3: When all else fails
“Historians safely seconded in academic surroundings speculate that Monitors probably started off as mercenaries, or assassins, or a secret service, or even vigilantes exacting their own version of justice. Though after several hundred years of debate and speculation they still fail to come up with any actual evidence for any of these. It is said, usually in reverent tones, that Monitors bring stability to the floating populace of Venus by preventing anyone from gaining a monopoly on power. Few consider that a group with the ability to bring down legitimate governments might need oversight themselves.”
Extract from “Corporate Power: The Myths, The Truth” by Orlock
Denica had only a second to trigger her bracelet. The adrenaline supercharged her reactions and she leapt into action. She vaulted over the massive table being used as an impromptu barricade and landed next to a massive gorillaguard. Taken by surprise, the reset of the guards on this side of the makeshift barrier would take a second or two to react, so she had a window to change things in her favour.
No good choices, just least-bad. No real cover.
In her haste she fumbled the slash after her landing, and even the slow gorilla managed to block. She lost one knife in the neck of a human guard on her other side. She had only a second or two before the other guards could back away from the table and pepper her with bullets. The guards were all shouting — to each other, to her, to whoever was coordinating on the radio — adding to the chaos. The gorilla got a blow in while she was frantically evaluating.
That broke some ribs. Too many of them, too close… Need to make some room.
She felt the ice of medical cocktails slide into her blood and take away the pain almost immediately. The massive ape tried to grab her, but only managed to get her poncho. It tore the smart fabric from
her as it reared back for a final shattering punch, leaving tatters around her neck. She ducked the blow, starting to feel the adrenaline peak.
Only a few seconds left.
She thumbed three tiny charges from her belt, slapped them all on the table behind her, and jumped. The standing backflip took her barely over the table edge and landed her on the other side in an untidy heap. She dived for the doorway she’d entered by, the only one she could reach in time. Her overstretched muscles protested as her hyped-up adrenaline system forced her forward. Something in her left leg tore as she threw herself towards the doorway. Before she reached it, an angry fire-god kicked her in the back and flung her the remaining few metres into the corridor, smashing her into the wall facemask-first.
There was light. A flickering. Fire. Smoke filling her nose. Something tugging at her arm. Mawiri gripped her arm with her forepaws and kicked desperately. Denica blearily looked down.
“What? What are you doing here?” she mumbled. Her voice was dull in her ears, like she was underwater, barely audible under the high-pitched ringing.
The squirrel signed rapidly. “Bad, bad, bad. Security systems on full alert, couldn’t get through the crawlspace, got to run. Now!”
Everything came back with a splitting pain in her head. Her heart was hammering through her throat, into her mouth. Her medical bracelet pumped the adrenal antidote into her blood and fell from her wrist. Her ears still rang, but her head began to clear.
Nothing felt right at all. It was like there was a delay between her intention and her body moving, synapses being fried by the artificial mix of toxic stimulants. Blearily she realised she was high; her body armour must be medicating her at maximum levels. Glacial thoughts slid into place.
Things must be pretty bad.
She was vaguely aware of lying in a crumpled heap surrounded by splinters.
I should probably go… Somewhere?
The doorway before her loomed as a large, empty rectangle filled with grey-black smoke and the hazy flickering of small fires. Suddenly the fire-suppression systems kicked in and foam exploded from hidden nozzles. The smoke was whisked away by hidden vents. Mawiri kicked her frantically again.
Why is the squirrel here? She should be off on her part of the mission. How long have I been here? Minutes? Hours? I really should be somewhere… Shouldn’t I?
The dense smoke cleared, revealing two standing gorillaguards in dented armour. They were covered in blood, staggering through the apocalyptic room, lifting debris and checking bodies. Both had wide swathes of angry, bloodied and blistered bald patches and numerous splinters sticking from exposed flesh. One of them lifted a large remnant of the table from something. It signed to its companion, and even in her addled state Denica automatically translated the gestures.
“…Not the one. All dead friends. Sad.”
“Sad-Sad. Enemy escaped, the door? that way. Duty!”
Both gorillas turned towards the door. They saw her as the last of the smoke cleared.
One of them roared and raised a twisted rifle. Nothing happened. The big creature grunted in disgust, altering its grip and holding the ruined gun as a club. The other gorillaguard scooped up a stray gun from the floor and levelled it at Denica. She was amazed at how clearly she could see the ape’s finger curling on the trigger.
Mawiri looked up at Denica, kicked hard, and bounced away. The little animal jumped off a pile of smouldering debris, through the doorway, and sprang towards the gorilla.
The tiny black shape seemed to travel in slow motion, her arms extended in instinctual squirrel glide as she slammed into the hulking guard’s snarling face. The gorilla reared back, massive fist coming up to pluck Mawiri away, but she’d got her claws in.
With an awful howl the gorilla ripped Mawiri away, taking shreds of gorilla flesh with her. Blood splattered the squirrel. Mawiri’s clawed hands waving frantically, deep slashes visible along the sides of the ape’s face. The Gorilla held the little squirrel in one huge fist for a second, then squeezed. Mawiri ruptured with an agonised squeal.
Denica’s thoughts moved. She’d triggered another bracelet without even thinking about it, her thumb pressed on the activator. Mawiri had bought her the seconds she needed.
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it...
The chemicals hounded the fog from her brain, coiling energy into her limbs, thrumming sprung steel. She moved, rolling sideways as the first bullets slammed into the wall where she’d been slouched. She half-crawled, half-ran down the corridor, pushing her legs to move faster.
She hurtled back down the corridor, limped past the pile of gorillaguards she’d dispatched earlier, then on past the barricades the security team had left in place near the main elevator. Drugs and desperation inhibited her caution as she skidded around the corner. Her left leg didn’t seem to work properly, barely responding. She only needed to get down this corridor and she’d be almost at the residence stairs. The corridor was empty.
Empty? Where did the rest of the guards go? Ha! They fled!
Some part of her brain began to register sirens going off. Flashing strobe lights were adding a red hue to everything.
Vintage artwork, gold wall panels, dark wood, silver metal, ancient mixed with modern, all equally exclusive.
Decadence. Excess. Vanity.
Someone was screaming. She was screaming.
Denica burst through another open door, dodged right reflexively, firing her pistol carelessly at a lone guard caught out of position. He fell, micro-flechettes finding gaps in his light armour. She reloaded the weapon without thinking as she hauled herself up the curving grand staircase. Bullets slammed into the thick carpeting near her feet, none of them seeming to hit her.
She whirled around shakily, firing her pistol at the fuzzy guard-like shapes on the balcony. The thin pistol drooped, and she struggled to hold it steady.
When did it get this heavy?
She squeezed the trigger once more, but found nothing but air. She didn’t remember dropping the gun. It didn’t matter; she was fairly sure she’d killed everyone.
Blearily she realised she was lying on the floor. Dark blue carpeting took up half the world, her body urged her to stay, to sleep forever.
One bracelet left. Need to save it.
Denica gritted her teeth and fumbled the antidote from bracelet three. The artificial adrenaline’s side-effects were chased from her mind by icy fingers. The injuries she’d sustained exploded pain across every nerve, and she realised she was screaming. Denica bit her tongue, slammed her head into the soft carpet, and let out an animal moan; pushing the pain away with years of mental discipline, forcing herself to ignore everything and get to her feet. Her left leg sent burning agony up through her body with every step. She couldn’t look. It barely supported her weight, and she leaned heavily on the banister as she climbed the sweeping staircase to the top floor.
She was so very close. Step. Step. Agonisingly closer.
The rooms she passed through taunted her. Genuine Old Earth chandeliers bounced blinding rainbows and sun-bright flares from golden fittings and over-saturated furnishings. Opulent fabrics adorned the furniture that kept getting in her way. Expensive in the casual way the wealthy didn’t even notice. Faces on walls leered at her from portraits in gilt frames. She emptied her last pistol into one before she realised it was a full-body life-sized portrait.
Finally, the mental map she’d been following — the map she and Mawiri had built up — lead her to the study door, the inner sanctum. The end of her mission.
Job done… almost.
She fell against it and it opened silently, miraculously. Denica staggered through and collapsed to her knees, fighting to hold on to the strands of purpose.
“Well. I’m actually a little disappointed.”
Denica shook her head and tried to focus. She was on the floor somehow, kneeling. Her vision cleared. Pator Oliviana Castillo sat behind her desk, the centre of a vast cathedral of wealth and style. A counterpoint to the gaudy opulence of the residence outside, the study was a place of pure business. The desk was a modern affair, all edges and black volcanic glass. The rest of the room kept dancing in and out of focus so she concentrated on her target.
“I thought I’d need all of these extra guards, you see.” Castillo said.
Denica realised there were several — many — guards lining the expansive room. Their weapons were all trained on her.
“I was curious, naturally. We’re always hearing about how skilled Monitors are. You people are practically a bedtime story.” Castillo paused. Something glinted; she was taking a sip from a delicate silver teacup, taking her time. Savouring it.
“…So when I realised you were — how do I put it? — here to kill me, I began to watch you more closely. I must say, you played a very long game. Bravo. Five years! I am genuinely impressed at that part.”
Denica felt as though the floor was tilting backwards. Red-tinged blackness closed in from the edges of reality. The Pator’s voice seemed to be far off. She felt a sudden breath of cold air pass over her. Her thoughts cleared, as the last gasp of the medicines in her armour protected her from a total blackout. The pain in her… everything… started receding. Vision began to snap back, gravity reasserted itself. She realised with a cold shiver she was no longer wearing the mask. Her hands reflexively went up to her face and came away bloodied, left hand tingling with pins and needles.
Castillo smiled. Denica knew that smile; it was the smile reserved for when a rival company was bested. The old businesswoman gestured sharply and a gorilla limped towards her desk. It was covered in drying blood and had spray-bandages over large portions of its singed body. It held her mask in its large hand. Something in Denica twisted; a sense of loss more profound than anything she’d experienced before brought a lump into her throat.
Castillo took the mask. It was missing an ear and split almost in two, the white and red chroma coating dulled, scratched and tarnished.
“This? I’ve heard you each wear one. It’s important, isn’t it? Heritage. I respect that.” She carefully placed it on her desk, almost reverently. “Denica Tarne — I assume that’s not actually your name, but it’ll do, won’t it? — Tarne, despite…” she gestured with the teacup at the kneeling Monitor. “…This, I actually think you’re very skilled. You did well as an intern. I didn’t interfere, you did that yourself. You’ve earned a position here, under me. Even now, after all this, you can still have that job.” The Pator took another sip of tea and carefully placed the cup back in the saucer with a final clink. Punctuation made real.
“Something new is on the horizon, and I need resources for what’s coming. You’re smart, capable, ruthless. I like that. Just say yes, and you’re in. Simple as that. All is forgiven.” She spread her hands; a timeless, open gesture. No tricks.
Denica blinked slowly. She swayed and fell forward, catching herself on her hands. She hoped it was convincing enough; it was mostly real, after all. She used the distraction to trigger the final bracelet. Hot clarity thundered into her blood.