Episode 218: Hornet's Rescue

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Alger brought the Grendel to a halt and throttled back the turbines, lowering them to hot standby. Maccabee brought up his holo screens, surrounding himself with various displays, just as he might have done on Hornet, only these were far less sophisticated than the ones on his ship. Still, they showed him all he needed to know, including the exact time. They had five minutes to wait until Max and Alex launched their diversion. The revolutionaries hadn’t bothered to explain what that diversion was going to be, which made Maccabee distinctly nervous. These were the sort of people who might nuke the whole port, just to distract someone.

The airborne threat alarm sounded suddenly, and a moment later a shuttle flew right over the idling tank, banking left and heading for the military installation. Maccabee sucked in a deep breath. That shuttle had been flying low enough to avoid the tank’s ground-threat passive scans, going just a few meters over their heads. It seemed almost impossible that the pilot had missed seeing the tank, but there was no sign of recognition, no second pass for a better look. The shuttle circled the base, then disappeared behind a barracks for landing.

On board that shuttle was Arturo Hulegu, and he was having a bad day. Actually, bad didn’t cover how unbelievable shitty this day had turned out to be. First, the attack in Banar had nearly been blown, forcing him to move more assets into the area. Then, those assets had managed to get themselves caught, and had promptly ratted him out to the SF. So now, he, Regional General of the Angstrom Free Army, was a fucking prisoner, and this shuttle ride was likely the second to last one he’d ever take. From here, it was a quick jaunt to Halley, and summary execution at the hands of one of Samillion’s death squads. Troubleshooters, they were called. The found trouble and then they shot it.

The shuttle touched down hard, jolting Arturo against his crash harness. When she was satisfied the shuttle was down and staying down, Lieutenant Gunnarsson unstrapped herself and stepped across the small cabin to Arturo.

“Gonna give me trouble?” she asked him, with that odd accent that everyone in the Troubleshooter units seemed to have. They were mercenaries, not locals, not even from the PARC, but pale-white assholes from some world called Kraken.

Arturo simply shook his head, and she released his crash harness. His hands were locked in a set of heavy binders that were in turn attached to a thick belt that had been strapped to his waist. The belt had all sorts of security electronics, including a kill switch that would dump enough juice into the rebel leader to liquefy his brain, should he step more than twenty meters away from his minder, who happened to Gunnarsson at this moment. He didn’t plan on letting her out of his sight.

His feet were not bound, and he stood, crouching so he didn’t hit his skull on the low deckhead above him, and then followed Gunnarsson out of the shuttle onto the baked tarmac. The bright ceramacrete had been stained nearly black by repeated liftoffs and landings on this spot, and heat radiated off it in waves, making sweat break out on Arturo’s brow. He ignored the sweat, though, when he saw who was here to greet him: Commander Ross. Arturo had only ever seen the man in grainy videos and screen captures; he’d hardly believed that Ross was real until that moment. Now here he was, the leader of the Troubleshooters. All that Arturo had to do was grab the man and run, get out of the kill switch range. There was enough juice in his belt to kill two men.

Something of his thoughts must have shown in his eyes, because Ross smiled and didn’t get closer, and Gunnarson grabbed Arturo by the arms, holding him in place. He noticed also the bevy of armed Troubleshooters standing idle on the pad, each of them holding a high-powered, short-barreled blaster rifle and wearing light body armor. He counted five in his field of view, and knew there were more. Definitely not an opportunity, no matter how much he wished otherwise. Ross was no fool.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Ross in that same odd accent. “You know me by reputation, I think.” His face hardened. “Arturo Hulegu, you are charged with multiple counts of terrorism, murder, and civil unrest.”

“You’re no judge,” spat Arturo, opening his mouth for the first time since his capture. “Let me see a magistrate, if I’m being charged.”

“Actually, I do this only for the enjoyment of it, Mister Hulegu,” said Ross with a relaxed shrug of his shoulders. “I do not expect that you will believe me. You will be taken before a military tribunal, very soon.” He smiled. “You are very much trouble. They will expedite the trial, I think.”

Arturo scowled. There wasn’t any point in arguing with the man. As soon as he’d been captured, he’d known what would happen next. Whatever Ross might say about tribunals, he knew that he’d be executed as soon as they had him back in Halley. He was surprised they hadn’t already done it.

“Take him to his holding cell,” ordered Ross, motioning at Gunnarsson. Two of the burly Troubleshooters on the landing pad jogged to Arturo’s side and each one took an arm in hand, letting Gunnarsson come around in front and step up next to Ross. “I hope to have the opportunity to give evidence at your trial,” growled Ross, all hint of amusement suddenly disappearing. “My way, you would be shot already.” He shrugged again. “This way will take only a little longer.”

Arturo opened his mouth to shout an angry response, against his own better instincts, and then something else happened. A brilliant flash lit up the night sky like a spectacular lightning strike and a moment later a shockwave hit them like a wall, showering them with small debris and throwing everyone off their feet, accompanied by a horrific sound, like the entire world exploding. The initial flash died a moment later, and Arturo saw through the flickering afterimage that someone had blown up the port’s launch tower, simply blasted the whole giant thing. A ball of flame was still rising up through the latticed center, while lower down giant structural members tore and burst under the strain. White-hot plasma fire enveloped the base of the tower, and a second, smaller explosion went off a moment later. Then, the tower began to tip.

“Up!” roared Ross. “Up!”

One of the Troubleshooters was pulling Arturo to his feet, and Gunnarsson started to run, heading for her unit or who knew where, but Ross caught her by the arm, spinning her around. “Stay with him!” he shouted at her over the noise. Then the tower fell, collapsing in on itself, sliding sideways off its shattered base and then toppling over. The sound was unbelievable, like God Himself reaching down and ringing the very planet on which they stood like a gong. The ground jumped violently, throwing them all down again, all but Ross, who managed somehow to keep his footing.

“Find a vehicle!” he roared at one of the Troubleshooters around them, hauling her to her feet and throwing her in the right direction to get her moving. Ross spun, then, strode past Arturo, who was still on the ground, and pushed the shuttle pilot back into the shuttle. “Get this fucking thing in the air, ass!” he ordered. “Find me who did this! Now!” The pilot was already scrambling for his seat, the outer doors of the shuttle sliding closed, before Ross turned away. “Gunnarsson!”

The lieutenant scrambled to her feet and snapped a salute by sheer instinct. “Sir!”

“Get this scum up, and get him secured!” bellowed Ross. “And off this pad!” he ordered the rest of them.

Gunnarsson reached down and helped Arturo up, then half led, half dragged him off the pad. A moment later, the shuttle leapt into the air and rocketed off to the south, heading for the shattered tower. Arturo shook his head in silence. He knew good work when he saw it. This was the work of his people, and they would not be near the tower, not anymore. He just couldn’t understand what they were doing. Was this a rescue? Impossible; no one knew he was a captive, at least not in time to plan this. No, this was something else.

He stumbled after Gunnarsson, losing track of Ross in the confusion. Even if this wasn’t a rescue, it was his best hope of escape. Unfortunately, two of the Troubleshooters stayed with Gunnarsson, their weapons up and ready, their eyes scanning left and right as they moved with easy, ground-eating strides. Gunnarsson led them between two barracks to a smaller ceramacrete building without windows. All around them, the camp was coming alive, Security Forces running past them to man defensive stations and get their shuttles into the air. All of them ignored the Troubleshooters, or tried to. Arturo saw a few unfriendly glances in their direction, a few fearful stares. A few glares of resentment.

Security Force Shuttles were taking off now, vectoring in the same direction that the Troubleshooter’s had flown, and Arturo started to wonder something else: could this be a distraction of some sort? Then he heard a howling sound from the north and turned to look.

“Paint them!” shouted Maccabee as the first wave of heavy shuttles lifted off and started to head south. A single shuttle, probably the same one that had passed over the Grendel a few minutes ago, had already headed towards the shattered launch tower, but Maccabee wasn’t going to give up the advantage of surprise for a lone ship, not when he now had ten of them on his screen.

“Sir!” replied Samara, activating the tank’s anti-air system and lighting up the shuttles with active scans. Immediately, the tank’s computers painted firing solutions on the screens around Maccabee and Samara, plotting all possible aspects of the targets, recording the pilots’ first unbelieving maneuvers and clumsy ship handling. These Security Forces weren’t used to having anyone fire back at them, especially not when they were in assault shuttles.

“Fire!” ordered Maccabee.

Samara obliged, not so much pulling a trigger as letting the tank open up with its automatic fire control system. The big machine bucked slightly as its quadruple blaster cannons started firing quick bursts, the articulated turret moving so fast that it would have been a blur if anyone had been outside the tank to watch it. One shuttle fell, then a second, then two more, and then the rest were diving for the ground.

“Go, Alger, go!” Maccabee barked, and the tank lurched forwards immediately, rushing down the hillside, its treads throwing up a sheet of dirt and mud behind it. Maccabee stabbed at several controls at his seat, and the tank’s countermeasures came alive, pushing out a hot smokescreen around them as they barreled down the incline, accelerating past a hundred klicks per hour. They all braced for return fire.

There was nothing. The base defenses, if there were any at all, were certainly not geared towards the possibility of unexpected ground assault. The shuttles were the only offensive capability that Maccabee had to worry about, and for the moment they were on the ground. Or maybe just so close to the ground that they could evade the tank’s sensors. Either way, it was time to call Hornet. Maccabee turned on the Grendel’s transmitter and sent the signal he’d prepared in advance. No time now to talk to Ashburn. She’d know what to do.

Arturo climbed to his feet, unable to keep himself from shaking, trying not to look at the piece of ceramasteel that had missed his head by just ten centimeters and was glowing a dull, ugly red from the heat of its sudden departure from the shuttle it had once been a part of. The rest of the shattered ship was just a few meters away, burning merrily, its nose crumpled into the ground, its rear sections torn apart by whatever had shot the thing down. Arturo looked around quickly, saw Gunnarsson, then hissed through his teeth as he saw what had happened to her: cut in half where she stood by a scythe made of buckled ceramacrete, pinning her to the same wall Arturo had been thrown against.

He stepped up to her, moving quickly, searching for the control for his security belt. Of course, he didn’t know the code to remove the belt, but at least he could move if he had the other half of the unit, the control box. His hands still bound at his waist, he stood on his toes and tried to pry the box from Gunnarsson’s pocket, doing his best to ignore the sticky bits of her that had soiled the clothing, looking away from her surprised face, from the horror of her wounds. Finally, his hand closed on the box, and he yanked it free, stumbling backwards, away from Gunnarsson, away from the blood and worse.

For a moment, he just stared at her corpse. There was no sign of the two Troubleshooters, no bodies, no shouts, no blaster shots at him. Now, he just had to decide which direction to run.

Ashburn sat alone in the dead quiet of Hornet’s deck, staring at a long engineering report without reading it, absently watching a muted news feed from the planet below. Nothing new since the nuke, except for a smaller explosion in Banar, which concerned her greatly. She’d had no communication with the captain for hours, not since he’d left the house of this Ndika character. Whatever he was doing, she hoped it didn’t involve explosions or anything like that, because Angstrom orbit had gotten a lot more interesting in the last few hours.

Up above Hornet, in the higher orbits, there were now two ships-of-the-line, third-rates, each massing three megatons, each with enough firepower to wipe Hornet out with a single salvo. The captains of those two ships were entirely unpleasant, and they had made it clear to everyone in orbit that they would not tolerate any deviation from official orbital regulations. That meant no unscheduled orbit changes, no movement period, not even any power except the bare minimum to maintain altitude.

Russ had run a few simulations on trying to break orbit, just to keep busy, he’d said. Eighty-four percent of the time, Hornet was caught by the two juggernauts. It all depended on where she was in her orbit, and where the ships-of-the-line were. Ashburn had run his figures into the main computer, and was keeping another screen open with the current escape projections: red.

The main holo came alive without warning, and an alarm tone sounded in the Deck, making Ashburn jump in her seat. The holo was showing text, a short message, obviously encrypted, sure to have been intercepted already by Security Forces. They would not likely be able to break the encryption within the next few seconds, so Ashburn had a moment to decide what to do.


The assault shuttle popped up on the tank’s threat screens at the same moment as it fired on them, its forward blaster cannons heaving plasma at the Grendel’s armor in a pounding rain. The impact drove the tank backwards, slowing it by twenty kph, and then its cannons returned fire, crumpling the nose of the assault shuttle, sending the craft spinning off to the left where it impacted and blew up in a thundering fireball that was audible inside the tank even over the roar of the turbines. Alger turned them slightly and aimed for the nearby security fence that marked off the boundary of the base.

“Incoming!” shouted Samara, glancing at one of her screens. Someone with some presence of mind was firing anti-tank rockets from somewhere inside the base, and Maccabee had only a moment’s warning. Overriding Alger’s control, he activated the Grendel’s attack avoidance system; the tank jerked sharply as it turned without warning, one wide track losing almost all contact with the ground, the other one mashing the dirt under it down fifty centimeters, dragging the armored flank of the heavy tank into the ground. The other tread smashed back down, and the next second, the tank was turning the other way, simultaneously firing off flares into the sky and across the ground.

The first bevy of missiles was distracted by this surprising display, slamming home in a bloom of blue plasma fire somewhere aft of the Grendel. Another volley went mostly astray, a single rocket impacting on the tank’s rear quarter, penetrating armor but not the primary hull. The patch glowed bright red on Maccabee’s readouts, but he had no time to reorient the tank or take any other action, because the third spread of missiles hit them dead on, slamming home into the front of the tank.

Armor ablated, then exploded, the hull buckled, two of the blasters on the turret shredded, and one tread blew in half, but nothing of that storm of destruction penetrated the interior of the Grendel, nothing but the sounds of screeching metal and tortured machinery. The tank lurched sideways in a drunken stagger, its right tread breaking up and flying off the running wheels that kept it moving, and the base swung across their firing arc again.

“Alger!” shouted Maccabee.

“Bloody well on it, captain!” roared the Scot. He leaned sideways in his seat and kicked an emergency lever, keeping both hands on the steering sticks to try and keep the tank moving, preferably in a straight line. Maccabee heard a metallic clanking noise, and then a sharp, quick rattle as the Grendel’s emergency tread was deployed on the right tracks. A moment later, the tank was under control again, and Alger jerked them hard left, smashing through the security fence and into the base.

“Should be safer now,” said Maccabee, hoping that he was right. Whoever was manning those anti-tank missiles knew their job all too well.

Arturo managed to cross thirty meters of open ground before he was caught. A wheeled groundcar came up, moderately armored and mounted with a heavy blaster cannon, the kind of thing that was normally on tanks. The vehicle skidded to a halt right in front of him, and he spun and broke for the narrow alley between two barracks. Behind him, he heard the rapid crack-a-crack-a-crack! of a railgun firing, but he was already around a wall. He heard the truck moving behind him as he ran down the narrow gap, and then the blaster fired.

The shot was just wide, skimming over his head and then taking the roof off a ten meter stretch of the barracks to his right. Arturo bounced off the left wall, staggered, and fell forwards, rolling to a stop. Across from him, a window fell out of the wall, its frame torqued by the impact. The blaster was aiming his way, and he knew, somehow, that Ross was in that truck, probably aiming the gun himself, ready to take action and save the courts the trouble. As if there would ever have been a court.

Arturo scrambled to his feet and dove through the window at the same time as the blaster fired. Landing hard on the ceramacrete floor inside, he rolled away, letting his momentum carry him from the wall, and a second later the blaster bolt ripped a hole through that wall, showering bits of debris and flame through the room. Arturo was already on his feet and running across to the other wall. Another window, this one closed, but there was a Troubleshooter on the other side, trying to look into the dark interior of the empty barracks.

Sliding to a stop under the sill of the window, Arturo took one hand and pushed the glass open. He heard the intake of breath from the man on the other side, and then a volley of blaster rounds hammered through the window. A moment later, the Troubleshooter made the tactically unsound decision to stick his head through.

Arturo reached up, pulled the man through the window, and crushed his windpipe with his knee, holding his weight there as the man thrashed for a moment. Then, the rebel leader reached down and took the blaster rifle, checking its charge and feeling its heft. It was a good gun, a damn good gun.

Arturo smiled.

Maybe it was because Hornet moved towards the planet, rather than away; certainly, it had a lot to do with how far away those third rates were when Ashburn started moving. Either way, the ship tore through atmosphere, her shielding glowing bright red from the impact, no doubt sending some sort of sonic shockwave down to the surface below, and probably painting a pretty picture in the night sky. Hornet was cutting the tangent from her original position to a spot over Banar, while Russ and Czerney prepped the shuttle, ready to hop out of the bay within five seconds of the ship coming to a halt.

Already, she was being hailed, but Ashburn didn’t bother responding. Nothing she said would buy her time, and she had other things to do. The ships-of-the-line were starting to move, but they were not hurrying too much—there was a lot of expensive shipping around them, and they certainly weren’t going to pull anything like what Hornet had just done. They had plenty of time. She was close in to the planet, now, and they’d simply bracket her, make sure she couldn’t escape on any vector.

That was what had her busy right now: trying to find a way out of this mess. Damn that Maccabee anyway. She should leave him on the surface to whatever fate he’d devised for himself. But, of course, she knew she wouldn’t do that.

Hornet decelerated at maximum, coming to a sudden and complete halt in Angstrom’s upper atmosphere, and immediately she started to fall, slowly yet, but gaining speed like a ponderous asteroid. Ashburn heard Russ’s voice in her ear: “We are away.” The shuttle was going down. They’d be in a lot more danger than she, no doubt.

Hornet continued to fall, and Ashburn worked feverishly to save her life, and the lives of everyone around her.

The tank was in among the Security Forces, now, and Alger had activated the ground suppression system. About thirty or forty degrees of its full-circle firing arc were non-functional, but the remainder were brutal. Flachette rounds hammered out of the tank, responding to any movement within a twenty meter radius. Beyond that, longer-range railguns and plasma rifles were taking up the slack, pinpointing targets using various motion-sensing and IR scans. Plenty of infantry armor could have avoided those scans, as outdated as they were, but the SF troopers weren’t well equipped, not inside their base, and not for this kind of threat. They died the moment they appeared on the Grendel’s screens.

The slaughter made Maccabee sick. Samara, he noted absently, wore a tight grin on her face, not so much amusement or enjoyment, but satisfaction that the tank—her tank, she probably thought of it—was working right. And for the moment, no more incoming fire except for small arms that made no impact on the Grendel’s heavy armor.

“Text only signal from Hornet, captain!” shouted Sel over the constant thunder of gunfire and impacting rounds. “Incoming in five minutes! They’ll be heading for the main field!”

“Five minutes, Alger!” Maccabee passed on the information. “Start moving to the starbase!”

Alger turned immediately, and the tank drove through one of the barracks, shouldering aside the walls with ease, crushing through the far side and then suddenly skidding to a stop. Dead ahead was a heavy truck, mounted with blaster cannons nearly the match of those on the Grendel, only these weren’t damaged. And they were pointed dead on at the tank.

Maccabee made a quick series of connections in his head, wondering what the hell anyone with a light vehicle like that truck would be doing sitting in the path of a tank, cannons or no. It was too tempting a target. He wanted to smash that truck flat with the Grendel’s bulk.

“Back up!” he ordered. “Now!”

The Grendel surged backwards so fast they would all have been thrown to the floor without their battle harnesses, but at the same moment as the tank moved, two spreads of missiles erupted from somewhere behind and above the truck, which had obviously been a decoy. The missiles slammed home just short of the Grendel, and Samara responded with a volley of cannon fire that blew the truck apart, simply prying it open like a tin can and showering its splintered remains around the base. Maccabee chuckled.

“Bring us back on course!” he ordered. “Try to steer around those missiles.”

“Bloody right!” said Alger, spinning the big tank around and surging forwards again. They got about a hundred meters before the missile launchers fired again. Another full spread rocketed towards the Grendel, and Maccabee knew this time they wouldn’t miss. He activated the tank’s avoidance systems anyway, and he saw out of the corner of his eye as Samara swung the turret around and went to full autofire, filling the air between them and the missiles with thousands of rounds of plasma. But it wasn’t enough.

Two missiles slammed home against the Grendel’s left tread assembly, ripping the tread apart and blowing away the tracks as well, and suddenly the tank skewed wildly to the left, slamming into a wall. Another missile hit the turret, and a jet of high-velocity flame penetrated the tank’s interior, slicing cleanly through one of the control arms on Samara’s rig, spinning her chair face first into one of the bulkheads. The final pair of rockets honed in on the super-hot turbines at the back of the Grendel, burrowing through twenty centimeters of armor before detonating inside the engines. The blast picked up the back of the tank, flipped the whole thing over, and slammed it down onto the turret, finishing the job the other missiles had started, and leaving the Grendel with its belly to the sky, half of it buried in the rubble of the building it had just smashed.

Maccabee was the first one moving. It took him a moment to get out of his impact harness and rotate himself around to stand on the tank’s overhead. The interior lights had died and the tank was pitch dark. “Report!” Maccabee barked. He could hear flames somewhere. Not much time.

“Bloody fucking hell, captain,” growled Alger. “I’m fine, but Samara’s out.”

“Is she alive?” asked Maccabee, unable to keep his voice from sounding shrill.

“Aye,” said Alger after a moment. “I’ve got a strong pulse.”


“Here, captain,” said Sel. His voice sounded tight. “I think my leg is broken, but I’m not pinned.”


“Fine, damn you,” spat Ndika. “Except for being strapped upside down to a burning fucking tank.”

“Stow it,” snapped Maccabee. He worked his way to the back of the tank by touch. “Alger, get Samara and open the belly hatch.” Reaching out, he touched Sel’s hand, then worked his way along the other man’s body to the release on the harness, triggering it and catching Sel as he fell. He spun him around and stood him up. “Hold on to something.”

“I’ve got Samara, cap,” said Alger from behind Maccabee. “Working on the bloody hatch.”

“Hold still, Ndika,” ordered Maccabee. “I’m going to release your harness and catch you as you fall.”

The man said nothing, but when Maccabee reached out to him, he caught his hand in a tight grip that it took him a moment to break. He managed to maneuver Ndika to the floor without smacking his head into anything. Then, suddenly, there was light inside the tank, flickering yellow light. Fire, thought Maccabee, but when he turned, he realized it was coming from outside: Alger had the hatch open.

“They’re going to be out there,” he said. Maccabee could see him now, saw blood running down the side of his face, one arm cradling Samara’s limp form, the other holding a blaster. Maccabee pulled out his own sidearm, a three millimeter railpistol.

“True enough,” the captain said. He moved to the hatch, put a foot on some outcropping—it was difficult to tell what was what now, with the tank on its back—and pushed his head up through the opening. He caught just a glimpse of some sort of troops tightening a cordon around the building before they opened fire and he dropped back down as blaster bolts smacked against the tank’s wounded hull. Luckily, it was still tough enough to withstand light arms fire.

“Some sort of troopers,” he said to Alger and Sel. Ndika was huddled in a corner, not looking at them. “Not Security Forces.”

“Some other goons of Samillion’s,” muttered Alger. “Shit.”

Then Maccabee heard a crackle of static in his ear, followed a moment later by a voice, cool and collected, and utterly at odds with the madness around him: “Fifteen seconds.”

The shuttle dropped like a rock. Russ’s teeth were bared, gritted together in a scowl. Czerney could only see this reflected in the windscreen, because she was in the back of the shuttle, strapped in, facing the side door that they would open for the captain in just a few more seconds. Mounted to the floor in front of her was a Thresher, connected by a feed line to a box of ammunition similarly secured in the back of the shuttle, and jacked into her brain via a wireless connection. Czerney’s hands were locked on the gun’s controls, her fingers on the triggers, one with her weapon. Ten seconds. Had Maccabee heard her?

“Got company!” said his voice in her ear. “Tank’s down in the camp, northeast of the port. That’s us. Take out anything outside the tank, now!”

Before Maccabee was even finished, Russ was changing course, and the shuttle surged forward suddenly, throwing Czerney hard sideways against her harness. They leveled out at just fifty meters and streaked across the ceramacrete spaceport, and over the military base. The side door slipped open, and wind howled in through the gap; the shuttle was traveling well over a thousand kilometers an hour, and Czerney was buffeted ruthlessly for a moment, but Russ was already slowing down and turning, leaning the shuttle over on its side so that she could suddenly see the ground below her, the burning wreak of a tank embedded in the wall of a building, men and light vehicles around it, only now becoming aware that there was something new in the sky.

The Thresher’s targeting system was fully active, linked into the shuttle’s sensors, and now it accessed Czerney’s vision centers, projecting images across her view of the ground below, highlighting targets and painting a curving red line from the six spinning barrels of the weapon to the ground. All she had to do was move that line over the targets, and the bullets she fired would connect. It was like loading tracers into the Thresher, only better, since only she could see the result. Russ dropped a bit lower and the red line flickered, turned green, then red again, then steadied on green.

Czerney squeezed both triggers and the Thresher howled to life, audible even over the thundering sound of wind buffeting the shuttle. Men started dying, bodies flying apart as the 5mm rounds chewed apart flesh and machine. The shuttle was carrying a quarter million rounds of ammo, and Czerney started laughing maniacally as she hosed down the area around the tank, cutting down anything that moved while Russ sent the shuttle through a lazy circle in the air. Within ten seconds, there were no targets in the open.

The shuttle jerked sideways suddenly, and Czerney shrieked as a blue plasma bolt cut through the air just outside the open hatch. Then, Russ was rolling the little ship onto its back, and they were dropping, dropping, only ten meters from the ground, and they rolled back upwards, and suddenly Czerney was looking into the dark sky, the Thresher dutifully picking out the black silhouettes of assault shuttles above them. Czerney squeezed the triggers again, and rounds started lancing into the night. There was little chance they’d damage armored assault shuttles, but she might get a lucky shot. At any rate, the shuttles above her scattered, not sure yet what they were dealing with.

Then she spotted the red ball of flame high in the sky, still hardly more than a tiny speck, but growing bigger with each passing second, horribly fast.

“Get us on the ground!” she screamed over the com at Russ.

The crash siren made an unholy sound. That was the only way that Ashburn could describe it. The siren shrieked at a thousand different frequencies, all layered on top of each other, each slightly out of tune with all the others, like some horrible choir of the damned. The shriek rose in intensity, peaked at two seconds, then fell off again, only to reappear after just five seconds of silence. The alarm was only going to sound for a minute, but there was no way to shut it off.

Hornet was deep inside atmo now, falling at two thousand kilometers per hour, her shielding glowing red and starting to fail as she plowed through thicker and thicker air. The two warships above her were shouting their heads off, but they didn’t know what to make of her, and they sure as hell weren’t going to follow. No one brings a six million ton ship that deep into a gravity well. Not that Hornet was small enough herself to escape easily. Ashburn still wasn’t sure she could make it. But they were committed now.

The howling alarm finally died for the last time, but the ball of fire that Hornet had become kept falling.

Maccabee was out of the hatch as soon as he heard the Thresher fall silent. There was no other weapon in the galaxy that made that noise, and hearing it had gladdened his heart. He steadied himself on top of the Grendel’s belly and did a quick scan for anything moving. The Thresher howled to life again, and he flinched, then realized Czerney was firing into the sky. Assault shuttles. There was precious little time.

“Everybody out!” he roared. Spinning, he grabbed Samara as Alger heaved her upwards out the emergency hatch. The dead weight of her unconscious form nearly knocked him off his feet, but he hauled her out and let her slide down the front of the tank to the ground. The fire was at the back of the Grendel, which was embedded in the smashed barracks.

Maccabee turned and helped Sel next, letting him maneuver himself down the tank, then hauling Ndika up through the hatch a moment later. He pushed the man down the front of the tank, then froze. An officer of some sort was standing there, his weapon trained on Maccabee’s people, and on Maccabee himself. Czerney had missed someone, at least one. How long before more showed up?

But before Maccabee could even drop his own weapon or raise his hands up in surrender, the officer’s head blew apart in the heat of a blaster bolt. Maccabee brought his gun up and pointed it into the face of a grinning man holding a rifle to his shoulder.

“No time to thank me!” shouted the crazy man—he was obviously crazy—as he lowered his rifle and moved quickly towards the tank. “We’d better be leaving!”

Alger hauled himself out of the tank behind Maccabee, caught sight of the crazy man and raised his weapon, but Maccabee motioned for him not to fire. Not yet.

As though from nowhere, Hornet’s shuttle dropped out of the sky, hitting ground so hard that Maccabee could feel the impact through the soles of his boots. Czerney was already swiveling the Thresher towards the crazy man with the blaster rifle still in his hands, and Maccabee made a quick decision. Accessing his com, he ordered, “Stop!” and Czerney jerked as though he’d slapped her.

Alger was already down on the ground and hauling Samara onto his shoulders. Czerney swung the Thresher further to the left and sent a stream of bullets howling downrange past their group. Maccabee slid down the shattered Grendel’s hull, jumped the last meter to the ground, and started running, catching up Sel in a moment, grabbing him with one hand, Ndika with the other, and hauling them both towards the shuttle. Alger was already there, grabbing Sel and lifting him bodily into the little ship while Ndika climbed in of his own accord. He was no fool.

Maccabee was on last, and he spun and blocked the door to the crazy man as the shuttle powered up and started to move.

“No time for questions!” shouted the man. “Take me or shoot me!”

The shuttle started to lift, and Maccabee leaned down, one hand locked on a grab bar, the other reaching out. The crazy man grabbed his hand and jumped, and then Russ rolled the ship on its side, they fell into its cabin, and suddenly the shuttle shot forwards at maximum acceleration, a spread of high-energy plasma rounds rippling through its wake. Assault shuttles roared on their tail, but those ships were built for toughness, not speed, and they fell behind as Russ turned their nose towards the sky, triggered the hatch to slide shut, and rocketed up towards space.

“Everyone needs to strap the fuck in, right now!” screamed Czerney. Alger was already finishing strapping Samara’s limp form into a seat, and Ndika was fumbling with the straps of his own harness, while Sel was buckling in next to him. Maccabee shoved the stranger into a jumpseat and hauled himself up into the cockpit, clambering into the copilot’s seat beside Russ and letting the chair automatically envelop him in a cocoon of shock harnessing. Then he looked out the windscreen.

“What the fuck is that?” he asked, not bothering to point. Right above them, frighteningly close and closing awfully quickly, was a ball of fire, a meteor of some kind, and Russ was steering right towards it. But Russ didn’t answer, and he didn’t need to, because a moment later Maccabee saw blue flame flare to life inside that fireball, saw it start to decelerate, and saw the form of his ship inside it. He wanted to close his eyes and pray, but there was no time.

Hornet hauled herself to a stop by sheer force of will, her inertial drive acting in concert with the emergency landing thrusters Maccabee had installed along her belly many years before. She was nevertheless still engulfed in fire when Ashburn turned off the particle shielding and the shuttle disappeared inside her hull. A moment later, the shielding snapped back on, and plasma rounds from the pursuing assault shuttles flared harmlessly against it; the bleed-through didn’t even register against the ship’s armor.

Now it was time for the endgame. Maccabee was calling her, talking in her head, but Ashburn didn’t have a moment or a brain cell to spare for him in that instant. She triggered the sequence she’d been designing for the last few minutes, and Hornet surged forwards, lighting the sky aflame again, flattening trees and buildings beneath her with the shockwave that followed in her wake as she plowed through the atmosphere. Above her, hundreds of kilometers away, those warships waiting for her started to move, but they still weren’t sure what was happening. Communications traffic from the ground was garbled, incomprehensible. Something was happening. Somewhere.

Hornet started to rise now, her thrusters firing again, hauling her out of the deep well of gravity she’d slid into, making her frame shake and shudder, putting forces on her hull that she’d never really been designed to withstand. But she stood up to the challenge, nosing her way upwards, a trail of smoke covering thousands of kilometers of sky as she hurtled across the day-night divide and the blinding sun glinted off her flaming bow wave. Blue sky faded to purple, then to black, and suddenly the fire was extinguished, though her shielding still glowed red. Hornet was back in space.

Now Ashburn was free to cut out the safeties and run the drive up to full power. The thrusters flickered out and died, their fuel exhausted. The jump siren rang twice through the ship, but she was still well inside the limit wall. The ships-of-the-line were accelerating as well, still a quarter million kilometers back, but starting to close despite their size. They were within weapons range, but there was too much civilian shipping around for them to open fire just yet. Another half million klicks, and Hornet would be well clear of traffic, a sitting duck, ready to be destroyed. She’d have a good ten seconds inside their weapons-free envelope before she hit the limit wall and could jump to freedom.

Ashburn knew this as well as the captains of those warships did. What they didn’t know, though, was that she was planning on jumping ten seconds early, a few thousand klicks short of the limit wall. She didn’t know what would happen when she did that. Most probably, Hornet and those in her would be fine. Worst-case scenario, they’d be atomized, turned into a cloud of indistinct matter. That had happened before to other ships who tried what she was about to attempt.

She rang the jump siren again, waited another five seconds, just until the war computer told her the ships-of-the-line were starting to target her for destruction. Then Ashburn activated the jump sequence, and Hornet disappeared.