Saturday, September 10, 2016

Rei Militaris

     With a heavy exhalation, Jessup sat down on the concrete bench inside the away team’s dugout. He stared at the tobacco stained floor. No one spoke. Steele stood with his enormous bulk blocking the short stairwell leading onto the field. Slowly inching toward the back of the dugout, Musgrove unconsciously put distance between himself and Dante who nonchalantly reclined against the chain link with his back to the field full of Hellions. 
     “Can’t be done alone,” Steele spoke deliberately. “Can be done. Needs to be. Needs a crew…ain’t a one man affair.”
     “Who you work with is your business,” Dante said. “Tell them nothing that might compromise the job.”
     “The pay?” Jessup asked.
     “As many Bits as you want on your RFIDs,” Dante answered.
     “Crazy Man,” Steele shot, “we’re outside the Bits line. That train don’t stop round here. Crews don’t work for cred. So, what’s the pay?”
     Dante turned around to stare across the field, his back to Jessup, his fingers lightly hanging from the chain link. He’d relied on Bits so long, it was hard to imagine anything else as a viable currency. Even so, he’d heard the stories about Poterit Don’s pieces of silver, he’d seen news reports about slave traffickers, and he knew enough history to understand the principal behind bartering for goods. What besides Bits? he wondered while staring at the growing mass of Hellions. “Looks like Little Bloody Nosering is gathering the forces. You may want to handle your business,” Dante suggested. “Do the job, get the equipment required to turn your bunch of malcontents into an army.” Turning toward Steele, Dante asked, “how’s that for pay?”
     “Vague,” Steele retorted.
     “Body armor, riggings, tackle, guns, and ammo,” Dante smiled.
     “Throw in a couple Teslas and A-Tracks,” Steele added.
     Musgrove scoffed, “right. Don’t want Bits, but you’ll take highly recognizable vehicles equipped with tracking devices.”
     “Remove them,” Steele ordered.
     “Deal,” Dante said. “By the way, if you don’t handle Little Bloody Nosering, I’ll kill him.”
     “Willy,” Steele said, nodding his chin, as he stepped up the stairs to the field.
     Without a word, Jessup followed Steele. When the two were confronting the Hellions, Musgrove walked up to Dante’s right, where they both stared at the mass. The mob congregated as a riled up half-moon just behind Little Bloody Nosering, whose arms occasionally shot out from either side of Steele’s bulk. “Is it even possible, sir?”
     “What part?”
     “The part where you hand over a load of military equipment to a bunch of whack jobs living in a stadium in the middle of Sanctuary City.”
     “Be nice, Anthony,” Dante chided, “these whack jobs are going to keep us alive.” Sighing, Dante glanced at Musgrove, “besides, equipment is constantly marked as consumable, used up, and sent off to be destroyed. There’s a chain,” he tugged on the fence, “sure. But, in the end, it’s all data controlled by soldiers. And, what are soldiers, Anthony?”
     Musgrove shrugged, “what are they, sir?”
     “Underpaid, underappreciated, slaves to a government that doesn’t give a shit about them.”
     “Ain’t that the truth,” Musgrove mumbled.
     “What am I, Lieutenant?” Dante asked.
     “Uh. Commander,” Musgrove hesitantly replied.
     “Exactly. Commander of…?”
     “Camp Polkner.”
     “Right,” Dante slapped a hand on Musgrove’s shoulder, smiled, and turned his attention back to the field where Steele had picked Little Bloody Nosering up and was vigorously shaking him. The crescent moon of Hellions took an involuntary step backward, as they let out a collective groan. “Big sumbitch, isn’t he?”

     “You’ve got my attention,” General Whistler stated.
     “I heard everything you said to Doctor Conway,” Nurse Tippet said as he flattened down his scrubs’ top with sweaty palms. Leaning in and whispering, he added, “but, you didn’t say anything about the new Bard.”
     Raising an eyebrow, the general straightened up, asking, “and?”
     “He was just here with a Merc,” Tippet confided. “I don’t know where they went but, yes sir, he’s definitely the new Bard. I don’t have the whole story. Halbert, one of the paramedics, brought them in after that explosion near the cemetery.” Nurse Tippet paused for a breath, and then continued, “told me Fintan was burned up in the explosion. The new Bard’s taking it hard. I wish I could tell you more, sir.”
     “Who else knows?” General Whistler asked.
     “Besides me? I…uh. Doc Conway and Halbert. I’d guess whoever else was on that emergency call. But, I can’t be sure.”
     Nodding once, General Whistler turned to the nearest Regular, and motioned to the nurse, “he’ll show you who. Round them all up.”
     The Regular popped to attention, stepped around the general, and indicated that Tippet lead the way. Confused, Tippet stared at the Regular, who barked, “go.”
     “Where?” Tipped asked.
     “Start with Halbert,” General Whistler ordered.
     “Halbert,” the Regular repeated.
     “But, I don’t know where he is. I’ve got rounds to do. Patients to attend.”
     “Not anymore,” the Regular replied as he gently pushed Tippet toward the swinging doors. “Go.”
     Tippet stumbled back a few feet before turning around and walking out the doors, while muttering, “un-fucking-believable.” As they passed by the Nurse’s Station, Tippet called out to Martha Westling, “got to run an errand. Take over my rounds. Last room I hit up was 315.”
     “Paul! You can’t run off,” Nurse Westling whined.
     One look over his shoulder at the humorless soldier and Tippet snapped, “I’m not running off, Martha! Finish my rounds. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that the two men marched down the corridor and out of her sight. Watching them go, she wondered what had crawled up Paul Tippet’s sphincter to expire miserably.

     “Sergeant!” Captain Prescott yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
     The door popped open and Sergeant Caspian answered, “sir?”
     “Go to Command. Tell the general I’ve made progress.”
     “What’s confusing you, Sergeant?”
     “You want me to leave you alone, sir?”
     Laughing, Captain Prescott said, “I’m not alone, Caspian. I’ve got company,” he slapped Adonis’ in the burnt ear, causing the former justice to holler out. “Don’t worry about us. We’re becoming fast friends. You’ll be back either with the general or with his orders. Now, go.”
     “Yes sir!” Caspian replied before shutting the door.
     He stared at the lock for a split second, then spun around intent on carrying out his orders. Within five minutes Caspian stood in front of the general. After passing on the vague intel, Caspian waited for his new orders.    
     In the middle of the Command tent, General Tomlyn held a small collection of papers in one hand. He wagged the papers at Caspian, “are you familiar with the term ‘FUBAR,’ Sergeant?”
     “I am.”
     “Good. Then you’ll understand when I tell you that this is the most FUBAR day I’ve ever had the displeasure of witnessing during my long and distinguished career in the Regular Militia.” He confided, “and, I was a lowly private when the rioter’s set Dervishaw on fire. Way before your time, son.” General Tomlyn stopped speaking, tilted his head to the left, and squinted at Caspian. “Yes, Sergeant. I was enlisted. No one handed me this job. I worked my ass off for it. And, right now, I can tell you, I’m damn glad I did. I don’t trust anyone else to do what’s got to be done next. Tell Captain Prescott that I’ll be with him shortly. Dismissed.”
     Caspian saluted, clicked his heels together, and grunted, “yes sir!”

     “What in Mercury’s name is going on? I can hear you all in the Ready Room. If I can hear you, then by the wings on Mercury’s helm, so can all the river rats, the dockers, and the damned authorities!” Captain Decker said, his deadly quiet voice filled with rage.
     “Who do you think you are?” the twins yelled at him.
     “I’m the captain of this barge. The man seeing you to safety. And, one irritated old bastard. Who are you?” he growled back.
     “You don’t know?” one twin asked.
     Captain Decker glared at her, “and I don’t care. It’ll be the better part of night before we get there. Keep quiet. Or so help me, I’ll have Doc dose you.”
     “Uh, Captain,” Doctor Cooper interrupted, “I don’t know what they were already given…”
     “Hear me,” Captain Decker ordered, “and hear me well. The next one of you that goes around braying, screaming, or otherwise making a racket will be shackled, gagged, and doped. We will make our port of call without incident. Or, so help me, I’ll keelhaul the lot of you. Understood?”
     “Aye sir!” Miranda and Doctor Cooper answered.
     “Understood?” Captain Decker asked again while staring at the twins.
     The two women chanced looks at each other, before replying softly, “yes.”
     “Good. Now, I’m not an unreasonable man. I understand you’re probably confused. Let me lay it out. Slavers kidnapped you all with the intent of sending you over the mountains to live out your days as sex slaves to the twisted fucks that live in Poterit Dan. You were rescued. We’re to escort you to safety. The goal is to get the lot of you as far away from those asshats as possible. I know you have lives you’d like to get back to and that you can’t trust that we’re not the slavers responsible. Asking you to take our word for it is, perhaps, asking too much. Regardless, that’s exactly what I’m asking. When the rest wake up, it’d do you all well to help them keep their cool. If not, whatever future you might have had as plaything for the Danian elite will seem like a nice and wonderful vacation from the misery I promise to inflict. Is that understood?”
     The twins nodded their ascent, but stared warily at the captain.
     “Sir,” Doctor Cooper said, “you should see this.” He waved Captain Decker to the cot that the twins were guarding. On it lay the oldest of the women. Her open eyes stared at some distant point and her mouth moved with the repetition of a silent phrase. Her extremities were covered in thin cuts that disappeared below the sheet she’d been covered with.
     After a full minute of gazing at the brutalized woman, Captain Decker cursed, “by Mercury we will settle up with these festering pus bags!” Glaring at the twins, he forced himself to remain calm as he said, “no one on my crew would ever do that to an innocent. But, you can rest assured, we will return the favor in full.” He about-faced, marched to the hatch, ordering over his shoulder, “fix her, Doctor.”
     “Miranda, my bag.”
     When Rainboy’s closed and the Forum Publicos emptied, the Inquisitor and the tuxedo cat were still sitting on the bench. They sat there until the Inquisitor suddenly stood up, deposited his dinner trash in a nearby receptacle, and then jogged across the forum to an alley a block up from Rainboy’s. Unbeknownst to the Inquisitor, the tuxedo cat followed in the shadows. Circling the block, the Inquisitor approached Rainboy’s from the rear where the restaurant’s dumpsters were hiding. He leaned against the building on the opposite side of the alleyway while observing the rear entrance to Rainboy’s. Once satisfied that the employees had really closed up shop, he jogged to the door, and removed a pack of picks from his back pocket. In less than thirty seconds, he’d picked the lock and let himself inside. He did not see the tuxedo cat dart through the door a split second before it closed.
     From his front pocket, he removed a tiny LED flashlight that he held in a loose fist. The light spilling out between his fingers was enough for him to see by, but dim enough that it wouldn’t attract attention through the front windows. Quickly and silently, the Inquisitor moved along the wall of the walk-in refrigerator, passed the gleaming silver expanse of high class kitchen counters, work spaces, and grills, and into the actual dining room. He swiftly covered the distance to the maĆ®tre d’ station near the front door. On top of the podium sat a seating chart with the next day’s reservations already filled in. Rold Ajint, where are you? He flipped through the beginning of the chart until he found Rold’s name on three different days. Each time the table was the same: the second private room on the right. The Inquisitor crossed the room occasionally bumping into a table or chair and cussing under his breath.
     Rather than pulling back the privacy curtain, he lifted up an edge and waited. When nothing happened, he pushed through the curtain, and found himself standing before a large square table surrounded on three sides by plush bench seating. He immediately bent over, shining his LED light under the table. At first he saw nothing but a few pieces of ABC gum, and then, he suddenly caught a glint of reflected light. Upon closer inspection the Inquisitor realized he was staring at some kind of switch. The hair on his arms and neck rose. He stood up, thinking, what is that? This better not be some kind of trick! Using the flashlight, he slowly examined the entire underside of the table and determined that the switch’s wires had to run through the round steel tube holding up the table. He hesitated. If the switch had any kind of current running through it, he could be electrocuted or otherwise incapacitated. Of course, he had to know, and it was far better for him to find out now than later. The Inquisitor reached out, closed his eyes, and flicked the switch.
     To his surprise, the entire privacy booth began to rotate clockwise. When the booth stopped moving, he was inside a small windowless chamber. He gripped the flashlight with his thumb and forefinger, allowing the full brilliance of the single LED to light a circle around him. Aside from the booth, the only other thing in the chamber was a thin wooden door. What’s your game, Adonis? he wondered as he slipped over to the door. After picking its lock, he carefully opened it, holding his breath and hoping it wouldn’t squeak on its hinges. The door hid an equally thin set of stairs that led down at a precariously sharp angle. For the first time that evening, the Inquisitor found himself wishing he’d brought at least one, if not both, of the duumviri with him. He couldn’t see any other choice but to continue on. There was no way he could leave the restaurant without finding out what was at the bottom of the stairs. 

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