"You won't do that with the Feds right outside." He confidently shot back. "There are laws against cold blooded murder in this country."
"Oh you actually know about those do you?" Chai questioned almost lightly, then whipped the crystal, mono edged blade through the air so quickly the song it made cutting air had just reached Nate once it stopped a hairsbreadth away from the man's throat as the Erinys snarled. "Now that it's your butt in harms way."
"My name is Anton Dupre." The man unflinchingly answered, staring arrogantly into the raging furnaces of her eyes. "Doctor Anton Dupre. And yes, I was in charge of this facility, and we both know you won't kill me. You Erinyes are weak that way, you don't kill unarmed foes."
"Don't count on that too much this time." Chai hissed, moving the blade just enough to draw blood. "That's the first one."
"First what?" Dupre, pale and sweating tried stepping back from the literal fury of the modern day Fury.
"First cut." She answered quietly. "Ever hear of an ancient Chinese method of execution called The Death of a Thousand Cuts?"
At his silence, she went on. "It was reserved for the really nasty criminals or traitors. It works this way."
The blade darted forward, bringing a cry of pain from the man who was staring in shock at a bleeding fingertip as Chai went on almost conversationally. "The punishment consists of a thousand cuts like the ones I just gave you. To sensitive spots like fingertips, nose, lips, soles of the feet, and genitals. "Once those are bloody rags, the cuts move elsewhere. Though the criminal is usually insane with the pain and terror by then so the remaining cuts are primarily simple cruelty. Which I can really understand right now, you pile of dung. The recipient would quite often bleed out or die from shock before the whole punishment could be administered. But in the event that he, or she, did survive the final cut..."
The blade licked out , once again halting a breath away from cutting his throat. Chai gave him an evil grin. "Takes off the criminal's head. That was just teasing. No blood drawn with that one, but it still hurt, didn't it?"
"You so richly deserve every damned cut you souless bastard." She grated out just as the rattle of armor and cocking of weapons came from the open door. Slamming her blade back into its sheath and giving the man a look of total contempt, she spit on the floor in front of him. "But you know something, you aren't worth my time or the energy to waste even one more cut on you."
Nate let out a long held breath as she spun on her heel and regally walked away from Dupre.
"Halt, this man is a federal prisoner." A stocky, hard eyed man with craggy Asian features entered the garage followed by a full dozen armed and armored Federal Police Officers. "Kill him and I'll have to charge you with murder and arrest you. I think things have been messy enough down here lately, don't you?"
"Yah, enough blood has been spilled for now." Chai agreed tiredly. "Get them out of my sight, though, or you may be charging me with homicide anyway, Colonel...?"
"Xiang, Spec Ops, Federal Police, Capitol division." The man answered crisply then turned to Dupre. "You're under arrest for violations that will be catalogued later, but primarily consist of illegal experimentation on human subjects and willful endangerment of Federation citizens for now."
Dupree had been sure he would walk away from all this, even when things went bad, though his carefully ordered sense of self and purpose had taken a severe beating when the Erinyes bled him as casually as if he were an animal in the slaughterhouse. He'd lost his composure in front of his subordinates and that, in his not so rational opinion, was even worse.
Watching the Erinyes, then turn and walk away from him with pure contempt in her demeanor was too much for him to bear. "You're fault you trumped up bitch, all this failure is because of you."
It was too much for his already fragile sanity, and he reached behind his back to pull out the automatic pistol he had secreted in the back of his pants. "You're fault, you bitch!" He almost screamed his rage as he brought the weapon to bear on her back.
"Chai!" Nate moved faster than he ever had in his life, knocking the Erinys aside just as Dupre fired the pistol. The round struck Nate with enough force to spin him around, but not enough to spoil the three round burst he put into the man's chest.
"In the shit now, aren't I?" Looking to make sure Chai was all right, he turned to the Federal Police and shrugged, then winced in pain. "Shoulder again, too. Crap."
Xiang dispassionately examined Dupre, dead from Nate's shots, and shrugged. "Lucky bastard. I'd say he got off easy with this. Resisting arrest and attempted murder to top of the other charges that would have been leveled at him. Too bad."
Turning to Nate and Chai, he waved towards the door. "I'd get that shoulder seen to as soon as you can. We have medics standing by if you need them."
"I saw what was left in that lab, the rest of you." Xiang tightly addressed the other techs and scientists huddled in a tight, worried looking group. "If I have my way and the evidence points to you like I think it does, you're going to envy him in time."
"You two get out of here." Xiang almost gently told Chai and Nate again, though both knew it was an order. "Or I'll charge you with obstruction of justice."
"Yes, sir." Both answered as Chai helped Nate head outside with the almost cheerful comment. "You seem to make of habit of getting that shoulder shot up. Maybe you should try leading with something harder, like your head. But thanks."
"My pleasure, Chai." Nate replied with a chuckle. "God, don't get me laughing just now."
"Uh huh." Came her answer as she raised her voice. "Stanz! Got you a patient here, and it isn't me for a change!"
Once there was a child's dream
one night the clock
The window opened wide
Once there was child's heart
The age I learned to fly
And took a step outside
'Dark Chest of Wonders'
Nate stared through the observation window in the Themis Med Facility. The form lying on the bed didn't aknowledge his regard, or even the med techs in the room with her. A by now familiar arm snaked around his waist and a soft voice questioned. "How is she?"
"Quiet now." Nate answered, giving Chai a gentle squeeze in response. "Once they got the last of that neural net out she calmed down right away."
"Any other hopeful signs?" The Erinys asked quietly.
"No. The docs don't think much of her mind is left by now." He answered heavily. "Now I know how Orpheus felt. I pulled her out of Hell, Chai, but I lost her anyway."
"No, Nate." Chai shook her head and waved at the woman they had both gone through seven kinds of Hell to save. "You brought her back. She's comfortable now, at peace in a way she would never had been if you hadn't insisted on going back for her."
"We brought her back." He corrected. "I wish you could have known her before all this. I think you'd have liked her."
"Or been jealous." Chai smiled. "So how'd it go with your bosses?"
"They agreed to pay for the whole shot, including her medical and psyche expenses." Nate shrugged. "Not without screaming about being drained dry. But they got one Hell of a story for their money."
"Yah, I saw you on the news." His companion nodded. "You did good."
"Not good enough." He retorted, glancing at the woman on the bed. "Not by half."
"We've been through that about a hundred times, Sunshine." Chai admonished quietly.
"True." With a nod he gave her an inquisitive look. "So how went the meeting with your bosses?"
"Oh, about what you'd expect." Grinning, she continued. "I got dressed down for some of what I did, especially for letting you stay down there when I could have trussed you up and sent you to safety. Then they gave me a big bonus chit."
"Results do count, I guess." He grinned back. "So now what?"
"You won't believe the old vid I found this afternoon." She enthused. "Ever hear of Ed Wood?"
"Nope, but I have a feeling I'm going to know a lot more about him pretty soon." Nate answered with a sigh. "You and your bad horror movies."
"Ah come on." She teased and coaxed all at the same time. "Plan Nine From Outer Space is hilarious. You'll love it!"