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Episode 306: Ziggurat Attack

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The only light was a dim red glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In it, everything looked different shades of black; the smooth barrels of the plasma rifles were deep umber rimmed in crimson.

“Transition in ten seconds,” said a voice that echoed through her head. Brenner, on the tactical relay. The bridge would be tense, but down here there was a different sort of tension.

The troopers’ tac helmets were a lighter shade of dark, fuzzy around the edges, and the heads-up displays caught the light from somewhere, once in a while, reflected it in a bright red spot. The faces below those crested beetle domes were shadowed even deeper, just a pale nose here or highlighted cheekbone there, showing off their bloody tint.

The jump siren did not ring, and suddenly everything went dark, like the universe was turned inside out. On the other side was something else, a new kind of black, and for an instant everyone glimpsed it, saw its vast, cold intellect, felt its desperate hunger. Then it was gone, and the ship reappeared, and everyone was whole, and they all forgot what they’d seen, like they did every time. She didn’t forget, though. Once you saw the thing from the outside, you could never forget.

“Transition complete, and on target,” said Brenner’s voice inside the helmet.

Troopers were going through their pre-mission rituals now. One woman with a pinched face and high cheekbones crossed herself and kissed some sort of pendant around her neck, too much in shadow to see; a brutal-looking bear of a man to her left was counting out his reloads, balancing them on his thigh, speaking aloud as he did so, then slipping them all back into various pockets and weapons before starting over again; towards the front of the compartment, a tall man with violet thread interlaced in his skin was slowly counting backwards, just passing four hundred thousand and forty-four.

“Moving into orbit,” reported Brenner.

She could have followed every detail, had she wanted, right there in the little bubble of space inside her helmet, the HUD giving her any information she cared to access: navigational plots, ship’s systems, tactical displays, live images of the planet below, or a half million other things called up out of the depths of the ship’s computers. Depriving herself of these things was her own ritual preparation. Without any technology, she knew every detail of the plan, could picture every corner and high point on the maps she’d studied, had perfect confidence in herself and in her captain. Brenner’s monotone updates were the only information she wanted or needed, just enough to calibrate her internal clock. The quiet was soothing. It would soon be displaced.

Brenner again: “Atmosphere in four minutes.”

It seemed that was the cue everyone had really been waiting for, and the troopers around her started checking their gear in earnest. This wouldn’t be your standard shuttle drop, plummeting a hundred thousand meters in a coffin made of paper-thin metal while the air around you was literally torn asunder by the energy beams and high-vee projectiles of your enemy, trying desperately to shoot you down while you just sat there, waiting for death, knowing it would come one of these days, certain in the knowledge of your own mortality; and that made you feel so fucking alive, for those same moments, terrified out of your mind and riding a high like nothing anyone had ever cobbled together out of a handful of molecules. It wasn’t going to be that way this time, but everyone around her wondered if it might end up there anyway, maybe hoped that it would, just a little bit, in the crazy part of their brains.

Professional soldiers, she reflected, need a big crazy part.

Colonel Jugnauth stepped up out of the shadows at the back of the compartment, near the outer doors. Like some sort of warrior king, he projected a cool competence that quieted his men and women without a word. She’d never moved, never made a sound, just been sitting there in quiet reflection, but she couldn’t help but be impressed with him. He had something she lacked, and she could only call it a commanding presence. Cliché, yet so very true.

“This is going to be quick and dirty,” he said, his voice low but clearly audible to all of them, even with the tac helmets. “You know the mission, so I won’t bother going over it again. Remember our objective, remember your training, remember why you are here.” He moved one hand up to rest it on the grip of the sidearm holstered at his hip. Like all of them, he wore light armor on torso, arms and legs, enough to impede a few bullets, should it come to that. Everyone watched that little gesture like it meant something. “Good luck.”

Well then.

“Atmosphere in two minutes.” Brenner sounded a bit less casual, his voice a little more tight. What was Maccabee doing, she wondered? It was easy enough to tell what Jugnauth was doing: coming over to her. She did not stand to meet him.

He had the sort of broad shoulders and chiseled face that would have attracted her in another place and time, his flat, hard warrior’s eyes lost in shadow. Right at that moment, he was scowling, but it didn’t necessarily detract from his good looks. Just a different setting, an alternate mode of operation, she supposed. He loomed over her, putting a hand on the bulkhead above her and leaning down so his face was only half a meter from hers.

“I don’t want you on this mission,” he said, his voice still cool, but pitched now just for her. Not that the other troopers weren’t watching every moment.

“Not my decision,” she replied, looking up at him for the first time.

“You asked to come,” he accused.

She just stared at him, schooling her face into that blank mask that she knew disturbed everyone who saw it, no matter how hard they thought they were. “Sixty seconds to atmosphere,” muttered Brenner. In her head, she started counting down.

“You’re not a part of my team,” Jugnauth said, trying another tack. “You’ll hold us back, put us in harm’s way.”

“No need for you to hold back, colonel,” she said. “I’ll take care of myself.”

“I’m not worried about you,” he growled.

“On that,” she replied, “I am perfectly clear.” She let a smile touch her lips, leaned her head slightly to the side. “Anything else?”

For a moment, she thought Jugnauth would start something, right here and now. Then, the ship shuddered slightly, bounced up and then slid downwards with sudden, stomach-lurching speed, and for the first time they became aware of their own acceleration, of the ship’s speed and the thin air around them, at the line that divided the planet Hobarth from space. “Atmosphere,” was Brenner’s redundant report.

“What I am worried about, kar Deffin,” said Jugnauth, entirely unperturbed by the movement of the ship around him—just another drop, so many under his belt—“is just what the captain thinks he’s doing.” He pushed off the bulkhead and straightened, his hand touching his sidearm again, just to make sure. “That much I’d like to know.”

Then he walked away, turning his back on her without a second glance or moment’s hesitation. In another place and time, that might have meant his death, but he knew well enough it wouldn’t here. Samara shrugged, and went about her business, checking her weapons one final time, tightening a strap here and there on her armor rig—a useless collection of ballistic ceramic that wouldn’t stop anyone seriously trying to kill her. Maccabee would be interested to hear this little story, if she survived to tell it. Time was she’d always known what would happen on a drop. The universe had told her, in a way she didn’t even understand. Not anymore. It was simply silent inside her head, and she was frightened, not for herself, but for the stars themselves. Something had gone wrong, somewhere.

“Main engines engaged,” Brenner reported. “Time to target now five minutes.”

Phoenix shuddered, jerking from side to side, then dropping sharply, long enough for everyone to grab onto something and wonder if they’d level out, and then, with a hard bump, they did. It wasn’t as rough as a shuttle, but Phoenix was hardly bigger than your average drop ship, smaller than some, and she was plowing at high vee through a planet-spanning dust storm that had swallowed Hobarth whole. That was a common-enough occurrence for this benighted place, this heap of minerals barely useful enough to support the spidery network of mines that crisscrossed its surface. Carbon and silicon, in pure crystals seldom found anywhere in nature, just waiting to be harvested by a few million hardy souls. Not worth the effort, in Samara’s opinion.

“Brace, brace, brace!” came the order from Brenner, suddenly on the main speakers in the compartment. Samara slipped the shock web over her shoulders and down, letting it fasten itself while the commandos around her rushed for seats. The ship bucked again, not too bad yet, and the last straggler got into his seat, Jugnauth’s eyes burning a hole in his armor, and then the fun really started. Phoenix jerked sideways, slamming Samara back against her seat while the people opposite her pressed forwards against their webs. The ship seemed to spin, throwing them all sideways, then she dropped again, sickeningly, twisted slightly, leveled out, and suddenly shot upwards, driving everyone down into their seats. Hard.

Samara felt herself start to black out, fought the feeling off for a moment, then sighed as the acceleration diminished. Suddenly, they were in free-fall again, for just a moment, and then, finally, Phoenix leveled out, still bucking on the storm winds, but approximating a smooth flight.

“Adjusted time to target, four minutes,” said Brenner a moment later. He sounded like he was trying to swallow an octopus, but he was still speaking, still tracking their movement. Samara nodded to herself: the op was still go.

The seconds ticked past, the buffeting continued to diminish—good thing, too, since they’d be outside in that shit soon enough—and then Brenner said, “Sixty seconds,” and his voice was collected again. “Doors ready.”

“Positions!” barked Jugnauth, shrugging off his shock webbing and rising to his feet. The rest of the team followed suit, Samara moving last, stepping up behind some of the troopers, across the door from the colonel. There were two doors, this one and an outer hatch, separated by just enough space to crouch down, just big enough that all twelve of them would be able to fit inside at once.

“Thirty seconds,” Brenner said. “Doors opening.”

The inner doors opened, moving aside swiftly and silently, and Jugnauth growled, “Inside,” then acted on his order, jumping down into the narrow lock, the rest of the team piling in after him. Samara squeezed herself into a corner, not particularly concerned that no one made room for her, then ducked her head down with the rest of them. Jugnauth must have given the all-clear, because the inner door slid shut, plunging them into darkness pierced only by the vision enhancements on their helmet-mounted heads-up screens. As one, the troopers, Jugnauth and Samara reached up, clipping their quick-release drop lines into the hard points that were embedded all along the door’s outer surface. Samara gave hers a sharp tug, felt satisfied that it was sealed, and grabbed hold of the line just above where it was attached to her combat harness.

“On target,” came Brenner’s report. “Opening outer doors.”

The deck beneath them disappeared, and they all dropped half a meter, their legs dangling down below the ship’s hull. Samara let go of the line with one hand, unholstered her sidearm, and looked downwards. Into swirling sand and dust. Their target, which was supposed to be only twenty meters below them, was invisible, but she could see the antenna bundle that topped the building rising out of the storm, only a few meters below her dangling feet. The sound of the rushing wind was a treble whine over the bass rumble of Phoenix’s engines, keeping her hovering over her target.

“Hold!” barked Brenner over the com. “Incoming ground fire.”

Samara looked around sharply, saw the others moving as well, turning this way and that, trying to get a clear look. The helmet’s vision enhancement could deal with low light, but peering through this mess was apparently more than it could handle. Samara caught a glimpse of heat differentials and a confusing blur of false-color, and then heard a new noise.

“Deploying ground suppression,” Brenner growled.

All around the open door, smaller, concealed hatches cycled open and ball-shaped protrusions slipped out of the hull, each one blinking with red lights, spinning around multiple axes, looking for all the world like hungry heads. Then, the system opened fire, indiscriminately bathing the ground below in a shower of laser beams, each one highlighted by the dust it vaporized as it punched through the storm and hammered down to the ground. Samara thought she heard a scream, somewhere, but the air was pounding against her eardrums, filled with sound. She definitely saw something explode, the red-gold fireball eating a hole in the storm for just a moment, sending ripples through the dust.

“Clear,” reported Brenner as the lasers shut down and vanished back into the hull as though they’d never been. “You are go.”

“Ground team clear,” replied Jugnauth, now on the com channel so he could be heard over the incredible din. “Drop!”

The team let free their hands, allowing the automatic repelling gear to take over, lowering them at a quick two meters per second, then pulling up just short of the ground. Samara unclipped with the rest of the team, then went into a low crouch, keeping an eye on the team, making sure she wasn’t separated. That wasn’t likely, though, because the team was linked now via helmet relay, so even if one of them passed out of visual range, the heads-up would show them without difficulty. The drop lines snaked upwards into the dark sky, and suddenly the roar around them diminished, the wind’s buffeting let up, and Samara knew that Phoenix was gone, heading to the second objective.

Carrying out orders they’d rehearsed a dozen times, Jugnauth’s team spread rapidly across the narrow rooftop, quickly and efficiently securing the area, plasma rifles in hand. Moving closer to Jugnauth, Samara watched on her heads-up display, letting the helmet show her an extrapolated overhead view.

“Body here,” said a woman’s voice, low and tight, over the com-net. “Rifle must have been the explosion we saw.” Samara crouched down, touched the rooftop with one gloved hand, feeling the pitting in the ceramacrete, the residual warmth from the ground suppression lasers. One of those intersecting someone’s rifle would certainly create a big bang.

“I’m into the com system,” reported Jugnauth’s second in command. He was standing by the base of the towering antenna structure, a mini-comp in hand, not even looking at it as he tapped it with a finger. The heads-up could work that magic too, and a lot easier than seeing anything through the damned sandstorm.

“Hold, Ubud,” said Jugnauth’s calm voice. Ubud looked up, and Samara caught a glimpse of his broad, flat face, noticed his oddly small eyes, almost lost in the empty space above his nose. “Climms, status?” asked the colonel.

“Ten seconds, sir,” came the same tight female voice from a moment earlier. Samara looked over, saw the woman with the narrow face and high cheekbones on her knees, two more troopers standing over her, backs to her. She was working with some sort of device, probably a door-breaker, a simple computer designed only to overcome electronic locks, the sort of thing Samara had used on dozens of drops.

“Ubud,” said Jugnauth. “Go.”

There was a sharp CRACK! from the antenna tower, and a flash of blue light, and then Ubud, sounding apologetic, said, “Done.”

“I’m in,” Climms followed up a moment later, and suddenly the team was materializing from out of the sand again, closing around the hatch as it slid open and bright light spilled out. Climms scrambled back, another trooper stepped up, and dropped a stun grenade into the hole. Samara counted, “One, two,” in her head, and then heard the sharp concussion, saw the flash of blue light burst up out of the hatch.

“Go!” barked Jugnauth, and suddenly the team was moving, dropping through the hatch one after the other, the colonel disappearing third, and Samara letting everyone go ahead of her. This was what they did—the same sort of thing she had done, once upon a time—and getting in their way wouldn’t prove anything. Jugnauth wasn’t that far wrong. She waited to the count of three, then dropped through after them, landing with cat-like grace on the smooth, tile floor below.

Being out of the sandstorm was a merciful change for the better, and Samara straightened with a sigh, then looked around. The top-most floor of the Hobarth’s Government Tower was small, packed with the guts of the com gear Ubud had just disabled, along with a few simple control stations, should it be necessary to have direct access. Down below them, in the depths of the ziggurat-like tower, someone would be wondering why all communications had suddenly died. Perhaps that person was calling for the rooftop guard who’d just gone off the air, or checking the sensors on the top floor, puzzled that they’d all failed in a sudden blinding flash. Whichever it was, not much time for the commandos to do their thing. That is to say, it was a perfectly normal combat operation.

“Ubud,” said Jugnauth, pointing at the control station nearest him. The lieutenant rushed over, dropped into the chair, and engaged the touch screen—no fancy holographic interfaces here. Meanwhile, Jugnauth silently detailed four troops to watch the lifts, four more to secure the stairs, and kept the last—the demo man, the same brutish fellow who’d been counting his ammo on board—by his side. Samara faded back against the wall, thought about taking out her second railpistol, rejected the idea for a moment, then succumbed to her baser instincts and unlimbered the weapon. Nobody watched her do this, as far as she could tell, but she felt more comfortable nonetheless.

“I’ve locked out the security systems, sir,” Ubud reported after about ninety seconds of silence. “There’s some sort of alert, but low-level.” He looked up at the colonel. “Looks like no one knows what’s going on.”

“For now,” muttered Jugnauth. “All right people, listen up.” No one turned to look at him, but Samara saw one or two troopers stand a little straighter. “We’re sticking with plan Alpha. Keep loose, keep your heads. Stay in touch. Now let’s move.”

Ubud rose, snapped a quick salute at the colonel, then headed towards the four troopers at the stairs. Jugnauth and Waldo Abbot, the demo man, headed for the group at the lifts, and one of the troopers there—Private Toulloise; Samara recognized her from the Starduster—pushed the button to call a car. Samara wasn’t part of this plan, so she stepped towards Ubud, watching Jugnauth. He ignored her, and Ubud didn’t seem unhappy to have another pair of eyes—and guns—with him, so they started down the stairs, leaving the colonel behind.

Samara knew the plan as well as any of them, knew that Ubud and his team were heading down four levels, to the Governor’s Suite. The lieutenant let her bring up the rear without a word, taking the lead himself, the four other troopers in between, all of them with plasma rifles at the ready, each pointing in a different direction. Samara just kept her pistols aimed at the floor for the moment, trusting in her reflexes to bring them up in time if there was any need. They passed the first landing, and Ubud motioned for Samara to leap-frog him, letting her take point while he covered the door to this level as the others passed behind him. She moved quickly around the team, raised one pistol, and moved downwards.

The heads-up showed Jugnauth and his team boarding the lift, starting down, the computer displaying a wire-frame schematic of the Government Tower. The building had thirty floors, and stood about a hundred meters over the rest of Hobarth’s main city, a low collection of meager ceramacrete blocks known as Grapple. The stepped-pyramid design was evenly spaced, meaning that each step was five levels high, six steps in all. The Governor’s Suite took up all of Level 26, and the roof of Level 25, spreading out on all sides, giving Governor Thoms a wide view of the surrounding desert when there wasn’t a blasted sandstorm about.

Two levels down, and now Samara stopped at the landing and Ubud leap-frogged over her, taking point once again. Down another flight, and another switch, and down again, and Samara was stopping again, facing the door to Level 26, both guns raised, while the team bunched up behind her, then spread out against the wall on either side of the door. Ubud stepped up, motioned for Samara to cover him, then slung his rifle, drew his own railpistol, and reached his free hand for the door control.

The door exploded outwards, slamming into Ubud, sending him flying backwards, and Samara twisted, spun sideways, just barely avoiding door and man, then coming around, both guns up, already firing while the troopers around her were still reacting. Two bursts from each pistol, twelve rounds in all, and two figures barely visible through the smoke that hazed the doorway fell backwards, one of them screaming. Then, Climms stepped up, coming from the right, pushed the nose of her rifle through into the doorway, snapped off two plasma rounds. Another scream. The trooper across from her did the same, covering the other way, while the two others scrambled to throw the door off Ubud, who’d been blasted half-way down the next flight of stairs.

“Ubud!” crackled Jugnauth’s voice on the com-net. “Status!”

“Clear!” barked Climms, ignoring the colonel, her training telling her that this came first.

“Clear,” growled the man opposite her. Samara stepped up, ducked her head through the doorway for a quick glance, then nodded to them.

“Hold this position,” she said. Tapping into the com, she reported to Jugnauth: “Ubud is down. We were ambushed.” She could hear a certain excitement in her own voice, hoped that the colonel wouldn’t.

“Understood,” said Jugnauth, still calm and cool as a winter’s day. “Can you reach the objective?”

Samara glanced down the stairs. One of the troopers there looked up at her, said, “He’s out, ma’am, don’t know how bad. I gave him a nanite pack.”

“Jugnauth,” she replied, “Ubud is alive, but he’s out of this.” A quick glance over her shoulder. “Don’t know what else is up here.”

“Complete the mission,” growled Jugnauth. “Kar Deffin. . . .” He hesitated, not wanting to say it.

“They’re moving up,” said Climms, squinting through the smoke that was still clogging the doorway. “I’ve got two!”

“More on the other side,” said the other trooper.

“Just don’t fuck up your end,” said Samara to Jugnauth, before she cut the channel. “You,” she said, pointing at the two men by Ubud’s prone body. “Get him out of here; head for the pickup zone. Shoot anything that gets in your way.”

“They’ve got a crew weapon!” barked Climms.

“Shoot the fuckers!” said Samara, leaping up the stairs, then glancing over her shoulder at the other two: “Go!”

Climms opened fire, two controlled busts, then swore. “It’s shielded!”

Samara strode across the landing, grabbed the woman by her combat webbing, and hauled her backwards, just a moment before the tripod mounted cannon in the hall beyond the doorway opened fire, the all-too-familiar chattering howl of a multi-barreled 5mm gun filling their ears. The wall where Climms had stood a moment before was ground into fine powder by the impact of a hundred rounds every second, bullets exploding through the ceramacrete, tumbling across the stairwell, pocking the opposite wall, some of them bouncing off and clattering to the floor below. Five seconds of the awful, soul-tearing sound, and then the cannon fell silent.

Samara pushed Climms to her feet, saw the other trooper snap off three shots, high power setting, heading the opposite direction as the 5mm.

“What kind of shield?” she asked, leaning close in to the other woman.

“Particle grid,” said Climms. Samara scowled. That was even worse news than the cannon.

The cannon opened up again, this time aiming at the other side of the doorframe, and the other trooper left with Samara scrambled backwards, ducking his head down as ceramacrete whirled around him, chunks of it blown free by the heavy weapon. Looking away from the wall to protect her eyes, Samara pulled her second pistol free of its holster and deactivated the safety. “Let me check it,” she said.

“What?” said Climms.

Samara ignored the other woman, strode to the doorway and then ran right through it, one gun raised in each direction. A part of her brain that she was barely even aware of targeted the two people standing to her right, simple shots, easy, one burst here, another there. The rest of her watched the three men at the cannon react, too surprised to move for a moment as she pressed down the trigger of her left-hand gun and hosed down the corridor with dozens of 2mm bullets. The particle grid flared to life in blue and green, sparkling from one wall of the hall to the other, from floor to ceiling. Just the slightest gap was open, no more than four centimeters of space at the far wall, no angle a bullet could get through, but just enough. . . .

Time seemed to snap into fast forward then, and Samara spun around, stopping short against the far wall, then dove forwards and rolled back the way she’d come as the cannon roared to life. Five millimeter rounds ionized the air above her as they ripped through the space she’d occupied a moment before, and then she was clear, out in the stairwell again, still moving, nearly falling down the stairs, but Climms had her now, was hauling her back to her feet.

“What the fuck was that?” she said as the cannon fell silent again.

“There’s a hole,” Samara said, standing, checking herself. No hits. “Not much, but I think I can make it.”

“What are you talking about?” Climms asked. Samara glanced at her. Climms was no rookie in this game, and this was definitely not her first combat drop, but she’d never seen the kind of things Samara had, had never risked her life on a whim. In short, she hadn’t reached the point yet where she could put safety and sanity behind her, and just go for the target, everything else left on the wayside. Maybe she would never reach that place, but Samara had gone there long ago.

“Give me your grenades,” Samara said, as the other trooper fired again, and called over his shoulder, “They’re pressing hard!” A plasma round squeezed through the doorway, whizzed over Climms’s head, crackled out against the far wall. She pulled two grenades off her combat harness and handed them to Samara, who had already holstered her pistols.

“I’ll need you to cover me. Aim dead on, get the shield lit up as good as you can.” She never let her eyes leave Climms’s face as she spoke, evaluating the woman. Climms just nodded. “Ready?” Again, the calm nod.

Samara turned and motioned for the other trooper to step back, then gave the signal to Climms. She moved up, quick and clean, crouched low, her shoulder to the doorframe, and started firing. Samara didn’t wait, knew that more than a second could mean the other woman’s life, but dove forward, rolling across the floor, throwing out a leg to stop her motion and coming up on one knee, a grenade in each hand, the primers already set. She tossed them both at the same time, then surged to her feet, running ahead, right at the cannon, her pistols coming into her hands as the crew there cycled up the gun.

The first grenade cleared the gap with ease, sailing through exactly on target, then blew up into a thousand millimeter-thick slivers. A wave of them impacted the particle grid, lighting it up bright blue, and for a moment it was opaque. Then, the light faded and Samara saw the second grenade blow, a wash of plasma fire blanketing the flayed walking corpses that were staggering away from the cannon, their hoarse screams filling the air. That was enough to take down the particle grid, and Samara raised an arm to ward off a last curl of blue flame as she leapt over the gun, her pistols firing, ending the horror that had come to the three-person crew servicing the weapon.

She nearly slipped and fell on the blood as she slowed, glanced over her shoulder, saw Climms put down another man behind her, then looked ahead. Two doors waited for her, one broad and heavy, straight ahead, the other smaller and to her right. No need to wonder which one held the governor.

“Another ambush?” asked Climms as she daintily stepped through the gruesome remains of the gun crew. The other trooper was bringing up the rear, watching their back. Not a lot of resources, but the governor couldn’t have had many more on his security squad. At least ten people lay dead in the corridor.

“Not likely,” Samara said, shaking her head. “But possible.” She glanced sidelong at the other woman. “Any stun grenades left?”

“Onellu has one,” Climms replied, pointing at the other trooper. “Mel.”

Onellu pulled the grenade off his combat harness without glancing back at them, tossed it over his shoulder, and kept watching the corridor behind them. Climms snagged the weapon out of the air, and turned to hand it to Samara, when suddenly Jugnauth’s voice cut in, filling all their helmets on the general channel.

“Samara, Climms, Onellu,” said the colonel, the words clipped. “We have Ubud. Charges are set. You have five minutes to get to the evac zone.”

“What?” said Samara. “Damn it, Jugnauth, I’m right outside the governor’s door!”

“Tough,” came his reply. “The mission is compromised. We fall back on plan B. End of discussion.”

“Ass,” growled Samara. Then she cut the channel before he could reply, tore the helmet off her head, tossed it aside. Holstering her pistols, she pulled her own plasma rifle off her back, casually snapping off the safety mechanism. “Stand back,” she said to Climms.

“That’s not a good idea,” the trooper said, but she was backing away already, Onellu glancing over his shoulder, a worried frown on his face, trying to figure out what was happening. Samara had her fingers inside the rifle’s power selector mechanism, and was already resetting the thing for a maximum power dump. The whine of the main charging cell pierced their skulls for a moment, then ranged up into a register so high they could only feel it as an itch behind their eyeballs. Fully aware that she had only seconds to discharge the overloading weapon, Samara shouldered the rifle, took aim at the doors, and fired.

The blue light of the plasma blast filled the hall, and the recoil overpowered the gun’s systems, sending Samara staggering backwards. The doors blew up, blasting inwards in a wash of flame and smoke, and a thundering crash filled the corridor. Catching her balance, Samara tossed the half-melted rifle in her hands aside, then pulled out her pistols and started walking forwards. A man half appeared in the smoke, and just as fast a three-round burst put him down. Another materialized, blaster pistol in hand, firing wildly, but Samara didn’t flinch, just gunned him down, and then she was striding into the room beyond the shattered doors, her mind aware of lavish furnishings, of broken glass in the windows where parts of the wall had impacted. A man to her right was aiming a pistol her way, and she shot him down, then another to the left, and finally a third popped up from behind a smoldering couch, catching her off-guard. . . .

And then a plasma shot from behind her took him full in the chest, blowing him clear through the windows and out onto the terrace. With a sudden roar, sand and dust whirled into the room. Samara turned a quick circle, saw no more enemies, then spotted a figure crouched behind the wet bar.

“Come on out, Governor Thoms,” said Samara. “We’re in a hurry.”

Thoms stood up. He was a tall man, powerfully built, with thick, tousled blond hair, and he was wearing some sort of uniform, probably an affectation. His shaking hand was holding a heavy blaster, and after a moment’s hesitation, he pointed it at Samara. “Stay back.”

“You have two options,” Samara said, entirely unconcerned by the gun pointed at her chest. “Put down your gun and come with me, or die.” She smiled, knowing full well the effect it would have on him. “Right now.”

“Fuck—”

That was as far as he got. Samara’s hand snapped up and she fired a single round through Thoms’s shoulder, spinning him around sideways and making him drop the blaster. Before he could even catch his balance, she was at the bar, one gun holstered, the other pressed against his head as she hauled him bodily over the waist-high impediment, ignoring his scream of pain.

“Don’t argue with me!” she hissed as she dragged him towards the door. “Climms! Time!”

“Two minutes forty,” said the trooper, trying to sound casual.

“Let’s move!” urged Onellu.

“Hear that?” asked Samara as she let the two troopers take the lead, pushing Thoms ahead of her. “Two and a half minutes ‘til this place goes boom! Now move it!”

She had to push him again as they passed the carnage at the cannon in the hall, and then they were out the blasted door and into the stairwell, charging upwards. “Two minutes!” shouted Climms over the pounding of their feet. Thoms made no move to slow or stop, just kept running ahead of Samara, more afraid of her than anything else, one hand clutching his injured shoulder, and a bloody patch of shirt where the bullet had exited.

Two floors passed. “One-forty-five!” barked Climms. Another two flights, everyone moving so slowly that Samara wanted to scream, and she was practically pushing Thoms along ahead of her. “Ninety seconds!” They burst out into the control room, turned quickly towards the ladder. Sand still swirled in through the open hatch, and up above they could hear the howling wind of the sandstorm. And something more, Samara hoped, the sound of the ship’s smaller shuttle, waiting for them as promised.

“Up!” she shouted, unnecessarily. Onellu was already halfway up the ladder, then hauling himself out, followed by Climms. A moment later, she reached down and yelled, “Grab my hand!” Thoms reached out and caught it, and with Samara giving him a boost, he disappeared through the hatch. Samara leapt half-way up the ladder, scrambled up and through, and felt someone—Climms again—haul her to her feet topside. “Sixty seconds!”

Samara saw the shuttle waiting, right where it was supposed to be, and nearly shouted for joy. Ensign Keita should be at the controls—whoever sat in the pilot’s seat, she was doing a great job of holding the shuttle level in the rushing wind, the rear ramp folded down onto the rooftop while the nose of the shuttle hung out over midair. “Go!” screamed Samara over the howl of the storm, and the two troopers rushed up, followed by Thoms. The governor toppled at the edge of the ramp, but Samara was right behind him, slamming into his back, and Onellu spun, caught him in both arms, and Samara reached out a hand, feeling her own balance tipping. Climms caught her, reeled her in, shouting towards the cockpit, “Clear!”

With the ramp still open, the shuttle suddenly rushed upwards, and Samara felt her feet slipping out from under her. Dropping her pistol, she reached her suddenly free hand out and grabbed Climms by her combat harness. The other woman was holding onto a grab-bar inside the shuttle, and the ramp was starting to rise, coming up under them both. And then the Government Tower blew behind them.

Samara saw the flash reflected off the shuttle, hauled herself up, grabbed something—anything!—inside the little ship, fell onto the deck, and suddenly the ramp was up, shutting tight, and the howl of the wind cut off. Then the shockwave hit, like someone had taken a forty-ton hammer and rapped it against the shuttle’s hull. The ship bucked, throwing its occupants against the overhead, then slamming them back to the deck. Then, as suddenly as she’d lost it, Keita regained control, and the flight smoothed out.

Hauling herself up, Samara staggered to the narrow viewport at the side of the shuttle and looked out through the blowing sands. The fire of the explosion was bright enough that she could see it even through the storm, could see the sides of the ziggurat bulging out, then falling back in, while smaller pieces sailed in lazy arcs through the sky, trailing flame of their own. Then, as the little ship picked up speed, the view was opaqued again, disappearing behind them.

“Try to cut it a little closer next time!” yelled Keita from the front of the shuttle. “I don’t think we burned off all the paint!” Then she laughed.

Samara didn’t feel like laughing at all. Checking to make sure Thoms was still with them—he’d passed out, but was breathing steadily—she slumped down against the hull, breathing hard, and waited. Maccabee would love this.