The List Episode 16: Cargo Hold

“Get out of here, or you’ll be breathing out of your intestines, you hear me?” the officer spat, bringing his face close enough to mine that I could smell the sweat dripping off his reddened face.  His musk overpowered even the salty stench of the ocean that lapped against the dockyard in the background.

I stood my ground, keeping my eyes locked on his while also watching in my peripherals the tense line of soldiers behind him.  The officer who was five seconds away from getting his face broken was about my size, and looked lean, like he could run a marathon without breaking a sweat.  But that was all just a clever subterfuge – by his attitude and posture I could tell he was soft.  It was like he woke up one day and suddenly had muscles.  Hell, that was probably the truth.  He held his arms akimbo, his hands resting just above his side arms.  Officers were trained to be fast in the draw, but if he reached for them I’d have his arms broken in about fourteen places before his fingers even brushed the release on the holsters.

No, he wasn’t going to be a problem – it was the hundred other soldiers huddled around the port, itchy fingers hovering over the triggers of their assault rifles, that could cause me some difficulty. Emphasis on the word some.

I nodded past the officer, toward the harbor that lay beyond the line of soldiers.  At the center of the soldiers and barricades rested a cargo ship.  It was anyone’s guess what was on that ship, be it chemicals, guns, or money – but that didn’t matter.  What mattered was, these soldiers were protecting it for some odd reason.  Even odder was the fact that they had seemed to let Irezumi and her entourage waltz right on through and onto the ship earlier that day.

It seemed to fit in with the recent activity of Arachnos’s men.  At first it had seemed like an all out war between the Sin Coalition and the police, but I had noticed in the past few weeks that things had felt off.  It had been little things.  Police would arrive late to the scene of a crime.  Villains would escape inexplicably when there was no chance they should have survived.  Even police casualties had diminished, with the exception of those that were disappeared without the public’s knowledge.  But nothing as blatant as this.  Less and less they interfered with the Sin Coalition’s doings, and now it looked as if they were even supporting them.  They were up to something big, and I was determined to find out what – or at the very least kill a lot of bad people in the process.

“I need to pass through.  That’s as nice as I’ll ask.”

The officer smiled, bewildered, and cocked his head off to the side to eye the nearest soldiers while pointing at me with his thumb.  I resisted the urge to snap it off at the knuckle.  “You believe this guy?”

They chuckled, some of them nervously.  Apparently this guy had some weight around here, maybe his uncle had connections or something.  The officer’s muscles tensed, and I knew in about a split second I’d have a hole in my head – had I been the run of the mill asshole these guys usually dealt with.  I wasn’t.  I twitched my muscles to release my own gun.

A soft hand touched my arm.  The slender, feminine fingers held the automatic Seiver in my sleeve.  A chill flushed through my body.  To sneak up on me like that, without making a single sound, or even remotely alerting me to her presence, told me one thing:  I was lucky it wasn’t my head she was aiming for.

The girl at my side smiled up at me from under a tweed sunhat.  A pair of sunglasses covered half her face, and for a second I didn’t recognize Cortege underneath the innocent apparel.  That second had almost cost her one beam blade to the stomach, but I managed to holster it without anyone noticing.

“There you are! I’ve told you, honey, we won’t be able to get through here,” she said.  “I’m so sorry officer!”

A grin appeared on the officer’s face.  “No problem, darling.”  He greedily eyed the skimpy sundress Cortege was wearing.  I didn’t need telepathy to tell what he was thinking.  At that moment, visions of shooting me and dragging Cortege someplace private where he could tear the dress to shreds ran through his mind.  He only hesitated because we were on the border of New City, and there was always the possibility that we were people of some importance.  If this was Old City he would have done the deed without giving it a second thought.  I decided at that point that he would have a very painful rest of his life.

“I’ve been waiting all afternoon for you to show, dear,” I said.  “You know I have a boat to catch.  If you don’t mind leaving this one alive, I have my own plans for him.”

Cortege winked at the officer, whose Neanderthal brain was starting to comprehend the situation.  “No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”

The officer reached for his gun, but it was too late.  Chains formed out of the ground and constricted his arms to his sides.  I dove into the mass of soldiers, keeping my head low as they cried out and whipped their guns to the ready.  Cortege worked her magic, her so-called innate powers, and the ground rippled and surged.  I rode the tidal wave of cement as it threw the soldiers off their feet and swallowed them whole.  Then the fireworks started.

The acrid odor of gun charges filled the air.  I covered my head and readied myself to take a few shots. The bullets exploded into colorful confetti the moment they left the soldiers’ barrels.  I caught a face full   of the shredded clown papers and spit it from my mouth.  I didn’t find Cortege’s methods particularly tasteful, but it was keeping me alive so I couldn’t complain much.  I shoved into a pack of soldiers.  I elbowed and shouldered and kneed and kicked through the bunch, receiving a reciprocating blow for each one of mine.  I smashed my forehead into the nose of a soldier directly in front of me, sending blood gushing and opening a direct path to the ship.  With a final yell, I pulled myself out of the tangle.  One man latched on to my leg, and I had to beat him in the head until his grip gave way.

I stumbled onto the dock, and unruffled my jacket.  By that point the soldiers were too preoccupied with Cortege to give any thought to me.  This gave me time to catch my breath and check my equipment before stepping onto the ramp that led to the ship.

The first thing I noticed was the familiar stench of death, now enhanced by the gun charges and the rotten sea.  Members of the ship’s crew lay scattered about just inside the entrance.  Their bloated, discolored bodies rested in puddles of bile and blood.  No doubt the side effects from Irezumi’s neurotoxins.

The hold itself was a large open expanse, basically a warehouse on water, with row after row of cargo trailers stacked as high as regulations allowed and then some.  I followed the trail of bodies and worked my way to the bowels of the ship.  I noticed that not all the bodies had the distinctive bloat.  Judging by some of their positions, the way their limbs dangled awkwardly, and the smears of blood on the walls and trailers, it looked like Irezumi’s men had decided to get physical.  I had heard they took pride in the twisted form of martial arts they practiced.  Each of her men was supposedly trained in the harshest conditions – blood thirsty jungles, life sucking deserts, you name it – and was required to be the last of their class alive to be considered a master.  I was willing to bet their techniques weren’t much of a match for a beam blade.

They weren’t even trying to conceal themselves.  Irezumi stood on top of an opened trailer that sat out in the middle of the aisle, her hands on her hips and her long kimono flowing over the edge.  Eight men, dressed in boring black outfits, loaded crates out of the trailer and onto a hover lift.  One of the men picked up a limp body by the back of the neck and waggled it at the others.  He tossed it back onto a pile in the corner as they laughed, and went back to throwing the crates onto the hover.

The amateurs didn’t even notice me until I announced myself.  “Wrapping up my presents for me?  And here I was, tearing myself up thinking you’d gone and forgotten my birthday.”

The men’s expressions turned stone cold, and in an instant they had me surrounded.  Each one assumed an identical stance:  weight resting on the back leg, knees bent to lower the center of gravity, hands in the guard position.  Their eyes flickered from me to Irezumi and back, as if waiting for permission.

“You’re going to make me find out the contents myself, I take it.”

Irezumi gave a barely perceptible nod of her head.  The men lunged forward like trained hawks.  I went to pull out my blade, then figured, hell, it wasn’t every day I got to practice my hand to hand combat.

A fist or foot came from every direction.  I watched as the first three sailed by, and blocked the next five with my shins and forearms.  I planted a kick to the sternum of the last attacker, throwing him out of the group.  By that time the first attacker was coming back at me.  I move into the first punch, letting it slide harmlessly off my shoulder, and smashed the attacker’s face with an elbow strike.  The man tried to pull away, but I wrapped my arm around his and continued to destroy his teeth.  A fist slammed into the side of my head.  A heel kick caught the side of my knee, and my legs threatened to buckle.  My victim’s buddies attacked from all angles, but I didn’t stop until the man’s eyes rolled back and his weight gave.

I could feel my kidneys rupture as the next attacker dug an uppercut right under my ribcage.  He was late in pulling back, and I snapped a backhand into his temple hard enough to make him flip in the air.  Another brought his knee into my diaphragm, and for a second the room went dark.  I reached out, grabbed the leg that had kneed me, and lifted it into the air.  The man caught me in the cheek with his other foot, and was already planting his hands to recover from the fall.  I stomped on his throat before his body hit the ground.

A barrage of knuckles from three directions obliterated my rib cage.  I clamped a hand onto the head of the men on either side of me and drove my thumbs deep into the closest eye sockets.  The two men screamed, and their focus went from my torso to my arms as they fought to rip free from my grip.  My chest and arm muscles screamed as I poured all of my strength into bringing my hands together.  The skulls of the two men made a dull crunching sound as they collided with one another.

A blow smacked me right between the shoulder blades and sent me flying.  The side of a trailer broke my fall, and also my jaw.  Using the trailer as a prop, I jumped back to my feet and spun to face my opponents.

Four of them lay on the ground, twitching.  The remaining four were panting just as loud as I was, and a couple of them hunched over as they watched.  Blood trickled down over my eyes, and I was aware that my face was probably covered in the stuff.  I watched them through red tinted vision, ready for their next move. Their eyes darted from me to Irezumi like they did at the start of the fight.  While they waited for the signal, I did what I could to wipe off my face, and spit out the blood that had filled in my mouth.

“You guys aren’t half bad,” I said.  I brought my hand up and motioned for them to come for seconds.  “Surely that’s not all you’ve got.”

Finally, Irezumi nodded her head.  In a flash, the remaining men had me surrounded again.  As they closed in, I caught the glint of heat blades as they pulled them out of their jackets.  I had seen it coming, and had honestly hoped to end the fight in a more honorable fashion.  But I wasn’t the one who had broken the unspoken contract of not bringing taboo weapons into this fight.

The next instant, all four men collapsed to the ground, some in more than two parts.  I flicked my beam blade off and turned to Irezumi.  Her face maintained the cold composure that one only achieved from seeing – or more likely causing – hundreds of deaths first hand.

“They started it,” I said.

She shrugged.  I didn’t like the indifference she showed to the entire situation, as if her mind were off thinking about koi fish or slowly butchering a manservant or whatever it was that she thought about.

“You know, that was mighty nice of the police to let you in here.”

At that, she cracked a smile, waved her hand at the half loaded hover lift as if to signify she was just here to pick up what was rightfully hers.

“Not much of a conversation partner.  And after all I went through to get to you.”

“Levi Cole,” she said, her husky voice and English accent not what I had expected.  “What is it that you want me to say?  That I think you’re a pathetic, sad little man?  That you’ll forever remain disillusioned, confused, and alone, until the day you’ll die?”

“What do you know, she speaks!  That’s not all entirely true.  My doctor tells me I’m actually a healthy size for my age,” I said.  “What about you?  What kind of deal is Arachnos cutting you?”

“You are mistaken.  I’ve made no deals.  I’m only here to take what’s mine.”

“Is that how it is?  You’re being used by him and you won’t even admit it.”

The snakes on Irezumi’s bare right arm started to slither and wind around her wrist, until they reached her fingertips and popped off to join the land of the living.  She let herself fall from the trailer, and her kimono billowed up, creating a low gravity effect that made Irezumi look like she was drifting in slow motion. I readied myself just barely in time.  The slow motion ended as soon as the tips of her toes skimmed the ground, and she became a blur of red fabric and floral patterns.

Fangs rushed towards my neck, dripping a special nerve agent concoction that at the moment I didn’t want to start building a resistance to.  The fangs snapped shut just short of my jugular, stopped only by the hilt of my beam blade.  A second pair of fangs came at me from the side, and I had no choice but to drop the beam blade to put some distance between us.

I rolled and pulled out my gun in one swift motion.  My finger was against the trigger before I even came out of my roll.  A series of bullets tagged the tail end of Irezumi’s kimono as she fled behind a tailer.  I followed, swung the gun around the corner.  Nothing.

The shadow beneath my feet grew, and I looked up in time to see Irezumi diving from the top of a stack of trailers directly above me.  This time there was nothing slow motion about her flight.  The kimono flowed straight behind her, as if they were the folded wings of a hawk diving to catch its unsuspecting prey.

Fully aware I was the rabbit, I thrust myself to my back as the darting snake heads sunk their fangs into the metal floor.  Irezumi was still midair, left wide open from her attack.  I brought her into my sights.  The shots riddled off the steel trailers, and I realized too late that she had used the snakes to propel herself out of my fire.  She bounced off the side of a steel container and whipped her foot out from under the kimono.  My wrist snapped as the heel of her flat slip-on shoe struck with pinpoint precision.  In the most elegant display of disarming a man ever, she caught the barrel of my Seiver with the tip of her toes, and with a slight flip of her ankle flung it some thirty meters into an adjacent aisle of trailers.  The tip of her other foot snapped the air and nailed me in the temple, taking my feet and balance out from under me.

Irezumi stood over me now, her arm raised triumphantly in the air as the snakes coiled around it and pointed their black ink snouts my direction.  The snakes streaked towards my face, then froze, their fangs dripping toxins on my cheek a little closer than I’d like.  She must have noticed the activated nade I was holding just inches away from her crotch.

I lifted my thumb off the button, and the snakes receded just as fast as they had come.  Irezumi was halfway up a stack of containers when the nade went off in my hand.  Smoke puffed out and flooded the small area.  I bet at that moment Irezumi felt pretty dumb.

I rolled to my feet and used the smoke to conceal my movements.  The smoke thinned as I found my way back to the hover lift.  There, it became a blanket of gray just covering the floor.  If the contents of the crates really were weapons, maybe I’d find something useful.  I didn’t count on it.  And it turned out I didn’t even have time to open them up.

Irezumi swung out of the trailer, using one of the snakes as a grappling hook.  She released in midair, and struck down.  The fangs went gliding past my cheek, just missing, but the side of its body opened a fresh laceration that ran from my nose to my ear.

The attack knocked me off balance, and I stumbled over the partial body of one of her men.  The smoke consumed my hands as I caught myself, and my fingers found something smooth and metal.  It wasn’t a beam blade, but it would get the job done.  I closed my eyes for a split second of meditation, steeling myself for what came next.

I opened my eyes and spun up to my feet.  Irezumi closed in for the kill.  I welcomed the death embrace.  One snake latched on to my neck, the other plunged its fangs into my shoulder.  The venom pumped into my system.  Fire shot through my veins.  My heart burned like molten iron had been poured into my arteries.  My muscles tightened, freezing me where I stood.  I could feel my face turning purple as capillaries burst in my eyes.  With what little air I had left in my lungs, I roared, and sunk the heat blade into Irezumi’s abdomen.

Her icy facade finally shattered and her face contorted into an expression of not fear, but disgust.  To think a lowly entity like me, who had no right to touch her – let alone stab her – would do such a thing.  Her face continued to twist as I used the last of my strength to yank the heat blade in an upward motion, slicing through bone and muscle and ligament until it broke free at the top of her shoulder.

The snakes, still attached to her severed arm at one end and me at the other, writhed with death spasms.  They flung the arm about until finally they released their hold on me and twitched softly on the floor.

The storage bay swung around me.  I was faintly aware of my back smacking against the floor, and barely cognizant of Irezumi as she collapsed almost synchronized with my fall.  My hand still held the heat blade out in front of me, and I couldn’t tell if it was my vision that was shaking or my arm or both.  I fought the muscles in each finger, slowly prying one and then another off of the heat blade.  I don’t recall the blade dropping but I found myself staring at an empty hand.

I forced the hand into my jacket.  It felt cold and stiff and wooden as I routed through the various grenades and ammo mags.  My own tendons in my throat constricted to the point that they were strangling me.  Saliva sloshed in my mouth and foamed around my blood encrusted lips.  At some point my bowels and bladder had evacuated themselves.  The storage bay became cloudy, far away.  I could feel my brain shutting down, like light switches being flicked off at the end of the day as all the suits left for the clubs.  I found myself losing first my memories – both false and real – then language, basic shape and object recognition, and then lastly large motor skills.  Only one thing remained in the darkness, more than a thought or a word, but a deep seeded rage, screaming at the top of its lungs, with one final command.  Live.

My heart squeezed in my chest.  Oxygen forced its way into my lungs.  Blood rushed through my opening veins.  The lights in my head started to come back on.

I flipped over to my stomach to keep from choking on my own bile, and heaved until my guts were empty.  For good measure, I heaved a little more, then wiped the mixture of blood and drool and vomit off my chin.  I tried to rise, but the room seemed to spin and I landed back on my knees.  I closed my eyes and practiced breathing, trying to get my heart rate back to normal and lift the haze off of my mind.

Something in the smokey shadows behind me stirred.  I opened my eyes with a renewed sense of clarity.  I pulled the autoinjector syringe out of my chest and tossed it to the side, its purpose in saving me from Irezumi’s nerve agents having been served.  This wasn’t over yet.

I propped myself against the nearest trailer and lifted myself up onto wobbly legs.  Irezumi’s slumped over body moved with a sort of mechanical slowness as it rose out of the smoke. Her legs widened to hold her body upright, but her upper half was bent over at the waist so that her face was obscured.  Her severed shoulder still oozed blood, and her other arm dangled so that her fingers were just barely scraping the ground.

A darkness moved just underneath the kimono, bulging the hem and seams.  The clothe covering her back stretched and tore.  Out of it slithered tangles of black ink, forming sinewy muscles and clawed appendages.  The resulting creature resembled the tattoo snakes in idea, except this scaled beast towered over 6 meters.  Ink like hair ruffled on its back, and its comedic small arms opened and closed what look to be razor sharp talons.  Anyone even faintly familiar with Oriental folklore would have recognized this beast.

Seriously, a dragon?  After all this, I have to fight a dragon?

The beast’s gigantic head slammed into me and threw me into the air.  I skidded on my back for what could have been a mile, until the crown of my head struck the hard metal of a trailer.  The ground shook as the beast landed in front of me.  Irezumi’s body hunched over close to my own, and from my angle I could see the pale, lifeless face.  If it weren’t for the faint curl at the corner of her lip, I would have sworn she was dead.

Screw this.  I pulled four nades – this time, live ones – out of my jacket, activated them all, and stuffed them into the forklift slots of the trailer behind my head.  The dragon snapped its teeth down on me.  I rolled, and it chomped into the floor and trailer, shredding the metal with ease.  I continued to roll, my arms flopping as I moved the best I could.

The ship trembled as the nades simultaneously exploded.  I couldn’t tell if the blast had taken out Irezumi, but I could only assume the resulting aftermath would.  With the foundation blown out, the stack of trailers toppled in a loud screech of metal grating on metal.  The next row of trailers teetered, almost as if they were trying to find a good reason to fall, and then they did.

I scrambled to my feet and ran the rest of the way to the open cargo trailer as the domino affect brought row after row of steel and crate avalanching down.  I dove for the door.  The distance stretched out, and I could feel the pressure as ton upon ton of cargo bore down on me.  Then I was in darkness of the trailer, and the opening sealed itself off.

Sitting in the tomb allowed me to chew on my suspicions that Irezumi had in a roundabout way affirmed.  Arachnos and the Sin Coalition were in fact working together, and it was something big.  I was finding my problems were getting more and more complex.  Luckily, I had the same solution for all of them.  Nothing was simpler than death.