Title: The Artisans of War
Fandom: Voyager Torres/Seven cyberpunk uber.
Summary: In the mid-21st century, a US marine is partnered with a cybernetic intelligence agent for a crucial undercover assignment.
Warning: This story contains strong violence, coarse language, and homosexual attraction between women.
Disclaimer: No profit is intended in the writing of this story. Star Trek: Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount and Viacom.
Feedback should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Archiving is welcome, but please try and contact me first. Thanks to Meagan for beta-ing this.
THE ARTISANS OF WAR
By the time B'Elanna Torres was assimilated by the Borg, she was drunk enough to think it pretty damn funny. She'd been quaffing down one litre cartons of vendor machine saki ever since the Luftwaffe Maus lifters had dropped the battalion off at Amberley, hoping to achieve a state of blissful slumber, not an easy thing to do with bio-filtered kidneys and circulatory system. Tom had smuggled her out past the gate, eventually finding a cubicle hotel amongst the rabbit warrens that would accept a drunk and potentially violent marine with fresh blood on her uniform. For fifty-five adjusted New Dollars she got to put her head down in a plastic box 1.3 metres high by 2.5 metres long with free shower and channel access – it was all B'Elanna needed.
So B'Elanna lay on her back and stared at the ceiling where the Nostalgia Channel was playing a particularly brainless episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Her namesake had just been turned into a cyborg by evil aliens. If things went the way they normally did, she'd be back to normal in forty-five minutes.
The sound of the door chime cut through B'Elanna's stupor like a blinding laser, an unwelcome return to what passed for reality in this century.
"Good morning Lieutenant Torres," said the Cubicle politely. "You have two visitors requesting access."
"Tell them to go away," she moaned, pressing the pillow against her ears. The chime had apparently been the go signal for an entire e-war battalion to start bouncing ultrasonic waves off the inside of her skull.
"Access has been denied," chirped the Cubicle, two seconds before the sound of the door unlocking proved the cubicle processor to be a total liar. There was a fraction of a second of alcohol-delayed response time before B'Elanna's training kicked in, realising that the door should not be opening. Her head cracked against the roof of the cubicle as she instinctively tried to leap to her feet.
"Christ, what the hell do you want?" It was Major Kotay, dressed in civvies; a big grin on his face and a tall blonde hanging on his arm. She felt like murdering the big-arsed sod. B'Elanna tried to ignore the woman - clearly a civilian - but her looks caught one's attention. Finely wrought cheekbones and arresting eyes, one of them highlighted by a crescent of silver jewelry. A black formleather outfit revealed a perfect hourglass figure, late twentieth century bodystyle.
But in her current state B'Elanna wasn't in the mood for screwing anyone. That sudden movement had started her head hammering in earnest. "Thanks for the offer, sir. But I'm really not interested."
Kotay reached in and deactivated the roof screen, his burly frame made the cubicle appear even smaller than it was. "Sober up and get dressed, Lieutenant. You're back on duty. Cubicle, activate exterior lights and shower please."
"Shit," B'Elanna muttered as the biolumes made a feeble effort to achieve full brightness. She clambered out of bed, fifteen years of communal living making her indifferent to her own nakedness. The shower was at the end of the ranked cubicles; a sensor activated the water jets. Soap dispenser was on the blink, as per usual. B'Elanna scrubbed herself with her knuckles, not bothering to close the door, letting water splash onto her unwelcome guests. The blonde took a step backward but there wasn't much room in which to manoeuvre. "Don't tell me we're going back to Jakarta again? 24 hours after the bastards kicked us out?"
"We require your assistance in CIVOPSINT." It was the blonde, speaking in clipped, precisely modulated tones. There was a slight accent, definitely EEC. German? Swiss? Someone who'd learnt English at a university at any rate. B'Elanna eyed her warily through the steamy haze. She'd assumed the major was splashing out on a high-class corporation prostitute. There was definitely that look of sculpted beauty, like something you'd put behind glass and admire. Rich techno-yuppie fantasy. But the giveaway was in the facial jewelry melded into her flesh. Cybernetic implants. B'Elanna could see the infrared sensor windows and laser comm portals in the eyepiece; a star-shaped datalink was under one ear. The lieutenant had similar technology built into her battle helmet.
"This is Annika Hansen," said Kotay. "She's attached to Section Nine." It was all the explanation necessary. "Something has come up, an emergency. It took us fifteen minutes to trace you through your dogtags. What the hell are you doing here anyway? You're supposed to be in post-combat debriefing with everyone else."
"They said I was off duty, so I made myself unavailable. Shit, we've all been personality geendered. According to the geneticists I've only got a 7% chance of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a Level Three engagement, unless of course the company was fiddling the results." The water abruptly cut off, switching to roaring hot air that buffeted her body. B'Elanna could sense the Hansen woman eyeing her with some interest, taking in the reinforced bone structure protecting her spinal column and brain. She didn't like being gawked at, especially by someone whose own consummate looks were likely the result of cosmetic geendering. "The last thing I wanted to do was talk over my 'feelings' with a twenty year old contract counsellor who thinks he knows what it's like in combat because he's been in some virtuality simulation."
B'Elanna stepped out of the cubicle, Kotay handing her a couple of Sober Ups. She swallowed them dry, ignoring the plastic cup of water Annika was holding out. "Where are we going?"
"The Gold Coast, and we need to go now. By the way, you'll be interested to know that the Indonesian government has granted conditional amnesty to the leaders of the New Jihad."
"OH THAT'S JUST GREAT!" B'Elanna yanked on a kevlar undershirt, then her combat jumpsuit that Kotay had fished out of the autolaunder. "Let me guess, as long as they leave the country, right?" His silence gave the lieutenant all the answer she needed. "Sure, just as long as it's someone else's fucking problem. And I suppose our being pulled out had something to do with it as well?" Her armoured boots were last, all the better for breaking an inoffensive foot massager that got in her way. B'Elanna kicked the remains into the trash chute.
Annika's sole response to this act of gratuitous violence was to raise her bejeweled eyebrow. "Personality geendered?"
Kotay grinned. "She forgot to mention all that controlled aggression they sequenced into her. Come on B'Elanna. I'll brief you on the magnarail."
* * * * * *
"His name is Akio Keichi, though he prefers the handle 'Chojin'."
Rain lashed the windows of the bullet train, flowing over the liquid crystal signs announcing 'Welcome to the Sunshine State'. Supercyclone Agnes was off the coast, making her presence known for well over a quarter of a million square miles. B'Elanna noticed that even in this weather there were security blimps up, circling over a thin column of smoke in the midst of the endless rabbit warrens.
The screen on B'Elanna's pad showed a video clip of a Japanese man in his late-twenties, chatting up an attractive Eurasian woman at a datalink cafe. She'd clearly been positioned so the surveillance team could get a profile shot of Keichi's face. There were signs in German in the background.
"He is twenty-eight years old, born of Japanese parents and educated at Bonn University where he showed a strong interest in neurohormone development – he was a protege of our old friend Braun before the Mossad terminated him. Joined an apocalypse cult in 2035, called Dark Ages. Was questioned by the Bonn police regarding the subsequent Oktoberfest Massacre; the police thought he'd supplied Werner Hartmann and Sandra McCarthy with their berserker drugs, though nothing was ever proven. After the cult leaders committed suicide Akio dropped out of sight for a while, later turning up at an EEC security company in Nigeria, working on behaviour modification techniques."
Her voice was like a lover's whisper in B'Elanna's ear; they were using a scrambled datalink to communicate. The Section Nine agent was situated further down the carriage, her head resting on Kotay's shoulder. The major was pretending to read a copy of Time Australia. B'Elanna sat alone, her disruptive-pattern combat uniform and the ferocity of her genetically altered features deterring anyone from joining her.
"Akio first came to our attention when he turned up at a factory in Uzbekistan that was ostensibly manufacturing agricultural fertilisers. A CIA asset was able to get close to him there. He was developing weapons-grade psychoactives for an opposition faction with known links to the New Jihad." The screen changed to a grainy black and white image, the characters within moving in short, jerky gestures due to the digital compression. Akio was dressed in a sheepskin jacket, talking in earnest with a squat, bearded Egyptian with antique glasses and a ready smile. He looked like a Cairo shopkeeper but B'Elanna recognised him instantly, as would anyone else in her battalion - anyone else in the world for that matter. Ayman El Fadal, the self-proclaimed 13th Apostle.
"Son of a bitch." The time index code showed it had been taken two months ago.
"Exactly," said Major Kotay. "Unfortunately this wasn't a real time link. The informer got to his controller as quickly as he could, hoping to collect the 10 million euro bounty on Fadal's head, but it was too late. The fertiliser plant was taken out by a satellite-fired kinetic energy harpoon and the Pentagon was hopeful that they'd got him but, as we all know, they missed."
"Yesterday Border Protection computers picked up Akio Keichi going through Brisbane International Airport. He hasn't had any body alteration surgery so he obviously doesn't realise we know about him. Keichi and his security team booked into the Sheraton Hotel on the Gold Coast. Approximately fifty-five minutes ago Keichi made a special services order with an exclusive corporate entertainment company. What he didn't know is that the company is contracted to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to provide honeytrap services. Due to the unusual nature of the request, ASIO made an under-the-table request to Section Nine for assistance who then called us."
B'Elanna stared out the window at the rabbit warrens blurring past beneath her. When she'd first visited Brisbane ten years ago this had all been bushland. Now it was a sprawling megurbia between two rapidly expanding cities, choked with the cheap modular units thrown up to contain the millions of refugees escaping from the political chaos sweeping the Pacific Rim. There'd be New Jihad cells amongst them, recruiting from the young and disillusioned. "So what do they want the Marines for?" she muttered, bone conduction carrying her voice to the datalink in her ear.
"Apparently Keichi has unusual tastes. He's requested a corporate prostitute with cybernetic enhancements…and a US Marine combat soldier fresh from the Jakarta Intervention. Both to be female and reasonably attractive."
B'Elanna slowly turned her head towards Kotay, the veins in her neck throbbing hard. She knew now why the major had waited until they were in a public place before briefing her.
"No fucking way!"
The major's eyes twinkled with amusement over the top of his magazine. "Come on B'Elanna. He probably just wants to see the two of you wrestling in mud or something."
B'Elanna placed a hand over her mouth and whispered harshly, "I don't care if he wants me wrestling in a spa bath of designer champagne! I'm a soldier, not a whore!"
"May I remind you Lieutenant Torres," came Annika's quiet response. "That your body and any services of which it is physically capable have been contracted for the exclusive use of the United States government and its allies for the duration of the War against Terrorism."
In short, forever.
"Yes and it's bad enough being screwed by Uncle Sam, let alone his enemies!"
"If it means anything Lieutenant, I am in a similar position. As a cyber-enhanced human I'm in effect owned by EEC Intelligence, since they paid for my body's construction and continued maintenance. According to international law only my thoughts are my own, as my brain is one of the few human parts remaining."
"Oh really? And to think I thought it was a computer too."
"Don't get so uptight B'Elanna," said Kotay in a soothing tone. "Keichi informed the company that the sexual orientation of the soldier concerned was unimportant. Annika will take care of any special services required."
"You know the garbage they've been saying about geendered soldiers on the tabloid sites. He probably expects me to do something perverted; screw a dog or a politician or something."
"We're not asking you to do any more than you get up to in the officers' mess on a Friday night," said Kotay. "Go in, show off your battle scars, tell some war stories and punch out one of his bodyguards to show how tough you are. It's not as if we're asking you to deflower a terrified male ensign on a wardroom table in front of a dozen cheering onlookers."
B'Elanna snorted. "You're never going to let me forget that, are you? Just what is the objective here, besides providing aid and comfort to the enemy?"
"I need to get close enough to Mr Keichi to implant him with transceiver nanoprobes," Annika replied. "A subdermal injector is part of my brachial assembly. The nanites will construct neuron-translators and a biochemical antenna inside the target's skull. In just fifteen days we'll be able to see and hear everything he does in real time. At the very least we might prevent another Jakarta. I suggest you do it for your comrades who died fighting there, if nothing else."
B'Elanna idly studied the warning printed in five languages on the seatback before her. IF BIOWARFARE ALARM SOUNDS: 1) BREAK THE GLASS PANEL IN FRONT OF YOU. 2) INJECT YOURSELF WITH THE HYPOJECTOR. 3) REMAIN CALM AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS OF YOUR TRAIN. WINDOWS WILL OPEN AUTOMATICALLY. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO EXIT WHILE THE TRAIN IS MOVING. Her lips curled up in a humourless sneer.
"Well as it happens cyborg, that's all I do anything for. I'm not fighting for democracy, as the Corps isn't one, or for Mom and Apple Pie, because thirty-two years ago my parents sold their fertilised ovum to a genetics company working on contract for the US Department of Defence. They won't let me know who my parents are, so I can't ask them why they felt I was so fucking unimportant they had to sell me like a McDonalds' soyaburger. So I've long since stopped asking, just as I don't ask why I've spent more than ten years protecting the interests of a country whose Supreme Court says I've got no rights they're bound to respect. I don't ask why I saw people jumping off the tops of 300 storey Jakarta bladescrapers because they thought they could fly, or why someone who claims to believe in a compassionate and merciful Allah would spray psychoactive drugs over a city of fifteen million people in the first place, or why we did a hasty, ill-conceived assault right into the middle of that mass of raving lunatics all 'cause a medianet conglomerate was willing to support the US President in her re-election campaign in exchange for exclusive live-action datalink coverage of a Marine combat operation. Or why, when I was crouched in an Indonesian sewer drain trying to stop my 2IC's guts from spilling out of his belly, I couldn't call for medical evac or fire support because some livewire hacker who'd burned into our PERSCOM net, a homekeeper from Pittsburgh apparently, thought it would be amusing to leave a virus there. Just for fun it seems. People do strange things when they're bored; I once saw a bunch of militiamen in Central Russia using a cluster bomblet for a soccer ball. I didn't question that either. But I am a professional soldier so there's one question I'm going to insist be answered before I go anywhere NEAR this freak you want to talk to." B'Elanna took her hand away from her mouth, making eye contact with the aloof intelligence agent across the carriage. "What colour knickers are you wearing?"
Major Kotay bit his lip to stop himself laughing. A flicker of annoyance showed in Annika's eyes, but she didn't alter her studied composure.
"Black actually. They're formtextile Rio with lace trim. I'm told they suit me rather well."
"Thank you," said B'Elanna, settling back with an exaggerated sigh. "With that image in my mind I can go to Valhalla a happy woman."
There was a noticeable change of pitch in the sound of the train. The rabbit warrens were being replaced by individual houses. "This is your QTrans locomotive speaking. You are now leaving the South East Queensland Refugee Control Zone. We will be arriving at Carrara in two minutes. Security clearance and disease control will take thirty-seven minutes. Please have all baggage and ID cards ready for inspection." The message began repeating in Cantonese and Malay.
"Rio's huh?" Kotay winked at B'Elanna as he switched off his magazine, tucking it back into the seat pouch. "Now that's a cause worth dying for."
* * * * * *
The instant they stepped into the pressurised interior of the Gold Coast Sheraton the two women attracted attention both curious and professional. Even amongst the wealthy elite to whom cosmetic body alteration was a way of life, Annika stood out. Ice-blue eyes swept the lobby in cool appraisal, her custom black formleather so tight that B'Elanna could see the muscles rippling in her legs as she walked. A pair of high heeled Vanya Tek boots and Porsche sunglasses with a built-in virtuality node completed the image.
B'Elanna felt awkward and ugly in comparison. Kevlar-armoured boots that crashed loudly on the marble floor, an urban camouflage jumpsuit that failed to conceal her amongst the latest in Paris, Singapore and Beijing fashions, and a regulation crew-cut exposing the extra bone plate protecting her forehead. A barbarian Goth amongst the civilised and decadent Romans. The lieutenant covered her discomfort with a fierce scowl and tough swagger, as if death and destruction were casual acquaintances to be dished out to whomever offended her. Those who stared didn't do so for long.
One of the hotel gatekeepers converged on them instantly. Female, short blonde hair, Central European features, expertly faked smile. "Good morning! I'm Natasha, how can I help you?"
Neither of them was fooled. The giveaway was in her eyes, which kept moving to B'Elanna and Annika's hands rather than their faces. The woman had Security written all over her.
Annika took out her identity card. "Pleased to meet you, Natasha. I'm Annika Hansen and this is Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres. We have an appointment with a friend of ours in Suite 38B. Our authorisation code is 793AU01." She held the card in front of the Minolta keyreader on Natasha's jacket, her movements more like a member of royalty than a courtesan. B'Elanna pulled down the neck of her jumpsuit to expose her dogtag chip. There was a flicker of red laser light and the keyreader beeped in confirmation.
"Please take a seat while I verify your appointment. Can I get you anything?"
Sitting in a formable chair that threatened to swallow her whole, B'Elanna ignored the cup of designer coffee and tapped her boot impatiently against a low glass table. From where she was sitting B'Elanna could see five security globes artfully merged with the expensive decor. Right now their images were being run through the hotel's computers, compared against a database of half a million known terrorists and criminals. Her own identity would be confirmed with the US Forces liaison office in Canberra. From behind holographic wall panels a Special Weapons Response Team would undoubtedly be covering the entire lobby. Chemical sniffers in the hotel doors would have picked up any scent of explosives or biowarfare agents on their clothes. This place was a fortress.
Annika leaned over and stopped her foot's movement. "Relax."
"I am relaxed," snapped B'Elanna. She picked up a magazine and began clicking through the pages, looking without seeing.
"My first assignment, I was seventeen years old." Annika's voice was pitched to match the surrounding burble of conversation. "A cocky little slut with more arrogance than moral propriety, but I'd caught the eye of an international lawyer working for my father so I was recruited by EEC Intelligence, seduced by the chance to live out my own interactive spy game with myself as the star."
It was the Australasian Financial Review she was holding. A headline read: 'The Profits of Counter-Terrorism: the security-industrial complex'.
"One day my lover decided to impress me, so he took me on his hypersonic jet to the Sudan and in less than an hour I was at the headquarters of Ayman El Fadal himself. I was on a sweltering balcony with a bunch of other rich terrorist groupies watching a parade of New Jihad suicide squads when it suddenly hit me; this wasn't some virtuality simulation and I wasn't a glamorous international spy, I was a stupid schoolgirl from Cologne in over my head. My heart started hammering in my chest and I couldn't breathe - I thought they were on to me, that they'd lured me here so they could torture and kill me. I wanted to blurt out everything in the hope that they'd spare my life if I confessed…"
At her desk in the foyer Natasha was speaking into her datalink, watching them. A wallscreen behind her carried the latest news, shots of screaming Indonesian children tied to beds in a field mental hospital. Annika sipped her coffee, portraying an aura of indifference.
"So what happened?"
The edges of the young woman's mouth turned up slightly. "What happened was that Fadal chose that moment to put his hand up my skirt."
Annika Hansen laid her cup down on the glass table, taking off her sunglasses so she could look B'Elanna directly in the eyes. "Listen, every one of these people we're going to meet is phoney, they're all playing a role. You might think you can't handle it, that you're a soldier not an espionage agent, that this isn't your field of expertise. Well I've seen the inadequate, hypocritical, corrupt little shits that lie behind the blustering and fiery speeches. If you're faking it remember - so are they. And you're a lot tougher than they'll ever be."
B'Elanna watched Natasha leave her desk and approach them. Two other security personnel had fallen in behind her.
"Do you understand, Lieutenant?"
B'Elanna snorted. "I'm an officer, remember? For Christ's sake, I know all about putting on a bloody performance."
* * * * * *
Götterdämmerung was the accompaniment to Supercyclone Agnes, a real-time satellite hologram projected right into their midst. He stood in the eye of the tempest, dressed entirely in black, head encased in twin eye globes like a massive insect, hands conducting the Chimera Field with mad abandon. Water flowed down the grand stairway and swept in torrential waves across the floor. Rolling clouds churned overhead, sending jagged forks of lightning down to the dark, stick-like figure. Sonic vibrations rattled glass bottles and metalloy sculptures. B'Elanna and Seven stood amidst the tumult, hardly aware of the hands of the bodyguards moving over them. Their bodies were scanned for weapons and transceiver implants; personal computers and datanet links were removed and placed in deadzone containers. They ignored the invasion of personal space, eyes fixed on Akio Keichi.
The Twilight of the Gods ended suddenly, brought to a stop by a vertical slash of Keichi's hand. In a single swift movement he had pulled off the virtuality headset and was striding down the grand stairway towards them, fibre-optic links trailing behind like a king's train. The images faded away to be replaced by the suite's luxurious furnishings. Outside, the rain continued to lash soundlessly against the armoured crystalglass. This whole room was a dead-zone, shielded against any remote monitoring. The privacy-industrial complex was also booming in the new Data Age.
"I am Chojin." He was taller than B'Elanna expected, his face sunken and cadaverous, with black pupils that sucked in the beauty of the woman before him. His accent was pure North America, no German inflections.
"Annika." The young blonde extended a hand meshed with cybernetic implants, her face devoid of the artificial smiles favoured by most escorts, radiating ice queen sensuality. Keichi kissed the back of her palm, tongue tasting the entwined metal and flesh, his eyes flicking to her companion.
"B'Elanna Torres," B'Elanna grunted, her hands firmly attached to her hips. "Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps."
"The blonde's got numerous cybernetic implants," said one of the bodyguards, speaking as if the two women weren't present. "Could be dangerous."
"I like dangerous. B'Elanna Torres? Is that Hispanic?"
"It's not anything." B'Elanna's eyes swept past him, taking in the luxury suite. Plywood vaults arched over their heads, creating with the sweeping marble staircase a scene of operatic grandeur. Angled crystalglass windows fifteen feet high looked out on a grey and murky sea, towering bladescrapers and commercial tilt-rotors shrouded in the rain spray. Another bodyguard armed with a Heckler & Koch submachine gun stood at the top of the grand stairway, his black exoskeleton sculpted in the shape of a muscular torso, a half mask with clustered multi-spectrum lens creating an unworldly, alien appearance. A secretary, dressed in Techno-Gothic style, was quietly speaking Cantonese into a palmset. Three-dimensional financial graphics shapeshifted in a holocube in front of him. "The geneticists named me after a character in some 20th century TV show. A joke, I guess."
"A joke," Keichi mused. He slipped an arm around Annika's slim waist, leading her into the room. He seemed to know better than to try such familiarity with his marine guest. "Can I get you anything? Liquid or pharmaceutical? Hans!" He snapped his fingers at the secretary.
"Not at this time. Perhaps afterwards," said Annika.
'If he tries that with me I'll break those fingers off,' thought B'Elanna, but said only, "I'll have an Armada Tempest, straight up." Might as well take advantage of this. The designer alcohol would normally cost her a week's pay. "'Nice place' is an understatement."
"Apparently it is based on Jorn Utzon's original design for the interior of the Sydney Opera House; he was never able to build it the way he wanted. The entire room is ELINT-shielded, so I'm afraid if you want to datalink out you'll have to ask Hans." Akio took Annika's hand and ran it along a table of engraved red cedar. "The furniture is naturally-grown wood, pillaged by the barbarians of the previous millennium and hand-carved for Europe's bloated and inbred plutocracy. But the grain is nevertheless quite beautiful." Keichi turned and looked directly at B'Elanna, his smile a sneer. "Not like these rapid growth geendered species they use nowadays. Don't you agree, Lieutenant Torres?"
B'Elanna clenched her teeth, feigning an indifferent shrug. Smirking in contempt, Keichi turned to Annika.
"Would you mind taking that off, my dear? I'd like to look at you."
Without hesitation Annika reached behind her neck and unsealed the clasp on her formleather outfit. Keeping her eyes locked on Keichi's face, she peeled it off her shoulders like a second skin. Large, perfectly-shaped breasts slid free of their constraints, the nipples hardening instantly.
B'Elanna jumped when Hans appeared at her shoulder, a drink in his hand. She realised she'd been holding her breath.
When Annika's outfit got down to her hips, B'Elanna discovered the young agent had been telling the truth about her knickers.
What she hadn't mentioned was how the slim black lines of her underwear formed the demarcation line between smooth feminine perfection and savage Gigeresque body sculpture. The cybersurgical team had been highly skilled, creating unique artistry out of what was once mangled flesh and shattered bone. But there was no disguising the cause; B'Elanna had seen it all before. The jagged scars radiating upwards from her feet, tattooing created by dirt blasted into the skin at high velocity; this body alteration had not been done for cosmetic reasons.
"It happened in the Sudan," Annika said, answering the unasked question. "I was seventeen."
"Fascinating!" Keichi dropped to his knees in front of her, running his hands in awe over the corrupted flesh. There was a look of worship on his face, something ugly, akin to lust. "Have you ever seen such a thing, Lieutenant Torres?"
"Not often," answered B'Elanna laconically, taking a swig of her drink. "Most land mine victims can't afford cybernetic limbs and body reconstruction surgery."
"That such beauty can be created from such devastation." He turned his head towards her, black eyes burning. "Once, when I was in Uzbekistan, I saw a sculpture carved out of the ice. A swan and two cygnets. That in itself was unusual, someone in the midst of a civil war taking the time to create a work of art. But what was also strange was that the ice that made up the sculpture was red, not white. It was frozen blood, from the bodies of the refugees who'd been strafed by gunship drones as they crossed the river. You have never had such a moment of resplendence, Lieutenant? Perhaps you have created such…artwork during your own military career?"
"Can't say I have, though some friends of mine did build an accordion out of beer cans once," B'Elanna snapped back. Annika flashed her a warning look that she ignored. Why were they pissing around with this arsehole anyway? If they wanted to find out about the psychoactives they should just snatch this freak and put him through some major implemented interrogation. This entire war was being conducted with half-measures - remote weapons, proxy allies who were little more than terrorists themselves. Few nations wanted to risk direct ongoing strikes against terrorism for fear of the inevitable backlash that would follow. Half of the so-called Alliance had secret agreements with the New Jihad; as long as you don't commit atrocities on our soil we won't take action against you.
"I am referring to other things," Keichi hissed. He'd risen to his feet and was stalking toward her - like a predator, or so he undoubtedly thought. If he laid a finger on her he'd find out otherwise, turn him into a piece of fucking body art! "Freedom fighters tied to stakes and executed by your Marines, women and infants murdered by the satellites of death, children choked and blinded by so-called 'non-lethal weapons'."
"Well let's talk about kids brainwashed into suicide attacks contrary to the teachings of Islam, the deliberate targeting of civilians! Villages massacred for accepting Alliance medical aid, entire cities poisoned or driven insane for obscure political doctrines. Peace, justice and democracy replaced by religious intolerance and commercialised paranoia!" There was a blackness surging up from within B'Elanna's mind, the all-too familiar berserker fury. Hormonal glands were pumping superdrenalines into her blood; her binary heart beat at a faster rate. She struggled to regain control over her physiology, thinking 'get a grip soldier, get a grip'. The bodyguard at the top of the stairs had switched on his laser sight, placing the dot on the centre of her chest and drawing it down so the belly was sliced open as if by a scalpel, guts spilling out like writhing snakes into the piss and shit of the sewer drain. She couldn't get the dermaplastic bandage on in time so as the psychoactives hit Rodriguez he began to throttle her with his own intestines the skin peeling off the skull, burned away by the white phosphorus to show the metal underneath, red plastic eyes and cold alloy where a lover's face should be screaming in terror as the cyberpede crawled implacably towards her the shots bouncing harmlessly off its titanium armour and the bladescrapers once more bowed and swayed in the cyclonic wind shaking off the people crawling ant-like up their sides, bodies so thin after they hit the ground you could walk on them without realising, carpets of flesh and bone black with thousands of corpulent, greedy flies that rose to the air and clustered on your facemask, choking the air filters. By the time they'd found Corporal Sato she'd been tied naked to the crossbeams for three days with her breasts, fingers and toes cut off, the ants eating her alive so all they could do was raise the rifle and squeeze the trigger, the arcane rounds tearing away the side of the man's head as he brought down the panga once more on his daughter, the girl giggling and smearing the blood from her spurting fingers on the wall in Baroque artistry day and night the endless howling of insane dogs, a choir for the danse macabre in which they all marched. PFC James was cupping the photograph in his rough hands, like a delicate flower he feared might get crushed. "They probably look nothing like them of course. But I saw the picture and well, when I imagine my family, I think of them kind of like this." He raised his head to look at her and for an instant B'Elanna saw tears before they evaporated from the blinding laser boiling his eyeballs in their sockets. Then she was dragging her boots through thick stinking mud, sensing not seeing the enemy planes above spraying the tiny black droplets, each one bursting into flame as it hit the air, fiery rain falling from the sky the others screaming and screaming into the PERSCOM net as it scorched through their body armour. "Kill her, kill the bitch!" someone was screaming in the far distance and she brought down the rifle on his skull rejoicing in the crack of shattering bone, continuing to stab and hack even as he fell to the bottom of the trench as the part of her that was still human looked on horrified the rip-tear of a submachine gun with a high rate of fire something that didn't really concern her, sitting indifferent with her back up against the wall as Kotay tossed the prisoners out the shattered bladescraper window shouting "Why don't YOU try flying, you little shits!" Just a child of ten, Sanyo Corporation T-shirt and a single red sandal flapping on his foot as he walked along the gutter pointing them out for the snipers until a bullet sent him into a backwards somersault he should have worked in the circus, Chang said afterwards with a grin. How they'd pissed themselves when they saw those six foot spiders stalking towards them on their metal legs, gouts of death from the flamethrowers erupting from their painted mouths and ceramic teeth. One of the New Jihad soldiers was crawling along the ground getting smaller and smaller as the heat shrivelled his body but still moving, still moving, bumping up to them on a little cart where her legs used to be and cysts on her face: "You want to fuck, soldier?" Jenny had actually thrown up, receiving a torrent of abuse in Swahili from the prostitute she was such a child, didn't belong in the Corps with that innocent face and blue eyes you could get lost in forever looking down at her, Lieutenant Torres?
B'Elanna was vaguely aware that she was lying in a pool of her own vomit. She really should watch her drinking. Not a good example for an officer to set, getting pissed all the time.
"Lieutenant Torres? Do you know who I am?"
"What?" There was an acid taste in her mouth. "Course I fucking do."
Annika helped B'Elanna sit up, the movement causing the room to spin around her like a supercyclone. "What did the shit use on me, psychoactives?" Keichi lay on the floor in front of them. There was something strange about his neck. It hung at an unusual angle to his body.
"If he had I'd have been forced to kill you. Your drink must have contained anamnesis stimulators, the so-called Revelation drugs. The Nigerian secret police use them in interrogations. They're rather inefficient actually, but useful as a means of torture." The luxury suite was a mess. Bullets had ripped through priceless natural wood furniture, marble was scarred by fire and shrapnel, shattered computers and holographic projectors fizzed and sparked their last electronic gasps. Fire retardant mist filled the air, not quite suppressing the all-too-familiar stench of blood, cordite and excreta.
Annika was shoving a submachine gun into her hands. "We're running out of time. I have to dive into Keichi's brain before it dies, it's the only option I've got left. There's no hotel security monitors inside this room. The clients won't allow it; someone could hack into them and spy on the occupants. So instead one of the bodyguards would have been checking in with Security at regular intervals. When that doesn't happen they'll have a Special Weapons Response Team up here in thirty seconds."
"Then we need to get out of here now!" B'Elanna staggered to her feet, swaying precariously. Annika grabbed her by the shoulders, holding her still. B'Elanna suddenly realised the intelligence agent was still naked, and bleeding in several places. Aroused by the synthetic hormones surging through her blood, the lieutenant had to battle an intense onrush of sexual hunger, the natural urge to mate in time of crisis. "Look, just cut off the bastard's head and pack it in ice. We'll take it with us."
"If we leave this room without being cleared by Security we'll never make it to the ground floor. I'm in operational command here Lieutenant, you'll comply with my orders! Contact Major Kotay and tell him what's happened." Annika turned away without waiting for a response. Lying down on Keichi's body, she held her fist in front of the pallid face and wide staring eyes. Twin tubules erupted from her knuckles and punched into his skull. Annika's eyes closed, the lids fluttering as if in REM sleep.
"Shit!" B'Elanna looked down at her submachine gun. It was a H&K MP58, with ninety-five caseless controlled-expansion rounds in the magazine. Not much good against an anti-terrorist response team with body armour, flash-bangs and cyberpedes. She ejected the cylindrical magazine, pulled back the cocking handle and checked the barrel and feed mechanism for damage. The gun's CPU informed her that the laser sight was functioning and the magazine was full. Slapping the magazine back into the weapon, B'Elanna aimed at the door and pumped ten rounds into the locking mechanism.
There was an undamaged hardline datalink on the desk where Hans had been working. The secretary was face down on the floor. It looked as if he'd been shot from two different directions at once. B'Elanna picked up the handset and keyed in Major Kotay's e-code.
He answered on the first ring. "Hello?"
"Hi Dad!" said B'Elanna, trying hard to adopt a casual tone. The hotel's computers would notify Security if they detected too much stress in her voice, or picked up words such as 'dead' or 'shot' or even 'fucked up'. "We'll be a bit later here than we originally planned. We're both fine, but something unexpected has come up; they want us to stay for breakfast. Can you get someone to pick us up?"
"It'll be difficult," came the major's quiet response. "But I'll see what I can do. Keep an eye out the window will you? They say Agnes is headed your way."
"I will Dad. I love you."
"I love you too, B'Elanna."
When he disconnected, it was like a lifeline breaking.
* * * * * *
She felt like crap, no two ways about it, hands trembling from the superdrenaline overload and head aching like someone had done a trepanning operation with a jackhammer. Apparently she'd caught a stray round as well. There'd been a flattened slug buried in her kevlar undershirt, with a matching purple bruise forming beneath the soft body armour.
There was ice in the drinks fridge and a medikit and thermal blankets in the kitchen. B'Elanna carried them over to where the cyborg lay on top of Keichi's body, probes inserted into his dying brain. She packed the ice around the terrorist's head, insulating it with a blanket. The cold would slow the degradation down a fraction, giving Annika more time to find what she was looking for.
Annika's wounds had stopped bleeding. There appeared to be some kind of quick-clotting agent at work, but B'Elanna applied a dermaplastic spray just in case. The medikit had a biogenic fluid bag so she inserted a self-sealing catheter and IV drip, hooking the bag on a nearby metalloy sculpture. B'Elanna gently wrapped another thermal blanket around Annika's body. The beautiful agent didn't move the whole time. What was it like inside that bastard's mind? Nothing pleasant if his personality had been any indication.
The bodyguard on the steps had a single neat hole punched through the centre of his forehead; she couldn't tell what kind of weapon had done it. There were two empty magazines by his side, another still in a pouch in his exoskeleton. B'Elanna unclipped the body armour. It was custom made and didn't fit her very well, but better than nothing. The bodyguard's halfmask was useless, the multilens burnt out by a blinding laser. Just what kind of weapons implants did EEC Intelligence give that cyborg anyway?
The other two guards had been armed with Ruger TB09 stunpistols – useless against cyber animals or anyone with body armour. One of them had a flashbang minigrenade though; B'Elanna stuck that in her back pocket. A search of the bedrooms turned up some undamaged data crystals and terminals. She pocketed those as well, in case they contained information of intelligence value. With luck they'd get something out of this whole snafu.
At fifteen minutes past the hour the datalink rang. Caller ID showed it to be Hotel Security. It rang for a full two minutes before stopping.
B'Elanna piled heavy furniture in front of the door.
After that there was nothing to do but wait.
Annika hadn't moved since she'd made her dive, crouched naked and motionless over a corpse. B'Elanna smirked, wondering what Keichi would have thought of that piece of art.
There was a question B'Elanna wanted to ask the cyborg, but she guessed it would have to wait.
Nothing but complete silence in the E-shielded suite, the total absence of noise making the minutes stretch into infinity. The storm was like a movie with the sound turned off. The Sheraton's SWR team would be outside by now, trying to get a response from the door processor. When that failed they'd start burning through with thermal cutters. That would take them ten or twelve minutes at the most. B'Elanna got up and paced the floor, walked up the grand staircase, stared through the panoramic windows at the black clouds blotting out the far horizon.
Like a giant mutant insect the Hughes Valkyrie rose up in front of her, twin tilt-rotors churning the air in deathly silence. B'Elanna gaped in astonishment as weapons pods slid out of its belly, chain guns and missiles deploying for action.
"Holy Fucking SHIT!! ANNIKA, FIRE IN THE HOLE!!"
She turned and fled down the staircase, tripping on the dead bodyguard and stumbling onto her hands and knees, scrabbling to throw herself over Annika's vulnerable form as the crystalpanes exploded behind her and the room was filled with the howling wind and thunderous beat of rotor blades. Shaking Annika by the shoulders and yelling, "WAKE UP CYBORG, OUR TAXI'S HERE!" pulling the young woman to her feet, her blue eyes filled with confusion as if she didn't know where she was or even who she was and B'Elanna was hauling her up the stairs to where a Marine in full battle armour was waiting, clasping a huge automatic shotgun in one hand, a jetpack screaming on his back. He locked the hostage rescue harness around Annika and stepped backwards into the void, dropping below the edge of the window for a second then shooting up towards the open side door of the aircraft. In mere seconds he was coming back for her; it looked like Corporal Chang, his irrepressible grin showing through the tinted visor. B'Elanna locked her arms around his neck, feeling the nylon belt slide under her crotch and click shut. As the two of them stepped off there was a terrifying moment of freefall as gravity yanked them towards the ground before the savage kick of the thrusters sent them hurtling upwards. Chang waited till the last second before applying the braking thrust, the crew chief pulling them neatly into the troop bay with a long hook. The hatch slammed behind them and Chang yelled "We're in!" dropping B'Elanna into a seat by the fuel tanks as the Valkyrie lurched and then dived towards street level in a stomach-churning plunge.
B'Elanna only paused long enough to strap herself in before pulling a virtuality headset down over her eyes. "Tom, you mad bastard!" He was the only one crazy enough to pull a stunt like this.
"I haven't got time B'Elanna," came the pilot's tense reply in her skull. B'Elanna activated her headset and the cabin melted away on all sides, replaced by lashing rain and buildings tearing past at frightening speeds, distorted by the fisheye lens of the belly camera. "The second we left our authorised flight path the entire Gold Coast Air Identification Zone went to Red Alert. They think we're a New Jihad kamikaze squad. I had to take out the Sheraton's missile defence system before I picked you up."
"A fucking hotel has anti-aircraft missiles?" She slid her hands into the VH's waldo gloves. "I better act as your gunner."
"Fine, but try not to kill anyone will you? We don't want to start a war with Australia – they've got nuclear weapons now."
"Well I hope they show similar consideration," muttered B'Elanna as she brought up the gunnery interface. Coloured schematics wrapped themselves around her: weapons status, EW detection, IFF, tactical analysis. The surroundings shifted into cartoon abstracts; buildings, microwave transmissions and laser beams rendered in neon outlines of red, yellow and indigo. STATUS showed that the Valkyrie's engine nacelles were tilted at 45º, giving them both helicopter manoeuverability and turboprop speed. Every bladescraper in the area was painting them with its laser radar and transmitting the information to GOCAIZ Control, too many for the ECM software to jam. B'Elanna opened her own link to the air defence headquarters, downloading a real-time airspace map. Commercial aircraft appeared as numbered symbols, manoeuvering frantically to get away from the intruder. Two exceptions were moving towards them on a rapid intercept course. IFF interrogation listed them as Saab Dragonslayers working for Chubb Security, the computer adding a time/position index and speed/heading fix. They were jet-assisted helicopters; they'd be in firing range in about twenty seconds. B'Elanna datalinked the information to the pilot station and brought up the weapon's page, accessing the Wolfsbane missile software.
"I've seen them," said Tom. "They'll have EMP missiles, second-generation Ballista's."
"What about the RAAF? We won't have a chance if they send fighter drones after us."
"The nearest airbase is at Amberley," answered the co-pilot; it sounded like Fazad. "The Major's got that covered. We just need to outrun those secu__HOLY MUHAMMAD, TOM!" he yelled as the buildings tilted at a savage angle and the tilt-rotor spun around the razor-like edge of a bladescraper with metres to spare. The sea opened up before them and the whole aircraft began to shudder as the incoming storm winds hit with full force. B'Elanna quickly dropped back into Realview. For as far as she could see the coast was framed in white choppy swells. Surfers gaped up at them from their boards, hydrofoils battled the heavy waves – what idiots would be out in this weather? The sky ahead was a solid mass of black cloud, tinged with ominous flashes of lightning.
"Tom, there's a goddamn supercyclone out there!"
"So's the missile cruiser USS Enterprise; she's making a run for Brisbane to escape Agnes. And those rent-a-cops aren't going to be crazy enough to follow us."
A loud buzz went off in B'Elanna's skull – someone had just painted them with a target acquisition lidar. There was a series of loud clangs as the chaff dispensers ripple-fired from either side of the hull and for a second they were flying through a cloud of shiny laser-reflecting particulate before it was sucked away behind them. The alarm continued to sound.
"Shit!" B'Elanna spun the belly camera so that it faced rearwards. The Dragonslayers had become visible, rising above the horizon of tall buildings that lined the beach. White flashes appeared under the wings of the leading jetcopter.
"MISSILE LAUNCH ONE," intoned the computer, then, "MISSILE LAUNCH TWO." She dived back into the gunnery interface, switching on the Valkyrie's lidar. STATUS showed that Tom was turning them to meet the attack. Fazad was trying to download a semi-sentient virus into the jetcopters' datalinks.
"B'Elanna, distract those jetcopters but DON'T kill them. Fazad, trail the decoy."
A pod on the left wing hardpoint cracked open and a grey metaplastic cylinder two metres long dropped out, seeming to explode in mid-air as stubby wings and gaping black ventricles rapidly unfolded. Attached to the Valkyrie by a rapidly uncoiling spool of fibre-optic cable, the drone followed in the tilt-rotor's path, transmitting a duplicate ultraviolet, electro-magnetic and thermal signature to lure away the oncoming missiles.
"We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, shoot to kill…" muttered B'Elanna as she programmed two Wolfsbanes to self-destruct fifty metres from their target. "Fox Two Alpha, Fox Two Bravo," she announced, as first one then the other missile launched off its rail. She brought the air-defence Legions on line next, loading the parameters of the oncoming missiles into their software.
"They've deadzoned me Tom. I can't get in," said Fazad. "They've even got their missile interlinks and GPS switched off."
"Civilians," B'Elanna sneered. "Totally gutless." The jetcopters had turned away after firing, dropping behind the screen of bladescrapers as soon as they detected the Wolfsbane launch. She detonated the missiles while they were still over the water.
"HOSTILE LIDARS DETECTED. IDENTIFY TWO MARK II BALLISTAS. ACTIVATING ECM. ETI: 52 SECONDS."
"Blind them Fazad! B'Elanna, fire two ADM's." Tom began turning the Valkyrie out to sea again, placing the decoy between the aircraft and the approaching missiles. Fazad activated the blinding laser in the tailfin portal, hoping to burn out the Ballista's delicate seeker heads.
"HOSTILE MISSILES LOCKED ON. ETI: 44 SECONDS."
"Fox One Alpha. Fox One Bravo," said B'Elanna as compressed air fired the Legions out of their pods, engines igniting as soon as the missiles were clear of the hull. Transparent ghostly hands appeared before her in the virtuality simulation; B'Elanna placed a finger each on the two black skulls that symbolised the rapidly approaching Ballista missiles.
"LIMA ALPHA LOCKED ON. LIMA BRAVO LOCKED ON," intoned the computer in response.
Lima Alpha kept drifting off, decoyed by the incoming missile's electronic countermeasures. B'Elanna held her finger over its target until the errant Legion had locked on again. A warning buzz sounded in her skull.
"MISSILE LAUNCH THREE. MISSILE LAUNCH FOUR."
"Shit!" One of the jetcopters had popped up long enough to reacquire them and fire. "Fox One Charlie! Fox One Delta!" Two more air defence missiles were forcibly ejected behind them. The chaff dispensers fired once more, making the troop bay ring like a carillon. B'Elanna kept her fingers on the two black skulls. They blurred and shifted as the Ballista's ECM tried to ghost her target lidar. She had to reinitialise the system; that took a precious 2.37 seconds.
"MISSILES THREE AND FOUR: LIDARS DETECTED. ETI: 50 SECONDS. MISSILES ONE AND TWO: 18 SECONDS. LIMA INTERCEPT IN TEN SECONDS."
Moments before the air defence missiles struck, the tactical analysis programs of both Ballista missiles recognised their imminent destruction and activated their secondary protocols. Explosive bolts blew off the engine and seeker heads, the warhead in each midsection breaking into three submunitions and two decoy rockets. Detecting the break-up the two Legions immediately detonated their own warheads, spraying hundreds of thousands of depleted uranium spheres across the sky in a lethal umbrella. Radioactive fragments showered down on the ocean surface.
Only two active submunitions survived the hail of devastation. For half a second they also tumbled towards the ocean, deliberately mimicking the action of falling debris. Then their targeting sensors came on line and sent them hurtling up towards the underbelly of the Valkyrie.
B'Elanna saw them as two flashing black shards in her simulation, the time/position index blurring as they ate up the distance between them. Beneath her she heard a rapid tha-tha-tha as Tom opened fire with the chain gun, sending a continuous burst of 30mm shells across their path.
Flying through the spray of hot metal as if they were immune, the submunitions hurtled to within ten metres of their target and detonated.
* * * * * *
B'Elanna woke to noise, pain and darkness.
Strong hands held her steady as her uniform was cut off; B'Elanna could feel the cold edge of the rescue blade sliding across her skin. Someone was speaking to her, gruff words of reassurance that the lieutenant could barely hear above the rattling and banging airframe and the incessant banshee howling of the wind. There was a sharp pain in her legs, piercing knives that stabbed into her calves whenever she moved.
"Sit still!" Chang yelled as B'Elanna started struggling in his grip. "I said you're all right! You've caught some shrapnel in your legs, that's all!"
"I can't see! I'm blind!" B'Elanna cried, fear squeezing her guts as she groped desperately for light. She'd seen them with their eyes like splintered glass, blood welling up under the pupils from the laser burst…
Someone lifted the virtuality headset off her face, revealing the troop bay in shades of red from the nightvision lights. Sudden flashes of white kept bursting through the portholes and shrapnel-perforated hull, illuminating them for brief seconds in stark monochrome. The entire aircraft was shuddering, fire extinguishers and survival equipment jumping and rattling in their clamps. It sounded as if the Valkyrie was coming apart in mid-air.
Chang shone a pinlight in her eyes, checking the pupils. "Can you see me?"
"Yeah, what a horrible sight." Annika was crouched between B'Elanna's legs, examining her calves with the aid of a small torch. "What happened?"
"We had two submunitions go off underneath the hull." B'Elanna leaned forward so she could hear him over the noise. "They must have been electro-magnetic pulse warheads 'cause half our systems went down; they're supposed to knock out a chopper's avionics so it has to autorotate to the ground. Fortunately this is a military bird so our hardened back-ups kicked in, but that was long enough for another missile to get past our defences. It hit the decoy drone or we wouldn't be here now - that warhead was a kamikaze buster!"
A Compressed Detonation Charge designed to obliterate a hijacked commercial aircraft without leaving many pieces to fall and kill people underneath – or so went the theory. "Status?"
"The shock wave knocked some splinters off the hull and sent them flying across the troop bay. The crew chief's kaput - she caught a shard in the brain. You got knocked out but I can't see any signs of concussion - the kevlar seat protected most of you. The cyborg and I got some minor cuts, nothing serious. Anyway about ten minutes ago we hit a major weather front and we haven't been bothered since, but our starboard engine nacelle conked out in the explosion, we're losing fuel from somewhere, and the GPS won't come on line so the pilots have to navigate the old fashioned way."
B'Elanna felt a cool wetness on her legs as Annika applied a dermaplastic spray. "Great! We're back in the 20th century! Who was the crew chief?"
"No-one I wanted to know. A normal, not geendered. Some Amendment 56 enlistee from Nairobi, I think."
A refugee who'd been willing to sign up for twenty years in the Marines in order to get US citizenship, or so she'd been told. In practice Congress was showing a marked reluctance to accept immigrants who'd spent the last twenty years learning how to destroy one's fellow man. The amendment was likely to be repealed before their time of service was over.
Annika looked up; B'Elanna noticed she was now wearing an orange survival suit. "You would have caught some radiation from those EMP rounds, Lieutenant. When did you receive your last PRO-29 injection?"
"Five, six weeks ago. It'll be coded into my dogtags. Are Tom and Fazad all right?"
"Yeah," answered Chang, moving out of the way as Annika stood up. "I asked what our chances were of finding the Enterprise in this weather. All Fazad would say is that it's 'in the hands of God'."
B'Elanna snorted. "We should be alright then. Tom thinks he is God."
Annika pulled down the collar of B'Elanna's jumpsuit, exposing the tattoo that marked the location of her subdermal ID chip. She pointed a keyreader at it. "The injuries to your legs are not life threatening, but I did not want to risk using an anaesthetic. If we are forced to ditch you will require the use of all your faculties."
B'Elanna slid her hands around Annika's waist and gently pulled the cyborg onto her lap. "I meant to say - thank you for saving my life." There was the unspoken question, why had she intervened?
Annika frowned as she looked at the keyreader's screen. "My superiors will not be pleased. They do not appreciate inefficiency. Your last injection was 41 days ago." Chang pressed a hypojector against the base of B'Elanna's neck. She grunted as the microscopic pellet was shot into her thyroid gland.
"I'll leave her in your capable hands ma'am," Chang said, a wicked smile on his face. He moved to one of the survival cases and opened it, pulling out a life jacket. Draping it over the back of a seat, he began to disconnect the seals on his battle armour.
B'Elanna looked at Annika, their faces inches from each other. The turbulence of the Valkyrie was making the young woman bounce pleasantly on her lap, though with occasional sharp stabs from her calves. She put her mouth close to Annika's ear. "You should put on a life jacket."
"It will make little difference. The alloys used in my implants do not significantly increase my weight, but they do remove my natural buoyancy. I cannot float without the aid of special devices."
B'Elanna knew that; it was why the Marines used engeendered soldiers rather than cyborgs. She buried her face in Annika's tangled hair. Annika rested her chin on B'Elanna's shoulder, staring at the dead body of the crew chief. Her flight suit had been torn open to expose her breasts; a purple bruise marked her chest from their futile attempts at resuscitation.
"In our training they told us that sexual entrapment is an own goal waiting to happen." Annika's voice was so quiet that B'Elanna could barely hear her. "We couldn't afford to forget that we were soldiers fighting a war, lest we fall victim to emotion just as our target was supposed to. In my arrogance I always assumed it would never happen to me. I should have let Keichi kill you, completed my assignment. Instead when I saw you…screaming…I let compassion affect my judgement."
B'Elanna pulled away from her. "Well that's a load of shit. Maybe you were a piss-poor intelligence agent today, but you would have made a bloody fine marine. 'Cause that's what we do in the Corps, we look out for each other." Sliding her fingers behind Annika's long neck, she pulled their lips together. The young cyborg made no move to resist.
An excited shout from the cockpit jerked them apart. "ENTERPRISE, WE HAVE YOU ON VISUAL!" They felt the troop bay tilt around them as the Valkyrie banked towards the ocean surface. The crew chief's body slid across the floor until Chang stopped it with his boot.
Twisting in her seat, B'Elanna looked out the nearest porthole. She immediately wished she hadn't.
* * * * * *
Tom had flown over terrain like this before, but it had been land cratered by orbital bombardment, not an ocean smashed and gouged by the wind. Without the Enterprise's laser beacons they would never have found the cruiser at all. The vessel had been designed from the keel up as a stealth ship, covered in lidar absorbent material and deflective angles. A sailor of any previous century would not have recognised her - there was virtually no superstructure. The bridge was buried deep inside the hull, her curved deck broken only by sensor towers and ranked missile hatches. The entire vessel was painted in jagged black and white stripes to break up her silhouette and confuse targeting processors. Her ballast tanks were flooded to reduce its rolling in the massive swells, so she forged as much through the waves as over them. As Tom watched the stern of the cruiser split open, armoured doors framed by winking infra-red lights sliding apart to reveal the flight deck. A clusterlite rocketed into the murky sky, exploding in a blaze of pyrotechnics. In mere seconds the hundred mile-an-hour winds had blown the parachute flares off into the distance.
"Great," muttered Tom. The Enterprise was steaming into the wind so he turned the Valkyrie to match her course. It was like slamming into a brick wall; suddenly the control levers were jumping in his hands and everything not tied down began to fly around the cockpit. Horizontal rain smacked into the windshield with a rapidfire thunder. Fazad began to dry retch, then vomited all over his multi-function display. Tom would have followed suit if he hadn't been so busy struggling with the aircraft.
Cursing in Farsi, Fazad wiped the mess off with his gloves. "The port nacelle is beginning to redline!" he shouted into the helmet datalink. Though the Valkyrie's twin rotor blades could run off one engine, it wasn't used to battling headwinds like this. "And STATUS calculates that in this wind we've got seventeen minutes of fuel left!"
"Lieutenant Locarno." Tom recognised the cool tones of the cyborg they'd extracted. "Could you open a secure datalink to the Enterprise's Intelligence Officer please."
Tom didn't have to ask why. Their passenger wanted to transfer whatever information she'd gathered in case they had to ditch. In this weather the chances of survival were not good. "Enterprise, this is Tango Seven on final approach. We have a CIVOPSINT officer on board requesting Seventh Angel, over."
"Roger, Tango Seven. Set your VIS datalink on Alpha One One Bravo. Flight deck is green, call the ball, over."
Tom began to pull back on the thumbwheel, rotating the engines to vertical as he followed the wake of the Enterprise. The ocean and the cruiser had merged into a mottled grey nothingness. He flicked his virtuality node and was suddenly flying unaided in mid-air, tilt-rotor and co-pilot reduced to ethereal shadows around him. Tom looked down to where his feet should be and saw the flight guidance lasers flashing like a runway across the storm-tossed waters. STATUS was a gossamer flickering before his eyes, visible only when he focused on the text. "Roger ball. Distance 40 metres, wind 87 knots. Gear down and locked."
"Chang, lower the cable," said Fazad, his eyes on the flight deck ahead.
"Lower cable, roger."
Tom swung the tilt-rotor over the square of bright light shining out of the Enterprise's stern. The Landing Signals Drone flashed green lights at him, indicating the flight deck was clear. Fazad spun the belly camera to verify the cable was dropping and the undercarriage was down. Even with its heavy lead attachment the cable was being tossed violently by the ferocious winds. Tom had to jink the tilt-rotor from side to side in order to manoeuvre the cable into the hatch. They saw one of the deck crew race out onto the flightdeck, grab hold of the whipping attachment and secure it in the recovery clamp.
"This is Enterprise. RAST cable secure. We're winching you down now, over."
The two pilots breathed a sigh of relief. Tom carefully eased off power to the port nacelle as the recovery cable pulled them towards the deck.
With Tom's full concentration on the instruments, some undefined instinct made Fazad look to his right. For a second the Iranian co-pilot thought the seething crest was a flare reflecting off clouds.
"TOM TAKE US UP!"
Reacting instinctively Tom slammed the control lever forward and hit the Rocket Launch Assist. The force of the Valkyrie leaping upwards snapped the shear pin in the RAST cable and sent it hurtling into the flight hatch, followed by tons of water from the freak wave breaking over the Enterprise's hull. Tilt-rotors and heavy loading drones were smashed like plastic toys. The two pilots saw the flight doors begin to automatically close and then the Enterprise's stern slid beneath the waves. For one terrifying moment Tom and Fazad thought she was foundering. Then the missile cruiser broke the surface again, water cascading off her hull.
"Jesus! Enterprise, this is Tango Seven. Request status, over!"
"Stand by Tango Seven," was the terse response.
Tom flicked a worried eye over their STATUS display. The port nacelle was definitely overheating, while the fuel enunciator was dropping at an alarming rate. "How's everyone doing back there?"
"If this is the best you can do I'm going to get out and fucking swim to the ship," replied B'Elanna.
Tom grinned, but the Air Traffic Officer interrupted his snappy comeback. "Tango Seven, we have major damage to the flight deck and the RAST system is jammed. Suggest you abort and head in for Brisbane, over."
"Negative Enterprise. We have sustained damage ourselves and our fuel situation is critical. We must land ASAP, over."
"Stand by Tango Seven."
Back in the troop bay, B'Elanna gripped the edge of her seat in frustration. She was used to being in command, having the ability to take a course of action or at least contemplate taking one. Now she was completely in the hands of someone else. In the jump seat opposite, Annika sat with her eyes closed, interlink nodes plugged into the headset datalink. The dead crew chief had been strapped into the seat next to her, head lolling like a rag doll. Chang was staring out a portal, a maniacal grin on his face. "He's enjoying this, the bastard," muttered B'Elanna. She thought of Tom up front - smooth talking, cocky, believing he could walk on air let alone water – definite possibility they'd find out about the latter. So handsome, B'Elanna couldn't believe he wasn't cosmetically engeendered. It always made her feel so insecure around him, having to cover it with sarcasm and aggressive sexuality.
"This is Enterprise." It was a different voice on the datalink now, female, probably the captain. "We're taking on an awful lot of water down here. Another wave like that and we'll be joining the Submarine Service. I want you to ditch your aircraft. We'll have semi-submersibles in the water to pick you up, over."
"Look, all I need is a clear flight deck and that hatch open for thirty seconds!" protested Tom.
"Negative Tango Seven," the voice shot back coldly. "Ditch your aircraft off my port bow, over."
"With all due respect ma'am, you can open that hatch or I'll land on top of it."
"Try landing on my ship lieutenant, and I'll blast you out of the sky."
'Great, a real hardarse,' thought the marine pilot. He took a deep breath. "Enterprise, I've got a cyborg here who won't last three seconds in that water, and from what I see neither will the rest of us. Just let me make one more attempt!"
There was no answer for several minutes. Tom could hear Fazad praying as he watched the foam-laced swells. The co-pilot's face was pale but his voice was steady. "There is no other God but Allah. Muhammad is His Prophet."
"Tango Seven, I'm going to open that hatch for exactly one minute. If you can't make a safe landing on your first attempt I expect you to abort and ditch, do you understand?"
"Roger Enterprise. Commencing final run."
"This is Enterprise," said the Air Traffic Officer. "We'll open the hatch as soon as you're overhead. Give us a fifteen count, over."
"Winds at 89 knots," said Fazad. "On my mark." He began to count off the seconds as Tom swung the tilt-rotor over the stern once more, matching the cruiser's speed. A glowing line split the Enterprise's hull, then widened into a bright gap. "…three thousand, two thousand, ONE thousand! Laser altimeter on!" The Landing Signals Drone flashed his lights at them. "Flight deck is green. Gear down and locked."
"Keep an eye on the waves Fazad," said Tom, easing the thrust control back. Flickering STATUS numerals counted down their altitude and sink rate. Fazad kept his finger on the Rocket Launch Assist, head moving from side to side. The Valkyrie was bucking wildly, the overloaded port nacelle struggling to keep them in place against the driving wind.
Then suddenly they were inside the flight bay and the noise and shuddering cut off like a switch. Without the headwind pushing against it the tilt-rotor leapt backwards but Tom had already compensated before Fazad had a chance to yell a warning and then they were hitting the deck with a gentle thump. The LS drone confirmed the main wheels were down, and Tom dropped the nosewheel into an easy touchdown. Deck crewmen ran out and chocked the wheels.
"There," said Tom, letting out a gust of air. "Don't know what all the fuss was about." Fazad grinned and began to shut down the electrical systems.
B'Elanna winced as she dropped onto the deck, waving off Chang as he moved to support her. The hangar bay was a scene of chaos. Wrecked helicopters and fighter/recon drones had been ruthlessly bulldozed aside to clear a landing area. Damage control teams and bomb disposal robots manoeuvred in the limited space, throwing up great bow waves. The water was ankle deep, flowing from one side of the hangar to the other as the ship rolled beneath them. The air was filled with shouted orders, reverse-warning alarms, the chug-chug of labouring pumps, and fire-retardant mist.
They were surprised to see the Enterprise's captain personally supervising the damage control efforts, barking out orders in a gravely voice. She turned to meet the marines as they squelched through the water towards her; a short woman in her late forties, reddish-brown hair done up in a severe bun.
Tom threw her a mighty salute and the smile that launched a thousand seductions, only to physically wither under the force of the captain's glare.
"Lieutenant, if you or any other marine flyboy pricks pull a stunt like that again I'll personally stuff you inside a launch tube and fire you into orbit!"
"Yes ma'am," said Tom, showing a strange fascination with the space above the captain's head. Her cold gaze moved along the rest of them, settling on Annika. To B'Elanna's surprise she gave the cyborg a warm smile. "Haven't seen you in a while."
"It is good to see you again captain," replied Annika, her voice unusually subdued. B'Elanna flicked a glance sideways, but the young woman's face was unreadable.
"There's a FLASHOPS waiting for you in SSES. Commander Tucson will escort you there. The rest of you," she added, turning a collective glare on them all. "Get the hell off my flight deck!" The captain turned on her heel and sloshed off towards the biggest tangle of wreckage, moving with confidence on the tilted and awash deck. Her officers hastened after her.
A tall black officer with lieutenant commander's insignia motioned to Annika. As she moved to follow, B'Elanna grabbed her arm, holding out a handful of pocket terminals and datacrystals. "I lifted these from Keichi's suite. There might be something on them."
"Thank you," Annika replied. There was a moment of awkwardness, as if neither knew what to say. The agent turned to go.
"In case they don't allow us to meet again," B'Elanna said quickly. "One of those datacrystals is mine. It's got my e-code. Call me."
Annika took a deep breath. "That may not be possible, Lieutenant."
"If it's possible, call me."
Annika gave a slight nod, then strode after Commander Tucson. B'Elanna heard Tom and the others coming up behind her. "I thought it was Christmas," Chang was saying. "I jetpack through the window and the lieutenant throws this six-foot naked blonde into my arms."
Tom intercepted a passing drone and they clambered on top of it, sitting B'Elanna with her feet elevated on the front block.
"Get off my chassis!" synthesized the robot in a rather querulous tone. "I'm a Mark 56 ammunition loading drone, not a magnarail carriage!"
"To the hospital James," said Chang, slapping the drone on its yellow and black striped side.
"And my name is not James!" the drone added testily. Linking itself to the ship's traffic control processor the drone downloaded the most efficient route to the medical bay and accelerated off so fast that water sprayed over its blunt nose, soaking its unwelcome passengers.
As the drone weaved across the busy hangar, B'Elanna propped herself on its loading crane so she could watch Annika, a tall figure in orange stepping delicately through the water. Somehow, even with her windswept hair and rumpled survival jumpsuit, she seemed to move with the grace of a princess.
"A moment of resplendence," B'Elanna mused.
"What?" snapped the drone, swinging them around a Sea Fury tilt-rotor. The cyborg woman disappeared from view.
"Never mind," B'Elanna growled, leaning back on the crane with closed eyes. Her legs were killing her.