Sunday, January 13, 2008

Chapter Nineteen: We're rough and tough and stupid, now let's get the hell out of here.

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The twenty two of us went in five separate motor squids, decamping at docking areas up and down the industrial cluster whose lowest level contained our. There were three spiral corridors that descended from top to bottom of the cluster, though I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to walk up the entire half a kilometer height of it. There were also a couple of industrial strength elevators that ran on either side of the central waste shaft. We'd pull the plug from the elevators when the raid began, or rather City Center Control would do it when we gave the signal.

Some of our squad went down the elevators, singly or in pairs, while the rest of us descended the spiral, again split up to avoid attracting too much attention. For the same reason, most of us carried our helmets in sacks or pouches. I'd put my regular clothing over the body armor, which made me look rather like a steroid junkie with bad clothes sense.

Calvin and I were to be stationed in one of the three upper corridors, near the rim corridor that connected to the spiral around the cluster. That way we covered the upper level exit route from our target bloon, the middle one of the three, but if somebody got into trouble on one of the other two, we could move quickly to cover them. I'd thought of volunteering to be one of the two men who covered an exit route solo, but decided against it. I was the outsider, here by special dispensation.

Jenkins was sending a steady line of patter throughout our taking our position, mostly to calm the pre-mission jitters. We were nearly the last to arrive, and I heard Jenkins say softly, "Hey, Sid, where are you? You and Lee Chin are just about last in line."

"I'm still two levels up," came a voice which I assumed was Sid's. "The 'vater stopped a bit farther up, and somebody hauled a big pipe fitting onto it, so I lost some time. Now they're looking at me like they've never seen somebody on a mobile comm before."

"Ah, well, take your time," said Jenkins. "You can't rush an elevator." Seemingly as an afterthought, Jenkins said, "Hey, Sid, you still seeing that teller in Silvertree?"

"Nah," Sid replied. "I decided I liked her sister better."

There was some snickering laughter at what I assumed was a running joke amongst the D&V boys. Jenkins replied, "Well, be careful, Sid. Sibling rivalry can tear you up. When the elevator gets to the bottom, let me know."

"Mr. Pipe Fitting just hauled off," came Sid's response. I should be down in about thirty seconds. I'm putting on my helmet."

"Right," said Jenkins. "Lee Chin, are you hung up? You made it down yet?"

"Yes sir," said somebody, who sounded like a Lee Chin. "I'm at my station."

"Good, the rest of you can suit up, now, if you haven't already. We move when Sid takes his post."

I had to admit that Jenkins sounded good. The whole team had a right to be nervous. I didn't know how much training they had; none as a whole unit, that much was clear. Running two teams is a hard job, and Jenkins had my vote as keeping everything under control, at least so far.

I switched off my mouth piece. "Hey, Calvin," I muttered, "How many men did they say worked this place we're busting?"

"Surveillance says ten," he answered. "There could be more if somebody lives here, but who'd want to?"

I nodded and put on my helmet, and unbuttoned my shirt so I could seal the collar to the body armor underneath.

"Well," I said, just to hear my voice in the hollow helmet echo. "Time for this show to hit the road."

"Meiners here," came Sid's voice over the comm. "Ready to dance."

"Right," said Jenkins. "Open mike time now, boys, but save it unless it's important. Set the strips and let me know when you're done."

I heard the sounds of movement coming through the open comms, and then each of the three main level door parties announced that they had laid the flash strips on the bloon portals.

"Let's do it then," said Jenkins.

There was a door buzzer sound and a mumble from someone inside the place that Jenkins''s mike didn't pick up."

"City Inspector's Office," Jenkins said. "Open up, please."

Another mumble, then Jenkins replied, "Prior notification is not required under Civic Ordinance 1777, of the Public Health and Safety Code. Please open this portal immediately. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor."

The mumble got louder and angrier.

"I advise you to please step away from the portal, then," said Jenkins, and two seconds later there came a whumping noise. With a sudden chill, I realized that it sounded like the charges that had blown Bess out of the sky.

We had four men on the main entrance, and four men each on the other two secondary entrances on the main level. The drill was, blow the portals, then two men in quick to flank the entrance and to cover the next two with gun and shock sticks. I heard the scramble of men, then the a voice amplified enough to saturate the comm channel volume limiter. There was a weird echo to it, because it was loud enough for us to hear, even on the mid-level corridors above.


Sometimes when an operation goes sour, it happens by imperceptible steps, and you're never sure afterwards either when it went awry or when you first realized that it was blown. But on that one I remember the sudden sinking feeling when I hear the sound. I hadn't heard it before, as such, although I'd heard it in videos and audio plays. I asked Calvin, "Is that. . .?"

"Fire alarm," Calvin confirmed.

I had one brief thought that it was just a diversion, that the men inside had hit the alarm hoping to buy some confusion and time to allow them to escape. That, in fact, was the plan, as it turned out, but it sure as hell didn't stop at the alarm.

"What the hell?" came Jenkins' voice on full override to the sudden babble in the comm channel. Then someone else's unfamiliar voice came through.

"Jesus! Smoke!"

Jenkins voice overrode it all again. "Can it!" he yelled. Then the quality of the background noise on the channel changed and Jenkins was saying, "Jenkins to Central Control, we have a situation here. The target has begun a fire alarm and we see smoke." He paused. "Make that a lot of smoke," he continued. "It appears to be coming from the central bloon, and it's already too thick to see through. We see no flames or fire, so it's probably a diversion, but this whole cluster is about to go to panic evac."

Jenkins' first estimate was right, we later learned. The first gouts of smoke were fake. Someone inside had opened canisters of ammonia and also of hydrogen chloride, and the resulting ammonium chloride cloud took only a few seconds to reduce the visibility in the central bloon to essentially zero, giving those inside a huge advantage over those unfamiliar with the territory.

"Waddich, Slough!" Jenkins call out. "What's your status?"

"Heavy smoke coming through the door from the central bloon," someone said. "We saw just a couple of them just as . . . oh, shit. . . an incendiary just went off. . . just on this side of the portal to the central bloon." We heard a couple of distant whumps!, followed by assorted profanity from our team.

Then a hatchway opened up in the corridor floor in front of us, and suddenly Calvin and I got very busy.

I'd been holding back near the main corridor junction, in case someone needed quick help. Calvin was nearly halfway to the first freight portal, set in the floor a third of the way down the passageway that ran atop the central bloon. What we hadn't figured on was a hidden trapdoor portal that opened up almost under Calvin's feet. A gout of smoke poured out of it and two men emerged.

"Hold it right where you are!" I heard Calvin say, then he showed some sense and, without waiting for their response, fired his dart pistol.

Which had no effect, unfortunately. The men who emerged were in full body armor, just like we were, and their helmets were of the industrial hard-shell variety, at least as sturdy as what we were wearing. I didn't have time to reflect on just how likely it was that men who were working with compressed gases, heavy machinery, and probably toxic pharmaceuticals, would be wearing protective clothing. Chalk one up planning snafu number one.

Standard encounter tactics now would be for Calvin to use his shock stick as a baton and go for the most vulnerable targets of the body armor. More sensible tactics would be to fall back and let me help. But Calvin had time for neither of those. The first man, who was still only halfway out of the hole, swung some sort of weighted pipe at Calvin's legs, and connected with his ankle, which is one of those vulnerable sites I just mentioned. Body armor isn't rigid enough to stop a blow like that, and Calvin went over sideways as his leg folded under him. The man swung his pipe again before Calvin had hit the floor, and it landed on his helmet. Helmets are rigid, but there was force behind the blow. It slammed Calvin flat to the floor, and I really didn't like the sound it made.

Well, when a man's partner is in trouble, he's supposed to do something about it. I broke into a run toward them, but the other figure clambered from the hole and came at me with another pipe. Where did they get those things, anyway?

I didn't have time for that kind of crap. Just before we met, I used a quick hop feint, to draw his attention, then dropped to the floor, a maneuver quaintly called "The Rock." This moron was actually dumb enough to keep swinging even when his target had disappeared. He went over heavily, and I darted forward again.

Moron number two must have really hated cops, because he was still swinging at Calvin, oblivious to the fate of moron number one. It only took four or five steps to get into kick range, and I leapt forward, driving my heel into the seam between his helmet and body suit. The helmet edge slammed into the base of his skull, and that was it for him. I slap hit the floor and bounced slightly, then yanked the now unconscious moron off of Calvin. I was relieved to see that Calvin's helmet was cracked but not broken. Man, those things are tough. I wondered if I hadn't done damage to my heel, but I was too cranked to feel pain.

"You awake?" I called to Calvin Lee.

"Uh, yeah, I think," he replied. "I don't hear too well, though, from all that banging he was doing."

I gave a quick glance to check out moron number one, who'd managed to pick himself up and was limping toward the exit. Past him was the outer corridor and I saw people running. By this time the alarm had sounded through the entire cluster, and most of the people outside were from other bloons. Once our suspects reached the outer corridor, they could ditch their hard helmets and blend with the crowd. Maybe they wouldn't even have to remove the helmets, if there were enough heavy machine operations nearby.

I looked at Calvin's cracked helmet and at the smoke welling up from the trapdoor. I had no idea what sort of toxic crap was in that smoke.

"You can't go in without a helmet," I told him.

He rolled to one side and reached over to unfasten the helmet of his attacker. I helped him pull it off the guy; I couldn't tell if he was still breathing, and I didn't care either way. We tried the helmet on Calvin's suit join. The seals on the armor suits are pretty flexible, and the helmet connected up okay.

"Let's go," he said.

"Are you sure you can walk?" I asked.

"Hell, yes," he said. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It makes you brave and maybe a bit stupid too. We should probably have stayed outside and pulled back to deal with the escaping suspects, or maybe help with the panic. But there was physical evidence going up in smoke down below, and we wanted to try to get some of it.

Sounds of a scuffle came over the comm line as Calvin and I climbed down into the trap door. It seemed that most of the suspects had exited on one of the lower access corridors and had pushed aside Jenkins' men to make a quick escape. Not real surprising, since the odds had probably been about eight to two. Backup hadn't been able to reach them because of the sudden confusion in the outer corridors.

I clicked open the comm channel tried to get a word in edgewise. "Honlin, here," I called to Jenkins. "Lee and I just took out two of them, but one got away. The other is unconscious or dead. Are all our men clear?"

Jenkins broke off what was another is a string of updates to Central Control, which was assuring him that lots of evac vehicles were on the way. "Honlin?" he said. "I've given the order to fall back. There was a scuffle on the lower access corridor and the suspects broke through. Everyone should get clear. We need everyone to the main corridor. If there's a panic, people could get trampled."

"Lee and I are going into the target area," I told him as we climbed through the trap door."

"Negative," he said. "We need you to help control the crowd."

"Sorry," I told him. "I don't do crowds anymore. Get a man up here to check out the guy we laid out. We're going in."

He said a few things that I won't repeat, but I ignored them. I was too busy trying to see though the murk.

Like most Lunar natives I'm afraid of fire. A pure O2 environment gives it a ferocity that turns even mildly combustible materials into fire bombs. Images of fire deaths linger in our collective unconscious, even extending to children's stories and legends of those who anger the fire devils enough to be punished by being struck down in a single flash of flame, spontaneous human combustion.

Venus dwellers are a lot more relaxed about fire, however, even to the extent of sometimes burning candles, or, like the Rastafarians of Marley Farm, ingesting drugs via smoke inhalation.

Venusians can afford to be relaxed about combustion because they live in an atmosphere that is only about twenty percent oxygen, with plenty of heat absorbing nitrogen mixed in. Then too, there isn't all that much in bloon life that is terribly combustible. Bloonskin is almost completely fireproof, and even bloonsilk has flame retardant properties.

Fire doesn't burn very well in enclosed spaces, either. Without access to unlimited air supplies, a fire will snuff itself in fairly short order. So most fires on Venus are industrial accidents and most of the deaths are through smoke inhalation, from someone who was careless enough to forget to carry their bubble mask with them.

There is a certain fascination to staring at death only a few inches away from your face. Descending into the smoky pit was like that, since the only thing between me and the thick, toxic smoke was my helmet. Sure, it's not really different than wearing a bubble mask outside, where the CO2 would kill you in seconds without protection, but you can't see CO2, and we could see the smoke. In fact, we couldn't see much besides the smoke.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Calvin told me.

"Well, it was your idea," I replied.

"My idea?" he said. "I thought it was your idea."

"Well, no matter whose idea it was, if we don't get some clearing soon, we'd better call it off," I told him.

But the visibility increased as we descended, and we started to see the red glow of small flames through the haze. Apparently the heat had burned away a lot of the initial smoke bomb haze, and the thick clouds of smoke that came from what looked like a storage closet were hot enough to rise.

Another incendiary flash caught us by surprise, and we jumped back from the wall where the charge had been set. The whole place must have been booby trapped as a precaution against raids and when the occupants left, they triggered some sort of destruct sequence. But the thing was strung out to give a lot of time for the escape, counting on the confusion and panic of so much smoke to retard any quick pacification of the area. There was probably even some way to terminate the program that triggered the incendiaries, but we'd never find it.

"We need to get into that storage closet," said Calvin, pointing.

"I'll bet it's booby trapped," I told him.

He nodded and picked up an empty gas cylinder. It was about as big around as my waist, but not so heavy that he couldn't lift it one handed. He jerked it up and shot putted it at the door to the storage room.

It hit the door and bounced. From the sound of it, I guessed that the door was just laminated bloonboard, which is fairly easy to cut into. But we didn't have a chance for that, because after a couple of seconds, there was a small explosion and the door split apart, with a gout of flame leaping out of it. Whether Calvin's canister heave had set off something or whether the explosion was an accident I couldn't say.

Calvin and I both ducked at the noise of the explosion. He poked his head up and looked at the gouting flame and said, "They've got more gas canisters in there. If they're loaded with air or oxygen, it's going to be a chain reaction as they heat up."

I caught his point. If the closet was full of combustibles, with incendiary charges to light them, then the heat would eventually rupture the canisters, which would in turn feed the fire some more. It meant that it was too dangerous to approach. It could go off at any moment.

In fact, it was too dangerous to hang around.

"Okay," I said. "We've made our point. We're rough and tough and stupid, now let's get the hell out of here."

We picked ourselves up and headed for the main door. Another small explosion hit, this one not from the storage area. Glancing to the side, I saw that it had ripped a small hole in the bloon floor, and that I could see a wire reinforced webbing underneath. Beyond that was just the shadowy clouds below.

"I believe that this may be somebody's idea of a scorched earth policy," Calvin opined. "They may intend to dump the entire thing."

I nodded, not that he could see me though my helmet, which was rapidly accumulating some sort of grunge on the outside.

Then we stumbled over the body. Literally. We could barely see our feet at that point, so the corpse was almost invisible to us. It wasn't the first thing that we'd nearly fell over, but it was the first thing that felt like that.

We dropped down to get a better look, saw what it was, and without discussing it, we both took hold and carried it to the main portal.

By this point the fires had begun to die down, all except those which were being fed by leaking gas canisters of one sort or another. There couldn't have been much oxygen left in the air, and what air was left was beginning to mix with the native stuff outside, and the CO2 was turning flames into smolders. The small explosions were getting louder, though, and the underside of the bloon was starting to look like a lace doily. Through some of the holes we could see into the lower access tube, or the lower lifting bloons, but some of the others showed nothing but empty sky and the clouds below.

We got to the main portal and found that our team had put some sort of patch seal on it as they left, trying to block the smoke was my guess. But it hadn't held up too well against the various pressure changes that accompanied the fires and explosions, and it had popped the seals in several places. I used my knife on it at the openings, and cut us a hole in a couple of seconds. Then we hauled our prize into the outer rim corridor.

The connection to the up ramp was only a few meters away, and there was a single officer at the portal, checking anybody who came out. Cluster Security and Maintenance had sealed off the lowest five levels in this cluster before any smoke got to the higher floors, so the outer stairs of the bottom five were filled with people who were getting a little panicky. The first round of evacuations had been from personal vehicles and taxi services that had been in the area, and all those had been from the lowest level where there was a docking area. That meant that most of our suspects had probably gotten out before any of the other people in the area. And we had no idea how many of our suspects had departed in that first wave. Great. From the standpoint of law enforcement, it was unfortunate that the first rule in emergencies is, "get everyone to safety" while checking IDs and establishing bona fides are distant priorities.

Sealing at level five was a screw-up as well, since the central docking area was at the middle of the cluster at about level ten. So we had a bunch of panicky citizens, all trying to crowd up the stairs to the dock landing which they couldn't get to.

Jenkins gave us a comm channel chewing out for being irresponsible imbeciles, but his heart wasn't in it, since he still had his hands full directing crowd control on those who had by now crowded into the top two levels of the sealed off section. The best thing to do would be to lower the sealed zone to level one or two, those being the only ones that were really affected by anything except rising smoke. But people are wiggy about smoke, and Sec and Main were afraid that unsealing the zone would spread the panic to the upper levels. People were already leaving the top levels in droves, and the smell of smoke could cause a stampede.

Jenkins was arguing with arriving City Health and Safety officials about what to do with the lower level. The torched bloons had lost most of their lift, by now, and while the rest of the cluster could compensate, standard procedure would be to cut them loose and let them fall before they could endanger the waste treatment sections. But Jenkins wanted to save whatever evidence might remain, so he was arguing his case and didn't have any time for us.

I looked over at Calvin and said, "Look, I think we'll do a lot better on the bottom dock." He nodded.

It wasn't really much of a risk. We already knew that the fire itself had about run its course and there wasn't much danger of it spreading. And the bottom dock was connected to the waste treatment bloons, not the affected cluster levels. Besides, it was down from where we were, and hauling a corpse up two to three hundred meters of stairway did not have much appeal. So we turned around and headed down.

The dock itself was primitive with not even a cluster to bloon airlock. But up about a hundred meters from where we were was a swarm of bloons, waiting for docking at the upper levels. Calvin switched to local line-of-sight frequencies on his comm and kept changing until he found a relatively quiet space. Then he sent out a taxi call signal, coded for the dock's ID. After a few seconds, one of the taxis in the bloon swarm above us broke out of the pack and descended to where we were.

"You guys need a ride?" came a voice over the comm.

"Damn right," said Calvin. "We'll even pay for it."

"Now you're talking," said the driver, and he dropped a line anchor to the dock.

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