The sight of Susan Christabel in such incautious isolation seemed illusory to Josephine. She blinked hard, but made no other move to reassure herself.
“Move slowly, do exactly as I say.” she called as she withdrew a heavy black pistol. “Lace your fingers behind your head. Lie face down.” The girl glanced up toward the ruin. Josephine covered her carefully as she rose to stand, charged with the bright, self-conscious rigor of refusal. Her head turned toward the sound of the water; she looked back once at Josephine, then ran.
The dead trees of the clearing were quickly swallowed by the hillside though she did not look behind her, pushing her lead by skidding over a shallow bluff onto the more familiar ground of her previous ascent. Her boots punched into a cracking tangle of wind-banked branches; tipped forward, she kicked free and stumbled on toward the gorge, bursting through fingerling saplings that whipped back at her face. While her headlong velocity left Josephine in her distant wake, the latter's voice echoed down the hillside to direct another; the unseen party closed on her as they emerged together onto the level ground, catching her right arm and spinning her hard into the snow.
Petrouchka suspended her careful ascent toward the yard, lifting her hand to spare her flooded gaze the daylight; though feeble and colourless, it roared and boiled around her, casting the steps in white hot relief and glowing with the infernal hue of crucible steel. It rippled through the liquid in her eyes, her surface guarded only by clothing and the shadow she had followed from inside the ruin. Halted by its failure at the floor of the roof she stood, awaiting Sachiin's attention. He was tying back his returning hair, the handle of the axe propped against his thigh, and formed a pier of scalding brilliance, his eyes rendered in lustreless, infra-red darkness.
"From the way she freaked at me and peeled out, I'm guessing you dropped some epic shit down there." he suggested tersely. Petrouchka lifted the black cloth from her shoulders over her head. "I trusted you not to fuck with her, and you went right at it. I trusted you not to fuck with him."
"You accuse me? Of what?"
"Dépravation." he replied, wearily. "Déshonneur." The charges carried deeply into her empty chest, the day shuddering around them in agreement; she murmured, and lifted her draped arm as much against his stare as the sky, and he spoke more gently to her. "Do you not love me, Belyaev? How have we sinned against you?"
"I am dead, Sachiin." she confessed from underneath her cowl. "You ask so much of me."
The haste with which Kala'amātya climbed toward them drew him past her with none of the inquiry her presence might have otherwise inspired. She watched him confide something to his brother, then catch his arm as the latter broke toward the stairs, wide-eyed and silent, forcing Kala'amātya to exert the whole of his strength in halting him beside the vampyre and pinning his shoulder to the wall.
"What did you tell her?" he demanded of her.
"Sh'ih in'nai'ama. If they have her, they can't have you." hissed his detainer. Their struggle escalated until Petrouchka was sucked into its throes, her two-fisted hold setting her dead weight against him.
"Sachiin! You think she want this? Go now, or you won't."
He dragged them from the wall with him into the sunlight, her right side bared by the loss of her shawl; she sank to her knees beside his leg and clawed it back over her head, her cry prompting him to throw his brother off and aid her, though not before the caustic sky raised plumules of flame on the backs of her hands. Crouching in the shadow, Petrouchka pressed her burnt skin to her dress where it smoked like a brazier of blackened myrrh, uttering advice deeply coloured by the dark purl of her accent.
"They won't give you a cage with her. Be free. You know there is nothing else."
As she tottered back into the ruin Sachiin dropped onto the step beneath him as though suffering the same malaise.
Shaw pressed the girl's shoulder to the ground with his knee while he patted his belt for the cuffs he feared lost in his acquisition of her. Silence settled in the blue shade, the smell of stone and soil flushed from the riven snow beneath them. She lifted her head to look at him, astonished, then incensed.
“Relax. The less trouble you give, the less you get.” he muttered, forcing the cuff down over her wrist.
"Let me go.”
“Can’t do that.”
"Let me go." she hissed, provoked as much by the ease of his refusal as her own predicament. When he did not reply but sat back to consult his com, she suddenly contracted, planted her feet and threw herself sideways, tipping him onto his rear and scrambling over the top of him. Wedging her elbows into the snow, she sprang up and ran off along the slope toward the drop, the cuff chain flapping from her arm. Josephine leapt free from the saplings on the hill overhead and caught the fugitive from behind, seizing her hair and taking her once more to the ground. “Get off me!” she snarled through bared teeth; in reply her captor smacked a black steel truncheon across her elbow. The pain left her rolling and coughing snow from the back of her throat while the webbing was strapped around her right arm. As it compressed the small bones of her wrist the girl's dark eyes flicked open; she snatched the stranger's jacket front and jerked her downward where she bit hard into her cheek, her teeth skidding, then tearing into the smooth skin. Josephine punched her stomach with a knee until Shaw pared them apart, keeping her assailant pinned where she lay.
The blonde woman pressed a hand to the lush colour smeared across her face. It bled through the crooks of her fingers while she tore supplies from her pack, the girl spitting its raw taste into the snow.
"I want their location." she hissed, slapping tape across the gauze that had stuck to her wound. Susan's eyes found Shaw again. "Where are they?" Josephine shouted down at her, fingers blanching on the handle of the baton. Her victim's red-stained teeth flashed as she cracked the weapon across her shins; at its impact she stared wildly and gasped for breath, but uttered nothing more. Shaw turned from her, keeping his remarks confidential.
"This was too damn easy."
"They're here." Josephine assured him, scorn lowering her voice.
"You don't know that... you think they're just going to sit this out while you go hard on her?"
"Look at her neck. That's a fatality right there, and there's a bad contact on her arm. Where do you think she'd be right now if they weren't committed to her survival?" She waited for him to conclude his incurious survey. "Take all the time you need."
"That's not what I got at the house." he insisted.
"What you got at the house put us out here. Now get on her. I need bloods."
Josephine's pack yielded a number of discreet kits, each sleeved in a different shade of green from which she slid a selection of tools and appurtenance. With a small black camera she bent down again, grasping the girl's throat and snapping detailed shots of her face, front and profile, disregarding its expression and the blood around her mouth. The subject lay so indifferent to the blinking shutter that Josephine began to suspect her acquiescence and stowed the camera; with a plastic bag over her hand she grasped a section of her hair, winding it around her gloved fingers and ripping it free from the braid.
"The tent lab can get all this." Shaw muttered from his position at her feet. The girl saw nothing of the collection tube pressed to the skin beneath her ear, its cannula drawing a snaking line of blood into the plastic.
“She’s a warm ride, she could be holding both their DNA. If we have to cash her in I want her swabs on file so get her fucking feet.”
Their captive twisted from the hands that grasped the front of her jeans, thrashing hard and catching Shaw in the throat with her boot when he lost control of her legs. He sat back, struggling with the insult to his airway while Josephine cursed them both, winding the miscreant with the baton and climbing to her feet.
The conscripts negotiated the slope within formation in response to her summons, their thickset, pale-eyed uniformity suggesting them as the product of some failed fascist métier, their defects almost sarcastic. One by one they took a moment from their slit-eyed vigilance to look the girl over, returning their interest to their surrounds as circumstance dictated the emphasis. Their leader shrugged while shaking his head in rueful illustration of his misgivings. Built like a massive bipedal saurian, he sported a white blond crop and eyes that seemed perpetually inflamed by some chemical irritant.
"From point... looks clean." he reported, watching Josephine consult the compass on her wrist. Shaw shook his head at her ascending glance.
"Set up sensors... I want coverage at thirty metres." she instructed. "We'll tune her here. If it moves, get on it."
The conscripts spread away from them, placing laser-sighted units in a perimeter and hunkering down with their weapons to their chests. Fighting the acquisition of her hands until she was flipped onto her stomach, the girl blew snow and loosed hair from her mouth against the ground. Shaw stood peeling the plastic from an energy bar and planted a cursory boot on the back of her knees as per instruction; Josephine uncuffed her left fist and prised the thumb from it.
"You can see where this is going..." the former explained to the subjugated party with his mouth half-full, favouring his bruised throat as he swallowed. "I can't help you if you won't give back. Anything you know is good."
Josephine unclipped a multitool from her belt, setting the deeply-cleated plier jaws around base of Susan's thumb nail.
"Where are they?"
Her silence closed the jaws and crushed the nail frozen white, then concentric blue and red. The girl almost tore free in the comprehensive violence of her response, writhing behind her arm with the demonic strength of some inviolate possession. Blood fled the split that buckled open in the half moon of her nail but her expression conferred nothing beyond agony; Josephine released the jaws, knowing circulation would reprise the sanction. In Susan's stare the looming birches came to sudden life, branches bleeding like veins of watered ink into the sky.
"Last time. Where are they?" Josephine's reiteration sounded as though spoken through a wall; she looked out along the slope, then selected another finger, adjusting her grip on the tool.
The girl's eyes flew open; her teeth appeared behind her lips and Josephine loosed the jaws, then struck her dripping finger a swift blow with the tool. Susan lapsed slackly onto the snow and away from her hand into a spinning, silvery daze while the conscripts kept their wary eyes on the hillside.
"Down there." she gasped, spitting out the words along with the saliva that had slid into her airway.
Shaw dispatched himself down the slope and blew hard as he toiled back to them while Josephine unrolled a slim chain from her belt and dragged the girl's dead weight toward a tree, securing her to the trunk. He took their discussion to a discreet remove.
"Like I said... tracks go right down to the drop." he smirked. "They cut her loose."
Around them the corps stood like some crude henge, fists closed tightly on their weapons.
"Did I tell you to come in?" snapped Josephine, turning her attention back to Shaw's gloating reportage. "How is it possible for her to have a hand up your ass when she's tied to a tree? I could do her like that all day and she won't make a sound. Ask yourself why."
Snow had began to fall again, drifting between them, and she paused, turning to look through it at the conscripts that had begun to scratch at the edge of her attention like a hatched blur; they cringed hard and doubled over as though her anger had effected it, weapons forgotten at the cold burn of the screaming tone inside their heads. Shaw's hands retreated to his rifle and Josephine looked down at the split ring hanging from her belt, gaping, misshapen and emptied of its orange fob. The missing unit almost glowed in Susan's bloodied grasp as she slid her thumb back from the button, sitting on her knees in the half-regarded distance and watching the tormented men recover, her mastery of the effect becoming clear, like something patiently explained. Looking up at the pistol in Josephine's grasp while the latter strode toward her, she hoisted her swollen elbow onto her knee and used both arms to throw the fob to Shaw.
The men said nothing to the baton blow that knocked her onto her side.
"Get back out on point!" Josephine shouted over her shoulder. The command met a thick, shuffling silence. Shaw nodded toward Susan, stowing the orange unit on his own belt.
"Get her up." he told them. "We're done wasting time."
Two conscripts lurched forward uncertainly, trudging past Josephine while she blew a dry breath at the sky.
"What now, Nathaniel?" she laughed sourly. "Slay us with your exit strategy."
"I... We call this in..."
“You don’t dial in a jugfuck, man..." A Two volunteered. "We come up empty, they’ll frag us from the fuckin hawk. I seen them do that shit three times.”
"We're not empty... we got her." he reminded them, nodding to the base of the tree where Susan lay on her side. Taking the small locator unit from her breast pocket, Josephine offered it to Shaw.
“So call it in. Thirty to pull pitch, two hours flight time... they'll be here before we lose the light.” Conscious of the eyes on him, he made slow time in checking his watch and compass, setting his rifle strap across his shoulders and ignoring her demand for a decision. "Call them." she insisted. He turned toward his abandoned pack, speaking with her scathing stare still crawling on his profile and muttering in reply.
"I'll make the call tomorrow early. We pitch here tonight."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEKISH
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