Episode 116: We're Dead Either Way

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Samara had her helmet off now, and racked on the back of her armor. She carried one of the rifles from the fallen attackers in her hands, ready to fire, and another on her back; Yakazuma carried the other three, along with her three remaining railpistols. The Dreamreaver, low on power, was back in its holster, waiting for a situation that would require its use. Each woman had one remaining grenade as well; this was the extent of their equipment, and they were about to assault a team of armored marines.

With her helmet off, Samara had been able to establish a com link with Ming and Alger almost immediately. Even with the arrival of Ming’s team, things looked bad. The trap was fully sprung, and Lion Star had dropped at least two shuttles of marines since the attack had begun to reinforce the people who’d come down with Captain Abslom. Despite the damage to its flight systems, Alger’s shuttle still retained its sensor suite, and he was linked in to its systems to monitor the situation outside this blasted town; things were not good. There was still no sign of Hornet; she was twenty minutes overdue.

The only thing that had kept Hornet’s assault teams alive this long was proximity to their enemies, and Ming’s timely arrival had kept the initial force from retreating and allowing Lion Star a free shot at Alger. The new marines, however, had outflanked Ming’s team, and with most of the original ambushing force dead, there was some indication the marines might pull back and let their ship do the dirty work. The only thing really preventing that outcome was the possibility of flanking in the flankers. More specifically, Samara and Yakazuma were about the open up a second front in the enemy’s rear.

Samara was creeping along, crouched low to the floor in a nearly pitch-dark corridor. The sound of heavy weapons fire was now loud and clear ahead of them, along with the occasional shout or scream. She brushed her fingers over a panel above her head, letting the tiny light emitters in the fingertips of the armor’s glove highlight the series of numbers and letters on the panel.

“Section one-four-four west,” she subvocalized into her com gear.

“Just a moment,” answered Ming. Then, “OK, you’re fourteen meters from the intersection. Then you’ll have them on your left.”

“What about cover?” asked Samara. She grimaced slightly as Yakazuma slid by her like a ghost, a pistol in each hand. She’d use the rifles, but only when she was out of ammo for the 3mm’s. “I don’t want to be standing in a hallway when these guys turn around.”

“The intersection opens onto a common space, a restaurant or something,” said Ming, still reading the map she was accessing from her downed shuttle’s remaining computers. “The marines are in the dining room, so they’ve started using tables and such. You’ll be coming in from the kitchen area. I’d suggest a refrigerator or something.”

“Thanks for the help,” muttered Samara. “OK, we’ll be there in just a sec.”

Moving as silently as she could, Hornet’s XO slipped up another four meters to catch Yakazuma and stopped the other woman with a touch on her armored shoulder. Yakazuma looked up and raised her eyebrows. Her internal com had been damaged in the blast back in the meeting hall--a bad sign of internal injuries, but for the moment she was showing no sign of a head wound.

“We’re going to set up in the kitchen area,” whispered Samara as quietly as she could, holding her mouth right next to Yakazuma’s ear. The other woman smelled of sweat and adrenaline, with just the faintest hint of something else, almost like perfume, though that seemed impossible. Why would Yakazuma wear perfume to a battle?

“Why bother? There’s not that many of them.” Yakazuma grinned hungrily. “We could kill a dozen, maybe more, before they even know we’re there.”

“They’ll have a guard of some kind,” argued Samara, more for the sake of saying something than because she was even remotely considering Yakazuma’s proposal. The woman was insane; this trip had just pushed her all the way over the edge.

“Fine. You handle the cover then.” Her voice was dismissive. She turned back away from Samara. “I’ll handle the marines.”

There was no point in saying anything more. Samara stood up, took a breath, and started forwards.

There was going to be some sort of guard. Lion Star knew perfectly well where Hornet’s shuttles had landed or gone down, and there was a high probability that someone had survived Samara’s crash and the destruction of the meeting hall. At the least, any competent commander was going to assume that was the case. That said, it was with a great deal of irritation that Samara reached the intersection without encountering any resistance or sign of scanning equipment. Then she saw it.

The sensor was cleverly concealed, and it had nearly caught her. It was just a simple thing, a wave front detector that covered the hallway right at the intersection. Nothing could move through the wave front without triggering the device, and there was no simple way to disarm it. Samara sucked in a breath and held it, listening. There was no sign that they’d been noticed already, so she guessed that this was the only detector in her part of the hall. The marines had doubtless had little time to prep the area.

“W-F detector,” cautioned Samara, holding out a hand to stop Yakazuma and pointing at the nearly-microscopic device.

“What do you want to do about it?” asked Yakazuma, leaning back against the opposite wall and flicking the fire selectors on her railpistols to a new setting.

“We have to go through, or the game’s up,” whispered Samara. She worked through the possibilities quickly. There would be some rearguard, probably two marines with the link for the detector. The kitchen would be an ideal command post, which meant at least another three or four there. Yakazuma would take out the two rearguards within ten seconds, probably more like five. Typical response time for the other marines would be about the same, so the command post would be ready when they came in. Unless Samara bypassed the rearguard and hit the post with grenades and mopped up with the rifles. How did she accomplish that?

“Give me your grenade,” she said to Yakazuma, slinging her rifle for a moment. The other woman gave her the explosive without question; her preference was for other weapons. “We go out together,” continued Samara. “You cross to the far side and hammer the rearguard. Bring them down, fast.” Yakazuma nodded calmly. That she could do. “I’ll be moving at top speed. The alarm will spread just ahead of me, then I’ll grenade the kitchen and follow in with massed fire. Ming and Alger will sortie, and distract the rest of them.”

Yakazuma just nodded her understanding of the plan. She was ready. It took very little. Samara linked into her com and called up Alger and Ming. “I’ll need five, maybe ten seconds,” she added, after running down the plan for them.

“You’ll get it,” growled Alger. “I’m getting mighty tired of these bloody bastards!”

“I’m going to go on my mark,” said Samara.

“Good luck.” Ming sounded suddenly subdued, as though it had only just occurred to her that they were all going to die down on this garbage world.

Samara took one last deep breath, pressed down the triggers on the grenades in her hand, and said, “Mark.”

She and Yakazuma plunged through the wave front side by side, but Samara spun and started running down the hall the moment she was clear, crouching as low as she could. The rearguards--there were three!--were already coming to their feet, their weapons up and about to fire, but Yakazuma was firing before them, and one went down in a spray of blood, then another. Then the third opened fire, and he ignored Samara, instead targeting the terrifyingly efficient murderer at the other end of the short hall. Samara was nearly next to him by the time Yakazuma put him down.

Right ahead of her was the door to the kitchen, and she saw figures moving, marines leaping to the door, weapons in hand, but they were just a moment too slow, literally a second behind the game, and she dove forward, letting the grenades arc into the room beyond as she slammed into the ground on her chest and covered her bared head with her hands. The grenades exploded simultaneously, sending a wash of plasma fire over her; the heat singed her hair, but the armor kept most of her safe. She was on her feet in a moment, one of the railguns coming into her hands with ease as Yakazuma came up behind her, moving as fast as her broken ankle would allow.

A man moved slightly to Samara’s right and she turned and fired a burst of 5mm ammo into his head. Thunderous weapons fire echoed from the next room where Ming and Alger were providing their distraction. Yakazuma came into the kitchen behind Samara, vaulted onto a table in the center of the small room and spun in a circle, firing single shots at carefully placed intervals. Bodies twitched and a woman screamed as a round penetrated her armor and tore out part of her neck. The sounds she was making faded quickly as her blood pumped out of her in a torrent of red.

Samara was already moving for one of the refrigeration units, setting her back against it and pushing against the nearest wall. The massive unit didn’t move for a moment, then suddenly jerked sideways, caught on the uneven floor and toppled over halfway across the doorway to the dining room.

This was the moment when the marines in that room suddenly realized what was happening. One spun, caught sight of Yakazuma, and fired his plasma rifle at her, but she was already diving off the table, rolling into a ball as the round of plasma slammed into the kitchen’s back wall. Samara screamed and threw her weight against the toppled refrigerator, but it barely moved two centimeters. It would have to be enough. She climbed onto it and slid around the edge of the doorway, bringing up her rifle and opening up on fully automatic fire. The man with the plasma rifle staggered backwards under the torrent of bullets. His friends were briefly disorganized, and Yakazuma crept back to the opening and started picking them off while Samara laid down a withering cover fire. As soon as the rifle ran dry, she tossed it down and started with the second.

The marines had been caught flat-footed, but they were adapting quickly. Two grenades arced through the air; one was shot down by Yakazuma, and the other fell into the kitchen. Samara was already sliding off the refrigeration unit, and jumped down behind it a moment before the blast. Instead of plasma, this was a flechette grenade, and the patter of high-velocity pellets slamming into the various metal bits of the kitchen was like the rapid-fire staccato of a machinegun.

Samara started to stand, caught a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye, and ducked down again as another pair of grenades arced into the room. These both burst into plasma infernos, and blue-hot fire lapped at Samara’s shoulder and legs as the tongues of flame curled around the edge of the heavy refrigerator. Once again, the unit took the brunt of the blast.

Now, she stood and immediately opened fire as two marines stormed the kitchen, charging full-tilt into the fridge. The thing bucked as the marines’ heavy armor tore its upper end apart. One man’s momentum kept him toppling forward, and he smashed the table into pieces as Samara’s carefully timed burst ripped through his helmet and killed him. The other marine pivoted on one leg, his plasma rifle spinning across the room, high-energy blasts tearing smoking craters in the walls as he tracked the weapon towards Samara. And then 3mm railpistol rounds erupted out of his chest, their KE spent, tumbling through the air and bouncing off Samara’s armor as Yakazuma pumped at least fifty shots into the marine.

Samara ducked under the last plasma shot, then jumped onto the refrigerator again, crouched by the doorframe, and fired a few random bursts into the dining room. She pulled back and checked the rifle’s ammunition counter as Yakazuma stepped around the other edge of the doorway and emptied another pair of magazines at fully automatic rate into the dining room, sweeping her railpistols in steady, ground-eating arcs. At least two screams answered the dreadful chattering of her weapons.

Risking another glance out the doorway, Samara tried to see how many marines were left. Ideally, she was hoping for a good dozen; any less and Lion Star might start to have second thoughts about the necessity of holding fire. If anyone up there had half a brain, they would have guessed that Hornet was coming back, assuming they didn’t even know it for certain. Samara’s quick head count yielded ten, a good number since she estimated that half of them would be hidden from view.

Ming’s voice echoed suddenly in her head: “Samara, are you there?”

“Still here. Yakazuma too,” she answered as the other woman started up another fusillade from her pistols. This time a half-dozen plasma rounds followed her back into the kitchen, and when she returned from her hastily-found cover, Samara could see blood seeping through several cracks in her armor where shrapnel and pure energy had penetrated the protective layer.

“I knew that was her!” growled Alger triumphantly. “Nice to have you here, lass.”

“We need to make this last as long as possible,” said Samara, ducking out and firing another pair of bursts from her rifle. More fire came back her way, but she ducked aside. For the moment, the wall was holding. “We need to buy Maccabee more time.”

“Aye,” said Alger, “that we do. But how much more?”

“If he’s not here in another hour,” Ming said, her voice almost hushed, barely audible over the sound of firing railguns and the whine of plasma injectors, “then he’s not coming.”

“He’s coming,” said Samara firmly, ending that line of thought. He was coming. He would never abandon them. Whatever had happened, he would come.

The sound of weapons fire dimmed suddenly, and it was a moment before Samara realized the marines had stopped shooting back. Only the sounds of Yakazuma and Ming and Alger and their teams marred the silence. “Cease fire!” she barked suddenly over the general com channel, shouting it out for real so that Yakazuma could hear too. And the marines. A moment later, after a particularly withering look from Yakazuma, the dining room and kitchen were mercifully, dreadfully silent.

“Is anyone out there?” called Samara, not for a moment exposing herself to enemy fire. This could all be just another trap.

“Lieutenant Kensington,” replied a remarkably urbane voice from the dining hall. The accent was faintly English, but the words sounded oddly slurred. “We want a cease fire.”

“Why should we bother?” asked Samara. “Seems to me that we’ve got the upper hand.”

“Only until we’re dead,” said Kensington, still sounding like he was discussing something completely banal. “You know what happens then.”

“And letting you leave is better? At least this way we get the satisfaction of taking you with us.”

Then there was another voice, this one obviously piped in over a com channel, probably from Lion Star: “Give it up, Kar Deffin.” Samara stiffened. It was a woman, and someone obviously well-informed; Abslom. “Maccabee’s not coming for you, and even if he does, we’ll be ready. Surrender, and we might let your team live.”

“Not me?” asked Samara, her heart racing nearly as fast as her brain, which was trying to piece together any way out of this hellish mess. “You have something against me?”

“Not particularly.” Abslom sounded dismissive. “I only want to teach Maccabee a little lesson about messing with the wrong people.”

Samara laughed, making sure the sound was loud enough to be heard by the marines and by Abslom. “You don’t know him very well, do you?” she asked. “You think killing me will stop him? It’ll only make things worse. Let me and mine go; we might persuade Maccabee not to hunt you down and kill you like a dog.”

“You’re not bargaining from a position of strength,” sneered Abslom. “You have no chips left.”

“Then why the fuck are we even talking?” snarled Samara right back. “If you’ve got every card in your hand, then play it out!” She laughed again, letting it take hold of her, letting just a little more of her control slip away. “You’re frightened, aren’t you? You know Maccabee’s on his way. Well, you’d better leave these marines behind and start running now!”

“There’s no need to run,” replied Abslom, maintaining a notable calm. “Maccabee’ll have plenty of surprises waiting for him when he arrives.” Samara could almost taste the other woman’s satisfaction. “Now, surrender immediately. It’s the only way.”

“I’ll be damned if I do that,” muttered Samara over the command com channel. “Ideas.”

“Keep fighting,” answered Alger immediately. “We’re dead either way; no need to make it easy on the bastards.”

“You have five more seconds before my teams open fire,” warned Abslom.

“I disagree,” said Ming. “We should fight to their shuttles, take one, get as far into the Heap as we can and put down until Hornet arrives.”

“You can pilot us through?” asked Samara. She was out of ideas of her own. Fight or die, that was about all that there was left. The idea of an escape route. . . .


“We’ll never make it through them,” growled Alger. “They’ve got us pinned.”

“Time’s up!” shouted Abslom. Plasma rounds erupted from the dining room, and Samara gave a quick nod to Yakazuma to resume hostilities. The other woman stepped into the doorway and emptied yet another pair of clips; the ceramic-alloy barrels of her guns were starting to glow an ugly red.

“We’re dead either way,” said Samara. “We try it.” Thinking quickly, she mapped out the complex in her mind. “Alger, you’ll have to fight forward one intersection, then go left to meet up with Ming; Ming, you support his push. When you’re together, we’ll push from this side, and you can disengage and swing around to join up with us on the other side of the mess hall. Their shuttles are docked back up this way, about fifty meters from our location. Understood?”

“Got it,” said Alger, his arguments done with for now. If they lived through this, he might tell Samara what he really thought.

“Crystal,” came Ming’s reply.


There was a sudden increase in the intensity of weapons fire from beyond the dining hall, and Samara ducked into the doorway to take Yakazuma’s place, blasting away with her taken rifle. A moment later, the thing ran dry, and she tossed it aside, slid off the back of the refrigerator, and stooped to pick up a plasma rifle dropped by one of the dead marines scattered around the kitchen. Then the grenade blew up behind her.

The blast front lifted Samara off her feet and slammed her face-first into the nearest bulkhead. Her armor, already stressed beyond its maximum endurance, shattered in a dozen places, and shrapnel from the grenade tore into her back, not hard enough to kill, but breaking the atmospheric seal and slashing her flesh to ribbons. She slid down to her feet, then toppled backwards. Lights danced in front of her face, and she fought to remain conscious, to fight off the effects of the impact to her head. Boots hammered the floor behind her.

She swung the plasma rifle--it was still in her hands, somehow--up over her head and squeezed the trigger, holding it down. Dozens, then hundreds of rounds boiled out of the rifle, lighting the air on fire and incinerating the marines charging in after the grenade. Samara screamed as heat washed over her skin. Then the rifle ran dry, its entire cell exhausted in a matter of seconds. It took another two seconds for Samara to release the trigger.

Struggling to breathe, she pushed herself into a sitting position, tossed aside the rifle, and slid along the floor, turning so that her back was to the wall. Yakazuma was on the other side of the kitchen, obviously hurt but still moving, still strong enough to reload her pistol. She’d discarded the two she’d been using and was now on her last one; each of her movements was coldly precise as she loaded the weapon. There was something ceremonial about the carefully exact procedure, and Samara realized a moment later that the other woman was preparing for her death.

“Good idea,” muttered Hornet’s XO. She pulled out the Dreamreaver and checked its charge: still half full, and another power cell in her belt. Enough for a few dozen shots at a decent power setting. Samara felt like she should do something more, act out the precise movements of a play, as Yakazuma had done, but she couldn’t think of anything except unloading and reloading the weapon, which was a foolish plan.

A marine low-crawled through the doorway, a plasma rifle clutched in his hands. He died just as quickly, Yakazuma and Samara shooting him in the head simultaneously. Samara grimaced at the un-pretty aftermath.

“Status,” she croaked over the command com, ignoring the horrible, tortured sound of her own voice.

“We’ve joined up with Ming’s team,” said Alger a moment later. Something sounded very wrong. “I . . .”

“What? Damn it, what?” Samara drew in a ragged breath. She knew already. There wasn’t any doubt.

“She’s dead,” Alger sounded like he was dead, too. “Ming’s dead.”

Silence seemed to fall around Samara, as though someone had sucked all the air out of the room; she couldn’t hear anything, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t even move. And then something inside her took over, shoving aside the paralyzed part of her brain.

“Understood,” said that cold thing inside her. “Where are you?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” shouted Alger, so loud that Samara almost imagined she could hear him, really hear him, not just in her com.

“I heard you. We need to get out. Now, tell me where you are, right now.” Samara’s voice was flat and hard and it somehow connected with Alger.

“We’re in corridor twelve, circling your way. You need to buy us some time.”

“Understood. We will.” Samara let the link stay open.

She pushed herself to her feet and reflexively checked the Dreamreaver one more, then mounted the refrigerator, ran up its toppled side and leapt head-long through the smoking, cratered doorway. The move was so unexpected that only a single shot came her way, and it fell far behind her. Tucking her legs under her, Samara landed on her shoulder, and rolled behind a table. A shocked marine looked up at her, but she was so close he couldn’t even bring his rifle to bear. She shot him point-blank in the belly with the Dreamreaver, leaving a smoking crater in his armor.

Before anyone else could react to her suicidal move, Samara was on her knees, her head and shoulders above the flimsy table she was using for cover, firing. She had an advantageous angle on the scattered marines remaining in the room, and one more died under the brutal fire from her Dreamreaver before they adjusted their positions and started shooting back. Samara ducked down and watched with a sort of detached horror as two plasma rounds ripped through the table and missed her by centimeters, close enough so that she felt the heat through her ravaged armor. This won’t last too long, she thought.

Then the sound of Yakazuma’s pistol caught her ear, and she popped up to shoot again. The Dreamreaver’s unique, heart-stopping whine combined with the chattering 3mm railpistol into a sort of duet of carnage. Yakazuma was taking the opposite tack from Samara, running at an angle through the dining hall, firing with cold precision to either side. A plasma shot hit her in the back, then another in the chest, and then she dove or fell behind another table, Samara couldn’t tell which. She was likely dead, with two plasma hits like that, her armor already burned and broken. Samara killed another marine, then ducked back down and started to scramble for some new cover. There couldn’t be that many left, not now.

“We’re at the kitchen!” shouted Alger’s voice in her ear. “Get out now!”

“Amathea!” screamed Samara at the top of her lungs. “Now!” Please be alive.

Heavy weapons fire exploded through the kitchen doorway as Alger and the rest of Samara’s people opened up with everything they had left. Samara jumped to her feet and started shooting as well. In a moment, her Dreamreaver was dry, and she had no time to stop and reload. There was a flicker of movement to her left, possibly Yakazuma, but she had no attention to spare. She needed perfect timing.

“Cease fire!” she shouted over the general com a moment before she reached the near-continuous stream of high-velocity projectiles coming from the doorway to the kitchen. The shots stopped as though she’d thrown a switch, and she dove through, hitting hard and sliding across the floor. A row of cabinets took the impact of her momentum, crumpling under the weight of her armor. Yakazuma staggered in behind her, someone still on her feet, a wild look in her eyes. A short woman in heavy armor grabbed her and yanked her clear as the marines started shooting again--Koi, one of Alger’s team.

Alger ordered general cover fire again, and Samara waited a moment, then started crawling out of the kitchen. At the back doorway, she pushed herself to her feet, ejected the spent power cell from her gun, and slapped the new one into place before walking out to meet Alger and the six other people that were all that remained of the twenty he and Ming had brought to this shit-hole of a planet.

Samara reached out a hand, and Alger took it; he understood.

“Let’s fall back,” Samara managed, speaking through clenched teeth.

“Fucking right,” growled Alger. He pulled a lance grenade from his heavy, scarred armor and tossed it through the kitchen. The grenade landed and blew up in its direction of motion, showering a forty degree slice of the room beyond with high-energy heavy metals and radiation. The marines’ armor would protect them from most of the effects, but their electronics would likely be fried, or at least rendered temporarily inactive.

Alger put a hand on Samara’s shoulder and pulled her after him as he turned. “Move out!” he roared. Koi took up the rear guard, Sands the front, both carrying multi-barreled weapons similar in style to the Thresher, though perhaps slightly less deadly, and the tiny column started moving, not running, not in a rout, but in an organized retreat. Samara just hoped that they’d have somewhere to retreat to. She hoped that Maccabee would arrive soon, because if he didn’t, they were all dead.