"I beg your pardon?"
Errol Partridge, Grammaton Cleric First Class--ultimate enforcer of Librian law and order--drew on all of the experience that both his training and years as a traitor to his government had given him and kept his dismay from his face. Without so much as a twitch or grimace, he loaded the false Prozium cartridge in his injector and pressed it to his neck. "It does," he told Preston, more sure than ironic now. Even if his partner hadn't been almost supernaturally gifted with the ability to read minuscule signs of undue emotion off of others, the slip of tone would have likely been noticed. Partridge and John Preston had been partners for nearly three years now, and could read each other like books.
Speaking of which... the precious Yeats in his coat pocket had now become a liability. He knew Preston. The man was implacable when something piqued his suspicion; the book would have to be disposed of. There would be no lazy afternoon going through the poems before turning it over to the reading room now. He couldn't compromise his use to the Resistance, no matter how much he wanted to save this book. He'd put too much into this--they all had.
Jurgen wasn't going to be happy.
Not that he ever was, but...
The car pulled up to the Palace of Justice, and both men stepped out. There was no small talk, no joking. They walked in silence past the crowds, making their way to the Clerics' offices. Another successful bust, another report to fill out. The moment they walked into the building, though, a small clerk intercepted them.
"Yes?" Preston slowed but didn't stop for the clerk, who was forced to trot on after.
"Vice-Counsel DuPont would like to speak with you. Immediately."
Partridge halted and turned back, unsure that he had heard the clerk correctly. Preston had stopped, brows knitted together slightly, then nodded and looked over at his partner.
"I'll send you my report before I turn it in," said Partridge, smiling slightly. Preston's fastidiousness was legendary, and the reports the pair sent out were no exception. "In the meantime, I have business of my own." He patted his pocket and turned towards the evidence hall, walking with a lightness and purpose that he did not feel.
The evidence clerks weren't a busy group of people. Despite what he had said earlier about them missing things, they rarely did. They burned everything that their eyes caught unless otherwise ordered, and there had been no survivors of this raid. There was nobody left to prosecute, and no need to build up a case against the corpses. Justice had been served.
He tapped the book on the desk to catch the attention of the man behind the counter, who was diligently working on his own project. "Cleric! I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in."
Partridge nodded. "I need to log in some evidence. A.N.R. 136890."
The clerk obediently sifted through his log book to the nearest blank page. Partridge noted with some dismay exactly how full that damned book was--and that was only the items that had been logged in as evidence. The items burned at the scene were never logged in.
He hated coming to this damned room.
Inside, he raged as the clerk took the book and sealed it away to be burned at a later date. Outwardly, he showed no emotion, maintaining the same aloof blank bearing that was expected of him. He cursed himself inwardly as he signed the log book and turned, resigning himself to an afternoon of paperwork and an evening of quiet disapproval from Jurgen when he made his report.
Partridge nearly knocked into another man as he left the evidence room--a Cleric Second Class, by the dress of him--dark shining gray instead of the matte black of a Cleric First Class. Instead of apologizing, the man smiled widely and continued to block his way. "Cleric Partridge?"
"You work with Cleric John Preston, is that correct?"
The man's smile widened, though it never reached his eyes. "Excellent. He's not at his desk right now."
"He was called to a meeting. Is there something I can assist you with?"
"Oh, no. No, just tell him that Cleric Brandt was looking for him. I'll be at my desk for the next few hours, barring any unforeseen circumstances."
You could just leave a note, thought Partridge, though he nodded. "I'll do that."
"A pleasure speaking with you, Cleric," said Brandt. He finally moved aside.
I wish I could say the same. He wasn't sure what it was about the man, but something was rubbing him the wrong way. The smile? Possibly. In all his time as a Cleric, Partridge couldn't recall seeing one of his peers managing more than a tight, self-satisfied smile at a job well done.
He would figure it out later, he was sure. For now, there were other matters to attend to.
As Partridge had suspected, Jurgen was not pleased.
"That was a careless slip," he said, in his quiet, detached way. The conversation was voice-only; Partridge considered it wise to stay close to home tonight.
"It won't happen again. I'll be on my guard." Partridge hesitated. "I had to give the book to the evidence room."
"Your contribution to the Resistance is more than just what you manage to save from the sweeper teams. If you get careless, all of our plans are for nothing."
"I know that. Do you think I don't?" Partridge ran a hand through his hair, though he knew the gesture couldn't be seen. "It isn't going to happen again." He hesitated. "Besides, the backup plan--"
"Is unreliable. No, it's best not to rely on him unless we absolutely have to."
Partridge jumped as a sharp rap on his door sounded. "Someone's here. I have to go." Jurgen cut the conversation with no further words, and Partridge shoved the contraband cell phone under his mattress. "I'll be right there," he called, glancing around as he walked to the door. No, no evidence that could potentially damn him. Good.
Partridge glanced through the peephole and his brows furrowed. What was Preston doing here at this time of evening? "John," he said by way of greeting, opening the door.
"Ah. Did..." Partridge searched his memory for the name of the off putting Cleric from earlier. "Did Brandt ever find you?"
Guess not. "A Cleric approached me this afternoon, looking for you. He said his name was Brandt."
"No, he didn't. My meeting ran... late." Preston looked almost distracted, eyes slightly unfocused. If Partridge didn't know better, he would have called his partner confused.
"Is something bothering you?"
Preston started to shake his head, then stopped. "Possibly. You know that I was married several years ago?"
"Of course," said Partridge, alarm bells starting to go off in his head. "I've read your file."
"DuPont seemed insistent on talking about her in our meeting today."
"That's what your meeting was about? A record like yours and he wanted to talk about your dead wife?"
"I'm wondering if it was more than that. Possibly a warning."
The alarms in Partridge's head were louder than ever, though he was careful not to show any outward sign. Breathe slowly. Stay calm. Detached. "About what?"
Preston shrugged. "My performance?"
"Couldn't be." Partridge walked over to his small kitchen and pulled out two unadorned glasses. He filled them with water as he talked. "You're one of, if not the, highest performing Cleric in our rank. Vice-Counsel DuPont should have no complaints about your efficacy."
Preston accepted the glass that Partridge handed him and sipped at it. "Then what?"
"Perhaps he's planning to promote you. Full Tetragrammaton Cleric, guard to Father himself. You couldn't say no to that, could you?"
The younger man frowned into his glass. "Of course I wouldn't. But I don't think that's it at all."
Preston favored him with a vaguely annoyed look. "This is why I was promoted faster than you were. You're terrible at interrogations."
"I'm the audience, John, not your interrogator. If you think my theory is wrong, then I'd like to hear yours." Partridge leaned back against his table, sipping his drink.
"You said there was a Cleric looking for me earlier. Maybe I'm being transferred or replaced."
Partridge read his partner's face carefully. It was one of the things they'd been trained to do at the monastery, and the thing that good Clerics excelled at. "That's not what you're really thinking at all, is it?"
Preston gulped down his water and placed the glass in the sink. Considerate of him. "It's getting late. I should go see to the children."
Partridge frowned slightly but nodded. "I'll see you in the morning."
As Preston let himself out and shut the door, Partridge screwed his eyes shut and mouthed a silent curse. Preston suspected.
He was scarcely finished dressing the next morning when somebody knocked at his door. "I'll be there in a moment," Partridge called, running a comb through his hair as quickly as he could get away with before hurrying out to the living area. Perhaps it was a neighbor with questions? Preston, even as enthusiastic about work as he was, was never here this early, not with children to look after.
A cold slither of worry settled in his stomach, and he had to push visions of a sweeper team outside his door away and put on his blank Cleric's face before looking through the peephole. Outside, smiling widely and looking eager, was Brandt.
What the hell is he doing here? "Cleric Brandt," said Partridge as he opened his door. "Can I help you?"
"Cleric Partridge! I'm here to pick you up for the morning's A.N.R."
Partridge allowed himself a slight frown. "I'm sorry, an Arrest and Recovery today? I was under the impression that--"
"I have the file for you right here," said Brandt, holding out a black folder. "Any explanation needed is in there. Now please hurry, we still need to get Cleric Preston."
"Three Clerics?" Partridge wondered aloud as he picked up his comb again.
Brandt's smile faltered somewhat. "While I was the one to procure all of the major evidence in this case, I lack the authority and record for a mission of this sensitivity. It was what I wished to speak with Cleric Preston about, actually; as a result of my work, I'm being assigned to shadow and assist the two of you." Evidently his spirits weren't overly dampened, because the insufferable smile widened again. "It's sure to be an excellent career move for me."
"I'm sure it is," said Partridge. One last check in the mirror assured him that he was in order for the day, and he picked up the folder from the low table he had placed it on. "Let's get a move on, then."
Thankfully, Brandt did not try to initiate any bland conversation once they got into the state-issued car. There was just something about the man... Partridge dismissed it and opened the folder, wondering what was so damned important that he was being picked up a half hour earlier than usual.
Bile very nearly rose up in his throat.
"Is something wrong, Cleric?"
"Pardon?" Partridge looked up and found Brandt looking concernedly at him in the rear view mirror, the ever-present smile gone.
"You looked strange for a second there."
"A little surprised, that's all." Partridge dropped his eyes back to the papers in front of him and concentrated very hard on not leaping across the gap between the front and back seats and strangling Brandt. "It's not many Cleric Second Classes who would manage to snare a financier of the Resistance."
He let his eyes skim the particulars of the information in front of him, mostly so he wouldn't have to look up and see the smile that was sure to be on Brandt's face. Pieces were starting to fall into place now. Someone had been careless--normally he would have suspected one of his lower-ranked contacts, but after yesterday's slip he wasn't willing to rule out himself--and somebody suspected. They were pressing in, trying to get a reaction out of him, and he would be damned if he would give it to them. There was too much at stake now.
Preston's meeting, DuPont pressing the topic of Viviana's crimes and execution--why else? Why bring that up now, if not to give Preston cause to suspect someone else who was right in front of him?
The car rounded the corner to Preston's building, and Brandt excused himself. He came back in barely a minute later, frowning.
"He's not home."
Breathe deep, Partridge thought as the car started on its way again. He felt nauseous. It would only take him a fraction of a second to draw his pistols, release the safety catches, and kill Brandt and the driver where they sat. If he took the car, he might beat the sweeper teams there--
I can't do this. I can't. Damned if I do and damned if I don't. The suspect's picture stared a little to the left, grainy from the poor film stock used by whoever had spied on the meeting. The one that he carried on him was much better quality, taken by a friend in happier times.
I am going to throw up.
"There he is," said Brandt, interrupting his reverie.
Partridge tore himself away from the file and looked outside, noticing for the first time where they were. "The local Equilibrium Center?"
"What a horrible line out there this morning."
"Yes," said Brandt, sounding annoyed. "Just another reason we need an early start today. The sooner we can cut out the heart of the Resistance, the better."
Good on you, people, he thought at his anonymous compatriots as he nodded and made sympathetic noises. Preston slid into the seat next to him. If he had indeed been suspicious of Partridge's allegiance last night, there was no trace of it. Instead, his partner looked... off, somehow. "You're early."
"Talk to him," said Partridge, nodding at Brandt up in the front seat and handing Preston the black folder. "He's been assigned to us as a reward for bringing us our next target." Damn him.
"Cleric Preston, I'm Cleric Brandt."
Very unlike Preston, noted Partridge. Normally he'd at least manage to acknowledge a fellow Cleric. Something's wrong.
Preston flipped through the file, and Partridge distracted himself from the roiling in the pit of his stomach by observing his partner. Preston had to go back and reread sections two, sometimes three times as they drove out to the apartment building on the border of the city. That's not right at all. Something's distracting him. Is it me?
Don't screw this one up, no matter how badly you want to.
"So what's the plan?" he asked quietly.
"Same as always," said Preston, closing the file. "It's only one woman. Intelligence suggests she's not armed. Things should be simple."
Partridge and Brandt were assigned to bring up the rear, ostensibly to make sure that there were no hidden targets coming out to surprise them once the initial sweep was past. He looked up to the windows of Mary's building, searching for her face. The team wasn't inconspicuous; she had to have heard them by now. Hide, Mary. Run, hide, do something other than be a damned martyr to the damned cause.
Preston took the lead position as always. Any hint of the distraction that had been evident earlier were missing now.
"Looks like we'll be missing the action," said Brandt to Partridge, sotto voce.
"That's Cleric Preston for you. Always the first one in, and he does his job so well there's little for anyone else to do afterwards." Partridge was amazed at how steady his voice sounded.
Mary's apartment was on the third floor, and the sound of their footfalls was deafening to Partridge. Surely Mary could hear them coming well in advance and was sneaking out the back way or hiding in her safe room. She had to if she had an ounce of sense in her.
The second that the door was broken down, Preston was inside like a force of nature.
"You can't do this. You cannot do this!"
His blood rushed in his ears, drowning out whatever it was that Preston said to her afterwards. A quick look over towards Brandt--yes, he was being watched. Dammit.
Partridge's mouth was dry as he followed Brandt into the hall. There she was--in Preston's arms? He had her pinned in front of a mirror with an ornate frame. "Look at you," he was saying. They were both breathing heavily, and for an absurd moment Partridge felt a stab of jealousy before the reality of the situation hit him again.
Mary's eyes flicked to the side in the mirror, catching his. My gun's out. Preston's the danger, if I can get him through the head before he turns around, she can get away. Brandt's only a Cleric Second-Class, the sweepers aren't even an issue, I can--
She knew him well enough to know what he was thinking. He only just caught the twitch of her head, too short to really be called a shake.
After several too-long seconds, Preston let her go. "The mirror's frame is illegal. Destroy it."
I always said it was a mistake to have an unregistered mirror in the entrance hallway, Partridge thought. Mary, why didn't you run?
He caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. Grim. Jaw clenched. He forced himself to loosen it, to look like this was just another job, but Brandt pulled the it down before he could judge how successful he was. The glass shattered on the floor, and the heavy frame cracked on impact.
Another quick look at Brandt now, but for once the Cleric Second Class's attention wasn't on him. He was watching Preston, an inscrutable look on his face. Partridge couldn't decide whether it was preferable to the wide smiles or not.
Mary had gone ahead with Preston and two enforcers, her arrest already a foregone conclusion with the mirror present. Partridge could hear the sounds of banging on a false plaster wall and knew that her treasured safe room was compromised. Damn Preston and his uncanny ability to sense these things... The mirror alone was sufficient enough cause for her to be jailed and reeducated. Anything on that scale was... no, don't think about it, keep your face blank and keep walking. Follow the team in like a good Cleric.
Preston was inside the room already, Brandt keeping a close eye on Mary. She and Partridge locked eyes once more, just for a second. He dropped his first, and she went back to watching his partner violate the sanctity of that little shrine to bygone times. There was that painting that he'd liked so much, that she'd kept for him so that he could drop by and see it whenever he wanted. There was her favorite lamp, her favorite book, one of the first ones that he had read cover to cover.
"You're going to burn it, aren't you?" she asked.
"Eventually." Preston picked up a bell, a silly little thing that Partridge had saved for her only three months ago. Brandt joined him in there now. Partridge couldn't bring himself to. He poked his head inside for show and pretended like he wasn't calculating all the ways that he could incapacitate everyone and escape with Mary in tow. Even with his considerable skills, the odds weren't good.
"However," Preston continued, "You couldn't have accumulated all this by yourself. It'll all be sorted and examined. We'll discover who your confederates are."
Partridge was about to look at her again, to assure her via whatever silent understanding that they had that he'd do his best to stymie the investigation and get her out, but he heard a noise that triggered all of his years of training. Metal against leather, the sound of a weapon being drawn. Before he could think, his own pistol was readied and aimed at the source--
What? He felt horror and obscure pride as he realized that he was now aiming his gun at Mary. She had grabbed the pistol away from the nearest enforcer and had it aimed at Preston.
There were shots fired, and he was positive that they weren't from his weapon.
He spared just enough of his attention to making sure that Mary hadn't been hit--and she hadn't been--before ascertaining where the shots had come from. One had been hers. clumsily knocked aside by an enforcer.
The other had been Brandt's, shot into the ceiling of the safe room. He and Preston looked to be having a quiet but heated conversation that he was sure he wanted no part of right now.
Mary was glaring daggers at Partridge now from where she was pinned by the enforcer that she had disarmed. He couldn't tell if she was acting or not.
Two days had passed since Mary's arrest. Partridge could only recall one previous time when he felt so close to snapping: just after he had first quit his intervals years previously, when he had been convinced that everyone around him knew and that it was only a matter of minutes until a sweeper team came for him.
He hadn't yet spoken to Jurgen about her arrest. Jurgen hadn't been available to take his call, and Partridge had been missing his contact's icy demeanor when the acting lieutenant Cabras had answered. Cabras had ranted and raved at the loss of such an important financier and friend, and once he began to lecture on how Partridge should have killed her instantly and mercifully and prevented her from being used against the Resistance, Partridge had no choice but to disconnect or else he would have started shouting as well. He was walking a thin enough line already without alerting his neighbors that something was wrong.
He hadn't seen Mary since the arrest. Preston, as arresting Cleric, was the only one with interrogation access and Partridge wasn't about to further arouse suspicion by asking how she was doing.
It was night, and he couldn't sleep. He had barely slept for the past two nights, and was currently wishing that he had a small stash of illegal brandy lying around when his illegal phone chirped at him. "Not now," he said to the empty dark room, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, and then he picked it up anyway. "Yes?"
"It's me." Jurgen. They both knew better than to use names, even over supposedly secure frequencies.
"Yes. It's a terrible loss, but the plan--"
"Fuck the plan," Partridge hissed. "You know why they got her, don't you? They're watching me. I think somebody knows. Or else somebody talked."
"Calm down. How much of this is stress?"
"It's not stress. At least, I don't think so. The Vice-Counsel might have suspicions that he passed on to the backup plan. And there's a Cleric that's been assigned to us, the one who built the case against M--against her. He's been watching me every chance he gets. Glances. Looking for reactions."
"Which you're not giving him."
"Of course I'm not reacting, not if I can help it. It's difficult. He keeps bringing her up. Talking about the punishment for sense offenders, and how we're too lenient."
Jurgen was silent, and Partridge imagined that he could sense silent disapproval. "She had her priorities. She made her decisions. Stick to the plan." And with that, the call was ended. Partridge threw the phone across the room and clenched his fists, wanting to scream, to curse, to hit or shoot something or someone. Preferably Brandt.
And then someone knocked at his door. Shit! "I'll be right there," he called, diving silently over to the abandoned phone and shoving it in his pocket. If it was a sweeper team, they'd find it on him and trace the calls, but there was nowhere else to hide it out here. He straightened up and looked through the peep hole. Preston? What the hell are you doing here right now? Partridge checked his watch. Five minutes until it was time for the nightly interval. He didn't bother with the charade of injecting false cartridges in the relative safety of his own home, and had only enough to keep up appearances until the next time he rendezvoused with his Resistance contacts in two weeks.
He'd have to hurry Preston out as soon as possible.
"Errol," said Preston, letting himself in as soon as the door was opened.
"John. You look terrible." He did, at that. Preston's normally impeccable appearance wasn't disheveled by any means, but there was something subtly off in his look. He looked a little gaunter than usual, for one. And his hair was beginning to look a little flyaway.
"I've been... busy. Can we talk?"
Partridge motioned to the plain chairs in his living room and tried not to think about his partner interrogating his ex-lover. "Of course. Would you like something to drink?"
"No." Partridge sat and waited for Preston to say whatever it was that was on his mind. It took a while. "You're not taking your interval," he finally said.
The hair on the back of Partridge's neck stood up, and he realized that his hand was beginning to drift towards his waist. It was ridiculous, though; his pistols were in his bedroom with his Cleric uniform. The only thing that stopped him from lunging across the short distance to Preston and snapping his neck was the look on his partner's face, and the fact that Preston's hands were flat on his knees, making no move to drift towards his own weapons. "Why would you think that?" he asked instead, keeping his voice as flat and mild as possible.
"Circumstantial evidence. Little things. The look on your face when you think nobody's looking... especially lately. The O'Brien woman, you have some connection to her. The way that you look at Brandt when he's not watching you, like you're thinking of how easy it would be for you to take him apart." Preston hesitated. "The way you look at me lately, like you're thinking the same thing."
"Don't bother denying it, I just saw it again when I mentioned the O'Brien woman and Brandt. You hide it well; if I hadn't worked with you for so long, I wouldn't have known to look for it. Lastly, the implied warning about you from DuPont."
"Really." By now, all thoughts of how best to stretch the small supply of dupe Prozium was gone. Too late now.
"I'm not an idiot, Errol. I am capable of putting two and two together. I missed it before once, but I think I'm right this time." His hands still hadn't moved from his knees. "So. Am I working with a sense offender?"
If I dodge to the side and tackle him, will he be able to hit me before I'm in range to break his neck should it come to that? "You tell me, John. I've never told you how to do your job and I won't start now."
Partridge could see it plain as day, the calculations running in Preston's eyes about how best to handle any sudden threats. "I think you are."
"Then what are you going to do about it?"
Preston smiled tightly, his mouth pressing into a thin tight line. "Gamble."
The timers on their watches went off simultaneously. Neither man moved. Neither man breathed. A full minute passed, neither one moving so much as a hair. Finally, the alarms cut off on their own accord. "You didn't take your interval," said Partridge mildly.
"Neither did you."
"I gather you're not surprised."
"Not particularly, no."
"Are you going to turn me in?"
Preston shook his head. "No."
"Going to kill me right here, then?"
Preston's face twitched, and when he looked Partridge in the eye this time there were no calculations, no cold judgment. Partridge saw... helplessness. Fear. "I can't."
And he understood. "How long?"
"Two days. Since the morning of our last A.N.R."
There was ice in Partridge's voice. "Her name is Mary. Not 'the suspect,' not 'the O'Brien woman'."
Preston nodded. "There was an accident with my interval. That morning that you and Brandt picked me up in front of Equilibrium, I never received a replacement."
"How do I know this isn't a trick?"
One corner of Preston's mouth quirked. "Other than the fact that I haven't shot you?"
Partridge's face was stone. "Yes."
"I went on an A.N.R. yesterday--"
Preston looked shamefaced. "DuPont wanted to see how Brandt and I worked together. It was decided that you didn't need to know. He suspects you, Errol."
"After... after we'd cleared the safe house, I found a room. I listened to Beethoven, Errol. It was..."
"That's enough." Partridge stood, keeping his hands visible to Preston. Better to be safe than sorry, no matter how rapturous Preston currently looked. "I believe you. For now."
"I want to know more."
"I'm sure you do."
"Help me, Errol. For all the years we've worked together, please."
"Do you know why I lobbied so hard to get you assigned to me?"
Preston shook his head and Partridge continued. "Because of your wife. Most of us, most of the ones who stop taking the Prozium, do it after trauma. A spouse, a sibling, a parent, a child--someone that we take from them ends up with emotions as their legacy. I waited. I wondered if I'd made a mistake. And now... by accident." He laughed. "How fate laughs."
"So you'll help me?"
"I'll give you advice. Be careful. Assume that eyes are on you at all times. It's something that I haven't been as diligent about as I thought."
"I don't know about that. It's only recently that anybody's noticed anything. How long have you been off your dose?"
"Ten years. Ten years of fear and paranoia... but there's freedom here. The highs, the lows... I can feel them all. I know what I want."
Preston nodded. "I should go. Robbie will be noticing my absence soon."
"John... about Mary."
"I'm... working on it. Trying to figure something out."
Partridge could hear the hesitation, the hitch in Preston's voice. So, he's finally getting why the other few sense offenders risk everything for the sake of fleeting emotions. Why couldn't it be another woman? "Thank you," he said, ignoring the possessive stab. She ended it. Any right I ever had to be possessive stopped when she said "It's over".
"If you don't mind me asking... why did you stop?"
Partridge smiled wistfully. "My sister. Goodnight, John."
He looked up from his report to see Preston hovering over the desk. "Yes?"
"Can we talk? Privately?"
Partridge saved his file and stood. He followed Preston to one of the small dead zones of the building, an otherwise innocuous hallway under repair. He kept his voice quiet despite the assurance of a lack of surveillance; there was secure and there was sloppy. "What is it?"
"You have to leave. As soon as you can." Preston flicked his eyes over Partridge's shoulder and licked his lips. "I overheard Brandt a few minutes ago. He's been building a case against you. If you go home after work today, you'll be taken in for questioning."
Partridge nodded. "I can't say I'm surprised." No questions about why he wasn't being arrested immediately. It wouldn't do to have ordinary citizens seeing that the vaunted Clerics were fallible. They might get ideas. "Any idea who's watching me right now other than him?"
"Officially? No. Unofficially, I suppose I should be, though it's all been through hints and insinuations."
"I'm going to have to make this quick, then." Partridge sighed, closed his eyes, and smiled sadly. "As soon as you can, get to the Freedom Reading Room. It's not far. Ask for Jurgen."
"I'll meet you there, assuming they don't get to me before I make it. Everything will be explained to you one way or the other, I promise." Partridge scanned the hallway. Nobody yet, no close footfalls, but it was better to be safe. "Nearest exit to the street?"
"Left, second right, right."
"What will you tell them when they ask why you needed to speak with me?"
Preston smiled faintly. "That I wanted to inform you of the sub-par standards of your more recent reports, and didn't want to do so in front of subordinates."
"Good." He took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. "Freedom Reading Room. Jurgen. Go, I'll see you there."
He turned abruptly and walked briskly towards the exit--fast enough to look businesslike, not enough to look rushed. He already had enough problems without drawing more attention to himself than necessary. His Cleric uniform, while an asset among the common Librian citizens, was now a liability. He needed a disguise--soon.
Except that wasn't nearly as easy as it sounded. There were no closets with spare uniforms between here and Freedom. Uniforms were issued to the workers and kept track of with near religious attention. So he'd have to improvise. The first chance he got, he ducked into an empty public bathroom, locked himself in a stall, and stripped off the long coat that was a Cleric's hallmark. Not many people saw Clerics without them, and with only a black suit he might be mistaken for a public official of some other variety. The coat was hastily wadded up and thrown in a trash can, with garbage adjusted to hide it. Hiding his pistols was trickier, and he settled for unloading them, tucking the guns themselves into his trousers and relying on his suit jacket to cover the telltale bulges, and hid the ammunition clips up his sleeves. He'd have to invest in a shoulder holster at some point in the future, he decided.
He didn't have scissors or a knife on hand, and even if he did the shoddy job he was sure to do altering his hair would only attract notice. Instead, he slicked his hair back, the water darkening it slightly. Possibly enough to evade notice at first glance when combined with the lack of the coat, but not enough to truly throw someone off if they were seriously looking for him. He checked his watch and decided that this was the best he was going to get in as little time as possible, frowned at his reflection in the mirror, and left the bathroom.
The walk to the Reading Room took longer than it would have if he had gone straight there, but he decided to throw off any possible tails that he might have collected by taking an indirect route. He was fairly sure that there weren't any, but paranoia was prudent right now. Conley, the proprietor of Freedom, raised an eyebrow as Partridge walked in. "You look... different."
Partridge approached so that he was within whispering distance. "Where's Jurgen?"
"In the back. Should I be worried?"
"Maybe," said Partridge. No use lying to the man. "I'll be in the back. Oh, and a Cleric First-Class will be dropping by later tonight."
"Quiet. He should ask for Jurgen. If he's youngish, my height, dark haired, and looks like he has no sense of humor at all, he's safe. Anyone else, let me know." Partridge patted his pistols and headed to the back. Jurgen was apparently in a meeting with Cabras, Herzog, and two others that Partridge hadn't seen often enough to know personally. They looked up as he walked in.
"I've been compromised," said Partridge without preamble. "The backup plan will be here soon."
It took them a few moments to process the information. Jurgen looked calm and contemplative, much as he usually did. Cabras was turning purple. "You were compromised and you came here?"
"I wasn't followed," Partridge said, annoyed. "I checked. And I would have been arrested long before now if I had been."
"Did you tell him anything?" asked Jurgen before Cabras could open his mouth again.
"No. You'll have to tell him. I should get out of here before--"
"Five leaders of the Resistance are here in one place," said Herzog, smiling gently. "I don't think one rogue Cleric is tipping the scales very much." One of the two that Partridge didn't know smiled, the other stared in stony silence.
"Fine," said Partridge, turning to go. "I'll get out of your way."
"Wait," said Jurgen. Partridge stopped. "I'm sorry, this shouldn't take long," he said to the other Resistance leaders.
"I know what you're thinking right now."
"So you're a psychic now, are you?"
Jurgen didn't so much as crack a smile. He rarely ever did. "You're cursing yourself. That you've been stupid or careless. You're thinking that you've become useless. I can say with some degree of certainty that none of those are true."
"That's not to say that mistakes were never made. You--we--wouldn't be in this situation if things had gone perfectly. However, you are still far from useless. Your use has just shifted in spectrum."
"All that time..." Partridge shook his head. "All that effort."
"Will benefit Preston if he chooses to help us. I'll be surprised if he doesn't, given your reports."
"So what will I be doing, then?"
"Teaching. Your training as a Cleric may be one of the most valuable assets that we have right now. We'll move you to another facility in the Nethers tonight, after you've had a chance to explain things to Preston."
"Me? I thought you would be the one to do it."
"I think it would help to have you assist."
By the time Preston arrived four hours later, Partridge had procured some nondescript workers' clothes and dyed his normally light hair a dark brown. It would do until he was out of the city limits. Preston quirked an eyebrow upon seeing him. "It doesn't suit you."
"Very funny. Jurgen's waiting."
Inside the hidden room, Preston was hooked up to an ancient lie detector as a precaution. Partridge assured him that he'd undergone the same test years ago, then sat back and watched. He clenched a fist when Jurgen mentioned Mary and the needle fluctuated wildly.
"You're carrying in your left pocket a red ribbon sprayed with her scent. You breathe it in sometimes when you think there's no one there to see." Jurgen's eyes flicked to Partridge, who had supplied that bit of information. Reluctantly, of course. "But what you feel... you feel could only be satisfied by falling yourself into her." But if he cares for her, he'll work that much harder to save her, he told himself. Partridge tried hard not to imagine Mary in a prisoner's gown, sitting at one of the bare metal tables in an interrogation room.
"She's scheduled for combustion tomorrow."
Partridge closed his eyes. If you love her, if you even think you might love her, do something. Please.
Jurgen turned to Partridge. "We'll take it from here. Vickers would like to speak with you about your new assignment; I'll send Preston to you when we're done here."
Partridge nodded and left the meeting. Old news, then. Probably just filling him in on what exactly they needed him for. In other words, Partridge's old assignment.
No sense in being bitter about it. It had happened, and now the best that they could hope for was that enough attention had been drawn elsewhere that Preston could work effectively if he chose to assist. Partridge set his jaw and looked for Vickers. She wasn't a face he was used to seeing more than a few times a year--a former low-ranking member of a sweeper team, she didn't like to risk coming back to Libria proper unless it was an emergency.
"So we'll be getting you, then?" she greeted him.
"It appears so."
"Excellent. I've done all I can for our people, but even the best Enforcer isn't a match for a Cleric on his worst day."
They were deep in the discussion of the formation of a new training program for Resistance soldiers, how best to dumb down gun kata to make it usable by their best men and women, when Preston cleared his throat. "Am I interrupting."
"Nah. We'll have plenty of time later." Vickers fixed Partridge with a sharp stare. "We leave in an hour sharp. And we will leave without you."
She hopped up from her seat and left, leaving the two Clerics alone. "So they've told you," said Partridge.
"Yes, they have."
"Will you help us?"
Preston knit his brows together in one dark line, frowning. "You were going to do it, weren't you?"
"Oh yes." He chuckled. "Except I never seemed to find the right opportunity."
"You had... her... and you were going to kill Father anyway? It's suicide."
"It's a cause worth dying for. I'm tired of it all, John. I'm sick of someone taking away everything that makes us human--our accomplishments are burned, our relationships are forbidden, and our emotions are suppressed."
"It's a heavy cost for something that could wipe us all out again."
"And I'd pay it gladly if it meant that somewhere, people could laugh or cry in public without risk of being arrested. That someone could paint a sunrise or write a poem without both the work and the artist being burned." He clenched his fists so tightly that one of his knuckles cracked. "That people would be able to do something as simple as hold hands or kiss without a fine or reeducation coming along with it. I want to live, John. I don't want a parody of life."
"I'll do it."
Partridge nodded and felt like a weight was gone. Passed to someone else, now. "And Mary?"
"I'm doing everything I can, Errol. They're passing laws... blocking all the ways out. But I'm still trying."
"Don't let them burn her. Please." He looked Preston in the eyes. "She deserves better than that."
"We have to go. We have to move, now!" Vickers slammed the door to the makeshift training room open, interrupting Partridge and his group mid-kata.
"It's going down. It's finally going to happen, and if we don't move now, we're not going to be there for it. Everybody, move your ass!"
The cluster of evening trainees in front of him exploded into action as Vickers sprinted out, presumably looking for the next knot of people at the Resistance compound. There was no use yelling out last minute reminders at those assembled. They were too busy scrambling to gather up weapons, ammunition, what scant body armor they had, and anything else that could potentially be useful for an invasion of Libria.
So soon? thought Preston. I only left two days ago. Clearly, Preston had been much luckier than he had ever been. Now, if his luck will hold out just a little longer...
There was no use worrying about him, or Mary, or Jurgen, or any of the others now. The only thing that mattered was getting his gear onto the supply truck and readying himself to break in. He'd be in the first wave, of course. He'd do the most damage there.
The plan was simple: load everyone up into whatever vehicles were available, get as close to Libria as possible without alerting the border guards, wait for the signal, and attack en masse. The bombs at the Prozium factories had been set for months. The Resistance cells inside the city, while not as trained as those who had gathered in the Nethers, would be doing their part to add do the confusion and take out as many Enforcers and sweepers as they could. Survival wasn't likely today.
They arrived outside Libria at four in the morning. There was nothing to do but wait and sleep. Partridge encouraged his trainees to eat, though all but a handful were too nervous to be hungry.
"So," said Vickers, looking out over the patchy caravan of vehicles. "Do you think we have a chance?"
"I'd like to think so," he said. "There's enough of us to present at least a credible threat to the Enforcers, and while Clerics are highly trained..." he patted himself in the chest. "We're only human, after all. And not in the numbers that Father would have you believe."
"What about... you know. The backup Cleric?"
"Preston?" Partridge looked up at the sky, which was still black and clear for the moment. It was a remarkably pretty night. "He'll do it, or he'll die trying. There's never any middle ground with him. It's why he's so good at his job."
"And to think, just a week ago he was killing us right along with the rest of them." Vickers shook her head and glared out at a bright red dot that appeared a few trucks over. "Dammit, what did I tell him about lighting up in the dark out here? If he doesn't get us killed by a sweeper team, I'll kill him for us."
Partridge smiled fondly as she stomped off. Intimidating woman. I hope she lives.
The signal came at nine-thirty in the morning.
Vickers' phone rang, and Partridge could faintly hear the sound of someone yelling at her. "They've blown the plants. We're off." She waved to the other drivers and started her own truck, and the convoy began the race to Libria.
Partridge and a third of his trainees were in the fourth truck to make it to the checkpoint. By the time they arrived, most of the guards were already dead, run over by the preceding trucks. One guard had dodged and was screaming into a radio, but Partridge took him out with one bullet to the head. Not that they needed secrecy now, but one less enemy was good for his side.
The city was chaos itself. The trucks went as far as they could before running into clogs of bodies, live and dead. Their counterparts in the cities hadn't fared well up until now. "Keep your heads," he yelled at his trainees as they jumped out, "and aim for theirs."
The opposition was mostly Enforcers, and it was a good twenty minutes before Partridge so much as saw another Cleric. When he did, it was one that he recognized but couldn't name. A Cleric Second Class who kept to generally the same schedule that he used to. Young, not more than a few years out of the Monastery. He moved with fluid grace, blood staining his gray uniform, mowing down Partridge's companions. Partridge dispatched him with only a slight pang of regret.
He fought his way to the Palace of Justice, where there had been a steady push-and-pull since the very first assault. The plan was for him and another handful of people to free the Sense Offenders who hadn't yet been incinerated. Partridge was the first to make it, and he didn't know whether it was timing or if he was the only one who was still alive. Gunshots were constant from the outside, echoing through the high-ceilinged building. His pistols were long since empty, and he had taken rifle after rifle from the numerous dead Enforcers along the way. He held it at the ready, waiting for targets that never came.
There was little resistance left in the lower levels of the building. Everyone who could fight had left in the initial wave, or when they realized that things were getting truly desperate. He sprinted to the furnaces first, deciding that anyone in the jail cells could afford to wait a little longer.
He stopped short and dropped his rifle when he arrived. The turbines were on. Had been on for a while, it seemed. The room was otherwise empty.
He cursed under his breath and ran out again. No hope for whoever had been burned, then, but perhaps he could save anyone left.
The cells, which Preston had said were filled to overflowing in the past couple of days, were quieter than he'd expected. Emptier, too. He started running down the long hallway, then slowed. Some of the cells had bodies in them now. He leaned in and pulled off a glove to touch the flesh of one who died trying to reach out of the bars. He was still warm.
There was a shout and a gunshot from around the corner, and Partridge grabbed his rifle and made his way down. He passed more bodies, all dressed in prisoners' robes. Apparently the Enforcers and crematory techs had decided to take matters into their own hands.
He looked around the corner as quickly as he dared. There were only three of the techs, armed with Enforcers' rifles. Partridge's weapon had enough ammunition, and he had more than enough training to take them out. He did, quickly and without warning. They didn't have time to scream before he was done and examining the hallway for any more resistance or survivors. There were no more techs, no Enforcers, and only eight survivors.
"Is this it? Is this all of you?"
One of them, a woman who had been waiting for her impending death curled up on the floor of her cell, shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. They were shooting for a while."
The man in the first cell that Partridge was able to unlock spoke up. "They started trying to burn us all, but one group put up a fight. They decided to try shooting after that. What's going on out there? Where is everyone?"
"Father's dead. The Prozium plants have been destroyed--most of them, anyway. Outside, it's a revolution. Can you fight?"
The woman who spoke first slipped out of her cell the second it was open and aimed a savage kick at the corpse of one of the techs, despite being barefoot. She picked up the rifle that he had been using on her fellow sense offenders. "I will."
He jerked awake and rubbed at his eyes. "It hasn't been four hours yet, has it?"
"No, it hasn't." Vickers, who looked much like he felt, twisted one corner of her mouth in a wry smile. "One week in and none of us can get more than an hour of sleep at a time. Why overthrow a government if you can't sleep? Anyway, you have a visitor. I figured you might want to talk to him."
"Fine, send him in." Partridge stifled a yawn and stood up, trying to walk himself awake. "I'll sleep when I'm dead and all that."
She ducked out of his temporary room in the makeshift command area, only to be replaced by a familiar face.
"Still alive. Glad to see you made it." He looked like hell. Tired, but who wasn't lately? No longer wearing a Cleric's uniform. The low collar on his shirt didn't cover the healing wound on his neck. "Bullet graze," he said, noticing Partridge's attention to it. "It's nothing."
"Are the rumors true?"
"That DuPont had taken over as Father? Yes. I've spent the past few days looking through his notes. He had quite a file on you."
"I'm surprised he didn't take me out when he had a chance, then. Didn't take all of us out."
"He was trying to get us to do the hard work for him." Preston smiled tightly. "His mistake. It was no one thing you did, you know. He used to be a Cleric. He knew how to read the signs."
"It's not exactly a relief." Partridge crossed his arms and they both stood in silence. "You know, I think I've spent the last week hating you a little."
Preston cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"You got my job. You didn't save Mary, or Jurgen, or the others. It's irrational and petty, but there you go. And... I don't know, but if you're thinking the same things, it's not your fault. You did your job. You did it well, better than I could have. You always could beat me in a fair fight, and from what I've heard DuPont was no easy target."
"Don't blame yourself for them. They made their choices a long time ago. They told me the same thing, once upon a time." He laughed sadly. "Do you know why Mary and I weren't together anymore?"
Preston shook his head.
"We were together for years, you know. From that first year I was off the Prozium until a year or two ago. Once we decided to really try to do it, really try and take out Father... she didn't want to be a distraction. That's what she said to me, anyway. I think--and I can understand this so much better now--I think that she knew that it was probably suicide and didn't want to be involved with a dead man. That it would hurt too much for both of us to know what we were leaving behind."
"She reminded me of Viviana," said Preston. "Not just her hair, but... some little things. The way she smiled. They smiled almost the same way. I think... I think I could have really loved Viviana if I had given myself the chance, and now all I have is the memory. Of both of them."
"And Jurgen. You never really got to know him, did you? It's a shame he was so insistent that he stay on his dose. He had a taste of it years ago and gave it up after they burned... it seems like they burned everyone in the end, doesn't it?"
"I was looking through some of those old books that were saved--"
"Father's records and banned books? When are you sleeping?"
Preston continued as if he'd never been interrupted. "And there were paintings of funeral pyres. Ancient cultures who burned their dead to send their souls to the afterlife."
"Sent them out in a literal blaze of glory. Yes, I'd like to think of things that way. But reality is always so much messier than that." He sighed, raked a hand through his hair, and wished for another few hours of sleep. "The things they did will be remembered for a long time. And we get to stay behind and remember the people themselves."
Preston nodded. "I'll leave you to what sleep you can get. You're a busy man these days."
"I'm here if you need me, John." Preston nodded and left.
Partridge yawned again, settled himself down on the cot stuffed into the corner of DuPont's former office, and closed his eyes. There was an entire way of life to repair when he woke up, after all.