Oblique (part 2)
by Penumbra. Please see part 1 for disclaimers.


Gracious gods, Ivanova thought and felt her face twist into a grimace. Performing a Herculean feat as she swallowed her kaf without choking on it, she brrrred and set the cup gingerly down. If there's one constant in the universe, it's the unrivalled horror of this stuff, she mused and discreetly pushed the rest of the substitute coffee farther down the table. The black sludge tasted exactly as it looked: acid tar that could melt starship hulls.

The Martian landscape behind her was barren and hostile, the red sand clinging to every outer surface of the Mars Prime domes. And inside, the air was even more hostile; the stand-off between the colony and EarthDome was more than tense, and while the resistance existed mostly on the other settlements as Prime was Earth's territory, there was no shortage of wary looks. The amount of fear and tentative belligerence that permeated the atmosphere was making Ivanova's head throb.

Onegin was docked at the Mars Prime orbital station, a massive cartwheel of a construct that hung on a geostationary orbit above the Prime's domes. Though the docking permit had been arranged with surprisingly few glitches (it seems small aerial battles were everyday occurrence in the keg of powder that was Mars), they had not spotted Augustinus again. That meant she had either diverged from her course right before the station or she had landed directly to the planet's surface. The latter option spoke of powerful connections, for surface approaches were heavily limited because of fear of sabotage and terrorist attacks.

Her chair made an imprudently loud scraping noise as she turned it sideways, towards the windows. Opposite her, leaning heavily on the table, sat Sergeant Alighieri, his eyes staring into nothingness, while Corporal Viracocha was reading through the latest news on Mars. The embarkation area was bustling but eerily quiet; just the shuffle of a thousand feet and discreet murmurs echoed in the cavernous hall that was lined with groups of such tables next to high windows. At the other end of the elongated hall was the customs and security control and sounding from behind the thick, grey doors, the never-ending roar of the atmospheric shuttles to the orbital station provided the background muzak for the whole area.

As she gazed to the dark sky, into the setting sun, a small cluster of sparkles lit up in the upper atmosphere, only to die down to a dull glow a moment later.

"Somebody just had a very bad day indeed."

Ivanova's eyes flickered to Viracocha, who had put her data pad on the table and was gazing at the same spot in the sky. "Excuse me?"

"The fireworks. That was someone's ship blown into kingdom come. From what this tells me," she continued, waving the pad, "small conflicts are everyday fodder around here. Nobody likes anybody and the only ones prospering are the gangsters that don't have their assets tied to gambling and tourism." Her black eyes, if possible, came even darker, her voice turning bitter. Mars was the corporal's home colony. "In times like these, putting out a tourist guide is a bad joke."

"Yeah," Ivanova muttered and re-focused on the sky. A few degrees to the left of the battle, a darker speck morphed into an incoming shuttle. It plummeted into the atmosphere rapidly, the heat resistance shields glowing bright red. They cooled down to matte black when the descent lessened. The commander's throat went dry and sour the moment the sleek shuttle angled closer and preened left, for the move revealed a white emblem at the side of the craft. Painfully familiar, the Greek letter psi was a metre high and gleaming on the black hull.

The Psi-Corp shuttle banked down and disappeared behind the last of the domes, leaving behind only a trail of swirling dust that soon settled down in the hostile, thin atmosphere.

"Where to now, ma'am?"

Ivanova sighed and lifted a wry eyebrow towards Alighieri. "I have no idea, Virgil. Your man got no information about the doctor from the local authorities' database?"

"Zip, zilch," the big man said and shook his head. It had taken his hacker about twenty seconds to break through the old-fashioned restraints the Martian police kept on their records, but the results had been disappointingly slim. "You have no idea where he could be here? Any acquaintances, anything?"

"Off the top of my head, no," Ivanova said and took Viracocha's data pad into her hands. Flipping through the news rapidly, she paused at the downloaded version of the local tourist guide. "He's smart enough to leave me a trail. I just have to figure it out."

The station's structure was simple enough: it was a haphazardly organised gaggle of domes of different sizes, all clustered around the biggest, central one. Their location, the embarkation station, was one of the southernmost bubbles, while the city's bureaucracy was concentrated at the west side. There was a separate throng of small domes slightly outside the city, and that was New Vegas, the gambling area renowned for its wild night-time life and wilder businesses.

Ivanova browsed the city's history with half an eye, as well as the street layout that offered nothing of interest. The section on the city's services was long and jumping over absinthe cafes and academic life, she reached accommodations. One name caught her eye.

"Hotel Pompadour...well I'll be damned," she murmured and requested a picture. The front of the hotel was decorated by a replica of a statue called 'The Bather', another of Étienne-Maurice Falconet's masterpieces. "Dize, you sneak!" Ivanova exclaimed and slapped the pad on the table so hard their cups jumped.

"Commander?" Alighieri queried, looking around to see if the sudden noise had drawn any attention to them.

"Pull up the men, Virgil. I know where he is," Ivanova said and rose. The sergeant dispatched Viracocha to round up the squad and they were on their way to WestDome 9.

 


"Um, ma'am... how do you know this is the place?"

To Corporal Viracocha, the hotel looked like any other of the grey, foreboding housing blocks that were scattered over the middle-class residential area of Dome 9. The area's only asset was that it was located close to the maglev train station that took gamblers to the bowels of New Vegas' glitz and glamour, and thus was heavily dependent on tourist money. Some of the housing projects had been converted to second-class hotels such as Pompadour.

"Pompadour," Ivanova murmured, her brow constricted to a deep frown. She was having a bad feeling about this. The same nagging voice at the back of her head that she had heard back on Io. "Falconet's patron," she added as they passed under the hotel's entrance arc, waving her hand towards to the general direction of the brass plaque that announced the establishment's name. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the Bhangar fever breathing mask onto her face.

"Ri-ight," the corporal drawled and exchanged an uncomprehending look with PFC Zenawi who just shrugged and checked that his PPG was in a place where he could retrieve it easily. The security checks were very lenient on Mars Prime during these carefree, hectic times, especially for people travelling under the guise of EarthForce personnel; smuggling in assorted guns plus a few surprise packages had been no problem.

The portier's desk was occupied by a slight boy, no more than fifteen years old, who had a look in his eyes that spoke of experience children of his age shouldn't have. Ivanova nodded to Sergeant Alighieri to take the lead; her voice and face was too well known in the Sol system and besides, her disguise prevented efficient communication.

"G'day," the boy said, his jaw slightly slack as he traced Alighieri's scar with his eyes. Ivanova noticed angry, badly healed needle marks on the young Martian's forearms.

"EarthForce Internal," Alighieri rumbled and flashed Onegin's real pilot's ID card to the boy. Before he could open his mouth, the card was back in the sergeant's pocket. "I need to see your reservation data for the past three weeks."

"Um..." He hesitated, his eyes darting towards the back room. "I'm not sure I can do th--"

"Now, sir," Alighieri rumbled, his voice taking on a dark tone as he leaned across the rickety desk. The boy looked like a wind-beaten twig next to him. "I don't have all day and if I don't get the logs within," he checked his chrono, "five seconds, I just might arrest you for hindering the work of federal officers."

"Um..." The boy began again, taking in the silent, brooding men and women clustered around Alighieri. A sliver of wisdom permeated his drug-dulled brain and he handed over the clumsy, old-fashioned data pad he had been holding.

The list had about four dozen names, most scheduled to spend at most two nights at the hotel. Gangster joint, Ivanova thought idly as she scanned the names. One caught her attention. "That's him," she whispered, jabbing at the pad.

"Mr... Lemoyne?" PFC Zenawi spelled out.

"Falconet's mentor. Dize's sometimes tediously linear," she smiled under the semi-transparent mask. The outfit was horrifyingly hot but at least she didn't have to suffer of the certainly unpleasant odour places such as Pompadour tended to have. Still, she blinked in irritation as a drop of sweat rolled down her forehead and into the mask, tickling her nose. "Fifth floor."

As they started for the stairs, calmly and in a seemingly unorganised line, Alighieri pulled Ivanova to the back of the squad. "Just in case," he rasped and handed her a PPG. She lifted an eyebrow but said nothing, slipping the small but mean gun under the waistband of her loose trousers, at the small of her back.

The fifth floor was dark; energy conservation measures were just yet another sign of the preparations the Mars provisional government was taking, or it could be sabotage. You never knew. The squad spread loosely on both sides of the corridor, scanning every direction.

"Too quiet," Viracocha muttered to her sergeant who nodded, his eyes narrowing. "Room 502, at the end of the hallway, left."

The room's door was slightly ajar and as Ivanova took down her mask, her sense of smell was assaulted by a peculiar brew of scents. Mixed into the pungent stench of alkalious cleansing liquid and rotting fabric was an odour she was painfully familiar with. Old blood, burned flesh and the sweat of fear. Pulling out the PPG, she gestured for Alighieri to follow her, while the rest of the squad would stay put.

Slowly, the door groaned open under her gentle push. Another wave of the smell wafted up her nose and she felt her nostrils flare. As she came around the door, she saw the source of the effluvium.

"Dize?"

Alighieri rushed past Ivanova and made sure the rest of the room, as well as the small ensuite, were clear. While he was doing that, Ivanova had reached the body's -- for the person most certainly was dead -- side. Kneeling, she let her eyes roam over the horror of it.

One couldn't tell even the race, let alone gender or age, of the person lying on the floor, jammed to an awkward position between a chair and a rickety plywood coffee table. One arm under its head, the other bent to an unnatural position under the chair, the person was so beaten that his -- her? -- face was noting but hamburger meat. Same thing had been done to the upper chest, stomach and shoulders, as if someone had taken a meat tenderiser to the hapless individual. As Ivanova moved the chair to get the other hand from under the chair, she saw that all fingers had been cut off at the second joint above knuckle.

"Whoa," Viracocha muttered as she entered and bent down to investigate the corpse. She pulled apart the two streaks of loose flesh that had been lips. "No teeth either. Identification is going to be hell."

"Shit, Dize," Ivanova cursed and sat heavily on the floor, trying to avoid looking at the mutilated corpse. Can't end like this, you old govn'uk. No way.

"Ma'am," the corporal said, trying to get Ivanova's attention. "Ma'am, this is a woman."

"What?"

"A woman," Viracocha enunciated carefully. "She doesn't have outdoor plumbing."

"But... who is sh--" The commander's impending stream of questions was drowned by a sudden explosion in the hall. Ears ringing, Ivanova did what her instincts told her to do: dove behind the chair and aimed her PPG towards the door and the faint cloud of smoke that wafted in through the opening. Scattered shots could be heard, until the heavier crackle of PPG rifles joined the cacophony of conversation and the world was in chaos.

"Stay low, ma'am," Alighieri breathed next to her before diving to relative safety behind the door. He peeked around the corner, the coloured streaks of PPG shots missing him just barely. From the hallway, Ivanova could hear the anguished groan and sharp splintering of other doors as the squad's members pounded through them to get some semblance of cover. The attackers that had materialised as if from thin air were approaching rapidly, if the increasing pace and intensity of the rifle fire was of any indication.

"Corporal!" Alighieri yelled over the staccato thunder. Viracocha rolled next to him, her gun held by a rock-steady hand. They conversed quietly for a moment and the sergeant passed her a small package. Viracocha nodded and dashed up and out of the door.

"Fire in the hole!"

It took but a fraction of a second after her warning had died down when the world was all noise again. Ivanova could feel her ears pop at the air wave that almost pushed the chair over her and she wondered how the squad members had fared with the pressure blast. She caught a glimpse of Viracocha as she reached the door opposite room 502 and crashed through it, the attackers' PPG blasts missing her by mere inches.

The PPG rifle fire was much more subdued, as if the attackers were treading more carefully now. Adjusting her position behind the chair, Ivanova supported her elbow on one armrest and blew a loose strand of hair from her forehead. The breathing mask was hanging around her neck and the cloak, even with its hood down, was getting stuffy and altogether too hot. With her free hand, she yanked at the bindings and the fabric let loose, flopping onto the floor. Now clad only in a thick, black turtleneck shirt and slacks, she felt her movements were not so restricted as before. Alighieri joined her behind the chair.

"Commander, we gotta go," he said, nodding towards the door.

"But we can't just leave your men here," she protested, giving Alighieri a sharp look.

"We are hopelessly overnumbered," he replied stoically. "We're here to protect you and if it's up to me, you're not going to commit suicide by staying. My people are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. But we gotta go."

"All right," she sighed, though it wasn't. "The window?"

"Of course," he smiled and ducked as a stray shot ricocheted inside the room, finally burying into the chair. Ivanova smelled burning plastic and fake leather, the acrid scent making her eyes water.

"Should have guessed," she muttered and, grabbing her cloak, followed the sergeant's dash to the small window at the far end of the room. Alighieri put an elbow through the pane and pushed the whole frame off the window opening. Cool night air sucked out some of the smoke in the room.

Despite his massive frame the sergeant was surprisingly agile. He wriggled through the small rectangle and onto the small ledge below the window, before shuffling to the side to give room to Ivanova. I don't hate heights, she reminded herself before inhaling deeply through her nose and taking her place outside. I don't hate heights.

The air was surprisingly calm. Of course, because the city was a domed one, you didn't get breeze per se, but the air cooled rapidly at nightfall and that sometimes produced surprising gusts of wind. Ivanova could see the last rays of the sun over the dome's edge, a few slivers of reddish glow that provided only the feeblest of lights. But the ground under her feet, five stories down, was still visible.

"Oh fuck, Alighieri."

"We should stop meeting like this, Susan," the man smiled at her exasperated groan and pulled a coil of nylon string from his side pocket.

"Well, I very much prefer dinner and roses," Ivanova grumbled and brushed her wildly flying hair behind an ear before taking one of Alighieri's rappelling gloves.

"Are you asking me out, ma'am?" he said, mock horror in his voice. "That would be quite inappropriate," he added and wrapped the nylon string around his glove, testing the knots around the window hooks with a yank.

"Yeah, I bet Michele wouldn't be too happy."

"You can say that again," he smiled before hopping off the ledge. Ivanova listened to the high-pitched whizzzz of the nylon's song against the durasteel-plated glove, inasmuch as it could be heard over the continuing mini-war inside. The string jumped twice, signalling that he was safe and sound, and then it was Ivanova's turn.

The trip down was short and sweet. Cold air blew through her clothes as she plummeted towards the rapidly approaching ground, her descent braked only by the friction of the nylon against her glove. She could smell the heating metal on the glove as the string bit into it, and her tall frame shook with chills as the sweat her skin had exhaled earlier dried up in the sudden coldness. Bracing for landing, she met the ground with loose knees, rolling to bleed off momentum.

"Let's go," she said and Alighieri nodded. As they took to run, Ivanova noticed he was favouring his right leg. "You OK?" she breathed.

"Landed bad," he said succinctly. "I'll survive."

The dark shadows swallowed them quickly as they jogged into the grey maze of Dome 9, not pausing to look behind them. Had they done so, they might have noticed two figures, darker than the shadows where they stood in, watching their departure.

 


Psi-Cop Prozorov lowered his binoculars as the two fleeing renegades rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. He was sweating inside his stiff uniform and gloves and he fingered the binoc's adjustment knob nervously. "Shouldn't we follow them?"

"No, Mikhail," 985N said calmly. It irritated the hell out of him that she knew his name, not to mention the minutiae of his career history, but he still knew only her designation. "Their destination is obvious. That place worries me more," she continued, nodding towards the hotel. The faint rumble of the gun fight was audible even at their rather remote location.

"The assassins."

His words were not a question but a statement, so she just nodded, her eyes narrowing as she regarded the building. "They were not part of the plan," she said and tugged the front of her black uniform into military order. "Let's go."

"But... they're armed," he hissed as he scampered to follow 985N, who had abruptly departed from their safe hiding place and was walking towards the darkened hotel. Discreetly, he checked that his PPG was safely tucked into its holster under his arm.

She turned her head, not pausing in her stride. "You're forgetting who you're talking to," she smiled, her teeth flashing bright white in the dusk.

"Right," he muttered and felt like kicking himself. The PPG was light in his grasp and he pushed the safety off as they entered the hotel. The ready light switched from red to amber as the battery charged itself, the high-pitched whine loud as a thunderstorm in his ears.

The beat of rifle blasts against distant walls was a low rumble as they ascended the stairs. Upon reaching the fifth floor, Prozorov cracked the door and peeked through the small opening. All he could see was smoke, occasionally bisected by the sharp, bright arrow of a PPG shot. Amidst the acrid smog, a few vague figures could be seen. Their fatigues seemed vaguely familiar to him.

"Those look like Consortium men," he whispered to 985N. "What's their interest in this case?"

"Mmm," she hummed noncommittally and brushed past Prozorov. "It's of no consequence."

And here we go again, he sighed and did a quick cross sign over himself before following the woman. They dived into the thick smoke, creeping along the walls. Prozorov' grip on his gun tightened and relaxed reflexively and he wished he could dab off the sweat that beaded on his forehead.

The first soldier died with not a sound. Unfortunately, his gun was not as silent and it clattered loudly as his lifeless body crumpled to the floor.

"Whatthehell...?!"

The second soldier turned and waved the smoke away with one hand, vainly searching for his suddenly missing companion. He had no insignia except for a small golden half-circle on his collar. Consortium, then, Prozorov thought and aimed his PPG at him. "Don't move a muscle," he hissed to the man who stopped on his tracks, arm still raised above his head. He took in the Psi-Cop's form and his eyes glinted dangerously as he started to bring his rifle around.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," a calm voice announced next to him, a mere breath after the last sound of battle died in the hallway. The soldier froze. "All the others have been eliminated," operative 985N said to Prozorov as she stepped out of the smog and into the feeble light of one of the still working ceiling lamps. Upon his horrified look, she smiled warmly. "Don't worry, I left a few to be questioned. They're just unconscious."

"All right," the Psi-Cop said and lowered his PPG. "What about him?"

"We don't need him," 985N answered and extended her hand towards the Consortium soldier. When her fingers touched his forehead, his head jerked back and blood spurted from his nose. He was dead before he hit the floor, his last breath a quiet exhale, small red streams meandering from his ears. "Go back and call a pickup."

"Yes, ma'am," Prozorov said weakly. The smoke and scent of charred flesh, heavy in the corridor, made his intestines twist into a knot. Swallowing to the contents of his stomach where they belonged, he started down the stairs.

 


EarthDome was the city of all cities, covering what used to be the western corner of Switzerland and the city of Geneva, spreading from the shores of Lake Geneva as far as the eye could see. The heart, brain and, unfortunately, the lower intestine of the Sol system, the city was a sprawling labyrinth that never slept. Onegin arrived in the wee hours, when the Sun was hidden behind the Earth's mass; the last of the corona had disappeared when they had passed the Moon's trajectory.

"Where are you taking us?" Ivanova queried and unconsciously rubbed the sore spot on her thigh, where the assassin's PPG shot had grazed her on Io. The burn had started to itch and she idly mused that this would be her first permanent body modification, since she had chickened out on the tattoo. "It's not like we can set down at the EarthForce base."

"I've got some acquaintances from times past, they'll help us," Alighieri assured and pointed towards the eastern side of the city. "Sector Gamma-06. Near the port," he guided DeWeese, who looked slightly concerned -- covert night landings were not his idea of a good time.

That area of the Gamma quarter, the port and its surrounding commercial area was the city's roughest and most colourful sectors. One could see the neon light advertisements across the lake as they blinked the night away. There was no daylight per se in the Deep Six, as it was known. The sector lived at night, the streets filling after dusk as the less garish, neon-tinted daylight faded to the full glory of the red, blue, green and white streaks that decorated almost every house. Holoscreens blared from every rooftop and tourists manned the streets, gawping at the residents of this colourful if slightly shady side of the capital that usually posed with such refined elegance, such clinical cleanness that it was almost boring.

"Disable the beacon and take the northbound avenue." The ship was conspicuous as it was, for a spaceship among the commercial traffic was odd enough, and the sergeant felt they need not advertise their presence any more than necessary. An EarthForce military beacon was a close equivalent to shouting 'Shoot Me!' to the mafia consortiums that resided in the 'Six. "Look for an ad for SunBlock 9000," Alighieri continued and that statement earned him a baffled look from the bridge crew, but he paid it no heed.

"There, sir," DeWeese pointed, somehow managing to keep up with the chaotic traffic that flew on the northbound air lane. He was pointing at a skyscraper that covered a whole block, few windows lighted, a massive vid screen covering half of its western face.

"All right," the sergeant grinned and tugged his harness tighter. "Fly through it and when in, prepare to make a sharp turn down."

The lieutenant couldn't believe his ears, and neither could Ivanova. "Say what?!" "Excuse me?" Their protests were waved down and so, DeWeese made do with an enraged look at Alighieri's direction and did as ordered.

Aw shit, was all Ivanova had time to think and then the massive, glaring ad filled the front window, the breasts of the commercial's star taller than a three-story building. There was a burst of static electricity, the noise overpowering even the roar of the engines, and then the ad banner was behind them. Well I'll be damned. Clever disguise, Ivanova thought and exhaled the breath she had been holding. Onegin dove down sharply and then to the right; DeWeese's pilot skills were being put to test. The ship large compared to atmospheric craft and the passage was narrow enough for Ivanova's taste.

The pad was flooded with the ship's exhaust fumes and cooling toxins that vaporised on impact with the heated clouds of exhaust. Atmospheric flight was never easy on ship hulls and Onegin groaned deeply as she set down, quite gracefully considering the circumstances.

"That was tight," DeWeese exhaled and wiped his damp palms on his uniform. The exhaust fog dissipated quickly, revealing a group of half a dozen men and women. "Welcoming committee," he pointed out to Ivanova.

The committee was dressed in all the shades of olive and forest green, carrying a haphazard collection of weapons. One woman even had an ancient-looking scimitar and she swung the gleaming blade in a lazy arc as the group spread out around the ship. Ivanova brushed most of the travel wrinkles and accumulated dirt from her uniform and, Sergeant Alighieri as her shadow, activated the airlock.

"If I were you, I'd stay right there," a loud, rough voice stated as soon as Ivanova stepped onto the ladder. The source seemed to be the leader of the group, a man in his fifties with a short-cropped white beard, dressed in old army fatigues. Ivanova froze.

"Kow-Tow, it's very impolite to point a gun at a lady," Alighieri said and stepped into view in the airlock, his massive frame barely fitting in the opening.

"Hell...Virgil?" The low, threatening voice held a mix of disbelief and curiosity.

"That's right. In the flesh," the sergeant smiled and spread his arms to his sides. He indicated Ivanova to continue with her descent and joined her on the pad moments later.

"Well, well," the leader, addressed as Kow-Tow, said, stepping closer. The muzzle of his gun pointed down but the rest of his rag-tag group were not so trusting; they gathered a few metres back, exchanging weary and wary glances. "Hey, old war horse," the leader smiled and, shouldering his modified PPG rifle, grasped Alighieri into a bear hug. After a moment of back-clapping, the men parted and the leader motioned for his comrades to stand down.

"So, what brings you here?"

"She does," Alighieri smiled, indicating Ivanova that stood slightly behind him, following the men's repartee with mild impatience. "Commander Ivanova, meet Kow-Tow, the ugliest used parts salesman this side of Alpha Centauri. Kow, this is Commander Ivanova of Babylon 5."

The man took a long look at her, his eyebrows scrunching momentarily before it dawned on him. "You're Voice of Resistance! Right-o!" he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. On his words, the rest of his group came closer, peering at Ivanova. She found the attention quite disturbing but managed a slight smile as she shook the man's hand.

"Pleasure."

"What can I and my associates," Kow-Tow said, shaking Ivanova's hand heartily as he jagged a thumb towards the men and women waiting behind him, "do for you?"

"I need information and supplies," Ivanova replied curtly and tilted her head expectantly to the side.

"Well then, I'm your man. If you'll follow me..." Kow-Tow said, still smiling and gestured grandiosely towards the other end of the landing pad. Suppressing an impatient sigh, Ivanova followed him towards the dimly lit recesses of the cavernous hall.

 


Leonard Karimanzira just shook his head, the sideways movement almost imperceptible. His boss certainly didn't notice it -- he was too busy pacing and roaring expletives at the uncaring Martian landscape. The mediator really has to go, Karimanzira thought idly, watching the man rage. He's too vulnerable a man for this job.

"You're a wise man, Leonard, you tell me. How did a puny rebel force manage to overpower a squad of the Consortium's best men, killing them by causing..." He searched for the words, his arm flailing wildly. Giving up, he grunted and finally stopped to face his aide. "Whatever it was," he concluded vaguely.

"Inter-cranial implosion," Karimanzira supplied.

"Right. Somehow, all my men died of their brains suddenly shrinking to the size of golf balls, and this rebel squad makes a clean getaway."

"That is correct."

That earned him the fish eye from the mediator; the man hated flippant underlings. Karimanzira assumed his most serious expression.

"Any ideas?"

"None, sir," the aide replied truthfully. The why and who of the situation he understood better than his naïve superior, but the doctor performing the autopsy had been just as flummoxed with the cause of death as he was at the moment. Have to ask Alfred about that..., he thought and made a mental note. The method was intriguing, to say the least. "Do you wish to have a second attempt at subduing Commander Ivanova?"

"Yess..." the mediator thought and settled into his chair, the leather creaking quietly under his bulky frame. "Where does the latest intelligence info put her?"

"She was spotted in EarthDome's Gamma quarter."

"Hmmm...she will probably try to contact subject K7's colleagues at the Lederberg Institute. We still have them under surveillance, from the time of K7's capture, and when Ivanova makes contact, we snatch her," the mediator mused, illustrating the capturing process with a few violent finger pokes towards the reddish vista behind the window.

"Yes, sir," Karimanzira smiled. "I'll get right on it."

 


Had Corporal Viracocha been privy to the mediator's words, she would have uttered an ironic laugh; her 'escape' had been conducted while she had been unconscious, with the help of Psi-Corps. But as it was, she was busy screaming her lungs out.

"That should do it," Prozorov laughed uneasily. His head was hurting because of the stuffy, oxygen-deprived air of the small interrogation room and the woman's intermittent screaming. "What are you doing to her, anyway?"

"Squeezing her right brachiocephalic vein. Nothing beats having a malfunctioning heart," operative 985N said to him, smiling. Viracocha's scream died down and she slumped forward in the chair. Her wrists were chafed and bloody from her fight against the restraints. "To little effect, though," the operative added, a slight frown marring her smooth forehead.

"Yeah, well, I'm willing to bet she doesn't know anything of value anyway," Prozorov said and leaned back in his chair. The Corporal had given them nothing that they didn't know already -- namely, her rank, name and serial number in EarthForce. The only item of information they were lacking was Commander Ivanova's location and that information should soon be available via other channels as well. "Why are we doing this, by the way? It would be so much more simpler to just scan her." Viracocha's head rose at the words, her dark eyes widening in fear.

Operative 985N just chuckled at her colleague's question. "Because this is so much more fun," she replied, shooting an enigmatic glance towards Prozorov.

"Of course," he replied. Her sadism was quite nauseating.

 


"Well, damn."

Her curse was fairly mild but after the events of the last few days, Ivanova felt that she had effectively exhausted her considerable archive of applicable curses, in all the languages she spoke.

"Shit," Alighieri echoed and lowered his rifle.

The flat was empty and looked as if no-one had visited it for some time. The layer of dust covering every horizontal surface was as thick as it had been in Korobov's office in the Lederberg Institute, the furnishing otherwise clean and sparse. Cool, muted earth tones and black lacquered wood dominated the flat, making it gleam ominously in the slivers of street light the shades allowed through.

"OK, he has lead us this far," Ivanova said and sat in a chair. A thin cloud of dust rose but she was too tired to care about someone noticing -- after all, at least two hostile agencies were on her heel already. Her nose wrinkled as the tried very hard not to sneeze. "The trail can't end here."

"It's very clean, though."

Earlier on, at the Lederberg Institute of Exobiology and Exogenetics, after some roundabout enquiries and with a clever plot involving an unconscious postal office worker and the sergeant in his uniform, they had found out that no-one knew where Korobov was. A data download had told that over half of the institute's employees were very new, suggesting that someone had a great need for exobiologists. Neither Ivanova nor Alighieri wanted to dwell on why.

"Yeah," Ivanova murmured and pinched her nose to stifle the sneeze. While Alighieri took the window watch, she let her eyes roam around the room. The doctor seemed to be a fan of antiquity; vast bookshelves circled the room. Rows and rows of antique volumes were stacked neatly behind plexiglass doors, their backs worn from centuries of existence. Her gaze paused at a small statue. "And the theme continues," she murmured, smiling, and rose to pace next to the bookshelf.

"What is it?"

"Peter the Great," Ivanova replied, displaying the scaled likeness of the statue that decorated Senate Square in St. Petersburg. The souvenir statue was cheap, made of rough plastic and was so out of sync with the general style of the flat that Ivanova was sure it was intentional. Turning the small object upside down, she rapped the bottom with her knuckles. The hand-carved inscription said simply 'Made in St. Petersburg'. "We're taking a trip, Virgil."

"Again?" the sergeant smiled. "Hope it's not Siberia."

"No, but you're close. At this time of year, St. Petersburg is colder than a polar bear's ass."

"Lovely," he replied and turned his eyes back towards the street, two floors below them. His rifle rose and he undid the safety. "We're getting some heat first. A two person party heading this way." His eyes narrowed. "I could be wrong...no, they entered the building."

"There's just the one exit?"

"Yeah."

"All right," Ivanova said. "The closet in the hallway. Hope they're not psychic."

Ivanova's joke was just bad at the time, but as soon as the quiet footsteps paused at the door and the first touches of a surface scan brushed the fringes of her mind, the irony was impeccable. Panic struck for a moment, her skin exhaling a sheen of nervous sweat, before she got hold of herself and extended a block that encompassed both her and the blissfully unaware Alighieri.

"There's just one," Ivanova whispered.

"Right," Alighieri said, her voice slightly dubious of the Commander's sure statement. "On my mark."

They heard the flat's door open with a faint whoosh and the footsteps entered, pacing towards them, slowly. Towards, and past the closet. Alighieri touched Ivanova's shoulder in the darkness to make sure she was ready.

"Now," he whispered and hit the closet's inner release button. The door snapped open and the sergeant swung outside, his rifle charging with a high-pitched whine, the jarring sound ending half a second before the gun spat its fire. The figure at the end of the hall was in mid-turn and almost managed to dodge the shot. His body slammed into the far wall as the sergeant pushed Ivanova in front of her, running out the door and down the stairs into the cool night.

"Where's the other?" Ivanova's voice was a low hiss as she fingered her PPG with moist hands. The effort of keeping up a double block had been a major strain to her powers but apparently, it had been a successful. The telepath that had entered the flat had been strong and trained, his mental sweep effective and deadly accurate. A Psi-Cop, according to both his powers and, most notably, his black uniform.

"I don't know but I'm not going to stay and wait. Psi-Cops give me major creeps, have done so since the Academy days," Alighieri said, shivering reflexively.

"Same here," Ivanova said, swallowing. In the fringes of her mind, a memory of something fleeting nagged. Something, just before the sergeant had blasted the Cop and his telepathic scream had drowned all else. Something very familiar, yet distantly chilly. Cold. I feel cold. She shrug off the thought and the discomforting feeling, and clapped Alighieri on the shoulder. "C'mon, Virgil. Time to take a trip to Mother Russia."

 


"Are you OK?"

"Yeah, yeah," Prozorov groaned, shaking his groggy head. "The blast wave just slammed me around a bit," he explained and dusted off his uniform. He met operative 985N's eyes with a surprised look. "I didn't think you'd care."

"I don't," she stated calmly as she bent down to investigate the dustless chair in the living room, taking off one glove to feel the residual warmth the fabric held. "Replacing you in the middle of a case would be a delay."

"Well, I guess that could be counted as caring," he replied, the uneasiness in his voice overriding the intended tone of irony. Tugging the front of his uniform straight, he twisted his neck to relieve the last of the numbness. His neck popped loudly and he opened his mouth to groan. 985N lifted a hand to silence him.

"Quiet. Someone's coming."

Prozorov's brow knit as he did a quick telepathic sweep. "Yeah. About ten individuals, entering the building now," he replied and unsheathed his PPG. A surface scan told the identity of the new arrivals quickly. "Consortium. Are their appointment calendars synchronised with ours?"

"Well, personally, I'm quite tired of them," the clearly annoyed 985N said, flexing her fingers slightly. She moved to the door, the other operative in tow, just in time to see a squad of Consortium mercenaries flow into the hallway. "Follow me," she said to Prozorov and started towards the squad. The first two just had time to lift their rifles before she raised a hand and made a small, sweeping motion. Prozorov blinked as the squad fell backwards violently, the clatter of weapons and protective gear against the walls and floor loud in the quiet building.

When they got outside and back to their transport, Prozorov re-sheathed his gun. "I still don't understand how those two managed to slip by me. It's not like I'm a P2 with two-inch gloves."

Operative 985N chuckled on the wounded pride in the man's voice. He really has no clue. Poor man. "And it's not like she's a normal, Prozorov."

"Ivanova?" Prozorov's brows knit. "I know her mother was a rogue but..."

"Oh, she's special," 985N smiled a genuine smile, a rare thing from her, and once again Prozorov was sorry such beauty was wasted on such evil. The smile always made him a bit weak in the knees. "Very special," she repeated and straightened, her blue-grey eyes leaving the other Psi-Cop and narrowing in memory.

"You talk like you know her."

"Yes," she replied and turned to face Prozorov fully, her full mouth taking on a sensuous smile. "She's my Susan," she said, her voice suddenly dreamy and uncharacteristically soft. She touched her lips, gently, like a feather's stroke, remembering another life, times past.

 


"Would you believe this will be my first time in the Russian Federation?"

"Really?" That caught Ivanova's interest. "With all the unrest in the past two decades, it surprises me you were never dispatched there."

"Well, back in the old days, when I was still stationed on Earth, I wasn't exactly in the regular rotation cycle," Alighieri smiled and adjusted the tight collar of his parka. It was unbelievably hot in the coat that, while ideal for the conditions that would wait them in their destination, was entirely too well padded for a café inside the EarthDome, in the main train station. "When they sent me, it wasn't to put down civil unrest, Susan, it was to kill someone."

"I see," Ivanova said and offered a grim grin. The holographic clock hovering between them blinked red, stating that their train was about to depart. "C'mon."

They got barely two metres away from their table when Ivanova's senses perked up. Something was up, and it wasn't good. She grabbed Alighieri, her eyes darting around the café before she spotted the person projecting the bad vibrations she had caught.

"Pretend you're searching your pockets," she said in a low voice. He lifted an eyebrow but complied. "This is an ambush."

"How so?" he asked in an equally low voice, pretending to look for his credit chit.

"I just know," she said and dared a covert look around. "Burly guy, in black, two tables from the door. And his pal, with the newspaper and sleazy moustache, next to the doorway."

The sergeant coughed discreetly and stole a quick look. His eyes narrowed.

"You're right. They're wearing flak vests and at least Burly is carrying. What do you suggest?"

Before Ivanova could open her mouth again to cough up a plan, Burly got impatient and dropped his newspaper, pulling out an odd-looking PPG-sized weapon. Moustache was only a fraction late, dropping his coffee cup. The cup clattered to the floor as he rose, a gun in his hand.

"Fuck," Alighieri cursed and with all his strength, grabbed Ivanova and dived behind the nearest table. He landed on top of her and all air rushed out of her in a loud whoosh. "Sorry."

"I'm okay," Ivanova wheezed as he rolled off her. Trying to catch her breath, she scrambled halfway up, one knee on the floor, and fired simultaneously with Burly. Her shot went wide but so did Burly's, hitting a table behind her and showering small pieces of plastic everywhere. Alighieri exchanged shots with Moustache, who was behaving quite irresponsibly towards the café's customers -- his shots were scattered wide, grazing many a patron. The noise was deafening; the low thrum of gunshots punctuated effortlessly the concert of terrified screams and whooping alarms that made the place a symphony of cacophony.

"Go, Susan!"

"No way I'm leaving you!" Ivanova shouted back and flicked her gaze towards Alighieri, just as Moustache got lucky. A shot grazed the sergeant's leg, a large charred patch marring the olive green of his trousers. Cursing, he stumbled slightly before regaining his balance, determination shining in his eyes.

"Go! Go now, I'll manage!" he yelled, shooting a quick burst towards Burly before ducking behind the fallen table again. "Go! Or my squad was sacrificed for nothing!"

"All right," Ivanova said and sighed, aiming an angry volley at Moustache. "I'll come back for you."

"Don't worry," Alighieri said and smiled, winking. "No way two half-assed fuck-ups like those two are going to get me. Cover me for a roll and head for the back door."

She got out easily enough, the high-pitched whine of charging PPGs and the broken cackle of the guns' deadly energy bursts fading to the background as she negotiated through the kitchen, jumping over crouching, terrified kitchen staff, through the store room and out the back door to the service corridor. She felt bad, really bad, leaving an old friend like this, but he had a point. If the mission didn't succeed, all the sacrifices had been for nothing. Gotta find Dize. Gotta.

She was half expecting that she would be met with more gunfire when she got to the train, but nothing happened. Adrenaline drained away, leaving Ivanova with the cold sweat and shaking hands of aftershock as she slipped her ticket through the machine and stepped into the train. She stole an 'Out of Order' sign from a toilet on her way and when she judged she was far enough from the main entrance points, she found an empty, dark passenger compartment and hung the sign from the door before locking it.

The constant fighting left her nerves on the edge, but even that couldn't stop sleep. Ivanova's eyelids were heavy as she took off her parka, wrapping it around herself before wriggling to a more comfortable position, and settled for some much-needed rest. Sleep took her quickly and so, she didn't hear the last call whistle nor the quiet clank of closing doors. The almost sub-sonic hiss of the magnetic coils rose quickly to a faint hum as the maglev train lifted off and shot into the darkness of the night, towards the Russian Federation.


She remembered, a distant memory from her childhood, seeing a film called Doctor Zhivago in a museum. She had forgotten what the plot had been but the images had stuck, and it still amazed her how little Russia had changed since the making of the film. Pasternak's novel had captured the Russian soul in a simple, unostentatious manner, and the film complemented the book with its breathtaking views of the snow-clad plains and endless forests that were still as much a part of the Russian landscape as they had been three centuries before.

The train sped through the flatlands, the vacuum tunnel surrounding it occasionally penetrating a hill or travelling over a lake. Ivanova leaned close to the window, staring at the white horizon and the rising sun, and a smile came onto her lips. She was home.

Arriving at Varshavsky Vozkal station in the early morning, Ivanova departed quickly. The blast of cold sleet on her face was a shock after the regulated, immobile air in the train and she shivered, brushing the snow off her parka before bowing her head and hurrying towards Moskovskiy Prospekt. Above her, beyond the thick, grey clouds, two Psi-Corps shuttles were descending towards the local Corps office complex on Ulitsa Konstantina Zaslonova.


On to part 3 (conclusion)

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