|Episode 124: Takeoff and Landing|
After two hundred meters, Maccabee dropped prone in amongst the crops. Obu hit the ground next to him, and both turned back the way they’d come, breathing hard and trying to be as quiet as possible at the same time. Maccabee had one of his pistols in his hand, while Obu was still hefting the laser rifle. Humming filled the air around them, the noise of some sort of insect, and the heat was getting worse as the lest clouds from the storm front faded into the east, letting the sun burn down with all its fury. No sounds interrupted the stillness.
“Did they turn back?” whispered Obu, barely audible by Maccabee even a half meter away.
Shaking his head, the captain pointed back the other way. “They’re after the jet. Going to check it out.” He nodded as Obu’s face fell. “If we don’t get there first. . . .” There was no need to finish the sentence.
Nursing a sore back, Maccabee got up and started running again, bent double and keeping his head down, trying to be invisible from beyond this particular row of crops. He felt at once hidden and extremely exposed: the gully stretched into infinity ahead and behind him both, and if anyone looked into this row, there would be no way to hide. With each passing moment, it seemed more likely that they would be seen, but no shouts—and no bullets—came their way. In another ten minutes, they reached the transverse drainage ditch.
“Which way is it?” asked Obu. Anticipating this need, Maccabee had counted the number of rows they crossed in each direction, and he pointed quickly to the left.
“Two more that way, and then just a few hundred meters,” he said. Crouching at the edge of the culvert—the water had dropped at least fifty centimeters in the last thirty minutes—Maccabee looked carefully left and right. The sun amplified the stink of the wet earth around them, mixed with something else, some sort of animal odor, a stink of decay. Probably worms, Maccabee suddenly guessed, having smelled those before in an arboretum. There was still no sign of the two armed men. Either they knew a better path, or they were still behind Maccabee and Obu.
With a quick motion of his arm, Maccabee sent them into the water, and this time the going was tougher, moving as they were against the flow of water. They didn’t have far to go, however. Just about twelve meters.
“Freeze!” bellowed a man’s voice from somewhere behind them; they were only five meters from the row they sought. Damn, thought Maccabee. Then he let the current push him over and dropped backwards into the water.
The stream in the culvert was thick and seemed to cling to his face, but Maccabee kept his eyes tightly shut, rolling himself over, using the touch of his feet on the bottom to judge his position. Then he tucked his legs under him, waited for two beats of his heart, extended them again and dug in his heels.
Light returned with shocking speed as the force of the water heaved his upper body into the air. His pistol gripped in both hands, Maccabee opened his eyes, hoping that they’d be free of mud and muck, and drew a bead on the men in front of him. They were surprised, but he didn’t know where they were, not exactly. He’d had to guess from the sound of the shout, and he’d been wrong; not far wrong, but maybe enough. Moving at the same time as they, he shifted his aim and squeezed the trigger.
Chemical pistols make a thundering crash when they fire, and the men hadn’t expected that sound, hadn’t been prepared for it. The first bullet took one of them in the shoulder while the other was still gaping in shock. Then he fired just as Maccabee fired again, and Hornet’s captain felt the 2mm railgun lance rip through his side, neatly separating muscle and skin before punching out his back, almost casually breaking one of his ribs on the way. His own shot had been slightly low, missing vital organs but taking the other man in the belly. Staggering sideways, his legs giving out under him, Maccabee fired again, hitting the first man square in the back of the head as he scrambled to get clear of the culvert. Then the second man’s head burst open in eerie silence, the only sound a wet splat as the laser rifle killed him. Little splashes marked the disassembled bits of the man, and then his body slid under the water.
Gasping in pain, Maccabee landed hard on the edge of the culvert, his head above water, his legs still dangling in the mud. Obu was at his side a moment later, ripping away the upper part of his jumpsuit.
He cursed as he got a clear view of the wound. “How bad is it?” asked Maccabee.
“Oh, it’s not pretty. Nothing Hornet and Doc Monteux can’t fix, though.” Obu scowled. “At least the shot went through.” He pulled a bandage from a sealed, clean pocket in his own suit and slipped it gently over they entry wound, then repeated the process for the other hole. The bandages dulled the pain, slightly, but only on the surface. Most of the damage was inside. They would, however, keep the blood in there as well, rather than pouring out into the mud.
“Hurts like hell,” said Maccabee through gritted teeth. There was no point in trying to block the pain, and he felt the familiar sensations of shock coming on; at least he could try to stay conscious. Obu would never make it out if he had to carry his captain. “Come on, we have to get back.”
“Yeah,” said the other man, looking Maccabee up and down, judging just how bad he was. “You know I can’t fly that thing, right?”
“What?” Maccabee forced a grin. “Why the hell’d I hire you, anyway?” Closing his eyes, he fought off another sudden wave of pain and dark. The moment passed, and he was still up. So to speak. “I’ll show you how. I can probably even do it myself, it doesn’t require much standing. But we need to get there, now.”
“I’m on it, cap,” said Obu. Leaving the laser rifle slung over his shoulder, he grabbed Maccabee and helped the man to his feet. It was all Maccabee could do to stay up and conscious, and Obu was left to drag him across the culvert almost by brute force alone. Then he heaved the captain up into the next gully, scrambled up next to him, and hauled him to his feet.
That forced a scream out of Maccabee’s throat, try as he might to contain it. “Damn!” he shouted right after, trying to force aside the awful pain. “Son of a bitch, that hurts!”
“Try running through it,” said Obu, only half joking. He started moving, still holding Maccabee up, and the captain had no choice but to start pumping his legs too. Half walking, half stumbling, they cleared the three hundred meters in a few minutes, but the whole while, Maccabee could feel his strength ebbing; he felt dizzy and nauseated, and very, very tired.
Now is not the time for rest, he reminded himself, trying to sound stern in his own head. We’ll rest on the harvester. The pep talk worked, for the moment.
The jet was just as they’d left it, still tilting rakishly in the mud, its canopy still open, the sun glinting off the plastic like a flare. There was no possible way the people in the bunker could miss it, not even from three kilometers or so. Maccabee dragged them to a halt.
“What?” asked Obu. “What’s wrong?”
“Other than the obvious?” replied Maccabee, gasping for breath. At least he still thought that was a funny thing to say. “If we take off, they’ll shoot us down. They know we’re here. We’ve got no element of surprise.”
“Then skim the fucking mud,” growled Obu, hauling Maccabee forward. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay here and wait for more of them to come our way. And if you give me more bullshit about orders and the chain of command, I’ll leave you here.”
“Got it,” managed the captain, trying not to grin. Grinning only encouraged them.
Moving with strength Maccabee hadn’t known he possessed, Obu hefted his captain into the jet, sitting him in the pilot’s seat again. There were flight controls at the other position as well, of course, should they be necessary. Somehow, through sheer force of will, Maccabee managed not to pass out during the process. As Obu climbed in after him, he powered the V/STOL up, lighting off its engines. They all started without a hitch.
“Looks good so far,” he said as Obu closed up the canopy. The latch clicked home with a satisfying sound, and the roar of the jets was suddenly muted. Even so, the vibrations under their seats spoke volumes for the strength of the little plane. Maccabee blinked rapidly, trying to clear his head, but everything seemed a little bit fuzzy now, slightly out of focus. “Shit.”
“Trouble?” asked Obu.
“Can’t see quite right anymore,” admitted Maccabee. Now was not the time to stand on pride.
“Just get us off the ground,” said the other man. “I can handle it from there.” It was bravado, plain and simple, but there wasn’t much choice.
Moving slowly, Maccabee pushed the throttle up on the engines, heard and felt their roar increase under him, and waited. Nothing. The plane sat, firmly rooted in mud. He pushed the throttle up higher, and the little jet shuddered, starting to break free. It still wasn’t enough, though, and Maccabee opened the throttle to maximum.
With a bone-jarring lurch, the jet leapt into the air, rising at least fifty meters before Maccabee could control the ascent. The wings tilted wildly from side to side as he fought to stabilize the little craft. A sharp tone reminded them that they were being scanned again, and this time they weren’t going to be putting down. After a moment, the scan stopped, then was quickly replaced with a targeting radar.
“They’re locking us in!” shouted Obu.
Maccabee said nothing. Instead, he jabbed his hand at the wound in his side. Fresh pain flared up like a tiny inferno in his chest and belly, and he nearly passed out. Determined not to let the darkness take him, he fought against the surge, and then blinked. It had worked. The controls were clear in front of him. As was the targeting warning signal. Missile launch was imminent.
Maccabee dove the little jet for the ground, and at the same time a spread of four missiles erupted from the apparently bare ground, lancing out towards them. There was no time to maneuver or turn around, so Maccabee went to maximum forward thrust, shooting in under the missiles and forcing them to turn around to follow him. Two managed that feat, while the others, still so close to the ground, impacted in the fields, sending up bright blue explosions of plasma. The pirates were not in a mood to take prisoners, considering the power of the warheads.
“They’re closing in from behind!” warned Obu, his eyes locked on the threat monitor. Maccabee, however, had his focus on the terrain as he dropped down almost to landing altitude, throwing up a wash of wet mud behind him. One missile dove off into this spray, smashing into another crop row and blossoming into furious blue before fading to red and black. The other kept coming.
A moment later, the bunker flashed beside them—it was actually slightly higher than the bottom of the jet—and Maccabee pulled up abruptly, sending them into a vertical climb at maximum thrust. The g-forces pushed on his brain like a weight inside his skull, crimping his eyeballs, pushing the blood into his legs, threatening to black him out again. He fought hard, but he knew he couldn’t hold on, not long.
Pushing the control stick hard forward, Maccabee flipped the jet end over end in a sudden maneuver that reversed the accelerational forces on Obu and himself, lifting them out of their seats. The jet whined in protest, and attitude alarms wailed as one of its two main engines sputtered out. They slid into a flat spin, while the missile soared up above them, losing its lock for a moment before rolling over and quietly reversing course. It had to be nearly out of fuel, but now they were sitting targets.
A second later, proximity alarms sounded, warning of imminent impact. Maccabee activated the automatic stabilizers, and the jet tried frantically to right itself. With less than ten meters to go, it finally succeeded, and the thrusters went to full throttle along the vertical axis, hauling the little ship to a stop with its belly brushing the mud. Without looking to see where he was, Maccabee took back control and vectored the thrust all ahead, jumping the little plane forwards, belly-flopping off a crop row and bouncing into the air almost at the same time as the missile, finally outmaneuvered, slammed into the spot where the V/STOL had just been.
Only some ten meters behind the little jet, the missile burst into a violent, blue ball, ripping through the air and sending out a shockwave that the V/STOL could not hope to outrun. The wave smacked the back of the plane like a giant fist, hammering it up and out, away from the raging fire of plasma. It also crumpled half the craft’s attitude controls and shut down one of the thrusters.
Maccabee let fly a string of curses, trying to hold onto his concentration as each jolt sent more pain through his side. Try as he might, the jet didn’t want to stabilize, not this time. He’d pushed it too far past its performance envelope on that series of evasions, and now it was crapping out, giving up, and falling apart. It was just a matter of time.
Jacking into his com unit, Maccabee sent a call out to Samara. It was likely that the communication would be traced, but he hoped that the encryption would hold, at least for the length of such a short transmission. Another secondary thruster failed, and the V/STOL dipped a wing dangerously low to the ground. At least the bastards hadn’t fired any more missiles.
“Samara, come in!” he called, fighting off more pain as the jet bucked wildly and nearly nosed into the ground. “Samara!”
“Here, Maccabee, what’s happening?”
“We’re about ten klicks out from the bunker, but we took hits getting out. They know we’re here. We’re not going to make it back to the harvester.”
He stopped talking, the better to concentrate on the task at hand, and Samara was quiet for what seemed like several minutes, though it must only have been about five seconds. The jet stayed in the air, at least for that time.
“OK, Maccabee. Put down as soon as you can. I’m coming in for you with the shuttle. If you’re ten clicks out, we should be able to stay under their horizon. Are either of you injured?”
“Yes,” he managed through gritted teeth, wondering if he would be able to set the plane down or if he’d have to crash it. The last remaining main engine was starting to fail, and when it went, the plane would fall like so much scrap metal, not matter what he did.
“OK, I’ll bring Fia,” said Samara. She sounded perfectly calm, like nothing was wrong. Just the way she always sounded when everything was going to hell. “Sit tight and wait for the cavalry.”
“Samara,” he began, but she didn’t let him say anything more.
“I’ve got it covered, William,” she assured him. “The plan’s not a bust yet.”
Despite how angry he was at these people, Maccabee was damn well sure that the plan was definitely a bust, but he didn’t have time to speak his mind, because the main engine chose that moment to die completely. For a moment, the little jet stayed in the air, and then it dropped. Routing all of his remaining power to the secondary thrusters, Maccabee fought to slow the descent, pulling back frantically on the stick, trying to get more lift on the delta wing that kept the plane in the air. It worked, to a point.
The jet slammed into a gully between two rows of crops, hitting in a wet section of ground. The mud and water helped break the fall, but the impact was still substantial, and both men jerked hard against their crash harnesses. Breaking free of the mud, the plane bounced up into the air, flying up at least a meter or two. Then it fell for the second time, turning slightly sideways as it came back to the ground. As she hit, the V/STOL’s wing dipped down, catching the edge of the crop row. For a moment, the hardened aluminum alloy plowed a new furrow into the wet dirt; then it caught hard and the plane flipped into the air again. The wing snapped, the jet rolled sickeningly through the air, then crashed down again, still rolling; the other wingtip dug into the mud, lifting the V/STOL for a final time; at last, it flopped onto its belly, skidded another twenty or thirty meters, and came to a halt.
Maccabee was unconscious long before he stopped moving.
At first, he was just dimly aware of voices around him. It still didn’t feel like he was awake, not really, but it was something other than plain darkness and silence. Definitely voices. Then he felt a prick in his arm—that was good, he felt the arm, and the prick—and suddenly, things got louder, and he could feel his other arm, and then his legs, and then pretty much everything. He opened his eyes and blinked twice in the bright light of the inside of his battered shuttle.
“How long have I been out?” he asked, trying to push himself into a sitting position. It was easy for Fia to hold him down, though she smiled slightly as she did so.
“Not more than two hours,” she answered him.
“The harvester is nearly here, then,” he said, doing the quick calculation in his head. That part of him, at least, didn’t hurt like it had been beaten by twenty men with steel wrenches half a meter long.
“Another ten minutes, maybe a bit longer” confirmed Samara as she stepped into view from the left. She too had a small smile on her lips. “You’re one tough bastard, you know that?”
“Not nearly as tough as you.” The two of them shared a brief look, each understanding perfectly how the other felt. It was enough, for now. Then Maccabee turned to his temporary doctor. “Can I stand up?”
“Probably, but what the hell do I know?” Fia stood back and let Samara help him up. “You took quite a tumble back there.”
Remembering the crash, Maccabee turned quickly to Samara, but she smiled and shook her head. “Obu’s fine,” she answered Maccabee’s unspoken question. “That little jet was as tough as you. The main fuselage was mostly intact, even after your, uh, landing, or whatever you want to call it.”
“I’ll have you do it next time,” he growled, taking a proffered—and clean—shirt from Fia and pulling it on over his head.
“No thanks,” Samara replied.
“What’s our status?” asked Maccabee, moving to the front of the shuttle, noticing suddenly as he did so that everyone was on board, even Thet-zaw. He spun back to Samara, fighting off dizziness as he did so. “Who’s on the harvester?”
“Nobody,” she said with a wider smile. Then she stood in self-satisfied silence, watching Maccabee’s anger grow.
“Well?” he said at last, giving in after only ten seconds. “Spit it out, damn you!” Try as he might, he couldn’t quite ignore the grins from the rest of his crew. He’d get her back for this one.
“The harvester is completely empty,” began Samara, “because I took the liberty of turning it into a distraction.”
“Explain,” he ordered, and this time he was not to be denied.
“Easily. You crashed. I had no idea if you were still . . . with us.” She grimaced. “So, I took charge. You’d told me we were compromised; I decided the harvester was too slow and big to make an effective assault vehicle, so I jerry-rigged the thing’s reactor to blow up and set it up on autopilot. Even if the combine gets their people on it before the scheduled hour, they’ll never disarm it in time. It’s heading almost here, but slightly off course. When it goes up, we’ll fly this heap in, take the place out, and bug out.” Smiling broadly, she spread her hands. “Voila! Easy as taking candy from a baby.”
“Let’s just hope none of the parents are around,” muttered Maccabee. He slipped past Alger with a nod for the other man and let himself drop into a seat. “Damn. I’m not going to be much good to you.”
“You’re running on stims,” said Fia, basically lending her agreement to his statement. “I’ve stopped the bleeding, I think. Med kit’s a bit finicky. I don’t think the bullet hit anything vital, but you could be bleeding internally for all I know.” Stepping up beside him, she pointed at a small piece of medical equipment strapped to his forearm. A little tube extended out from it and was tucked neatly into his skin. “That’s a pressure monitor and plasma pump. If you drop too low, it’ll pump you up again, keep you from bleeding out.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I don’t feel any pain.”
“No sir,” said Fia with a happy smile. “You’re doped on about five different blockers, just to be sure. Shouldn’t effect other functions too badly, but that’s just the advertising on the back of the box. You might want to let Samara fly.”
“Yes indeed,” said the other woman. She was already sitting in the copilot’s chair. Glancing at the chrono on her wrist, she smiled again. “Only five minutes to go.”
“How far away from us is this imminent reactor overload?” Maccabee asked.
“Not to worry, we’re safe here.” Samara’s smile widened again. “Hell, we’re over five klicks away.”
“Over five,” she repeated. “The shuttle’s got rad shielding, you know. We’ll be fine.”
Maccabee just nodded. He didn’t have the strength to continue the repartee. Samara was right, five klicks would be far enough from the sort of small nuclear blast that the reactor on the harvester would produce. He didn’t even think to ask after the family who called the mechanical beast their home, nor did he particularly care what happened to them next. Obviously Samara had off-loaded the lot of them somewhere on the way here. That was good enough.
All that was left to do was sit and wait, and try to stay awake. Around him, the interior of the shuttle suddenly quieted. Despite Samara’s flippant words, the overloading reactor was a serious matter, and there were no guarantees. So they waited.
And when the moment came, and the thunderous, god-like boom of the exploding harvester signaled the end of their wait, they all took another breath, felt the shockwave rock the shuttle like a gentle breeze, held that breath another five seconds, and then let it out when it was obvious they were safe. Then they got to work.