Into the Abyss, chapter one
by Kaichi Satake
The Erosian night was cold. A light grey fog hung over the city of Tuzh, fluttered through the jumble of dingy concrete buildings and rotting wood houses. Fuzzy halos blossomed around yellow ringlights atop thin metal stems, and further dimmed the already anemic light.
Lieutenant Genjiro Nakadai looked out at the city in dismay, and felt an intense loneliness. He viewed the scene through perfectly transparent waveglass, yet the buildings and the lights and the vehicles on the winding streets were blurred, distant and surreal. His eyes ached with the sight, but he couldn't stop staring at the ugly city.
God. I have to be the biggest idiot in the known universe, to have let myself get sucked into this miserable mess.
His eyes caught four lights moving up through the murky sky, four bright white dots aligned in a diamond pattern. Military TAV's, probably headed for an upper atmospheric patrol. The dots changed to a dark red-orange, and blazed straight upward until they disappeared into the deepening layer of fog.
God, I want to go home.
His focus retreated until he could see his own reflection in the glass. His blue-black eyes held their true color in reflection. The rest of him seemed colorless, somehow detached from his eyes. He suddenly felt his eyes were the only parts of him that were really in this awful place. He wished he could believe he was merely having a bad dream, and would soon awaken.
I've got to get out of this!
A commanding female voice from behind him startled his brain back in to the real world. "Genjiro! Get away from that glass! Turn it off."
Genjiro hesitated for half of a second, before turning his head toward the voice. He was still partly in a trance; his eyes looked at but didn't see the tall blonde woman who frowned at him. His gloved finger stroked the smooth surface of the waveglass to change it back to opaque. He watched the energy flow outward from the center of the glass door, watched the dirty Erosian city slowly disappear in a series of eerie electric undulations. He turned his back to the door and resumed attention posture, but he couldn't bring himself to meet his commander's stare.
Major Ilyana Zhuravskaya threw a quick scowl at her trainee agent, then refocused her attention on her cigarette. She was only twenty-eight years old, and beautiful in a Valkyrie fashion: tall, strong and a cold ivory pale.
An older blond man with the fringe haircut of the Erosian Space Corps stood beside her. He waited for her to finish scowling at Genjiro, then flashed a smile and lit her fresh cigarette. He switched the conversation to his native New Russian.
"They certainly give you some brilliant ones, Ili."
Ilyana sucked in a long draw of smoke, her exquisite pale face refusing to respond to the jibe. Her ice blue eyes lingered on the glowing tip of the cigarette; she blew a thin stream of smoke past it. "At least he's obedient," she said. "That's more than I can say for the last one."
Colonel Alexander Davidov lit himself a smoke. "Of course he's obedient! He's a child, for God's sake!"
"He's over legal age."
"Physically or mentally?" Davidov prodded, to no visible effect. He glanced at Lieutenant Nakadai, who stood next to the patio door and sulked like a scolded little boy. The colonel returned his attention to Ilyana and narrowed his grey eyes. "Hmph. I suppose you enjoy playing mother hen to pretty little boys, though." His rich baritone voice bristled with chunks of metallic ice. "Don't you?"
Ilyana's previously emotionless face lightened with a wide grin. "Alexander Davidov! Is that jealousy I hear in your voice?"
Davidov paled. "What?!" he gasped. "Jealousy?! Of an Exedran child?" His deep voice had suddenly acquired an odd shrill. "Surely, you can't be serious, Ilyana!"
"Well, what am I supposed to think, hm? You've never even noticed the others."
She slid her eyes toward Genjiro, then back to Davidov, and chuckled. "He is pretty, though, isn't he?"
"Hmph." Davidov's face reddened.
Genjiro looked up at their lively voices and frowned. He recognized New Russian, but he couldn't understand a word of it. His cheeks flushed at being so suddenly and rudely excluded from the conversation. Damn it, he was a special forces officer, just like Ilyana, even if he was still a rookie! Whatever Ilyana and the Erosian colonel were talking about should be shared with him, either in Revised Standard language or his native language, Rempo Nihongo. He let out a sharp, indignant hiss and glared at them.
But he quickly averted his smoldering eyes when Colonel Davidov looked his way, again. "You spoke to your boy in Standard. He doesn't speak New Russian?"
"No. Not yet, anyway. He only speaks Standard," Ilyana said. "And Federation Japanese."
"Japanese?!" Davidov squinted at her. "Good God."
He walked over and inspected the lieutenant at length. He smirked at the Exedran's slender build and aristocratic Japanese features, and then at the expensive cashmere overcoat he wore. He seemed particularly dissatisfied with the thick ponytail that hung halfway down Genjiro's back. Genjiro briefly met the colonel's eyes, then dropped his gaze, again and tried not to look uncomfortable.
Davidov snorted. "Timid, as well. Typical." He drew on his cigarette. "You'd better not lose him, here."
Ilyana watched Davidov turn away from Genjiro and reach behind some books on a wall shelf. Her words were partly muffled by the cigarette in her mouth. "I haven't lost one, yet."
"I know. You're good." Davidov faced her, again, holding a small yellow packet in one hand. "One of the best, as I recall. I'd be surprised if you had lost one." He tossed a mocking smile at Genjiro. "Even a stupid one."
Genjiro sensed the derision in Davidov's voice, and he scowled down at the carpet. He thrust both hands into his coat pockets and fingered the automatic pistol in the right one. His whole body felt terribly hot. So. He was going to be insulted here, too, and by a stranger, at that. His heart tried to withdraw and burrow itself deeper into his chest, and his hands clenched. Go to hell. Both of you.
Davidov offered the yellow packet to Ilyana. "This will be our last exchange for a while. I pulled out of the active circuit two weeks ago." He discarded his old cigarette and lit a fresh one.
"They've been checking for sparks, again, and I've been making a lot of them, lately. You know how it is; on one day, off the next. Damned frustrating."
Ilyana slid the flat package into an inside breast pocket. Her bright eyes focused on Davidov, her face betraying an unusual urgency. "Alex," she said at last, "why don't you come with us?"
Davidov breathed a quiet laugh. "Heh! To Exedra?" He tightly crossed his arms at his breast. "And just what would I do for Exedran Intelligence, eh? Babysit little boys, like you do?" He watched Ilyana's face darken, and he looked away from her. "I'm afraid I don't have the stomach for that, Baba."
Her voice chilled. "I'm sure General Fuchida would be glad to have an agent of your caliber, Colonel. Just as he was glad to have me."
The colonel caught her gaze and held it. "I'm not you, Ilyana. I can't defect. My place is..." His face froze. The stairs outside his front door were softly creaking. He snapped his head toward the sound. The noise stopped; a few seconds went by, then the pops and creaks resumed in a slow, erratic pattern.
He kept staring at the door. "Was the lift working when you arrived?"
"Yes." Ilyana's attention also shifted to the wide white door. That old fashioned wooden door made her extremely nervous. She wished Davidov's apartment had a force field door, like the Exedran residences had. Her lip twitched as she remembered her former homeworld's ban on such 'extravagances' as energy field doors. The government said they wasted power. She knew the real reason was that government agents couldn't just break down an energy field door, like they could a traditional door. They liked being able to burst in and arrest people they suspected of 'unpatriotic behavior.'
She looked back at Genjiro and noticed he had become alert, as well. She was pleased to see he could recognize an emergency situation, even when presented in a foreign language. If she had not felt so anxious, she might have smiled at him. Maybe he wasn't a total idiot, after all.
Davidov's voice broke her thoughts. "They're coming down. Nothing above us but the roof."
She calmly laid her burning cigarette into a crystal ashtray. "Then I suppose we've been tracked."
"Mm." The colonel extinguished his cigarette with his fingers. "The wires are fraying."
Ilyana drew her pistol and positioned herself at a forty-five degree angle to the door. Davidov clutched her arm, his voice strained. "We must insulate the circuit. I'm a short, now."
Her eyes filled up, against her will. "No! Alex... please! Come with us!"
He couldn't meet her eyes. His voice became very quiet. "Ili, don't." He finally looked up at her, his grey eyes cold. "We have to protect the circuit, Major Zhuravskaya, or it will all have been for nothing."
He sank to his knees and closed his eyes. "Go on. Do it. Make it look professional."
Her face went blank. She moved the firing selector on her pistol to single action, and pointed the barrel at the side of his head, just behind his left ear.
Genjiro's eyes went wide, and he gripped the front of his coat. "Major! What...what..." He couldn't get the rest of the words out, and gave up trying. He tried to move backward but the wall stopped him, so he pressed his body into it as hard as he could.
Ilyana didn't seem to be aware of him, anyway. Her pale eyes flooded with tears. She could feel Davidov's trembling through the barrel of her gun. "Ya vas lyublyu, Alex," she whispered. "I love you."
A scritchy lockpicking noise emerged from the front door, but Ilyana ignored it. She was completely focused on her task. She squeezed her eyes shut and fired.
She didn't see Davidov's body jerk to the floor in a splash of blood and brains, but Genjiro did. He had never seen anyone shot, before, never felt the strangling aura of violence that hovered in the air after a killing. He felt faint, clutched at his throat as if to keep himself from vomiting and stared down at the body in shock. "Kuso!" he breathed, unable to grasp any word but the gross understatement, "shit!"
Ilyana was already on her way out the waveglass doors, loosing her rappelling equipment as she ran. She stopped when she noticed Genjiro was not following. "Nakadai! Baka yaro! Ike! Ikimasho!"
The sound of his native language shook him out of his horror. He scowled over his shoulder at Ilyana as her insulting "you idiot!" registered along with her command to go. The front door began to wail as the Erosian agents tried to break it down.
Genjiro ran out onto the patio and flung himself against the waiting rope, scrambled up behind Ilyana. The front door finally gave in, and two men rushed into the apartment. Genjiro pulled himself up the rope just in time to avoid a stream of bullets from the apartment. He gasped, and climbed with a new enthusiasm.
Ilyana swung herself onto the roof and took position to give her partner cover. He looked up at her and panted, "Major, shouldn't we be climbing...down?"
Her earlier pride in his instincts leapt to its death in the face of his question. The heat of her glare evaporated what remained of her tears. "You want to make your head a target for eight stories? Good Lord! Fuchida said you were naive; he didn't say you were stupid!"
She gripped his arm and pulled him onto the roof, ignoring his extremely insulted expression. He just stood beside her and simmered, while she retracted her cable. The offense in his dark eyes changed to hurt. "Is that what you think? That I'm stupid?"
She spun around and leaned right into his face. "No, I don't think you're stupid. I think you're an idiot! And I think you will shut up and follow my orders, or you will not make it home."
His eyes went blank with shock. Ilyana grabbed his coat sleeve, dragged him into the darkness and shoved him backward, against the wall of the building's air conditioning system. "They'll be coming up the stairs." The anger in her voice gave way to whispery stealth. "Let's hope there are only two of them."
Genjiro fumed at being so rudely shoved around, on top of being insulted. "So...I'm an idiot."
Ilyana bared her gritted teeth at him. "You will be a dead idiot, if you don't shut up and pay attention!" She drew her pistol and he did the same, but the anger in his eyes faded into shame. "You stay here," she said, softly. "I'll take the other side. Remember to watch your back and all sides." She gave the automatic pistol in his hand a hard look. "And for God's sake, be careful what you shoot at."
He watched her disappear behind the corner of the air conditioning unit, then he slumped against the metal wall. He became absolutely still, and listened. All he could hear was the low hum of the machinery behind him. He looked from side to side, and then up, but he didn't see anything suspicious. He edged toward the corner and cautiously peered around it. The roof was empty, except for a few rusted exhaust pipes, wires and pumps.
He returned to his former position, quietly pounding his left fist against his thigh. Crazy. That's it. You must be crazy, to have let them back you into this corner. Not stupid. Insane!
His eyes drifted upward, toward the tiny orange moon, barely visible through the fog. The cold night air began to creep through his cashmere overcoat, and sent a rush of chill through his lean body. He shivered, pulled his coat tighter around him. He burrowed deeper into the coat, and listened to the silence.
The quiet eventually became unnerving. Genjiro paced back and forth along the metal wall, wondering where Ilyana was. He finally moved away from the wall and ventured toward the edge of the roof, gave a glance backward to make sure no one was there. He tried to look over the side of the roof, but a firehose reel was in his way. He skirted around it and moved to the far side of it, unwittingly stepping into a dome of light from a security lamp.
Below him, he saw rows of iron-railed balconies, some with yellowed lights on, others with chairs, toys or other personal belongings strewn over their concrete floors. His eyes continued downward to the alley, a narrow strip of asphalt littered with overflowing dumpsters, mud-filled potholes and broken glass. No sign of life, down there. Not even cats. Genjiro shuddered, appalled at the decrepitude of the capital of Kem, Erosia's largest country. A capital city should represent the best of the society, in his opinion. If Tuzh was the best, then Erosia was a pretty foul place. He felt a little superior, knowing no Exedran city was so filthy. Not even the tiniest, poorest burg. He suddenly felt sorry for the Erosian people.
From somewhere behind him arose a brief scratchy noise, the sound of someone scuffing a shoe on pavement. Genjiro's heart skipped. He spun toward the noise, lifting his pistol to firing position, just as he'd been taught. He realized, too late, that he was facing a bright security light. He could see two vague outlines in the darkness beyond the light, and he froze.
Before he could release his breath, the black night beyond the lamp erupted with fire. Five silenced bullets slammed into his body and forced his breath out for him. Blood rushed up his throat and nearly choked him on its way out, spurting through his mouth and nose. He let go of his pistol and clutched at the breast of his overcoat, felt himself sinking backward.
He was about to surrender his consciousness when he felt his body leave the roof. The half second of negative gravity shocked his brain back into action. He made a wild grasp at the building. His gloved fingers brushed the edge of the roof, but couldn't hold on. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the ground rushing up at him.
He had barely done so when his body slammed into the iron rail of an eighth floor balcony. The force of impact shattered his right shoulder, broke half of his ribs and his left hip, fractured his skull and mercifully took his consciousness. He dropped face down onto the balcony floor. His body stilled, and a circle of blood slowly blossomed beneath him.
On the roof, the two Erosian agents peered down at his body. They were rough looking men, one large and dark, the other slender and blond. Both had cold, empty eyes, and faces that bore the signs of hard lives. The larger man slid another cartridge into his pistol, but his partner's monotone voice discouraged him. "He's dead, Andrei. Don't waste any more ammo. We'll have a job justifying what you've already used."
Andrei's eyes were determined, but avoided his partner's. "It isn't a waste if I enjoy it." He checked the cartridge, and pulled the lever back. "Exedran swine. I'm going to bust his head, just like he busted Colonel Davidov's."
He leaned over the edge of the roof and pointed his pistol at Genjiro's head. But he suddenly withdrew. A man walked out of the apartment and onto the balcony to investigate the body on his patio. Andrei moved back into darkness, disappointed. "Shit. Morons haven't the sense to stay inside."
The man who emerged from the apartment was thin and wiry, with a look of malnutrition in his pasty face. His brown eyes widened at the sight of the bloody body lying on his patio balcony, and he took an apprehensive step toward it. "My God," he said, leaning over Genjiro and looking at him.
He heard a spitting noise from the rooftop, followed by two heavy thuds, and he looked up at the ledge. He saw nothing but the security light, spilling over the edge of the roof as it always did. His skinny wife peered out the open patio door, her hands clutching the shoulders of a sleepy little boy in faded yellow pajamas. "Yuri? What is it?"
He didn't answer her. He knelt beside Genjiro and squeamishly reached toward his back, trying to find a spot that wasn't soaked with blood from the bullets' exit wounds. He couldn't find a suitable one, so he withdrew his trembling hand. "Katrina," he said, keeping his eyes on Genjiro, "call emergency. And the police."
The woman let go of the boy and spun back into the apartment. Before she could make it all the way to the comm console, a knock at the front door stopped her. She froze, then threw a look of pure terror at her husband. Her voice seemed to be stuck deep in her throat. "Yuri!"
The man rose and started back inside. His wife rushed past him and snatched her son, again, huddled with him in a dark corner. The man's face was beaded with sweat as he slowly walked toward the door. He waved a hand at his wife. "Stay back from the door, love."
He cracked the old door open just enough to peek out with one wary eye. "Yes?"
A tall blonde woman stood before the door, her face obscured by shadows from the dim hall light behind her. She opened a wallet with some kind of badge in it and showed it to him, but the writing on it was nearly invisible in the darkness.
"Good evening," she said. "Commandant Myra Stakowsky, Imperial Tactical Police." Ilyana Zhuravskaya flipped the wallet containing her fake Erosian military ID closed and slid it back into her pocket. "I believe my partner is on your balcony."
The man opened the door a little wider. "Um, yes." He backed up and timidly gestured her inside. "Please come in, Commandant."
She stepped into the apartment's inside light, and her striking face came fully into view. The man stared at her. He swallowed and allowed her to pass, trying not to stare so hard.
"Please excuse the interruption, comrade," she said, instantly focusing on the open waveglass doors.
The man closed the front door and locked it before following her. "Of course."
Ilyana strode out onto the patio, her eyes avoiding the scrawny woman and boy cowering in the corner. The sight of such fear sickened her, reminded her why she had left her homeworld in the first place. No one should have to fear their own military so much. But tonight, she was glad these people feared her. It meant they would keep quiet about what they had seen.
She pushed the unpleasant thoughts out of her mind and knelt beside her partner. He lay completely still. She studied the four exit wounds on his back and felt sick, again. What a waste. Should have watched him. Stupid little...
The boy's squeaky voice broke her thoughts. "Papa, is he dead?"
"I don't know, son."
Ilyana scowled. Of course he's dead, you fool. Her hands had somehow begun to tremble. She told herself it was from anger at the man's foolishness. One of her shaking hands grasped Genjiro's right shoulder to turn him over, then quickly let go of it. She could feel the shattered bones shifting under the pressure of her touch. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then grasped his coat, instead, and rolled him onto his back.
He looked as though he had fallen face down into a pool of blood, and had taken quite a beating on the way down. He had a dark purple bruise that ran along the right side of his face and over his right eye. She counted five holes in the front of his coat; she had only seen four in the back. The one hole that apparently didn't make it all the way through him was directly over his heart. She sighed. At least it was quick.
Suddenly, Genjiro's allegedly dead body jerked in a violent fit of choking and gasping. Ilyana jumped halfway to her feet from the shock of it, but she promptly recovered. She turned her partner's head back to his left, to let the accumulated blood drain out of his mouth and nose. He was now conspicuously breathing.
Ilyana couldn't believe he wasn't dead. She opened his coat and shirt and found a round hologram portrait on a chain, lying beneath the hole in the center of his coat. The plastic disk was about the size of her palm, and had a star-shaped crack running the length of it. Embedded in the center of the shatter star was a bullet.
You lucky little bastard!
She shook her head and picked up the portrait, squeezed the edges of the disk to activate the picture. The broken plastic cried out with a loud crackling noise; the disk's electron cache revealed a photo of Genjiro and a beautiful Asian woman, clinging together with newlywed passion. Ilyana could now see that the longest crack of the star ran straight up through the center of the portrait, a deep slash that seemed to physically separate the couple. She closed her eyes, fighting the fire behind them. He was so young, too young to have been married. And so naive! Surely, he hadn't been married!
She felt an overwhelming sorrow at how little interest she had taken in her trainee's private life or in his past. Hell, she never suspected he'd even had a private life, before he came to the special forces. He had been nothing more than another plasticine recruit, waiting for someone to mold him into a quality officer. He hadn't been a person, much less an individual. She was ashamed of herself for having let the demands of her job stifle her humanity.
"What's she doing, Papa?"
"I don't know, Sergei."
She squeezed the disk, and the disturbing picture vanished in a wail of snaps and pops. She gently laid the portrait back on his chest and closed his shirt and coat over it. She blinked, chasing away the last of the threatening wetness, and took out her comm unit. A tiny antenna rose from its oval case, and she spoke softly into the mic. "EI One, this is Scavenger. Need evac with med assist and trauma facility. Pinpoint on...now."
"Who shot him, Papa?" The boy's voice had become more insistent. This time, his mother's sharp voice scolded him.
"Hush, Sergei! It's none of our business!"
Ilyana pretended not to hear them. Her comm unit vibrated, gave her something to focus her attention upon. She turned the volume down until it was barely audible, and held the unit against her right ear.
"Scavenger, positive fix. Akagi is in vicinity and capable of med assist. Can intercept in five minutes or less. Acceptable?"
She sighed relief. "Acceptable. Scavenger out." She pocketed the comm. The emotion in her face dissolved as she let go of Ilyana the woman and sank back into Ilyana the major and her accompanying professional distance. She leaned closer to Genjiro's head and gave him a disapproving frown.
"Lieutenant Nakadai," she brusquely whispered to him, "you'd better not die and ruin my reputation."
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