|Credit: Titus Lunter|
Vivek Mohinder opened his eyes to the ceiling. This surprised him; he’d been facing the door. He sat up and this was strange too because at his last recollection he’d been kneeling. Schmetterling’s incessant warning klaxon filtered in through his ears along with chaotic bellows and only then did he realize they’d been ringing too badly to hear anything.
He rolled to his right hip and found the Gustaf shock rifle there. Taking it up, he struggled to one knee against a dizziness expanding linearly with his head’s distance from the deck. Smoke drifted through the door lazy and white, billowing from the charred and cored-out remnants of a canister the size of his gloved fist. He looked from the stun grenade to the rifle in his hands, checked it and found it functioning though its power cell was nearly drained. He remembered, then, crouching by the open door with the rifle held out at an awkward angle, its barrel pointing vaguely down the hall. Blindly he had fired at a low power setting to give himself as many shots as possible, keeping the spread narrow to deter any Marines sneaking up too close.
But of course one had, or several perhaps—it was hard to tell without poking his head out, without exposing his thin visor to the ceramic flechettes screaming down the hallway and splintering on the bulkheads. Fragments of the little darts bounced off the door frame to tinkle at his feet. Vivek had hit the firing stud again, loosing another conjured blast of force to keep his antagonists at bay. The combat drone—a blocky grey thing the size and shape of a suitcase—floated waist-high down the corridor, unable to make comfortable headway. Then there had come a hollow sound, a low poot, and he had seen the stun grenade skip perfectly through the portal to rest cheekily just a meter away. It occurred to him he might snatch the thing and throw it back, but as his brain mulled over his action it detonated with a mighty flash and a sound beyond sound.
Which brought Vivek back in line with the present. His eyes were focusing better now, and he became suddenly aware of his exposed position. The grenade had knocked him back from the door and he expected the Marines would be through shortly, so he took that free moment to lunge behind the desk on the room’s left side. Flimsy though it was, the large computer console suck into its surface lent him some substantial cover. He suspected the flechettes to punch right through the rest. He had never been shot; how much would it hurt? Quite a bit, he imagined. He hoped they would get him in the leg, right in the meat of his quadriceps. Somehow that didn’t seem so bad. The shock rifle huddled tight against his right shoulder.
Movement at the doorframe. Vivek hesitated just a moment, trying to be sure of his target so as not to waste a precious shot, and in that hesitation two Marines swept around the corners. How the other had circled to the aft side he had no clue, but all the same he cut loose with a blast from the Gustaf. It missed for the most part, consuming the air between the two men and booming uselessly out the open door. The wide spread was the only saving grace, catching the leftmost trooper on his hip and lurching him into an awkward stumble. His compatriot raised his weapon; Vivek ducked. There came a sound like the chirping of a large mechanical cricket and he felt the desk rattle with impact. Holes appeared on the back side and he fell to the floor, trying frantically to escape the fire.
“I surrender!” he found himself shrieking as he lobbed the Gustaf back over his shoulder to clang on the deck. Then, because he’d only cried out to the inside of his own helmet, he cranked the speaker as loud as it went and repeated: “I surrender!”
He stayed huddled on the floor for a long moment before he realized they’d already stopped shooting. The suit registered no damage and a brief mental inventory verified he was unharmed. Slowly, clumsily due to the hands held over his head, Vivek Mohinder got to his knees. The Marines moved in, weapons still drawn and shouting futilely over each other. The Emissary, Yana St. Julien, stepped into view. A coat of active-camo armor slithered grey across her body as she crossed through the smoke, wrapping her ever so briefly in cloud.
“Where are they?” she demanded, head swiveling about as she took in the scene, rage swelling in her features as she grasped the bleeding obvious. “What the hell have you done with Mizrahi?”
Vivek said nothing, only bowed his head and watched the stopwatch flashing in his HUD. One hundred thirty-eight seconds and counting. He hoped he’d bought them enough.
* * *
“I wish I’d had a chance to change,” Beatrice grumbled.
“You’ve got an outfit for this?” Lorena asked wryly. Shuffling her along in a combat crawl, she caught the sharp head of a screw with the underside of her elbow and suppressed a curse.
“What’s that?” Less than two meters ahead, Maxi Leaf turned briefly back over her shoulder. Her helmet’s audio pickup was miserable in the ricocheting aluminum confines of the vent tube.
“Nothing,” Lorena called back.
“It’s not nothing, I’m having to hike up this ridiculous thing every two seconds.”
They heard a toom sound, conducted through and muffled by the decking over their heads. “Vivek’s shooting,” said Lorena, noting the obvious with some lingering incredulity. She tried to picture her Senior Pilot in a combat pose, firing gallantly away, and couldn’t manage it.
Down the tube they hurried as best they could, though the going was slower than a weak mosey. Bootfalls rang out over the alert siren’s background, nearer than the shock rifle’s reports. Maxi kept one eye constantly on her visor HUD, at the rudimentary map Karl Genz had transmitted before triggering the mobile scanner’s jamming field. It seemed this duct proceeded all the way to a fan complex in Schmetterling’s nose, fore and below their destination; they would need to take a side passage to get up to the airlock. She continued, pushing her own safetied rifle ahead of her along with Chekwa’s gauntlet while the standoff raged above. From the sound of it, Vivek was really letting them have it. She hoped he’d know when to quit; the Emissary would use some restraint, out of concern for Lorena, but that would evaporate quickly the moment she noticed her prize missing. In the meantime, the two women made their deliberate way toward the bow.
It had been a simple trick, and just audacious enough to work. Lorena had climbed easily in the vent, and Maxi’s tiny frame could squeeze through even swaddled in her purple pressure suit. The hardware inside became a crucial factor in their escape—leaving aside the eminently helpful HUD map, Genz needed its onboard processors to maintain his jamming field. So they moved in their quiet little bubble, like Konoko in her Chen-Hau field, hoping Yana St. Julien and her minions were too occupied with Vivek to question why an eight-meter jamming field might be moving independent of him. Whether it worked or not, they’d only learn on the far side.
Maxi turned right at the junction, as Karl’s map suggested she should, and forced her way through a smaller passage as the metal seams shrieked against her suit. The passage ended just a few meters later, forcing a left turn into a cozy little access alcove. Oriented vertically, it was marked by indented rungs walking their way for three meters up one wall to terminate at a vent like the one Lorena and Maxi had entered. There was floor space for only one person to stand.
She wanted to tell the other woman to wait, but decided not to risk the noise. Instead she leaned the rifle against the wall, climbed up the rungs and peered through the grating. A corridor, she could see—one near the airlock if the map was any indication, though she couldn’t be sure with the angle. Maxi hated the idea of crawling out vulnerable into god-knew-what, but they didn’t have time to backtrack. She was reaching up and removing the catches on the maintenance grating when the explosion went off: a tremendous bang sending a vibration through the whole ship’s hull.
“What’s going on?” Lorena demanded from her feet.
“Shhhh,” Maxi hissed, ducking down as a set of armored boots tromped with some urgency by the grate. When there’d been quite a moment she stood up again and snapped off the last latches. Her stomach churned, her nerves frayed and mind racing to think of what might have happened to Vivek, but wordlessly she set aside the grating, took the rifle proffered by Lorena and slid it out into the hall.
She waited a moment; this was a test. Any onlooking Marines might wait for her to climb out completely before pouncing, but the gun challenged them to act quickly for their own safety. Nothing happened and so it was with haste that Maxi gripped pulled herself up and through the vent grating.
From her stomach she rolled to take up the rifle again and took cover against the far wall, scanning in all directions. She stood, she realized at last, in a bend of corridor just starboard of the airlock. It lay just around the corner, past the head of the steps they’d descended on their way in. Just a few meters away, any mad dash would still require they expose themselves. Maxi crossed back to the vent, in which Lorena’s face had appeared. She turned on her speakers at a low volume.
“The instant you’re out of there,” she said huskily, “we’re running right around that corner, right again at the next corner and straight through the airlock. Follow me, don’t stop unless I stop. You’ve got the glove, right?” Lorena nodded. “Okay, you’ll use it to open the airlock. I need both hands to shoot.”
“Shouldn’t be shooting anything,” Lorena grumbled in the fashion of someone expecting to be ignored. She pushed herself half-out the vent and accepted Maxi’s hand for the rest of the way.
“We go, now,” the smaller woman said, and she was off. At a fast low scuttle, she rounded the first corner. To the left the stairs ran the meter or so down to the lower deck, and the previously austere central corridor now buzzed with activity. Five Marines stood in a loose cluster speaking with another handful of uniformed crew, before a drifting backdrop of white smoke. Good, she thought. At least they used a stunner. Vivek might still be relatively unharmed. Abruptly the warning klaxon cut off. The skirmish, such as it had been, appeared to be over.
One of the armored men looked up; the pretty young woman near him turned her head to follow his gaze. They saw her. Aww, hell. She broke into a scramble, boots nearly sliding out on the deck as she made the frantic right turn toward the airlock. Lorena followed just steps behind. Shouts came from below as the inner door came into Maxi’s view. Almost home.
Her heart dropped to see it guarded. The same Marine they’d met before, the one whom along with the unfortunate Sergeant Chekwa had brought them aboard, stood leaning against the nearest wall with his arms crossed and a look of resentful boredom across his face. That changed, as one might expect when he saw Maxi Leaf hurtling around the corner. His eyes widened, his mouth did the same and his right hand snapped lightning-quick to the holster at his left hip as Maxi brought up the Gustaf’s broad, snub-nosed barrel.
But his holster was empty and his fingers grasped only rigid leather. Unarmed aboard the Ouro habitat, he’d held his position guarding the airlock through all the alarm and commotion. He’d followed procedure to the letter, and here he stood at the mercy of an erstwhile scav.
“Back!” she ordered and jabbed the weapon forward like a spear while the helpless man squirmed, already against the bulkward and unsure where else to go.
“Lorena?” Maxi called, unwilling to take her eyes off the man.
Footsteps rang behind her as the other woman dashed in. “They’re coming,” was all she said as she brandished the glove and pressed it to the door’s control panel. And then, nothing.
Nothing. Not a beep, not a chirp, not even denial’s angry buzz. The panel sat infuriatingly blank, as though she didn’t exist. “It’s not working!” she cried.
“What?” Maxi took two steps to get a look while keeping her weapon up. Lorena frantically waved Chekwa’s glove to no response. Fuck. Of course it didn’t work. Something would go wrong at this tantalizingly late juncture. But what to do? She thought of calling Karl, remembered his transmissions were jammed, and then had epiphany strike like a ton of bricks. Of course the glove doesn’t work. The scanner’s actively jamming! What’s more, the Sergeant had surely stripped off his electrodes by now. They’d need to engineer a new solution.
Yet only moments remained. The Marines were coming, audible now as they took position on the stairs. Knowing she had a weapon and possible hostage would render them cautious, but her reward would only be measured in seconds. She needed something good to happen in a hurry. If the inner door demanded a live I.D. chip, a live chip it would have.
Lowering the rifle in one hand she suddenly shot out the other, grabbing the man’s right elbow presently raised in surrender. She yanked and he stumbled forward, unsure what she intended and afraid to resist. Lorena understood and joined in. Dropping one glove she swiftly seized another, joining with Maxi’s augmented strength to guide the Marine’s hand to the reader.
The machine sounded as pleased as they felt. The inner door hissed open and the Marine, seeing to what he’d just unwittingly been party, wrenched his arm free. His violent motion sent Maxi stumbling back, away from the airlock. “Go!” she screamed, fumbling with the rifle stock.
“Come on!” Lorena screamed back. She stood in the doorway with one hand confidently braced against its pressure sensor. “Not leaving you!”
Maxi’s fingertips found their purchase, prised and pulled. The Marine stood stupefied a moment before opening his throat to call “HELP!”
In response Maxi shoved hard, launching the Gustaf airborne from her chest at the Marine. “Help yourself!” she quipped. Her opponent threw up his hands against the fast-moving object; it bounced hard but harmlessly off his plated forearms as Maxi bent into a run.
In a moment she was through the door. Just a moment—it seemed so easy in retrospect, those last few meters through the inner door and down the narrow hallway. She pumped her legs so hard she lost her footing, her boots confused as to what precisely their owner wanted, and she would have fallen had there been any gravity to fall. Instead she tumbled helpless for a full rotation though at last her boots’ electromagnets found purchase on the Ouro floor of tiles that were not quite tiles.
“Civilian Maxine Leaf,” she heard Abei say, and turned to see Lorena hovering beside him. Stripped of her own pressure suit and wearing only thermal socks on her feet, she’d drifted right off the floor to be arrested mid-air by the Ouro interpreter. “Much grateful are the Kin, their minds and my own self indeed, at efforts thus far undertaken. True a friend to the Kin you be, and to Doctor the Mizrahi in so keeping.”
“Stop!” came a shout from behind him. Abei turned, beatific and still as if mounted on a swivel, to face the swarm of Marines piling through the airlock. All carried slim, vicious-looking flechette carbines; most seemed disoriented and unnerved by the room, its appearance as innocuous yet utterly alien.
“Honored,” Abei began with a solemn tone, “Welcome as are representation of the Kin Terran, agreements as existing stipulate offensive capability in absence. Withdrawal commencing inside sixty seconds Terran standard, else active countermeasures unfolding. Breach places all within violation, Interstellar Sovereignty Treaty, as signed and amended.”
The men looked confused—disarmed if only in the most figurative of senses—but only until the voice of Yana St. Julien rang out to guide them: “Stand down.”
They complied, instantly lowering their muzzles and starting a slow backpedal toward the door. The Emissary brushed by them and stomped her way up in her clingy, rippling body armor to jab furiously at Abei’s chest. “I demand the immediate return of both these women to my custody!”
“Treaty conditions satisfying in full, believe you me? In cases being, decisions independently forged, the Kin lie without obligation.”
“Without obligation!” Lorena echoed, donning her very smuggest look. When else was she likely to get the chance?
“She was in Contact custody, under medical hold, when this other woman took her at gunpoint!”
“I’m here quite consensually, thank you very much.”
“Issues judicial may by any means adjudicate,” Abei raised his arms in a scarecrowy shrug. “Relevant increasingly, agreements made with parties other and autonomous—Civilian the Leaf and Pilot the Mohinder. An ethical determination, this removal so requested.”
Yana seethed. “You won’t get away with this. Conspiring to board and attack a Federal vessel—“
“With respect, he did nothing of the kind, ma’am,” Maxi chipped in. She chafed at the honorific but used it all the same, knowing the proverbial music she’d yet to face. “The medical transfer, the boarding, the guns…it was all me and Vivek. We asked them to take Lorena, that’s all.”
“Speaking of which,” Lorena announced, “Mister Abei, I believe I’m ready to go. If you’ll have me.”
“Kindly honored,” he smiled warmly, or at least tepidly, “Much earnestly to attempt, the manipulation you ask. For which none can say more deserved.”
He slid backward then, pulling Lorena with him using gravity’s easy tether. She fell, slow and controlled, through a moving divot in local space-time until she and Abei reached the open door to the transit tube. Yana watched, one arm across her midriff supporting the other reaching stalklike to obscure her mouth. “You’re making a mistake,” she said at last.
Lorena looked to Beatrice, standing worn and gaunt beside her with a resigned expression. Guilt lanced through her and with effort she pushed it back down. In the end she said nothing to the Emissary—only gave a thin-lipped smile and leaned back into the gravity well. She ducked her head so as not to clip it on the door frame, but looked up just in time to catch Maxi Leaf’s eye one last time.
Maxi looked back. Lorena nodded, once and shallow, and if the other woman responded she didn’t see it before the door slid shut. She found herself back in the transit pod, nearly alone with Abei.
“Oh, wow,” her eyes widened. “How’d this happen?” Imprisoned in his cylindrical fragment of a cage, Coleridge beat his wings at a dolorous march.
“Technician the Obo and Pilot the Duggins, of whom no doubt acquainting, furnish for purposes scientific this organism. Advancing as it came the Kin objectives in manner and enterprise most harmonious.”
She wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but she knew how Obo felt about the little fellow. It was only now, in this moment, that the last quarter-hour’s enormity struck her: the shouting, the shooting, the flight. The planning that must necessarily have been behind it, the risks taken and the inevitable consequences to follow. She thought of Vivek, left behind in the cell. Maxi, left behind by the airlock. Obo and Ashley and Genz besides, all now in dire jeopardy on her account. On her account. For the chance—just the barest chance—at freeing her from the Emissary. Delivering her to Abei, to the Ouro who’d work to grant her a fresh start. All of them had helped her, some at great cost and none for any great reward. They didn’t have to, and they did. She looked to Beatrice and for the first time in her beautiful friend she saw the grace. She saw it now in all of them and she loathed herself for never having seen it before.
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FIFTY-SEVEN: THE DEED IS DONE. DELIVERED BY PROVIDENCE TO THE OURO, LORENA MUST CONFRONT THE FINAL TASK LOOMING AT HER OWN MENTAL HORIZONS. ONLY FOUR CHAPTERS REMAIN IN "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"