Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mission Report: Smash and Grab

Althea sat in the back of the van, staring at the others through hooded eyelids.  She was pretending to be disinterested, but the pair in front of her were commanding her full attention. She had seen them around the safe house in the two days since she had shown up, but she still didn't really know either of them.
Gustavus had the air of a preacher, quite the opposite of Doc Geryk’s skittish, muffled presence. Gustavus had an ample belly on a thick frame. His voice always seemed to be addressing a throng, even in ‘quiet conversation’. His constant companion, a laudhailer servo-skull, was clearly a redundancy for a man used to pontification in general, and frothing piety at its likely peak. Even his (rarely) quiet attention was potent enough that Althea felt its weight even when she was looking elsewhere. He was larger than life, truly, and seemed almost to speak a different language of humanity than Althea knew; an alloy of simple belief, directness and bombast.
Althea found herself anxious should there be any need to be discreet – she couldn’t imagine this man ever being able to ‘sneak’, and his flamer indicated perhaps a propensity for destruction.
In her experience, men like this led either from the front, or from the back.  There was rarely a middle ground. She could tolerate the rushing immediacy of a combat leader. Vacillating ‘strategists’ never seemed to last long in the boarding parties in the Navy.  You couldn’t trust a soldier, or a leader, that wouldn’t be where you needed him to be. All Navy crews were trained to repel boarders at the drop of a hat (or hatch), and there was rarely time to ‘wait for reinforcements’ or ‘outflank’ in the confines of a voidship under fire. Less still in a landing sortie or dusting off med-evac from a hot DZ. Althea may have spent more time with toggles under her feet than a lasgun in her hand, but she appreciated decisive, trusting leaders.
Lazarus, the last of them, was harder to read than Doc or Gus. His sniper rifle alone suggested a trained eye. His weapon’s condition, impeccable, stood in contrast to a tendency to general scruffiness. He was otherwise happily non-descript; average height, average build, with the new chameleoline cloak Doc had found draped over his shoulders.  He was a bit gruff and didn’t say much. He’d simply accepted the chamo with a grunt, the other three more or less deciding that he could need it to be the ‘eye in the sky’. Indeed, despite his reticence she found she trusted him immediately – a good thing for the gun at your back.
Althea was starting to get over her fear of having betrayed the Syndicate. Sure, her face had surely gone out on the two-face board, and they might even have put a bounty on her, but she seemed to have more resources here. Even though she still knew very little, the demeanour of her compatriots tended far less to the… piratical… than her more recent acquaintances. They clearly had resources, even if they were black bag. Althea knew she was in harm’s way now more than ever, but she was also closer to… something, anything more than the sleepwalking she had called “life” since her accident. Maybe these Or at least get someone to fix her damn eye!
Lazarus and Gustavius were arguing about the approach. Althea was keenly aware that she was the newcomer to the group, and so she was treading lightly until she could read the situation better. The Doc was up front, driving the groundvan. She knew she was a better driver, but she wanted to keep her face out of view in case there were syndicate plotters around. And besides, he hasn't broken an axle - yet.
Althea sighed.  She didn't know why she was in this groundvan, heading off to Emperor knows where to put herself in danger. I left that behind when I left the Navy... Saints and martyrs, why didn’t I just drop that vox out of an airlock...  Except that she did know why she was in the van. She was going to recover Touchstones from a Syndicate stash.
Olivia.  Bitch. Something about her grated on Althea. She sent them out but stayed behind at the safehouse.  She didn't think that Olivia was the voice behind the vox, but she was closer than anyone else there. Though from what she said, maybe not even… something about finding a dying man near the Face. Olivia played things close to the chest. Althea would cooperate until she could get the voice to destroy the tape. And if it wouldn’t, she would destroy the voice.  Or die trying.
The Touchstones were apparently addictive as all cut. She had never Touched. Apparently it made lho sticks seem like smelling amasec instead of actually drinking it. ‘One touch, out of touch’, so the Red Eye’d have it. The skinners lined up for tickets with coordinates and times for the ‘Showings’ like a Ministorum vidlog sermon or something, just for… quietly touching some stone? This was clearly heresy at best, and damned heresy at worst. This was bad news.
Althea felt her patience run out.  She leaned forward and slapped the seat with the map on it. She addressed Lazarus and Gustavius with the certainty that only the young and the mad could muster. “You really want to plan all the details based on the map written by a captive that you’ve been torturing?  We’ll get there and Lazarus can climb one of these buildings to get a good vantage.  Then we’ll improvise.”  That shut them up.  Finally.  
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They arrived and it looked as if the map had been accurate. There was a roofless bunker surrounded by fences and a field before ruined buildings started to rise in the distance.  Lazarus scaled one of the ruined buildings while they waited for his report. Their target lay under the bunker.
Her microbead buzzed to life. “I got two. Engage? Over.”  
Althea mulls over the question before responding. While she’s thinking, she hears the preacher’s gruff voice “I’ll introduce them to the light of the emperor – I think I can talk our way in, I’m very persuasive.”
This guy was even worse than the Doc. She had been planning on letting the others lead the way. After all, they surely had more experience in these types of situations, but she couldn't. Her voice just came out.
“Absolutely not. This is Syndicate. Nobody knows about it except for Syndicate. Or the Suns they paid off. And we’re almost at the Face – Elevators are the Face, or close enough.  Nobody wanders out here. Lazo, you watch and update. If one of them sees us, take them out.”
“My name is Lazarus.
“I’ll take that as affirmative.”
She led Doc and the preacher through the shattered habs. They got through four rooms and across an alley before one of Gus’ hammers hit a piece of masonry and made a large clang.  They froze immediately.
Gus hiding behind the ruins waiting for the Red Eye to approach.
“One approaching. Suspicious.”
Cut that.
Gustavius turned to them. “I’ll wait here for the heretic,” he grumbled, knotting his brow. Gus pulled his shotgun and huddled in wait.
She led the doc through the hab now to close on the bunker from the far side from Lazarus. As she braced on a window frame to climb through, the cladding she grabbed sprang out as she put her weight on it. It shifted a mass of detritus off the shattered floor above them, and  rubble went clattering forward.
“They heard you. I’m engaging.”
She heard a bang.  In the distance she thought she saw a spray of red mist through the bunker’s open top. “Fulfilled.  Acquiring target.”
As Althea burst from the building and started to race towards the bunker, she saw Gustavius step out from behind his cover and shoot the first syndicate ganger with his combat shotgun, pulping her body where she lay in cover from the Sniper.
She heard the Doc running behind her.  She was hoping that the gangers would move out on Lazo’s position and she could circle up behind them and shoot them in the back.  With her long legs, she was much quicker than Doc Geryk and soon began to outpace him, so that as she closed in on the bunker she was very much alone.  A Red Eye jumped through the window and shot her at close range as she closed in on the bunker. She dodged the worst of it, but was seared through the leg, which went numb. She heard the Doc’s laspistol returning fire. He even managed to hit the ganger, but didn’t look like he caused much damage.  If only the doc was still using his bolt rounds.
Her regret didn’t last long as she pulled out her shotgun and downed the grunt. That close, nothing would survive three hits from her father’s shotgun.
The grounds were silent. “Lazo, see anything?”
“Negative.”
The bunker with the casualties littered around it.
“Wait,” she heard Gustavius say, “one second, I’m going to try something.” She heard a grunt and a rock went flying into the bunker. They heard a clank and then nothing.  She peered around the doorway and the bunker was empty, just a rock sitting on the floor. She gave Gustavius a quizzical look as he walked up.
“What?” he shrugged. “I thought throwing a grenade might flush them out.”
“That wasn’t a grenade.  It was a rock.”
“Heretics aren’t that smart.”
They found a hatch and gathered around it.  Gus prepped his flamer and Althea leaned over and pulled the hatch back. She heard the explosion of a boltround and the hatch blew apart in her hand. She felt pain lance through her left arm as she was thrown backwards onto her ass. A piece of shrapnel had ripped through her armour and torn up her arm.
“Cut this!”
Nothing else came out of the hatch.  Doc came around to her and put a med-adhesive on her hands.  It burned, but they started to feel better pretty quickly and the blood stopped.
Gus reached down to his belt and unhooked a grenade and dropped it through the hole. There was a bang and a flash of light as the acrid smoke of a stun grenade floated up through the hole.  Althea looked into the hole and saw a ladder going down a wall. She really hated running point, but she knew it had to be her. Anyone else would have to climb down the ladder, exposing their back to the rest of the room.  She had always been light on her feet.  She gripped her shotgun tightly and leapt into the room below, landing lightly on the floor, her shotgun sweeping ahead of her.
She saw two bodies crumpled on the ground, their chests rising and falling.  No one else. “Clear.”
The others climb down the ladder after her.  She motioned for Lazarus to cover one door, the doc to cover the other and the preacher to attend to one of the bodies. She went to the second body, pulling out her climbing line.
No boltgun. Still rats crawling around here…
The man’s stink assaulted her nose. These Syndicate are repulsive - worse than any she had met in the last few months.  As she reached out to the man, she heard a grunt and the man grabbed her wrist and pulled. Cut it! He was playing dead! “Althea!” She hears Doc Geryk yell.
She may not have been ready for the initial pull, but Althea was nothing if not fast and she did manage to bring her knee up.  She fell down, cracking the man in the nose. She squirmed and grabbed the man’s wrist, twisting it up behind him.  He yelled in pain.
“Doc! Get over here!”
Geryk walked over, pulling out his laspistol.  His eyes were wide open.  Wild.
He pointed the pistol at the man, who stopped struggling.  Althea let go and stood up behind him.
“Get up. Slowly.” she said.
He started to rise, slowly, and then shifted his weight and launched himself towards the medic.  There was a quick flash and the smell of cooked meat flooded the room. The man fell, holed through.
Doc’s twitchy as all cut! No prisoners for the medic I guess!
Althea looked over at Gustavius, who had been watching this entire exchange.  He looked down at the guy crumpled on the ground below him and then back at the man Doc had just shot.  He unhitched his hammer from his belt and raised it in the air.
“Death to the heretic,” he screamed before bringing his hammer down. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s skull went concave.
The casualness of it shocked Althea, but she didn’t entirely disagree with the sentiment. They couldn’t afford another of these thugs waking up as they pressed forward. Tie him up? Cut it – make them pay. She had made a mistake that the preacher would clearly not repeat. The Doc looked like he was going to be sick, and even Lazarus looked uncomfortable.
No time to dwell on it. “Doc, Gus, with me.  We’re going through that door. Lazo, cover the other.”
The men followed her lead. Gus unhitched his flamer and as Althea pulled back the door, Gus fired a huge gout of promethium into the adjoining room. Once the flame had dissipated, they threw back the door and stepped inside.
Miraculously, and unfortunately, neither of the room’s two occupants seemed hurt. There was a man with a lasgun, and then her eyes fell on a cutting plasma rifle, the coil glowing even in the brightly lit room. Light of the Emperor! Where the cut did they get one of those!?
She raised her shotgun but one of the Syndicate beat her to it.  She stumbled as a lasround punched through her armour and scorched her thigh. A streak of plasma went wide, melting their entry hatch.
The plasma gun overheating and exploding. Althea was nearly critically injured.
Gus pulled his shotgun and snapped off three quick shots. The first shot spun him left, sending flak armour flying. The second missed, but the third round struck the right leg, blowing off foot below the flak. The plasma gunner pitched forward from his ruined limb.  He spasmed as he fell, the plasma gun going off as the ground rose up, the barrel melting itself and a moment later the plasma coil overheated and exploded, grounding everyone in the room.
Afterwards, and after discussing with Doc, they figured that a tiny piece of shrapnel had pierced her chest under the flak and come out the other side.  In the moment, all she knew was that she felt a piercing pain before it became very hard for her to breathe.  Doc informed her later that she’d had a pocket of air rapidly growing inside her body cavity.
Althea was still a survivor. Through the pain she did what she always did – focus on the most immediate threat to her survival. Her vision was turning black and she was swaying on her feet, but Althea lifted her shotgun and shot the second Red Eye. The recoil threw her backwards right into the Doc, who grabbed her before she could fall. Just before her vision went completely dark, she felt another sharp pain in her chest and looked down. Doc’s hand was there holding a huge needle which was sticking out of her chest.
Her lungs flooded with blessed air.  Air that she used in the most natural way.
“WHAT THE CUT DOC!?”
“NEEDLE DECOMPRESSION! SECOND INTERCOSTAL SPACE!”
“You’re trying to cutting kill me!!!”
“You couldn’t breathe! I released the air so that your lungs could inflate again.”
“Get the cut away from me!”
“It’s not uncommon.  You’ll be better now.  But I need to patch up the wounds.”
“Cut you,” Althea protested, limply.  She damn sure let him approach and apply bandages, sang-seal and detox.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Through the haze of pain, Althea watched Gustavius with the wounded gunner. He slapped him to wake up him up and then started asking him questions. The gangster answered, though Althea could hear neither the questions nor the answers, so didn’t know if Gus was satisfied.  In answer to one of the questions, the man pointed towards the room they had left Lazarus covering, but the effort to move his arm caused him to faint.  Gus pulled his Imperial Creed out and started to read the man his last rites, his voice booming in the confined space.
He finished and put the book away before grabbing and raising his hammer.
“No!” Doc Geryk yelled. “Gus, what are you doing?”
Gustavius brought the hammer down in a wide arc.
“Those were his last rites.” He replied.
"What the hell are you saying?"
"I couldn’t risk him waking up - then they wouldn’t have been last rites.” Gus shrugged as if that explained everything.
The Doc was stunned into silence.
Althea levered herself up, wincing. She spoke before the Doc could respond. “It’s done now. Let’s move on. We need to get those Touchstones and get out of here. Neither of these guys had a boltgun, so we need to be alert.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They agreed to split up.  Althea and Lazarus took the doorway in the first room while Gus and Doc took the doorway in the second room.  As they stood outside their door, planning their approach, they heard the boom of a boltgun. Preacher and Doc found the rats!  "We gotta go now!" Althea said, "we can catch them in a crossfire."
Lazarus hurled open the door and was immediately rewarded with a boltgun round exploding beside him, sending him sprawling.
Althea's nerves were too raw to feel fear.  She looked through the door and saw a long hallway intersected by another.  At the end of her hallway, a short man with a grey hat and cloak stood with a smoking bolt pistol. A red dab around one eye, and a flash of red sash at his throat, he snarled.  Althea was on auto-pilot - she fired three quick blasts at the man.  He slumped and his weapons skittered across the floor.
Althea downs the Red Eye as Gus prepares to crack open the other's skull.
She looked back at Lazo and saw him stir. By the grace of the Emperor he lived, although there were just smoking scraps where his chestplate used to be.
I better go take care of this slug. We'll be worse off if he grabs his gun while I'm looking after Lazo. She moved for the grey clad man.
In the quiet after the gunshots, the sounds of yelling and the crash of bodies floated down from the perpendicular hallway.  She heard Gustavius and Doc Geryk yelling and the voice of a third man. There was a loud crash and a holler from that third voice.  
She heard the sound of footsteps and, just before she reached the perpendicular hallway…  a bloody mass flying across her field of vision accompanied by a spray of blood. What could only be a large piece of skull, hair dripping with brain, whacked off the rear wall and landed in an acrid puddle. What the cut have I gotten into?
Focus. She crossed the hallway and kicked the man she had shot.  He winced. His arms and legs were pretty mangled, but he otherwise didn't seem that injured.
"You - where are the touchstones?"
"I dunno cha. We go over there by the hatch," he gestured in the direction of the flying head, "and then they leave them for us." He’s calm.  He must not have seen the head. Or maybe he's high on a touch stone.
"Who's they?"
"I dunno cha."
She pulled out her laspistol. "You don't know?"
"No cha. No idea."
"What do they look like?"
"Never seen em.  Can't go into the room between thirteen chimes and fourteen chimes.  When we go at fourteen, the stones are there."
"Then what?"
"Then we run them to the Showing. Then the cells run ‘em back when they're done."
Fourteen chimes? That's six hours from now, we can't wait. "How do you call for more?"
"You dun' cha. They leave em, we get em. Just like that."
"You must have a way to call for them."
"Nahuh.  You can wait, but they're going to get you first." He sneered through the blood.
"Who's they?"
"They're gonna get you!" He laughed, a clear edge of insanity to his voice.
She pointed her laspistol at his face. He was still on the ground, blood pooling on the floor underneath him. "Who are they? If you don't tell me, I'm going to shoot."
She heard a grunt behind her.  She turned and saw it was just Gustavius and Doc Geryk.
"They're gonna get you! Gonna get you! Gonna get you! He sees you NOW! The Watcher!"
She pulled the trigger. His face melted away.
"Althea! What is wrong with you!?" Doc Geryk yelled from behind her. "I had many more questions prepared! We could have used him as bait! He was more useful to us alive!"
"I don't believe in bluffing," she said. Truth be told, she had never executed a man like that before.  It didn't feel great. "How could we believe anything he said after he called our bluff?" And besides, it seems more humane than Gus' hammer.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Her feet crunched down on the plating of the level below. "All clear!" She yelled.  The others slowly followed her down the ladder.
They were in a room with a narrow passageway into another room.  Even with the glowball Gus had tied around his neck and her special left eye, she still couldn't make out any details in the other room.
A sense of dread was creeping over her. She recognized the feeling - it reminded her of her encounter in the lander a few days ago.
A scratching sound was her only warning as a little lizard-like beast scurried out of the darkness and leapt at her. It was only about waist height and it moved like quicksilver and stabbed her before she could react.  She felt pain on her arm through her armour.
She blocked its next swing with her shotgun, and then swung it around and shot the creature through the face.  Its face pulped and its body slumped to the floor.
A scream tore through the darkness and she saw a large creature flow out of the corner of the room behind the door. It whirled, giggled, and screamed, clearly bigger than the one she had seen on the lander. Three more of the little things chittered out of the darkness at her, more resolved in form. Hideous finned lizard faces and tiny legs with whickering bladed arms. One had tentacles, another spines. The third had an arm much more humanoid in character, but bulky like an Ork’s. All of them bled. They reeked of blood. Althea smelled them, and she knew that they smelled her own wounds, and her pain, and her fear.

The next few moments blurred together in terrible fury. She felt Gustavius' presence next to her, their shotguns barking into the creatures. She went deaf to her own screams as the Doc fired boltround after boltround (filched from those dead gangers), his arm extended up to fire over their heads into the mass of sucking horror. A few of the creatures reached her and Gus and managed to strike out at them. Her armour largely held up and their shotguns made short work of the creatures. One of Gus’ arms went limp and bloody, his hammer faltered, and she was thankful once again that her father had insisted that his shotgun have a large clip - reloading would have been fatal.
The group faces down the xenos.
Looking back, it seemed maybe that one of the little creatures had been created by the large one, but it must have been hiding behind it and biding its time before striking.
In the immediate aftermath of the bulletstorm, she saw a hatch pop open at the back of the room and some shape rush out of it.  None of the others had seen it, only her low light sensitivity had allowed her to pick up the movement. She rushed to the portal to see if she could spot whatever had just fled their presence, but on the other side of the portal there was only an abyss, stretching for kilometres down to the mines in the face.
"Search the room!  We need to get these touchstones and get out of here before reinforcements arrive!"

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