The buggy is a piece of junk, held together entirely by Sana’s weird wizardry with machines and several rolls of duct tape. Theoretically it’s got A/C, but it shook so viciously when McCabe flicked it on that Park had turned it off again a few seconds later. Instead they’ve got the windows peeled down and the thin desert breeze to keep them cool.
Even in the middle of the night, it only slightly helps. Park’s still sweating through her undershirt, sleeves rolled up and hair sticky at the nape of her neck. McCabe isn’t much better off. They’ve been wearing their Iris II crew jacket near constantly ever since Sana gave it to them, but now it’s draped over the back of their seat, and their boots are propped up on the dashboard.
"Food," says McCabe.
Park’s stomach clenches. She had protein bars for dinner, and at the rate things are proceeding here, she might be having protein bars for breakfast too.
"Republic," she says, after a long moment. "Fresh vegetables." McCabe grunts in agreement and drags a finger through the air, sketching a pair of tally marks close together.
"I never thought I’d miss the caf," they say.
Park taps the comms in her ear, flicking the line active for a moment. “Everything good on your end?” She can make out the sound of typing over the tinny connection, and after a moment Arkady speaks.
"Situation normal, all...pretty good for once, actually. Nothing’s on fire. Pretty sure everyone else is asleep. Any movement there?"
"Nothing yet. I’ll check in again in thirty."
"Got it." Arkady’s attention has clearly already returned to her software upgrade project, hunched over her screen where they left her in the mess with her injured leg propped up on an extra chair and a giant thermos of tea close at hand. Park closes the line.
"Mattress," says McCabe.
Park’s mattress last night smelled like Sana’s body wash and sweat and the bottle of moonshine she’d brought up to celebrate getting the new distiller rigged up in the engine room (because she had captainly priorities, dammit). Her nostrils twitch at the sense memory.
"Iris." This time the tally marks are spaced out, one with each hand a half meter apart, and McCabe shifts their weight in the seat to stretch their back out a little. Fair; her mattress in her old flat was nice, and the agent barracks are comfortable enough to crash in overnight after long shifts, but their ships are never stocked with more than bruisingly dense pads of foam and the Iris II is no exception.
Outside, the deep blue night is mostly still. The planetoids on the outskirts of Neuzo are a strange blend of human and Dwarnian down to their DNA. Park can make out a host of cactuses, sprawling to the left, and to their right is something she vaguely recognizes from an old xenobotany seminar; xurrhy’cll? Something like that. Exo-Dwarnian always rolled strangely off her tongue. Whatever it is, it’s short, stubby, and virulently teal even in the gloom.
Ahead of them, just visible from the blind they’ve stuck the buggy in, is the shack. It’s as still and quiet as it’s been for the last two hours.
"Movies," Park says after another minute or two of silence.
McCabe’s answer is immediate and fervid enough they look startled by it. "Iris."
Park glances over at them and they shrug, blushing obviously even in the dark. They rebalance their long, lanky rifle over their long, lanky knees . "I like - not everything’s Republic-approved. I like having options." Their fingers slide along the upper receiver, brushing off a smear of dust. Park raises her hand and draws a pair of tally marks nearly touching.
A gust of wind blows over the desert, kicking sand up around the buggy, and Park turns her eye into her elbow until it passes. McCabe’s not quite quick enough to avoid sneezing and Park almost misses the rumbling below them over the deep groaning of the wind, but she feels her seat judder slightly and looks up, squinting into the dark.
The approaching vehicle is a lot nicer than theirs; also covered in dust, but Park would recognize a standard IGR transport anywhere. It hauls up to the shack and three figures disembark, moving with the same kind of stiff precision she’s been trying to shake out of her own gait. Hard to see much more detail from this far, but when Park turns to nudge McCabe they’ve already got their rifle braced against the dash, squinting into the scope.
"Just three. Helmets on, I can’t see faces. Might be Obert’s squad." All the earlier mirth is stripped out of their voice.
Park unholsters her own gun and checks the magazine, thumbing the safety off. “Got it. Cover me.” She taps the comms open to their shared line and slips out of the buggy.
Her boots kick up dust when they hit the ground. She creeps under the brush camouflaging them and around the jut of stone to their left. McCabe’s voice in their comms is flat. "Two went in, one’s standing outside. If you circle around far left he shouldn’t have clear visual on you."
It’s five hundred meters of desert night to the shack. Park moves carefully, quickly as she can, and McCabe’s steadied breaths in her ear are a metronome for her racing heart. Done this a thousand times, Agent. Doesn’t matter that this is the first since Zone Z; you know what to do.
She crouches outside the pool of light spilling from the guard’s vest flashlight, hunkered up against the still-warm vehicle. One of the Zephyr models, the nice ones she used to get requisitioned for missions when Frederick felt like flexing a bit. The guard leans back against the shack, entirely bored.
The gun will bring them running from inside, even silenced. Park slides it back into the holster and opts for the knife in her boot instead. No way this won’t be messy, and the part of her that always struggled to entirely internalize ‘unpleasant things for the greater good’ as the basic definition of her job is already bracing for the tension she knows will come up through her gut.
One second, two, three, and she quicksteps into the light and sinks the knife into his throat. It's fast. He gapes at her, floundering down the wall until he’s a sprawled pile of gear. The blood rills down her forearm and she wipes it on her thigh, carefully out of her peripheral vision.
"Park, get down!" McCabe yelps, and Park’s body is complying before she’s had a chance to fully grab onto the words, collapsing her into the dust and landing hard enough to jar her spine. The agent lunging for her back overshoots and crashes down to a knee. She scrambles back as he vaults back around at her, and a clear gunshot cracks across the night. The agent drops, and for a second she thinks he’s been hit, but McCabe hisses "Dammit," in her ear, and the agent rolls to his feet, gun at her chest.
"Fucking traitor." He spits the words as he moves, ducking half-behind the vehicle and putting Park squarely in between himself and McCabe’s line of fire. Long was always quick on the uptake.
Park lets her knife drop from stiff fingers and raises her arms carefully. From this angle she can see the first guard’s blood - Powell, it was Powell, she recognized him when the knife went in - dribbling from his neck into a dark pool in the dirt.
Long snorts, eyeing her dismissively. "You know, I always thought if it was any of us, it would be Vega that lost it. Thought you were made of sterner stuff, Park. Guess I thought wrong." As he speaks, he looks past her, scanning the black horizon for any sign of McCabe. The gun stays pointed at Park’s sternum, and Long stays behind the big metal bulk of the Zephyr.
"Long, you know what they did to me. You know what my record was like. Do you think they’re going to treat you any better if they decide you’re a problem too?" she says. She feels her hand spasm, scar tissue pulling on nerves as her heart thumps and a fresh layer of nervous sweat rises to the back of her neck.
Long grunts and cocks the hammer back. "And you turned tail and ran the second things got a little hard for you, decided loyalty didn’t apply to you. How long you gonna last with your new crew if they piss you off? You gonna blow them up too?"
"Keep him talking!" McCabe hisses in her ear between staccato breaths.
"I warned Seiders he was walking into a trap. He got his own team killed." Seiders and his team would’ve turned on her in a heartbeat if they knew she was working with the enemy. It doesn’t make the brutal calculus feel any more deserved.
"Almost there, I've got an angle on him up ahead."
"Right," says Long, "and when the IGR comes down on your merry band, it’ll make the Dwarnian warships invading Ialemus look like a nice day at the beach. Think your friends are gonna remember your little stunt then? Throwing away over a decade of your life just because you got cold feet?"
Their place is secure. She’s spent countless hours of her life poring over recordings of the Rumor crew; she knows them when they’re angry, upset, celebrating. She’s spent more time with their voices in the last months than she has talking to her own sister, even before she was sending Shelly one last, desperate message bounced through a dozen proxies telling her to just run. On a sickeningly intimate level, she knows they won’t give up their own, and that she and McCabe are counted in that number now.
Of course, it’d be really fucking nice if the little voice in the back of her brain, the one that sounds just like Frederick, would stop telling her in placid confidence to keep her guard up.
"Hold him there." McCabe exhales slowly over the comms, and their breathing stops.
In a fractured second, Park sees the telltale brace in Long’s shoulder and lunges low. The gun goes off - her ears scream with pain but his shot goes wide and she catches him around the midsection, staggering down into the dirt again.
Park rolls to pin his gun arm under her side, shoving her knee into his gut as she does. It’s a shit angle and she can’t get much force behind it, but it’s enough to dislodge his grip. He lets go of the gun to yank his arm out and rears up off the ground, and that’s his last mistake.
The familiar sound of McCabe’s sniper rifle splits the air again and Long collapses.
"Park? Are you - are you okay?" There’s a frantic edge to McCabe’s voice, muffled and echoey in her comms.
"Fine. He missed, you didn’t." Park gives herself three, four breaths and then levers her way up to her feet and takes inventory. Her ears are still ringing, and her shoulder aches, and there’s still Powell’s blood smeared all over her arm. That’s all manageable. Everything else - the weak throbbing in her hand, the pit of darkness in half her vision, the promising look she imagines Frederick would be giving if she could see her right now - is old hat.
McCabe is loping across the ground between them, swinging their rifle over their shoulder as they run. Not much point in stealth now, the two guards in the shack will have heard the fight. There’s no sign of them yet; which means they’re probably setting up an ambush that Park and McCabe will have no choice but to step straight into.
The sight of Powell and Long up close makes McCabe stumble over their own feet, but they pack it up neatly and compartmentalize, just like Park taught them. She retrieves her boot knife and passes Long’s gun to McCabe; not much use for a sniper rifle indoors. They pop the magazine out and squint into it to check how many shots they have. Up this close, the shack is more of a shed, and a sturdy one, like someone dropped a concrete block in the middle of the desert. Which, Park supposes, is exactly what the IGR did, to mark the entrance to each of these underground server backups.
The one on Tecmessa was a bust, already decommissioned by the time they got the Iris II there, but some creative piloting by Krejjh got them here to Bellerophon a few hours before the IGR team. Arkady’d been ticked she couldn’t come down and do it herself with her leg still healing, but she’d only been halfway grudging when she walked Park through the steps.
Park opens up the comms line. "They’re here. We took out two, two more inside - they might have started the wipe already. Definitely know we’re coming."
"Roger. You two still going in?" Arkady asks. Park slides her eye over to McCabe, who nods vigorously and clicks the magazine back into their gun, apparently satisfied.
"Yeah. We’ve got a good shot right now, I don’t want to risk this one getting away from us too," Park says.
"I don’t want you taking any unnecessary risks." Sana's line splits into the conversation, her voice fuzzy with recent sleep, and Park feels a warm twist in her belly. She locks that into a box neatly labeled ‘BE A PROFESSIONAL, JIN SEON’ in her best mental handwriting and makes her response blunt.
"We can handle it. Arkady, we’ll let you know once you’re good to go."
"Be safe," says Sana.
"We will." Park closes the line - no need for distractions until they’re ready for Arkady to do her thing - and works a steadying breath through herself.
"Backup," says McCabe, fierce and quiet. It takes Park a second, but she glances a tight smile their way.
"Iris." McCabe nods, and draws the tally marks overlapping.
The shed door scrapes open, and Park noses her way in first. It’s an empty concrete cube, like the last one, lit by anemic LEDs along the edges of the ceiling. In the center of the floor is a square metal door with a scanner embedded beside it. She nods to McCabe and they follow her in.
Park entertains a gory thought of having to drag one of the bodies in to work the biometrics, but it must not lock from this side - when she toes the corner of the trapdoor, it slides into the floor, revealing grated metal steps below. Thankfully, the IGR builds everything to the same specifications; the last remote server was wiped, but the physical building remained, and Park is able to navigate down into the depths from memory. McCabe follows her on silent feet. They keep their backs to the walls and each other, braced for an ambush, but none comes; the only sound she can hear is the low electrical hum of the servers and the cooling fans.
The main room is cramped with towering servers blinking at them, unnervingly quiet. Park waves for McCabe to stay by the doorway and steps inside. She pauses in the center of the room with her gun up, pointed at nothing specific.
Behind her, someone crashes out of the dark from behind one of the server towers and collides with McCabe, faster than they can turn and aim. The two of them collapse in a heaping tangle, and Park doesn’t dare take a shot and potentially hit her partner. She moves to try and wrestle the attacker off, but suddenly someone is slamming into her own back.
Her attacker went for her arms, trying to pin them, and for the raw edge of a moment she’s back in Zone Z getting frogmarched into hell. It's halfway funny. Fifteen long years of dull complacency running raids and pushing papers for the IGR, but it's the last few, brutal weeks she keeps circling back to.
Park slams her elbows back, hard, and her attacker lets out a choked yelp even through their body armor. Their grip loosens and with another hard shove they slide off of her and stagger back into the gap between two of the server towers. Park twists on her heels and fires.
Zone Z took her dominant eye, Frederick made sure of that. There’s a disconnect between her muscles and her memory, and she’ll adapt with practice but right now even from this close her bullet goes off left of where she meant it, punching through only the meat of the shoulder. The assailant goes down with a cry. "Close enough for government work," Park mutters under her breath.
McCabe used the commotion to get their own attacker pinned, kneeling on his back with their gun to his head. Without the helmet Park vaguely recognizes Ahmadov - one of the junior agents, only knew him briefly, got shunted into the tech department even though he always daydreamed of the field. Guess he got what he wanted.
She flicks her eye back to the downed attacker, keeping her gun trained. The woman (Morales, also from the tech department, not much of a field agent, Park mostly remembers her as quiet) fumbles under herself with her uninjured arm, and slides her gun and its holster across the ground.
"Please don’t," Morales says.
Park picks the gun up, tucking it into her belt with her free hand, and makes a decision she hopes she won’t regret. Her gun arm drops, and she glances back at McCabe and jerks her head.
They stand off Ahmadov, keeping their gun ready, and after a moment he clambers to his knees and moves over towards Morales. Morales meets Park’s eyes. Her hand is curled over her shoulder where it’s oozing blood and her lip is clamped between her teeth so hard her jaw is shaking. Her face is unreadable aside from blaring with physical pain. It's a good trait in an agent.
Park tilts her chin at McCabe in a gesture that means 'watch' and pulls Arkady’s hacked-together transmitter out of her pocket, running her eye along the server panels. Mostly unlabeled except for a few arcane numbers and letters at seemingly random points, but again, identical to the last place, and they’d had time for Arkady to poke around and figure out where she needed to go. The transmitter slots in and lights up a cheery blue. Park reopens the comms line.
"Here. You in place?"
"It should be coming through any second now."
There’s a creaking sound over the comms - Arkady shifting in the chair, grunting quietly as she works around her splinted leg - and more typing. "Yeah, it’s uploading fast. Nice." The last word is near vicious, and for a second Park thinks of children growing up in prison and food supply chains deemed unimportant and of shooting everyone in this room. She pushes it down. It’s a lot of data, and it’ll take a long time to sort through and pick out what’s useful. A lot of it will probably end up dumped out for everyone to see like the Rumor files. But all of it will make Frederick’s life harder, and Park can understand the sharp pang of victory.
Park turns to where McCabe is crouched beside Ahmadov and Morales, keeping a wary eye and also their gun on them both. The two of them aren’t likely to put up much of a fight any time soon. Morales is glassy eyed with pain, and Ahmadov just looks young and petrified.
"You’re the traitors," he says, after a long moment. There’s none of Long’s vitriol in it, just a panicky kid repeating everything he’s been told, though McCabe looks ready to snarl anyway.
"We left," says Park. She’s stopped from saying more by Morales, who hacks roughly in the back of her throat and pushes herself to sit up slightly higher. She’s still panting with pain, but she’s not bleeding so badly. She’ll live.
"They’ll kill us if they think we just let you do that," Morales says. Her eyes land on Park’s eyepatch and her raised eyebrows state clearly that she knows the IGR won’t kill them, actually, at least not to start. Frederick has too much imagination for that.
"Are you asking to come with us?" Park’s not sure what to do with an answer; dragging more agents she barely knows aboard Sana’s ship is an unacceptable risk. The scars on her hand itch.
"No. I’m asking you to tie us up and get out of here quickly." Morales jerks her chin at the ceiling above them. "You killed Long and Powell, right? HQ will figure that out when they miss check in. They’ll send backup. If I’m shot and we’re both cuffed up without our comms, we might be okay."
Ahmadov looks like someone just grabbed him by the ankles and shook his worldview into pieces, but after a tense second he nods jerkily, backing Morales’ play. Park meets McCabe’s eyes for a second and they pull a wry face that makes them look every inch as young as they are.
There’s a risk. There’s always a risk - the Republic and its agents are slippery, Park knows that better than most, and this whole thing might be a clever ploy that ends with Park and McCabe bleeding out in the desert. Park had all the information in the world at her disposal and it still wasn’t enough to turn her traitor until Frederick’s man started taking slices out of her skin. Then again, McCabe followed her out. Party loyalty isn’t as absolute as the IGR likes to imagine.
"Okay," says Park.
She sends McCabe to go rifle through the Zephyr for cuffs and anything else they can pilfer for the Iris II, and checks into the progress on the upload while Ahmadov clumsily presses gauze over Morales' shoulder. Arkady is grumpy in the way Park is learning means ‘too much caffeine and excitement, too little sleep’ and she hopes Violet will be able to drag her into a bed once the time-sensitive part of this is over.
"What’s the total?" Park asks McCabe when they’re outside. Morales and Ahmadov are cuffed back to back in the server room, Arkady’s transmitter is back in her pocket, and the open air aboveground is finally cool enough she doesn’t quite feel like she’s baking in her skin. Long and Powell will have just missed their check in, bodies dragged into the shade of the ransacked Zephyr; someone will be coming for the agents soon.
McCabe pauses rubbing at their arm, where they’re going to have a hell of a bruise from getting tackled, and squints at her. They’re limping a little too, must have twisted an ankle at some point in the scuffle. Park is starting to ache all over. They’ve still got to drive back to the rendezvous before she can collapse into her bunk, with its uncomfortable mattress, and its indulgent pile of blankets because space is colder than she’s used to, and its lingering smell of Sana. She sighs and rolls her neck, trying to wring a little of the tiredness out of it. That's probably a lost cause until she gets some real food into her stomach and a shower to wash the desert off her skin, bare minimum. All things considered, she feels pretty damn good.
"I lost count," McCabe admits. "I'm pretty sure the crew won today."
Figures; they usually do. Park starts walking towards home and the triplicate moons cresting the horizon.