December 24th 2012
Raj’s thugs picked up Quell’s body like an unwieldy cut of meat. I suppose that’s all it was now, a thing. Another bloodstain on this cheap carpet, something the next occupant of this room would look at and joke about.
I couldn’t feel anything, move anything. I wanted to scream and tear and burn but the limbs weren’t listening, just a consciousness of blank pure hatred floating in a useless body.
Suddenly the world upended. Someone pulled me up and set me against the wall. A slight feeling of pressure crept through the paralytic haze. I found myself looking at Raj Benny. The soon-to-be-screaming-in-agony Raj Benny.
“Hey buddy.” He said with a ghastly Tevarin smile. There’s a reason they don’t do that often. Feeling was slowly coming back. Something tightened around my wrists behind me. They emptied my pockets and checked me for weapons. Laser-burn stepped out from behind me and walked out the door.
“Come on, Ethan, it should be wearing off by now. You know how much I hate one-sided conversations.” Raj said, peering into my slack face. “You back?”
“Come a little closer and find out.” I slurred. My mouth moved as if forming words for the first time.
“There we go.” Raj sat back and stretched. The numbness dissipated over the next few seconds, leaving me with an ache in my spine. I tried moving. Felt like they used a QuikTie restraint and cuffed me to a pipe on the wall.
“The infamous Kid Crimson running with the Advocacy. Who would’ve thought…” Raj shook his head, amazed and disappointed. “You know, after all we’ve been through I was really counting on you to make it through this alright. I had the utmost faith that you’d be able to pop Hannigan and get away with it.”
“Let me see if I got this straight.” I said, words flowing easier now. Raj leaned back, a smug grin on his face that I wanted to beat into paste. Focus. “You set up all this: that cargo of slaves, that idiot using my name, the trail of evidence painting Hannigan as Caro, just to get me to assassinate someone?”
“You know, you don’t need to waste all that money and resources to kill a Senator. You can pay guys to do that. Or didn’t they get to that in Criminal Masterminding 101?”
Raj grinned wider and nodded dismissively.
“Oh, you think this is just about Hannigan.” He said finally.
“Who then?” I know this arrogant stain wanted more than anything to tell me so I could see just how impressive he is but he was hesitating, so I sweetened it. “I assume you’re going to kill Hannigan anyway and hang the deed on me. So you’ll either kill me when it’s done or vanish me. So what’s the harm?”
Raj thought better of it and didn’t bite.
The door opened. Laser-burn came in with some bags and a cup of HydroFroz. He passed the drink to Raj and dumped the bags on the bed. It was the LR-620, my blade, and everything else from Quell’s hover.
Raj took a sip of the HydroFroz and picked up the rifle.
“Dovkin give you a good deal on this?”
I ignored the question and glared at Laser-burn, trying to figure out the best way to hurt him. The feeling was mutual. He was eye-murdering me too.
“We should kill him now.” He said. Raj looked up from the scope.
“Can’t. We’ve got a few hours before Hannigan dies, we need the forensics to match the timeline.”
“Shoot him now and dump him in a star.” Laser-burn said, his eyes never leaving me. Raj thought about it and turned to me.
“How would you feel about that?”
“Probably the smart play.” I said and looked at Raj. “Otherwise, I’m going to murder all of you.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Ethan.”
* * * * *
An hour and a half passed. I had to tamp down the inferno of ferocity that raged inside me so I could watch and listen. There would be a way out of here. I just needed to pay attention and be ready to move. Raj worked on his console and occasionally watched the wallscreen. Laser-burn was at the window, looking out at the city.
The two thugs came back from disposing of Quell’s body. One whispered to Raj who nodded. The other pulled up a chair to guard me. He started picking through the pile of my stuff. He found Quell’s handcuffs and shackles.
“Hey Gaz, check it.” The thug said. Laser-burn/Gaz turned. “Why don’t we use these?”
“Don’t go near him.” Raj said, sternly.
“Just trying to help.” He tossed the cuffs aside. Something caught Raj’s eye on the wallscreen.
“Uh oh, Ethan.” Raj said. He turned up the volume.
“- identified as Agent Raina Quell. The Advocacy has not released an official statement but sources indicate that investigators may have found a potential murder weapon and are running tests with all expediency.”
“That doesn’t look good.” Raj said with mock-concern. I looked ahead, not giving him the satisfaction of a reaction. Raj got up and started loading the LR-620 into a bag. “Well, I’d love to continue this thrilling conversation but, unfortunately, you’ve got a Senator to assassinate.” Raj headed for the door. “Try not to kill him right away.”
“What if he tries to escape?” Gaz replied. Raj glanced at me and shrugged.
“Kill him twice.” Raj walked out. One of the thugs went with him. The other stayed with Gaz. It was quiet except for the occasional hover passing. Gaz grinned as he stepped in front of me. He drew his gun and held it at his side. About ten seconds passed. I sat back and looked up at him.
“Shoot me or don’t, Gaz.” I hate these intimidation games.
“I just wanted to show you something.” Gaz ejected a round from the chamber and held it in front of my eyes. “This is going to punch through your skull. Weird, right? Not many people get to see the thing that’s going to kill them.”
“Wow. That’s deep. I can see why Raj hired you.”
Gaz smiled and sat in the chair across from me.
We stayed like that for another half-hour. Gaz kept tossing the bullet up into the air. The thug stretched out on the bed and flipped through channels while he swung around my Vanduul blade.
I tried to work out Raj’s plan. Hannigan was going to appear at the Governor’s Ball within the hour. I needed to get out of here. Partially because Hannigan was an innocent in all this but mostly because I wanted Raj to fail.
“Hey.” The thug said. It was another news update about Quell. They pulled my ID off my gun. My face and name were now being relayed to Advocacy and Police throughout the UEE. They both started laughing.
“You should be thanking us for killing you. Because you are done, my friend.” Gaz said in between laughs. He wasn’t wrong. If I get through this, I’ve got big problems. After the news update, it went back to live coverage of the Governor’s Ball. Hannigan hadn’t shown up yet.
“Can we get this over with?” I said. “Hearing you two idiots talk has got to more painful than a bullet to the face.”
Hell with it. Something’s got to happen. Either this works or I get shot down but I’m done waiting. I slid my way up the pole to stand.
“No. My legs are tired and, since it doesn’t look like I’m checking out right now, I’d like to stretch them.”
“That really what you want?” Gaz stood, his expression serious now. I was bugging him. Good.
“More than anything.” I said, looking him dead in the eye. “I do regret not carving you up in the landing park though.”
Gaz loaded my bullet into his gun. The thug got uncomfortable.
“Maybe we should hold off, you know?” The thug said nervously as he got off the bed. “Raj said-“
“Screw him. He’s not here.” Gaz said and popped the slide.
“Raj said to wait. I need the money too bad to go against that.” the thug said, “so you can kill him if you want. I just won’t be a part of it.”
The thug stepped outside. My options got a whole lot cheerier. I kept looking Gaz in the eye. If he raises that gun, I’ve got two plays ready.
Gaz didn’t though. He was thinking. Damn. He hadn’t backed down which was good but the lumbering gears in his vast empty skull were turning though. He holstered his gun. Double damn.
“You know. I think a bullet’s too good for you.”
“Really? What about all that time we spent bonding?” I fired back. He didn’t like that.
He drew his knife and lunged. I didn’t have much to work with but shifted right before he stabbed me. At first all I felt was the impact of the blade. Then the pain started to bubble through the shock. My last-second movement kept the blade away from a lethal strike but it was about to get painful real soon. He was close now though, so points for me.
“Don’t think this is it. We’re just getting started.” He hissed through gritted teeth. I rammed by forehead into his nose. I felt cartilage crumple. He staggered back, dazed, clutching the faucet of blood now emptying out of his face. I jumped up, locked my legs around his neck, and twisted him to the ground. He instinctively dropped the knife as his hands went to pry my legs free.
The pain in my chest was on full-blast now. My arms felt like they were about to dislocate but I wasn’t going to let go. I couldn’t. I squeezed tighter. Gaz gasped for air. He started punching my legs, hoping the pain would set him free. The punches got progressively weaker. Then stopped. I held on for another minute just to be sure. Gaz was down, hopefully dead, but definitely out.
I kicked the knife across the carpet to my hands and sawed at the QuikTie. There was a knock on the door.
“You done?” The thug said. The QuikTie popped off. The door opened. I dove for Gaz and ripped the pistol from his holster. The thug barely had time to process before I put three rounds through his chest. He stumbled back into the hall and slid down the wall.
I lowered the gun and checked my wound. There were enough towels around for a temporary patch-up but I needed a MedStation or I was going to bleed out.
I gathered my things and appropriated Gaz’s pistol, his MobileGlas, and the thug’s MaxOx P4 before heading out the door. Halfway down the hall I realized I’d forgotten something.
I came back and shot Gaz twice in the head.
* * * * *
I hit the streets. The rain had stopped and the city looked clean for the moment. Within ten minutes I was racing through traffic toward the Governor’s Ball in another stolen hover. Listening to the news, Hannigan was still a no-show. That was good but I had nothing. Raj could be set up in any number of buildings. I needed to flush him out, make him have to change his plan. So I called the cops.
“Someone’s going to assassinate Senator Hannigan.” I said. There was a pause.
“I’m sorry?” The dispatcher said.
“The Governor’s Ball. There’s a sniper.”
“Transferring.” The dispatcher clicked off. I weaved past a bus and floored it. Finally, a new voice came over the line.
“Who is this?”
“I have information that there is going to be an attempt at the Senator’s life. Don’t let him go to the Governor’s Ball.”
“Who is this?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Right.” The voice paused. “Thank you for your concern. We will look into it.”
“I’m telling you, if you march him out in front of those lights, his head will become mist a second later.”
“And how do you know this information?” I could tell by his voice he wasn’t buying it. He was stalling to trace me. I hung up.
Time for a new plan.
I merged onto the highway that ran along the river. I checked my wound. I’ve lost a lot of blood and it wouldn’t be long before this would be a real problem.
The Governor’s Ball was a few thousand meters off the coast. The floating platform slowly moved parallel to the highway. From my scout, I knew the security protocols included a projectile shield that most guns wouldn’t be able to penetrate. The LR-620 would barely be slowed down. That was part of the reason I chose it.
The news announced that Hannigan had arrived and was about to come out for his speech. I pulled my hover off the highway and headed straight for the platform. I charged up the P4 carbine and rolled down the window.
Over the Spectrum, Hannigan had arrived and stepped out to thunderous applause. I rested the P4 out the window and squeezed the trigger. The battery cycled up and sprayed laser blasts at the Governor’s Ball. The projectile shielding flared up to absorb the shots but I got their attention. The 15,000Cr-a-plate donors screamed and scrambled. Hannigan’s security detail rushed him to safety. The news commentator feverishly reported that the Ball was under attack.
I dove the hover back toward the city before the cops could even mobilize. I wished it were that simple but Raj wasn’t going to give up on Hannigan. I’m sure he had contingencies but now he’d have to implement them, which meant he’d have to move.
I cut the hover back into the dense traffic in the network of streets. I started making laps past the five or six buildings tall enough for Raj to get a good angle on killing Hannigan. Suddenly, Gaz’s MobileGlas started buzzing. I answered but didn’t say anything.
“Gaz, we’ve had a problem. You better not have killed him yet.” It was Raj.
He sounded out of breath. I strained to listen to the background for anything unique. I heard the high-pitched wail of a TrashDumper’s horn.
Then I heard it out my window. I looked around. There was Raj, throwing his bag into the waiting hover.
“Gaz!” Raj yelled then paused. “Ethan?”
I hung up and circled back to follow them. The thug turned off the main drag and sped through the back streets. Free from civilian bystanders, I maxxed my hover and pulled alongside them. Raj looked over right as I jammed the P4 out the window and squeezed. Rapid laser blasts punched along the side of their hover. The thug cut the angle and dove down. I followed.
I chased after them, dodging walkways and fire escapes. The thug was good, controlled. Suddenly the back window of Raj’s hover exploded out. A shell from the LR-620 blasted through my windshield and decimated the passenger seat. He reset for another shot.
I swerved and dove the hover just as he fired again. I rested the P4 on the dash and aimed up. I sprayed and prayed. Holes perforated all up and down the undercarriage of their hover. Fluids started leaking. There was a pop and smoke streamed back. Emergency stabilizers started to kick in. I kept firing.
The thug tried to turn but I must have hit the hydraulics because it was a sluggish turn. Too sluggish. The hover smashed into the corner of a megacomplex. It rolled down the building and crashed into the street below.
I swung around and set down the hover. Someone was walking over to try and help. He saw me approach with my pistol drawn and decided to stay out of it.
The passenger door opened and Raj flopped out. Blood oozed from dozens of cuts and gashes. He started crawling away. His leg was crunched just below the knee and left a trail of viscous blood across the pavement. I grabbed him by his mangled leg and rolled him over.
I checked the driver. He was wrapped around the console, a mess of blood and bone. I focused on Raj who was struggling to breathe.
“Guess you got me, Ethan.” Raj sputtered out.
“You said this wasn’t about killing Hannigan.” I said. “Explain.”
Raj coughed up some blood.
“Hannigan’s a nobody. He happened to fit the bill of what he was looking for.”
“Caro.” Raj spilled. “He’s too popular. Everybody’s starting to know the name so he decided it was time to rebrand.”
“So Caro wants to start over.” I said as I pieced it together. “So he finds a mark that could take the fall for him. Starts planting evidence that backs the lie to satisfy any investigation.”
“Then he’s murdered by a criminal with a rep for killing slavers.” Raj grinned a bloody smile, almost gloating.
“The real Caro comes up with a new name, builds a new organization, and no one’s the wiser.”
“Maybe.” Even with my blood loss, I wasn’t lying. It was pretty ingenious.
“Will you help me now? I’ll give you Caro.” He offered. I nodded, holstered the pistol, and grabbed him by the throat. He started getting nervous again. “Ethan, do you hear me? I can give you Caro.”
“Ethan, what are you doing?”
“You were the one who wanted me to be the killer.”
I hit him. Despite my wound, my strength returned for this. I hit him again and again. I thought I heard him say he could get me clear of the Quell’s murder charge but I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t stop myself. My rage wanted to consume me and I let it.
Finally I stopped. Raj was more jelly than body. A crowd had formed. They watched dumbfounded.
I pushed myself to my feet and started walking. The crowd got out of my way.
* * * * *
Two weeks later, I was back in space. I nearly died getting to a doctor. When I was mobile, I realized I had a transportation issue. The Advocacy was undoubtedly watching my ship so I needed new wings. I ended up taking Raj’s.
I kept replaying his last screaming words in my head. Maybe if I spared him, Raj really could have exonerated me for Quell’s murder. I doubt it. It was probably more lies.
So Kid Crimson is a murderer, an Advocacy executioner. I can’t escape that now. The thing I didn’t do was going to haunt me forever.
That’s just how the universe works I guess.
Magic hour. The sky shifted to violet as the sun receded for the night. Lights began to flicker on inside the massive skyscrapers of New York. The lights were out in the penthouse. Passing hovers reflected on the polished wood floors. A pair of wallscreens glowed off the marble desk. Tonight’s top story; a gunman opened fire at a Citizen’s Day ball on Terra. Fortunately there were no injuries. Senator Hannigan issued the following statement…
That wallscreen shut off. The other accessed the Advocacy database. The file on Ethan Salassi, aka Kid Crimson, appeared on the screen.
It seemed Raj underestimated this one.
“Caro” wouldn’t make the same mistake.