Into Her Darkness
The vent grate crashed to the floor. Crystal rolled out, across the hall. Shadows flitted beneath incandescent lights. A figure appeared down the hall. Crystal’s hands clacked a suppressed burst. Blood sprayed from the suited chest. A second form appeared. The fire shifted. Holes were chewed open across it. Crystal stance stayed low, her gun out. She crossed the threshold, arms jerked in and around. She slammed the corner of the door, TMP ejecting a round.
Her heart stuttered, her muscles engaged. She head-butted the man with a staggering blow. He stumbled back. Blood streamed along his front from a broken nose. His hands went for his gun. The quiet triplets of fire met shell casings that clattered along the floor. His body crumpled to the dirty tile with a thud.
Crystal was already rushing to a nearby computer. Her hands danced over keys to cycle various video feeds. Aging black and white monitors jumped with random views of the factory’s interior. It flipped to a wide angle of a room. A few men occupied its edge, its center filled by a figure tied to a chair. A man with his back to the camera stepped forward, beat a cross against the figure.
Crystal’s blood boiled. She fumed, keyed up her HUD map to pinpoint the camera, then sprayed the surveillance panels with ammunition. She rushed out, took identical corridors in sprints, machine pistol out. Cracked windows and filthy frosted-glass doors passed amid heavier steel ones. Corners led to a stairwell, up to its terminus and T-intersection that around a central room before meeting again in a complete square.
She juked left, boots echoing off the walls. A door opened mid-way up the hall for a man as oblivious to her as anyone could be. She clacked her last pair of rounds into him, released the empty magazine, and slapped in another. Someone stumbled to the door in alarm, was dead as soon as he appeared. Another fought for his gun near the hall’s edge. Terror gripped him, but the murderous creature they’d unleashed didn’t hesitate, didn’t think. Death was automatic, instant. Movement flitted, then ended. Muzzle flash and clack. No stride broken, the creature gone before the bodies hit.
The quickest path was opposite the second T-Junction, through it and over a catwalk above a chemical-mixing floor. Crystal reached the doors, threw herself against them. They rebounded, knocking her back and stealing the wind from her sails. She recovered with speed: chain was fitted around the doors, held in place by a simple pad-lock.
In a moment, she was picking the lock. Her fingers worked deftly. The padlock was no match. Not anymore. Weeks earlier, perhaps– but now, never. The chain slipped through itself, clattered to the floor beneath the lock. She rose to full-height, again, but tempered her pace. A fast tempo might thunder off the catwalk, echo through the mixing floor below. Angela was close. Too close for mistakes.
Crystal found she could sense Angela– as any student sensed their lingering master. This was different, she felt it. Angela was bleeding, bruised, emitting waves of pain from somewhere ahead to the left. A definite air of past and present violence mixed with ethereal despair, pain. If she’d been more attuned, Crystal would’ve sworn she’d sensed Angela’s life-blood draining onto floor and knuckles.
Crystal rolled through the opening of the next hallway, and stopped in a crouch, keeping herself low. She shouldered her way past dirt-clouded, cracked or missing glass panes and stopped beside one. A large, open room was visible through it: to one side, an old metal desk was pushed against a wall. Beside it and behind it, panels, screens, and various instruments were formed into the wall.
Arthur had been right. The room was large, clearly intended for worker-meetings, and with a commanding view of the factory’s particulars. Through a second series of glass panes ahead, was doubtless the control room that glowed, back-lighting Angela in the chair. Her face was bloody, bruised, no part of it untouched. Sweat and blood mingled to form streams that trickled down her brow and black eyes. One was swollen shut, purple and fat, plum-like above split lip and eyebrows where piercings were brutally torn free. Her platinum blonde too, was stained red, matted by blood and sweat.
Crystal’s mouth snarled in disgust. That one human could treat another human so barbarously only seemed possible from her sudden desire to repay the favor. Death was one thing; it could be quick, simple, painless. This was different. She wasn’t going to give Caruso the satisfaction of one breath more than necessary. She steeled herself against coursing adrenaline threatening to overwhelm her sense, and formed her attack.
Judging by her view and the silhouettes playing over the windows behind Angela, roughly six men were near enough to jump into combat. Adding to that Caruso, and any others that might hear a gunshot, direct confrontation wasn’t the best option. Then again, it might be the only option. Crystal could see no other way in, but trying to take too many people at once could just as easily kill Angela as waiting much longer to strike.
Crystal pulled away as a wet thud of bloody meat being pounded echoed beyond the glass. She winced, activated her comm. “Arthur, do you read me?”
He hit a button on the car’s dash. “Eh. What is it?”
She glanced through the window: Caruso reeled back for another punch, landed it across Angela’s face, left a gash behind. “I need a distraction. Something big. Now.”
Arthur started the Ferrari, tore ruts in the grass. “Give me sixty seconds.”
“Go,” she said, firing a stop-watch on her HUD.
Crystal leaned forward again, watching through the cracked pane with sharp, quiet breaths. Angela’s body bucked from another blow; it was involuntary, a displacement of force, nothing else. She was long too numb to feel it. Her head hung to one side, limp. Blood and saliva dripped from her mouth into her lap, wetting already-damp, stained jeans. Caruso sensed her lulling. Even Crystal could tell he’d been at it a while. He was just prolonging the inevitable now. He’d long since worked out his aggression, but he flexed his back and shoulders, suggesting he wasn’t done yet. He rubbed his knuckles clean with a cloth, and turned for the desk, sitting against it with one leg braced on the floor.
“You know,” he said, tossing aside the rag for a glass of scotch. “After you escaped that warehouse, I figured, “what the hell? Kid’s got some fight. She’s learned her lesson.” Guess I was wrong. Never met such a stubborn bitch in all my life.”
Angela’s head tilted, her tongue swollen, “You soun… dizzappoint’d.”
He chuckled over a sip of scotch. Crystal snarled: the sick bastard was actually laughing. Fury boiled in her, she felt her adrenaline peaking again.
“Disappointed?” Caruso laughed. “Fuck no! I admired it. Such resourcefulness. And you managed to drag that cunt’s body out with you. That’s just goddamned heroic right there. If she hadn’t been dead before I put the last bullet in her, they’d have written fucking ballads about it.”
“Julia…” Angela said distantly, delirious from pain, blood-loss.
“Yeah, Julia,” he said with a deluded reminiscence. He sipped his scotch with pleasure, “You know the first time, it was nothing personal. No. Just business.” He rose from the desk, tossed the rag down, and took slow, forward steps. “You know how it is. Can’t have anyone thinking you’re weak. If a couple people gotta’ get offed so no-one crosses you, so be it, right? If one manages to get free, well, no harm no foul, so long’s they get the message, keep their noses clean.”
Angela gazed up with an incredulous look. That he seemed to believe his lecture had a point was more deluded than his skewed interpretation of business ethics.
He leaned in, “Then, lo and behold, one of my pieces gets ripped off– and in my own town no less.” Crystal watched him eye the guards behind Angela. “And of course, who else operates outta this town that might pull such a job? Well, the one and only, of course.” One of his men snickered with mischievous arrogance.
“I … didn’t know,” Angela said weakly.
“Doesn’t matter,” Caruso replied, straightening. His fist balled up again. “Business is business. But you made this personal– between us— when you off my boy at the museum. Just be glad I left your friend alive. Maybe your corpse will be a better message than your life.” Crystal grit her teeth. He slugged Angela another time. “You’ve stolen from me, and I intend to take repayment.” He stepped away to the desk, wiped his hands again, then lifted a pistol from it.
“C’mon, Arthur,” Crystal hissed, readying to leap madly into the fray.
Caruso leveled the gun on Angela. Crystal’s heart stopped. He sneered, “Your death will repay the debt. For now.”
The hammer dropped on the pistol. A rumble in the distance accelerated to a full-blown explosion. Then another. And Another. Caruso lowered the gun, commanded his men to go. He stopped, ready to follow, and snarled at Angela, “Your friends won’t be getting off this time.” He snapped the hammer up with a malicious grin. “You’ll watching die first, then join them.”
Crystal ducked into cover on the cat-walk. Mobsters rushed out, into the hall, away with. Caruso landed another wet thud, then followed after them, gun stiff at his side. Crystal waited until he was around the corner, rushed into the office.
“Angela,” she whispered testing her bonds. “Angela, can you hear me?” She slipped a knife through the ropes, circled the chair in a crouch to look up at her swollen face. She lifted her face, “Angela?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me,” she said, sweat and filth and pain forcing her eyes to well-up. “Can you walk?” She shook her head, unable to do much more. Crystal slipped under her side, “We’ve gotta’ get out–”
The door burst open. Caruso and his men stood before them, guns raised. Crystal froze. Angela dangled limply off her left shoulder. The led to a raised TMP, its laser-sight hovering on Caruso’s heart.
“You stupid bitch!” Caruso shouted, thrusting his gun forward. “You could’ve lived. Now you’re going to die. And for what? This two-bit thief? This hack con-artist?”
Crystal’s eye twitched, “I don’t think so.” She mentally opened her comm-channel, let her words and aural emulators transmit to Arthur. “You know as well as I do, you shoot me, you die too.”
Caruso glared at the laser-dot on his chest, “Looks like we’re at a stalemate.”
Crystal’s eyes narrowed. “I disagree. From my perspective, you’re in check. You can’t kill me or Angela without dying yourself.”
“You can’t save her if you’re dead.”
“I wouldn’t have come here if I weren’t willing to die for her,” Crystal said, stalling for time. She glanced at his goons, “Those men are all you have left, Caruso. Walk away now. Keep them and your life. Otherwise, you’ll die here tonight.”
“Bullshit!” Caruso barked.
“Don’t believe me?” Crystal asked, aim firm. “Check the security-room. No back up left to call, and the equipment’s shot. You’re cut off.” He growled. “So the question is, do you want to die over a two-bit thief?”
His face twitched, teeth ground in his jaw. He kept his raised. “If I ever see you again. I will kill you both.”
Crystal kept her aim tight. Caruso did the same. She began to angle around the chair, his gun followed her. The laser-dot kept its place. The next moment was flashes, sounds– a slide-show of carnage. The air cracked with supersonic blasts. An un-suppressed pistol downed two of Caruso’s men. He turned his head, mid-step. Crystal threw herself to the floor atop Angela. The TMP loosed a prolonged burst, sprayed Caruso’s blood through the air. Two more cracks dropped the last of Caruso’s men before they could retaliate.
Caruso hit the floor. His gun landed out of reach. Time found its pace. Crystal panicked, felt Angela for holes. Then herself. She found none. Arthur limp-sprinted in, pistol sweeping the bodies for anyone still alive. Caruso’s body bucked, shook, his lungs full of blood. He choked for his dying breaths. Arthur’s gun turned.
“Julia sends her regards,” Arthur’s gun cracked twice more. He strode over. “You alright?”
Crystal helped him lift Angela. They each took a shoulder, carried her along. She hesitated to look down at Caruso, then spit a wad of blood at his chest.
Arthur started forward again, “Come. Let’s plug those holes before you ruin the upholstery.”
Angela managed a small laugh, more of relief then anything. They carried her from the factory, sat her upright in Crystal’s lap. She cradled her until she passed out from utter exhaustion. Arthur let her sleep. Crystal did too; and wouldn’t have disturbed her for the world.
All told, Crystal’d passed her tests. She’d guessed as much. Angela was waiting until they’d returned from the jewelry store job, but given everything, it was forgotten. Still, her choice remained to stay or go. With Angela’s injuries so extensive, Crystal planned on sticking around long enough for Angela to return to fighting shape. Only then could it feel fair to make such a decision. Questions still bubbled up here and there, but nothing that couldn’t wait.
Crystal was shocked then, to enter her room after her daily work-out and find Angela sitting on her bed. Her arm was still in a sling, and more than a few butterfly bandages and stitches held her face together, but the bruises had begun to yellow, and her wounds to heal– even her swollen eye had re-opened. It was obvious she was headed for a full recovery.
Angela stood at Crystal’s entry, steadied herself with her undamaged arm. Crystal stopped short, “Angela? What’re you doing up? You should be resting.”
“I needed to move. Being stuck in a bed’s not my style.” She smiled weakly, hoping to soften the slight tension in the air. Crystal mirrored it, but Angela’s mouth twitched and her smile wavered. “Crystal, I’m… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth. I didn’t think Caruso was…” She trailed off. It felt too much like an excuse to go any further. “I’m just sorry, okay?”
Crystal nodded, “I told you before. I understand.”
She shook her head, “I saw myself in you, Crystal. When I found you in that diner, I saw someone whose life hit bottom without their control. Like mine.” She breathed, easier than she expected. “I was born in Seattle, just before the web 2.0 crash. My name is Angela Dale. I’m 30 this year. I have a brother and a sister, two parents, and haven’t seen any of them since I was a teenager. Julia, she… I was angry at the world. I hated living. I hated myself. Julia changed that. I thought, maybe if I could repay the debt, do for you what she did, I might find solace. Some peace. Over her death. But what I did… It was wrong to involve you like I have.”
Crystal squinted, “So… do you want me to leave?”
For the first time, Angela looked vulnerable, almost frightened by the thought. “No. That’s the opposite of what I want. I want you to stay. Even if you don’t work with me. I just… I need someone– a friend. Arthur is– well, he’s not enough sometimes. I-if you still wanna’ leave, I understand, b-but I wanted you to know how I felt. Where I stand. And all I want to know otherwise, is where we stand.”
Crystal’s face was blank. She’d trained so hard and with such singular purpose, she wasn’t sure how to feel about this new choice. She’d never been more certain of wanting to stay, but after Caruso, what she’d done, it felt almost wrong to– as if some line were crossed and she’d turned from would-be thief into murderer. She’d killed to get to Angela, killed to save her— killed for more than to survive.
But was that a choice? Angela was all Crystal had. Like family now. Angela was standing before her, saying the same thing. Were her actions really so depraved? Or was it just the nature of their lives, the dangers it presented? She wasn’t sure, but ultimately, leaving felt more wrong than anything thus far.
She cleared her throat, “Angela, I’ll stay, but I won’t waste what you’ve taught me.”
Angela’s eyes welled up, her voice barely a whisper, “Thank you.”
Crystal stepped over, “Thank you. For everything.” She hugged her gently, careful of her injuries. “Let’s get some food into you.” Angela managed a sniffling laugh.
Long ago now, it felt, Crystal had plunged into a darkness knowing nothing but hope for something– anything, better. There she’d found Angela. And as the darkness deepened around them, they found it evermore depthless, evermore eternal. Yet now she and Angela stood side-by-side, beyond it, wielding a torch of hope never to be extinguished.