Part Four, CONFLICT
Simon loped down the dark hallway, almost, but not quite, running. His gun was up, cocked, and ready, muzzle pointing at the ceiling as he went.
His nerves were as taut as wire, his eyes and ears straining to catch any hints of Rupp. Adrenalin had him feeling fast enough to catch a bullet in his fingers, and he surrendered to it with a vague relief. Those two whirling counters had told him, very clearly, that there was no more time to proceed carefully. From here on out, he would count on his reflexes to make him react in time.
The hallway stretched out before him, straight and empty. There weren't any doors leading off to the sides, either. Wherever this hallway was taking him, it was the only place to go.
He considered for half a second, then yanked out his earpiece and stuffed it into his pocket, still moving. He couldn't risk any distractions now.
"Just lie there and be still," Sandra told Jeremy, snapping her fingers at Mike and pointing at the far door, through which they'd come. Mike nodded and jogged off to guard the door. "Keep the pressure on as best you can," she went on. "We'll get you out of here as soon as we can, but right now you have to look after yourself, because I have other things to worry about."
Jeremy nodded, hissing breath through his teeth. His eyes were closed, and his face was drawn and pale. "Go," he said shortly.
Sandra absently touched his shoulder and then jumped to her feet. "Texas, stay here, guard this door," she said, jerking her chin at the door that Jeremy and Simon had originally come through. "I'll take the door that Templar went through."
"Right," Johnny said, shifting the big gun to rest more comfortably on his hip. Sandra ran across to the third door.
At the far end of the room, behind the rumbling satellite, Mike's gun cracked twice, producing a spate of confused yells. Jeremy's eyes snapped open at the noise, but Johnny barely glanced in that direction. "Fuck off," Mike called genially through the busted door. The guards apparently did.
Jeremy took a deep and shaky breath, and gasped in the middle of it, and didn't do it again. "If you..." he started to say, and then had to stop and swallow. "If you... pull the screwdrivers... out of the... control panel... the door will... close," he eventually managed to say, panting shallowly rather than taking another real breath.
Johnny glanced down at him. "Will it open again?"
"No," Jeremy said.
Johnny nodded. "I'll wait 'til the others get here."
"... good plan." Jeremy closed his eyes again, and his bloody fingers flexed around the folded shirt.
The hallway ended abruptly in a single empty doorway, gaping open blackly in front of Simon. Tiny lights glowed in that dimness, computer lights, and ever so vaguely beyond them he could see the other side of the room and a second door, standing open to reveal a dimly-lit staircase. Simon's upper lip skinned back to show his teeth in a little snarl.
Simon's eyes fixed on that doorway and the staircase and he burst into the darkened room, nerves thrumming. He didn't stop. He didn't even slow down. Rupp already had enough of a head start. Still, as he came into the room he checked the room, out of habit, left to right, and so his head was turned away when Rupp sprang his ambush from behind a pile of crates to his right.
The little triangular bladea belt knife, most likely, sharpened somewhere beyond sanityslashed through the air in a single murderous arc, aimed at Simon's throat. It fell short; instead it slashed its way cleanly through one of Simon's upraised forearms, opened a deep but hair-thin six-inch-long gash across his chest, nicked the underside of his jaw, and jarred hard against the bone in the heel of his other hand, knocking his gun away to clatter on the floor somewhere about ten feet away.
Simon sucked in a shocked breath and instinctively threw himself back and away from the blade, casting about desperately for his gun. The wounds didn't hurt yet but they stung, in a deep, cold way that screamed about the extent of the damage done.
"Any time now, Specs, Specs Two," Sandra said into her radio. A moment later, she snorted. "Yes, we noticed that, Specs Two. Thank you. I'll send someone to help."
"I'll go," Johnny volunteered. Without saying another word he leaned out into the hallway and grabbed at the two screwdrivers still jutting out of the control panel. They came free in another shower of sparks and the door started to slide closed with a grating grinding sound. Almost as an afterthought Johnny swooped down and hooked two fingers into Jeremy's discarded jacket, bringing it in with him as the door slid shut. "Here," he said offhandedly, dropping the jacket and the two screwdrivers next to Jeremy, and without another word he jogged off towards the far end of the room, where Mike still guarded the far door.
Jeremy huffed out a ghost of a painful laugh. "Thank you," he whispered, even though Johnny was long gone.
Crouching, Simon clung to the wall and forced himself to be still, ignoring the deep burn of his cuts. He could hear Rupp breathing, almost panting, from somewhere, but the room was long and oddly shaped and stacked six feet deep with metal crates, and every sound was so distorted as to be almost untraceable. He couldn't tell where Rupp was. At least that meant that Rupp probably didn't know where he was, either.
Simon's right arm was numb from the elbow down, although dimly he could feel blood running over the skin and dripping from his vaguely tingling fingers. The blood didn't seem connected to him. It felt like warm water. The heel of his left hand ached abominably, like a dislocated joint. His chest burned constantly, and screamed every time he moved. He gritted his teeth and ignored it and started sweeping his hands over the floor, leaving bloody handprints on the floor as he groped after his gun.
"What do you hope to accomplish?" Rupp suddenly said from somewhere, and Simon jerked. "Do you think I need the diamond? Is that it? Do you think you've stopped me now that you've stolen it back?"
"'Stolen it back' my ass," Simon said through gritted teeth. "We will stop you, Rupp."
"Oh? How?" The echoes changed slightly, became stealthy padding footsteps. Rupp was on the move. Simon edged back against the wall, ducking his head under the computer shelving. "By stealing back the diamond? Is that supposed to stop me?"
Simon didn't bother answering. After a moment Rupp went on, now sounding a bit petulant. "The diamond is just a focusing lens. Surely you know that. Oh, perhaps without it the satellite will not be capable of pinpoint accuracy, but how much accuracy do we need in order to target unmoving buildings? A cannon instead of a sniper rifle, that's all you've bought yourself."
Still Simon didn't answer. Let the man talk himself hoarse if it bought Simon time to find his gun.
"Or is it that you think your friends can stop the launch? Hah!" Rupp clapped his hands together sharply. It sounded like a gunshot in the weird maze of the room and Simon reflexively threw himself flat, choking on a hiss when the gash in his chest screamed. "That's it!" Rupp crowed. "You do! You think your pitiful underpaid government drones can stop in tenno, eightminutes what I've spent millions and months creating! I've planned this for years, you fool, I've invested my entire fortune, I've hired the best men that money can buyand you intend to stop me with what?"
"The best people that money can't buy," Simon retorted, painfully pushing himself back up onto his knees.
Rupp snorted in disdain and Simon forced himself to slide along, sweeping one hand in a wide and bleeding arc in front of himself.
Everything had been quiet in the launching room for a whilequiet, that is, save for the satellite revving itselfwhen there was a long stuttering burst of gunfire from Johnny's rifle from somewhere entirely too close by. Mike jerked like he'd been stung, his gun whipping up. Sandra tensed, ready to duck behind the computer console for some ready cover.
Nate and Rich shoved past Mike thirty seconds later, Johnny hard on their heels. Rich had his own gun out; Nate was wielding a crowbar like some sort of demented medieval knight. "Left you some," Johnny told Mike as he ran by, and Mike beamed at him before snapping three blind rounds off through the door. There was some shouting and then everything was quiet again, more or less.
"Specs! Specs Two! Either shut that thing down or get that ceiling open!" Sandra said, passing on Simon's message. Nate blinked twice at the satellite itself, then turned to the console, flexing his fingers. Rich spat out a curse, slammed his gun back in its holster, and threw himself at the closest keyboard.
"Why are there two countdowns?" Nate asked the room in general, not expecting an answer. Instead he glanced at Rich. "You get the satellite. I'll get the roof."
"Do that," Rich said, typing frantically. Windows bloomed into existence on the monitor in front of him, one after the other, and the machine made cranky little negating sounds, and Rich swore inventively at it.
Nate threw himself to his knees and wedged the crowbar into the underside of the console, slamming the palm of his hand into the other end and levering the front panel off with a shriek of tortured metal. Rich jumped back before the falling panel could crash into his toes, lunging forward to keep his hands on the keyboard. Nate didn't bother to apologize. "Whoa," he breathed instead, touching tentative fingers to the knot of wires inside. "You'd think Rupp could afford better work than this..."
Sandra glanced over her shoulder at the knotted mess of yellow wires, all alike, that looped in around themselves like a sagging Gordian Knot. "Ugh," she said. "That's a mess."
"Hmm," Nate said in agreement, no longer really listening to her. Above his head Rich snarled at the monitor and banged the space bar, so hard that the keyboard jumped in its tray.
Sandra's eyes traveled on, from Nate to Rich, from Rich down along the metal console, and finally to Jeremy, still crumpled where he'd fallen. "Dammit," she muttered, and slammed her gun back in its holster, racing across the room. Johnny watched her go, then silently took up a post near the door she'd been watching, rifle trained on the open doorway.
Jeremy's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at her, dazed and uncomprending, panting shallowly for breath. His bloody gloves flexed around the sodden mass of Mike's shirt.
"You're completely exposed over here. We've got to get you to some better shelter," Sandra said. "Hold the compress tight and help me move you."
"Mm," Jeremy said, blinking slowly, twice.
Sandra sighed and bent down, hooking her hands under Jeremy's arms. "Come on," she said impatiently. "Work with me, Archer."
Jeremy's little confused noise turned abruptly to a gagging moan as Sandra hauled at his shoulders, but the fog in his eyes cleared. Struggling a bit he managed to get his feet more or less under himself and together they duck-walked him backward to the shelter of the long computer console, carefully keeping his torso more or less parallel to the ground.
"Anything?" Sandra asked Nate as she settled Jeremy in under the lip of the console. "I got it, Texas."
Johnny grunted and ambled off in Mike's general direction. "Hmmm," Nate said, his hands hovering around the knot as he followed wire after wire to its end. "It's... that's weird, there's too much wiring..."
Sandra caught Jeremy's shoulders and helped him lean back against the console, half sitting, half laying down. "Stay still," she told him.
"... thank you," Jeremy told her, swallowing.
Sandra blinked at him, then jumped to her feet and jogged back to where Jeremy had been laying, scooping up the scattered mess of his things and wrapping them all haphazardly in his jacket. One of the enormous suction cups remained stuck to the ceiling; she left it where it was and returned, dumping Jeremy's things in an untidy pile beside him. "You're welcome," she finally said, grudgingly. "Now stay awake." And pulling her gun back out she turned once again to face the door that Simon had vanished through, her shoulders thrumming with tension.
She nearly shot a hole in the floor when Nate cried "Damn!" two seconds later. Jeremy jerked and hissed at the sudden noise, and Nate flushed a little and ducked his head in apology. "It's all daisy-chained together! Crap, I can't touch any of this, not without setting everything off!" he babbled in explanation, his fingers describing little circles around the mess of wires without ever quite touching them. "He didn't bother color-coding any of it, why should he, he'd want to make it hard to disassemble, not easy to repair..."
"Shut up," Rich suggested tensely, punching the ENTER key like he found it personally offensive.
"This guy was good," Nate told Sandra. "I can't do anything from here. I'll have to start at the bay doors and work my way down."
"Shut up," Rich said again, ominously.
"So stop talking about it and do it!" Sandra told Nate, jerking her head at the bay doors. "We need those open pronto, Specs."
"Right!" Nate cried, jumping to his feet and grabbing for his discarded crowbar. "Wow, but this guy was good..."
"Rupp always... did like to... hire... the best," Jeremy wheezed at Nate's feet, and Nate glanced down at him, startled.
Sandra rolled her eyes. "Your egotism is noted for the record," she told Jeremy, who summoned up a weak smile from somewhere.
"Shut up!" Rich barked, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation before lunging at the keyboard once more. Nate yelped and bolted, heading toward the satellite and the closed bay doors overhead.
"Leave now," Rupp suggested, his voice echoing from somewhere else now. "Take your peopleand the diamond, if you mustand leave. Archer won't survive another hour with a wound like that, and you won't last much longer. You might still be able to save his lifeand your ownif you go now."
Simon shook his head to clear it and forced every bit of his waning energy into his voice. "I don't think so," he said, hoping that he sounded as confident as he wanted to. "But as long as we're bargaining, let me make you a counteroffer: give up now and stop the satellite launch, and maybe, just maybe, you'll spend the next ten years in a nice cushy minimum security facility instead of some filthy hellhole. Sound good?"
"I take it that's a 'no', then?" Rupp asked, a sneer evident in his voice. "Ah, well. I should have expected that." Simon caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eyeRupp's shadow, splashed against the wall by one of the tiny computer-case lightsand he edged under a desk, forcing himself to breathe silently and shallowly. "You'll die here, then," Rupp went on, and he turned cautiously about, and the shadow of his knife whickered across the wall before it, and Rupp, slid out of Simon's view again. "And your friends, too. Even if you're correct and they do by some miracle manage to stop the satellite from launching, well." A single stealthy footstep made Simon freeze again. "Why do you think there are two countdowns?" Rupp asked, and incredibly, he laughed, a soft but jagged sound.
"No warheads," Johnny reported, casually standing on one of the satellite's guidance fins and peering into the empty nose-cone of one of the booster rockets. "That's somethin'."
"Hooray," Mike said, thumbing his nose out the open door and firing a single desultory shot after it. "Thousands of tourists can sleep safe!"
"Yep." Johnny leaped down, landing with a heavy thud on the concrete beside the satellite. "We die in here, we die alone."
"That's... terribly comforting," Jeremy wheezed from his spot under the console.
"Stay still, Archer," Sandra said. "If you die after Templar told you not to, he will kill you."
"Mm." Jeremy closed his eyes, then opened them again. "... Springheel... was it?"
"Eh?" Sandra craned her neck, staring down the empty hallway after the long-departed Simon. "What? I'm busy here, Archer."
"You've... seen the plans for... the satellite?"
"Tell me... how the diamond fits into it. Please."
Sandra glanced at Jeremy in disbelief, then visibly gave up. "There's a metal armature at the bottom that holds it centered. There are four major laser batteries around the outside, and when they fire a series of polished titanium mirrors direct the lasers down into the diamond in the center. Four lasers go in" Sandra clapped her hands together "one comes out."
By the time she was done Jeremy appeared to have passed out. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow. Sandra studied him worriedly before turning her attention back to the door, and then jumped when he said, "... may I... see the diamond?"
"Shit!" Sandra hissed, automatically grabbing for the little eight-million-dollar lump in her bra.
"Are you dead?" Rupp asked, almost pleasantly.
The sound of his voice jarred Simon from his daze. He discovered he'd been leaning against the wall for several seconds, light-headedly patting the same sticky arc of floor in front of himself over and over; anger, mostly at himself, flooded through him, waking him up. He knew it wouldn't last long. The loss of blood was beginning to tell on him. "Afraid not," he called back, willing himself to sound alert. "I'm sorry I'm such an inconvenience."
"Ah haaaa, you're still alive!" Rupp said, smugly. "I have to admit that I'd been wondering. That was quite a cut you took!"
"Stop the launch, Rupp," Simon said again, his groping fingers touching a second wall. He was in the corner. In the wrong corner. Easing himself from one wall to the next Simon strained for any hints of Rupp's presence. Where was he? ...to hell with that, where was Simon's gun?
"Even if I wanted to, I can't, not from here, not by myself," Rupp said, his voice suddenly sounding far too close, and Simon made himself be very still. "It's far too late." Simon eased himself away from the wall and behind a stack of crates. "In just over six minutes the satellite will launch itself, and nothing you or I can do from here will stop it."
"Well!" Simon said, stretching out to pull himself across a narrow walkway formed by the stacks of crates, "I guess my team'll just have to stop the launch for you, since you're such a helpless lamb."
"By all means," Rupp said. "Stop the launch. Make the booster rockets shut down. In just over six minutes the other countdown will reach zero, and the satellite's own computers will tell it to test-fire itself, and if it's still sitting on the ground when the lasers fire..." He trailed off there.
It was like a dash of cold water in Simon's face. Abandoning his stealth he cast about for his gun, no longer caring about the noise he was making. If he didn't find it soon he'd have to take on Rupp bare-handed, knife or not.
"Are you nuts?" Sandra said, her hand still pressed over her heart and the diamond above it. "I'm not giving you the Morning Star. That's how this whole fuckup got started, remember, 'James Crown'? Besides, Templar told me to keep it safe. Giving it to you does not count as 'safe'."
Jeremy didn't argue with that. Instead he coughed weakly and grimaced. He swiped the back of his gloved hand over his mouth. It came away bloody. Bloodier. "Please," he said, when he could speak again. It was a breathless gasp of a sound. "I... think it could be... important."
In the end, astonishingly, it was Rich who came to his aid. "Let him see the damn thing, Spring," he said, his eyes never once leaving the computer monitor. "What's he going to do, run off with it?" Sandra blinked at Rich, plainly startled.
Jeremy rolled his head to the side, looking crookedly up at Rich. "... thank you," he said, mildly surprised.
Rich rolled his eyes. His hands flew over the keyboard. "Don't fucking thank me, Archer. Just shut up, stop distracting me, and do whatever it is you think is so important you'd bleed to death for it."
"Fine," Sandra said, tugging open her shirt collar and sticking her hand into her bra. Jeremy politely looked away, even as he caught one glove in his teeth and yanked it off. Mike, having no such reservations, whistled at her from across the room. "But you pull any shit with me and I swear you'll be longing for the days when one bullet hole was the extent of your problems."
"I can... see why you're... Simon's second-in-command," Jeremy said, his customary dry delivery a little marred by the wheezing. He spat out one bloodied glove, pinned Mike's sodden shirt to his abdomen with his elbow, and yanked off the other glove in the same way. "You... sound quite like him."
"I can hear you," Rupp almost sang, and Simon jerked back half a heartbeat before Rupp appeared, pacing cat-like down the narrow aisle formed by two rows of crates. Crouched in the shadows, his head spinning, Simon watched Rupp go by, the man's immaculate white pants and bloodied knife not a foot from his nose. He could attack now, risk the knifethe cold numbness in his arms and the fog settling in around his mind convinced him not to. He'd waited too long. By now he needed the gun just to even the score.
Instead he waited until Rupp had vanished, then crawled across the aisle the other man had just vacated. "You do know that the launch doors didn't open, right?" he said, and now he could hear the faintest hints of wavering under those words that even his irritation with himself couldn't erase. "Your precious satellite won't get far if it can't even get off the launchpad."
"That's right," Rupp said, in the tones of someone who'd just been reminded of a chore they'd been putting off. "I did forget to open the bay, didn't I? Well. We can't have that."
Even as Simon scrambled to put some distance between himself and the last place he'd spoken from, he heard Rupp take a few steps and do something at one of the computers. There was a long groaning sound, like a lever being pulled, and a moment later the ground shook under him. Rumbling filled the air.
"There," Rupp said with evident satisfaction. "Launch bay doors are open. I wonder how many of their precious seconds your friends wasted trying to make them open?"
Simon gritted his teeth and didn't respond, once again patting the ground in front of him.
"God damn it!" Sandra said with feeling, dropping to her knees and shoving the Star into Jeremy's bare hands. Grabbing Mike's shirt in both hands she pressed it down hard against Jeremy's side, making him choke on a horrible breathless sound. "I can't watch the door and keep you alive, Archer. Keep a hold on the compress like I said!"
"I'm... sorry," Jeremy gasped, but his eyes were only for the Star. It spun glittering in his fingers as he turned it over and over, fingers ticking off one facet after another. He counted under his panting breath, stopping occasionally to wheeze in a slightly deeper breath and always, always grimacing afterward.
"'Sorry's going to kill you, even if Templar doesn't," Sandra tartly informed him, but she didn't stand back up, either. Instead she raised her voice. "Honda! Come keep an eye on this door while I babysit this idiot! Let Texas deal with that one!"
"Yes'm!" Mike called, scrambling over. Rounding the edge of the console he took it all in, Jeremy crumpled under the console with Sandra kneeling beside him, and he laughed. The sound had a hint of hysteria in it. "Aww, that's cute, Spring. Fifty years ago they'd have called that 'giving aid and comfort to the enemy', you know?"
"Fifty years ago they'd have called that 'really asking for it', Honda," Sandra said sweetly.
Mike was saved from having to answer that by the rumbling of the launch bay doors opening. It shook the entire room, and Mike fell back a step and whooped. "Way to go, Specs!" he yelled, taking up his post by Sandra's door.
"It wasn't me," Nate said irritably, jumping down from his tenuous perch on the fusebox. "I barely managed to get to the wiring. Someone else opened them."
"You, someone else, who gives a fuck," Mike said cheerfully. "They're open now, and the giant toaster can get out if it has a mind to, instead of just blowing us all up."
"Hope it doesn't do either," Johnny put in, turning to look at Rich.
Rich didn't answer. Indeed, he didn't seem aware of any of them. The bluish-gray glow of the monitor lit his face and his glasses with a freezing cold glow, and his hands were a blur on the keyboard. "Stop fighting me, asshole," he muttered, as windows opened and closed on the monitor, sometimes in the same heartbeat. "Give the fuck up. I am so much better at this than you."
Mike sniggered. Rich either ignored him or didn't hear him. His fingers rolled forward over the keyboard, and this time a patch of jagged code appeared in one of the winking windows before it could wink back out. "Deal with that," Rich suggested to his unseen rival, sneering at the monitor.
"Guards are gone," Johnny said, craning to peer out the door.
Sandra glanced up at the first countdown, then went back to pressing the shirt against Jeremy's side. "They're clearing the area for launch," she said, matter-of-factly. "Texas, leave the door. Come get behind the console. Whenifthat thing goes up we'll need it for shelter."
Johnny nodded and edged backward, keeping his rifle trained on the empty door while he moved back to join the rest of them.
"Two minutes," Rupp said.
Simon lifted his head. He was cold and tired, and he was still losing blood fast despite having forced his left hand to close around his right arm. Stubbornly he still kept looking for his gun, fastened on it like a talisman. Sometimes his numbed fingers would touch blood-sticky floor and then he knew that he'd already searched this area.
"Are you dead?" Rupp asked again, and this time Simon didn't bother to answer him. After a moment, Rupp went on. "Well, if you are, it's surely only a matter of time before I find you," he said, mostly to himself. And then he raised his voice again. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"
When Simon's fingers brushed over something, he barely noticed, concentrating as he was on avoiding Rupp and staying awake. A few foggy seconds later he blinked and moved his hand back, and his fingers fell on the muzzle of his gun, just barely poking out from beneath a loading pallet. Simon gasped in a breath in immense relief and fumbled the gun free. It took both hands to lift it, and the grip was sodden with blood by the time he managed to wield it.
"Oh ho, so you're not dead," Rupp immediately said. "Not yet, at any rate. How much more blood can you lose? Your stubbornness has killed you, I hope you realize."
"But not yet," Simon said, and he winced at how weak he sounded. Rupp's only answer was a laugh.
Flexing his bloody fingers on the grip of his gun, Simon looked dazedly around. He was close to the center of the roomcloser than he likedand the main walkway between the pallets gaped open and empty next to him. He thought for a few fevered seconds, then thrust his right arm out into the aisle and clenched his fist, hard.
The gashed muscles in his arm screamed as they opened again, pouring blood onto the floor in a dark puddle. Computer lights gleamed in the depths of the puddle. Simon hissed in agony and swayed forward as a surge of fog came up, threatening to drag him away. Instead of letting it he crouched in a tiny niche overlooking the pool of his blood and fumbled the gun up, the cold of its muzzle like an icy kiss against his cheek.
Closing his eyes Simon let his head fall backward, the back of his head resting against one of the cool metal crates, and he waited, the room spinning slowly around him.
Nate wedged the end of his crowbar under one of the small locked panels on the console and stomped hard on the other end. The lock broke with a sharp spang! sound and the panel flipped open, revealing a small red key marked MANUAL LAUNCH 2. The crowbar flew away to clang noisily on the floor.
"Not what I was hoping to find, exactly," Nate said, scurrying over to reclaim the crowbar and wedging it under another small locked panel. "Pretty much the exact opposite, in fact. Five bucks says this one says MANUAL LAUNCH 1."
"Ain't takin' that bet," Johnny told him. Nate grinned at him and stomped down on the crowbar again, breaking the lock and revealing an identical small red key marked MANUAL LAUNCH 1.
"You're the man, Specs," Mike said. "And I mean that."
"Keep it the fuck down," Rich spat. His lip bled where he had been biting it, and he wasn't so much typing as he was assaulting the keyboard. Nate ducked his head and ran after his crowbar again.
Jeremy's fingers flew on while Sandra grimly held the compress in place. The diamond spangled gaudily in his fingers. Eventually he ran out of facets and numbers and the diamond spun to a stop. "Yes," he murmured, and carefully he turned the diamond over, rubbing the pad of one finger over the point at the very top. "That's... absolutely right."
"What's right?" Sandra asked him.
In answer, he held the diamond out to her, carefully held upright. "I need you to... put this in the satellite," he said.
"What?!" Sandra's voice was incredulous. "Put it in theyou are insane, Archer! We've just spent the last week ensuring that it wouldn't go into the satellite!"
"No, I..." Jeremy's breathless voice cut off there and he broke out into a fit of coughing, a long and protracted bout that left him spitting out blood. His entire body went taut with pain for a second. The choked sound that he made was almost a groan. "I'm right," he insisted, after he caught his breath, and he let his head fall back to hit the console with a bang. Sandra jumped. "If it... launches... we have... other problems. If it doesn't... you can... remove it again. Simon... needn't know."
"Templar" Sandra started to say, her eyes riveted to the blood-soaked mass of Mike's shirt.
"I'll... take full responsibility," Jeremy said, overriding her. "He can put me in... prison if he likes. Please."
Sandra hissed out an annoyed sound. "This is against my better judgment," she told him, reaching out to take it.
"Put it in with... the point up," Jeremy said, pushing her finger over until it rested against the point in question. "It may not... want to fit. Force it to."
Sandra nodded shortly. "Hold the compress," she told him. They traded, diamond for compress, and Sandra scrambled out from behind the computer console, the Morning Star in her hand.
Step. Step. Step. Splash.
Simon's eyes flew open. How long had he been out? It didn't matter, as long as the launch hadn't happened. Even as Rupp said, "...my, look at this blood," Simon gathered his aching limbs under himself and sprang to his feet.
He nearly went right back down again. The room went black for a moment and spun around him, his oxygen-starved legs screaming in pain to match his arms, but Rupp was there, framed neatly in the main walkway not five feet away, disdainfully wiping Simon's blood off his shoe. Simon's trained reflexes, older and deeper and more demanding than this trivial mental fog, kicked in.
The gun snapped out with no regard for his wounded arms and even as Rupp whipped around Simon pulled the trigger. The room was spinning, but his aim was true. The gun's recoil drove him back against the crates, knocking the wind out of him. A fresh splatter of blood flew from both of his abused arms.
Rupp's face exploded.
The older man wavered in place for a heartbeat before collapsing in a jerking pile of limbs, Simon's blood and his own soiling the immaculate white of his suit. Simon forced himself to stay upright, shaking his head to try and make the room stop spinning, until he was certain that Rupp was dead. Then he sagged down after him. dropping weakly back into that crouch. "I feel like I should be saying something witty right now," he told the empty room and the corpse in a shocky little voice, leaning back against the crate behind him and closing his eyes.
"Come on," Rich said, his voice a soft growl. "Come on, come on, come on come on come on you bitch"
Sandra crouched under the satellite, her eyes half-closed against the roiling smoke as she fumbled blindly with the armature. "Someone tell me when it hits ten seconds," she yelled over the noise of the engines. "Honda, Specs, take Archer and get down that hallway, keep the door clear."
"Come on," Rich snarled, even as Mike holstered his gun and moved towards the mostly-unconscious Jeremy. He bared his teeth at the computer. "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, I am better than you, you cannot win this gameyes!"
The engines deep within the satellite chuffed like air brakes and began to settle again, whirring down. Above his head the first countdown flashed twice, then halted. [0:0:21:00], it said, before it stopped entirely and said [:::] instead. Mike let out a war whoop that echoed through the entire room. "Aw yeah, Specs Two, you da man!"
Jeremy's eyes flickered open at the noise. "What...?" he whispered, licking his lips.
"Launch is aborted!" Mike told him gleefully. "Specs Two does it again!"
"What?" Jeremy said again, and then the fog magically cleared from his eyes. "No! No, that isn't..." He trailed off in another burst of painful coughing.
"It's off?" Sandra demanded, vaulting over the console and landing beside Nate. "Launch is stopped?"
"It's off," Rich said in triumph, shoving his glasses up. "Fragged that motherfucker."
"I love a good deathmatch," Nate said, high-fiving Rich.
Rich snorted. "Here I had you pegged for a Capture the Flag man..."
"Second countdown's still going," Johnny pointed out.
The congratulations trickled off as they all turned to stare at it. [00:1:46:53], it said, and it was still spinning.
"So what's that?" Nate asked.
"No clue," Rich said. "It's not controlled from this computer." He scowled at the second monitor.
"So now what?" Nate said, looking at Sandra.
"Clear the room, let the second timer run out when we're not here," Sandra said, at the same time that Jeremy said, "Launch it."
"What?" two or three of them said in disbelieving unison, turning on Jeremy. "Are you out of your cotton-pickin' mind?" Mike added. "We just stopped it from launching!"
"Launch it," Jeremy insisted, wheezing. "What do you... think the second... countdown is? It's going to..." Again his words got choked off in a frenzy of coughing, even as his eyes bulged with the need to talk.
Simon's eyes snapped open. Pass out later, he told himself savagely. Clenching his jaw he shoved himself to his feet, staggering. Stumbling past Rupp he nearly fell, catching himself clumsily on one of the piles of crates and nearly knocking it over. The hallway lights gleamed at him, beckoning, and leaving Rupp in an untidy pile on the floor Simon half-ran half-stumbled down the hallway, heading back the way he'd come.
"You are out of your mind," Sandra told Jeremy testily.
Jeremy whooped in a deep breath. "test-fire!" he choked out as soon as he was able, his face going red with the effort. "It's... a countdown to test-fire the lasers!"
"Holy shit," Nate breathed, spinning around to stare distrustfully at the satellite.
"You don't know that," Rich pointed out, even as he went back to the computer and called up a few windows.
"Gut instinct," Jeremy wheezed.
"Your gut's been shot," Mike pointed out, but he looked uncertain.
Simon staggered and bounced off the wall, leaving a bloody armprint on the paint. He could see the door into the launch area, he could hear voices, he could still hear the satellite rumbling...
"Please," Jeremy said, forcing his eyes open again. "Launch it or... it will explode... and take us... with it!"
"What should we do?" Nate said, looking wide-eyed at Sandra. "I can launch it from here, we have the manual keys..."
Sandra hesitated, eyeing Jeremy narrowly.
"Please," Jeremy said again, as loudly as he could seem to manage. "Please believe me"
"and... launch it," he heard Jeremy croak, and Simon bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. The new pain of it cleared the fog just enough and Simon put on a final burst of speed, exploding through the door just behind Sandra.
Three guns were drawn on him before he could even blink. He ignored them. "DO IT!" he roared, clumsily slinging one arm around Sandra's waist and bearing her to the floor with his sheer mass. He landed with an ignominious thud on the ground next to Jeremy, one that made the cut across his chest scream. "LAUNCH IT!"
Nate looked at Rich. Rich looked at Nate. "Get down!" Nate cried, and both Mike and Johnny threw themselves flat, slinging their arms over their heads. Simon left one hand on Sandra's shoulder and grabbed for Jeremy, his instincts screaming at him to shield the wounded, shield the wounded...
Rich and Nate both dropped to their knees and reached up, grabbing the manual override keys. "On three," Nate said, and Rich nodded. "One, two, three!"
Both of them twisted their keys to the right. On the other side of the heavy metal console the satellite roared to life like a dragster being revved, and Nate and Rich barely had time to drop flat before fire and smoke roared out over their heads, blackening the walls and deafening them all. The satellite lurched up from the sunken launch pad, its four booster rockets digging huge melted holes full of slag in the floor.
Simon pulled Jeremy's face tight against his shoulder and squeezed his own eyes shut as the world exploded around them.
Even after the satellite was gone all Simon could hear was the roar of its boosters. The heavy metal that the computer console had been sheathed in was warped and blackened, but it had held, even though the computers inside them would never work again.
He became aware of a faint, faint buzzing noise, and a moment later, of Jeremy's hand clutching weakly at his shoulder. Abruptly Simon let him go and Jeremy sagged away, still panting. Simon could see it, could see Jeremy's chest rising and falling quickly, but he couldn't hear it. By turning around he discovered that the faint buzzing noise was every single one of his team members all shouting at the tops of their lungs, unable to hear each other.
Simon swept one bleeding arm around in a circle and they all stopped and blinked at him. Sandra sucked in a breath and asked him something that he could barely hear, dropping to her knees and grabbing for his wrist. Simon let her have it, relieved to transfer at least one of his problems to someone else.
There was a touch on Simon's shoulder and Simon looked around. Jeremy smiled weakly at him. He looked awful, pale and sweating, with blood on his lips and two hectic spots of color high in his cheeks. His mouth rounded. Thank you, Simon read on Jeremy's lips, even though he couldn't hear it, and then Jeremy's eyes sagged shut and he slumped back against the console.
Simon blinked twice and then his free hand swept out, cracking against Jeremy's cheek and leaving a smear of his own blood there. Jeremy's head snapped to the side, but his eyes fluttered open, dazedly.
"Stay awake!" Simon yelled, barely able to hear himself. "Stay with me, damn you!"
Jeremy's eyes could barely focus on him, but after a moment he nodded and made an effort to push himself up. Simon nodded back, tightly, his eyes rising helplessly to the launch bay doors, gaping open to the night.
The four boosters drove the satellite skyward, four plumes of flame in the sky. Inside its belly four laser arrays sparked to life, glowing a dull red.
The onboard computer sent the laser arrays into their final warmup. Four cherry-red coals glowed at their points, reflected dimly in the mirrors set at an angle below them, making the Morning Star glitter in its armature. Glimmering red lights danced over the interior of the satellite as the diamond, wedged upside-down in its armature, waited.
Four powerful banks of lasers fired simultaneously, before the satellite could even reach low Earth orbit.
Four brilliant red beams of light stabbed out, bounced off the waiting mirrors, and lanced into the heart of the Morning Star. Inside it was like a maze, or a supremely complicated prism, and the four lasers bounced from facet to facet, seeking the single way out of the heart of the diamond and in the process combining into one highly focused beam of light strong enough to destroy a building or turn an unsuspecting person to ash
That powerful beam of light shot from the slightly pointed tip of the upside-down Morning Star, up into the satellite's own guts.
The explosion rocked the floor under their feet and lit the night sky a hellish orange, the boom of it reverberating off the canyon walls. The compound was showered with tiny bits of glowing twisted metal, and within a minute the ancient wooden house in the center was on fire, sluggish orange flames crawling over the walls.
For a moment or two the night sky was lit up as bright as day, and even after the light had faded a huge cloud of smoke hung like a pall over the compound. By the time they could drag their eyes away from the remains of the spectacle they could almost hear again, and Simon closed his eyes in profound relief, sagging against the console next to Jeremy.
"Holy shit," Johnny said reverently. "Hell of a bang."
"I hear you, Texas," Simon said, not bothering to open his eyes. "I hear you."
[early thursday morning, later]
Simon forced his eyes open just as Sandra grabbed his shoulders and repeated, "Templar!"
"Yeah," he said. "I'm here."
Relief flooded Sandra's face even as she whipped around and snapped her fingers at Johnny. "Shirt," she said.
"Yes'm," Johnny said, shrugging out of the rifle's shoulder strap and stripping off his shirt. The t-shirt underneath was streaked with sweat.
"We need to get out of here pronto," Simon said, dispassionately watching Sandra rend the seams of Johnny's shirt with her teeth. "Think both Archer and I could do with a little immediate medical supervision."
"We're working on it, Templar," Sandra said shortly, grabbing for his right arm and winding what had once been Johnny's sleeve around the deep laceration there. Simon grunted as she pulled the impromptu bandage tight. "Honda and Specs Two went to go get the van in as close as they could. Hopefully we can bust ass out of here before the guards regroup."
"I'm not too worried," Simon said. In truth, he wasn't worried about much. He felt as if he were watching the situation from a long way away, and although he knew that was a bad sign, he couldn't bring himself to care. "Most of them won't stop running until they're miles away. That explosion is going to bring down every local lawman in Tahoe and they probably know it."
Sandra blinked, then whirled on Nate. "Specs," she said. "We'll need the way clear."
"I'm on it," Nate said, pushing his glasses up and nodding. "As soon as I get back to the van."
Sandra wrapped the other sleeve tight around Simon's left wrist, then folded up the rest of the shirt and pressed it hard to Simon's chest. The lacerated muscles there screamed their displeasure and Simon winced. "Hold that," Sandra said briskly, guiding Simon's arms in until they crossed over his chest. Simon hugged the compress to his chest awkwardly. "And sit up," Sandra went on, catching his shoulder and pulling at him. "Sit up and try to stay awake, Templar, we'll get you loaded into the van as quick as we can."
Simon scowled faintly and let Sandra sit him up. "I can walk," he protested. "Two of you will need to carry Archer, though."
"Like hell you can," Sandra said. "Honda and Specs will get Archer and you'll lean on me. Texas will cover our retreat."
"I can walk," Simon insisted.
"Maybe so, but you don't have to, so shut up and deal with it, boss."
"Nnn," Jeremy said weakly.
"I can walk," Simon insisted again, louder, and the effort of raising his voice dumped him right down into blackness.
He woke up again when they were loading him into the van. Sandra's voice was so brisk and businesslike that Simon thought he could probably cut himself on its edges. "Sit him up against the front seats, we'll hold him up," she was saying, and the lip of the van's back doors thumped hard against the backs of his legs, and Simon blinked groggily.
"Thought I told you I could walk," he groused, his voice thick.
"Templar," Sandra said, all in a relieved rush, and squeezed his leg. She and Johnny sat him on the van's floorboards and leaned him back against the front seats, and Simon hugged the compress to his chest again and dazedly settled in.
Outside there was some kind of fuss. "Careful!" Nate was saying, and Mike said something that Simon couldn't quite make out, and then Mike scrambled backwards into the van, half-carrying half-dragging Jeremy behind him while Nate supported Jeremy's legs. Rich threw an armload of Jeremy's things in beside him, the goggles glinting from the folds of his battered and singed leather jacket. Simon nodded absently and blacked out again.
"Get us the fuck out of here, Honda," Sandra was saying when next he was aware of anything, and there was a heavy weight in his lap, and Simon forced his eyes open just a crack. Jeremy was laid out on the floor of the van with his head in Simon's lap.
Simon considered this unusual situation for a moment, then let one hand drop to Jeremy's cheek. The thief's eyes fluttered about halfway open and he raised an eyebrow at Simon. He looked exhausted.
"Stay awake," Simon told him, even as Mike gunned the van.
Jeremy mouthed something that might have been "I will," but the words were lost under the revving of the engine. The van leaped forward and two people grabbed at Simon's shoulders from either side, holding him up. Somewhere in the distance Nate was saying something over and over and the big radio was squawking back at him whenever he paused.
Lights, both white and colored, flickered over Jeremy's face as the van raced out of the compound. Simon watched them, idly wondering where they'd come from, when the compound had been so dark before. They were almost hypnotic. Dimly, in the back of his mind, he remembered that Jeremy shouldn't go to sleep, and so he stroked his thumb absently over Jeremy's cheek and told the thief to stay awake again, and Jeremy smiled a painful little smile and pointed out that he was awake, and Simon nodded, because it was true, and then the world mostly slid away from him and he graciously let it go, leaving his hand curled lightly over the side of Jeremy's face.
The ceiling was white plaster. That was the first thing that Simon noticed. The second thing that he noticed was that he was starving.
"Unh," he said, and rubbed his face with both hands, which he regretted almost immediately, as the third thing he noticed was that both his arms hurt like hell. "Ow!"
"Templar!" Mike cried. His chair screeched against the tile floor as he bounded to his feet. "Hey!"
"Mike," Simon said wearily, leaving his hands tented over his face. There were clean bandages wrapped around the palm of his left hand, and they smelled like rubbing alcohol and disinfectant. "How long was I out?"
"Thirty-six hours, give or take," Mike said. "We got you back to Reno and they stitched you up and gave you a bunch of blood. We got a couple of rooms at the hotel across the street and we've been waiting for you to wake up ever since."
"And here I am," Simon said. "How's Archer?"
"Alive," Mike said. Simon heard footsteps, and Mike's voice faded a bit. "Still out, though. They claim he'll recover."
"Good to know," Simon said. "So what's my status? You going to sit on me if I try and get up?"
On the far side of the room, Mike snorted. "You're in pretty good shape, all in all, except for your right arm. The doc had the vapors at it, says you've got a little PT coming once the muscle tears are on the mend."
"Not physical therapy again," Simon said, tugging grumpily at the IV stuck in the back of his right hand. "Didn't I do that last year?"
"Afraid so," Mike said cheerfully, wandering back over. A cold glass, wet with condensation, tapped against Simon's shoulder, and Simon grabbed for it without thinking and yelped as his right arm twanged like a bowstring. Mike yelped right along with him.
"Let's try that again," Simon gritted out, carefully curling his left hand around the glass. The heel of his hand immediately set up a bone-deep bellowing clamor that made his arm ache all the way up to his elbow, but he managed to force it closed.
"Aw, shit, boss, just use the straw," Mike said, half-pleading. "I'll hold it. Sandy's gonna kill me if you pop a stitch."
"I'm not an invalid," Simon said with asperity, tugging weakly at the glass until Mike grudgingly let it go. He drained off half the glass in a single gulp and promptly had a coughing fit, which made his chest wake up and start throbbing. "Ow," a red-faced Simon said once he'd managed to stop coughing. "Ow, ow, crap, ow."
"See, Sandy would say that's what you get," Mike said, perching on his chair again, "but since I'm such a nice guy and all"
"Yeah, yeah, 'nice guy', that's enough out of you," Simon said, draining the glass. "Any chance of some food? I'm hungry enough to go begging at the maternity ward."
"Aw, gross, chief!" Mike made a horrible face. "Yeah, sure, I'll run down to the cafeteria and score you a sandwich or something."
"My man," Simon said. "Make it two. Something with meat in it. Real meat, none of that 'chicken salad' stuff. And coffee, goddammit."
"Will do," Mike said, standing up and stretching. "Your clothes are pretty much a bust, but Sandy hit a mall yesterday, grabbed you some replacements. They're in a bag around here somewhere."
Simon carefully put the glass back down on his bed tray, then grabbed for the bedrails and hauled himself up into a sitting position. It hurt like hell; he gritted his teeth and dealt with it. Mike squawked and grabbed for him, either to make him lay down again or help him up; Simon let go of the bedrail with his left hand and knocked Mike's hands away. "I'm fine," he growled. "You want to help? Go get me my food."
"Is this gonna be like last time?" Mike asked, hands flexing impotently in midair. "Because shit, man, I'll stop on the way back up and get myself a weapon if you're gonna be like you were when you broke your leg. Don't think I won't."
"Why are you still here?" Simon asked with tacked-on patience.
Mike shot out of the room.
By the time Mike came back, Simon was up, de-IVed, and mostly dressed, wearing new jeans and a whole lot of white bandages and staring sourly at the brown t-shirt that Sandra had picked out. COME SEE SCENIC LAKE TAHOE, it said. Someone (judging from the handwriting, Simon suspected Johnny) had taken a marker and added AND THEN BLOW IT THE FUCK UP.
"Cute," Simon said, gingerly shrugging into it and pulling it down over the bandages on his chest. "You guys? You guys are just adorable. Seriously, I don't know what I'd do without your charming and sophisticated wit."
"We aim to please," Mike said, upending a paper bag onto Simon's bed tray. Two plastic-wrapped sandwiches tumbled out, and a bag of potato chips, and Simon gave up trying to tuck his t-shirt in and lunged for the food.
"Coffee?" Simon said, unwrapping one of the sandwiches and trying not to sound like he was pleading.
"Coffee, boss," Mike said, digging a tall travel mug out of his jacket pocket and adding it to the pile. Simon made an inarticulate sound around his mouthful of sandwich and fumbled the mug's flip-top open. Mike snickered and flopped back out in his chair.
"So," Simon said, once the vicious beast in his stomach had stopped growling and the first sandwich was almost gone. "How long did it take? I know you're dying to tell me."
Mike beamed. "Forty-one minutes," he proclaimed, giving Simon a thumbs-up. "I got that rattletrap up to a hundred and forty-three on the straightaways."
Simon whistled, a low, sliding sound. "Ninety minutes to get out there and forty-one to get us back? Not bad at all. When we get back to Washington I'm going to see about having you named Employee of the Month. I hear there's a five-cent raise involved."
"Five whole cents?" Mike beamed insincerely. "And to think Mama said dealing was where the money was."
"Keep it up and I'll see if I can't get you your green card," Simon told him, unwrapping the second sandwich.
"Hai, hai, oyabun," Mike said, flicking a desultory salute in Simon's direction.
"So," Simon said, attacking his second sandwich with scarcely diminished appetite. "Tell me the rest. Do we know why the satellite blew up?"
"Well, not officially, but if I had to guess, I'd say it had something to do with Archer getting Sandy to wedge the diamond into it backwards."
Simon stopped eating. After a moment, he forced himself to swallow his mouthful of sandwich. "...the diamond was in it when it blew?" he asked, rubbing the back of his hand over his mouth.
"Yeah," Mike said, flipping one hand over negligently. "Upside-down, you know? That had to have fucked something up."
"Christ," Simon said, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead. "We just blew up an eight-million-dollar diamond that didn't technically belong to us?"
"Guess so! But hey, we're all alive and the satellite and Rupp aren't, so technically we're a huge success!"
"There is that," Simon said, going back to his food. "Yay for us. I'll let Upstairs break it to the Mornings. He gets paid the big bucks for a reason. What else?"
Mike considered this for a moment, sinking down in his chair and lacing his fingers together over his belly. "Lemme see. The Nevada cops picked up about ten or so of Rupp's guards, all roaming the mountains, and another ten or so turned themselves in. They've been singing the finger-pointing song ever since. Some of 'em have been singing it in Russian."
"Russian, huh?" Simon chugged off about half the coffee and sighed out steam. "Figures Rupp was hiring out of the country. We get any names?"
"None besides Rupp's. They get pushed for more names and they clam right up. Not a single one'll say a word."
"Karpol," they both said in unison, and then Mike shoved a hand through his hair and nodded, adding, "Yeah, s'what the local bureau figures."
"Makes sense to me too," Simon said. "Rupp had to have gotten those rockets from somewhere."
"Uhh, next. The press is going nuts, but when does the press not go nuts? Washington's pointing fingers like mad, trying to magically not blame anybody for anything. I think the official party line's going to be that Rupp was squatting illegally."
"Well, of course he was." Simon snorted and finished off his second sandwich. "None of our esteemed leaders would have ever done something so lucrative as sell him an abandoned World War II military base under the table."
Mike snickered, then thought for a minute. "That's about all I can think of offhand"
"Tell me about Archer," Simon interrupted.
"Oh, right," Mike said, then shrugged. "They had to operate to dig the bullet out, but the doc says it's all muscle damage, pretty much. Says that with some time and exercise he'll live to be a pain in Art Theft's ass again."
Simon grunted in acknowledgement, stuffing his trash into the paper bag. "So where is he?"
"Archer? Next door." Mike jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "He's not awake yet, though. Doc says it'll probably be tomorrow morning before he really comes around, and then he's gonna be hurtin'."
"Funny thing, that," Simon said. "Bullets usually do hurt. I'm an expert on this subject."
"You and me both, boss." Mike leaned forward and snagged the paper bag, dropping it into the trash can huddled in the corner of the room. "So what are we gonna do with him?"
"Do with him?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, the Bureau's been jonesing for his ass for years, you know? When Sandy sent them her preliminary report, she damned near had to throw down to keep them from storming right in and sweeping his ass up, letting him wake up in some prison infirmary somewhere."
"Shit," Simon said tiredly, finishing off his coffee. "You know what that is? It's not fair. That'd be a great way for me to say 'thank you', wouldn't it. 'Hey, thanks for volunteering to help us and getting shot for your trouble, now go directly to jail, do not collect two hundred million dollars.'"
"Heh," Mike said. "Yeah, since you put it that way, it does feel kinda low, putting a wanted criminal in jail. That's just not right."
"I find your pitiful attempts at sarcasm so endearing, Honda. But to tell you the truth" Simon flipped the lid of the travel mug closed and set it down next to his empty water glass. "I don't feel particularly inclined to do Art Theft any favors right now. None of them ever stepped up to get shot for me."
Mike nodded. "I hear that, boss. I figure you might not have much of a choice in the matter, though."
"Yeah? I figure it'll be a cold day in hell before I bend over and let them fuck me up the ass like that." Simon said offhandedly, brushing a few stray crumbs off his new t-shirt. "If they want him so bad, they can catch him themselves."
The sun was setting by the time Simon let himself into Jeremy's hospital room.
Jeremy slept the sleep of the heavily drugged in the midst of a bunch of beeping machines, a plastic tube stuck up his nose, a pair of sensors glued to his chest, and an IV attached to one wrist. His face looked thin, his cheeks sunken and his skin pale, and the faded blue-and-white hospital gown wasn't doing him any favors.
His hair, however, still lay swept back in more or less perfect order, and after confirming for himself that Jeremy was indeed nearly comatose with painkillers Simon cheerfully succumbed to his long-denied urge to mess up Jeremy's hair until it stood up and fell over his forehead in fluffy brown spikes.
He felt a little guilty afterwards and smoothed Jeremy's hair absently back into place. "You look like hell," Simon informed the sleeping Jeremy, who didn't seem to have anything to say about that. "And I mean that. I think you'd probably shoot yourself if you could see what you were wearing right now."
Simon paused, not really expecting an answer and not getting one. He cast about until he found the single visitor's chair and dragged it up to the side of Jeremy's bed, sprawling out in it and eventually finding a clear spot to kick his legs out into. "Rupp's dead," he told the unconscious Jeremy with no further ado. "His men are giving themselves up left and right. Art Theft are damned near pissing themselves in their need to get their hands on your comatose ass, but, despite you losing me one eight-million-dollar diamond, I'm thinking I'm not going to let them have you."
Simon waited a beat, then quirked an eyebrow towards the thief. "What, no 'thank you, Simon'? That's gratitude for you."
Jeremy still wasn't saying anything. After a moment Simon sighed heavily and slumped down in his chair a little more. "You know," he said, "it sure is a big job to carry on all this witty repartee by myself. I thought you Brits were supposed to have such great manners. Shouldn't sheer propriety be forcing you to wake up and banter with me or something?"
Simon paused again, hopefully. Still nothing. The machine that seemed to have nothing to do besides beep regularly beeped regularly. "Pfft," Simon said, closing his eyes. "Lazyass."
For a little while Simon lounged there beside Jeremy's bed with his eyes closed, listening to the various machines click and sigh and hum and beep. Faintly, underneath all the mechanical noise, he could hear Jeremy breathing evenly. Eventually the quiet started to get to him, just a little, and Simon sighed and opened his eyes. "And I suppose I ought to say thank you before I forget," he told Jeremy. "So: thank you. Thank you for stepping up to help us fix your little gaffe. And, you know, thanks for taking a goddamned bullet just to prove your point. I mean, I really do believe that you were telling me the truth now. That? That is very convincing"
He broke off there as Jeremy stirred. Jeremy sighed a little and turned his head away from Simon, but the timbre of his breathing didn't change a bit. Simon waited until he was certain that Jeremy was still asleep, then rolled his eyes at the back of Jeremy's head. "Oh, yeah," he said. "That would have been just like you, to sleep through all the insults and wake up just when I was being all grateful at you."
Jeremy still didn't say anything, and after a minute Simon let his head fall forward, resting his chin on his bandaged chest and thinking he'd just close his eyes for a minute. "I am glad you're still alive," he muttered absently, just before he fell asleep.
Simon dozed, lightly, sprawled out in the visitor's chair like he owned it and all the space around it. The pain in his arms receded to a dull nagging itch, just enough to keep him from falling into a deep sleep but not quite enough to keep him awake; for lack of anything else to do, his mind wandered. His dreams, if he could call them that, were faint, fragmented things, playing sluggishly out to a soundtrack of soft mechanical beeps and footfalls in the hallway outside.
The slight rustling sound, when it intruded, didn't seem dangerous, just annoying. Simon mumbled irritably and tried to get away from the intrusive noise, his head rolling bonelessly aside. "Well," a familiar English voice breathed against his cheek, so softly that it didn't quite jerk him out of his daydreams. "I believe I should have charged you more, Simon."
Yeah, you probably should have, Archer, Simon thought. There was a faint sliding touch against his lips, not quite a kiss but close; it almost brought him up out of his doze. Then there was a faint pop! and an unpleasantly fusty smell and Simon swirled away into a much deeper sleep, the little not-a-kiss still tingling on his skin.
"plar? Templar! Come on, Templar..."
"Wuh?" Simon blinked his eyes openthey felt grittyto find a thoroughly frantic Nate shaking him. "Gerroff, Nate," Simon said, stifling a yawn. "I jus' closed my eyes for a sec..."
"Templar, I've been shaking you for five minutes!" Nate said. "Shadow's gone!"
"What?" Just like that, Simon was completely and totally awake, and he shot upright in his chair. The muscles in his right arm screamed, and his chest started throbbing again, and then, just for variety, someone slammed his head into a vise and tightened it. Simon hissed and grabbed for his temples with his left hand, making his left hand start aching again to complete the set. "My headoh, you little bastard!"
"Templar?" Nate asked, worried.
"Archer gassed me! Again!" Simon clutched at his head and hissed in another breath. "Let me guess. Someone left Shadow's jacket in here, didn't they? Put it in the little clothes closet?"
"... yeah, probably," Nate admitted. "But we thought he was unconscious! He'd just been gutshot, Templar, you don't just walk away from thatwell, I guess he did, but still, my point stands!"
Simon glanced out through his fingers at the empty bed. The IV needle was punched into the thin mattress, merrily dispensing painkillers into the cotton batting in an ever-widening wet circle. That mattress was feeling no pain. The heartbeat machine was still beating strong and steady, and this confused Simon until he realized that the sensors had been tucked into the bandages on his own chest. With a heartfelt groan Simon grabbed the sensors and jerked them loose, and the machine promptly flatlined and started screaming for help. "Shut up," Simon told the machine, heaving himself to his feet.
He strode over to the tiny clothes closet, Nate at his heels like a worried puppy, and threw it open. Empty, completely empty, except for an empty glass ampoule with a broken neck, glinting at him tauntingly from the floor of the closet. Simon slammed the door shut.
"Christ," he said, not without some admiration, and shook his head. "Jeremy Archer, you really are unbelievable, you know that?"
The door to Jeremy's hospital room slammed open, admitting a hurrying nurse and a pair of interns towing a crash cart. One look at the empty bed and they all skidded to a confused stop.
"Sorry, folks," Simon said, spreading his hands wide. "Nothing more to see here. Move along."
"Elvis has left the building," Nate muttered at his elbow, and Simon bit down on a bitter little laugh.