Thursday, March 01, 2007

Just 'cause - Chapter 10

For the record, it must be said that Dr. Krueger's advice to Rowena wasn't wrong: he did have clothes in his container office, even a relatively large variety given the volume limitations. However, none of them were in Rowena's size.

The shirt was the easiest to work with; Rowena simply unbuttoned the cuffs and rolled the sleeves up, trusting her ballistic vest to take care of the rest of the problem. Legwear was more problematic; after some digging, she went with tan-colored three quarter pants (Beachwear, Herr Doktor? How unprofessional of you...) with a tight belt, then slipped into some wandering boots and laced them tightly. It appeared that Krueger, for all his size, didn't have similarly massive feet, so it was not as bad as wearing clown shoes, but Rowena didn't wish to take an extended walk in these. Finally, she slipped back into her vest and sorted through the hardware in Mark's gift pack.

She'd gotten to the Benelli M4 when she felt a distant shudder vibrating the floor beneath her, followed by a series of hollow-sounding thunks. Must be the refueling, she thought, then grabbed the shotgun - gah, not loaded, thanks a lot. At least there was a box of shells in the bag, so she calmly fed a few into the gun, then loaded the saddle on the left side of the stock and stuffed a few more into the pockets of her vest. The bag also yielded a SCAR-L and some flashbangs; she slipped the rifle's sling over her shoulder, clipped the flashbangs to her vest, then chambered a round in the shotgun and went back for the container's exit. The door creaked again on the way out; there was another buzz from her cochlear implant when she locked up the container again.

"Incoming Call..."

Rowena tapped the sweet spot; it was Mark, and she knew what he was saying before she had a chance to decypher his screaming.

"COVER!" was his shout that bounced through her skull, at a volume that tempted her to fall on her knees and cover her ears - despite knowing that it wouldn't help. Instead, she dove towards the crates in the back of the cargo bay, narrowly avoiding a 9mm projectile that would've slammed into her side without much warning. She felt the echo of the gunshot ring through the bay, the original sound lost under the screams of two annoyingly overbearing mentors directly fed into her nerve system. Shut up, daddy, she wanted to shout back at them, I can swim.

She landed in a roll, already behind the cover of the crates, then brought up her shotgun while her assailant chambered another round; she was faster and fired, feeding the guard a solid slug to the midsection. The man crumbled to the ground, dead on impact.

"Stop that!" Krueger's voice shouted. "If you miss, you might damage something!"

Voices from the upper deck. Great, more of them. Rowena propped the shotgun on a crate and sighted down the ghost ring.

"Then you'd better stop distracting me," she vocalized.

Another guard tried to climb down the ladder; Rowena plucked him with a well-aimed shot, blowing him off the ladder and onto the cargo bay's hard floor. To his credit, he wasn't dead on the spot, but he was now the proud once-owner of a liver, and the bleeding from his cracked skull was nothing to sneeze at, either. In response, someone stuck a Glock through the opening and fired blindly; Rowena ducked back behind the metal crate and took the opportunity to feed two shells from her vest, topping up her weapon once more. She knew that there was no way to climb the ladder fast enough; she'd have to get them down into the cargo bay on an even footing.

"Stop shooting, now!" Krueger's voice came.
"You tell them!" Rowena mouthed back.

With a sudden clack, the opening above the ladder snapped shut; seconds later, the ladder unsnapped from its cargo bay floor supports and folded up against the ceiling.

"Did you see that?" Rowena coughed.
"Actually, that was me," Krueger replied. "Now they'll know I'm in the system, but I had to stop this."
"Now how am I going to get to them?"
"You could use the main stairs."
"...the main stairs?"

Rowena turned her head and inspected the ceiling; sure enough, there was a large, different-looking patch of ceiling above her.

"Neat," she concluded.
"In a cargo aircraft, you can't have things reaching into the bay. Everything has to be removeable - or retractable."
"So, lower the stairs."
"Two things. First, you need to clear the crates. I'll tell you which ones."

Rowena got up, shouldered the shotgun and walked over to the crates. Under Krueger's directions, she flipped several strips of floor around to reveal rollers, then shuffled some of the crates to the side. It took a few minutes, but finally she'd done it and wiped some sweat from her forehead.

"Okay, what now?"
"Well, now you have to actually secure them at their new location."

Five more minutes.

"There," Rowena said, then made an elaborate pointing move towards the crates. "I'm a natural when it comes to cargo handling."
"You're a bit slow," Krueger replied, safe in the knowledge that Rowena could not, at the moment, physically hurt him.
"Can we get on with the program, then?"
"Well, that brings us to the second thing I need from you."
"What is it?"
"Do you have a plan?"
"A plan."
"Kill them all, not get killed in return?"


"You'll have to do better than that," Krueger said, checking the cameras. "They're already forming a defense up there, one guy's working on kicking me out."
"Pete..." Mark sighed.
"I can't have her shoot up the crew deck, she could bring the whole plane down."
"She'll manage. Now lower the stairs."
"I won't..."


"Yes, you will," Mark said, USP lazily aimed in Krueger's direction. "Stairs. Now."
"...let the record show I was against this," Krueger replied, then tapped a few keys.


"Make 'em count, kid," Mark's voice came as the stairs lowered into the cargo bay. Rowena walked towards the metal stairs, shotgun pressed against her shoulder. The first guard rushed down the stairs, earning nothing but a massive slug to his left knee; the fall sealed the deal. Rowena circled around, shotgun still ready; two more upstairs, each soon decorated with a hole in their chests.

"Tango count," she whispered.
"3 left in the crew section," Mark replied. "One hacking, one guy with Glock coming your way, last one is unpacking..."

Then the link went dead.

"Connection lost," her cochlear implant said, in that tone of voice you'd program it to tell an agent that she was officially screwed. Rowena crept up the stairs; before she could clearly make out another opponent, she spotted his reflection in the shiny, mirrored ceiling. She had no time to think about the implications of the luxurious crew area, but she used it well; raising her gun above her head, she blindfired once, winging the guard and making him drop his Glock. Rowena climbed up as quickly as she could, then pressed her body against the doorframe to the next area. The guard tried to reach for his lost pistol; in response, Rowena aimed her shotgun at the weapon and shot it, leaving the Glock to bounce down the stairs.

"Don't," she said, giving her downed opponent a mean glare, then reloaded her shotgun. With a kick, she opened the dividing door, busting into the main work room - lots of consoles, one of them manned. "Freeze!" she shouted towards the hacker; the man raised his hands. After a few tense seconds, Krueger seemed to be back in the system; she gladly took his call.

"Everything under control here," she said.

This time, she didn't parse Mark's shout quickly enough; within a second she felt like she had a snakebite in her neck, and then came the fire, the pain, the darkness.


Mark watched in faint horror as Rowena crumbled to the floor, incapacitated by the Taser attack. The final guard went to secure Rowena while the hacker got back to work; after a few commands, Krueger was locked out again and all video feeds went dead.

"That went well," Krueger said; in response, Mark decocked and holstered the USP, then rubbed his temples.
"Okay, you win, you were right. And now?"
"She's not dead," Krueger said. "Also, since I figured something like this would happen -" if looks could kill, Mark thought as he glared, if looks could kill - "I activated the tracer subroutine in the Nav. They'll be so busy plugging the obvious holes that they won't have time to scrutinize the details. So we know where they're going."
"Keep me posted. I've got a phonecall to make."

Mark wandered off towards the hotel, finding Trinity and Done in a small professional chat with other mercenaries.

"You need to suit up, guys. We've got a situation."

To their credit, neither ex-Archer operative asked what that situation was; instead, the two got up, politely excused themselves and rushed off for their hotel room to get their proper gear ready. For his part, Mark wandered away from the building and snapped his satellite phone open again; with a few keystrokes, he was hooked into the secure communications network again, but this time he wasn't out to call Molly.

After a generous minute of ringing, the call was finally picked up.

"It's 4 bloody AM," came Lothario Algernon's voice from the other side. "And why are you calling the secure line?"
"Authenticate Paladin, bird of the day is Green Condor."
"...Green Condor confirmed. Passphrase Alpha-Echo..."
"Authenticated. Now, what's this about?"
"Mobilize Division Nihil."

There was a deep breath on the other side of the line.

"Understood," Algernon finally said. "Do you have a beacon ready?"
"I've got Trinity."
"Good enough. Be there in ten."

Mark clicked the satellite phone shut, then closed his eyes and smiled a weak, painful smile.

There was the clicking of safeties being disengaged behind him; Mark carefully turned around and saw that he wasn't the target of several assault rifles, but that didn't serve to improve his mood; instead, Dennis Gray stood behind him, with a weary smirk and holding a blob of PsiTech - probably a personal cloaking device.

"I always forget to change the batteries," Gray quipped.

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