Carina Duvais took stock of the medical provisions. Her blaster dangled in the holster on her left hip. There were a lot of casualties laid up in the infirmary, victims of the previous raids.
She went over her mental list of Manon’s requests. Vaccines, hypodermics, painkillers, bandages and salves, sutures, antibiotics, and so on. Each item in the medical case meant one of her patients might either get sick, remain in pain, or even die of sepsis. She felt ambivalent raiding the pantry to pay mercenaries for steel and ammunition. But, she admitted to herself the grim truth that some of the men would die even with medicine.
Carina exited the supply closet laden with the large, sturdy case. Tuah Bell looked up. She knew better than to ask any questions. She couldn’t infer the actual truth, but what she supposed was not good. Carina walked by without a word, but brushed her right hand across Tuah’s backside. The med-bay doors closed. The Head Nurse returned her attention to the injured and dying soldiers. She smiled at Carina’s surreptitious touch.
Pablo Sotillo saw Carina ahead of him in the corridor. He hastened to catch up.
“Not now, Lieutenant,” she said without looking at him.
“A pleasure to see you, too, Captain.”
She continued walking, mouth shut, eyes forward.
“Word around the base is: Andersen’s making himself a nuisance to you.”
“What he does doesn’t matter to me,” she replied.
“So, you’re saying he’s handled?”
Carina stopped and put down the case. Squaring herself with Sotillo, she studied his scarred, rugged face. Every time she looked at him she saw Falco, how she imagined the boy would look, now, 16 years later. The resemblance was uncanny. It unsettled her, but she refused give Sotillo any vulnerability upon which he could prey.
She wanted to ask if he had a brother, but knew better. She couldn’t show any interest in his life, lest he take it as interest in him. If Falco’s surname had been Sotillo, she didn’t want to know how one brother wound up in a slave colony and the other in the Allied military.
“What are you after?” she asked.
“Same thing everyone else is around here, I figure.”
He smiled in a way that might have been charming, but Carina was immune. She knew a predator when she saw one. She’d encountered countless men like him up to the moment she found refuge in the army. Even among the ranks, they existed. Sotillo stood as proof. She’d killed more than a few such men, and had relished every moment.
She cast him a sour expression.
“But you’ve made it clear, I know,” he held up his hands in a feigned gesture of respect and understanding. “And it’s of little consequence to me; I’ve got an outlet … it’s just … your box would beat Gardiner’s starfish any day of the week.”
“Mind your mouth, Lieutenant,” Carina snapped. “Talk to me like that again and not only won’t I @#$% you, I will @#$% you up. I won’t even tell the Major. It’ll just be you and me.”
Sotillo smiled, unabashed and undeterred, but willing to accede. He smoothed his hands against his kilt. “Apologies, Captain. I let my &%@# do the talking just now.”
“Don’t waste my time, Pablo; I’ve got important things to do.”
Sotillo picked up the heavy case with ease, making a show of his strength. He handed it to her. “Yes, I’m sure you do.”
Carina took the case and resumed walking.
He let her get a few steps ahead of him before calling after her. “Carina … ”
“You don’t get to call me ’Carina’ any more, Lieutenant,” she said without turning around. “Go find the Major, if you’re horny.”
He stopped in his tracks and she kept walking. He glowered at her back.
“Even better, Captain … because I am gonna @#$% you, you stuck-up @%$,” he muttered. “Whether you like it or not.”
Carina, well out of earshot, turned the corner. Master Sergeant Rene Duquesne waited for her down the corridor. As she approached, he saluted.
« Capitaine Duvais. »
« Monsieur Duquesne, » she replied, curt but polite. She offered a wan uptick of the corner of her mouth.
« S’il vous plait, madame, » he said, indicating her would be her guide as he turned on his heel.
She thought to say, I know where we’re going but swallowed her petulance. Sotillo had pissed her off, not Rene. He didn’t deserve any salt. She reminded herself of their history, their friendship. They were two of the few Francophones on base. Mere chance had reunited them. So many years had passed since he’d saved her life and set her on course to join the army.
Two MPs guarded the ladder to the detention level. They stood aside for Rene and Carina. He descended first and moved out of the way. She dropped the medical case and he let it fall to the floor rather than injure himself trying to catch it. Carina climbed down as Rene picked up the case.
They headed to the breached bulkhead. It exposed the complex to the sewer tunnels. The detention level was the most compromised and malodorous point in the entire base. It made any manhole cover, municipal maintenance duct, or train tunnel had an access point.
Rene had set up as significant a defense as he could manage. He had meager supplies, using trash, force-fields, and improvised explosive devices. The measures could dispel anyone who wandered through the hole. Yet such things provided no guarantee against dimensional jumping. The tech allowed almost instantaneous point-to-point movement. While it could only project the user a few dozen meters, it was enough to penetrate from the street or the tunnels. Without accurate coordinates, jumping was risky. A jumper could materialize inside solid matter, leading to instant death or maiming. Rene strewed the corridors with detritus and containers for that precise purpose.
He instructed Carina to follow his steps exactly. The subdermal chips in the non-dominant hand of each soldier emitted a frequency. It oscillated to match the force-fields, letting them pass through unharmed. They passed empty cells on either side of the debris-strewn corridor.
Colonel Van Sinderen insisted Rene make contact with Carina’s black market connection. The hood of her cloak concealed Manon Derouard’s face. She stood beyond the threshold of the breach with her robotic counterpart. Rene paused at the sight of the seven-foot-tall humanoid machine.
The Colonel disliked Carina’s adventurousness but depended on her to do dirty jobs. She was not his only officer with a malfunctioning moral compass. But, of them, she was the most discreet and least psychotic. Van Sinderen couldn’t trust Sotillo nor Andersen to do a delicate job. That left Carina the only choice. But it couldn’t hurt to balance her hot temperament with the level-headed Rene.
« Vite, Rene. Où sont tes couilles? » She urged, asking him where his testicles were. « You need to lead, so I don’t blow us up. »
He frowned at her, starting toward the cloaked Manon and her robot. Carina fell in behind him. When they reached the breach, Manon doffed her hood.
The similarities between the two women struck Rene. The texture of their hair, though not the hue. Carina’s was the color of rust, and Manon’s was chestnut. They shared the same full lips and exquisite shape of their eyes. Carina’s were green, Manon’s blue. Crude streaks of violet facepaint decorated her cheeks, making her eyes seem purplish. Manon was paler, thinner, and had a longer neck. The shapes of their faces differed. Their noses were not quite the same. But Rene was certain they were sisters.
Carina had only ever spoken of Michele and Agnès. He knew Michele had drowned during the girls’ escape from Tripas. Rene had met Agnès in Marseille, when he first encountered Carina, 16 years prior. Manon was not Agnès. Neither could she be Michele. The existence of a fourth sister confused him. He wanted answers, but held his tongue; it wasn’t the time.
« Bon soir, Karin, » said Manon.
Rene’s ears pricked up to hear Carina so addressed.
« Manon, » Carina replied.
The robot loomed over them in silence. His blank white eyes betrayed no sign of consciousness. He could well have been an inanimate fixture, but the lack of dust on his person gave him away.
Manon gently touched his metal arm.
“Jack,” she said, soft and pleasant with French inflection. Jacques.
Without a sound, not the whirring of a servo nor the clicking of gears, Jack moved. He picked up the five items behind him and placed them in front of Carina and Rene.
« Fifteen kilos of steel, and a variety of projectile ammunition, » said Manon, in French. She, too, enjoyed the break from speaking Common.
« The ammo count isn’t exact, » she continued. « About a hundred kilos. Maybe more, maybe less, but thereabout. »
Steel and ammunition, and their raw materials, were some of the only monies recognized by the world outside the military. Practical things, like medical supplies, were another. Military credits spent fine in military canteens, but fiat money did nothing for those in need of fungible currency.
Rene looked at Manon with ravenous hunger. It had been so long since he’d enjoyed the company of a woman, and she was stunning. Tuah and Carina refused the lustful attentions of men. The other women on base rebuffed him. He had nowhere to divert his attention. Carina hadn’t always been such a militant homosexual but, to Rene’s knowledge, she’d always fancied women. He noticed that her hatred of men had intensified in the years since they first met.
Manon met his gaze. She looked him in the eye and smiled. It was the smile of a woman who knows she’s beautiful and knows its effect. Rene’s heart fluttered. Blood rushed below his waist.
« Et notre paiement? » she asked. Her gaze fell upon the medical case. She scratched the shaved side of her head.
Rene closed his eyes and took a breath, jarring his brain back to the matter at hand. He held out the medical case and Jack deftly took it.
« Everything you asked for, » said Carina.
« As expected, » Manon replied. « When should be our next rendezvous? »
« I don’t have any more supplies for you, from here on, » said Carina. « I’m sacrificing people who will probably die anyway … so you can have these. But I can’t surrender anything else. I don’t know how else we can pay you. »
Manon smiled again. She donned her hood. « D’accord. Well, if something occurs to you, chérie, let me know. Au revoir. »
Without further word, Manon and Jack turned and disappeared into the darkness.
« She called you Karin, » said Rene as he and Carina stood alone at the breach.
« So what? »
« Pourquoi? »
« C’est mon nom. »
« Then why do we call you Carina? You’ve been ’Carina’ since I met you. »
She looked at Rene from beneath her creased brow and sighed. She didn’t like it when people pried. Looking at his guileless face, her own expression softened a little. She closed her eyes.
« I don’t like talking about my life, Rene. You already know more about me than I want anyone to know. » She rubbed her stomach. « I don’t ask you about your life. »
« But I’d like it, if you did, » he insisted.
She looked at him, then closed her eyes again. She shook her head and flared her nostrils.
« Fine, » she replied. She raised her eyelids, hitting him with the full, smoldering force of her gray-green eyes.
« You want to know something about me? My father named me Karin. When I was on Tripas, there was another slave, a boy, who called me cariño … ’darling’ … and I didn’t like how it sounded. So masculine, so I told him to call me cariña, but then I didn’t like the inflection. So, he dropped it. Voilà. Carina.»
Rene wanted to know more. Who was the boy? Where was he now? Why continue to call yourself by his pet name after so long? He knew that he’d already pried from her more than she wanted to share. He dared not push for more and risk provoking her nasty temper.
Carina picked up the steel and retraced her exact steps through Rene’s minefield. She stopped when she realized he’d not followed.
« Rene, » she said, in a low, even tone. It was so quiet in the corridor that there was no need to raise her voice.
Nylon straps connected the four boxes of ammunition in pairs. He put one pair over each shoulder. When he reached Carina, he smiled at her.
« What you just told me … I didn’t know you ever liked boys. »
« Je n’aime pas les hommes, Rene, » she assured him. I don’t like boys. “Remember that,” she added in Common, for emphasis.
« What about Manon? » Rene asked.
Carina screwed up her face. « Elle est ma soeur. » She’s my sister.
« Non, non. I wonder who Manon likes. »
« Why do you care? »
He smiled again. « Je pense que je suis amoureux. » I think I’m in love.
« Idiot, » Carina replied. « Your &%@# may like her, but don’t call it love. »
Yet she smiled.