Episode 125: The Bunker (Part 1)

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Samara had the shuttle in the air before the shockwave reached them, the only one on board who was completely confident in her planning and her calculations. Maccabee felt his stomach slide into the back of his torso as she poured on the acceleration and the shuttle rocketed forwards smoothly and quickly. It was an almost novel sensation after the bumpy, thrilling ride of the V/STOL, and Maccabee thought that he missed the little jet. Then Samara started jerking the shuttle up and down, careening side to side for good measure as targeting systems on the ground tried to track them, and he was suddenly glad that they were on such a fast and well-protected craft.

The automatic systems that hadn’t been knocked out completely by the nuclear blast were having difficulty tracking through the heavy radiation and atmospheric disturbances, and only one missile fired, not even coming close to them, instead blowing itself up in a tatter of cloud high above. Samara was taking no chances, however, and the shuttle moved with a violence that threatened to break through the many pain blockers that were functioning in Maccabee’s brain. It didn’t matter, because at these speeds, they would be arriving at their destination very soon.

Without warning, Samara smoothed out their flight path, and the men and women in the back started unlimbering their weapons. Maccabee reached for his own, felt a tap on his shoulder, and looked around to gratefully accept a fully-loaded pistol from Alger. The two millimeter railpistol was still in a cargo pocket in his pants, right where he’d left it.

Turning, Maccabee looked front again in time to see Samara open fire with the nose-mounted plasma cannons on the shuttle. The guns weren’t large, nor were they versatile enough for an air-to-air engagement, but against a stationary target, they were deadly effective. The sensors and antennas on the top of the bunker vanished in a shocking explosion of blue and red, then flashed by underneath the shuttle. Samara spun the craft easily, bleeding off excess speed with a sharp banking maneuver, then brought the bunker into view again. Another volley of cannon fire ripped into the heavy ceramacrete, plowing deep furrows through its surface. Despite that impressive display, it was obvious that they weren’t going to punch through that easily.

Maccabee turned towards Samara, his mouth open, but she shook her head. “I’m not done yet,” she growled. Pushing various controls, she sent the shuttle rushing forwards again, gaining altitude and banking up and around. “Everyone hold on tight!” she shouted as the bunker hove into view again, this time ahead and about a thousand meters below them, fire and smoke still rising from its shattered top. Another missile managed to launch, this time with a lock, but Samara ignored it and went to maximum forward thrust, activating the cannons at the same time.

Plasma fire obscured the forward view as the cannons went to maximum rate of fire, incidentally incinerating the incoming missile; the guns would burn out in under twenty seconds, but that was longer than they’d survive anyway, because Maccabee had just realized what Samara was planning. There was no point in arguing, despite how much he wanted to since this was his last modern shuttle—instead, he just tightened down the straps on his crash harness and tried to decide whether he was going to go in with eyes opened or closed.

Just a moment before impact, her eyes glued to the controls, Samara stopped firing and went to maximum reverse acceleration; despite the acceleration-damping effect of the gravity plating, Maccabee nearly blacked out as he was thrown against the crash harness with enough force to break another man’s ribcage into a hundred pieces. Someone in the rear cabin screamed, but the sound was lost in the thunderous crash of the shuttle impacting the ceramacrete roof of the bunker.

Still traveling at over ten meters per second, the shuttle carried enough momentum with its twenty ton weight to smash through the meter-thick ceramacrete slab, which had been weakened by the torrential barrage of plasma fire. The force of the impact, however, crushed those same plasma cannons like tin foil underneath a steel plate, then hammered into the shuttle’s body, crushing its nose up into the main compartment. The forward canopy starred, then shattered, and console panels jumped from their mounts to crash around Maccabee and Samara and bounce back into the main cabin. Maccabee fought off blackness again as they ground to a halt.

Blinking, he stared forwards as the air around him cleared of debris and dust. Bright, clean, artificial light filtered through the floating particulates, and then he saw down to the floor. Far down to the floor. They’d just crashed through the roof of a hanger—no doubt the ceramacrete “roof” was in fact a door that could be slid aside to allow entry to incoming shuttles. The hanger was at least twenty meters tall, and a good fifty on a side; perhaps the ceramacrete bunker was just a small part of the door, actually. Either way was not good.

The sharp sound of small-caliber railgun bullets impacting on the exterior of the shuttle’s hull caught Maccabee’s attention and he suddenly realized that there was no longer a solid, ceramaplast canopy between him and those shots. Then he realized that his legs were pinned underneath the main console, which had been pushed into the cockpit as the shuttle’s bow had crumpled. He had no idea if he was significantly injured—the pain killers didn’t let him feel anything, new or old.

“Samara!” he barked. Looking over, he saw her extricating herself from a similar mess as Alger leaned over from the main cabin and started firing back down into the hanger with a shotgun. The crash of the big gun echoed loudly through the open space below, and Maccabee heard a shout from their enemies. That sound was followed quickly by a sharp crack, and the sound of falling bits of ceramacrete separating from the hull of the shuttle.

“Sit down!” shouted Maccabee, and then the shuttle broke free. There was about two seconds of near silence as they fell, and then a horrible crash as the twenty-ton ship hammered down onto the hanger floor. It bounced once, though not far, then crashed down to a halt.

Freed by the impact, Maccabee popped his crash harness and stood. A rush of blood to his head nearly toppled him, but at least his legs still seemed to be working; there was no evidence of injury. Turning, he caught sight of Samara, who was cradling her right arm and scowling. Alger was on the floor, but unhurt, and no one else had managed to unfasten their harnesses, much to their favor.

“Move!” bellowed Maccabee, somehow finding the strength to produce the roar. Then he unlimbered his pistol, turned, and started climbing out the canopy, knowing that they’d be behind him, without a shadow of a doubt. There was no pain, not yet. That would come later.

The fall of the shuttle had thrown the defenses into disarray, and Maccabee stood on the shattered nose of the shuttle, turning once slowly to take stock. Then he ducked down as someone took a potshot at him. Trying not to move too quickly, he turned again, shot down one man who was trying to take the safety off a three millimeter rifle, then slid off the shuttle and down to the floor. Obu jumped down next to him, followed by Fia, both of them moving considerably faster than Maccabee.

“Secure the perimeter!” ordered Maccabee, pointing left and right. Obu moved to the rear of the shuttle, his rifle at his shoulder, and a man near the other side of the hanger suddenly screamed as the silent laser rifle lanced through his chest. Then he was silenced by a second shot, to the head. Fia, her weapon immeasurably louder, ducked to the front of the shuttle and opened fire on full automatic with her chemical pistol. The big slugs screamed downrange, adding to the enemy’s confusion with their shocking noise. Maccabee, meanwhile, holstered the chemical gun in his hand and retrieved the little two millimeter from his pocket. Perhaps it would add another layer of surprise.

Shooting echoed through the hanger. Samara and Alger had obviously led the rest of the team out the back of the shuttle, covered by Obu and his rifle. Maccabee looked straight ahead of him, trusting his lieutenants to handle the enemies in the hanger. On this side of the shuttle, two doors led out of the main hanger, one obviously into a secondary storage area—there was a window onto the dimly-lit space—the other someplace else. The second of the two doors was smaller, just a man door. That was the first target.

Turning, Maccabee strode towards the back of the shuttle. A flicker of movement caught his attention, and he brought up the two millimeter and fired before he even saw what he was shooting at; a man toppled forwards into the hanger from the man door Maccabee had just pegged as the next target. The woman coming behind him stumbled over the dead man, and Maccabee’s next three-round burst caught her in the head, killing her instantly. Then a spread of micromissiles erupted from inside the doorway.

“Down!” roared Maccabee as he dove for the ground.

The six semi-autonomous missiles streaked into the hanger; two decided to target the shuttle, since it was big and hot, and they slammed into its armored hull with dull thuds and green-blue explosions. A third streaked over the shuttle and vanished out of sight, another ripped up the ceramacrete tarmac behind Maccabee, sending shards of the ceramacrete ripping into his clothes and cutting his skin, and the fifth targeted Obu—the man ducked just in time and the little missile hit the shuttle behind him, scorching his back but leaving him mostly unharmed. Then the last missile hit Fia in the chest.

The woman’s scream was lost in the sound of the explosion as the micromissile lifted her off the ground and threw her bodily into the hull of the shuttle behind her. She hit hard, bounced off, and fell to the floor face down.

Shock coursing through his body, Maccabee scrambled to his feet. There was no doubt that Fia was dead; no one survived that kind of hit from a missile, even with a flak vest. His mind made up, Maccabee turned and charged the door, shooting another man in the face as he emerged from the corridor—not the micromissile gunner. Then he was to the door, ducking low and leaning around the edge, firing his pistol in front of him, not even looking for a target. By the time he could see into the corridor beyond, the job was done; two more lay dead, a man and a woman, and no others were there. The micromissile launcher was beside them.

Grabbing the weapon that had just killed one of his crew, Maccabee backed out of the corridor, still covering it with his pistol. The sound of shooting was still loud in the hanger, but more sporadic than before. Resistance on one side was failing. Considering how many people Maccabee had just gunned down by himself, there was no doubt in his mind that his was the winning side. It made him feel no better.

Samara met him at the shuttle. “The hanger is secure,” she said. Glancing towards Fia, she winced. “Damn.”

Obu had turned the other woman over and was administering first aid, Thet zaw standing nearby with the full med kit from the shuttle. He saw the two officers looking his way. “She’s still alive, barely,” he said, his voice flat. Fia’s chest was a mass of blood and gore, torn open and ravaged by the burst of the missile, then burned by its plasma fire. How she could still be alive was beyond Maccabee. He tried his com.

Seeing his frustration—there was no signal, none at all, from Hornet’s satellite in orbit—Samara pointed up to the roof. “Storm must be moving in,” she said. “I’ve got nothing either.” Gently tugging Maccabee after her, she moved their conversation around the back of the battered shuttle, where Alger was waiting. “She’ll die or she won’t, Maccabee,” she said in a low voice. “We need to finish securing the compound, or there’ll be more.”

He nodded. Enervation was coming on again, his wounds bleeding away his strength. Suddenly it was all he could do to stay on his feet. Samara saw it in his eyes, knew he was nearly finished.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

We will, lass,” said Alger. “You’ll need some help.”

“That’s what you think,” she replied, and there was no hint of humor in her voice. Looking into her eyes, Maccabee saw the fire burning inside her, knew that she truly did not need help, knew that she would slaughter anyone she found in here without the slightest hint of mercy.

He nodded again and she turned to do her job. Somehow, he felt even worse.

“I hate to say, ‘I told you so,’” said Russ, “but . . . I told you so.”

“That’s why we are where we are” replied Ashburn irritably. “Let’s think of a plan, shall we?”

She, Russ and Sel sat on the Deck, watching the big holo tank with worried expressions. The new arrival was launching a shuttle, and they’d intercepted a strong ship-to-shore transmission—only a tiny fragment, true, but the location fit the rough area where the captain was looking for the enemy bunker. It did appear that Russ was right. Ashburn had entertained the same worries, luckily, and had moved Hornet closer to Oudtshoorn, hiding under a false ID code and staying in a distant parking orbit to avoid the necessity of a visit by customs officials. Now, she was poised only a million kilometers from Maccabee. The only question was what to do about it.

“We signal the captain,” said Russ without any hesitation. “Damn the radio silence, he needs to know that reinforcements are on the way.”

“I think he’s right, ma’am” added Sel. “There’s risk involved, both to the captain and our satellite, but there’s not much other choice.”

“No need to argue,” Ashburn said, waving their words away. “That was what I was going to do anyway.” She turned to the holo, and, without speaking or moving, communicated with the ship. A channel opened, but there was only static. The ship’s A.I. cycled through about a million different frequencies, trying to hone in on the small com implants carried by all Hornet’s crew. Still, there was nothing. After about two seconds, the sound died and a small red light blipped on the holo. Next to it were the words, “Communications Failure.”

“Shit,” muttered Russ. Ashburn turned to them with a sigh.

“What I really meant, gentlemen,” she said, “is what are we going to do now?” She scowled, though not at them. “What do we do now that we can’t warn the captain?”

“We go down there,” said Russ, again without hesitation. “Take some reinforcements of our own.”

“What do you suggest we fly in?” asked Ashburn. “The assault shuttles are, at best, repairable in a shipyard only; the main shuttle is on the planet. That doesn’t leave us much.”

“There is the skiff,” said Sel, somewhat reluctantly.

“The skiff,” repeated Ashburn, her voice flat.

The skiff was really an atmospheric craft, built as an aerofoil but capable of traveling in vacuum at need, and sufficiently shielded to survive a relatively gentle reentry path. It had no weapons worth noting, no real armor, no artificial gravity—which meant no hard acceleration—and was over three hundred years old. In fact, the thing was only on board because Maccabee had thought to resell it to a collector. He’d turned it on once, just to see if the electrical systems were still online. No one had flown it in a hundred and thirty years.

“It’s big enough,” said Russ, though even he sounded skeptical.

“Are you insane?” asked Ashburn, but her heart wasn’t in it. There were no other choices. Hornet carried a half dozen runabouts, but they were strictly vacuum-only boats, not able to withstand reentry or lifting out of a gravity well. The skiff was really the only way.

All this flashed through Ashburn’s head in a few seconds. Then she sighed and shook her head. “Damn. Does anyone know how to fly it?”

“Simon Tamil,” volunteered Sel. “The man spends half his free hours working on the thing, or he did. I think he gave up a while ago.”

“Right.” Ashburn stood, her decision made. “Simon will have to come. Then Pinzon and two of her people, myself, the doctor, and two others.”

“And me,” growled Russ.

“I don’t think so.” Ashburn smiled thinly. “There’s a very high likelihood that everyone who goes will die, so I’d rather at least one senior officer stayed with the ship. That means you or me, and I outrank you, so it’s you. Sorry, Damien.”

“Damn it,” he growled.

“Don’t worry, you’ll have your hands full keeping Hornet safe; we’ll take her into orbit, maximum velocity, and drop the skiff as close as we can to the planet. That will make a lot of people very unhappy.” Ashburn smiled thinly. “You’ll have your hands full, Russ.”

“Full of shit,” he said with a sigh. “All right. Let’s go!”

Less than a minute later, Hornet was breaking orbit and dropping towards the planet, hurtling through space at the limits of her acceleration. There was no time to lose.

There was little resistance remaining. Despite her usual disdain for what she considered half-hearted efforts, Samara refrained from killing two of the pirates after their surrender, and now Maccabee had prisoners. He was looking forward to interrogating them when opportunity allowed. That was not yet, however. There was still more to be done. He was determined to make these people and their masters suffer, and that meant he was going to level the compound, or come as close as possible.

“What are the options?” he asked now, sitting with Samara and Alger at a small table in a common room off the compounds control bunker.

“Not many,” answered Alger with a grimace of distaste.

The bunker’s control room had been destroyed before it was captured. There was no way to use the communications equipment, which could easily have contacted Hornet, despite the storms that were now raging in full fury overhead. The systems had also included records—no doubt the reason they’d been destroyed—and access to the planetary data network. Maccabee would have enjoyed that particular information; at this point, he thought with a weak smile, he would have settled for a decent weather forecast.

“The reactor is our best bet,” said Samara, leaning back in her chair and drinking from a small glass of water. Each of them had a similar glass, though Maccabee’s was laced with various drugs to keep him up and moving. Despite his best efforts, he kept thinking about the price his body was going to have to pay when this was over.

“You can bypass the security on it?” asked Alger.

“I can,” she said, “or he can.” Samara pointed at Maccabee. “Though you’re not looking too well, William,” she added with a small frown. “I don’t think you should be drinking that cocktail. I can handle this job.”

“How do we get out when the time comes?” he asked, ignoring her suggestion that he step aside. It was not that he didn’t trust her—he trusted her with his life and more—but he needed to be in charge, needed to be the one who brought this madness to completion, or at least to its next step.

“There’s a working shuttle in the hanger,” Alger said with a shrug. “We’ll take it out. If we can’t open the door,” he added, preempting Maccabee’s next question, “we should be able to blow it without damaging our ship.”

“OK, fine.” Maccabee had grown tired of the conversation, tired of the arguments. He was just tired, no matter what drugs he ingested. “Then we signal Hornet and get our pickup. How long for her to make orbit from Nylstrom?”

“Seventy minutes, maybe a bit more,” said Samara, with that small frown still on her face. “Hopefully we’ll be able to use the shuttle to signal her when the storm clears.”

“I hope so,” agreed Maccabee. “Anything else?” No one spoke, though there was clearly something on Alger’s mind at least. Samara’s face was more difficult to read. “Then let’s get to it. Samara, I’ll help you with the reactor.”

She just nodded and they left the room together.

Hornet would be in Oudtshoorn orbit in fifteen minutes, give or take thirty seconds or so; with the ship fully at rest relative to the planet, the skiff would be able to launch safely.

As safely as possible, that is, Ashburn added to herself. Now that she was looking at it, she was starting to deeply regret her plan. It was too late to back out, however. The pirate freighter was already clawing at maximum acceleration towards the planetary flux boundary, without pausing to pick up its shuttle; Ashburn had nothing to send in pursuit, nor could she order Hornet after the bastards, not without abandoning her captain and her friends. That she would never do. So she gnashed her teeth in frustration as she saw the freighter escape. No one worried much about the increasingly hysterical calls from planetary traffic control: Oudtshoorn had no picket ships worth mentioning.

Simon Tamil leaned his head out the ramp at the rear of the skiff that was the only means of entry into the single interior cabin. “Power’s coming up,” he said. “I’m running a systems check right now. Should be about five minutes.”

“We’ve got seven until launch,” answered Ashburn, walking past the ramp and under the outstretched wing. She pointedly ignored the small drug injector on the man’s arm. That was a matter for later, assuming any of them lived.

The skiff was old, but of good design. The main body of the plane—that was what it really was, an airplane and not a true spacecraft—was broad and low, with a wedge-shaped nose similar in design to some assault shuttles. The similarities ended there, however, as the skiff also had long, relatively narrow wings, angling slightly upwards from the top of the fuselage and ending in sharply downswept wingtips; the juncture between the main wing and the wingtips provided the attachment point for two small, vertical stabilizer fins. The main engines—air-breathing scramjets, for God’s sake, in-line with supplemental boosters to achieve the necessary velocity for the jets to work—were nestled alongside the fuselage and under the wings. Secondary turbojets were attached under the main engines and along the lower edge of the fuselage, where they provided vertical lift for takeoffs in atmosphere. The whole thing rested on four sets of squat, rubber wheels, two forward and two aft.

Ashburn stopped in front of the skiff, looking back at it, noting the reentry burns along its nose and the peeling paint—and rusting metal underneath it—and shook her head. Then she became aware of someone standing nearby. Turning, she kept an expression of surprise off her face and fought the urge to run a hand through her hair; she was staring into the dead eyes of Amathea Yakazuma.

“What is it, Yakazuma?” she asked, keeping her tone just as carefully neutral as her face. The woman in front of her was not stable, not by a long shot. Ashburn had thought she was still confined to her quarters.

“You’re going after the captain.” It was not a question, and not surprising that Yakazuma had heard. News traveled fast on a ship this small. “I’m coming with you.”

“Absolutely not,” replied Ashburn. Damn the woman anyway if she couldn’t handle it. “There’s no way I’m taking you on this flight.”

“I’m going.”

Ashburn took a deep breath but was cut off by another voice. “Where?”

Doctor Monteux—dressed already in full combat gear, though without any sign of weapons on her person and carrying a large, hard-sided case marked with a red cross—stepped between the other two women and smiled at Yakazuma. “Where are you going?” she repeated.

“I’m going to get the captain,” Yakazuma repeated firmly. “You can’t stop me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Monteux. Ashburn started to object, but the doctor cut her off with a sharp gesture that only she could see. So she just stood there with her mouth gaping open as the doctor continued. “You’ll be a welcome addition, Amathea.”

There was no way to guess if Yakazuma had seen the interplay between the other women. She just nodded sharply and turned, walking away towards the weapons chest that had been wheeled into the auxiliary vehicle bay.

“What the hell are you doing?” hissed Ashburn as Yakazuma moved out of earshot. “She’s crazy!”

“Well,” said Monteux with a little smile, “that’s true, but she needs this, Ashburn. Badly. She needs to reconcile with Maccabee before her healing can really continue.”

“Oh, you know that, do you?” Ashburn shook her head. “Damn it, doctor, I don’t want her on board.”

“Accept it,” said Monteux. It was obvious that there was no arguing with the woman, and Ashburn had no wish to try and order Yakazuma off the skiff.

“Shit,” she said simply. Then she turned and stalked off to greet the rest of her team.

“Did Amathea just get on that thing?” asked Pinzon as she stepped up to Ashburn; the security chief was strapping body armor on, fairly heavy stuff. So were the two men with her. Like Ashburn herself, the two sailors who were also coming were only lightly armored with some flak vests and leg coverings. Everyone carried chemical arms, though Pinzon was notably armed with an impressive-looking blaster rifle slung over her shoulder. “And, can I just say that that is an ugly heap of shit.”

“Save it,” muttered Ashburn. She looked to one of the two sailors, both men, both heavily armed. “One of you stays behind. I don’t much care which.”

She turned and walked back to the skiff, trying not to stamp her feet—that was definitely in the category of actions not suitable for a commander. Yakazuma was already strapped into one of the half-dozen forward facing seats that lined the narrow fuselage behind the two heavier chairs for the pilot and copilot. Without looking at the crazy woman—who had armed herself with six chemical pistols and enough reloads to quite possibly slow her foot speed to a crawl—Ashburn strode right to the front and sat in the copilot’s seat next to Simon.

“What’s our status?” she asked him, keeping her voice admirably calm, she thought. This whole situation was verging on the intolerable.

“Green across the board,” he replied with a tight smile. “You know, I’ve never piloted anything like this before. You know that, right? A few times I used the simulators. Only crashed once.”

“Very encouraging.” Her tight smile was without humor. Pulling the heavy straps of the crash harness over her shoulder, she continued, “Let’s keep all that to ourselves, shall we?”

“Right, whatever you say boss.” Simon reached over his head and pulled down on a lever—an actual mechanical lever—turned the knob on the lever once, and then pushed it back up into the overhead. A low hum started under them. “We’re ready for launch.”

Ashburn tapped into her com—the skiff didn’t have communications gear to speak of, not in the modern sense of the word at least—and called the Deck, dimly aware of the rest of the team boarding behind her. “Russ, we’re ready down here; what’s our status?”

“Ninety seconds to orbit,” he replied, his tone clipped and short. Obviously, things were not going well. “I’ve got some company, but nothing I can’t handle.”

“Try to keep any use of force judicious,” she replied. He would try, of course, but there was little guarantee of success. Very little.

“Just try not to burn up when you hit atmosphere,” he said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks, we’ll be needing all of it.” She turned to Simon. “Sixty seconds.” Then she craned her neck around the high back of her seat and looked into the cabin. Everyone was in seats and strapping in. “Sixty seconds. Hold on tight, and pray to whatever god you do or do not believe in. This is going to be ugly.”

A moment later, they heard the howl of the sirens in the bay warning of imminent decompression, and Simon activated the ramp, closing up the skiff. The last red light—the atmospheric indicator—switched to green. They were buttoned up tight. Thirty seconds later, the main bay doors in front of them slid open smoothly, revealing the blue, green and gray globe of Oudsthoorn below them, frighteningly close by in Ashburn’s mind. She repressed an urge to run screaming for the ramp as Simon fired up the thrusters and eased the ancient skiff out of the bay.

“OK, lock out number four,” said Maccabee, trying his best to keep his voice level. There wasn’t that much danger, really; he’d spent hundreds of hours working with reactors far more powerful and complex than this one, and the chances of a catastrophic failure were slight. Still, considering he was attempting to blow the thing up, there were certainly risks.

“Lock out number four,” repeated Samara before proceeding, giving Maccabee a chance to shout out a change or a simple, “Stop!” When he just nodded, she turned to the reactor and slid shut the lockout on the number four feed valve. “Done.” They both waited for any reaction from the machine, but the reactor was running at very low power: nothing happened. “What’s next?” asked Samara.

“We need to override the emergency dump,” said Maccabee. He pointed from where he sat, propped up against the wall of the reactor space. The drugs were starting to wear off already, and he felt a stinging pain in his side that grew worse with every passing second. At least he wasn’t bleeding to death, not that anyone could detect. If there was internal blood loss, it was not sufficient as yet to trigger the injector on his arm.

“Manual, or automatic?” Samara queried.

Causing a fusion reactor to overload was a delicate and difficult process, at least if you wanted to do it in a way that would let you survive. Samara had managed on the harvester by setting up a computer program and letting that override the system, locking out all the mechanical safety switches. Since the control room in the bunker was destroyed, that was not an option here, but a simple mechanical overload would detonate the reactor in a matter of minutes, not nearly enough time to allow anyone to escape the resultant nuclear blast.

Maccabee was trying to initiate a timed cascade failure. Without knowing any details about the reactor, nor having any sophisticated computing power at his disposal, it was a tricky process involving entirely too much guesswork to make him comfortable. On the other hand, comfort was not his highest priority at the moment.

Five minutes later, the process was done, and the countdown had begun. Maccabee pushed himself up, using the wall as a prop to get to his feet. Without making any move to help him, Samara watched calmly, waiting until he was ready before moving towards the heavily reinforced door. At her touch, it opened smoothly on perfectly balanced hinges; they exited and let the door shut behind them.

“How long do you think?” asked Samara as they started up the long corridor that led back to the main bunker. The reactor room was about a hundred meters from the main hanger, and a good twenty lower in the ground. Not far enough away for the complex to survive, not with the strength of the blast Maccabee was planning to produce.

“Twenty minutes, maybe a bit more.” Grinning slightly, Maccabee waggled his hand in the air. “Hard to say.”

“We’d better keep moving, then.” There was almost no inflection in her voice. She activated her com. “Alger, get the shuttle ready and the team inside it.”

“Aye, lass,” growled the other man. Maccabee let the order slide; there was not nearly enough time for arguments.

The corridor was only dimly lit, and at long intervals, creating areas of near-darkness all along its length. Conduits packed the overhead, each painted a different color corresponding to some design scheme no doubt invented to facilitate maintenance. It was all meaningless to Maccabee. He dropped his gaze and looked ahead the thirty meters or so to where the corridor from the bunker’s back door intersected this one, just half that distance short of the hanger. That was how he just happened to be looking in the right spot when a man rounded the corner and started shooting.

Shouting a warning, Maccabee slammed into Samara from the side, carrying her with him to the wall. The first shots—the weapon was too quiet for a chemical pistol, it had to be a railgun of some sort—went wide behind them. As they fell, Samara was already reaching for her gun, and she pulled it free and landed on top of Maccabee, ignoring his grunt of pain as her ribcage jabbed at his wound. The first shot of her pistol was terrifyingly loud, and then the rest of them quieter as Maccabee was deafened by the roar. Straining his neck, he glanced up the corridor and saw the man at the intersection fall to the floor, clutching his leg and shouting in pain, though the sound was dim behind the roaring of the passed pistol shots. The man staggered out of sight a moment later.

Samara rolled off of him and pushed to her knees. “Intruders in the complex!” she shouted over the com, unnecessarily considering the noise of the short firefight. “They’re coming in from the back door!”

Rolling over, Maccabee pushed himself to the wall of the corridor opposite Samara, the two millimeter railpistol finding its way into his hands almost by instinct. Who the hell were these people? Was there another base somewhere on the planet, some place that Maccabee had not heard about? Why wait so long to send reinforcements? He glanced across the corridor at Samara, who did not look his way for more than a half second. Perhaps from orbit?

Looking back front, Maccabee saw Alger and two other forms—it was hard to tell who, as they were backlit, but he thought it was Obu and Kenyetta—enter the corridor from the hanger, keeping low and with weapons up. He linked quickly into his com: “Stay back from the intersection,” he warned. “If they know what’s happening, they’ll have come prepared.”

Giving a nod to Samara, Maccabee started inching forwards, keeping his gun and his focus trained on the intersection ahead. There was a light there, luckily, and he saw the gun drone a moment before it opened fire.

The small, flattened ovoid rolled awkwardly into the corridor, fell to a stop on its side, and jumped up on four small legs, all in the space of half a second. Twin blasters popped out of its armored body, and then it started to fire. Energy bolts howled downrange, leaving bright trails of ionized atmosphere in their wake and spreading out across the whole width of the corridor at knee height.

Both Maccabee and Samara flattened themselves to the floor, trying to keep their faces down and their guns up. Unless they could get a clear shot, however, there was little chance of damaging the drone. This was exactly the sort of combat environment it had been designed for, and it would be able to target anyone who moved too quickly or shot at it. Anyone in its firing arc, that is.

The booming roar of Alger’s shotgun was audible even over the sound of half a thousand blaster bolts hammering into the walls and ceiling around them. A moment later the gun drone blew up in a ball of white lightning. A sharp CRACK! echoed through the corridor.

Samara was on her feet and running before the sound faded, leaving Maccabee behind as he struggled to push himself to his feet. Ten meters fell away, then twenty, and then she threw herself flat, acting on some sort of natural instinct that all born killers possessed. A grenade arced into the dancing light of the blue-white flames at the same time, blowing up with perfect timing at just chest height and sending out a two-dimensional sheet of shrapnel and plasma that expanded in a circular plane half a meter above Samara’s head. Maccabee ducked instinctively, but the grenade had a limited effective range—bits of ballistic shrapnel bounced off his skin and body armor, burning him slightly, but hardly registering through his pain blockers and the wound in his side.

Samara kept moving, low crawling along the floor until she reached the corner. Turning, she brought her pistol to bear, fired a single shot, and then disappeared in a flash of white light.

Read On!