The next morning I woke up once again in a chair next to Amy’s bed after only a few hours of sleep. There was a bustle of panicked activity in the sterile atmosphere of the hospital, and I knew right away something had happened. Still asleep in bed, it appeared that Amy wasn’t bothered by the noise, or else was too sedated. I jumped up and ran outside the room, expecting to see burn victims and people with missing limbs. If only that had been the case. There were too many victims and not enough doctors; that much was obvious. But what was worse was the condition of the victims. Whatever had been used, it was not just explosive. People were missing patches of skin, some down to the bone, and other had chemical burns over a large portion of their bodies. It was clear that whatever the group had used, it was a violent chemical agent and was not going away quickly.
The victim nearest me was a young girl, only twelve or thirteen, and was whimpering quietly through a nose that wasn’t all there. I walked through the sterilization field outside Amy’s room and up to the girl, not knowing what I could do but simply that I had to do something. I held her had as I saw her eyes well up with tears; and she stopped breathing every few seconds, every breath passing painfully and laboriously through her lips. She had been burned, that much was obvious. But she had obviously inhaled some of it, too; a potent and excruciating experience for anyone, absolute hell for a little girl. I looked for a doctor, but they were all busy tending to other patients. Not even a few meters away was a medical microfabrication unit; designed to produce everything for bio-mesh skin grafts to new organs. It could also produce nano-meds, which were what the girl desperately needed. I rushed over, waiting an excruciating few seconds for the doctor currently using it to get his grafts, then told it to produce a dose of nano-meds for healing lung tissue and nerve stabilizers. Once they had been made and spit out by the machine, I rushed over to the girl and tried to get her to breathe in the nano-meds. These were made specifically for her type of damage, but she was in too much pain, and was scared to breathe heavily at all. “Sweetie, I need you to inhale these meds. They’ll fix your lungs and numb the pain. I know it hurts, but you need to do it now or you might not be able to breathe at all soon.” I knew that the chemicals that had caused burns in the other victims were causing serious damage to her lungs. Soon, no matter how hard she tried, her lungs simply wouldn’t absorb any oxygen for her blood stream, and then they’d have to put her in stasis. Given how much damage was done, it was unlikely she would come out of it without brain damage. I told her again that she needed to breathe in as hard as she could, and grabbed her hand and held it tight. I felt her grip tighten and her face turn pale as she tried to breathe in as hard as she could, causing herself intense pain in the process. Within a few seconds her pulse slowed to a more normal pace, and she breathed more comfortably as she felt the pain in her lungs dissipate. She smiled up at me, but all I could do was squeeze her hand one more time and give her a kiss on the forehead. If she made it through another hour, she’d be extremely lucky, I knew. I looked up at the hallway I was in; it was in the ICU but it was filled with patients in critical condition, all with burns similar to the girl’s. The emergency department had to have been full, which was incredible since it took up the top five floors of the hospital. I looked around for someone else who wasn’t being tended to by a doctor, when I saw a mother with a baby. The baby had been taken and put into a chamber that modulated its air intake, and had several monitors keeping a watch on its vital signs. The mother was not doing as well; she was choking down every breath, ever worse than the little girl, and had been burned through to the muscle on one arm and her stomach. The doctors were focusing on the burns and mostly ignoring the breathing. I knew what this was; I had seen it used in the slums by a particularly nasty scientist who simply thought of us as test subjects. It was a version of white phosphorous; a compound not seen in use in conflict since the early 21st century, when it was deemed too barbaric. It burned at several thousand degrees and stuck to the skin, lungs, anywhere that it could make contact, burning holes and creating huge blisters on the skin. The scientist had made a potent aerosol that leeched into the skin if it wasn’t put out quickly enough; and since white phosphorous doesn’t stop burning for even ice water, it was a terrible weapon. Whatever had been used here was just as bad, and was causing similar levels of death and suffering. The doctors were better equipped to handle it, with nano-meds that could attach themselves to the phosphorous compound and bleed off the heat quickly; still, it was deadly unless treatment came quickly, and even if treated immediately could still cause horrible burns. I saw the woman suck down another breath, then her eyes flew open and I saw what was left of her eyeballs. They were melting out of her skull, and her tongue was as black as night. I swore under my breath as I saw her body twitch and then fall quiet. She died the most excruciating death possible, and was not the first or the last that morning. I held the hand of an elderly woman and a young boy as they died whimpering, and was choking back tears when I felt a hand rest gently on my shoulder. I looked up to see Amy standing over me, her eyes as misty as mine, when I felt rage building inside my chest. I knew who had done it, and I wanted them to pay. At that moment I didn’t feel much like a Marshal, and felt more like a demon born of pure hate; and I knew what I needed to do. I told Amy to stay in her room and rushed down to the shuttle dock to catch a ride to the police station. I needed to know what they knew, and I needed to do whatever it took to kill each and every one of those morons who could do this.
I arrived at the police station not five minutes later to see what had happened. The bombing had been at the police station itself; a move as brazen as it was monstrous. I found the lead detective’s office, when I turned saw a particular woman walk through the door behind me. I couldn’t tell who it was, either the woman from the elevator or the one from yesterday. I just knew I couldn’t deal with that at the moment. I turned back and barged into the chief detective’s office, which was filled with a dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers, all apparently called in after the blast.
“We got the perpetrator of the bombing, and are holding him in the basement cells, far from any officers or anyone who would want to kill him before we get the information we need out of him-” The chief inspector, a rail-thin and older man of at least 110 was giving his orders when he saw me come into the room. “Boys, this is Marshal Darrow, the one who was given carte blanche from the head of the Council Security Committee to investigate these... creatures... and I want you to share anything you get with him. Dismissed.”
“Chief inspector, nice to meet you. I figured you’d have heard of me already. Are you serious? You have the guy who did this?”
“Chief Inspector Johann; a pleasure, Marshal. Yeah, we got the guy downstairs. We’re trying to keep him alive for now, until he gives us what we want. Any way you can help on that? We’ve been instructed to help you in this investigation, and if the group truly is galaxy-wide I sure as hell don’t have proper jurisdiction.”
“I’ll help. Just get me down there, and get me a police detail to help who aren’t likely to kill him on sight.”
Johann clearly didn’t trust his people in this case, and I could hardly blame him. Seeing his brothers and sisters murdered in front of him is enough to make any man lose his mind with rage. I had barely calmed down myself. “I got a few. Real cool heads, these guys. They’ll help without causing too much damage, I assure you.”
“Thanks. If you see a reporter about your height, with long golden blonde hair and a look that could refreeze ice caps, give me a call. She’ll want to come down, and I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I wanted to see her, to hold her until the pain I felt in my heart melted away and I cried my eyes dry. But I couldn’t let go. Not now. I had a job to do, no matter how distasteful it was. And I didn’t want her seeing what I was about to do. Hell, I didn’t want to do it myself. They say there are places, dark places, in mens’ souls that only the depths of depravity and evil reach. But I was scratching at the door to be let in, and this situation made that door seem a hell of a lot thinner. I knew it was likely I could never come back if I crossed that threshold.
I went with my escort to the elevator, questioning my motives and my intent the whole way down. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy to do what needed to be done. But I wasn’t about to let anyone else do it for me. We arrived at the bottom floor, five levels below the ground, to a dark room with many old cells, older than the building itself. This had been a dungeon, I knew, in an old castle or fort, and it was not a pleasant place. It stank of death, crap, and smoke. There were few lights, mostly from cigarettes and a few chem-glow lanterns. They escorted me over to a cell that had been locked shut, and pointed at the man inside without saying a word. I knew what they wanted, but they didn’t want to do it themselves any more than I did. So I waved them off and crouched down until I was at eye level with the man in the cell. “Hey. I’ve come to listen. When you start talking and what you say is up to you, but it’ll hurt worse the longer you take to give me an answer.”
“Hah. Screw you, dick. You think I wasn’t prepared for this? I knew you’d come eventually. What’s a cop going to do anyway? You think I’m afraid of a ‘peace officer’ just because he has a gun? Please.”
Without thinking about it I opened the cell and stepped inside. The man who was barely visible earlier was turning white as my night vision started to adjust to the low light. He was my height, but a damn sight skinnier. He couldn’t be more than 130, soaking wet. And his fingernails were all gone. “What did you do to your nails? Pull em out before I got the chance? Smart move. But you forgot your teeth, moron.” With that I kicked him in the face with my boot, not hard enough to break anything but enough to put him on his back and set his hands to shaking. “I have questions. You have answers. You’re going to give them to me. Got it?”
“No way, man. I’m not giving you nothin’. You can kick me all you want. Go ahead. But you won’t break me, no way. They prepared me for this. Do your worst.”
I grabbed him by one hand and flipped him over onto his stomach so that his arm was bent behind his back, then kicked his elbow as hard as I could. I heard a loud crack as the bone broke, then saw a spatter of blood on the floor as the bone punched through his skin like aluminum wrap. He screamed at the top of his lungs, and I pulled harder on his arm, until his wrist was touching his back and the broken bone was pointing at the ceiling. “I’m just getting started. Tell me what I need to know, or it gets worse.”
“SCREW YOU!” was all he could spit out in between screams and coughing from the dirt.
“Wrong answer!” I let go of his arm and stabbed it with the nano-meds I kept for situations like this. No use having a man die during an interrogation. The nanites couldn’t fix the bone, but they could prevent him from bleeding out. The fact that they wouldn’t prevent pain was just a bonus. He was still whimpering a few minutes later when forcefully, and painfully, set the bone. The nanites could create a temporary bond to hold the bone together, but I didn’t care.
“Now, are you ready to tell me what you know?”
“Go to hell. I’m not telling you anything. You can kill me for all I care.”
I leaned in close to his ear, and said “I’m not going to kill you,” just before I jammed a slender scalpel-sharp blade into the back of his arm. He screamed again, but within seconds the nanites had stemmed the significant bleeding from the wound. “Tell me, who gave you the bomb?”
“I’m... not... telling you... a... thing....” He managed to squeeze out in heavily labored breaths.
“Ok. I guess I’m just going to stop, since that’s what you want.” I pulled him to his feet and sat him at the table they had placed in the center of the cell. I sat in a chair opposite his, and tied his hands to the table. He was still whimpering, but his pulse had slowed already. That wouldn’t do at all. I grabbed the knife, blade down, and jammed it through the table, just missing his fingers. Then I pulled it out and tried again, narrowly missing his fingers. His pulse quickened again as I started stabbing faster. “I don’t know man, I can’t keep this up forever.”
After a few tries I “missed,” stabbing through the meat of his pinky, and felt a scraping sensation as the blade slid along the bone. Still he wouldn’t talk, so I kept at it, “missing” every five or six times and cutting into a finger or his hand. He screamed, and his pulse kept rising, but he still wouldn’t talk. A few minutes later I had left a few holes in his hands, so I stood up to collect my thoughts when I heard a scraping sound on the ground behind me. Dammit, I told the guards to leave me alone. I turned, annoyed, when I saw Amy and the blood rushed from my face. The man behind me was sitting there, clutching his bloody hand, but I didn’t care. I could see the pain in her face, and heard in her voice when she quietly said, “What the hell are you doing” and looked at me with pain and fear in her eyes. I knew then that everything I had sought to prevent in talking to the officers was gone. She saw who I really was, the monster strung out and struggling to hold onto his humanity for just a little bit longer, and failing. I wanted to cry out, to tell her that I was just doing my job, or that I didn’t want to do it, but that it was necessary. But I couldn’t lie. Not to her. I simply hung my head and replied, “I’m sorry” as I walked out the door and shut it behind me. I slumped down against the wall and put my head in my hands. I knew I had lost. The darker side of me that I never wanted to see the light of day had broken through, and Amy had seen it. I remembered the door, and when I saw it again I was looking out from that dark place. I started crying. “I’m so sorry,” was all I could say. The man inside the cell didn’t care, but the officers guarding the elevator had to be giving me strange looks. Screw them, I thought. They let her down here. They let her see me. It wasn’t my fault they’re incompetent. But it didn’t really matter to me any more.
“Hey. I asked you a question. What the hell were you doing?”
I didn’t bother looking up. I was afraid of the look I’d see in her eyes. Fear. Pain. Not because of the bombers, or her father, but because of me. I did it, and I hated myself for it. “I was doing... what I thought I had to.” I shook my head. “No, that’s a lie. I thought I had to do it, but I did it because I wanted to. Because I wanted to see the pain on his face. The same pain he caused all those people. I wanted him to hurt, and I didn’t care what it cost me.”
I felt her hand on my shoulder, using me to lower herself down to the ground next to me. She wrapped her arm around me and said, “I know. I know why you did it. I almost liked it for a second. That scared the hell out of me. I don’t want to feel that way again, and you made it happen. But I can’t really blame you, not after what you saw, what you’ve been through. What we’ve been through together is more than most people experience in a lifetime. You need to let go of it all, to get rid of it. But this won’t work. You can’t hurt people to make yourself feel better. You can’t torment someone else in order to stop your own. You have to fight that monster, not let it feed. But you don’t have to do it alone, Ryan. You can let me help. I know what you’re feeling. I know you’re afraid of that part of you, of the dark place that makes everyone into something they don’t want to be. But you don’t have to face it right now, not alone. But right now, I need Ryan the Marshal. The man who sees the world for what it is, who sees the terrible darkness all around him, and still chooses to fight it without getting sucked into it. I need the good man I decided almost a year ago to help, and work with, because I saw the good in him, the immutable sense of justice. I need you back. Now come on. Get up, get in there, and handle it like you know you have to. You’re the only one who can do it. You’re the only one who can get that man to open up. I believe in you; I wouldn’t have followed you into hell if I didn’t.”
I looked up and saw her face, wet with tears and smiling the kind of smile that makes even the most cynical man think the world might not be as bad as it seems. I tried to put on the best face I could, and slowly but surely stood up again. I handed her the knife, and she slipped another dose of nano-meds in my hand. She knew what I was going to do before she even came here. Damn. She was too good for me, this one. I smiled and she gave a kiss on the cheek, then I opened the cell again, this time to a man in even more pain and fear than before. I hated seeing the evil I had done. A great man once said that it wasn’t the times of plenty, the good times that showed what a man was, but the times of suffering and pain. Any man can be good on a good day; it took a better man to be good during the darkest of nights. I just hoped that I could be that man again. I looked at the man across the table, grabbed his bleeding hand, and injected the meds. They would repair the tissue, and stop any bleeding. If I was lucky, they would make him a little lightheaded, and more inclined to answer my questions. I couldn’t count on it, though.
“Sorry about before. If you didn’t catch it, my name’s Ryan. I’m a Marshal. The last one, in fact. I’m just trying to do my best to clean up this mess before I’m allowed to retire, and as you can tell I’m ready. What’s your name?”
The man looked at me bewildered. Here was a mild mannered man where a demon had just sat. But I was different, he noticed. He saw the pity and quiet determination instead of anger and brutality. “Johr. Johr Caulson.”
I was recording the whole thing, so I didn’t need to write it down, but I made a mental note anyway. “Ok, Johr. Where are you from? Myself, I grew up in the slums of San Martelos. Terrible place. Always crime, always death and pain. I grew up in a dark place and managed to come out mostly ok. How about you? What made you into the man you are today?”
“Pieces of filth like you, I guess. ‘Officers of the law’ who wanted to cause pain more than bring justice. I grew up in the outskirts of Cape Town, though you wouldn’t know it by my accent. I moved to Dallas Megatropolis when I was 16, to get away from the hatred and violence I saw there. It didn’t matter. I got picked up by a cop who hated my guts, just because I was from Cape Town. He grew up in the city there, and hated us slummies. Dick took his baton to my head half a dozen times before his buddies showed up and stopped him. It happened a few more times, whenever he saw me on the street. Finally I joined up with the 666, a group of gun runners who operated all over the South. They made me into something. I was a bodyguard for our best dealer, and protected all the operations I could, making a name for myself. When the Sons of Kalia came looking for me, they were begging. They wanted me for my skills, they saw my worth, which was more than anyone else could say. I wasn’t exactly happy about what they wanted, but I was willing to do what it took to earn my place. Now I’ve gotten what I always wanted. I earned my place with all those other guys, the ones who made a difference. I’m happy.”
Kalia, huh? That was more than I knew five minutes ago, but it wasn’t much. Kalia Hana was a “hero” of the people on Mars back when it was a young colony. A charismatic man, he led a group of hundreds in protest of the Coalition control. He wanted Mars to be considered an autonomous colony, with its own place at the Coalition Council; especially since it had become self sustaining several years before. The Coalition didn’t like his idea, so they sent a group of riot control specialists to deal with him, and it turned ugly. He was killed, along with half a dozen of his closest followers, but he took almost a hundred Coalition soldiers with him. Mars eventually got Coalition nation status, but only after another politician managed to convince the Council that it was a good idea. Kalia went down in history as a madman who used violence instead of common sense. Fitting name for a terrorist group, then. “When did they find you? Can’t have been too recently. The last of the 666 were dismantled by the UTC security services years ago. Why’d they want you in the Sons of Kalia? You were just a bodyguard, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, well, I was a damn good one, and I was willing to do what it took to get things done. I’m not going to apologize for getting results, dammit. I’m the best there is, and you’re not going to change that.”
“So, a bodyguard that kills women and children. Does that make you feel good about yourself? Mass murder and terrorism aren’t exactly the hallmarks of great men.”
“Yeah, well, screw you dick. I didn’t choose the target, or the weapon. They didn’t tell me it was a bomb. They didn’t say it was some phosphorous crap. Still, it was a damn pig pen. Like I’m going to feel bad about it. Now I just have to sit here dealing with morons like you. Well worth it.”
“You think they give a damn about you? You are going to die, sad and alone, with no one around you but people who hate you to their core. You’re not going to go down in history famous for your skills, or your worth to some terrorist group. You’re going to go down in history as a mass murderer, the worst of the worst. Two bombings in a week? You’re the most hated man on the planet right now. And that’s saying a hell of a lot. Everyone wants you dead. But hey, if prison is where you want to go, so be it. But they won’t be so nice as to put you in with your fellow terrorists. They’ll put you in with the heat-of-the-moment murderers and lesser filth. Some of whom will take it personally that you killed so many innocent people. So, you really want to put your life in their hands to protect the people who don’t give a rat’s behind about you? Really? Explain that one to me, ’cause it doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m not one for selling out people who paid me, that’s for sure. I have a reputation, you know. I can’t have the word passed around that I talked. Not good for my continuing health.”
I shook my head. This guy was either as naive a man as I’d ever met or just in denial. “Your reputation won’t be worth a thing in a week when the Coalition’s attorney calls for summary execution. It’ll be the first one in 20 years, too, from what I hear. Also, we’ve already made it well known that you cooperated and have given up a few of your associates. And don’t worry, we have the names to prove it. They’re all dead, of course, but they don’t know that. So, now you have two options: die a pointless death for mass murder and go down in history as one of the lowest scum walkers on Earth for a few years; or else help me to prevent these pieces of scum from doing it again, and get put up in a holo-cell where your needs are taken care of and you’ll have the semblance of freedom, if not the reality. You’ll be safe, and relatively happy. See, I don’t think you want to be associated with this kind of thing. You aren’t a mass murderer, at least not a willing one. They tricked you, that much we know. When you were arrested you were hiding and the bomb was found strapped to the remains of another man, one we’ve been unable to identify. You were just there for support, or to make sure he didn’t try to take off, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was there to make sure no one messed with him. Couldn’t have the message getting out too soon. Wouldn’t work as well.”
“That’s what killing a dozen civilians and maiming a hundred more is to them? A message? Well, message received, I guess. But it wasn’t supposed to be a bomb, was it? At least, that’s not what they told you.”
“Not a bomb; a transmitter. It was supposed to be a message. A databurst on every communications channel. We were supposedly going to use the police antenna to broadcast it to the whole planet, send a message to the ruling class. I guess the delivery was different, but they sure as hell got the message.”
“Oh yeah, a great message it was. ‘Stop being so corrupt and uncaring toward the lower classes, or we’ll keep killing them.’ Really motivational idea there. Next maybe you can go to the slums and start shooting everyone in sight. That’ll show em.”
I pulled out a cigarette – a proper cigarette – and offered one to Johr. He took it, and as I lighted it I could see his eyes change in the flickering light of the flame. He had lost his determination, I guessed. He was thinking about something, or someone. I knew that he had something to lose. “Listen, I know you don’t want to go down this way. Your family must be missing you like crazy. You have a sister, right?” I was able to pull a basic file out of the police database. They had very few records of anything that happened in the slums; most places did. The slums were too dangerous for the police, they said. “Says here her name is Colleen. The two of you weren’t on anyone’s radar six months ago, then suddenly you guys move into a flat in Brooklyn. What changed? They give you enough for the two of you to live on? Or was your help just a way of guaranteeing your little sister a better life?”
He took a long drag, blowing out clouds of swirling smoke into the dimly lit chamber. He hesitated before he started telling me his story. “She was my life after our parents died. I was responsible for her, and I couldn’t let her down. I did what I was good at because it afforded us a better life. But I was always having to work 80 hours a week just to keep us housed and fed, and she was too fragile to work. Some bone condition they said. I don’t know. But I know that when the Sons of Kalia offered me a job and a place to live, in a better part of the city – well, a better part of the slums, I guess. Plus they had a doctor who owed them a few favors, and were able to get her into a program that started treatment on her condition. She was doing better within a few weeks, and that was a debt I owed, and I intended to pay back in full. No way was I going to skip out just because they wanted me to do something I knew was unpleasant. So now I’m sitting here, and my sister is in a nanotech treatment facility because of them. I’d stay here forever for that kind of care. So if you want names, you’d better ask someone else.”
I stood up; clearly, this guy wasn’t going to help without a big push. And I had an idea that might work wonders. He had a name, the name of the dealer I was going to be looking for once I got to Ludd. Without it, and without facial recognition software and tracking devices, it would be easier to find a needle in a very large haystack. I needed the name, and I needed it soon.