Maccabee
Episode 115: Springing the Trap

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They were halfway across the meeting hall when the ground trembled; it was enough movement that Samara stopped, then spun around. Her helmet hadn’t transmitted any noise to her, which meant its tiny computer brain was unsure of just what had happened, but it was certainly something serious. Keep moving!

“Double time!” barked Hornet’s XO over the com. She turned and broke into a controlled trot, her rifle at her hip--not a good firing position, but good enough for her, for now. The team behind her picked up their pace as well, and though they were all hidden inside their armor, Samara sensed some of their unease. A moment later, the ground shook again, this time violently enough that Samara nearly stumbled, and she heard someone--Millman?--bite off a curse as he toppled over onto his face. What the hell was going on?

She slid to a stop by the door she’d chosen from her memory of the town’s layout as the best route to reach Alger, though it occurred to her now that she wasn’t entirely sure just where he was. That would need to be corrected. She turned, watching the rest of her team coming in; they spread out automatically, crouching down by the wall and training their weapons back the way they’d come. Samara linked into the command net again, just as the remaining lights in the hall flickered and died.

“Alger, where--”

The ground shook even more violently, cutting her off, and then she heard Alger’s voice: “They’re shooting!” he bellowed. “They’re shooting from--”

Samara didn’t hear what he said because at that moment a particle cannon shot from Lion Star slammed through the roof of the hall just thirty meters away and nearly instantaneously impacted the floor and exploded. Ceramacrete rippled and burst upwards in a circle that widened with astonishing speed, and then the shock wave, powerful even in this attenuated, sickly atmosphere, slammed into Samara like the fist of God, driving her backwards, into the wall, through the wall; the wall was collapsing around her, the whole building was collapsing. She was dimly aware of screaming, horrible screaming. The ground seemed to vomit, spewing rock and ceramacrete in vast fountains; she was still moving, still being shoved by that fist, though the thin air, as the meeting hall’s roof lifted fully into the air, breaking apart as the fireball burned it away, ripping it apart in slow motion.

Then, Samara hit another building, and this time she didn’t go through the wall, just slammed into it hard enough to kill her, if she’d not been wearing the armor. As it was, the impact shattered ribs, and she felt her head bounce hard against the inside of the helmet, despite the cushioning designed to prevent just that sort of injury. The roof of the meeting hall was falling down now, crashing back into the remains of the building, while the walls toppled outwards, tumbling down on adjacent buildings and tunnels, smashing them flat with horrific force. Samara slid to the ground, and then she fell forwards onto the bare rock of the planet’s surface, and there was nothing more to see. But the helmet kept hammering her ears with sounds of devastation, not loud enough to damage her hearing, but enough to convey upon her the magnitude of destruction around her.

“Samara!” roared Alger’s voice in her ear, cutting through the sound effects the helmet was providing. “Samara! Talk to me!” He cut off for a moment--probably killing someone--and then roared, “God damned bastards!”

“Alger,” gasped Samara. Her chest was a mass of burning pain, but she was fairly certain she would live. The armor had survived remarkably well. It even appeared to have managed to salvage its integrity, because Samara could still suck in small, torturous breaths, each one of which seemed like an eternity of agony for her shattered torso. “Damn it, Alger, can you hear me?”

She waited a moment. Then she heard Ming on the command channel. “Alger, they hit the meeting hall, dead on,” said the pilot’s voice. Ming sounded like she’d just been violently ill. “There’s nothing. . . . No way. . . .”

“Bastards,” growled Alger again. “Fucking. . . .” Samara could almost see him gritting his teeth. “You’d better get closer to them, Ming, before they hit you too.”

“I’m already moving,” she replied.

“Damn it,” hissed Samara, “I’m still alive!” She pounded a fist on the ground on which she still lay. “God-damned fucking radio!” Thinking through the situation a little further, Samara switched to the team’s com channel. Perhaps the transmission problem was distance-related. “This is Samara. Can anyone hear me? Anyone out there?”

There was a long silence. Samara tried not to count each painful breath as she waited to hear something. It was possible that no one else was alive, though if she’d made it, surely someone else had. Please. It was just as possible that no one could hear her, that, in fact, she couldn’t hear them. The silence dragged on for a moment longer.

“Shit,” said Obu, his voice calm. “Sorry boss, the helmet took a beating, I had to reroute my transmitter.”

“What’s your status, Obu?” managed Samara. She still was staring at the rock just outside her helmet’s viewport, but for now she lacked the energy to do anything else.

“You OK, boss?” asked Obu. “You don’t sound so hot.”

“Status, Obu!”

“Sorry; I’ve lost my rifle, boss, no idea where it is. Sidearm looks OK. Still got the demo, but I don’t know how it took the hit. My armor’s pretty fucked up, but it took the worst of it. I think my arm’s broken, but I took the liberty of injecting a nanite pack, and it feels pretty well fine now.”

Nanite packs. Now why the hell didn’t I think of that? Samara asked herself in annoyed silence. “Hold on, Obu.” She managed to move her arm down to the small, armored pocket on the front of her thigh, and pulled out a small, cylindrical injector unit. The units were hardened for combat, and it felt intact. Pushing herself onto her side, she slotted the injector into the suit’s chest receptacle--the armor was scorched, scarred and cracked, but appeared intact--and then injected the nanite pack. Almost immediately, the pain began to subside, and she knew that the nanites would be burrowing into her damaged flesh, starting the slow, painful repair work.

“Boss?”

“Still here, Obu,” she said, and already she sounded better. She pushed herself up and sat back against the wall she’d hit on her way out. In front of her, the flattened remains of the meeting hall smoldered quietly. The thin atmosphere had already extinguished the fires. A small lump amongst the wreckage was probably the shuttle, the one place that might have provided the team with some shielding in the attack. “Have you heard from anyone else?”

“Nada, boss.” He paused for a moment. “I appear to be at the southeast corner of the building. Where are you?”

“Due south, about fifty meters from the wall.” She took a deep breath. “From where the wall used to be.”

“Fifty meters!” Obu sounded downright frightened. “Mother preserve you. You’re a lucky bastard, boss.”

“Save it.” Samara felt herself sag. Obu and she were the only survivors. Out of eleven original team members. All for nothing. What do you think of the plan now, Maccabee? she asked silently. And where the fuck are you?

“My transmitter’s down, or something,” said Samara. Her own, implanted communications gear was too low power to function through the tightly shielded helmet over any distance, and with the beating her head had taken, who knew if it would still work anyway. “I can’t reach the command channel. See if you can get Alger or Ming.”

“Roger, boss.” Obu fell silent for a moment and Samara took the opportunity to climb to her feet, using the wall behind her as a support. “Got ‘em!” said Obu a moment later. “I’m patching through a link, hold on.”

A moment later, Samara almost laughed with relief as she heard Alger’s voice again. “Samara! You’re there, lass?”

“Aye, I’m here,” she said. “Thanks for your concern. I heard the earlier transmission.”

“You are one lucky son of a bitch,” said Ming. “What’s the status of your team?”

“I’ve only found Obu. Some of the others might still be alive; my radio is only half functional and Obu barely got his working again.” Samara looked out at the wreckage. Obu was keeping his head down, which was probably a good idea. Her rifle was gone, too, but her Dreamreaver was still at her side. “I’m going to start looking for them.”

“You just keep moving your ass down here, Ming,” growled Alger. “Everyone’ll guess Samara and her team are dead, but they know you shut off the power.”

“That’s going to a bit of a problem,” said Ming, suddenly sounding uncomfortable. “My team doesn’t have environmental gear; we’re stuck on the wrong side of the meeting hall.”

“Shit,” said Samara. “She’s right, there’s no connecting tunnels anymore.” She took a deep breath, trying not to scream, trying to keep her cool, and barely succeeding in either respect. “Get back to your shuttle, Ming. Go. Now.”

“No fucking way. I’m here to stay.” There was the usual Ming stubbornness.

“Damn it, Ming, do what I say!” Samara coughed, and tasted some blood on her tongue. Stay calm. “Get in the shuttle, and fly it to relieve Alger.”

“Are you insane?” said Obu now, confirming Samara’s suspicion that he’d been listening in.

“Shut up, Obu,” she said. “Ming, can you do it?”

“I’ll do it,” said the other woman, her voice tight with tension. “I’m moving already.”

“You’d better hurry!” said Alger. “This is gettin’ to be a real bore.”

“Contact me when you’re on the ground,” ordered Samara. “I’ll be waiting.”

“Roger, boss.” Ming said it completely naturally, but it was the first time she’d ever come that close to offering Samara a measure of respect. Samara couldn’t feel much pleasure in the thought, not now.

The line went dead. “Obu, I’m coming to you, hang tight,” Samara said.

“Yessir! Don’t much feel like moving anyway.”

She started moving, Dreamreaver in hand, keeping as low as she could and following the remains of various tunnels and other structures that clustered close in around the shattered meeting hall. She’d gone perhaps ten meters when the helmet communicated movement to her left; she spun and brought up the gun, but the familiar armor caught her eye fast enough, and she jerked the gun aside unfired.

The armored figure was leaning heavily against a crumbling wall of ceramacrete; the three remaining pistols strapped to it revealed the identity of the person inside: Yakazuma. Samara breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ve found Yakazuma,” she said over the com to Obu as the other woman started walking towards her. “Her com must be down.”

Yakazuma stepped right up to Samara, close enough that they could see each other’s faces through the face shields of the helmets. Samara held up her gauntlet and motioned for Yakazuma to do the same, then pulled open a small panel on the underside of her armor’s forearm. Inside was a cable port, and she pulled out the millimeter-thick cable and snaked it over to the same port in Yakazuma’s armor. She made the connection, then activated a series of commands inside the helmet. Suddenly, she could hear Yakazuma’s harsh panting in her ear.

“Can you hear me?” Samara asked.

“Yes,” said Yakazuma.

“Are you hurt?”

“Not badly,” replied Yakazuma. “I think I broke my ankle, but the armor’s compensating.” She frowned. “I lost a gun.”

“Get over it. I lost my rifle too.”

There was a sudden roar of sound and Samara looked up, noticing peripherally that Yakazuma had to copy her movement, since her own helmet’s systems weren’t working properly. Ming’s assault shuttle roared overhead, skimming the surface at only a bare meter above the tallest buildings. Particle cannon shot rained down suddenly from above, and half a dozen shots circled the spot where Yakazuma and Samara were standing, sending fountains of flame and rock and debris into the thin air. The two women staggered and fell against the wall Samara had followed. Nothing touched Ming’s shuttle as it somehow, nearly miraculously, steered its way to safety. There was no second volley.

“Where’s she going?” asked Yakazuma, her voice blank of expression, even of curiosity.

“To help Alger. He’s still pinned down.”

“That’s where we’re going.”

Samara shook her head. “No, we’re going to find out if anyone else lived through this.”

Yakazuma looked at Samara’s face through the helmets, then shook her head. “There’s no point in that. And no time.” Then she frowned, and for a moment she looked sad, or perhaps angry. “Luma is dead. Debros too.”

“That still leaves Millman and Czerney,” said Samara. What the hell was wrong with this woman? Samara was too damn tired, too fucking hurt to keep fighting. And if those two soldiers were still alive, lying somewhere, wounded, she was determined to find them.

“They’re dead or they’re not,” said Yakazuma. “We know Alger’s still alive. And that’s where our enemy is.” Only in the last sentence did any emotion enter her voice, a kind of dreadful longing.

“This is an order, Yakazuma,” said Samara, biting off each word. “Are you going to follow it, or not?”

“Let’s hurry, then,” said the other woman. She ripped the cable from her armor, letting it retract back into Samara’s with a whipping motion, then turned and started walking.

“Fuck,” said Samara to herself.

“Boss,” Obu called out over the com. “I’ve found Czerney. She’s in bad shape, but she’s stable. I think. Took a rod through her chest, but the armor sealed the holes. It doesn’t look like its filling up with blood in there, but I gave her a couple of nanite packs, to be sure.” Obu sounded a little shaken. Hornet’s crew wasn’t used to casualties, not really, not in large scale.

“Good work, Obu,” said Samara. “That just leaves Millman unaccounted for.”

“Fuck,” he replied, doing the math. “Oh, mother. Fuck.”

“Start looking, and keep your head down.”

He didn’t bother responding to that. Of course he was going to keep his head down.

Samara staggered after Yakazuma, who was making good time for someone with a possibly broken ankle. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t help thinking about what the other woman had said: Alger needed help, desperately. That was where the action was, where Samara and her team should be, no matter what the casualties. Samara knew it, felt it. She was just damned tired.

“Damn,” she muttered as she staggered to a stop next to another building.

“Boss,” said Ming’s voice suddenly in her ear. “We are down. Shuttle took a pounding, but we’re inside, and our neighborhood’s still pressurized. We haven’t linked up with Alger’s people. Actually, I think we managed to outflank the bastards by dumb luck.” She paused, and Samara almost thought she could hear gunfire in the background; Ming had no helmet on to muffle sounds. “We might yet achieve the objective.”

“The objective now is to survive until Hornet gets here,” said Samara. “The last thing we want to do is kill all of the people down here and let Lion Star open up with all she’s got.”

“Not to worry,” said Ming, and Samara could almost see her ironic smile. “There’s plenty for everyone.”

“I’m coming to you. Me and Yakazuma.” There, the decision was made.

Ming paused for a long moment before answering. “Your decision. You’ll be welcome.”

“Right.”

“You kidding, boss?” asked Obu a moment later, as Ming cut the connection.

“No, I am not kidding.” Unfortunately, Yakazuma was nowhere to be seen; she had not stopped or even noticed when Samara halted. “You see Yakazuma?”

“Nope, I see nothing. Shit.” Obu fell silent. “You gonna go without her?”

“What do you mean, without her?” Samara smiled slowly. “As soon as she realizes she’s lost me, she’ll go where the action is, don’t worry. I’ll meet her there.”

“I’ll be waiting for the pickup,” said Obu, trying to sound confident. “Don’t be too long: Czerney’s in a bad way.”

“Keep looking for Millman. I won’t be late.”

Samara turned and started moving back the way she’d come, looking for a large enough gap in the tunnel system to squeeze inside. It didn’t take long; the devastation was nearly total this close to the meeting hall. She slipped inside, switching the Dreamreaver to her off hand for a moment. There was no movement.

The tunnel only went a few meters before Samara found her way blocked by a pressure door. The thing was in full shut-down mode, and now she wished she had Obu with her, or at least some of his demo. She did, however, still have her grenades, and though they weren’t designed for this sort of work, they’d probably do the job. Moving carefully, she planted one of them at the door’s weakest point, towards the bottom where it locked into the ceramacrete flooring. She then set the grenade to timed delay for twenty seconds, activated it, and jogged back down the tunnel, taking cover behind a largish piece of debris that had smashed its way through the wall and now lay covering half the passage.

The sound of the grenade exploding echoed loudly in Samara’s helmet, then dissipated as quickly as it had come, followed closely by the sound of rushing air, then silence. She glanced out around the edge of the debris; the door was ruptured, part of it twisted aside. There might be enough room for her to squeeze through. She was going to have to find another type of door--the easily opened and resealed type--if she wanted to approach any further unnoticed, however.

Gun at the ready, Samara moved towards the door, crouching low to the wall on the opposite side of the hall from the breach. Nothing moved, and her helmet didn’t transmit any sounds, but she was experienced with this sort of environment. She moved all the way up to the door, transferred her gun back to her off hand, and pulled another wire out of her armor. This one was more likely to be damaged, but it was worth a try. So slowly it seemed she was hardly moving at all, she snaked the wire-thin end of the sensor towards the breach. Before she reached the opening, she accessed the image processors in the armor with her internal com and tested the sensor: it was working perfectly, which was amazing since the things failed half the time even in undamaged armor.

The probe snaked just around the edge of the door and Samara moved it slowly, panning across the room on the other side of the door. The structure she’d broken into appeared to be a housing unit, with a broad and once brightly-lit corridor branching off into recessed doorways; nice, for this planet. All the equipment was obviously scavenged, but someone had made an effort to clean the place up. There were even potted plants, though their leaves were shriveled and contorted in the near vacuum they’d been exposed to in the breach. There was no one in sight, which didn’t mean a whole lot.

Samara removed another small unit from her armor and carefully placed it in the breach, next to the probe. This unit was only about a centimeter cube in size, but it contained a powerful high energy beam unit. Activating it, Samara switched the probe’s receptors to high energy setting, and then wiggled the box back and forth, panning the image across the walls and alcoves in the corridor. The high-energy scan penetrated the thin interior wall material, showing a figure huddled in the third alcove down on the right. The figure was armed with some sort of rifle--the images returned by the high-energy scan were fuzzy--and was wearing a breathing unit, but not a full pressure suit.

Moving quickly, Samara stowed the two sensor units and switched her gun back to her better hand. She regretted now not having brought her laser pistol with her, but she’d thought it would be under-powered. Now she was faced with the perfect use for the weapon and didn’t have it with her. Typical. The Dreamreaver was the brute force approach, but it would probably suffice.

She set the gun to maximum output, slid into the breach and saw the figure--man or women, she couldn’t tell--slide into the hallway, ready to take her by surprise as she tried to squeeze through the narrow gap. Only she wasn’t trying that at all, and was already pulling the trigger as the figure moved. The blast caught him or her in the head, blowing the half of it that had already moved past the wall clean away. The body continued its movement and toppled limply into the hall while a small fire burned for a fitful moment on the melted wall that had caught the other half of the blaster’s shot.

Samara slipped through the gap and jogged down the corridor to the far end. The door here was shut as well, but behind it was an airlock unit, meaning that she’d be able to get through without depressurizing the area beyond. The question, however, was who knew she was here already. The man--she’d checked briefly--who lay dead behind her had been ready for her. How many others were guarding this approach?

The airlock had a small window in its main hatch, but it was dark on the other side. Maybe it wouldn’t even open. Samara tried the hatch; the power loss had left it in standby mode, and it opened easily. The small gust of air from inside rocked her back on her heels. Leaving the outer door open, she moved carefully inside, resisting the temptation to turn on one of the armor’s shoulder-mounted lights. The only illumination filtered in through extremely dirty skylights in the corridor behind her. She reached the far door of the lock and crouched low under its small, round window. Setting its sensors to full spectrum scan, she slid the business end of the probe up again and twisted it so she could see through the window.

It was possible that the window was shielded. Still, the room on the other side of the door appeared empty. Samara wasn’t quite sure what the room was used for; it was just open space, as far as she could see. It made her very nervous.

She slid the probe back down and considered her options. They were few. With a shrug, she moved back to the other door and pulled it shut. It sealed with an ominous thud. Samara moved back to the inner door and cycled it open manually. There was a brief push of air as the chamber on the far side repressurized the airlock. She was in. Taking a deep breath, she switched on her shoulder light.

The first shot clipped her shoulder, knocking her off-balance and spinning her out of the way of a dozen other rifle bullets aimed at the light clipped there. The Dreamreaver was already up and ready and firing, sending blue bolts of lightning down the length of the darkened room. Small fires and screams exploded where the bolts intersected human flesh. The shoulder light was already destroyed, but Samara had seen enough: five men, all heavily armed, all waiting for her, somehow. The window: it was booby-trapped, rigged to reflect the image she’d wanted to see. Too late to worry about it now.

The sound of railgun fire was thunderous in her ears as supersonic rounds spat out at her. She rolled sideways, away from the airlock, and only a few more shots hit her, spanging loudly off her armor but not penetrating for the moment. Climbing to her feet, she started to move, but the men she was facing had some enhancement for their vision, and they tracked her with ease in the total darkness. She switched on the helmet’s own multi-spectrum mode and the glowing figures flashed to life in infrared. One was down already. The others were still shooting.

Samara started to run, firing wildly to the side, just trying to stay out of the way of the railguns. A bullet hit her leg and penetrated far enough to send her sprawling onto her face. She managed to twist onto her side before she hit the floor and squeezed off another half dozen rounds from the Dreamreaver, sending another two men down. Then, as though from nowhere, she heard the distinctive, high-pitched whine of a S&M 3mm, and the remaining two men fell in a spray of arterial blood that registered as a pink cloud on Samara’s infrared. Then there was only one figure standing.

“You need to be more careful,” said Yakazuma. She had her helmet off already. Stepping over to Samara, she helped the other woman to her feet.

“What took you so long?” said Samara, activating her helmet’s external speakers. The armor was doing its job, supporting most of her weight so as not to aggravate her injured leg.

“Broken ankle,” was all Yakazuma said. “Where do we go from here?”

“Follow the sound of fighting,” said Samara, suddenly hearing amplified gunfire inside her helmet. She turned slowly, allowing the helmet’s speakers to show her the direction she needed to go. “That way,” she finally said, pointing to one of the several exits from the room.

“Lead on,” was all Yakazuma said.

They headed off into the darkness, weapons ready.