Episode 125: The Bunker (Part 2)

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The skiff was hot, and the stink of overheated metal mixed with the smell of sweat and the odd miasma of burning insulation. Small wisps of smoke trailed through the cabin; everyone tried to avoid breathing them, as the fumes were noxious and burned in lungs like molten lead. As bad as the heat and smell were, they were nothing compared to the thundering, deafening noise inside the cabin, the sound of overstressed structural members quickly moving towards catastrophic failure. Finally, horribly, the view to the front showed a small crack in the canopy; no one could manage to look away from it.

Like dropping off a cliff, the skiff plummeted in free fall for half a second, then righted itself. Ashburn gripped the control sticks with all her strength, adding it to Simon’s trying to keep the ancient ship level as they dropped through the upper atmosphere, bleeding off speed and hurtling at six thousand kilometers per hour towards thunderheads as black as night on the edge of the horizon. The skiff fought them every second of every minute, writhing like the dying creature she was, somehow holding together anyway. For the moment.

“We’re going to overshoot!” shouted Pinzon from behind them. Neither Ashburn nor Simon had time to spare to check any navigational information, and the security chief had taken over the role using her hand-held computer. How she could even read the screen was beyond Ashburn’s understanding; the skiff was rattling and shaking around them like a plucked guitar string. Loud pops and cracks announced new failures every half minute or so.

“We need to bleed more speed!” Simon’s shout was barely audible above the sound of rushing wind and slowly shattering aircraft. “Try a port bank!”

Ashburn shook her head vigorously. “She’ll come apart!”

“We’re fucked if we don’t,” bellowed Simon, his face red with the effort of holding the skiff on course. They were already lower than some of the clouds, and towering storms passed with frightening speed on the starboard quarter, filled with lightning flashes. Overhead, the sky was a perfect, deep blue, fading into black as the sun receded behind them. “The damn thing won’t take any more of this!”

Ashburn paused for a half a second, trying to actually think, trying to ignore the noise and the physical sensation of the descent. Then she nodded. “One!” Her hands tightened on the controls as she tried to control her fear. She’d been in combat drops, faced men and women trying to kill her, nearly died in vacuum, but she’d never been this afraid. “Two!” The attitude displays were mostly malfunctioning, but they were dropping through twenty-five thousand meters, getting down into the thicker atmosphere. Time to take a chance or die trying.


“Samara!” screamed Maccabee, lunging forwards for two strides. Then his fighting instinct took back control and he dropped to one knee. The bright flash faded, and he saw Samara, still moving, backpeddling against the wall. She fired, once, then twice, and he immediately saw what had happened. They’d thrown a flash grenade, hoping to catch someone out in the open. The thing had triggered in the other corridor, though, just too early, and Samara had been the only Hornet crewman to see it. Now she was blinded.

There was a good chance at least some of the attackers were blinded as well.

“GO!” barked Maccabee over the com, leaping to his feet and running as fast as he could manage. It was more of a limping controlled fall than a run, but it covered ground fast enough. In five seconds he was up to Samara, pulling her across to the other side of the corridor, his pistol up and pointed at the intersection. He dimly heard Alger and the others pounding down towards him, then the shocking blast of the shotgun again, and at least one scream.

“Stay down,” he shouted at Samara, hoping that she’d hear him despite all the noise that had assaulted their eardrums. Then he moved forward, covering towards the intersection. On the other side, Alger was leaning against the wall, covered by the corner from enemy fire. Obu—it was definitely Obu and Kenyetta—was behind him. Kenyetta was on the other side of the corridor, inching forward to get a shot with her sub machinegun. None of them carried grenades.

Motioning for Alger to stay put, Maccabee took a deep breath and then started to run again. He passed the intersection at full tilt, shooting his pistol sideways on maximum automatic fire. By the time shots came back his way, he’d already passed the opening of the other corridor and crashed into Alger, who caught him and hauled him in with ease, keeping him from falling into the corridor.

“How many?” he asked his captain.

“Four,” gasped Maccabee, “maybe five.” He panted, his heart beating with adrenaline. “I think I hit one.”

Alger opened his mouth to reply and the wall to his right disintegrated in the blast of a heavy plasma weapon. The half-spent round tumbled through the hall and nearly hit Kenyetta, who dove sideways with a small shout. Another plasma round hammered through the breach, and Kenyetta scrambled to get out of the way. Meanwhile, Alger ducked low and spun, ignoring the shrapnel wounds from splintering pieces of ceramacrete wall. Swinging his shotgun around the corner, he squeezed off a round, then rolled backwards, away from the opening, as more plasma hammered the intersection. Bits of wall scattered in all directions, and Maccabee threw up an arm to keep from getting hit in the eyes.

As he looked past his raised forearm, his pistol pointing straight ahead, a woman rounded the corner at full speed, a railpistol in each of her hands. She fired at the same time as Maccabee, but she wasn’t aiming for him and the bullets ripped through wall, the floor and then into Kenyetta. Maccabee’s first shot seemed slow, horribly slow, but it connected with the woman’s shoulder and then he stitched a quick line of two dozen bullets across her torso, grinding through her flak vest and spraying blood through the dim air.

Even before she hit the floor, the woman was dead, but there was a man right behind her, and he carried the plasma rifle. A shot skimmed past Maccabee’s right shoulder, and he heard a scream from behind him, from Obu or someone new perhaps, and then the man with the rifle was jumping up in the air, flying backwards as Alger’s shotgun connected again, hammering into the man’s torso. The rifleman’s head smacked plastic conduits on the ceiling hard enough to dent them, jerking his neck to an unnatural angle. Then he fell hard to the ground.

Maccabee moved forward, rounding the corner, and now it was his turn to attack. Two more men and another woman stood in the other corridor; they weren’t quite expecting him, and he shot one man in the face. Then the woman shot him in the leg, and he felt it give out as three bullets shattered his femur. That broke through any pain killers, would have broken through anything but a dead man’s defenses, and Maccabee screamed. Someone hit him from the left, throwing him sideways, and he slammed into the floor as Alger fired again, and then the sound of more chemical pistols hammered at his eardrums—it was someone in his team.

Fighting to hold on to consciousness, Maccabee pulled himself along the floor into the intersection just in time to see the last man fall onto his back, half his head gone, simply blown away by Alger’s shotgun. The big Scot was standing, his weapon couched against his shoulder. At the opposite side of the corridor entrance, Samara stood with one hand rubbing her eyes, the other holding a perfectly steady pistol pointed at the dead men and women in front of her.

Maccabee drew in a deep breath, then heard the sharp crack of a pistol from behind him, somewhere in the hanger.

Somehow, the skiff did not fall apart. Its abused sheet metal screamed as the scramjets cut in and hauled the ship into a wide, slow turn, but the skiff held together, and Ashburn’s shaking arms somehow kept up with Simon’s drug-enhanced metabolism as they pulled with all their strength against the struggling control surfaces. The pressure of the turn smoothed out their progress, and a sudden, almost unnatural quiet settled on the cabin, with only the high-pitched roar of the scramjets and the supplemental jets in afterburner mode. Speed dropped away as they swung through 180 degrees and Ashburn let Simon level them out.

Without warning, one of the supplemental jets failed with a bang that sounded loud even after the cacophony of reentry; metal ruptured and shrapnel blew into the compartment with a shocking rush of noise and wind. Nearly simultaneously, as the skiff began to yaw out of control, there was a soft, fleshy thunk.

“Ashburn!” shouted Simon as he slammed the heel of his boot down on an emergency cutoff, not even taking his hands from the sticks for a split second. “Ashburn!” The failed jet’s opposite number cut out with a sputtering cough and the skiff slewed the other way. Ashburn grabbed the controls and held on, just trying to keep them level as Simon did the dirty work of stabilizing the craft. “More power to the scramjets!” he screamed as the nose dipped suddenly and the skiff shimmied from side to side.

Ashburn leaned sideways, taking one hand off the controls, and pushed the thrust control forward; the nose straightened, then slowly rose up, and suddenly the danger was past and the skiff was moving almost naturally, except for the howl of wind and engines through the hole in the side of the ship.

Leaning around the chair, Ashburn looked behind her, not really wanting to see, but knowing that she had to. She tasted bile in her mouth as she looked at the remains of one of Pinzon’s security team, a piece of red-hot sheet metal embedded in the side of his face. His skin and flesh boiled where it touched the metal. The man sitting right next to him had his eyes locked straight forwards; his hands shook even though they were locked in a death grip on the bar attached to the back of the seat ahead of him.

Ashburn looked back front. She’d seen enough; too much. “How long?” she asked Pinzon in a mechanical voice. Simon took his eyes off the instruments long enough to glance her way.

“Five hundred klicks on this course,” replied the security chief. Her voice was even, as though she hadn’t seen one of her men just die horribly. At least it had been quick. For him. “We’ll be down soon.”

“They’re coming in from the storage bays,” growled Samara as she stepped over a dead body. Then she started to run, pausing only to grab Obu’s laser rifle and leaving Maccabee staring after her. She had to be right; the bays connected to the back door via another corridor like this one.

“Bloody hell,” Alger said as he crouched next to his captain. Suddenly, Maccabee was aware of the horrible wound in his leg, not to mention the one in his side. He writhed in pain, fought it, and brought himself under control again, wondering in a light-headed sort of way why he hadn’t passed out yet.

“Tie a tourniquet,” he ordered, and to his ears his voice was surprisingly calm. Alger’s face showed otherwise, though: it was a white mask of horror. No matter that it was plain Alger was keeping his feelings under control, that expression looked completely wrong on his face, and Maccabee realized for the first time that they were all likely to die here. But if the reinforcements had come from orbit, there was some hope. Hornet was still up there.

Alger did not tie the tourniquet, instead taking Maccabee’s hand and a wad of shirt torn from a dead man’s torso. He pressed both against the wound. “Hold this tight,” he said in a tone that did not allow for argument. Then he stood and moved quickly to Kenyetta. Stooping, he rolled her onto her back, revealed a line of bullets wounds in her thigh and belly. Blood was still pumping out, and her eyes fluttered open for a brief moment as Alger moved her.

Macccabee felt sick. Bad enough that he’d brought these people here to die on a fool’s errand, but he’d forgotten them amidst the pain of his own injuries. Not the sort of person worth dying for, not at all. He wasn’t sure just how he’d deluded all of them into fighting for him.

Alger had done what he could for Kenyetta. The sound of fighting was echoing down the corridor, railguns, chemical pistols, the roar of a blaster rifle, and the smooth, liquid sound of a plasma weapon, all combining into a cacophony of destruction. The Scot moved on to Obu. There was nothing to do there: the plasma round had caught him in the upper chest and neck, tearing away his throat, letting him live just long enough to feel the pain of the fire burning into his flesh and boiling his blood. When Alger returned to Maccabee with a belt looped around his hands, his face was cold and hard. For a moment, Maccabee thought the other man might use the belt on his neck.

Instead, Alger jerked the belt tight around Maccabee’s leg above the wounds. The fresh pain nearly put him under again, but the captain fought hard to stay conscious. He still had a role to play in this, that much he had promised himself. Even if it killed him. Then at least his crew would be free to do something sane, to stop pursuing a useless vendetta against a phantom he’d not seen in forty years.

Picking up his shotgun, Alger turned and jogged towards the battle without a word. Maccabee slid himself to the wall and used its support to climb to his feet, somehow. The injured leg would not move, not really, nor did it support his weight. He bent and retrieved the fallen plasma rifle. Too big a weapon for him to shoot in his present condition, the plasma rifle felt heavy in his hand. He had only one to spare; the other supported his weight against the smooth walls of the corridor.

Maccabee started moving, hopping on his good leg, feeling the pain of each jolt in the other as he landed. It felt good to have the pain right now; it was something to hold on to, something real in a place that was feeling increasingly intangible. Brilliant blue light flashed in the hanger ahead, plasma rounds barreling through the air and bursting in fire, blaster bolts trailing bright, ionized particles in their wake; bullets ripped through the air and into metal and ceramacrete and flesh, the sound of their impact like the ticking of a giant clock, counting out innumerable seconds with passionless efficiency. There were no more human sounds ahead of him, in the hanger. Just the noises of hungry machines.

In two minutes, Maccabee reached the end of the corridor and looked out, resting, leaning hard against the corner, panting, barely able to stay alert, to stay awake, the plasma rifle hanging limp at his side.

Smoke was rising from Hornet’s abandoned shuttle. Maccabee could see Samara behind it, busily reloading as though she stood alone, safely in her ship’s hanger bay; death raged around her on all sides, railgun bullets, plasma rounds and blaster bolts, a barrage of shattering intensity that clawed its way deeper and deeper into the broken shuttle’s frame. Maccabee couldn’t see any more of his crew, but he knew they were there, could hear the sound of their slow, outmatched chemical pistols and machineguns. By the entrance to the storage bays, just as Samara had predicted, were the rest of the reinforcements, a big team anchored behind portable shield walls, pieces of heavy ceramaplast strong enough to repel most fire the Hornet team could manage.

It all became clear at that point. The men and women Samara and Maccabee had stumbled into had made up the flanking party, while these were the main assault. No doubt they’d expected everyone to be in the hanger, or maybe the flankers had just moved too quickly. If their plan had worked, Maccabee and his team might already be dead. Now, though, it was just a matter of time. The weight of materials and men was too heavy on one side. Not that that meant Maccabee was ready to give up.

Letting just his shoulder support him against the wall, Maccabee hauled the plasma rifle up with both hands, steadying it briefly against his good leg while he switched the fire controls to single shot, maximum yield. Leveling the weapon against his shoulder, he breathed in deeply, holding the air in his lungs, clearing his mind of doubt and fear and pain. This would be his only shot; he had no cover and no means of escape.

With a small smile on his lips, Maccabee took careful aim and squeezed the trigger.

They were coming up on the compound—on where they thought the compound was—from the west, from behind the storm line that was hammering the area like an orbital bombardment. Jet black storm, clouds highlighted in orange by the setting sun, loomed ahead of them, a forbidding wall of darkness and flickering light. Already, the skiff was shuddering in the increasing wind shear, jumping from side to side and bucking up and down like a wild thing. Ashburn was exhausted, her shoulders and arms on fire; it was all she could do to keep her hands on the sticks, and she knew that she was barely helping Simon at this point. For his part, the man’s face was fixed in a rictus of concentration and pain, teeth gritted together, eyes wide; the muscles of his arms were stretched tight like high-tensile cables, vibrating slightly under his sweaty skin with the shaking of the craft.

“Oh God,” moaned the crewman behind Ashburn. Neither Pinzon nor Yakazuma would have spoken, nor Monteux, she guessed. She felt like saying the same thing, however, as their battered ship came ever closer to the line of clouds.

“How long will we be inside?” Ashburn asked. Now she was actually passing through her fear, into some other place where feelings like that didn’t exist and couldn’t touch her. She wasn’t sure it was a better place to be.

“Not more than five minutes,” yelled Pinzon from the back. The sound of rushing wind and roaring engines was a terrific howl in the cabin, though it seemed to Ashburn that she’d been listening to it for so long that it had almost faded away. As long as no one spoke.

“Let’s move!” she yelled, more for herself than for them; there was no turning back now, no possible way for them to get into orbit. They had to find Maccabee, had to join him in the shuttle. If the shuttle was still operational. If Maccabee was still alive.

He will be.

The skiff dove into the storms, and immediately the winds began to tear it apart. So far it had held on, fighting against the odds, somehow staying in one piece despite its age and long years of neglect. When it was new, the little skiff had been top of the line, the best of its kind, and it was that pedigree that had kept it alive for so long. Now, it simply couldn’t do it any longer, had nothing left to give.

Ashburn didn’t hear herself shriek as the skiff rolled over sideways, but she felt the air sucked out of her lungs. They rolled right over, and started to fall, upside down, bits of the plane breaking away all around them, alarms wailing, dying, falling silent too quickly to even notice. Simon was screaming too, his arms bulging as he pulled on the controls, and Ashburn pulled too, pulled so hard she thought she might break her arms, tear her muscles apart by sheer force of will. And then another gust hit them, slammed into the control surfaces like a clenched fist and flipped the skiff over again, sending them into a flat spin, but on their belly, not overturned.

“Full throttle!” screamed Simon. Ashburn didn’t even look, just leaned sideways and slammed her foot into the throttle controls, locking them fully forward. The roar of the jets was suddenly audible again, even over the sound of tearing metal. A plate ripped away from the side of the skiff and rain and wind and debris lashed into the cabin, clawing at Ashburn’s face. She closed her eyes, started moving by feel, hoping that the windscreen would hold just long enough.

The spin was gone, they were flying again, moving forward more than down. Lightning slammed into the skiff, and somehow they didn’t all die, though Ashburn felt the charge slide through her body like the touch of a lover; no, not a lover, it was crueler than that. She kept her eyes clenched shut as Pinzon shouted from behind her, “Ten degrees port!” and she felt Simon respond, moving like a machine, beyond fatigue. If we reach the captain, will we even be able to fight? The thought floated into her mind and disappeared as she felt something heavy and pointed slash into her side. Crying out, she nearly let go of the controls, but iron instinct kept her hands locked onto the sticks. The wound was slight, she could hardly feel it.

In five seconds, the rain had soaked her to the bone, and now she was shivering, but they were still up, still fighting. “Another ten klicks!” roared Pinzon, somehow, insanely, impossibly, still keeping track of where the hell they were. Seconds past and another lightning strike hit the skiff, and this time it felt like nothing more than a slap in the face, a hard smack like an angry father might give his child. Ashburn jerked in her seat.

When the wing snapped, it sounded like God Himself reaching down and breaking the skiff. The very sound of it knocked Ashburn back in her seat, and her eyes snapped open; looking right, she saw through the ragged gap in the hull, and saw the outer end of the wing separate and slide out of view, sucked into a tornado that raged right beside them in the stygian interior of the storm. Like dancing with death, the skiff trembled towards the twister as it rushed past, then tore free and kept going, started to spiral out of control as it lost lift and began to plummet.

Instinct snapped Ashburn’s head back front, and she saw the ground suddenly looming up ahead of them, below them, only a few hundred meters away, spinning around them as they spun towards it. Simon had given up fighting the skiff, he was working with it now, rolling it faster. Ashburn threw all her remaining strength behind him, and the skiff rotated drunkenly, sliding past the half circle and then righting itself, falling through two hundred meters in the process.

Now, Simon threw the controls the other way, and for a moment, a bare three or four seconds, the skiff stabilized again, even as its tail gave way and the rear of the ship began to collapse. It was the last moment, the final gasp, and then the belly hit the muddy ground, right between two long, parallel humps of ground, so hard that the bottom of the ship was instantly crushed flat. The remaining port-side engine blew up, belching fire into the darkness and the wing bent, twisted, tore off and scythed through the air, through the cabin and out again, disappearing into the chaos. Thunder above mixed with the sound of the crash into an unbearable roar, a physical wall of sound that crushed Ashburn into her chair.

Then, the skiff jerked to a halt, its shattered nose digging deep into the mud, its tail lifting up behind, throwing its passengers forwards. Ashburn screamed again, realized she’d been screaming for the last minute at least, screaming so long she thought her head might explode, and the tail rose, higher and higher. And then it stopped. For a moment, they stood there, the skiff balanced on its nose, the men and women inside it hanging from the straps of their crash harnesses. With a final, shuddering groan, the skiff slowly settled backwards and crashed to the ground once more on its belly. The support ribs buckled and the overhead sagged down and then everything stopped moving except for the wind and the rain outside.

Ashburn sucked in a shaking breath, and then Yakazuma said in a perfectly normal tone of voice, “That was the best god-damned flying I’ve ever seen. Now let’s get the fuck out of this thing.”

The plasma bolt carved an almost graceful arc through the air, shimmering like some lady’s bauble, and time seemed to slow down for Maccabee as he watched it, simultaneously picking his next target and squeezing the trigger again, and again, and again. The fourth round had just left the rifle when the first impacted, blasting through the portable shielding carried by the attackers, blowing two of them apart and bouncing along until it hit the far wall of the hanger. Knowing he was already as good as dead, Maccabee threw the rifle aside and leapt as best he could back into the corridor.

Time seemed to jolt ahead again as he sailed through the air, and the other three plasma rounds slammed home in quick succession, three big explosions almost on top of each other. Then Maccabee crashed into the ground and the pain of the impact jolted through his leg and through his side, and blackness closed in around him, taking him, finally, into oblivion. Behind him rose screams and the sound of Alger laughing.

The pounding rain was like nothing Ashburn had ever felt in her life. Like a constant, hammering fist, it beat down on her without pause, shifting only slightly when terrific gusts of wind surged across the ground, threatening to lift her off the ground. As were the others in the little rescue party, Ashburn was crawling across the ground, heading for the bunker they’d spotted some fifteen hundred meters away across the mud. The trick was crossing the gullies, where deep water rushed with frightening force through narrow openings. For those sections, they had to stand and jump, and Monteux had nearly died in the last crossing, saved only by Yakazuma’s lightning reflexes.

Ashburn could taste only dirt, mud and rocks, and the sour mash of worms. The worms were everywhere, swimming in the muck, trying like her not to drown. All of her, her face, her clothes, her hair, was slimed with a thick layer of the stuff, all of it mixed together and pounded into a paste by the rain. Lightning struck all around them, and at least five hits had targeted the shattered skiff behind them. It seemed only a matter of time before one of Hornet’s crew was picked out.

Spitting out a mouthful of mud, Ashburn slid face-first down off the crop row she’d just crossed, grabbing with one hand to spin herself. The crops she grabbed had deep roots, but they pulled right out of the soaked earth, and she tumbled sideways into the water at the bottom of the gully. The flow was thick with debris and dirt and other things she couldn’t identify and didn’t want to, and it washed over her head and gushed into her open mouth before she could yell. Reflex forced her to swallow and then she chocked, spitting the vile mix back up, tasting something awful, like a mixture of bile and feces. Her eyes burned with whatever had managed to get in them before she’d squeezed them shut, and she couldn’t touch the ground. The water was pushing her along too strongly. She felt something brush her outstretched hand, and then she hit something. Hard.

Ashburn’s head popped back out of the water, and she spat as hard as she could, spluttering, gasping for air. The water was already pushing her away again, but she turned and grabbed on to whatever she’d hit—it was some sort of drainage culvert, formed of ceramacrete and blocked somehow. If not for the blockage, she would have been sucked inside the thing. She shuddered as she thought of that death.

“Ashburn!” shouted someone from behind her. Craning her neck, she looked around and saw Pinzon, careless of the weather around them, running full-tilt along the top of the nearest crop row. A gust of wind hit the woman in the back and lifted her two meters off the ground, but she just arched her body and rode the air back down to the ground, skidding for a few meters and then falling on her rump to slide to a stop beside Ashburn. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” croaked Ashburn, reaching out a slimy hand to the security chief. Pinzon made sure she had a good hold, then yanked the other woman out of the water. They fell together in the thick mud.

“Come on,” Pinzon managed, pushing out from under Ashburn and scrambling to her hands and knees. “We’re falling behind.”

They pushed on, using the blocked culvert to cross the gully and striking out after the others. Only five hundred meters left to go, thought Ashburn. I can make it. She was comforted by Pinzon’s presence at her side. The other woman seemed a fathomless font of strength.

Around them, the storm howled its fury as the dimming day turned into darkest night.

Maccabee awoke as he was jerked to his feet by a strong arm attached to his combat vest. His eyes snapping open, he saw a world that seemed at first to be submerged in water, murky and swirling and casting everything in a dim, grey world that he couldn’t fathom. Then his vision cleared, and he found himself wishing that he’d been right to begin with. Death would be better than this.

A tall man with pale skin held on to him by the combat vest, keeping him up on his feet despite his body’s lack of strength and will. The man’s other hand was tightly clenched around a three millimeter railpistol, a big, ugly gun, made for killing large numbers in short periods of time. Another of these weapons was in a holster at the man’s belt. Extra ammunition was clipped to his own combat uniform, which was not dissimilar from that worn by Maccabee.

“Move, and I kill you,” growled the tall man, forcing Maccabee to look into his face. It was a tall, thin face, with arched cheekbones showing through sallow skin. The dark eyes seemed too prominent, as though they were bulging out of the skull. Pale, sickly-yellow hair hung limp from the top of the man’s head.

The tall man turned and dragged Maccabee after him into the hanger.

“Cease fire,” he bellowed, his voice remarkably loud for his narrow chest, “or the captain here gets it!” Before the last words were out, the tall man pressed the muzzle of his gun against Maccabee’s head. The end of the barrel was still hot and Maccabee winced as it touched his skin. He could feel it burning him, but past all the other pain that wracked his body, this seemed insignificant.

The hanger fell suddenly silent as all eyes turned towards the tall man and Maccabee. Then there was a cheerful whoop from one of the attackers, then silence again. Maccabee saw Samara pointing the laser rifle at the tall man, or maybe at him; it was difficult to tell, exactly.

“You put it down,” she said, her voice clear in the still air. Only the sound of the storm overhead filtered through, and the noise of the rain coming through the shattered door, falling down into a growing puddle in the middle of the hanger. Thunder rumbled, but this deep it was muffled, even with the opening. “I can kill you before you even think of pulling the trigger.”

“You willing to take that chance, pretty?” hissed the man, tightening his finger on the trigger. “This gun’s going to shoot whether I pull it or not. If I let up on the trigger . . . BAM!” The tall man laughed, a gurgling sound in the back of his throat. “No need to pull, pretty.” The laughter went out of his voice. “Put it down yourself.”

Maccabee was aware, somehow, of Samara shifting her aim, not much, but enough. “Fine, we’ll play your game. My first shot takes out the gun, then the second one mashes your head.”

“You’re not that good,” spat the tall man. “The gun’ll explode. Same difference.”

“We’ll find out in a minute.” Samara smiled the cold smile of a predator. “And then we’ll go back to killing each other fair and square.”

It seemed then to Maccabee that the universe took a deep breath. Everyone paused, hovering on the brink of action. Samara was poised to fire, as was the tall man; the men and women from Hornet and the pirates readied their weapons as well, preparing to get back into the fight. Maccabee himself reached with his left hand, moving ever so slowly, and grasped the handle of the long, thin-bladed knife he kept tucked inside a pocket of his pants.

Then a siren went off, from behind them, deep in the complex. It was the siren from the reactor chamber. The overload was underway, and there was no way now to shut it off. If they were lucky, they’d have another five minutes. If they were lucky.

The tall man started at the sound of the siren, but Maccabee had been expecting it, on some other level, and his hand whipped out the knife, spun it across his chest and slammed it into the tall man’s throat. Jerking back, the man pulled the trigger of his gun with a reflexive yank, but Maccabee’s head was already out of the way, and the roaring three millimeter spent its rage in front of his face. The rail casings spun off and barely missed Maccabee from the other direction, and then Samara was shooting, her first shot silencing the gun, her second blasting the tall man’s head apart.

The other attackers didn’t know what was happening, but they knew enough to shoot, and they resumed fire immediately. Maccabee fell to the floor again, his weight no longer supported, and bullets impacted around him as he scrambled towards a pile of crates at the edge of the hanger. Blood made his left hand slick, and he slipped several times. Another round clipped his good leg, and he fought to make it to the crates, collapsing behind them, gasping for breath, holding on to consciousness with all his strength. He knew that it he let go again he might never return.

Rolling over on his back, the captain of the Hornet contemplated the end for another moment. Then he saw a pale face high above him, caked with mud and slime, but still plainly a face, illuminated by the lights of the hanger, dim as they were by this time. The face was up on the surface, looking in through the hole Hornet’s shuttle had punched in the thick ceramacrete. Having assessed the situation, the face pulled back out of view, preparing its next move.

Tapping into his com on the general action channel, Maccabee barked, “Look up!” The sound of the words from his lips was lost in the thunder of the storm and weapons fire, but he knew everyone heard him. Then the face—or maybe another, it was hard to tell—appeared again, and this time a hand waved at him.

“Calm down, captain,” said Ashburn’s familiar voice. “We’re on your side.”

Maccabee hardly dared believe his ears, but his eyes weren’t lying to him; the face disappeared, and then someone leapt out over the hole. For a brief instant, the person seemed to hover there. Then, he or she—it had to be a woman, the figure moved with such easy, fluid grace—tucked and rolled and suddenly she was falling, her hands reaching towards her chest and coming free with a pair of pistols. Maccabee started to laugh, and though he knew he was close to madness, he couldn’t stop. Not now that she was here.

Yakazuma plummeted through the air, firing as she fell, and there was no doubt in Maccabee’s mind, none at all, that she was finding a target with each of those shots, mowing down the enemy with cool efficiency even as she fell. The moment seemed to last forever, a tableau of simple, deadly beauty; then Yakazuma jerked nearly to a halt, rotated, and landed easily on her feet on the roof of the bunker’s own shuttle. A second later, she was diving sideways as a blaster bolt ripped through the air behind her.

Somehow, Maccabee’s laughter had become linked to his survival, and he kept laughing as he listened to the sounds of the battle. Yakazuma was carrying chemical pistols, just like the rest of Hornet’s crew, and the sound of their fury was incredible, nearly a constant roar. Only the briefest of pauses announced her reloads, followed by a barrage of renewed intensity just a moment later. It was as though a limitless stream of steel was connecting Yakazuma to her enemies. Through it all, Maccabee laughed.

And then it was over, and Monteux was standing over him, a small, worried frown on her face. Yakazume stood next to her, smoke still rising from the barrels of her guns—from all six guns!

“The reactor,” said Maccabee, suddenly remembering the alarm. “We have to go. Now!”

Samara appeared, pushed Monteux out of the way, and stooped to grab up her captain. “He’s right. Move!”

The world spun around him as Samara lifted Maccabee off the floor and ran for the shuttle. Simon—Simon? What was he doing here—was already inside at the pilot’s seat. Alger was dragging Kenyetta towards the ship, and Ashburn had Obu’s body over her shoulder. Pinzon and another man were helping Thet zaw with Fia. In less than thirty seconds, they were all inside, and Samara leapt for the copilot’s chair next to Simon.

“Go! GO!”

The shuttle shuddered and then leapt into the air as Simon powered it up to maximum. Samara strapped herself in, then reached and took over the attitude controls, helping Simon rotate the shuttle onto its end. The whole ship shook violently, and Maccabee and the others slid and toppled towards the stern, forgotten in the rush to exit. Plasma bolts hammered out from the bow, and then Samara slammed her hand down on the main controls.

The shuttle shot forward like a bullet from a gun, rushing upwards so fast, the entrance to the hanger was gone in a moment. A sharp BANG announced part of the shuttle impacting the narrow entrance crafted by Hornet’s ship, but they were through and out, and Samara angled the nose down, going to maximum thrust, hammering through the still-raging storm without regard for rain or wind or lightning. Five seconds passed. Then another five.

The flash reflected off the clouds in front of them. A few seconds later, the sound reached them, and the shockwave hit. The shuttle rolled over twice, stabilized, and kept flying. Grabbing a hand bar, Maccabee hauled himself to his feet and looked through the small viewport astern.

In the fading light of the nuclear blast, he saw what looked like a newly-raised mountain, a pillar of dirt and fire already two kilometers tall at least and still rising. Boulders the size of a house tumbled through the air like grains of said bourn up on a strong wind, and shockwaves rippled through the rain and the mud. It was beautiful and terrible.

“Back to the ship, Samara,” Maccabee heard himself say. Then he slid to the floor, dimly aware of Monteux rushing to him as the darkness finally closed in for good.