“How in the hell…”
“I have to admit, it explains a lot.” I said, poking through the open chest cavity of the white-plated robot on the table. “For one, it explains her durability and her stamina. Not to mention the oddities in her fighting style.”
“I noticed she has a targeting problem. When we were fighting in the apartment building, I countered by swinging her around my waist and she went ahead and threw two hits against the floor, like she was targeting someone she’d already pinned to the ground in the first part of the move.” I said. “It would make sense if that particular combination of moves were one of her offensive protocols.”
“Huh.” Iris agreed. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Not to mention the way she always stands in the same position next to Cloak, the way she always responds to her, and the fact that she wasn’t reactive when we took out Cloak before she could say anything.”
“Interesting.” She said. “What have you found out about her?”
“Not much.” I said. “I’m fairly certain she’s voice activated and only responds to Cloak, but I’m willing to test that. Otherwise, it’s going to take more looking into the programming before I can figure it out for sure, but it looks like she runs on a fairly simplistic combat protocol system.” I poked around a series of microchips in her detached head. “Looks procedural, like she’s only capable of a limited series of attack combos.”
“Which shouldn’t make her too hard to beat, right?”
“By ‘limited series’, I mean up to any of several thousand attack combination protocols.”
Iris swallowed this revelation. “So no.”
“No,” I said “Not really. And having fought one of these things, I’d really rather not be on its hit list.” I put down the tools and wiped my hands. “I could find out more about the programming based on what I have to predict her a little better, but her striking capabilities seem pretty broad, and the coding aspect is a little outside of my wheelhouse.”
“I think everything you’ve figured out so far gives us the edge we need.” She said. “If they’re robots, we don’t have to hold back the same way.”
“Easy to say when you could melt one with a gesture.” I said. “But you’re right. Knowing that, I don’t think it should be too hard to take out a model like this one.”
I lifted my jacket from the back of the chair. “Meanwhile, I think I have some questions for our friend in black.”
The black site where I’d placed Cloak was a room behind a false wall in the basement of a house that was abandoned while under construction after a fire. I slid open the brick wall, stepping into a room with a locked door behind it. I threw open the door, stepping into the dark room with authority. It was a dark, solid cement chamber with a stainless steel table in the center. Cloak’s unconscious body sat in a chair on one side, hands cuffed around the back. Her briefcase sat in a steel-lined chamber through bulletproof glass on one side of the room.
I pulled the table to one side of the room, locking the door before I pulled a hypodermic needle from my pocket and pushed it into her neck.
I leaned against the table opposite her as she began to stir, the thick black hair falling from around her face.
She turned her head up to me.
“Who are you?”
“What do you care?”
She thought for a moment. “Lily Hudson.” She said.
I examined the information being collected by the room from a small tablet in my hand.
“Where’d you get the robot?”
“Robot?” She asked. “Well look who’s catching up.”
“Where?” I repeated.
“I bought it.”
“You know that.”
“Mark Davin. Albright Industries.”
My earpiece chirped quietly to me as I checked the data on the tablet. Baseline established.
“What’s in the briefcase?” I asked, pressing a series of controls on the tablet to bring up the lights in the sealed room that contained the briefcase.
“Tell me what’s in the briefcase.”
She said nothing.
“I have to assume you know at least a little about what I do.” I said, placing the tablet in my jacket pocket. “Most people in less-than-reputable lines of work have heard stories.”
“You don’t think they trained me on torture?” She asked.
“Not torture.” I said. “What I do isn’t quite so physical, unless you’d prefer that method.” I cracked my knuckles as the black light began to glow from my hands. “What I do isn’t something they can train you for.”
“What’s the briefcase for?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“You don’t want to know what they’d do to me if I failed them.” She said. “I have more to fear from them than you.”
“Then you clearly don’t know me very well.”
“I’m serious.” She said. “Believe me, I’ve killed men more frightening than you, but if I let you pursue this, they’ll do a hundred times worse than you.”
“Then maybe we can work something out.” I said. “Tell me what I need and I’ll make sure you’re protected.”
“You can’t save me from them.” She said. “I tried to run once.”
“What did they do?”
She paused. “Five years ago I worked for the CIA. I was married. They asked me to help them with information and some operations skills.” She said. “They made an attractive offer, they seemed like they were trying to do good.”
“Then they started threatening you.” I said.
“My husband. Once I started resisting, they took control of everything. They legally ended my marriage, forced him to relocate. They said they would kill him if I stopped.” She said. “I didn’t know where he was, but I couldn’t have his blood on my hands.
She shook her hair out of her face and stretched out her chest in front her, presenting her collarbones. They were adorned with a rectangular red ruby in a silver frame chained around her neck. “This is the last thing he gave me before the last time I saw him.” She said. “He said I was worth everything to him.
“I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t stop helping them… Hell, I couldn’t even kill myself. He was the reason I had to live, and they were my only purpose.” She said. “That woman with the black hair… Is she your wife?”
“Then you understand why I had no choice.”
“What was his name?”
“…Dylan. Dylan West.”
She watched as I stood in silence for a few moments.
“Wait. You know who he is.” She said.
“Where is he?” She asked. “Where’s my husband?”
“…I’m sorry, Lily.” I said. “Dylan West killed himself four years ago.”
“…What? No. No, no, no, they sent me pictures of him… How do you know?”
“Because I carried his soul away.” I said.
She struggled to hold her tears back. “No…No, it can’t be.”
“I’m sorry, Lily.” I said. “But I can still help you. I can protect you from them.”
She lifted her teary eyes, choking the words out. “Jewel… Be a dear and kill him.”
I turned my head to see the briefcase in the sealed room unfold, standing up and curling out into the feminine shape of a black and white robot, a diamond-shaped red lens in the center of its helmet.
A bright red beam shot through the glass before the robot barreled into it with its shoulder, flipping into the room as the glass shattered.
I drew my scythes and shot toward her, driving the blades forward. In a single fluid motion she drew a small, black, rectangular object from the small of her back, extending into a thin steel katana. My blades clashed against it, the steel ring splitting the fury-filled air.
I twisted up behind the blade, firing into the side of its head with my elbow before turning my arm around its neck and slamming it headfirst into the steel barrier where the window had been.
It rebounded almost instantly, striking at my jaw with its legs as it attempted to bar my arm. It wrenched at the weapon in my hand, trying to disarm me before executing the hold. I fired a steel cable into its chin, pulling her head across me and flipping her over my torso. I stabbed the side of her thigh, with little effect as she pulled back and returned to her feet, sword presented at the ready.
I raised my scythes.
The blows were traded hard and fast, clashing in the darkness like bells in the night. Our blades collided, cracking the air with the flash of steel and sounds like thunder. As our blades locked together, I could feel the strength. She must’ve been twice as powerful as the previous version. She tilted her head up to face me, and for a moment I stared into the square red lens in the center of her face.
Damn. Forgot about that one.
I bent over backward as the beam shot over my head, burning arcs around the room as I dodged the heated blasts.
Lily shook the cuffs from her hands, escaping the chair’s grasp as she moved to the back of the room.
If she wants to play with swords.
Two black steel ninjatos slipped into my hands, and I swirled in a flurry of bladed terror through the air. The blades flew from my hands, piercing the robot’s feet and pinning them to the floor as I moved forward with a second set of swords. Blade by blade they struck the machine, piercing through her arms, legs, and torso as her maneuverability began to lock up. I moved in for the kill, striking back and forth between Lily and Jewel. I twisted the blades and pushed them aside with my scepter, forcing the robot’s plating apart as her framework twisted and cracked. I kicked her square in the chest, driving her back into the steel-framed windows. I pulled her left leg, swiping forward with a scythe and removing her head in a clean cut.
Lily and I stared on as it rolled behind the windows into the security room next to the interrogation chamber.
A light at the top of the robot’s torso began to pulse.
I picked up the body and hurled it behind the glass before diving onto Lily and crouching in the corner of the room.
The sound from the explosion rang in my ears as Lily and I struggled back to our feet.
She examined the room momentarily, her eyes finding the katana of the smoldering robot.
She lifted the sword before her.
I panted as I shook off the explosion, raising my hands to fight.
“Lily, you don’t have to do this.”
Lily stared at the blade coming from the back of her hand, contemplating the situation for a moment.
She looked up at me and gripped the square ruby around her neck with her unarmed hand, breaking the chain as she pulled the jewel off.
She stared at the ruby in her hand for a moment before turning a teary eye to me.
“Make sure she always knows.”
She drove the blade into her ribcage.
I yelled as she collapsed, the blood pouring from the wound and onto the cold concrete.
I held her head in my hand.
“It didn’t have to end this way, Lily.”
She choked the words with the blood now filling her lungs as she placed the ruby in my hand, closing my fingers around it with frail hands. “…Make sure…she knows.”
And with a heavy spirit, I carried her away.
I pulled my jacket up around my shoulders against the falling snow. Iris stepped up behind me and grabbed my hand.
“You seem awfully down for your favorite season.” She said, throwing her shimmering purple eyes around the shining Christmas lights around the outdoor shopping center. “What’s on your mind?”
“…Things didn’t end as well as I’d hoped.” I said.
“You dealt with the woman in black?”
“Lily.” I said. “And… Not how I would’ve liked to.”
I told her the story. The CIA, Dylan, Lily’s extortion.
“She stabbed herself.” I said. “Right in front of me.”
“I’m so sorry, Azrael.”
“I just wish I could’ve done more.” I said.
“You did everything you could.” She said. “You can’t blame yourself for this.”
“But I can blame them.” I said. “Jackson Garmana, Lily Hudson, Dylan West… They’ve taken too many lives. We’re going to find them, and we’re going to make them suffer.”
“I know we will.” She said. “And you know I’m right here by your side, all the way to the end.”
I stopped in the sidewalk and threw my arms around her.
We stood in silence for a few moments, examining the Christmas tree in the middle of the square.
“She had something else.” I said. “She wanted me to give it to you.”
I produced a ruby on a silver chain from my pocket.
Iris lit up. “Oh my god, Azrael, it’s beautiful!”
“She said Dylan gave it to her. He told her she was worth everything in the world to him.” I said. “She wanted me to make sure you knew.”
I placed the jewel in her hand.
“You mean everything to me.”
“I love you, Azrael.”
“I love you too, Iris.”
I fastened the gem around her neck, watching as it gently glistened in the white lights from the square.
She smiled. “It’s wonderful.”
I looked her in the eyes. “It most certainly is.”
She kissed me.
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
“Merry Christmas, pretty lady.”
The black luxury sedan rolled up the forest road as the two women in the back spoke quietly between each other.
The elder of the two was a woman with long, black hair, a tone of wise, objective authority in her voice. “Have you yet made contact with Miss Hudson?”
The younger was a black-haired woman with silvery eyes in her young twenties, strong, perhaps brash in her hidden disdain for the woman beside her. “No. Given the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, Agent Corsair is assumed dead.”
“Delightful.” Said the elder with a scathing sarcasm. “And the project?”
“Azrael has still failed to uncover our operations with the Aperture project.” The younger replied. “I maintain control of the design plans, and will continue the project as scheduled.”
“I plan to delegate it to Miss Beauregard.”
“If you say so.” The elder replied. “You can’t do it yourself?”
“I didn’t inherit your insistent micromanagement, mother.”
“Nor my respect.”
“Credit where it’s due.”
“You’d best bite your tongue.” Her mother said. “I’m sure Miss Toussaint would share my opinion about your lack of propriety.”
“Miss Toussaint would also lack my expertise and capability.”
“In the wake of your work with the Pharaoh Logistics operation, I might say otherwise.” Her mother countered.
“You forget Miss Toussaint’s failure regarding Arthur Nezumi.”
“I have not forgotten.” She said. “Miss Toussaint shall be held responsible as appropriate.”
“And yet you’d even consider leaving her this organization in the wake of incompetence at so high a price?”
“She is every bit as qualified as you, Vivian.”
Vivian resisted the urge to curse aloud. “I was raised for this position, mother. Agent Cherie may be capable in the field, but she lacks the skill I’ve cultivated to lead us to success.”
“And you lack the patience, Amour.” She said, a snide disdain toward the professional identity of her daughter.
As you lack sense. Vivian mused to herself.
“Not to mention the ill spirit you lack the propensity to tame when speaking about a woman I assumed was your friend.”
“Scarlett Toussaint is my friend, and a highly capable agent, but she lacks the skill to lead this organization.”
The black car stopped at the doors of a small, high-class dress shop.
Vivian pondered the conversation and cursed her mother at the thought as she stepped from the car. She had to give her control of the organization. Vivian was clearly the most well-suited for the job.
They stepped into the penthouse and Vivian walked into a room to the side, cursing to herself about the circumstances.
The room she found herself in was fairly small, a mirror on the rear wall surrounded by a set of drawers. The room was elegant, adorned in ornate, rich woodwork in great detail. A woman stepped through a door on one side of the room.
She was a tall, strong woman with smooth, pale skin and light blonde hair, falling gracefully over her black-clad shoulders. She had the straight posture and strong step of a woman of authority, yet the blankness of expression of a woman held down by the weight of her experience. Beautiful, albeit tortured.
“Vivian.” She greeted.
“Good evening, Miss Clarke.” Vivian replied. “How are you this evening?”
“Well.” She replied. “Yourself?”
“After an evening dealing with my mother, about as well as I could be.” Vivian said, brushing her hair in the mirror.
“Vivian, I know how you feel about Mallory, but you can’t let that –”
“No, Zoe.” Vivian interrupted, “Insufferable harpy she may be, my mother does not have the skill required to continue running this organization for the next few months. Her fruitlessly pissing around with David Fadi is getting us nowhere. We need to refocus our efforts.”
“Azrael?” Zoe asked, masking an unnerved tone brought on by the vigilante’s mention.
“Yes.” Vivian said, tying her hair in an elegant set of curls at the peak of her scalp, letting a singular black bang fall to her right side. “Azrael should be our top priority, which is why I’ve chosen my plan as deliberately as I have.”
“Mallory didn’t want your plan.” Zoe said. “Besides, her attempt with Lazarus failed.”
“That was her fault.” Vivian spat. “Because she’s a damn idiot. As I said, if we work Azrael out of the equation, we can solve the David Fadi problem a little more simply. The only problem is getting Mallory out of my way so we can make real progress.”
“If you’re implying any physical harm be brought to Mallory, it’s my responsibility as an agent of this organization to protest it.” Zoe stated cautiously.
“Much as I appreciate your loyalty to this organization, Agent Renard…”
“I didn’t say I was personally against it.” Zoe finished.
“I appreciate your commitment to progress more.” Vivian smiled. “The fact is that this organization can’t survive on the ideals it used when she came into power thirty years ago, much less the archaic ideals from our foundation that she seems so determined to stick to.” Vivian examined her nails beneath the light before fastening a lovely black cocktail dress around her. “Azrael has created a new kind of war, and so we must evolve as warriors.”
Zoe cast her eyes aside apprehensively.
“You seem concerned.” Vivian observed.
“You know how I feel about Azrael, Vivian.” Zoe said.
“Which is why I’ve selected you for such a demanding task in the plan.” She said. “I understand subtlety hasn’t always been your strong suit, and I appreciate the… Stylistic appeal. It and your history make you the perfect agent to put up against Azrael, should my professional fail to stop him.”
The door to the side opened yet again, revealing a red-haired woman in a crimson dress. “Amour. Renard.” She said, gesturing to Vivian and Zoe.
“Cherie.” Vivian nodded in the same fashion, the two pausing for a moment and glaring at each other seriously. Their expressions collapsed into smiles as Cherie threw her arms around Vivian.
“It’s good to see you, Scarlett.”
“You too, Vivian.” Scarlett smiled.
“I’m surprised you showed up for this one.” Vivian said. “I heard you were running an operation in Paris.”
“Just got back.” Scarlett replied. “I’m looking forward to catching up on some sleep I lost on that flight.”
“Odd that Mallory would retract me so quickly.” Scarlett said. “Maybe she’s made a decision about who she wants to take her place.”
“Maybe she has.” Vivian smiled facetiously.
“Well I’ll be on your side, eh Princess Malveaux?” Scarlett winked.
“Likewise.” Vivian replied, throwing a white jacket around her shoulders.
“This organization needs strong leadership, and I’m… confident Mallory will choose the appropriate successor.” Vivian said. “One way or another.”
She hugged her friend, scowling once her head passed Scarlett’s shoulder. Zoe nodded.
“Then let’s get to business, ladies.” Scarlett said.
Twelve women sat at the dark conference table in the elegant room, each of them as well-dressed as the one by their side. Vivian and Scarlett sat opposite one another on either side of Mallory, who sat at the head of the table. Vivian smiled at Zoe, sitting to her immediate left, as she poured herself a drink, anticipatory of Mallory’s words.
Mallory stood. “Bonne soiree, ladies.” She said.
“Bonne soiree, Mistress Malveaux.” They all replied. “It is with a heavy heart that I stand before tonight, as we collectively mourn the loss in-field of Agent Corsair, Miss Lily Hudson. Miss Hudson was a skilled agent who did this organization proud, and she shall be dearly missed.” She lifted her glass. “Repose en paix.” She said.
The eleven women at the table lifted their glasses and echoed the parting sentiment. “This in mind, we remember our successes alongside our losses, and honor Agent Corsair’s acquisition of the Aperture plans and results in field testing the project, and we’ve succeeded in gathering the information we need. We will move forward with the plan as scheduled.
“This said, as you all well know, there comes a point in all our times when we must consider the matter of securing our futures, both for ourselves, our loved ones, and the impact we choose to make. This time approaches for me, and the time has come when I must choose a successor who will guide this organization with all the wisdom, strength, grace, and ideals that such a position requires. The eleven of you who sit before me are fine agents who have done great things for our cause, and you are all to be applauded for this, yet two of you rise above all else.
“Scarlett L. Toussaint.”
Scarlett stood up, smiling and curtseying before the group to their applause.
“Vivian J. Malveaux.”
Vivian stood across from her, motioning her gratitude toward the group in the same manner. “The two of you have displayed exemplary skills as agents and capable leaders of this organization, and for this, I commend you.“I’ll announce my decision tomorrow evening.” Mallory said.
“And we all hope she’ll bring this city order and prosperity.” Vivian added.
Scarlett lifted her glass. “Here here.” Mallory gazed momentarily at the two of them before following suit. “Vive la Couture.”
“Vive la Couture.” They echoed.
“Long live Couture.” Vivian smiled.
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.