Chapter 6: The Salamander and the Halberd

After getting her new chip, following the handwritten directions brought Pigeon to the site of an abandoned factory in Port Collette. As the heavy gate swung open, Pigeon thought she recognised the two bearded men that she had seen guarding the door at the Green Room. Apparently, they now felt confident enough to openly display their firearms.

Driving up the narrow gravel track towards the imposing brick structure, it occurred to Pigeon that everyone was proudly wielding some sort of weapon. She noticed too that the people milling about, or working the field, or exercising in groups, all had a lot in common. They were all white, male, young. Most of them had beards, and the rest all had heads shaved into pseudo-military styles. Everyone was wearing camouflage, hatchets dangling from loops on their hips.

She parked her car next to a line of pick-up trucks sporting oversized tires and got out nervously. Pigeon was uncomfortable around this many guns. Her Runner’s Sense was screaming at her, making her painfully aware of just how vulnerable she was. She made sure to keep all of her motions slow and steady, just in case someone mistook her motives and had itchy trigger fingers.

She was greeted by yet another bearded young man with a long gun slung over his shoulder. “Pigeon?” he asked sharply. Pigeon nodded yes, afraid that if she spoke her voice would betray her nerves. “Welcome to Hell. Mother is waiting for you. I’ll walk you in.”

The deeper into the complex they walked, the more on edge Pigeon became. Finally, when she didn’t think she could stand it any longer, they stopped in front of a steel security door. What she assumed was muffled music was blaring from the other side, although it sounded to Pigeon like someone was throttling a bullfrog.

“I’ll wait here,” said the man. “Go right on it.”

Pigeon shouldered open the heavy door, and found herself in a large, windowless room full of exercise equipment. The sounds system in the corner was blaring some heavy metal song, all shredded vocal cords and heavy guitar riffs. In the corner, a young woman with her white-blonde hair tied into a bun was working up a sweat on a rowing machine. Unsure of how to get her attention, Pigeon stood awkwardly off to one side, trying to catch Holly’s eye.

“I see you,” she said breathlessly. “Let me finish these reps.” She was wearing sweat pants and a sports bra, body glistening under the fluorescent lights, muscles tensing. Pigeon could see that her entire back was covered in a single tattoo: a salamander, coiled around a halberd.

The tail wove its way around her hips, front paws perched on her shoulders. The tip of the axe was partially covered by the hair at the base of her neck, and the blades snaked up the sides of her neck, ending just below her jaw. When she stepped off the machine, Pigeon could see a long, thick scar along her forearm. Holly brushed past Pigeon and killed the music, mopping her chest and face with a towel she had piled on top the stereo.

“Do you know why I told Natsumi to bring you on-board?” asked Holly, slipping on a baggy, red flannel shirt.

“No,” said Pigeon flatly. Holly turned and squared up to Pigeon, a large revolver dangling from her finger tips.

“Because you’re a killer,” said Holly, answering her own question. “I can see it in your eyes.” She brought the revolver up and pointed it between Pigeon’s eyes; Pigeon could see that it was loaded. She swallowed hard, but otherwise didn’t react.

“And,” continued Holly, “you’re not afraid to die.” She brought the gun up to her own temple and cocked the hammer, finger tensing on the trigger.

“Neither am I.” She de-cocked the revolver and spun it around in her hand, handing it to Pigeon, who took it and tucked it into the waistband of her jeans.

“What do you know about our movement?” asked Holly, changing the subject. She indicated the large banner that dominated the wall behind her. It was crimson red with a splash of white in the centre, framing the silhouette of two axes crossed over a halberd that resembled the one that ran up Holly’s spine.

“Nothing,” said Pigeon truthfully. It was starting to occur to her that this was the militia that Kim had mentioned in passing.

“Drive for me,” she said, shoving a set of keys at Pigeon, “and I’ll show you.”

The truck was stacked on a set of large, knobbby tires, oversized suspension visible in the gap around the wheel wells. Pigeon struggled to make her way into the cab. She was glad that Holly had stopped to have a conversation, because it spared her the indignity of having a witness to her embarrassment.

“This country is sick,” said Holly when she was settled into her seat. Pigeon noticed that she didn’t buckle her seat belt. “And this city is a tumour. You know, my daddy was a preacher. He built his church with his own bar hands. That’s the spirit that built this country. Now it’s over-run with whores and thieves.

“Me, I make my money honestly,” said Holly defiantly. “I’ve seen you taking those pills. What do you think is going to happen when the end comes? I’ll tell you, you’re not gonna be able to do jack. I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t snort, don’t pop. No chips, no mods. Clean living, the way man was intended to live. All this,” she said, gesturing widely, “all this lasts a hell of a lot shorter time than you might think.

“Now I’ve been to the other side. Died and crossed over. My heart stopped beating for eight minutes before I was brought back. And do you know what I saw? Nothing. There is nothing waiting for us on the other side. The same nothing we come from. On that day, I stopped believing. And I started understanding. You know?”

Pigeon nodded. She wasn’t sure she had grasped a single word that Holly had said. But there was a magnetism to Holly’s cadence that made her feel like she had no choice but to agree.

“I own the single largest methamphetamine production facility in Western Canada. Drugs, guns, money. The perfect trifecta. But all of that is meaningless. Do you know why?” asked Holly.

“No,” responded Pigeon.

“Because everything, and everyone, burns. The only true power is this.” Holly held up a clenched fist. “Strength is power.”

“Damn straight,” said one of the men in the back seat.

“Alright,” said Holly, as Pigeon turned out onto the main road. “We’re going to Port Vancouver, loading Bay 8.”

****

After shuttling around Holly all day, Pigeon came to realise that she was less of a criminal and more a savvy political operative. She spoke six languages, and conducted business in her customer’s native language.

The drugs that Pigeon had delivered to the port were sold for cash, duffel bags stuffed to bursting with bills. The cash was driven deep into Chinatown, where it was exchanged for surplus Communist weapons, the serial numbers lovingly filed down to nothing.

These were returned to the compound, where a couple of young men with shaved heads unloaded the crates and disappeared them into the old factory building.

“Good,” said Holly, sliding out of the truck cab. “I’ll tell Natsumi that you’re reliable.” She pushed a small stack of bills into Pigeon’s hand. “For services rendered,” she explained. Then she turned and too disappeared into the ominous brick fortress.

It was a few days later when Pigeon received another call from Natsumi. “It’s time,” she said, and then hung up. Pigeon yawned. She had fallen asleep on the couch again, fully clothed. The corporate apartment was secured with a state-of-the-art system, backed with a heavily armed concierge service.

For the first time in her life, Pigeon felt like a Squatter, and she didn’t know what to do with herself. She desperately wanted to share this success with someone, anyone. But no one she knew would be willing to step into the hornet’s nest the way that she had done. So, she had spent the last few days on the couch, sixty-inch television blaring trashy sitcoms. Her hair had started to grow in, and the short mop was lank with grease. Stepping onto the elevator down to the parking garage, she used one mirror wall to tie her hair up into a short ponytail.

On the drive over, Pigeon reviewed the plan in her head. It had been sent over in a thick manila envelope, delivered by an armed Company courier. “Assertive Corporate Espionage” claimed the header in typical System doublespeak.

As near as Pigeon could tell, this was a classic armed robbery. Pulling into the gravel lot of Holly’s compound, Pigeon immediately noticed that there were far more people milling about, armed guards posted in the upper windows, patrols lazily traversing the roof. However her preaching sounded to Pigeon, it must be producing results.

The plan seemed simple enough: breaching into the basement, sweeping the immediate area, then ascending to the third floor where the safe was kept in a secure bedroom. Along the way they would expect moderate resistance, being sure to sweep and clear all hallways and rooms, not allowing any private security guards to get the drop on them. Whatever it was that they were after, Pigeon didn’t know. Reams of technical data that she didn’t understand. It also appeared as though some pages of the plan were missing. For instance, according to the blueprints that had been provided, the infiltration point was a solid concrete wall. She assumed, however, that Holly would know what to do, as her hyper-competence would suggest.

Rounding the back of the factory complex, Pigeon could see a sprawling railyard filled with rusted out, derelict train cars. Holly was leaning against one of them, surrounded by a group of men in black ski masks. She pulled up alongside them and got out of her car, killing the engine and slipping the keys into her pocket.

“Good,” said Holly, tossing her a mask. “We’re all here.” Pigeon slipped it on as Holly continued. “As some of you know, there are rail tunnels running all underneath this city. Our target runs parallel to one of these old tunnels.” She dragged open the door of the boxcar she was leaning against, revealing a pickup truck that had been modified to drive on train tracks.

“Our infil point,” continued Holly, “is going to be a breach through the wall of the target building. After we set the charges, we’re going to move with full aggression, through the basement and up to the main floor, clearing rooms along the way. We can expect moderate resistance, most likely armed guards. The intel is located on the third floor.

“Pigeon, we’ll provide support and covering fire while your extract the intel. Then, we move back the way we came, exfil through the tunnel network. In and out, simple. No tripped alarms, no fuck ups.  Let’s do this. Sic semper nihilim.” Pigeon nodded, slipping on her mask, as the men around her returned echoed Holly’s call to arms.

“Pigeon, you’re in the back with me. We’re oscar-mike!” shouted Holly, jumping into the back of the pickup, sliding the door shut once the last man had clambered aboard. The truck began a slow rattling crawl along the rusted rail lines, picking up speed as the jury-rigged automobile slid beneath the face of the Earth.

“You’ve used a weapon before?” asked Holly.

****

“You see baby,” said Anita, running her finger over the wet concrete. Her long fingernail left a divot in the soft, grey sludge as she painted. AZ + PS, surrounded by a heart with a little arrow stuck in it.  “One day, the only memories of us will be the initials we carve for ourselves in the foundations of this city.”

They sat next in that park all day, laughing and drinking beers, lounging in the shade, enjoying the heat. Anita’s Grizzlies toque lay in front of them, next to a small cardboard sign extolling strangers for change.

Anita’s shabby tenement. The window opened onto the roof of the next building door, and they were sat outdoors smoking and sharing a joint. It was a few weeks after they had met in the park, and they had moved in together, Pigeon’s things light enough to be able to be packed into a single hockey bag.

        “You see more than most people,” said Anita. “You see the things that other people don’t want to see, are too scared to see. They are afraid of you, because they fear any challenge to the notion that their reality may be as subjective as yours.”

        “What truth do I see?” Pigeon was feeling better. Anita had a stash of unused pills, and she had lent a bottle to her.

        “You can feel the unreality of this world. You can feel us being watched, even right now, like someone is transcribing this very conversation. Like our lives are threads, woven into a tapestry of fate that only others can see. Like clockwork”

Pigeon laughed out. “How high are you?” she asked, supressing another giggle.

        “About four-foot eleven,” responded Anita, and they both howled with laughter.

****

Pigeon looked up at Holly. “This is Pacific City. It never stops raining.”

Holly nodded knowingly, then handed Pigeon an AK-patterned carbine assault rifle. An oversize scope was slung over the top of the hand guard, and an oversize muzzlebrake compensator hung from the tip of the barrel. She took the handful of magazines that Holly offered her and slipped them into the liner pocket of her suit jacket, along with two grenades.

“You still have the pistol I gave you?” asked Holly. Pigeon drew it from a shoulder holster and cracked the cylinder, revealing five .357 magnum rounds. Holly nodded, and dropped a handful of cartridges into Pigeon’s out stretched hand.

“How does this sight work?” asked Pigeon, switching weapons back to the assault rifle. Holly leaned over, briefly running through its operation.

“The stock extends like this,” she said, as Pigeon flipped the metal frame around in her hands. “5.56 by 39mm, magazine rocks into place, you charge it by reaching over the top like this.” Pigeon worked the charging handle, coaxing an ominous clattering from the firearm and chambering a round. “The sight is digital, you switch it on here,” Holly pressed a button, and a hologram projection of a crosshair appeared in the centre of the sight. It looked to Pigeon like someone had combined a digital alarm clock with .

“You ready?” asked Holly.

“I was born ready,” replied Pigeon.

****

“Driver: stop.”

The truck rolled to a stop in another non-descript tunnel. Pigeon looked around quickly as she clambered out of the vehicle, but could see no indication that this was the particular section of filthy concrete wall that they were looking for.

According to Holly’s cartography skills, however, this was in fact the correct location, and so the loose collection of armed individuals fell into position, lining up single file against the wall that they were soon to come bursting through.

“Pigeon,” snapped Holly, “you take point.” Pigeon dutifully fell into the foremost position, hefting her carbine up against her shoulder.

Holly walked to the front of the line and placed a large bundle against the concrete, rubbing it into the gritty face of the tunnel of until it began to stick of its own accord. Pigeon recognised it as a plastic explosive, but had never seen it in such a quantity.

“Shaped charge,” Holly muttered to Pigeon. “It’ll punch through the wall no problem. There might be some backsplash. Watch your face. Don’t disappoint me, Bird.” She turned to the rest of the team and shouted, “Okay! Let’s do this! Breaching on three.” Sweat beaded on Pigeon’s palms, slicking the wood furniture.

Time seemed to slow down as the breaching charge burst open like a deadly mushroom, imploding the wall against itself in a shower of dust, rubble, and sparks. Pigeon let out a wild, barbarian scream and charged through the newly created gap-

-and immediately came face to face with a man, the flesh seared away from his, gasping for breath. Shrapnel wounds oozed and burned across his chest.  

As he came gasping towards Pigeon, she noticed that most of his fingers were missing. She crosschecked the walking corpse with her machine gun, and it stumbled back against the wall behind it, finally collapsing in a gut wrenching gurgle. Pigeon was shoved forward as the men behind her in line began to file through; each shouted ‘breaching’ in turn.

Pigeon stood rooted to the spot, her heart pounding at her temples, eyes locked on the dead body before her.

“Clear!” Pigeon was shaken from the macabre scenario by Holly, patting her shoulder.

”Up to the first floor, move!” The filed up the stairs single file, breaking off into two-man teams to sweep the empty rooms and shadowed corners, calling ‘clear’ as they went.

“Floor clear, second floor, move!” barked Holly. Pigeon, still shell-shocked, complied with the order, the pile carpeting squashing beneath her muddied tennis shoes. Spilling out into a well-lit marble foyer, they were suddenly met by a number of men in dark suits and darker shades, professional looking firearms at the ready.

“Contact!” screamed the first man to the top of the staircase, as his upper body was torn into bloody ribbons. The rest of them dove through the doorway, seeking cover as the bodyguards reloaded their weapons.

Holly’s men and the body guards exchanged a few volleys of gunfire before Pigeon worked up the nerve to fire a few rounds blindly over her shoulder. She was still quite shaken, and her cool Runner’s demeanour was beginning to slide.

“Hey,” said a voice over her shoulder. “Don’t look. Too dangerous,”

“Shut up!” yelled Pigeon involuntarily, rolling onto her stomach and taking aim. The digital optic splashed across the chest of a guard, and she leaned into the trigger. The balcony railing in front of him shredded into a million tiny splinters, amidst sprays of blood from his bullet-riddled body.

“Hey,” said the voice. “Excuse me,”

She rolled back into cover, as more volleys were exchanged and Holly’s men gained the upper hand. Pigeon reloaded her half empty clip, rocking the new clip into place in a satisfying motion. She breathed deep; some calm was beginning to be restored to her.

After the last few shots were exchanged, Holly ordered them to charge up the elaborately ornate main staircase. They encountered no additional resistance, so after sweeping the upper storey, Holly’s men took up defensive positions around the main office where the target was located.

The office door was locked, but it gave away after Holly punched it out with a deft swing of a very heavy axe. Cowering in the office was one remaining guard, who dropped his gun immediately upon seeing Holly and Pigeon.

“Please,” he begged, “I have a fami-”

Holly took a swing at him with the back of the axe blade, catching him square in the stomach. He vomited explosively and dropped instantly to his knees. Choking up on the axe, she popped him in the side of the head, the sound of coconut cracking.

Pigeon had to look away for a moment as Holly continued to deliver blows to the fallen man, blood splattering her chest and face. When she had filled her bloodlust, she leaned back on the axe, panting as her pupils dilated.

“Hey silly,” said the voice. “You’re starting to crack up,”

“Okay,” said Holly breathlessly. “You’re up, Bird,”

The vault was in the corner, a large black thing with an ominous strip of input jacks which glowed slightly green.

The largest cord snaked across the floor and found its way into the personal computer sitting on the desk. Pigeon suddenly understood why her participation in this heist was so important.

She recalled Holly telling her that cybernetic technology was forbidden as a part of one of her doctrines, something about the purity of the human spirit.

Pigeon lay down on the floor next to the safe, quickly snatching the cord running into the front input panel and moving it from the computer to one that ran into the wrist on her left hand. A vision swam before her eyes, crisp in the dark of the room: black velvety fabric, rippling softly behind a series of stacked rectangles.

Focusing her will power, she shifted a portion of one rectangle to another so that they were of equal length. As she did so, another rectangle on the other side of the display increased in size.

Pigeon grimaced: a puzzle. She hated puzzles. With a deep sigh, she began shuffling the rectangles around aimlessly, waiting for something to click into place.

When it eventually did she heaved another deep sigh, this time of relief. Unplugging from the safe, the digital display stained her eyes with purple spots as if she’d been starting into a too bright light, and she herself was a little lightheaded.

She hated cyberspace, vastly preferring ‘the meat’. As Pigeon clambered to her feet, Holly took a long swing at the safe with the axe. It connected just below the base of the door, and it set off a huge shower of electric sparks

“Booby-trap,” Holly explained, getting down on her knees to open the safe. Inside sat a small metal plate. It looked eerily similar to the ones that Pigeon had been trying to move hot, when she had been double-crossed. “Package secured,” shouted Holly. “Let’s go home, people.”

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