Story: Psychedelic Electrons (Part 3 of 4)

cyberarmor

Psychedelic Electrons (Part 3 of 4)

By Will Greenway

She climbed, letting Apollo step ahead with the key in case there was camera at the door.  As she ascended, Kath suppressed an urge to giggle.  She found the sensation unsettling.  What was happening to her?

The Mortallis hummed in her mind.  It must be the endorphins dumped in her blood to combat the shock.  That might account for the odd urges and the colors.

One minute to the window.  She could tell Apollo knew it by the way he charged out the door with M22A2 leveled.  It appeared he intended to stay on schedule.  Two sec-men saw them.  They pulled their guns. Each got off two shots. 

One moment Kath was running, a flash and in the next, she spun and found herself on her back looking up at the ceiling fixtures.  A ringing ran up and down her left arm and calf.  The heavy slugs hit like hammers. 

Doesn’t even leave a bruise.  Maybe not, but it hurt like hell.  When the shells hit the armor, the metal gave off a whine and an electric rasp.  She guessed the mesh ‘skin’ converted the bullet impacts into electrical energy.  

She rose in time to see Apollo turning to check on her.  Both guards were down.  She signed okay.  Apollo plunged toward the comm center.  Kath ran after him.  For a pro, she’d acted pretty green tonight; first one to hug the ground, and last one to fire.

They knew where the communications center lay in the structure because nearly everything in the wiring diagrams led back to it. 

Apollo turned a corner and ran right into four more security men.  The big shadow runner didn’t even slow, he dove at them.  Shots whined off his armored body.  The stock and barrel of his rifle caught two men in the midriff.  His weight and momentum slammed them onto their backs.  He rolled to his feet electricity arcing off his armor into everything metallic in the vicinity. 

This time she was ready.  Kath focused the red HWI crosshair in her eye on one man’s gun then the next.  Bursts of Quicksilver cracked from her pistol, shredding each weapon and sending the men to the floor clawing at slivers of hot metal.  Kath ripped the comm-links off their necks as she ran past.

The blare of alarms went off.  Apollo leaned into a full sprint.  Rushing down the corridor Kath saw why.  The armored doors of the comm/sat room were grinding closed.

Apollo creased the doors with his M22A2.  Some went inside ripping through a guard at a console.  The others left smoking indentations, but the shells didn’t penetrate.

“Frag!” Apollo threw himself into the narrow opening and tried to brace it open.  “Blow the mains!” he yelled.

Kath switched the comm to channel three and sent the code.  A rumble reverberated through the building.  The lights flickered and went out.

Apollo cursed.  The doors hadn’t stopped.  She still heard the chug of the hydraulics.  Shots whined off her back in a flare of pain that knocked her off balance; another detail of security.  Gun-fire erupted from the sec-room pelting Apollo.  He yelled.  Electricity flashed and licked around his armor.

All coming apart.  Colors danced and played in her vision.  Kath thrust her rifle into the room and sprayed bullets until the gunfire stopped.  Apollo let out a gagging sound as the doors bit into the armor.

She dropped low and braced feet and hands against the opening, and heaved.  They didn’t budge, must be a ratchet system of some kind. 

“Forget that,” Apollo groaned.  “Set the AP-6’s and toss them in.  Auggh!  Now!”

More bullets staggered her.  She fired a burst that leveled the guards.  The Mortallis had revved her heart so fast her whole body vibrated.  She yanked, set, and tossed three charges past Apollo into room.  The square loads of explosives bounced up under vital consoles and connection scramblers.

“Give— count,” he yelled.  Right elbow and hand levered against the door, Apollo fired inside. 

“Nine seconds!” she called.  What was he doing?

He fired higher up.  He must be shooting at the hydraulics.  If she could get an angle she could assist.  She switched clips in her Guardian pistol.

“Six seconds.”  She handed him her full pistol anticipating his need.

At half the clip, the hydraulics gave out a screeching wheeze.  She threw her weight against the door.

“Three!” she called.  The door didn’t budge.  Apollo kept firing. 

In the armor, the concussion wouldn’t hurt him but the incendiary’s heat would cook him like a Christmas turkey.

Her heart beat three times for each second.  She braced and threw all her strength into levering enough space for him to escape.

“One!”  Something snapped and the door gave.

Kath yanked Apollo out the opening and dove for cover.  The AP-6’s erupted phosphor white while they were still mid dive.  Shockwaves cart-wheeled them end over end, blast heat seared her skin even through the armor.

Kath hit the carpeting, all the clothing worn over the armor a blazing like a torch.  Apollo let out agonized bellows. 

She tore away the clothing and tossed it.  Her stomach twisted as she saw hunks of her hair smoldering on the floor.  The meter of ebony hair she cherished had been turned to char, another casualty of this conflict.

“Augh.  Is it bad?  Is it bad?” Apollo groaned.

Kath ripped the burning cloth off the writhing man and found the source of his pain. 

“Still!” she ordered.  Immobilizing his leg, she examined the burn-through.  A patch of flesh behind the left knee appeared cooked.  Severe, but nothing a chop shop couldn’t fix.  Apollo’s pack was a smoking ruin but most of the contents including the medikit were either ceramic or metal.  She grabbed a dermal burn patch and slapped it on the wound.  The local anesthetic impregnated in the graft would kill most of the pain.

The hiss of overhead flame retarders cutting in preceded a rain of thick white mist.  Kath heard the armor’s recyclers hum, filtering out toxic deoxygenating substances.

“Drek.  Drek.  Drek,”  Apollo groaned.  “Messed it up. Thought I’d get the fraggin door open faster.”

“Worked though, they didn’t get time to signal out.”

Kath helped him stand and supported him as he staggered to the wall.  Grabbing his rifle she tossed it to him.  She shoved Apollo’s equipment into the folds of a guard’s unburned jacket to make a satchel.  After knotting the arms into a loop she hung it over his shoulder.  A guard’s utility belt cinched around her waist gave her a place to hang her last surviving AP-6.

Apollo leaned against the concrete, pain evident in his body language.  He clutched the rifle.  His attention focused on her.  “Kat, your hair, it’s gone.”

“Yeah.” She tried to keep emotion out of her voice.  “Gone like every other fraggin thing in my life.”  She clenched her fists.  “I gotta go for him.  Can you get out?”

He winced, testing his damaged leg on the ground.  “When the PKs take effect I’ll make it.”  He gestured down the hall.  “Go for it.”

Kath squeezed his shoulder.  She wished Apollo’s face wasn’t covered with armor.  She wanted to see it one last time. With power down, the elevators wouldn’t work until the auxiliaries cut in. She headed for the stairs.

Alarms blared, red emergency beacons flashed, and flame retardant hissed.  Kath climbed steadily.  If she rushed, the Mortallis might psych out on her again.  Apollo wouldn’t be with her this time.  The colors that flicked and danced at the edges of her vision were a reminder that a neural overload might be only be a heartbeat away.  Kath Hershel, a scorched, bald, military death target, without a family and potentially brain-dead all at the age of twenty-nine.  Better to burn out than to fade away; or so they said.

Burn.  Brackham would do that— among other things.  Take away everything someone has and all they have left is anger.  Unlike others, Kath didn’t see revenge as a dish hot or cold.  Vengeance was karma working through a human tool.  It didn’t matter to the uncaring cosmos whether its harbingers were themselves destroyed in the conflagration.  Every act had its price; even being born.

On the seventh level landing, three armored guards burst through the entry, heavy weapons leveled.  The hail of lead from machine guns slammed her into the steps.  She reflexively clamped her finger on the trigger of the M22A2 and swung it around.  The first burst of Quicksilver punched three holes in the lead man’s chest piece.  She didn’t see his dying expression behind the mirrored visor. 

With belts feeding their weapons from backpacks Kath knew the remaining men didn’t lack for ammo.  She dove and scrambled to stay clear of their aim, determined not to be hit by any more of those thousands of shells than necessary.  Like her, the armor could only withstand a finite amount of punishment— she wasn’t eager to learn its limits.  Bullets ricocheted in the tiny space.  The ones that scored sent flares of pain cascading through her body. 

Reaching the next landing, she chambered a round in the underslung grenade launcher, turned and fired.  The gun boomed and kicked as a grenade shrieked to target.  A hundred gram explosive warhead detonated at a guard’s feet. 

Explosive force knocked both men through the door and tore away the landing.  Kath slumped against the wall, her breaths coming in gasps.  She felt battered and exhausted.  The image of her mother’s face called to her; demanding an answer be taken to Brackham.  Visions of Rick’s scorched corpse and Dawn’s crumpled body put hot metal in her veins.  Kath forged on.  This bastard had an appointment with karma; she’d ensure he reaped what he sowed.

Each step seemed to take forever.  The armor turned fatal bullet hits into bruises, but it was like being on the canvas with prize fighter bashing away.  Stay in the ring long enough and eventually the K.O. punch would come.

On the ninth floor, she kept the M22A2 leveled on the door in case someone else tried to surprise her.  None came.  Upward.  Kath’s legs trembled and the rifle grew heavier in her hands.

On her way to the tenth floor, she heard the footsteps of several people coming down from above.

Kath chambered a grenade.  Four men in blue technical coveralls came tripping down the steps.

“Ice it!  Now!” She yelled, aiming the rifle at the lead man; an overweight codger with graying red hair.

The men behind him, all younger, fell over themselves trying to stop.  They looked scared and sweat covered their faces. 

“How many on the twelfth level?” she demanded.

“We don’t know; five, maybe eight,” the eldest said.

“Special Forces,” someone in the back mumbled.

“Where’s the insignia?”

“Black op, we’re dead, oh God, we’re dead.”

“Get out,” she ordered.  “All the way to the bottom.”  She poked one of the younger men with the tip of her rifle.  “Don’t talk to anyone.  Scan?” 

He nodded vigorously.  She knew better and that was fine.  Their misinformation would confuse investigators and street people who tried to follow up on this run.

“Jet!” She grabbed him by the collar and half-threw him down the steps.  “Rev it.  Rev it!  Get out of here!”  She gestured with the gun as the men retreated.

When she could no longer see them she continued her climb.  One floor and six or seven men between her and Brackham.  Those obstacles weren’t much compared to what she’d already come through.  The last hurdle was always the toughest though.

The entry on floor eleven started to open but Kath kicked it closed so hard that the cement around the doorframe cracked.  Through the soles of her feet, she felt the vibration of a body hitting the concrete.  The door didn’t open again while Kath was in hearing range.

She paused at the twelfth story access.  Top of the hill.  Auxiliary power hadn’t been restored yet, so unless he’d gone out a window, been flown out, or simply had never been there to begin with, Brackham was here someplace.

His bodyguards would have secured the one available access. She smiled to herself.  If she was going out with a blaze of glory, coming in the same way seemed fitting.  Kath pulled the last AP-6 off the belt, set the timer, tossed it up by the door and retreated out of blast range.

The grenade roared and Kath charged up the steps.  She dove through the ruptured door feeling the flames.  Bullets pinged off the wall, fired through the smoke.  Kath rolled and came up, gun ready.  The only light in the hall came from battery powered floor-lighting that ran in narrow strips along the bases of the walls.  Coats flaming, four sec men were already retreating.  In semidarkness, the flash of the AP-6 would cause blindness.  The heat could scald over twenty meters away.

Through the haze of flame retardant raining from the ceiling, she put a shot through the back of the trailing man’s knee.  He went down bawling.  Kath didn’t get a second shot before the remaining three guards got out of range.

The burly gunman they abandoned turned and aimed at her.  Switching the armor lenses to star-light sensitivity she could make out more details.  The skin of his blocky face looked bright sun-burn red.  The melted remains of a mustache hung askew on his upper lip.  She shot his gun out of his hand before he pulled the trigger.  He clutched his shrapnel damaged fingers and cursed.

Kath approached.  “Stay still, you live,” she said in a level voice.  “Only here to kill one man.  Give me grief, you die.  Simple as that.  Scan me?”

He nodded, wincing and cradling his hand.  “Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“The Easter fraggin bunny.  Where’s Brackham?”

The guard pointed.  “The living quarters.” He wiped his sweaty brow.  “Lady your software has a serious glitch if you think you can whack Brackham and live.”

“Yeah?”  She prodded him with the rifle.  “Up.” After he fought his way to stand on his one good leg, she checked him and found a concealed pistol and a knife.  Tossing them aside, she pointed to the stairwell.  “Jet.  I see you again I’ll put a Quicksilver round right here.” She poked her index finger against the middle of his forehead.  “Rev it.”

He didn’t argue but stagger/hopped to the stairwell using the wall as support.  He coughed and choked on the fumes and poor air but made it through. 

She headed deeper into Brackham’s domain.  If they were smart or experienced the guards she’d injured would try to lead her away from Brackham.

She took the hall the guards had avoided.  Kath noted the lavish appointments of the offices, marble slated walls in the conference areas, custom grown flowers, real teak and mahogany furniture; megabucks.  She passed through a set of double doors and the decor turned sterile, pristine white walls.  Stopping at a split, she looked both ways.  Down one side were suites that looked like clinic waiting rooms.  In the other direction, the rooms appeared larger.  A pair of wide blue doors ended that hall.

Kath went toward the doors.  She wished she could smell through this suit, but the breather was still purifying her air.  As she prepared to go through the doors voices talking on the other side stopped her. 

She retreated into the darkness of one of the large rooms.  Floor lighting was not provided so she was forced to switch to infra-red to make out anything in the room.  Everything flickered into shades of red, the coldest objects black and the hottest crimson.  Three large cylinders set horizontally on stands glowed bright.  A faint hiss came from them.  Activity lights blinked; equipment backed up on uninterruptible power supplies.

The voices drew closer.  Her armor deadened sound making it difficult to discern their conversation.  She recognized the words, ‘evacuate’, ‘risk’, and ‘lunatic’.  Kath suppressed the urge to giggle.  Since the implants, odd things struck her funny at times when they shouldn’t.

The clanging of metal on the other side of the door indicated the security bolts had been thrown.  From the sound of the other voices they didn’t like being locked in. Kath drew back further in the room, if this was Brackham, and instinct said it was, she wanted to have the drop on them.  She wanted him— 

Alive.

In the corner, the hissing sounded louder as cold air blew from the grills of heat exchangers.  She ran a hand along the rounded edge of the cylinder.  From its smoothness she guessed it must be crystal or plastic.

The commotion at the door continued.  Someone was determined to come through while others resisted.  Kath remained patient, the chaos would only assist her.  Judging by the sounds at that door, she would have had problems getting through it anyway. 

Colors continued to flit at the edges of her vision.  Her hands tingled.  She was conscious of the thrumming in her chest and the itchiness of her scalp.  She rubbed the top of her head.  Only curled and shriveled filaments remained after the blast of the AP-6.

A gnawing curiosity worried at her.  What could these two meter containers be that the contents needed to be kept warm and sustained on uninterruptible power supplies?  She put her ear to the material.  Something bubbled within, and she heard the quiet chug of pumps.

The hall doors finally opened.  Two monster bodyguards peered through the opening.  They were dressed in full rigid body armor.  Her stomach twisted as she recognized one was carrying a AS-7 automatic shotgun.  The deadliest close quarters weapon made, it