Half-deafened by gunfire, Barker ducked back behind the leather chair. Bullets smacked into it, making nasty crunching noises. A short burst ripped up the table in front. Another few seconds, and he'd be cowering behind splinters. Over to one side, a sturdy-looking chest of drawers promised more enduring cover. He dived for it, snapping off a few random shots, and scrabbled off the line of sight. A few disappointed rounds tore up the carpet nearby, and he snatched the chance to return fire. In the momentary lull that followed, he keyed his communicator to broadcast to the rest of the squad.
"This is Barker. I'm pinned down 3 to 1 in Room 216, and I can't hold them off much longer. Can anyone help?"
There was a momentary pause, then an answer cracked through. "Kate here, boss. Which side of the room are you on?"
Barker quickly reviewed the layout of the room. "I'm on the right as you look in. They're on the left hand side, towards the back corner."
"Keep them busy," Kate said. "I'll give them something to think about, so be ready to take them out afterwards."
"OK." Barker jinked round the side of the chest of drawers and fired off a volley towards the bed. A hint of movement by the door told him that Kate had teleported in. He pulled back into cover again and shut his eyes.
A moment later, there was a loud whump, the furniture rattled, and a wave of heat washed over him. Screams of agony came from the far side of room. Barker rolled from behind the chest of drawers, firing blind, then paused to take stock. The left side of the room was ruined. Scorch-marks blackened the lavish wallpaper. The deep carpet, an expensive Shaktarian weave, was burning, as was the bed. One of the cultists was slumped face-down, her hair on fire, dead or unconscious. The other two were staggering around screaming, clothes smoking. Barker took aim, and shot them both, smiling nastily as the bastards dropped.
Kate walked in through the smoke, camera down, looking happy. "That was good footage, Barker. Nice shooting. Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Thank you. It was starting to get a bit hairy in here."
"No heroic wounds? Ah well. All part of the service," said Kate, grinning.
"What did you do, blow them up?" asked Barker, curiously.
"It's called Larillor, Barker. 'Blast', if you must." She shouldered her camera again. "I'm going to get some film of this scene."
"Help yourself," said Barker. "I'm going to check in with the others."
"Would you mind hiding behind that bit of furniture again while you do so? I can cut it in later."
Barker looked at her.
Kate tried a plaintive expression. It looked strange. "Oh, go on. It'll make the tape more saleable."
Barker shrugged uncomfortably, then crouched back down behind the chest of drawers, feeling stupid. Ignoring Kate's quiet "Cool!" , he activated the communicator.
"Ongoing situations on floors 2 and 3. Hostiles identified on floor 4. Floors 5-7, no contact. I am currently sweeping floor 8. The penthouse suite appears to be barricaded." The Wraith sounded relaxed. "Probability suggests this is where the leader is, but timing is non-critical. Do you want me to attempt penetration?"
"Hold off," replied Barker. "We'll get to you when we've mopped up down here. Wilson, report."
"The manager, his staff and the guests are hiding down in the cellar. One of the chambermaids went hysterical, so I locked them all in and left them to it. There were a couple of oddballs on the stairs between 2 and 3, but they're just finishing up."
"Finishing what?" asked Kate.
"Dying, of course," said Wilson.
"Hang on," said Kate. "I'll film it." She dashed to the door, looked along the corridor to the stairs, and teleported over to Wilson. Barker shook his head.
"Third floor under control. There are three left up here." Whisper paused. "There are two left up here. They have locked themselves in the bathroom and are shouting for me to go away."
Kate interrupted the Stormer's quiet narration. "Whisper, hold on a moment. Get your Claymore ready, and I'll be up there."
"Are they a threat, Whisper?" asked Barker, concerned.
"They are no problem," Whisper said. "Their guns are having difficulty with my body armour. I can switch to hand weapons as the Brain Waster requested. I would have had to punch through the door anyway. I will hack through it instead."
"All right, yell if you have any problems. Kate, be careful. Let Whisper in first. You don't regenerate. Wilson, are all the guests accounted for?"
"No idea," said Wilson.
"Check with the Manager, then. Tell him that room 216 is on fire. Oh, and unlock the bloody basement and tell them all to get the hell out of here."
Wilson sounded put out. "What are you going to do, Barker?"
"I'm going to get up to the top floor." He headed out of the door, and made for the stairs. As he passed the 3rd floor, he could make out the sounds of a fight. An excited "Cool!" of Kate's was distinctly audible, and Barker winced. The Waster was an excellent Operative, and ice-cool under pressure, but her idea of good footage...
Barker was approaching the 7th floor when Wilson reported back. "The manager has evacuated. He says two guests are unaccounted for. Three more of them - and two of the staff - are dead, all on the first floor."
"Any details on the missing guests?" asked Barker.
"No. All info is in the computer, which the goons have smashed up."
"What about the fire?"
"The manager gave me the code to force-activate the sprinkler system," said Wilson.
"And nothing. It didn't work. It must have gone down with the computer."
"Alright," said Barker. "Get hold of the local Shivers, and get them to send medical support, a fire crew, and some backup."
"I hate dealing with Shivers," Wilson said.
"You don't have to like them," snapped Barker. "Just tell them to send people to clean up and get everyone else out of the way. Once you've done that, make your way up to the 8th floor. Kate, report."
"I've got some beautiful film, Barker. Third Eye are going to cream themselves when they get this one." Kate sounded delighted.
"Are you both OK though?" asked Barker impatiently.
"Yeah, yeah, we're fine. That Stormer is as tough as old nails. He's almost finished regenerating."
"Finished?" Barker sighed. "Alright, the pair of you get up here."
The 8th floor was as tastefully decorated as the rest of the building. Wall sconces punctuated the hallway, interspersed with expensive artworks from all the major cultures and races. Very cosmopolitan. Artificial plants, created in some Karma research laboratory, stood in strategically-placed niches, blending nicely with the rich green and gold of the wallpaper. It must have cost a fortune. Suburbia was an unusual district to find a luxury hotel in. Even near the Spaceport, most suits who could afford somewhere like this went straight on into Central. According to the plans held by Control at Station Analysis, there were just two suites on the top floor, separated by the corridor and a couple of linen closets. Siris was waiting at the top of the stairs, patiently watching the door to West suite. He acknowledged Barker with a flick of his ears, but didn't turn round.
"Any activity, Siris?"
"Occasional voices, nothing else." The Wraith sounded calm, unbothered by his wait.
Barker studied the far door, but couldn't see anything out of place. "Any sign of traps or surveillance devices?"
"Scanning revealed no unexpected electronic devices in the hall. I could not see any sign of mechanical ones. I believe that the defences will start inside the suite, which has the usual scanner shielding you would expect from a hotel of this class."
"What would you do to resolve this situation?"
Siris grinned, flashing a mouthful of extremely pointed teeth. "I would exit through the East suite window, traverse round the exterior of the building, and enter via a window in the West suite. That should circumvent most security, and provide the necessary edge to hunt the inhabitants."
"One slip and you'd be pussycat jam," said Kate, from the stairs. "We're eight floors up. Besides which, you'd never get old vat-grown here clinging to wet brickwork." She slapped Whisper cheerfully on the shoulder. "He's almost 8 feet tall, and more or less the same around the chest. Karma built him for frontal assaults, not complicated intrusion."
Whisper looked reproachfully at Kate. "I am perfectly capable of stealthy access in a wide range of situations."
"Could you cling to the side of this building?" asked Kate, grinning.
"It is unlikely," admitted the Stormer grudgingly.
"Well then, don't be so grumpy," said Kate. "What I'd do is have Whisper charge the door down, and follow behind him - sort of like a portable blast shield. He's well armoured. While the cultists are blasting at him, they won't even notice the rest of us, and we can take them out quickly. He'd regenerate quickly enough."
"I'm surprised you don't want to use me," said Wilson sourly from behind Whisper. "You'd get good footage if I was shot to fuck."
"Tempting," Kate said. "Are you offering to volunteer?"
"Quiet everyone," said Barker. "Now we're all here, there's a lunatic to apprehend, remember?" Surprisingly, the chatter stopped. "According to the plans I downloaded, the linen cupboard backs onto the Suite's bathroom, and the wall there is considerably thinner than between the rooms and the corridors. Wilson, go and empty the cupboard, and then cut the shelves out of it, quietly."
"Why me?" asked Wilson petulantly.
Barker glared at him. "Just do it, Mike." Wilson glared back, then went over to the cupboard, and started unloading towels and bed linen. "While he's doing that, I want you all to change clips, prepare backup arms, and generally get ready. Siris, sprint back down to the second floor and check on that fire, then come back straight away to report."
By the time Wilson had finished emptying the linen cupboard, Siris was coming back up the stairs. "What's going on down there?" asked Barker.
"The fire is spreading despite the flame retardants that everything is treated with," replied the Wraith mildly. "Room 216 is burning fiercely, and adjacent rooms are starting to succumb. Growth will be exponential; the stairwell will be compromised within ten minutes."
"We'd better hurry then," Barker said. "Kate, I want you to do that wall-weakening thing on the back of the cupboard."
"It's called Esinado, Barker. Unbonding. And yes, I do have the necessary reserves of energy, thank you for asking."
"Swiftly please, Kate."
"Alright, alright, I'm going." She walked over to the cupboard, and vanished inside. A few seconds later, she came back out again, tired. "It's done."
"Are you OK?" Barker asked, concerned.
Kate sneered lightly. "Fine, just fine. I love wrestling with the atomic structure of interior partitions." She glanced at Barker, and relented slightly. "I'm OK, boss. It's been a busy morning."
"I know," said Barker. "And I very much appreciate it. I'd have been lost without you, as usual. Thank you." Kate muttered something in reply, and turned away. "Now folks, you've all done a fantastic job so far. The plan is this. Whisper is going to go in through the back wall of the cupboard, followed by Mike and Siris. I'm going to get closer to the door and start shouting at them to surrender, threaten them with horrible things, do whatever I can to distract them, and to dodge any bullets they throw my way. Kate, you can go with Whisper if you want to, or you can wait on the stairs if you need to rest for a bit. I'd love to have you active, but it's your choice." Kate smiled at him. "Any questions? No? OK then, let's do it. Everyone keep silent. You're going for full neutralization."
While Whisper got into position in the cupboard, Barker trained his gun on the door. As the others waited, he started shouting. "SLA Industries Operatives! Open this door immediately or we will be forced to break it down!" He gave the signal for the others to proceed. "Surrendering now will improve your chances of survival. We have extermination warrants to execute all of you!" He glanced round, and noted that the rest of the squad had vanished into the cupboard. "Your lives are at risk! Surrender now!"
Someone from inside the suite rose to the bait, shouting through the door. "Back off, you fuckers. We've got hostages in here, and one has a high Security Clearance Level. If you try to break in, one of the four of us will kill them, and the suit with the good SCL will go first. Your precious Mr. Slayer will screw you up if you lose one of his corporates, so don't try anything funny." There was the sound of gun fire, and then everything went quiet.
A moment later, the door clicked open. Barker warily targeted the edge of the door, ready to dive for cover, and found himself sighted on Kate's broadly grinning head. "Come on in boss," she said.
Inside, blood was soaking out of a corpse's ruined forehead and into the expensive carpet, while a slightly wild-eyed couple sat, tied and bound, under the window. "Seems he was alone," said Wilson. "Apart from them."
"I'll see to them," Kate said, and went over to them.
"Is that it, then?" asked Barker.
"Looks like it," Wilson said.
"The building is now secure," said Siris, "But it is also on fire."
Barker glanced over at the window. Kate had loosened the captives' gags, and was questioning them, on camera, about their ordeal. "Let them up, Kate," he said. "We have to move, if you want to avoid getting toasted. You can interview them later. Whisper, give her a hand. Siris, Wilson, get moving."
Barker went over to the window, and helped the man up. "We don't have time for you to get the blood back in your legs properly, I'm afraid. Can you walk?"
"I'm not sure," said the man.
"Whisper can carry one of you, and Kate and I will help support the other."
The man eyed the Brain Waster nervously, and then said "Thank you. Could you have your Stormer carry my wife?"
Whisper nodded, and Barker said "Go for it, then. Get her out of here." Whisper picked the woman up, and sprinted for the door, leaving Barker and Kate with the man. They took an arm either side of him, and headed for the stairs.
By the time they got to the fourth floor, the stairwell was getting uncomfortably hot and smoky. The former hostage, who'd introduced himself as Middleton, was coughing heavily, and still not walking unaided. The Operatives had their suit helmets on and were breathing through the filters, but Middleton was starting to pass out. "We've got to get him through as quickly as possible," said Barker.
"We could pick him up and run with him," Kate suggested.
"Do you have the strength?" Barker asked.
"I'm stronger than you are," she said, quietly proud.
'I believe it,' Barker thought to himself. He nodded. "OK then, let's do it."
They put Middleton's arms around their shoulders, and bent down to get a hold on his legs. Timing each other carefully, they straightened up, and picked Middleton up smoothly. With the weight of the weakly-coughing corporate between them, they staggered on down the stairs, as swiftly as they dared.
As they turned the corner to descend to the second floor, Barker found himself completely engulfed by smoke. "This will kill him," he told Kate. "I'm going to give him my helmet. It won't be sealed, but the filters might help."
Ignoring Kate's protests, he put Middleton's leg down, released the catch, and lifted his helmet off, clapping it over the corporate's head. He picked the man up again, gestured furiously with his free hand, and charged down the stairs, Kate in synch.
The heat was ferocious. Barker's whole face tightened up, and his eyes felt like they were being sandpapered. He closed them to slits, just keeping them open enough to make out the dim shape of the stairs. They reached the second floor landing, and could see the fire burning along the length of the corridor, a bright orange through the thick smoke.
Middleton was starting to come round again. As the three of them turned to head down towards the first floor, Barker stumbled slightly. Half-conscious, Middleton panicked and flailed an attempt to compensate. He pulled Barker off-balance, and the Operative walked straight into the railing. Surprised and disorientated, Barker dropped him and fell over. Kate, overburdened, was slung down the stairs towards the first floor, barely keeping herself and Middleton upright.
"Get him out!" yelled Barker with the last of his air. "I'll follow." Kate looked up the stairs at him, hesitating. "Get out!" shouted Barker again. Finally, she obeyed. Barker started lurching down the stairs, dizzy with oxygen starvation. Eventually, he could no longer fight off his reflexes. He breathed in a lungful of smoke, and doubled over, coughing. Suddenly he was falling down the stairs. He hit the first floor landing hard, retching from the soot and the impact. Dazed, thought he felt hands pulling on him, and then everything went black...