Episode Twenty One – Dante in Hell.
A/N: Specially formatted extra-long episode! Aspen Strong: Secret Agent: The Movie.
This was such a terrible idea, Aspen thought to herself.
She was barely floating along, using just enough of a propulsion to gently drift towards the Bastille, which loomed ever closer. The red emergency lighting made all the blue controls on her panel pop, but only served to remind her that she couldn’t use any of them. If the Bastille detected any unauthorized ship coming towards them and inquired, it would ruin everything.
Such a bad, bad idea. Why didn’t I leave for Mars?!
Aspen tried to breathe, ignoring how claustrophobic the ship felt when it was darkened.
She checked her progress again and sighed. Another half hour? The Bastille needed to slowly rotate into place, the recycling doc that Leonardo had claimed was the only unguarded access into the prison. Aspen had to pay close attention to drift as “naturally” as possibly.
The next part would be even more dangerous.
The map of the Bastille was only accessible to certain members of the military, of course. Aspen would have to travel through the prison almost blind, relying only on the information that Jerome’s sister had passed on.
However, there was simply no more time to waste. Rainbow Miller was apparently onto Julia and that she’d passed on information to an outside source. Now Chikara was one step closer to finding out who had sheltered Richard and Leonardo, if Miller told her.
Jerome had been nearly hysterical when he spoke to Magpie and Aspen this afternoon.
“She’s in danger! Chikara will have her sent to a labor farm or secretly executed! Please, Aspen, Magpie, we have to save her!”
Aspen couldn’t help but agree. Not just because Julia was in danger and for whatever was happening to Robespierre, but because some deep part of her, an ancient instinct that said Danger! Predator! Insisted that this was a trap. Why else would Miller tip her hand?
The only thing to do now was spring it and hope that Miller and Chikara wouldn’t think they been so prepared.
Aspen sat back in her pilot’s seat, chilled and already weary.
This was such a terrible idea.
Before joining the Terran Federation Armed Forces there was a certain amount of testing everyone went through. Your senses were tested, reflexes measured, and general mental and physical health evaluated. The bars to pass were dead average and more than seventy percent of people who applied were accepted into the galactic military.
Aspen had been tested for claustrophobia in a warm, well lit office at the beginning of her application process. She’s passed with flying colors for her ‘cool head’.
However now as she struggled through a glorified garbage chute that was bitterly cold since it was barely insulated from space, slippery with waste reside and smelling of rot and mildew, Aspen began to think that perhaps the test might have been too easy.
Just focus, breathe. Keep climbing and you won’t get trapped. Don’t think about how far away the exit is and how slow your progress is…
There wasn’t a ladder in the chute, just small divots where the panels overlapped and Aspen had to grope blindly, sink the tips of her fingers into it and then use her toes and core to inch along until she could feel the next one, all while keeping her face away from the filthy metal.
She stopped to catch her breath for a moment, shivering as sweat cooled along the back of her neck. She didn’t want to think about how she was going to get back out with another person.
The Bastille formed one long loop around the moon. Faux rings, with specialized force fields to prevent meteoroids from turning the entire affair into swiss cheese. At one point it had held a good amount of the entirety of the prison population of the planet, along with their families as a part of the “Recovery experiment,” to great success.
Someone once told Aspen there was enough room on the Bastille that if there was ever an earth ending cataclysm, up to one percent of the of population could make it for a year on the prison.
However as Aspen slowly made her way through the darkened hallways, once again lit only by red emergency lighting, she didn’t think she’d want to. The artificial gravity felt somewhat poorly calibrated or maybe it was just apprehension that made her feet drag. There was oxygen, but it still felt thin and several times Aspen had to stop and refocus.
She just had to keep walking until she hit the habituated part of the prison, then she could find Robespierre and leave, god bless.
Her boot steps were muffled on the sturdy grating, clicking just an enough to make Aspen pause every few steps with her heart in her throat, thinking there was someone just behind her, hiding in the shadows.
Aspen shuddered, breathing hard and soldiering on. She’d decided to start by looking for the last place Julia saw Robespierre, the room Miller used secretly.
Aspen pressed herself tighter to the corner, breath shallow. A pair of footsteps continued down a narrower corridor to her right, becoming fainter.
She took a deep breath and turned the corner. Sweat slipped down her neck, making her shiver. Doors lined the corridor. Aspen examined each one carefully, looking for the one that Julia described: C-794.
The door was towards the end of a hall. Aspen examined it carefully for a moment, even eyeing the ceiling for additional surveillance.
Nothing. No cameras or microphones. There wasn’t even a number pad next to the door.
I bet Miller picked this because it’s so discreet. She really thought of everything, huh?
Hesitantly, Aspen put her hand on the activation panel so the door could slide open. The interior was dim, but she could make out a single chair in the center of the room. The lights from the replicator and communications panel were dim, as was the survival lighting along the edge of the walls. She stepped inside.
“Hello? Robespierre?” She whispered.
Something about the room’s air felt dense and heavy. Aspen sniffed and recoiled. Stale bile, urine and rotten eggs all lingered in the air even though she could feel the conditioner moving the air through the room.
Heart pounding, Aspen moved further into the room, finally getting a good look at what was in the center of it. She let out a muted cry, reeling back.
Robespierre, because who else could it have been, was naked and strapped securely to a metal chair, bolted to the floor. Leather straps wrapped around his wrists, ankles, upper arms and forehead, pinning his head back to the headrest. A long rubber tube, connected to a basin funnel was shoved down his throat, his mouth pried open with a steel bit. His eyes were closed but his bare chest slowly rose and fell. He was shaved down to his scalp and paler than egg white.
For a moment Aspen starred in mute horror. Julia contacted us more than 48 hours ago. Has he been here the entire time?!
Aspen reached out but hesitated before putting her hands on him.
“Robespierre? Robespierre?” She whispered. Fuck, what was his first name?
His eyes moved under his eyelids before slowly opening. Aspen winced. They were blood shot and the pupil was tightly contracted. He flinched and began to shiver. He mouthed something but was too effectively gagged to make a sound.
Aspen leaned close, trying to keep calm. “Robespierre listen to me please. I’m here to get you out of here, but we must move quickly. Be calm and quiet as possible. Blink twice if you understand.”
Robespierre’s hazy gaze seemed so unresponsive for a moment that Aspen feared that the translator had been removed and she’s have to do the entire thing without him understanding anything.
But slowly he blinked. Aspen drew a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. I’m going to have to pull this out of you first. Try-try to relax okay?”
Robespierre’s eyes had slipped closed again, but Aspen watched as his face tightened, tensing for what she was going to do next.
Aspen hesitated while she examined the tube and funnel.
“Okay, so first I’ll just disconnect these two things,” she began muttering. The tube was screwed to the funnel. Every time she jostled it Robespierre flinched. “Sorry, sorry.”
Aspen was finally able to move the machine away but was faced with the far more complicated process of taking the tube out of Robespierre’s throat. Slowly? Quickly? Doctor Russo should have come, fuck me.
Finally Aspen grabbed the tube with both hands. Okay, I should try to do it fast and straight up, like if I was removing a projectile. Besides it’s not like he can move at all so I probably won’t accidently hurt him. Probably. She grimaced.
“Okay, Robespierre I’m going to pull the tube out now, on three. Take a deep breath and let it out on three. One. Two. Three!” Aspen pulled, hard.
The choking, rasping gag that Robespierre made, the way his body struggled to arch, the dry rasp of rubber against flesh and the overpowering smell of bile would come back to Aspen in her nightmares.
The tube simply wouldn’t seem to end. By the time Aspen finally pulled out the slimy end both she and Robespierre were panting raggedly. Her hands were shaking as she threw the tube to the floor and began to fumbled with the straps. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she muttered, horrified.
Robespierre didn’t react much, slumped in the chair and shivering. Aspen wasn’t sure he was going to be able to stand properly, much less walk. Aspen pulled him up, looping an arm around her shoulders. Half dragging him, Aspen turned around.
“Hello.” Rainbow Miller greeted Aspen politely. “Who are you?”
Aspen froze, heart plummeting into her stomach like a cold stone.
Miller nodded at Robespierre. “I see you’re the cavalry, come to the rescue. Took you long enough.” Miller walked up to them, her cane thumping on the floor, looking over Robespierre carefully. “He’s had a rough few weeks.”
Aspen shifted, dragging Robespierre back from her. “Stay away!”
Miller raised her hands, smirking. “Relax. I’m not going to touch him. Here, look.” She moved out of their way. “Go on. Get out of here. I’m assuming you have a way out? Go on then.” Miller flicked her hand at them. “I won’t stop you, or alert security.”
Aspen stared at her. “What? Why?”
Miller leaned against the wall. “Oh, I’m bored of being up here. If Robespierre escapes or disappears, then we’ll have a reason to move the search back down to earth.” She tilted her head towards the door. “So you should go before my security follows.”
Heart pounding, Aspen moved forwards. Any moment she expected the door to reopen and for security to charge into the room. But nothing happened.
“Oh one more thing!” Aspen winced as Doctor Miller spoke again. “Tell Jenkin’s contact, whoever they are they better keep their head down. It’s not going to take a lot of digging to find out who it is. Just pass that on, please.”
Aspen was still trembling from Miller’s surprise appearance and Robespierre was insensible. He seemed to be totally fatigued and Aspen chalked it up to whatever they’d been pumping him full of. She switched to a fireman’s carry after she felt like she was far enough away from Miller.
“As soon as we get to the ship, I’ll check your vitals. Just stay with me till then,” she said softly, checking around another corner.
Totally clear. Unnervingly so. Aspen wondered if Miller was keeping people out of her way deliberately. She shivered and pressed on. The walls seemed to crawl with eyes and ears now and all Aspen wanted was to be out of the Bastille.
With Robespierre as a deadweight across her shoulders it took her even longer to get back to the ship and she had a moment of intense panic that it would already be gone, the whole thing was just an elaborate trap. However when she checked her wrist it was still in the same position.
With a heavy breath she flipped Robespierre back over her shoulder and propped him against the wall next to the glorified garbage chute, where he immediately crumpled to the floor. His eyes were still closed, and his breathing was quick and shallow.
How in the fuck am I ever going to get him down to the ship? He can’t even stand!
Aspen crouched in front of him and gently shook him back into awareness. He let out a hissing groan, eyes slitting open.
“Robespierre listen to me. We have to climb down a…tunnel. I’m going to go first but you’ll have to follow right behind me.”
He gave a little whimper as Aspen hauled him to his feet. “Stay right here and I’ll tell you when to start climbing.”
Aspen took a deep breath before climbing back into the garbage chute. Ugh, how does this smell even worse now?
Trying to climb backwards, in the dark with the slime getting under her nails was so much worse than the first trip up. She had to blindly feel with her feet as climbed down. Once she was about two meters down Aspen stopped, caught her breath and shouted up, “Come down!”
For a long moment Aspen sincerely did not think that Robespierre would follow. He passed back out, or he’s too afraid to climb down…
But after a heart stopping beat Aspen could see his profile slowly snake into the tunnel. She sighed and continued climbing back down.
She was only about a half a meter from the bottom when a there was a sudden noise from above her. Aspen looked up just in time to see Robespierre falling directly towards her.
“Oh shit!” She let go of the wall and raised her arms to catch him whilst dropping off the ladder.
Aspen narrowly avoided hitting either her head or Robespierre’s against the wall even as her ankle nearly twisted. If he’d been any heavier or she’d been any farther up, Aspen guessed she would have broken it.
However even as she collected herself, Aspen realized why Robespierre had fallen. He’d gone oddly stiff and the twitch in his face was going into overdrive, along with the uncountable tremors that shook his whole frame.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” Aspen tried to manhandle him to the side so that he wouldn’t choke if he began to vomit and held on to him tightly. She counted in her head and reached eighty-six thousand before Robespierre’s frame slackened.
Aspen dragged him to the port, roughly hitting the keypad to get access to the flyer. The ship was still darkened and cold, but Aspen had never been so happy to see it. Desperate to get away from the Bastille she let Robespierre down and threw herself into the pilot seat.
Aspen’s fingers skirted over the controls like mice scampering away after you flicked a light on. What she wanted, more than she had ever wanted anything, was to crank the engine and fly away at top speed. But she knew it would get them far too much attention, so she held her breath and slowly started to edge away from the Bastille.
Good fucking riddance.
She let the ship drift using barely 1% power, gently tapping it in the direction of earth and kept glancing back at Robespierre, who was still in a swoon on the seat. As the Bastille slowly shrank behind them, she finally stood up and headed over to him, grabbing the first aid kit on her way.
Aspen took out the survival blanket, wrapping it securely around him. Then she could safely slip a pulse and respiration monitor onto the middle finger of his left hand. Both were elevated, yellow lines snaking across the tablet that she synced to his vitals. Aspen bit her lip, wondering if she should contact Middleham and speak to Russo.
Robespierre, even wrapped in a heat reflecting blanket and with an emergency heating pad shoved into his loose grasp, was shivering uncontrollably. But he didn’t seem to be an any immediate danger. Whatever was wrong with him, Aspen couldn’t diagnose with her six-week emergency medical training and didn’t want to risk harming him further by fucking around with the selection of injections.
Instead Aspen knelt in front of the seat, trying to meet the man’s eyes. They were mostly closed, only showing a sliver of inflamed green iris.
“Robespierre? Can you hear me?” She kept her tone gentle but firm. “I need you to try and squeeze my hand, okay? As hard as you can, I promise you won’t hurt me.” She tried to smile at him.
At first, she didn’t think he would listen to her, but his hand gently curled and exerted a gentle pressure. Honestly her ten year old niece could have squeezed harder but Aspen smiled.
“Great. It’s okay if you can’t speak, I won’t make you but I need you to squeeze my hand again, one for no and two for yes, okay?”
Two baby bunny gentle squeezes.
“Do you know where you are?”
There was a long pause before there was one hesitant squeeze. Aspen’s heart sank but she nodded gently.
“That’s okay. Do you remember what happened before you were…taken?”
“Good. Now just listen. We’re heading back to earth; we should be there within the next three hours. I need you to try and stay awake with me okay?”
“Non,” Robespierre rasped desperately. “Je t’en prie, non.”
“You need to stay awake so when we get back to safety, they can help you okay. I’ll stay with you,” she promised as Robespierre grimaced, squirming back in his seat.
It was a long trip back to Middleham. Robespierre wasn’t up to talking much so Aspen was left to fill the space by checking their progress and informing him of what he missed while he’d been on the Bastille.
Robespierre seemed to fade in and out, sometimes mouthing soundlessly, his eyes distant.
Aspen turned to the control panel when they reentered the atmosphere, finally able to speed back up from the slow orbital speed they had been drifting at, diving down, pointed towards England. She looked back to see that Robespierre had closed his eyes, hands lax on his blanket. He was pale but no longer shivering, but Aspen didn’t like the look of his waxen skin and his rabbit-fast heartbeat.
She was landed the flyer in the underground and immediately Magpie Jones burst down into the parking lot followed by Jerome.
Aspen opened the back-loading bay to Magpie breathlessly yelling “Do you have him? Did it go alright?”
Aspen picked up the insensible Robespierre, carrying him out. “Get Russo. He’s in bad shape.”
Magpie had stopped cold with Jerome who was staring with wide eyes.
“What the hell happened?” He gasped.
“Ask your sister. Come on, seriously, help me with him,” Aspen grunted. Magpie ran ahead, helping them with the door and shouting for Doctor Russo.
Richard and Napoleon were in the dining hall with Russo, who took one look at Robespierre, scowled and darted away.
“Bring him kitchens! Leonardo, get the examination table!” She barked, scooping her long burgundy hair back.
“What happened to him?” Napoleon demanded. “Is that what they’ll do to us?”
He went ignored as Aspen and Jerome focused on rushing through the castle. Russo had set up a temporary medical bay in the kitchens, sanitized to the extent she could manage and with second hand equipment set up on the long prep tables.
Leonardo recoiled slightly when Aspen and Jerome set Robespierre on the table. But then Russo snapped, “Get the IV ready. I’m going to sedate him so Aspen I need you stay and tell me what the hell happened to him.” Leonardo hesitated before reaching for the medical bag.
Aspen, Magpie and Jerome tried to stay out of the way as Russo and Leonardo moved around the kitchen, doing inscrutable things to Robespierre. She tried to express what happened on the Bastille, hesitating as she told them about the encounter with Rainbow Miller.
“Christ,” Russo muttered, prying open one of Robespierre’s eyes to look at it. “He already had a light sensitivity.” She examined his throat and made a distinct noise of disgust.
“You said Miller let you escape?” Magpie asked.
Aspen nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. Despite finally being back she couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.
Jerome was propped up on the back wall, his eyes covered by his hand. “I have to call Jules. I’ll-I’ll be back,” he choked out before rushing out the door.
Russo looked up. “You should all get out of here. Jones, you’ll get my update tonight.”
Dutifully, Magpie and Aspen trooped out of the kitchens. Aspen staggered slightly and Magpie glanced over.
“You should get some rest. Go home.”
Aspen shook her head. “I wanna find out if he’s gonna be okay…”
Magpie put their hand on Aspen’s shoulder. “I’ll message you. Seriously, go home. It’s been a long day.”
Aspen sagged slightly but nodded. “You’ll call if anything happens?”
With a definitive nod and gentle pat, Magpie pushed Aspen towards the doors. “Go.”
Aspen fell asleep the moment she dropped onto her bed, not even removing her boots, clothes or prosthetic. Curled up around a pillow, Aspen’s dreams were unclouded and pleasant feeling, finally shedding the oppressive emptiness of the day.