The murderous Wolf was absent when Artemis and Saber re-acquainted themselves with Promenade Five. His brother Greyhound and the unnamed guard stood by, silent without a person of wit to divert them.
Without his elder brother to require his attention, Greyhound's face was blank, his pale blue eyes lit merely by a sputtering candle flame of intelligence. Unsure of what to do, he was playing with the silver loops dominating his earlobes.
On the public side of the red curtain, Artemis covered her head once more, and addressed her new employer's son.
“I will be watching out for your little brother from now on Greyhound. Perhaps you can relay to Wolf that I will also be watching for him as well.”
With that knowledge to digest, Artemis left him and the den of the Doggs behind.
Beyond the promenade the route to the docks had become less congested, the revellers having departed to their beds at the insistence of the station's security constables.
Saber followed Artemis down clone after clone of corridor, a maze designed in times of war to disorientate an invading force, though now clearly signposted with directions. His feline mind yearned to request an answer to a question, but Saber knew by the set of her body that Artemis would not be inclined to answer it.
Presently the two exited into the thoroughfare of the harbour front, where space merchants kept shop and stock. Empty at this hour but for patrolling constables waiting for a reckless thief to brighten their long hours.
Their way to Gamma Dock was barred by a massive solid iron gate, built to admit ten men marching abreast. Telautomatic freight carts sat dormant in line to each side of the gateway.
Artemis pressed the call button on the communications pad to the left of the gate.
“Registration, class und name,” barked the Prussian accented voice of the night duty harbour master, crackling out of the pad's voice grate.
“Forty-three S C H, K G A, LIONESS Class, unnamed.”
“Mein Gott im Himmel, wie Pech....” Artemis heard him mutter. “Outbound?”
“No, and I will be residing on Asphodel for the next two weeks.”
“Your residence status vill be re-written, und you vill need to get an individual access code to Gamma Dock. Der code vill be made available to you in seven days time at der Harbour Master's Office.” And there the line died. Mechanics thundered and the gate was split asunder with a wail of wheels on the runner and the venting of steam from grates either side.
The dock was revealed as a cylindrical crescent tube ten Imperial feet wide and strategically halved from ceiling to beneath the floor with strengthened glass, giving a complete view of the immediate ships nestled within the harbour.
Walking down the left arm, their ship was gradually revealed, a GW2 long range fighter of blockish yet feline design. Patches in hull and scratches in paintwork remarked on its military history, as did the heavy guns still mounted either side and on top of the vessel. At the metal porthole Artemis keyed in the ship's registration to lift the lock on the closed iris, then spun the wheel beneath to open the way. Ducking slightly she entered the docking tube to gain access to her ship.
Inside the body there was just enough room for two pairs of bunk beds and a waste disposal cubicle, minuscule living quarters sandwiched between the more important cockpit and engine room.
Saber padded straight to his bunk, jumped up and made himself comfortable on the shredded mattress.
Artemis ruffled the fur on his head as she passed into the cockpit and switched the lights on.
“I'm just checking in with Mercuriel you know, we'll be back with Cerberus within the hour.”
Grumbling, Saber closed his eyes and took no notice.
Rotating the pilot's chair, Artemis sat down and swung herself round to the control panel, picked up the radiophone receiver and dialled their associate's number.
It took a few seconds for the line to connect, relayed as it was through the celestial abyss by a dozen Imperial radio satellites.
“Did it go well?” Mercurial answered in excitable tones, his usual manner somewhat tinged with nervousness.
“Relatively, I'll be playing the role of guard and governess, but at least it won't be for long.”
There was silence on Mercuriel's end. Now she understood the reason for his timid voice.
“He's changed his bloody schedule again hasn't he.”
Mercuriel was quick to input the new knowledge he had gleaned. “Not so much changed as put back. His chamberlain's making provisions for seven more balls on Luna, so that'll be two extra weeks til the convoy reaches Asphodel. He's still coming, just not when you wanted.” His last was an apology.
A cold fury spiked within her, but Artemis would not let Mercuriel bear its brunt.
“But you're sure the royal cortège will still visit Asphodel?”
“Hand on my heart and Amut scoff it if I lie Artemis, the Prince will definitely arrive on Asphodel, in about a month's time.”
“Alright.” Her teeth were gritted. “I'll check back in a few day's time, so keep your head down out there Merc.”
“I will. Take care Artemis.”
The receiver replaced, she sat back in her chair, thoughts at a whirl about her mind, her left hand stroking the periwinkle scarf bound against her dark brown leather waistcoat.
Her prey would be within her vengeful grasp.
A dull ache spread through her right arm, the remains of nerves in her shoulder sparking at the memory of damage wrought, tricking her mind into thinking that for one small moment, she had never been torn and broken, never lost what could not be replaced.
It was a lie she forever fought not to believe in.
Ascending through the Pit, away from the stokers, Artemis kept pistol in hand as she led Jackal back the way the way he had run, a route too deep and strange to him. As they retreated she kept guard against the menagerie of scum infesting Asphodel's deepest levels. Saber herded the boy easily, blowing hot air onto his bare calves if he thought the boy wavered from the path, which in actuality the great cat did more for his own amusement. It made Jackal jump so to be reminded of the giant tiger's presence at his unprotected back.
“So how did you manage to escape this time my little magician?” Artemis demanded, annoyed at his devilish ability to escape his bedchamber prison.
Jackal, though scared of her, kept quiet.
“Can't have been the vent above your bed again, Daddy had the cover welded into place. And the one in your en suite is too small even for you.” She turned on her heel to intimidate him with her ruby stare.
“Well?” Artemis crossed her arms, tapping the pistol's shaft against the curved plate of her false bicep. The sound drew Jackal's attention to that arm, the unnatural clockwork mechanics and the knife concealed within.
Bending from the waist she interrogated his wide green eyes with her gaze.
“You had help this time, did you not Jackal.”
The boy nodded.
“Who helped you Jackal?” Her breath disturbed the black strays of hair overhanging his small face as she searched for the truth his tongue would not tell. “It was the maid was it not?”
He was hesitant, loathe to betray his accomplice, but then there came a second nod of his head. Artemis straightened herself without a sound and carried on, Saber helping Jackal to move with a butt of his head in the small of his back.
Exiting the corridor they found themselves in a dark mirror image of Promenade Five, tall and wide and drenched in darkness where the ill repaired flame coloured lights could not banish it. At their appearance in this low place, the harmless forgotten scattered back into the safety of the shadows, remnants of humanity dripping constantly like the gathered vapour down through the rusty cracks of Asphodel Station.
Artemis respected their retreat, and kept her pistol lowered. The myriad eyes that watched in heightened fear and distrust marked her passing, and that of her companions.
And further along, at the foot of a column they saw the reason.
White hair, dyed red with fresh blood, shielded but half of an old woman’s wizened bruised face as her corpse sat propped against the metal, lit orange by a direct light. Her naked legs had been broken and lay in positions unnatural, while beneath her spread her body’s blood.
Artemis rushed the horrified Jackal by, placing herself between the boy and the body.
At a junction they turned off the shadowy promenade to walk down another corridor, bathed in bright white light. They came out into a shaft that soared up into the diminishing heights, a stairwell climbing as like a steel serpent up its walls.
A tiny girl with fair angel’s hair stood in the ring of light inside the shaft, her head back and mouth open to receive the condensation dripping from a scum encrusted pipe above her head. Falling drops had washed dirt from her fragile face, revealing a tone of skin untouched by light. At the puddles in which she stood, smoke grey pigeons drank their fill and cooed all the while.
At the appearance of three topsiders she cried terrified, scattering the pigeons about her to flight. Trapped, she hitched up her overlong dress and scuttled beneath the stairs into the available shadow that dwelt beneath, to watch through the gaps these strangers as they approached the exit to this dungeon realm that she could not use.
From the large leather pouch that hung at her back, Artemis took a small cubic parcel of cloth, and left it on the bottom step as she took the way up and out of the Pit.
When all three had ascended to a height far away from her, the girl reached through the gap and snatched up the parcel. Tearing off the cloth she stuffed the revealed piece of fruit cake into her mouth and chewed the gift with gratitude.
Artemis and Saber pushed Jackal on up the stairs, flight after flight of unaccustomed exertion taking an increasing toll.
It was halfway that Artemis finally called a halt to let Jackal rest. The boy collapsed to the floor, while Artemis unhooked a canteen from her belt to quench his thirst. Jackal gulped the water down without thought, and began to cough and splutter. Taking the canteen Artemis gave the boy a pat on the back which knocked him forwards.
Saber observed all from his position by the descending stairs, intrigued by the interaction between female and cub.
When Jackal had recovered himself, Artemis moved away to sit on the ascending steps. She observed him as she drank from the canteen, and Jackal sat uneasily under her eyes. Eventually he turned from her to look down through the railings to the bottom so far below.
As she replaced the canteen on her belt, Artemis posed the boy a question. “Why do you run away Jackal?”
The look he gave her was solemn, those green eyes in that dirty face so much older, so much more experienced than the boy himself looked. She knew that look, and what it took to gain that experience. She made an effort to soften her approach.
“Your father never told me, perhaps he thought it unimportant.”
Jackal turned his gaze from her, his knees brought up to his thin chest.
“Though I think that to you, it matters, does it not?” She stood and stepped over to the boy, crouched down before him and slipped her hand round to cup his cheek and turn his gaze back to her face.
“Where’s your mother Jackal?”
With choked sobs he whispered the facts. “She, died. On Elysium Station. Me….me Dad, ‘ee called ‘er a poppy ‘ead an’, an’ ’ee took me away from me Aunty Dora.”
He believed her to be a stony creature, but his words were making their way to her heart. “You want to get back to her don’t you Jackal. You run from your father, perhaps to find a way back to her on a ship bound for Elysium.”
He affirmed her words by nodding vigorously.
“Jackal, you will get yourself into the grave with your actions.”
Her words sprung tears, but Artemis knew she could not go easy on him. A lesson had to be administered.
“Death is very real down here in the Pit, Jackal. That hell’s fiend who had hold of you would have tossed you into the furnace without a second thought if Saber and I had not saved you. Below the decks familiar to you there are dozens which aren’t, and these are where people are hunted and killed for sport like that old woman, or taken for worse. That child we saw knows how dangerous it is here. She knows where to run to, where to hide when topsiders are abroad in her realm. You do not.”
Her tone was as gentle as she could make it, but the boy still looked at her with fear. “You have never marked your father’s words Jackal, but you will mark mine this day.
“You have no one else on this station but your father and I, Jackal. No one else will show you kindness unless they see the mark of your clan upon your skin or your father by your side. So from this moment on, you will never run away from me again. And perhaps we shall be friends.”
Standing she offered Jackal her hand, and for a moment he appeared unsure. But at last he reached up and Artemis took his small hand in hers. She gave him a rare true smile, and for once Jackal did not baulk at her.
“Now, we have to get going. Saber, you lead.”
The grey-blue tiger rose and shook himself free of accumulated lethargy. Artemis bade Jackal ascend with a gesture, and climbed after him, her left thumb hooked into her belts and her fingers brushing the flower patterned scarf, while her mechanical right made imprints in the railing as she went.
Copyright © 2010 LKG Frendo, All Rights Reserved