Acid, chapter two: a table set for one

Louis Calvert

Acid, chapter two: a table set for one
July 27, 2020 Louis Calvert

“The cloud cities of Venus are home to billions. The Protectorate governs from the largest, oldest, and most impressive city: Capitol, where the ruling classes have their headquarters and seats on the Protectorate Board. The upper echelons of Venusian society value prestige, power, and influence above all else, with notoriously cut-throat business practices juxtaposed with luxurious elegance. High society balls, dinners, and mixers are fantastical affairs that showcase leading fashions in clothing, food, dance, and dinner conversation. They also form the backbone of the powerplay continually swirling around Capitol…”

  • Extract from A Tourist’s Guide to the Solar States – 2nd Edition by Zakaria Thornton

 

“The Venusian Protectorate is an immensely stable governmental structure that has endured for centuries.”

Young Denica nodded, stifling a yawn. Her teacher cocked his head to one side, evaluating.

“As Venus carved out its place in the myriad societies that would become the Solar States, its fortunes and population grew rapidly. The Old Earth corporations that settled Venus for financial gain splintered, merged, collapsed, and solidified their power bases in the clouds of Venus.” Janus stopped, eyeing his young pupil. “Am I boring you?”

“A little,” Denica replied. She was at the age now at which she was challenging everything.

Janus had a slight, wiry build. His movements were fluid and purposeful. Denica knew he was quick, like a snake — and she was ready. Janus noted that her feet were flat on the floor and she was tense, ready for him to strike; testing him as much as he was testing her. He made a decision. 

“As Earth suffered under the increasing stresses of overpopulation and ultimately runaway social and environmental collapse, power shifted outwards. Trade deals brokered on Venus developed into unregulated capitalist growth. In the early days continual jockeying between corporations kept the Venusian Exchange fluid and competitive. Eventually, the mighty Veni became the ‘gold standard’ everywhere-” Janus whirled, hurling the slate he was reading from across the room, directly at Denica’s head. The thin metal-and-plastic rectangle whipped through the air like a throwing knife. Denica twisted in her seat and palmed the slate away a millisecond before impact. She leapt up, crouching on her desk, hands held in the guard position he’d taught her years ago.

The slate clattered to the floor a metre away, a spiderweb crack radiating from one corner. Neither of them looked at it. Their eyes were locked, each trying to second guess the other’s next move.

Janus leant forward and calmly selected another slate from his desk drawer, thumbing through the text. “…politically outmanoeuvring rivals and continually making and breaking deals to navigate to the top was, and still is, the expected way of life for most Venusian citizens…”

Denica relaxed a little and lowered herself back into her seat, her eyes blazing as Janus droned on about boring ancient history.

*

Waiting for the golden doors of the elevator in the Tower of Lights to open, Denica knew her place in this society with unshakable certainty. Knew her place in history. After tonight, her life’s work would be half complete. Her success here meant retirement and training her replacement, passing on the mask and all she’d learnt, just as Janus had trained her. 

More than that, she knew it was right.

The lift doors opened. Mawiri leapt from Denica’s back and scurried up the wall, using the frame of the door as purchase. The squirrel waited, upside-down, watching Denica exit the lift.

The Monitor stepped out into a gilded hallway, glanced both ways, and paused for a second.

Three gorillaguards were positioned five metres to her right, down the long corridor leading to the lower banquet hall. Each held a stubby assault rifle.

Four human security members were to her left, deployed in a staggered cover formation behind temporary barricades along the corridor leading to the main foyer for the upper floors. They wore standard day clothes and held their standard sidearms. Not assault squads — hastily assembled. But still…

They should not have been there.

Asir Prester was perfectly aware that she was facing an assassin. Speculation amongst the extra security team that had been brought up this afternoon was that it was a Monitor, not simply a rival corporation trying something stupid. Asir patted her pocket, feeling the solid square of the engraved photo slate. She knew the lines of that image so well that she could see it even now, just touching it was enough. Her wife and husband smiled at her. Asir squared her shoulders and resolved not to die tonight.

The Monitor raised her hands in surrender. “Leave now, and I’ll let you live,” it said in a synthesised voice. The mask it wore resembled some sort of canine animal; its white face had artistic lines picked out in red, highlighting the eyes and muzzle. It wore some sort of loose over-robe, or long poncho, that was strangely hard to see the edges of. Active camouflage. Asir hadn’t seen that since her days working for the Protectorate Military Force.

Prester reacted fast. The assassin wasn’t acting like someone who was about to surrender. She yelled for her team to get down!

Suddenly the Monitor sprinted towards the gorillaguards, accelerating faster than seemed possible. The two security staff in front of Asir were following orders and dropped behind the barricades. A bright flash filled the world as a stun grenade went off. She squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible, but the white light still left purple traces dancing across her vision.

Go, Go, Go!” she screamed. She popped above the barricade, pistol out, aiming blearily down the sights even before her vision had stabilised.

The humanoid smudge left a purple blur across her returning sight as the Monitor reached the gorillaguards in the corridor opposite. Three silent flashes from the small pistol in its right hand, then the figure was sliding between the armoured, hulking figures as the first of them staggered backwards with a grunt. The Monitor spun to face the rearmost gorilla and lashed out, a line of silver flashing across the gap between them. The gorilla roared and staggered back, dark blood spraying the golden wall, arm cleanly severed at the shoulder. Three members of Asir’s squad joined her as she opened fire, picking her target carefully, trying to guess where the fuzzy shape would be next. Its cloak shimmered and fluttered as though in a strong wind, its mask similarly fuzzy now, too. It made it hard to tell which direction it was moving.

The Monitor slashed sideways with a blade and the final gorillaguard went down, blood fountaining from a neck wound at the joint between helmet and chest plate. None of the gorillas had managed to fire a shot. Asir’s security team had managed to fire maybe five or six shots each, but the Monitor didn’t seem to have been hit once. It was like shooting at smoke.

Asir ducked back. “Fall back, plan B!” she shouted. Her squad reacted fast, flattening to the walls and laying down careful covering shots. The Monitor vanished behind a sudden explosion of smoke and chaff. Asir heard the dining room barricade team signal readiness on the radio, just as her squad retreated round the corner at the end of the corridor.

“Get back into the security room. Rearm with assault weapons, armour, and riot shields, and reassemble at the stairs in five minutes,” she snapped. The photo square in her pocket felt unusually heavy.

Denica flicked a chaff grenade from her belt and dropped to the floor, flattening herself behind the bloodied hulk of a barely-breathing gorillaguard. A couple of final bullets slammed into the animal’s thick body armour; the gorilla gave one last wheezing gasp and fell silent.

The chaff grenade bloomed, and gave her a few seconds to assess.

Her heart was racing, blood singing in her ears. Everything felt like it was on fire and the shakes were starting. She thumbed her first medical bracelet to inject a cocktail of antidote drugs into her system. Emptied, it uncurled and fell off.

Three left.

The effects of the hyper-adrenal stimulant were wearing off. Denica assessed her situation, breath slowing as she focused on regaining control in the chaos. Her light armour bodysuit had deflected at least five near-misses judging, by the grey streaks, and the tiny status display on the hem of her poncho indicated it was down to 60% power and had sustained multiple hits. The damage compromised sections of the camouflage matrix. She’d already used one of her medical bracelets. She still had two almost-full pistols, a reload for each, several assorted knives, and several small multi-function explosives.

Fuck.

They’d known she was coming. The only good news was they hadn’t been sure exactly when or how, or there would have been a full security team waiting at the lift doors.

Interesting. Puzzling.

She took a breath, smelling gorilla and blood through the mask filters. She tried not to think about the last five years and the careful infiltration, all wasted.

Denica rolled away and scuttled down the corridor to the banquet hall. It wasn’t exactly the route she’d wanted to take. She hoped Mawiri was having better luck deactivating the secondary security grid.

All roads lead to the boardroom, as they say.

The banquet hall was a large room with a suitably massive table in the centre and portraits of Castillos from decades past on the walls. Denica had dined in halls like this several times, high society dinners lasting hours with dozens of courses, thousands of Veni spent on each. In this hall the priceless wooden table had been brutally overturned to make a long, chest-high barricade across the centre of the room. Poking out above it, several gorillaguards and human security staff levelled weapons at her as she burst through the main doors.

*

The Monitor slammed through the banquet hall doors at inhuman speed, rushing towards the centre of the table. All the security staff opened fire. Stray shots obliterated decor, bullets peppering the air where the masked assassin had been a millisecond before. It jumped, vaulted over the edge of the table on one gloved hand, and landed between a gorilla and a human in one flawless movement. Knives flashed in each hand, slashing at both figures simultaneously. The gorilla raised an arm and absorbed the deep slash with a grunt. The human guard wasn’t quick enough and lost a finger to the blade before it buried to the hilt in his throat. The Monitor let go of the knife and, in one fluid movement, pushed the still-standing corpse into the gorilla behind where it tangled with its rifle, shots thudding harmlessly into the floor.

“New orders, Pator wants her alive, disable only-“

“-I have no shot!”

The Monitor turned back to the first gorilla just in time to see a massive blow from the enraged animal swinging in, blood matting the fur from the laceration along one thick arm. The Monitor was almost fast enough to dodge it. Tiny compared to the gorillaguard, the cloaked figure slammed back against the upturned underside of the table, clearly winded.

“Flanking-”

The massive gorilla’s fist pulled back, winding up a killing blow. Chunky fingers grabbed a handful of the Monitor’s flickering camouflage poncho and tore most of it away. The huge animal roared in wordless victory as it swung.

“Get back you stupid ape-”

The Monitor ducked. The overturned table took the hit, and the whole massive length shifted back a few centimetres. The gorilla roared and staggered back, cradling its hand. The remaining guards clustered forwards, rifles and pistols seeking sight lines, zeroing in on the cornered figure.

“It’s over.”

The Monitor did a standing backflip, barely clearing the edge of the table as several guards opened fire. Bullets ripped into dark wood, sending tiny shards spinning into the air.

Where the assassin had been, three palm-sized silvered hemispheres glinted menacingly.

Gren-

The room shook and the table split clean in two. The security staff that weren’t immediately killed by the grenades were skewered by long splinters of ballistic wood. One was crushed by a falling chandelier.

Two blood-covered gorillas dragged a whimpering human away from the fires that were starting to eat the wreckage. The human guard blinked at his ruined hands and passed out.