"Welcome back." Booker smirked at David as he was shoved past him, hands bound behind his back, followed by the large corpse of a hellhound being wheeled on a cart. "Cardinal's in my office," he said to Nash, who was pushing the trolley.
The Saurian stopped in his tracks. "We uh...sort of brought in another stray. A phosphromancer."
"Technically you're a stray too. You're still not MODUS. It'll be fine."
"Fair, but I don't think you-know-who is going to like you paying off this many people when you already have the agents he gave you."
"And I don't or trust those sons of bitches. They're useful and Veers probably has their trust, but literally any of them could be surveilling us. I'll use them when I actually need to, thank you very much, and Toplane can go fuck himself in the ass with a taser."
Nash's scaly brow rose. "You trust that Cardinal guy more than them?"
Booker crossed his arms. "Cardinal is here because he really wants to find out what's up with Sarcos. It's not malicious."
"From what I heard, his middle name is goddamn malicious."
"I know for a fact he's not one of Toplane's because he's actually helping us. Just give him the demon, will you?"
Nash made a face, but pushed the cart along towards the lift being held open by one of the MODUS staff.
"We need to talk."
Booker looked down the corridor towards the receiving chamber, to see Emilie strutting towards him, violin in a brand-new case in hand. "David say anything on the way back? About Aerin?"
She nodded, and took him by the shoulder, guiding him out into the main room, and into one of the side corridors. "Is Olivia here yet?"
"You sure you wanna do that?" Booker asked. "If Sarcos attacks us here, I don't think Toplane will be of much help."
"She's safer here than on Decimus," Emilie said. "I told you to get her transferred."
"And I did. Sophie said she'd fast-track the request." He narrowed his eyes. "Why now, though? We've been at war since the cruiser went down and just now you're second-guessing Tartarus' defenses?"
"He...he might use a PMI."
Booker inhaled sharply. "It won't come to that. Decimus is too valuable. Still doesn't answer my question though."
Emilie sighed. "We're close to finding out about the fork. And if we really figure it out, the Statesman will have no use for us anymore."
He nodded. "I'm fully aware of that."
"You got something in mind?"
"Not yet. Not...not until we actually confirm where it is, but let's just say I'll sleep better knowing the Union are on our side."
"Is that where Sophie is?"
"For now," he said quietly, glancing around them. "What did David say about Aerin?"
"He's working with Ellen, and they're keeping Aerin in some sort of witness protection thing. He doesn't even know why."
"Then you focus on getting that out of him." He removed a small notepad from his jacket, along with a ballpoint pen, hastily scribbling down a Q-net number. "This is who was in charge of moving Olivia, last I checked. Might wanna call." He folded the paper over, and stuff it into the centre of her palm. "And where's Katia?"
Emilie shrugged. "Said she wanted to check on her station or something."
"As in her ranger station?"
"Might be. I didn't ask."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "You did good today. Take a rest or something."
She frowned. "I'll do that after Olivia gets here safely."
"Sir?" asked a MODUS-uniformed agent at the end of the corridor, one hand slightly raised to get his attention.
Booker felt his muscles under his left eye twitch. "What?"
"They're waiting for you in the office, sir. Agent Danzig and Lieutenant Colburn are about to dock with the battlestation."
Booker looked at Emilie, mimed the motion of a phone to his ear, and followed the agent to the lift. "You didn't hear anything, did you?"
"N-No sir," he stammered, pressing the button for the top office floor. "I only just arrived."
"Lie to me and I'll kill you myself, understood?" Booker said softly.
The agent simply nodded, the doors closing in front of them.
They ascended in an uncomfortable silence to the top level, at which Booker swiftly exited to find the hellhound had been placed in a fetal position on the office floor, and turned to the side so that its eye pointed directly at the space in the centre of the circles of glyphs on the wall, where a computer tablet with a video feed from the exterior or Colburn's ship was displayed. He waited for the elevator doors to close behind him before starting: "What the fuck is all this for?"
"This," Cardinal said, poking his head out from where he was crouched behind the demon, holding the textbook in his hands, "is how we're going to pierce the cognition veil."
"He's said that like five times," Veers mumbled.
"Explain that?" Booker asked, stepping around the corpse and the freshly-painted glyphs on the floor.
"Whatever's been stopping us from seeing the truth, it's metaphysical. Or at least it's gotta be," Cardinal said. "I needed a lot of energy, so demon." He pointed at the hellhound. "Where did you get this one?"
"Dunno. What I wanna know is where the fucking cheese wiz comes in."
"Oh, it's just food for the demon."
"Are you just waiting for us to ask you to explain because I'm really getting sick of you just going ahead with it."
"Right!" He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. The uh…"
"The cheese is very energy dense," Veers interrupted. "When it's in the demon's stomach channeling magic through the corpse can actually revitalise the digestive system and effectively use the energy from the cheese. Isn't that right?"
"Got it in one."
"But why cheese? There are probably foods that work better, right?" Booker asked.
"Yes, but I like cheese," Cardinal said, holding up the box of crackers sitting on the ground beside him.
Booker rolled his eyes. "And then you do what?"
"There's a spell in here I saw a long time ago." Cardinal waved the open textbook. "Lets me see through the demon's eyes and get its perspective. It's paraphysical, which should allow me to see past the veil through some extent. So all we need is for the girls to get a camera close enough to Jim Sarcos to see what's up with him."
Booker turned to Veers. "Patch me through."
Danzig sat with her chin propped on on the back of her hands, hunched over in the back of their borrowed UCF ship. Crates of weaponry sat before her, secured to the floor by netting, waiting to be delivered to their one and only enemy. It was no trick either - such a thing would only serve to provoke a slumbering giant and right now that was the opposite of what they needed.
The little thing on her wrist vibrated, and she turned the screen into the corner of her vision.
You ready? - B
She sighed. Was it even possible to be ready to fly straight into the jaws of the enemy, especially when there was a good chance she would be recognised? That, she supposed, was the point of the new haircut she'd been given and the subtle prosthetics clinging to her face like bits of grime.
So she typed back: Ready.
There was doubt that Sarcos had even paid that much attention to her, let alone remembered her face, and that gave her the slightest solace. He hadn't been on the cruiser for her, after all.
Their craft shuddered as it passed through th oxygen membrane on Sarcos' battlestation, and then again as it touched down in a landing zone. Colburn emerged from the cockpit door, her expression blank yet undeniably just as nervous as she was, stopping in front of the weapon crates. "We're really doing this," she stated.
"Someone has to," Danzig said. "If not us then somebody else would be doing this instead."
"I just don't think I signed up for this."
"I don't think most of us signed up for any of this. At least you've had similar experience."
"Similar is kind of an overstatement," Colburn said. "I bomb civilian convoys for a living. It's just that sometimes I've to sneak into the hangars to do it."
"...Jesus. You didn't have to put it like that.."
"How would you have preferred me to?"
"I don't know."
Colburn nodded. "You sure you want to be the one to find Sarcos? If he has much as remembers your face you're dead. Or worse."
"Then I die, but at least we figure out the truth about him." Danzig stood up, and put one hand on the lever for the cargo ramp. "Let's get this over with." She pulled the lever down, and with a hiss, their ramp began to lower.
Whatever expectations she had was instantly shattered the moment their welcoming party entered the ship, comprised of heavily armed soldiers flocking around Perkins himself, sword drawn and twirling. Her heart stopped for a moment - Perkins had been closer to then Sarcos ever was, and-
"Manifest?" he asked Colburn, as his men went around to undo the netting holding their crates to the floor. "Make it snappy."
Colburn handed her tablet over, allowing Perkins to look over their list. "The Shogun hopes you'll be able to use these supplies to the fullest extent."
"We don't need supplies," Perkins mumbled.
"But you might want the chance to see how a fully-functioning Ronin is actually like inside, wouldn't you?" Danzig flicked a switch on one of the crates, lighting up its interior visible on the glass side and reveal a full-sized Ronin nestled inside, trapped in a cryogenic state.
His eyes widened. "So the Shogun wants to dance, huh?"
"On one condition," Danzig said. "I get to talk to Sarcos. Doesn't matter which one of his proxies it is, he just wants to make a deal."
Perkins' lips tightened into a line for a moment, before he continued: "I'll have to patch that through. And you are…?"
Another day, another name. At this rate she was going to have fifty aliases when they finally manage to save the world. "Kodenbushi Leona Everett," she said.
As Perkins stepped out of the hold to make his call, Danzig nodded at Colburn, motioning for her to assist the Federation troops in moving the gifted munitions. She herself followed the Team Rho operative outside into a hangar that dwarfed both that of the Summit and the Stateship cruiser…
The Stateship cruiser that was now hanging inside the very same hangar she was looking around, secured to a rigging in the ceiling by gravity clamps, smaller ships and drones scuttering all over its surface and occasionally ripping parts off of it, transporting them down to a sizeable salvage crew positioned under the vessel for examination.
"You guys getting this?" she muttered, trying her hardest not to move her lips. The sound, of course, was still captured, albeit somewhat distorted, though the implant resting behind one of her molars, transmitting it first to the ship, then through a series of quantum-entangled relays all the way back to Rissmont, crossing its temporal barrier before being picked up by the receiver unit attached to the RCTM and finally to the MODUS headquarters.
I thought they blew it up, wrote Booker from the other side, his messages flashing just for a second on her wrist-comm.
"So did I," she whispered. "Should I investigate?"
No, he typed. Stick to mission.
She nodded to herself, shifting the camera contact lens in her left eye back towards Perkin, now coming towards her.
"You're in luck," he said. "There's a free proxy available. I just need to hold your identification, and then you can go."
Danzig removed the falsified papers from her back pocket, and passed them over to Perkins. "The Shogun would appreciate it if we kept this meeting quite...off the record. If the Stateship finds out ab-"
"You'll have to take that with Mr. Sarcos himself, ma'am," Perkins said. "I'm just doing my job."
"They ever tell you the Nuremberg Defense doesn't work anymore?"
"The what, ma'am?"
She gave him a dismissive wave. "Just clear me so I can go talk to him. Last thing we want is for my ship to be seen here, correct?"
He gave her a nod back, starting down the length of the hangar and motioning for her to follow.
Danzig took one last look at Colburn, giving her a wink before turning to trail after Perkins, an uneasy feeling in her stomach. For some not-entirely-baseless reasons, she got the feeling that once she got deep into the heart of this wretched battlestation, smack in the middle of what could be be considered enemy territory, she wasn't going to make it out.
Or maybe just not with her life.
"I have something," Veers said, holding up a hand.
Booker kicked at the wall, launching his chair and himself across the office and into a position beside the half-angel's. "Yeah?"
"Was looking through the footage of when she swept the hangar for us." Veers tapped the screen of his computer with a nail, indicating a figure in almost pure white uniform at the far end of the hangar. "I have never seen a Federation officer dressed like that before. Not once."
"Bit of a stretch, honestly."
He turned to wrinkle his nose at Booker. "Tell her to get a glance at him when she walks past."
"Fine." Booker slid over to his side of the officer, and typed the message though. "Cardinal, you ready?"
"I'm ready!" he shouted through something muffling his voice.
With a slight measure of concern, he leaned over the edge of his desk to get a better look at the cognitomancer's position under his hellhound. A wide incision had been made along the demon's cervical and thoracic area, through which Cardinal had shoved his entire head, neck and shoulder through. "Are you okay?"
"I gotta get in the role for this to work properly!" he exclaimed. "And it is, in case you're wondering. What am I supposed to look for?"
"Some guy in an all-white uniform, coming up right about now."
Cardinal shifted inside the demon corpse. "Hmm."
"What?" Booker poked.
"Seems kind of normal, except...I don't think this person was born."
"What?" he repeated.
"Like they didn't come out through a birthing canal like a normal human being. He's a lab baby or something."
"Nothing wrong with that," Veers said. "Some people just don't want to carry a child for nine months straight."
"He's also like, five."
Booker blinked. "Okay, for the third time, what?"
"You ever seen all those movies where you had people grown in test tubes with accelerated ageing for instant soldiers or something?" Cardinal asked.
"Not really viable."
"But worth looking into," Veers added. "It's not like we don't have space for the extra data."
Booker nodded. "Cardy, where are we now?"
"Some kind of train, like the one you have in the mountain," he reported. They're going straight to the cortex."
"Anything in the meantime?"
"There's Perkins. Conflicted as fuck."
"As in how?"
"Whatever Sarcos is doing, you can add 'forcing the members of Team Rho to help him' to the list, however long that is."
"Hold on, Perkins is being coerced into working for him?"
"You heard what Agent Danzig said," Veers said. "He's still not resisting. The Nuremberg Defense does exists for a reason."
"We don't know anything yet." Booker crossed his arms.
"True. but I would also rather not take an unnecessary chances. He's still our enemy, Warrington. Remember that."
"Sarcos!" Cardinal exclaimed.
Booker stepped around to peer at the projected image amidst the runes. From that angle, it seemed Danzig was being ushered into a lavishly decorated office that was sleek glass and metal (just like everything one would associate with that absolutely ridiculous Federation look). Behind his very own desk was Sarcos, in the exact same cream blazer Booker had seen him in on the cruiser. "Anything."
Silence, once more.
"...he's a fucking AI!?" Cardinal suddenly spat. "What the fuck!?"
"We know that," Veers interjected. "That's always been the case. Look for the signs of control, of any puppet strings."
"They don't come up like str-"
"You know what we mean."
Cardinal went silent, moving his torso even further into the hellhound, much to Booker's over disgust.
"Well?" Booker asked.
"I don't mean to be a dick, but...I told you so. I was fucking right."
"Gee wiz. Who by?"
"Who's that standing just out of frame?"
Booker leaned closer to the projected image. Skinny form, something in his hands. "I think that's the assistant."
"Bryon Weathers," Veers said. "Somehow that doesn't feel right."
"That's the cognitive veil working, you see? Yeah, he's definitely the- wait, that doesn't make any goddamn sense." Cardinal shifted even more, getting onto his knees to direct the demon's corpse. "He's completely and utterly human. There's no way he's doing any of this shit."
"Idea." Booker sat down at his computer, and started typing.
Look at Bryon. At the sceptre.
With a fluid precision, Danzig's view shifted just for a moment to her wrist to read the message, and without as much as even breaking stride with her conversation with Sarcos, turned to get both Bryon and his orb-topped sceptre in direct view of her camera lens.
Cardinal swore loudly, and pulled himself out of the hellhound corpse with a sucking sound, scrambling backwards on his hunches against the opposite wall. Covered in viscera and blood, he pointed at the projected image with one shaking arm. "What the fuck is that thing?"
Booker knelt beside him. "Cardinal, what thing?"
"The uh, the…" He squeezed his eyes shut, raised one hand, and slapped himself across the face. Hard. Cardinal blinked a few times, his panicked panting slowing to normal breathing, before looking at Booker. "Bryon isn't a person. The person is a misdirect, part of the cognitive veil. That's why you've never been able to suspect him before now."
"Then what is he?" Booker asked quietly, sharing a glance with Veers.
Cardinal shook his head. "Don't know. Never seen anything like it, but it's...it's that orb thing on his sceptre. That's the real thing. And it's fucked."
"Warrington," Veers said.
"Is something happ…" he drifted off as he stood up and saw the projected image again. Danzig was still talking to Sarcos, and he was still listening intently...but Bryon had moved behind the proxy, peering almost suspiciously at her. At them, through the camera. "Oh, shit," he whispered to himself.
"H-He knows," Cardinal sputtered, the beginnings of a laugh surfacing from somewhere inside his chest. "He knows that we know!"
Veers sighed. "I knew this was a bad idea."
Cardinal's mouth twisted into a maniacal grin. "Oh, now he's coming for us!"