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Chapter 68
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Scion Drakhar



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Joined: 27 Oct 2010
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Location: Milky Way galaxy. Sol system. Earth. Most of the time anyway.
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PostPosted: Wed, 26. Oct 16, 06:50    Post subject: Chapter 68 Reply with quote Print

68. Girl's Night Out


Mike Durden watched the three women from behind the tip of his pool cue. The bar wasn’t very well lit. Gloom and shadows concealed most of its spaces, pierced here and there by pools of yellow light. When he and his team first set the place up Chet said it reminded him of a grim noir detective movie. Mike, himself, wasn’t much of a movie watcher. He just knew that their business involved convincing dangerous people to betray even more dangerous associates. Which meant the shadows tended to come in handy. They put people at ease when those people didn't want to be seen. Sometimes, though, the damned shadows could be a pain in the ass.

When the women first entered the bar Mike’s skin flashed into gooseflesh. His heart rate, normally a steady fifty beats per minute, jumped to over twice that, and even now, nearly half an hour later, was still about ten beats too fast. He thought he was looking at three high ranking officers in the principle target’s organization. He suspected that the loudmouthed brunette was Latasha Seldon, formerly of the 106th Argon Special Marine Reconnaissance Division, currently acting as chief training officer for the principle’s marine forces. And he was almost sure that the tall woman beside her was Erika Chinomu, formerly a Lieutenant in the United Space Command and one of the best pilots the USC ever produced, who also happened to be an anti-AGI extremist responsible for killing over fifteen hundred people before fleeing the Sol system. And if he was correct on those two counts that meant that the third woman, a pretty and unassuming creature that seemed to blend into the shadows, just might be Gin Ookami, the Bloodstone project’s rogue assassin and the Wakiya’s Queen of Spades, a target only slightly less enticing than the principle himself. It was enough to make him dizzy. If these three women were who he thought they were, then taking them out could cripple the operations of a man who was not only one of the most dangerous of the Yaki's commanders, but a terrorist second only to Saya Kho herself, the bitch that blew up the Torus Aeternal.

Fifteen meters away Chet the bartender was at their table, smiling and making nice. Mike watched and waited, desperate to see whether the old man would ferret out the answer to the question Mike asked him twenty minutes earlier: “Is that who I think it is?” Across the pool table, Eddie Dobrowski, his second in command and current opponent, dropped both the 13 and 15 balls with a single, decisive shot. As Eddie stepped around the table to line up the 9 ball Mike put the cube of blue chalk on the table’s edge. Just then the old man looked up, met his eye for an instant, and nodded. It was barely a dip of the chin, but it was enough.

Mike stepped back into the shadows and seemed to rub his earlobe. His guys immediately noticed the gesture. Eddie’s lips thinned into a grim smile as he took his next shot. Mike applied pressure to the front and back of the stud earring he wore, activating the subspace transponder concealed within it. That signal caused a light to activate on the bridge of the USCSS Ronald Reagan, a Yokohama class battle frigate waiting thirty thousand kilometers into the darkness north of the Savage Spur east gate, hidden from LADAR by the shattered remnants of a failed moon. The light was immediately observed by a young second class petty officer and reported to Captain Adam Davidson. The captain then ordered the signal to be relayed to an Argon-made ‘Centaur’ class corvette that the battle group had “appropriated” a month earlier. His order activated the eight elite special forces marines aboard and instructed the centaur’s captain to spool up his jump drive to make for the east gate in Savage Spur, where he would dock at Nova Somnia and unleash ‘Task Force Harvester’ upon the station.

Mike glanced around at his team and nodded here and there to confirm the lingering questions. Eddie failed to sink the 9 ball past the 3 that was blocking the back right pocket. So Mike stepped up to the table, planning to send the cue ball off the far rail with just a little left english to give it a wide angle and help it clear the 3 and thus drop the 7 in the guarded pocket. Just then Erika Chinomu, who seemed to be fairly deep in her cups, shouted.

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You’re telling me that with all the cybernetics you’ve got, you don’t have anything to filter out alcohol?!”

Around him all eight of his men froze. “Well shit,” Mike was deadpan. “That was ahead of schedule.”

********

You could hear a pin drop. The only sounds within ten meters of their table were the beeps and boops of the video game the woman at the bar was playing. The silence lasted for a good three heartbeats and Seldon could feel all the eyes in the bar looking in their direction. Across the table, Gin, who was normally cool and calm, was suddenly on the verge of panic. Her eyes were growing so large and round that Seldon imagined she could hear the woman screaming inside her skull. Seldon decided right then and there to cut this shit off before it started. She laughed and clapped Eri on the shoulder hard enough to make the woman sway in her chair.

“She’s not that bad!” Seldon exclaimed, loud enough to be heard in every corner of the bar. “Hell! I’ve heard some of the names your pilots call you, and they’re a lot worse than ‘robot’!”

She watched Eri open her mouth to protest, “ I didn’t…”

“I know you didn’t!” Seldon cut her off and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “But words can hurt, baby.” Her thumb found one of the muscle connections draped along the woman’s collarbone and pressed. Eri’s eyes went wide and instantly fixed on hers. Seldon let her own burn above her smile. “You should be careful what you say to people, hon!” She nodded to generate an affirmative response. Eri’s confusion was rampant on her face, but the woman nodded agreeably, albeit with a very confused frown. “Thanks for the drinks, Chet,” Seldon turned and clapped the bartender on the shoulder.

“You haven’t even tried ‘em yet!” the man protested and gave her a ‘drink-up’ gesture with his free hand.

“You’re right!” Seldon agreed and promptly upended the shot glass. It was not what she was expecting. For an instant the entire world seemed both to swell and recede. An instant later all the mucous membranes in her mouth and nose cried out simultaneously. “Holy crap!” she coughed, clapping a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were already watering. “What the hell is in that?!”

“Fuel, ma’am!” Chet explained with a grin. “Grade-A, top shelf space fuel! You can use this stuff to kill brain cells, clean engine parts and make high quality explosives!”

Seldon wondered if she’d just been poisoned. “Perfect drink for the military,” she said, sounding suddenly humble, even to her own ears. “All those uses and such a… nice?… finish.” She met Gin’s eyes and shook her head, trying not to gag. Eri, who had been lifting her own shot to her lips, promptly put her glass back on the table.

The bartender chuckled again, then looked at the other women at the table. She could see the twinkle in his eye. He no longer seemed like somebody’s dad. Instead she was getting ‘creepo-perv’ vibes from him. Either way, he set the bottle on the table, winked, and started to walk away. He was replaced immediately by one of the human pilots she’d been joking with at the bar.

“Hey!” he the pilot thrusted his chin at Eri. “Hey! What did you mean by that?!”

“By what?” Eri asked, already curling her lip in a show of distaste.

“What do you mean ‘all her cybernetics’?!” He turned and looked at Gin. “You a skin job, bitch? You a frackin’ aug!?”

“Hey now,” Seldon said reasonably, trying to calm the situation down. “Nobody said anything about…”

Eri cut her off. The woman was suddenly in the man’s face, chin thrust forward and shoving a finger damn near straight up his nose. “Who the hell do you think you are, huh?!” She shoved him backward and for an instant the guy was too shocked to reply. “Don’t call my friend names! And what’s it to you, anyway?!”

“It’s frackin’ unnatural!” He whined.

“Unnatural?!” Eri retorted. “Over ninety percent of the human race is currently bred in a petri dish…”

“That ain’t the same thing as havin’ a computer for a brain or…”

“Better than not having a brain at all,” Eri leaned in pointedly, “like some members of the species!”

Seldon realized that she, like the drunk himself, was standing there with her mouth open. Eri was backing the guy up with both logic and jabbing pokes to the chest. The entire situation would have been really funny if not for the three other pilots heading their way from the bar and the Split Yaki looking very interested from across the dining room. Most disturbing of all, though, were the half dozen Teladi chirping back and forth to each other like excited birds. Specifically, one of their number was looking her dead in the eyes while talking into a communicator.

Shit, she thought then turned to meet Gin’s eyes.

Ookami was already on her feet and coming around the table. “We need to leave,” the woman said, and Seldon was grateful to see that she’d regained her cool.

“Ayup,” Seldon agreed and promptly turned to Chinomu. “Time to go, baby girl.”

“Oh frak that!” The drunk said and grabbed Eri’s arm. “I’m not done with you…”

Eri’s eyes focused into daggers as she stomped down on the guy’s instep. “Get your hands off me!” The drunk’s mouth instantly fell open and he doubled over, reflexively reaching for his damaged foot. Eri then shoved him backward with both hands, sending him tumbling backward onto his ass.

An instant later one of the guy’s mates lifted a bottle to throw at Eri. Seldon drew and fired without much conscious thought. The singing metallic clap of the phase discharge crashed into the bar like a slap in the face. The bottle exploded, sending a shower of burning alcohol and high velocity glass shards back into the small crowd of pilots. The man holding the bottle was instantly on fire and the entire bar seemed to hold its breath. Then the pain of his burning flesh reached the man’s brain and he loosed an agonized, blood curdling scream.

“Frak me,” Seldon whispered to herself.

“Holy shit,” Eri seemed to agree beside her.

“DOWN!” a roar from Gin.

Seldon tackled Chinomu. The horrible screech of metal announced some form of destruction behind her. She looked up in time to see the top of their table smash through the cluster of Teladi, sending three of the five lizards scurrying for cover. One simply vanished, crushed beneath the ten kilogram disc that Gin threw at them like a giant Frisbee through a house of cards. The last was standing still and wide eyed, holding an object the size of pool ball in one claw. Seldon focused and confirmed that she was looking at an NMMC made variant of the G-830 plasma grenade. The pin was missing and the safety lever stood at a right angle to the grenade body. Which meant the bitch was standing in the middle of the dining room, paralyzed by fear… with a live grenade in her hand.

“Oh SHIT!”

********

Gin snatched Seldon up by the woman’s belt, and grabbed Chinomu by the collar and lunged forward, dragging both women along with her as she leapt the ten meters out of the dining room and into the bar proper. Just as the reinforced wall came between her and the paralyzed Teladi there was a sudden, blinding flash of light followed by a deep, gut wrenching WUMP! that was felt more than heard. She was lifted completely off her feet and thrown by a shockwave of air rushing outward from the center of the explosion.

********

A sudden thump in the floor set the glassware rattling in the kitchen. Kriss watched the pair of his Teladi guards look first toward the source of the sound, then at each other. “Well that doesn’t sound good,” he commented above his glass of bourbon. The two guards both glared at him with blatant hostility and then chirped back and forth to each other. “You two should probably check that out,” he interrupted them. “Don’t worry,” he said to the closest, “I’ll be here when you get back.” He smiled broadly. “Promise.”

“Be sssilent or we will ssshoot you!”

“Now I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “I mean on the one hand Huritas is probably just about done with me, which means…”

“I sssaid ssshut up!”

“… you could probably get away with shooting me. I mean your boss is the understanding type, right?” He met the eyes of one, then the other. “Not one prone to holding grudges?”

“Be sssilent!”

“So, I mean, if you shoot me and she’s not done milking me for every drop of information she can get… she’d be okay with that. Right?”

The closer of the two responded by opening her mouth and hissing at him from the back of her throat. It was a ferocious and truly heartfelt expression of rage and frustration. Weamond raised the glass in his hand, smiled pleasantly, and winked.

********

Mike Durden blinked and shook his head. It was hard to think, and there was a high pitched ringing in his ears that made him want to scream. He felt strange and cold. He blinked his eyes. There was a flash of light that was strangely distorted and he realized that his eyes were full of water. Sprinkler system? he thought. That didn’t make sense. A space station wouldn’t use a water based fire suppression system. Would it? He blinked and shifted, groaning as his body protested the recent abuse. Then his mind produced a single coherent thought that instantly cut through the haze.

Was that a grenade?!

He blinked again and shoved himself up to his knees. He was surrounded by the wreckage of the bar. The wall between the bar and dining room was bellied toward him. The plastic panels were stretched and whitened from the stress, standing out off the twisted structure beneath them. Lights were hanging from their power cables in the ceiling, blinking and sparking from the damage. The mirror and all the bottles behind the bar were broken. Beside him the pool table, which had stood directly before the open passageway between the bar and dining room, was shoved not just against the wall but smashed into it. Above him a pressurized water pipe sprayed a thick mist over the entire sports end of the bar, including him.

He shook his head, trying to clear the haze from it, when he heard a woman groan right next to him. “Was that a fracking grenade?!” she demanded.

“Yeah,” Mike heard himself groan in answer. The instant the word was out of his mouth he realized that both the question and his answer were spoken in American English. Beside him the woman rolled out from under some rubble, lifted her head and stared him right in the eye. Mike suddenly found himself staring into the vivid green eyes of Erika Chinomu… and she’d just realized the same thing he did.

“You’re from Earth!” she said accusingly.

“Yes I am,” Mike grinned amiably and raised his empty left hand in the time honored greeting of an American cowboy, while pointedly keeping his body between her and his right hand, which was slowly moving toward the compact EMP pistol in his waistband. “Grew up in Houston, Texas,” he said, calm and slow as a Sunday afternoon. “Where’re you from, honey?”

Her eyes narrowed, growing intense as she studied him. “San Diego,” she said suspiciously. “What the hell are you doing here?!

He’d managed to get his hand on the gun holstered in the back of his trousers. Then leaned forward to give himself room to draw it. “Well ma’am,” he smiled, “I am here on business.”

“What business?” she asked, blinking blearily as water dripped into her eyes. She groaned as she swayed onto the balls of her feet.

“Well,” Mike showed her his best smile as he pulled the pistol from its clutch at his back, “hunting traitors and other such scum, ma’am.” He brought the weapon around as fast as he could.

“Oh hell no!” she shouted and leapt forward. She blocked the barrel of the gun by grabbing it and his wrist with both hands. He reached forward to pull her close to him as she forced the barrel down and away from her. He, being the stronger, pulled her toward him, but she twisted and squirmed like a live eel in his grasp. She managed to press the weapon against his own thigh and was trying to lever the barrel directly at the last part of his anatomy he wanted in front of a loaded firearm. He grabbed hold of the hair at the nape of her neck and tried to pull her off balance but she reacted instantly with a solid elbow to his chin. He growled in frustration and snatched her off balance, trying to twist around and get on top of her while simultaneously trying to keep the weapon away from his groin. The woman was somehow giving him far more trouble than he expected. As she fell she twisted violently and lunged up into him. A bright wave of stunned nausea leapt up into his belly.

“Oh, you bitch!” he cursed. She’d kneed him right in the nuts.

Her answer was a predatory yowl and an instant later he glimpsed her hand come up and around from behind her. There was something in it. The last thing he saw was a flash of bright red surrounding a small white circle enclosing a black number 3.

Crack!

********

Seldon groaned inwardly.

“What the frak is going on here?!” At least Chinomu was alive. “These guys are Terran!”

“Aaaah-Ow!” Tasha whined. “That really hurt! I think I broke another rib.” Then she blinked. “Was that a grenade?!”

“Aye,” Gin said from behind her.

“Did you hear me?!” Chinomu demanded. “These guys are Terran!”

Tasha saw a shape appear in the gloom behind Chinomu. It held a gun in one hand. “DOWN!” she roared and Chinomu immediately dropped to the floor and covered her head with her hands. Seldon fired twice and the man with a gun in his hand died messily in the shadows beyond the ruined pool table.

“What the hell is going on here?!” Chinomu demanded as she looked up.

Tasha grabbed hold of the bar and dragged herself to her feet. Through the ringing in her ears she heard the hiss and patter of water, the groans of the injured and the distant sounds of alarms. She glanced back toward the dining area and saw a lot of black. The lights were completely gone and the place was lit only by long wedges of light from adjacent compartments and the intermittent sparks from shorting high voltage lines. There was a lot of charring, and in the center of the room there seemed to be a fairly substantial hole in the deck. Two of the four pilots who’d been hassling them were now burnt pudding on the walls. One was staring wide eyed at the ceiling and clutching a piece of shrapnel in his chest, and the last was the guy she’d set on fire.

“Well, hon,” she said in answer to Chinomu’s question, “if I had to guess, I’d say people are trying to kill us.”

“Well yeah!” Chinomu growled, getting back to her feet. “I got that part. But why?!”

“Welcome to my life,” Gin said from behind Seldon.

“No,” Tasha groaned. Her ribs hurt and her face was bleeding. “That grenade chucker was Teladi,” she said, “and they don’t give a rat’s ass about human augmentation.”

“So back to my original question…” Chinomu began again.

Just then there was a loud BLAM! and the half-wall beneath the bar exploded outward just beside Gin. Gin jumped to the side but Tasha saw the spray of blood amidst the bits and pieces of disintegrating plastic and steel. An instant later there was another BOOM! and another spray of shrapnel. Someone was behind the bar and shooting at her friend. Seldon immediately shoved her pistol over the bar and began firing. Her first shot was aimed straight down at the source of the shots.

“Shit!” She heard a man curse followed by the tinkle and scrape of glass as he tried to scramble for cover. The second shot she aimed at the scrabble and was gratified by another curse, this one sounding pained. By that point she was looking over the bar and saw the white crescent of Chet the bartender’s plumber’s crack. Her third shot blasted a hole right in the seat of his pants. The man instantly screeched, octaves above his normal range. She fired twice more and Chet stopped screaming.

“I shoulda known he was trouble,” she said, “serving me that swill like he was doing me a favor.” She turned to Gin. “You alright?!” she asked. A single glance showed blood and gore below the woman’s knees.

“I’ll live,” Gin said through clenched teeth. “I think we should really get the hell out of here, though.”

“Roger that,” Eri agreed behind her. Then, beyond Chinomu, there was the sound of falling tile and the sound of an angry groan. She whirled and leveled her pistol at the sound. A man grunted from underneath a small mountain of tile. There was a pistol in his hand and a tattoo on his forearm. The tattoo showed a planet she guessed was Earth. It was the dome of a skull beneath a military insignia. She fired twice more and another man stopped making noise.

“Get the hell out of here, aye,” Tasha agreed.

“So… really,” Chinomu asked. Her speech was still a little blurry. “What the hell is going on here?! Does this kind of thing happen often?”

Gin and Seldon both glanced at Eri, then at each other. After a moment they both shrugged. “Kinda,” Seldon said, stepping over to help Gin. “The kid has a way of pissing people off and the rest of us are along for the ride.”

Gin saw her coming and shook her head. “It’s cosmetic. I’ll be fine.”

“You sure? That looks really nasty, girl.”

Gin nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Oh yeah,” Gin said through bared teeth.

Seldon frowned, then leaned over the bar and shot Chet again. “Dick.” There was a muffled Whump! and a moment later Seldon watched flames leap up the back wall. It took her mind a moment to realize that all the alcohol from those broken bottles was now on fire. “Whoops,” she mumbled.

“What the ****?” Seldon turned toward the exclamation and when she looked up she saw Eri. The woman was stood as still as the paralyzed Teladi with the grenade had been. She was staring at something behind Seldon. Tasha turned and followed her gaze. It was then she realized that she could still hear the beeps and boops of the computer game. An instant later she felt as if reality had taken a turn somewhere and she’d failed to follow. At the very center of the bar, directly between the two open doorways into the dining room, and thus shielded from the explosion by the bulging and crumbling wall behind her, a woman sat holding a drink with an umbrella in it. The woman was currently scowling at the holographic screen of a computerized trivia game while chewing on the straw to the concoction in her hand, apparently oblivious to the devastation all around her, including the now roaring flames just several meters in front of her.

********

Sabine was pissed. She was three questions away from a multi-million credit prize and didn’t know the answer to the current question. She turned her head and saw three women looking at her. She took the straw out of her mouth and glared at one, then another and finally the last. What the hell? It was worth a shot.

“According to Aristotle,” she said, “under Athenian law the uprooting of this tree was punishable by death. What tree was it? And remember,” she pointed at them with the tip of her straw, “you have to phrase your answer in the form of a question.”

********

“Errr…” Seldon wondered if she’d hit her head when the grenade went off.

Gin silently arched an incredulous eyebrow.

“ ‘What is the olive tree?’ ” Eri supplied instantly.

At the video game, the woman’s eyes seemed to swell right out of her face. Her lips peeled back from her teeth in a predatory grin. “What is the OLIVE TREE!” She cackled a witchlike laugh and immediately bent over the keyboard to tap the answer into the machine. “Take that, ILoveFish38!”

One of the light fixtures crashed to the deck less than a meter away. Seldon flinched and jumped away from it. Then she shook her head and looked at her friends. Gin was actually gaping. Eri, on the other hand, merely looked smug and was leaning in to look over the gamer’s shoulder.

“Can we go, now?!” Tasha demanded.

“Please,” Gin replied plaintively.

That was when Seldon saw another squad of armed Teladi setting up across the third floor mezzanine on the far walkway across from the bar. “Oh shit!” she growled. “We’ve got more company!”

Gin nodded but Chinomu didn’t seem to notice. Seldon grabbed the woman by the arm and proceeded to drag her away from the game. “What?” Eri blinked as Seldon hauled her toward the mezzanine. “Hey!” Eri shouted back over her shoulder. “What’s the next question?!”

“Really?!” Seldon snapped at her.

********

Aboard the Osan’gar Ea’t leaned back in his chair. His bright green eyes blazed with a low, dangerous light. He took a long, slow drag from the thousand credit spaceweed cigar in his left hand, then lifted the flask in his right to take an even longer, slower pull. All the while he scowled at the holo-screen before him.

“‘What is the Olive Tree?’” he breathed in a low, deadly whisper. Then he belched. “Split should have known that.” He took another puff from his cigar and nodded. It was okay, he decided. There were two questions left, he was ahead by three hundred points… and one of the categories was ancient Split weaponry.

Ea’t bared his teeth in a truly terrifying expression.

********

The Centaur ‘Sinon’ emerged from the event horizon of the Savage Spur east gate. It lifted its nose and as it angled out of the gate. The flight crew noted the Yaki kariudo holding station fifteen clicks directly in front of them and exchanged tense glances. The nose continued to rise until the bulk of the Nova Somnia station appeared before them. In the Sinon’s disembarkation area eight genetically and cybernetically augmented marines checked the seals, software and power supplies in their armor, loaded and charged their weapons and finally exchanged grim nods with each other. Task force Harvester had one purpose: to bring the Wrath of God down upon the enemies of GEOSS.

********

The girls dashed from the bar before the Teladi were in place. They crossed ten meters of open ground toward a subsidiary corridor while the Teladi opened fire. Glass, steel and burning plastic erupted from the walls and ceiling to fall across the faux wooden deck of the third floor mezzanine walkway.

“This is not my idea of a fun night out!” Seldon screamed through the hail of phase fire and falling plaster. A moment later she lunged through the air into the shelter of a short, dead end corridor leading to rest-room facilities for several different species and multiple genders. She crashed to the deck with Eri right beside her. Gin was already pressed against the bulkhead to her left and studying the Teladi’s position.

“So,” Eri gasped from beside Seldon, “we never did… establish why people… are trying to kill us!”

Seldon groaned as she picked herself up off the deck. Her ribs were hurting and her ears were ringing. “Well,” she pointed out, “the bums at the bar were bigots who overheard you out Gin.”

“I didn’t out…!”

“And if I had to guess,” Seldon steamrolled Eri’s objections, “I’d say those Terrans are part of that Wakiya task force that’s been giving Drake such a hard time.”

“Task force?” Eri blinked. “What task force?”

“And as far as the Teladi go,” Seldon winced as the corner was blasted free above Gin’s head and showered the corridor with shrapnel, “I’d put my money on Huritas!”

Gin scowled at the mention of Surachach Irechli clan leader.

“Oop!” Seldon’s own eyes went wide. “There’s the angry face!”

“I’ve heard a great many things about that bitch,” Gin stated, “and I don’t like any of them.”

“Oh!” Eri groaned. “I am gonna have such a hangover tomorrow!”

Seldon and Gin exchanged one of the telepathic looks common between good friends. “We can hope,” Gin shrugged.

“You got any marines on that ship of yours?” Seldon asked. Gin shook her head. “Time to call the kid?”

Gin nodded. “We should probably find some better cover as well…”

“Aye,” Seldon nodded, “before another one of those lizards starts chuckin’ grenades at us.” She leaned over, took Chinomu’s hand and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, baby girl! We got to go!”

“I think I hate you,” Eri said musingly. “I could have been back on the Necromancer, lying in my rack, reading a good book…”

“Yeah yeah! Blame me later! Like when we’re back on the ship laughing about all this…”

“Necromancer this is Silver Wolf,” Gin was saying into her communicator. “Come in. Necromancer this is Silver Wolf, please respond.”

“Nothing?” Seldon asked.

“No. They must be jamming us.”

“Oh that’s just great,” Eri said, leaning back against the wall. She smacked her lips. “You know I think I’m getting the munchies.”

“Stick a fork in her,” Seldon grunted.

“A fork?” Eri mused. “Well that’s no fun.” She looked at Seldon and there was a dark, dangerous heat in the woman’s eyes. “I can think of a lot of things that would feel a whole lot better than a fork to…”

“Enough,” Gin cut her off. “We need a plan.”

“Yeah!” Seldon agreed. Her heart was pounding and she was starting to breathe heavily. “Can it and focus girl!” She slapped Eri’s arm with the back of her hand. Eri stuck her lower lip out in what Seldon thought was an absolutely delicious pout. Seldon rolled her eyes, mostly at herself. I am in so much trouble! she thought, and forced her attention back to Gin and the situation at hand. “Well,” she said, “they’re in between us and the ship,” she pointed out. “We can’t talk out and we ain’t got no EVA suits. So what the hell do we do?”

“Cut through the jamming?” Gin suggested.

“Not if they’re using the station’s shields to do it,” Seldon said. “If that’s the case, and it prolly is, then the only way we’re gonna be talking out is by using their encryption.”

“Would one of their comm units be enough?”

Seldon shrugged. “Maybe. I mean the Necromancer is only about ten klicks that way.” Seldon pointed past the Teladi on the mezzanine. “Most of it through empty space. So yeah, even a short range unit could reach ‘em…”

“So it’ll work?”

Seldon shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Gin’s eyes narrowed.

“Don’t look at me like that! I’ve had more to drink than the two of you combined!”

“You have not!” Eri said, sounding decidedly blurred.

“Have too,” Seldon pointed out.

“You were drinking beer!”

“Beer and tequila,” Seldon corrected her, “while you were filling up on strawberry juice.”

Seldon turned back to Gin and saw the woman looking up at a ventilation duct in the lid, three meters off the deck. Gin met her eye. “I’m gonna go get one of those comm units.”

“Uh…” Seldon blinked, “…don’t get killed?”

Gin smiled thinly, then jumped straight up with enough force to dislodge the vent cover. She instantly grabbed the edges of the vent and pulled herself up into the shadows beyond it. It all happened so fast that it was like she vanished in a puff of air.

“Holy crap!” Eri exclaimed. “That was freaking awesome!”

Seldon turned and looked at her. “You do realize we’re gonna have to have a sit-down regardin’ what you said back in the bar, right?”

Eri blinked. “What’d I say?”

Seldon peeked around the corner and saw the Teladi spreading out. She took aim at the one closest to flanking their position and fired three shots in rapid succession. Two of them hit, and blasted the lizard into a screeching pinwheel. “Oh nothing much,” she answered Chinomu, “you only outed Gin as a cyborg to the entire frackin’ bar! Which reminds me…!”

“I didn’t ‘out’ anybody!”

“You totally did!” Seldon pointed out. “Which only happens to be her deepest, darkest secret and the thing she’s most afraid of people finding out…!”

“Well,” Eri deflected, “there’s!” She took a steadying breath. “There’s a… a reason I don’t drink! And what’s the big frakkin’ deal, anyway! You know those Body Temple nutjobs are the same idiots that’d have people dying of the common cold cos they think medicine is unnatural!”

“Body what?!” Seldon asked and then immediately fired another three shots at a briefly exposed Teladi. Her first shot hit but the other two went wild as the rest of the Teladi returned fire and threw her aim off.

“Body Temple,” Eri shrugged as if it were obvious, “fools back on Earth who think the human body shouldn’t be profaned by things like health care or basic hygiene. They do things like flush all their nanites and let their arms and legs stay broken after an accident… which means at least they tend to die a lot. But as far as they’re concerned cybernetic augmentations are right up there with pissing on baby Jesus.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Seldon fired three more shots and succeeded only in making the Teladi keep their heads down. “Who the hell’d pee on a baby?”

Eri made a disgusted noise and rolled her eyes.

“Look,” Seldon said, “all I know is that Gin didn’t voluntarily get augmented.” Seldon looked Eri in the eyes to make her point. “Somebody did that to her!”

“Why?!”

“Hell if I know! They were trying to, I don’t know,” Seldon waved her hand, “make an assassin or something. She spent the last five jazura thinking every person she met would be the one that killed her. Then you go and tell everyone in ear shot about her…” she rounded on Chinomu, “… and how do you know about it, anyway?!”

Eri blinked in surprise. “Her hair doesn’t grow,” she said as if it was obvious.

“What?!”

“Her hair doesn’t grow! Well, I mean… maybe it can, but it’s always the same length and she doesn’t seem the vain type, you know? Meticulously trimming her hair every day... so once I noticed that I started paying more attention and after a while I noticed other things.” Eri shrugged. “Her nails don’t grow. She never gets acne. She always smells exactly the same, even after a few hours in a flight suit. I mean she has an odor but it never changes, and everybody smells different at different times. If I eat a lot of garlic for example I start to…”

“You figured out she’s a cyborg cause her frackin’ hair doesn’t grow?” Seldon was incredulous.

Eri blinked. “Yeah?”

Tasha realized her mouth was open just as the Teladi started screeching across the mezzanine behind her. She leaned back around the corner and saw a scene that her mind could only classify as ‘Teladi in a blender’.

********

“Holy shit,” Eri said as she looked past Seldon. On the far side of the gallery on opposite walkway, beyond fifteen meters of open air over a three story fall, the scene taking place was both gruesome and awe inspiring. Gin’s speed and power were almost beyond comprehension. Blood, gore and various dismembered body parts were flying about like weeds under a lawn mower. One Teladi, who sounded to Eri just like a panicking Rhesus monkey, began to bound away on all fours. Beside her, Seldon was stood still, watching with wide eyes and open mouth. “Well?!” Eri demanded of her.

Seldon blinked and met her gaze. “What?!”

“Shoot the bitch!” Eri waved at the terrified lizard.

Seldon blinked, stunned by the suggestion. “You shoot her!”

Eri blinked, remembering the EMP pistol under her right arm. She drew left handed, stepped back into the two handed Weaver stance and then squinted over the barrel. After a moment she growled in frustration. The tritium sights simply refused to line up on target. “Shit,” she cursed. “I’m too drunk to shoot straight.”

“Damn,” Seldon scoffed, “you are a lightweight.”

“Well you shoot her, then!”

“No!”

“Why not?!”

“I don’t know… ‘cause!” Seldon’s face screwed up as she thought of a reply. “She sounds….”

“Like an armed Teladi who was just trying to kill us!”

Seldon sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. Then, without even seeming to look, drew and fired one handed, blasting the fleeing Teladi in the back of the head from a distance of nearly thirty meters.

Eri’s mouth dropped open of its own accord. “Holy shit!” she was stunned. “That was incredible!”

“Yeah-well, it still feels like I just killed a puppy.”

Eri scoffed from the back of her throat. “That bitch has two grenades hanging from her belt and was just…”

“Yeah yeah!” Seldon waved a hand between them. “I know. But that damn sound she was making was just so…” Seldon scrunched her face up dramatically and shivered.

Eri barely heard the woman. She was staring at Gin, who was standing in the middle of what easily could have been the scene from a particularly gruesome horror movie, well a Teladi horror movie anyway. All the blood and gore was green. “How the hell did she do that?” Eri asked, stunned.

Seldon looked at her like she was one of the dimmer bulbs in the box. “She ran in there and used those stupid-sharp knives to cut ‘em to pieces. What the hell does it look like?” Seldon shook her head as she started jogging toward their friend.

“Yeah but!” Eri said from behind her, “she’s totally clean! There’s not a drop of blood on her!”

********

Seldon blinked. Chinomu was right. Gin was spotless. As they jogged up Gin was stripping one of the communication units from the headless corpse of a child sized body. “Goddamn, girl! How the hell did you do that?!”

“That’s what I said!” Eri stated, looking at the pools of spreading ichor and streaks of arterial spray surrounding Gin.

Gin calmly looked at the pair of them with mild curiosity. Then shrugged. “Practice,” she said, and there was a resignation in the word that Seldon understood immediately. Time to change the subject.

“Right… err, let me see that,” she gestured to the comm unit in Gin’s hand. The other woman turned it over. Seldon noted the current frequency then changed it to the one Drake’s personnel used. She was greeted by silence. “Reaper One to Necromancer, come in,” she said and waited. All she heard was a soft, slightly fuzzy silence. “This is Reaper One to Necromancer, come in.”

“Well shit,” Eri grumbled. “I guess that means no back-up.”

Gin looked at Seldon and arched an eyebrow.

“Don’t look at me that way,” Seldon told her. “I didn’t make any promises.”

“I take it that means we’re on our own?” Eri asked.

“Yeah,” Seldon sighed. “I was kind of afraid of that.”

“Afraid of what?” Gin asked.

“I’m thinking they only left one frequency open.” She gestured at the mess on the deck. “The one they use, which is also encrypted. Which means nobody on the Necromancer is gonna be listening or able to understand anything even if they do.” She dialed the comm unit back to the enemy frequency and paired her own earpiece to the unit. Gin and Eri both nodded, immediately seeing the benefit to listening in on enemy comms. The only problem, Seldon soon realized, was that the enemy was speaking Thechlachi and she didn’t understand a single chirp.

“So what now?” Eri asked.

“Now we head back to the ship,” Gin stated.

“Err…?” Eri balked. “Won’t they be expecting us to do that?”

“Yep,” Seldon nodded. She lifted her pistol and checked the charge. It read 18, meaning eighteen percent of the charge pack remaining, or between three and eighteen shots depending on the weapon’s power setting. She had two more mags but they wouldn’t be enough for a prolonged firefight. So she dropped the pistol into the holster on her thigh and collected one of the rifles the Teladi carried. It was an NMMC Talon 1200-J, a compact, powerful repeating phase rifle known for both it’s reliability and adjustability.

Like most things the Teladi produced it was made to be used by, and thus sold to, all of the commonwealth races. So after taking it off the dead Teladi, Seldon quickly extended the double looped bandolier sling, slipped it over her head and right arm, then clipped the second loop around her midsection and finally adjusted all the straps so both the weapon and magazine pouch hung comfortably against her midsection. Once that was done she adjusted the rifle stock to her shoulder, the pistol grip and trigger housing to fit her hand, and finally activated the laser sight beside the barrel and used it as a marker to adjust the scope and sights to her face. When finished she glanced up and saw Eri watching her. To Seldon the woman looked like she'd just found herself out of her depth. Gin, on the other hand, was calm and cool as always. The woman seemed to be studying the mezzanine and Tasha guessed she was either listening with her super hearing or staring through walls with her super eyes. So she turned her attention back to Eri.

“You might want to grab a weapon,” she told the pilot. Eri nodded but otherwise didn’t move. Seldon bent down and began stripping ammo from the corpse belonging to the rifle she’d just appropriated. “Seriously, girl,” Seldon told her, “this is gonna be a slog. That pistol you’re packing ain’t gonna get the job done.”

“Yeah,” Eri said, sounding resigned, and started moving. She bent down beside another of the corpses and collected another Talon 1200. “Small arms aren’t exactly my forte,” she admitted. “I prefer Tenjins… and long range missiles.”

“Yeah well,” Seldon said, “we left all those back on the Necromancer. Besides, the CAG said 'no'.”

"Frak you."

Seldon chuckled.

“Wrap it up,” Gin said. “We’ve got incoming.”

“Shit,” Seldon groused.

“Oh yeah!” Eri complained, stuffing a stolen mag into a back pocket. “Let’s go out! Have a few drinks! It’ll be fun! You know I could have been…”

“Oh shut up! I wanted to go to Argon Prime! I told you this place was a dive and…”

“Knock it off,” Gin silenced her. “This station is infested with Drake’s enemies. We need to get back to the ship, get the hell out of here, and let him know so he can send in the marines.”

“Right,” Seldon accepted the reprimand. “First stop,” she said, “we need a computer tied into the station.” She nodded down a side passage. “There should be a security station overlooking the mall.” She pointed. “This way.”

********

Durden winced at the pain in his head. Goddamned southpaws! They were always so damned hard to predict. They did everything backwards. Chinomu snuck that 3-ball in right past his peripheral vision and hit him on the head hard enough to knock him out cold. He suspected that she fractured his skull above and behind his right eye. Now his head was throbbing and the entire right side of his face was swollen up so bad that he could barely see out of it. The blood in his ears was so loud that it sounded like he was back in utero. Bright lights and loud noises were just about intolerable, which made the task ahead of him, namely leading his men into a firefight, more than a little daunting.

Ahead of them their targets vacated the mezzanine balcony, which overlooked the main promenade two stories below. He held up his hand to keep the other three men back in the shadows behind him. He’d lost three men in the bar. Another two were injured and couldn’t move or fight. Goddamned Teladi! He cursed inwardly. Letting Teladi handle explosives was like letting an epileptic drive for NASCAR, both were sure to produce spectacular forms of disaster. Well, there were five more lizards littering the mezzanine walkway ahead of him that wouldn’t be making that -or any other- mistake ever again.

“Shee-it, Sarge!” Eddie Dobrowski remarked from beside him. “That is one pissed off cyborg.”

“No, Eddie,” Mike replied through clenched teeth. “That was not anger. That was just business.”

“Funny, that don’t make me feel any better.”

“Good,” Mike said. “It wasn't supposed to. Don’t get careless with these three, fellas.” He winced at the pain in his head. “Trust me…”

“So what’s the plan, Gunny?” Dave Chavez asked him.

“Well,” Mike said, “command wants the cyborg alive,” he told them, “but if it comes down to a choice between her or one of us… you aim for the head. Her body is synthetic but her brain is still meat. You shoot until that brain is cooked and smoking on the deck, you hear?”

“Oorah,” they answered quietly but together.

“What about the other two?”

“The marine could be useful for intel,” he offered, “but you are not to get yourself killed trying to bring her in, you hear?”

“And the traitor?”

“Blow her away and get a picture.” He turned and faced them. “Listen,” he said, “backup is on the way. All we need to do is to keep the three of them corralled until the heavy hitters arrive.”

“And not get killed in the process, right Sarge?” Anthony D’Angello suggested.

“Always.”

From the balcony on the far side of promenade a screaming Teladi appeared out of the shadows ahead. The Teladi hurtled through empty space, clawing and grasping at empty air as she passed over the railing. She twisted and writhed in a desperate attempt to change her fate, but it was too late. A moment later the four men watched the creature vanish beneath the edge of the railinged deck ahead of them. It seemed like she screamed for a very long time before crashing onto the hard tile three stories below.

“Right,” Eddie mused aloud, “and just how are the four of us going to keep the three of them from going anywhere they feel inclined to go?”

“Through the timely and judicious application of force, Eddie,” Mike informed him. “How else?”

“Meaning you haven’t a clue.”

Mike glanced at the nearest Teladi corpse, and the grenades still hanging from her belt. “Oh, I have an idea or two.”

********

Eri was trying to duplicate how Seldon wore the rifle’s harness and bandolier. The marine made it look effortless but Eri couldn’t quite get it comfortable. It was either too loose, restricted her movement or just chafed miserably. Of the three she figured chafing was probably the best she could hope for. She sighed heavily in an attempt to dispel the tension from her gut. Considering that people were trying to hunt them down and kill them she supposed she could tolerate a little discomfort.

She felt terribly exposed. They were standing on a bridge between the east and west walkways of the third floor mezzanine, camped out behind the security office that overlooked the promenade below. From the outside the office appeared to be constructed entirely of one-way HyperGlass that would allow the officers within to look out unnoticed, the better to catch people doing something they weren’t supposed to, she supposed. She and Gin were acting as lookouts while Seldon crossed wires and attempted to bypass the lockout, power the hatch and let them into the office. From two meters away there was a sudden spark and Seldon jumped.

“Goddamn it!” the woman cursed and shook her hand. It was one of those ancient reflexes built into the human genome, perfect for shaking off something small that just sank its teeth into your fingers.

“You alright?” Gin asked from the other side of the office, where she was using the far corner for cover and watching for enemies, just like Eri was doing.

“Let’s just say that a pocket knife and wishful thinking are no substitute for a plasma cutter and bypass kit,” Seldon grumbled. Gin nodded and said nothing.

Eri pulled the midriff strap for her rifle sling to take some of the slack out of the harness but only succeeded at making it too tight to breathe properly. She just could not get the damned thing comfortable. “Damn it,” she hissed and began working on loosening the strap she’d just cinched tight. There was a sudden electric pop! behind her, followed immediately by the pneumatic hiss of an opening hatch.

“There it is!” Seldon announced, obviously pleased with herself. Followed by a slightly breathless, “oh shit!”

Eri stepped backward away from her corner and leaned to look into the office. There were two men in station security uniforms lying on the deck. “Oh frack!” she exclaimed, stunned.

“Close range,” Seldon pointed out, “back of the head. Both still have their side arms holstered.” She sighed. “They probably knew whoever killed them.”

“Likely other security personnel,” Gin opined. “I suspect Huritas has been spreading a lot of money around this station.”

Eri was looking at Seldon’s face. “You alright?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Seldon nodded, then shrugged. “I hired that one,” she said and pointed at a name tag.

“Oh,” Eri winced, “that sucks.”

Seldon stepped over the two corpses and plugged her wrist computer into the network. Eri looked down at the two men on the floor. Low yield or not the weapons used on them had destroyed both men’s features. From the neck up neither was recognizable as human any longer. She tilted her head to look at them from a different angle. More like meat fresh off a grill, she thought. An instant later she felt her stomach turn over.

“Oh,” she looked away, “I’m never eating barbecue again…”

Gin exhaled a soft snort beside her. Eri looked and saw that she was wearing a sympathetic expression. Gin turned toward Seldon. “How’s it coming?” she asked.

“I’ve got schematics,” Seldon replied. “I’m trying to access the cameras and bio-scanners but somebody’s got ’em locked down.”

“Probably looking for us right now,” Gin suggested ominously.

“Which means,” Eri sighed, “they know where we are.” The other two women looked at her and Eri lifted her eyes to the lid. The other two followed her gaze. There was a dark plastic bubble in the middle of the security office ceiling.

“Camera,” Gin confirmed.

“With another one right outside the door,” Eri added.

“And dozens more throughout the promenade,” Seldon added.

“Frack,” Eri cursed.

“No no,” Seldon smiled dangerously. “It’s a good thing.”

“How is that a good thing?” Eri asked, unconvinced.

“We’ll use that coverage against ‘em.”

“You’ve got a plan?” Gin asked.

“‘Plan’ might be a little strong, but,” Seldon pointed at the schematics on the holoscreen. “There’s a cargo hold here,” she said. “If we lead ‘em there and seal the door behind us then we can leave unnoticed…”

“I only see one exit from that hold,” Eri pointed out.

“That’s cos you don’t know what you’re looking at,” Seldon replied. “There are four exits from that hold.” Seldon pointed. “The main access to and from the station.” Her finger moved to another spot on the holo-screen. “Two maintenance tunnels,” she glanced at the other two women and then shrugged, “and the cargo loader.”

“The cargo loader?!” Eri echoed.

“It uses beaming technology to load crates aboard ships docked at the station.”

“I know what it is…” Eri stated.

“That’d actually be the easiest way off this dump," Seldon mused, "just climb into some packing crates and have the computer beam us directly aboard the Hyperion…”

“Except…” Gin corrected her.

“Except the Hyperion isn’t expecting incoming transfers,” Seldon nodded, “and without the ability to communicate with them the computer will automatically deny the transfer.”

“What happens then?”

“Depending on the protocol,” Seldon thought about it, “it could either re-materialize us back inside the hold or…”

“Or?”

“Or just scatter our asses across the cosmos.” She grimaced. “Turning us into nothin’ but static in the radio signals.”

“Yeah-uhmm…” Eri took a deep breath, “how about we file that under ‘last case scenario’? You know: right next to ‘never’?”

Seldon chuckled. “I’m thinking about this maintenance tunnel,” she pointed. “We can access it through the lid in the cargo hold and then make our way from there all the way,” she traced the line across the station, “to this service tunnel here behind the wholesale office, which just happens to be right next to the landing platform.”

“Umm,” Eri pointed at the schematic, “is that a ten meter drop there?”

“Yup,” Seldon smiled a tense, brittle grin back at her. “It’s gonna be dirty, tight, and require some upper body strength. But you do see where it gets us, right?”

Eri nodded.

“And if they’re doing things even remotely like I’d do ‘em,” she leaned back on her heels to look at both women and drive her point home, “then going through the station will get us very dead. We’d run into resistance here,” she pointed at another security office over the promenade. It would make an excellent sniper nest. “Here,” she pointed at a narrowing of the promenade were it led to the station security terminal. The narrowing was almost twenty meters of open ground with no cover and lots of places both before and behind for enemies with rifles to cut them to pieces. “And here,” Seldon pointed to the landing platform itself, a wide open area without much cover that they would have to cross to reach their ship.

“Those are some nasty kill boxes,” Gin stated.

“Yes they are,” Seldon agreed, and there was that brittle smile again.

“Frak,” Eri sighed.

“No, we’re fine,” Seldon smiled that glassy smile some more. Then, under her breath, “as long as they don’t figure out what we’re up to…”

“Anything on their comms?” Gin asked.

“Lots,” Seldon nodded. “Lots of chirping. It’s a little like listening to birds singing.”

“So nothing useful?”

“Well,” Seldon shrugged. “They’re kinda wound up,” she offered.

“Me too,” Eri pointed out.

“Shit!” Gin hissed.

An instant later something thunked! off the back wall of the office. Eri looked down and saw a faceted silver sphere with a blinking green light lying barely half a meter in front of her right toe. Plasma grenade, her mind calmly identified it.

“Oh, HELL NO!” Seldon bellowed.

An instant later, without thinking about it at all, Eri stepped forward and calmly kicked the grenade back through the office’s open hatch, then watched it bounce and roll toward the edge of the bridge they were on. Gin lunged past her and hit the control to close the hatch. From behind a pair of strong hands grabbed Eri by the shoulders and yanked her off her feet.

An instant after that… the world went white.

Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Wed, 26. Oct 16, 06:51    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

... continued.

********

There was another of those station shaking Whumps! and all the glassware rattled in the kitchen. Several plates and glasses tumbled off the shelves and shattered on the countertops and hard tile floor. Kriss turned, finding himself genuinely concerned.

“Alright,” he said, “now that was too fracking close!”

The two Teladi seemed to think so too. Neither told him to shut up or threatened to end his life. They chirped back and forth energetically. Then one moved to the hatch where she accessed the hall cameras. The images came up on the holo-screen while the other tried to divide her attention between her comrade and Kriss. Kriss himself was straining to hear what sounded like shouts and gunfire down the corridor. From where he was standing, the holo-screens beside the door could be mostly blotted out by one thumb held at arm’s length.

“Is that right outside?” he asked.

“Ssshut up!” the one guarding him hissed dangerously. This time Kriss decided to heed the warning.

********

Tasha groaned through the ringing in her ears. She could hear men shouting orders to each other, and the distinctive ring of Gin’s phase pistol. She blinked and then felt the warm weight of Erika Chinomu pressing against the inside of her thighs. She opened her eyes, saw the top of the woman’s head in her crotch and suddenly couldn’t breathe. As she watched Eri groaned and propped herself up on an elbow, then turned and, realizing where she was, grinned with evil amusement.

“Four men,” Gin shouted at them, “spread out behind us. The remainder of that group from the bar. They’ve picked the Teladi clean,” her eyes narrowed, “including the grenades.”

“I knew I should have taken those,” Seldon griped. She met Eri’s gaze, which was very obviously, and very lewdly, looking her up and down as if she might be good to… Seldon shivered. “You need to get off me right now!” she barked. “I can’t think with you breathing on my va-jay-jay like that!”

Eri grinned.

Gin fired through the shattered glass of the security station. “There moving to surround us!”

“I’m not kidding!” Tasha barked again, and Eri winced as if slapped. “Move!” Seldon shoved the other woman and quickly rolled onto her feet. A moment later she was tucked up beside the doorframe.

“We need to get the hell out of here!” Gin stated, ducking as bright lances of red phase fire rippled and blasted the outside of the security station.

“Where are they?!” Seldon asked, keeping low behind cover.

“If the hatch is twelve," Gin said, "then one’s at ten, one’s at two, and two at four.”

“I’ve got ten and two, you take four. Keep them from surrounding us.”

“That’s what I’ve been working on!” Gin growled back.

*********

Eri shook her head. It was hard to think, and her feelings were stinging from Seldon’s rebuke. Damn it! she thought. This was why she didn’t drink. Alcohol confused everything. They were in the middle of a firefight and all she could think about was the way Latasha Seldon smelled, and the feisty, crooked way she smiled. Goddamn it, girl! she cursed herself. Get your head in the game!

“Grenade at four o'clock!” Gin shouted.

“Oh shit!” Eri breathed, sure they were about to die. Instead she felt Tasha focus, aim and fire. Fourteen meters away the woman’s shot caused a fist sized object hurtling through the air to ricochet back toward the man who’d thrown it. For an instant all seven participants in the firefight seemed to pause, as if taking a sudden breath. Then the two men taking cover behind a bank of potted plants dove away from the live grenade that just landed behind them. An instant later the grenade exploded, vaporizing the plants, shattering the industrial plastic pots they sat within and sending one of the two men screaming over the edge of the third story balcony as a human torch. The other was momentarily stunned, staring at his dying mate. An instant later his torso was ripped apart by the singing impacts of Gin’s phase pistol.

********

Mike Durden was distantly aware that he was screaming. He could barely see through the vibration in his weapon’s reflex sight, and was only peripherally aware of the rapidly changing numerals indicating the remaining charge in its pack. Twenty meters away he lit up the entire side of the security hut facing him, superheating exposed metal and melting glass with high velocity plasma bolts. He knew he was out of control but couldn’t seem to rein himself in. Dave Chavez was a twitching corpse on the walkway to his left, and Anthony D’Angello was now just a lump of charred meat three stories below.

“I’m gonna flank ‘em!” Eddie screamed and leapt up and out of cover just as the readout on Mike’s charge pack hit zero. Horror ripped through his gut as the implications became clear.

“Eddie NO!” Mike said, reflexively ejecting the charge pack but knowing it was too late. Before the words were even out of his mouth there was another of those singing phase discharges and a brief, controlled burst of bright red plasma from the security hut. Five meters to Mike’s right Eddie Dobrowski died as his chest was torn and blasted into burning barbeque.

Mike was stunned. His mind and emotions were empty but his hands, trained by long, rigorous hours of repetition, slapped another charge pack into the weapon in his hands and pulled the charging lever. That was when it hit him: his entire team was gone.

********

Seldon took a slow breath and then looked at Gin.

“Nice shooting,” Gin told her.

“Yeah,” Tasha nodded. “You too. One more right?”

“Yes,” Gin dipped her chin. “He just reloaded but… his heartbeat’s fast and irregular and his breathing is shallow. I think he’s in shock.”

Seldon took another breath and then giggled. “Frak,” she said. “I think I am too.”

“We should get out of here,” Gin stated. “We’re too exposed.”

“Okay,” Seldon looked at Erika Chinomu. The pilot met her eye and nodded. She was pale and angry, but seemed to have her head about her. “You good?”

“Aye,” Chinomu nodded. “But I’m never drinking again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Seldon scoffed, “that’s what they all say. Go on,” she nodded toward a corridor off the walkway to her left. “I’ll cover you.”

********

The two Teladi were anxious. Kriss tried not to smile behind his bourbon. He couldn’t tell what they were saying but it was obvious that they were not happy. They chirped excitedly into their comm units. Whatever they were being told only added to their anxiety. Afterward they chirped to each other while both watching him and the feed from the cameras in the hall.

It had something to do with those explosions. He was sure of it. He suspected that whatever Huritas’ interest were on this station, those interests were now under attack. He took another sip of his bourbon and stared at the Necromancer. He was feeling just a little lubricated, and his mind was shifting easily over the surface of his thoughts. Staring at the Necromancer he understood what he wanted. It wasn’t to fly a fighter, or rather it wasn’t just to fly a fighter. It wasn’t to live on that ship again, or be with those people again. It was something simpler, and more subtle. It was also something so profound that he couldn’t quite bring himself to give voice to it even within the privacy of his own thoughts.

One of the Teladi chirped anxiously from the door. Kriss turned and he saw the holographic screen projected from the door controls. He glanced at the other guard, the one beside him, and saw that she too was looking at the door. Then he focused on that image. It was a good sized apartment and he was perhaps twelve meters from the door. Yet even so he could make out what the camera was showing. It was mounted high above the other side of the hatch, inside a small plastic bubble. It was at that moment angled all the way to the left, showing a strange view of the corridor outside the apartment. He squinted, thinking he could see figures down the hall. Then there were flashes of light that could only be the discharging of directed energy weapons. An instant later he heard a series of shots hit the far side of the wall and once more the glasses rattled on their shelves.

********

“Goddamn it!” Tasha screamed and ducked as a short burst of plasma tore the wall apart in front of her. She shucked to the left and then dove to the right, putting a corner between her and the man following them.

“You all right?” Gin called back to her.

Seldon could smell the god awful stench of her own burnt hair. “I’ll live,” she growled. "But I'm gonna kill this son of a bitch." She looked down the hall toward Gin and Eri. The way the station was designed, every apartment hatch was recessed into the bulkhead, providing them with a small, half-meter deep alcove every fifteen meters or so to take cover in. She nodded to the left and right, which would have been enough for her marines but Gin and Eri weren’t trained to think like her and simply looked at her in confusion. “Take cover!” she barked. “And cover me!”

When they were in place she fell back, leapfrogging past the other two women to take cover behind another alcove ten meters past Gin. Then she immediately sighted down the hallway. Across the mall gallery she saw the bastard move to take cover behind another group of plants in large, peat filled boxes on the far side of the bridge with the security station. She quickly took several shots at him. Neither hit but they did make him put his head down and prevented him from taking aim to return fire.

“Chinomu!” she barked. “Fall back and take cover! Keep your head down!”

Chinomu ducked, turned and ran toward her. She was sweating and swaying some, but Tasha suspected that her adrenaline had sobered her up quite a bit. She passed Gin who took a single shot at the potted plants. Immediately afterward Seldon heard a man curse.

"You get him?!"

"No," Gin answered calmly as Chinomu ran past, "just pissed him off some."

Chinomu took cover in an alcove another meters down on the opposite side of the corridor.

“Ookami!” Seldon barked. “Your turn!”

********

Weamond was doing his best to remain calm, but it wasn't easy. The tension in the room had him expecting to see sparks jumping off his guards. The two Teladi were chirping furiously at each other. He couldn’t be sure but Kriss thought they were arguing over whether or not to ambush the people in the corridor. That suspicion was confirmed when the one by the door removed a grenade from her belt.

Kriss took a deep breath. He didn’t know what to do. If he remained calm and quiet he would probably survive at least until Huritas was done with him, at which point he was space debris. But if he made a move and tried to escape not only would his guards shoot him but whoever was in the hall might do so as well… and Kriss really didn’t want to get shot. He glanced at the Necromancer again, and again he felt that yearning he didn’t dare name even to himself.

One of the Teladi hissed at the other and even though he didn’t know the language he understood the tone perfectly. The one just told the other to be quiet! He turned around and immediately noted that neither of his guards were looking at him. The one by the door pulled the pin on the grenade in her hand and seemed to be getting ready to toss it through the hatch. The other was on her knees, using the raised floor of the kitchen and foyer as cover while sighting on the hatch.

“Oh shit,” he groaned and took a few steps back to take himself out of the line of fire in case any shots came back through the hatchway. Then he saw movement in the holoscreen. A woman ducked behind the half meter recess in the bulkhead that framed the hatch to the apartment. As she did he got a good look at her face. Then the Teladi opened the hatch.

********

Eri threw herself into the alcove. Just as she did Seldon told Gin that it was her turn. Her head was swimming. She could smell the rum coming out of her pores. She took a deep breath, aimed her weapon down the corridor and focused all her will on keeping it steady. Then there was the hiss of a pneumatic hatch opening behind her. She turned to glance over her shoulder when she heard a familiar voice scream her name.

“CHINOMU! IT’S A GRENADE! GET DOWN!!”

She looked back just as the hatch folded into the wall. As it did a scaly green claw tossed a matte-silver ball the size of a man’s fist into the corridor.

********

Gin was already running when the grenade hit the deck. Without thinking she snatched it up and tossed it back to the sender just as the pneumatic hatch hissed closed. Then she pirouetted, grabbed Chinomu and yanked the woman away from the bulkhead, falling on top of her as they hit the deck.

********

The instant the words left his mouth Kriss knew that he'd just committed. He saw the closer of his two guards turn. She looked stunned as she met his eye. Then the scale plates on her forehead flushed a dark red and she hissed violently.

Without thinking he tossed his drink in her face. The Teladi snarled and closed her eyes as crushed ice and the last of the bourbon splashed her face. She whipped the rifle around and for an instant Kriss knew he was dead. With nothing else to do he jumped to the side and threw the heavy highball glass after the drink it just contained. The glass hit his guard right on the snout. The Teladi yowled in pain and opened up with her rifle. It was set to fully automatic fire and the first three shots hit the window behind him, burning craters in the transparent metal and silicon.

Kriss threw himself to the deck just as a far more disturbing sound reached him from beside the hatch. Something thumped against the bulkhead separating the foyer from the apartment’s only bathroom. Whatever it was, was beeping and the beeping was getting faster and faster. He rolled up against the raised floor of the kitchen just as the world went white.

********

Eri turned into the fall as Gin threw her to the ground. She hit the deck and covered her head with her hands just as Gin fell on top of her. An instant later the grenade exploded. To Eri it sounded like the fist of an angry god striking the far side of the bulkhead. An instant later a blast of hot air rushed around her. It reminded her of the dust devils in the Baja desert. It was hot on her face and laden with blistering grit. Then it showered her in flaming plastic.

“Ayiii!” She hissed as a dozen tiny fires landed on her arms and legs, then thrashed beneath Gin’s weight to twist and pat them out. Gin immediately rolled off her to smother the flames on her own back. Eri flexed her jaw, instinctively trying to pop her ears. Everything sounded strange and far away, and there was a ringing that felt like it was coming from the center of her head.

The air around her was still swirling madly. The violence of it alarmed her and she looked up to see the buckled, swollen wreck that was the hatch and bulkhead between the corridor and small apartment. Large sections of it were blasted and curled outward into the corridor. Near the hatch there was a meter wide gash tall enough for her to step through. As she looked through it she saw the Necromancer in the asteroid field, and the stars glittering in the depths beyond. For an instant she froze, unable to move or think or breathe. Then she saw the spider-web cracks in the HyperGlass and realized she was looking at the station’s windows and was not about to die freezing in the void.

She felt a hand on her arm and turned her head. Gin was mouthing words at her. No. Gin was asking if she was all right, Eri just couldn’t hear. She gave Gin a thumbs up but shook her head as soon as the woman looked away. She flexed her jaw again and touched her ears. She didn’t feel any sharp pain and there was no blood. Still, everything sounded far away and the air was a wind on her face. She was just starting to get to her feet when a bright red flash made her wince and recoil backward. An instant later she felt the heat on her face.

“GET DOWN!” Gin screamed, sounding as if she was underwater, and yanked Eri back off her feet. Eri felt her ass hit the deck again and glanced to her right. Seldon was tucked into a hatch alcove a few meters away, shooting in bursts back the way they’d come. It took Eri another heartbeat to realize that it was a bolt of plasma that just missed her face. She felt adrenaline hit her bloodstream like a bucket of cold water, and she wondered if this was what hell was like. Then she saw a familiar ginger pilot wrestling with an enraged Teladi, and the Teladi was winning.

********

Kriss was holding onto the Teladi’s rifle for dear life. He suspected that her reluctance to let it go was the only thing keeping him alive. He was over twice her mass but the lizard was ferocious. She hissed and spat. She bit at his face and hands. He attempted to use rifle butt to crack her in the head but she avoided it effortlessly and then used her tail and her hold on it to leap into the air and lash at him with her back claws. He leapt backward to keep his guts where they belonged and drove the rifle down between them. An instant later she leapt at his face again, her mouth open to bite.

Which is when her head exploded.

There was a flash of light from his peripheral vision. A sharp, painful blast of heat shut his eyes and sent him staggering backward. At the same time an electric jolt snatched the rifle out of his hands, leaving his fingers numb as if he’d just grabbed the bare end of a live wire. Then it felt as if someone threw a full plate of steaming hot chili all over him.

“Aaah!” he screamed, trying to wipe his face and rip off his shirt at the same time. He could smell ozone and charred meat.

“Weamond!” He turned and blinked and finally saw Chinomu. The woman was out in the corridor, swaying back and forth and scowling with concentration as she squinted from behind the barrel of her pistol... which she was aiming at him! “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now, Weamond!”

“Frack ME!” he cursed and dove behind the raised floor. There was another flash of bluish starlight and a fist sized chunk of the window boiled away. “STOP!” He screamed. A chunk of the floor he hid behind was blasted into flaming bits less than a meter from his head. A sudden swirl of air carried the sparks up and away from him. He followed them and saw them fly through a finger sized crack in the window. Then he suddenly understood where the wind was coming from. “STOP SHOOTING!" he screamed. "YOU CRAZY BITCH! YOU’RE GONNA KILL US ALL!”

********

Gin was in a lot of pain. Her central nervous system was synthetic but based on her original organic nerves. It wasn’t built so much as it was grown, in much the same way that a human nervous system grew; adapting to training, conditioning and stimuli in very much the same way. Her neural interfaces were designed to prevent the pain from taking over and shutting down higher reasoning. As a result she was capable of functioning even after suffering damage that would incapacitate or kill a fully organic person. But she still felt everything. At that moment her legs were seriously damaged by the first blast from bartender’s disintegrator rifle, and now her back was bludgeoned and burned from the explosion of the most recent plasma grenade. Every movement hurt. Even breathing hurt. Consequently, she was feeling more than a little cranky.

********

Eri was scowling over the top of her pistol. She was waiting for Weamond to stick his ginger head up so she could blast it off when the weapon was suddenly wrenched out of her hands.

“Enough!” Gin barked right into her face. “We have enough enemies right now! We don't need to be shooting the people on our side! And he," she pointed, "just tried to save your life! So whatever your issue is with him can wait! Do you understand me, Captain?!”

Through the alcohol blur Eri responded reflexively, conditioned by years of training. “Yes, Ma'am! I understand you perfectly, Ma'am!"

Gin glared at her for another half second before shifting her gaze to Seldon. “How we doing, Tasha?!”

“Keep your heads down!” Seldon shouted back. “The son of bitch is in the security station! And why is it windy?!”

“Because the goddamn windows are leaking!” It was Weamond. "Thanks to Chinomu and this fracking Teladi!" He was topless, covered in green gore, and trying to aim a rifle at Chinomu from behind a drop in the floor. Eri felt her hands twitch and remembered that she, too, had a plasma rifle hanging from her shoulders. Gin, apparently also a mind reader, turned a frozen gaze back on Eri. Eri winced at the disapproval she saw in that gaze and immediately, reflexively, lifted her chin to adopt what she thought of as ‘the thousand yard stare,’ looking past the blasted bulkhead, past Weamond, past the broken windows into the black depths of space. Gin thrust her EMP pistol back at her and looked away.

“We need to get moving!” Gin shouted back to Seldon, “before the station seals us in!”

“Cover me!” Seldon barked back.

Gin turned her glare back on Chinomu. Eri didn’t wait to be told what to do. She turned, stepped back into cover and aimed past Seldon at the security station. Then she began firing three round bursts at the already blasted structure. “I’ve got you!” she shouted. “Move!”

“You!” Gin shouted into the apartment. “Get a move on!”

“You gonna keep her from shooting me?!” Weamond replied.

“Would you rather suffocate?!”

“Oh, frack me!”

Eri saw movement at the hatch to the security station and fired a stream of plasma bursts at it. She heard a distant curse and fired another three rounds at the hatch. Seldon sprinted past her toward the next alcove. “I’m set!” she barked. “MOVE!”

********

Mike Durden was beyond anger. He was beyond frustration, beyond rage, and beyond wrath. Michael Connor Durden had arrived in a land called hate. It was a strange experience, neither hot nor cold, neither sharp nor rounded. It was just bitter, like bile in the mouth. The three women were performing a staggered retreat, each covering the other as the last one leapfrogged back to the next piece of cover. Mike was only managing to fire a burst down the corridor once in a while. Their suppressing fire kept his head down, and prevented him from looking out to aim. He found himself longing for a CornerShot grenade launcher, or a mono-directional force field, or a decent set of combat armor with a good shield. As it was all he could do was watch them retreat, and there was no way he would follow them down that corridor.

“Come on!” he heard one of them shout. “The station’s locking out this section!”

That's when he noticed the cracks in the office's windows. There were pieces missing, leaving holes he could slip the barrel of his rifle through. He scooted across the floor and put the backrest of a chair behind him, then inched his head up to look through a small gap in the shattered windows. He saw two people, a man and a woman, sprinting toward a pressure door that was slowly descending from the ceiling. One of the women took several more shots back at him, but she was aiming for the hatch two meters behind him. Mike Durden rested the barrel of his rifle against the window sill, aimed carefully… and fired.

********

Eri saw the shooter an instant too late. Gin was pushing Weamond ahead of her as they sprinted past the descending blast door when a triple lance of red fire erupted from inside the station. Damn it! she cursed. The station’s windows were cracked and shattered, hiding shadowy little gaps in the glass. She instantly switched her aim toward the shooter and opened fire. But just as Gin and Weamond staggered past her Gin gasped, staggered and collapsed. An instant later Eri smelled what could only be burning meat.

********

“Gin!” Seldon shouted. Then, to the red haired kid. “GET DOWN!” He hit the deck instantly and rolled to the side. Tasha promptly lit up the security station by cutting a line of fire across the base of the windows. A second later Eri understood what she was doing and copied her. Anyone trying to look through those windows would regret it.

“Gin!” she shouted again. “Talk to me, girl! You are not allowed to die on me! Do you know what that boy will do to me if I don’t bring you back a…”

“Oh, shut up!” Gin barked, then moaned. “I’m alive already!”

The pressure door cut off her line of sight and she grabbed Gin and pulled her to the side. Less than a sezura later the hatch thumped against the deck. Both Tasha and Eri scrambled over to check on Gin. For an instant Seldon didn’t understand what she was looking at. Gin’s entire back was torn and shredded. Her leather jacket and the clothing underneath it were both in tatters. Shards of metal and bits of melted plastic were pressed into her burned flesh, and behind her heart, just between her shoulder blades, was a ten centimeter crater of blackened flesh and sinew, through which they could all see Gin’s ribcage and the exposed shelf of her left scapula.

“Whoah,” Seldon breathed.

“Holy shit!” Eri exclaimed, looking from the wounds to Gin’s face. “The explosion! That all happened when you threw me down?!”

Gin pushed herself up, groaning through clenched teeth. “Most of it,” she hissed, “yeah.”

Seldon was stunned despite knowing what Gin really was. The woman’s back and legs were torn and bloody. They looked like shredded fried chicken covered in tomato sauce. The sickly-sweet, charcoal-black smell of the woman’s burned flesh made her want to gag. And then there was the simple horror of watching her bare bones move through the giant hole in her back. Seldon looked away and saw that both Chinomu’s mouth and eyes were wide open. She looked just the way Seldon felt. Gin turned and looked from one to the other and then fixed her gaze on Eri. “Good thing I have all these cybernetics, huh?”

“Frak,” Eri breathed. “I’ll say! Hey, do you... I mean... you can have my coat if it'll help."

Gin clambered to her feet and glanced up at the lid. Seldon followed her gaze and saw the black plastic bubble that indicated a camera. "Yeah," Gin said and looked back to Chinomu. "That'd be great..."

Seldon and Eri exchanged a semi horrified look at the thought of putting anything on a raw wound like Gin's but neither commented. A moment later Gin dropped her ruined coat to the deck as Chinomu stripped off her flight jacket and handed it over. Chinomu was several inches taller than Gin and broader across the shoulders, so the jacket was loose at least. Even so, Gin still winced as she put it on and her friends cringed with her. Once she settled the jacket in place she looked from Eri to Seldon again. Seeing their faces she winced again.

“Relax,” she told them. “We’ve got all sorts of fancy medical equipment on the Endless. I’ll be good as new in about forty eight hours.”

“No shit?” Seldon asked at the same time Eri said, “Seriously?”

Gin nodded, then looked at the red haired kid. “Hey,” she said.

The kid raised both eyebrows nearly as high as they could go. Under his red hair he was white as a freshly laundered sheet. “Hey?” he replied and offered the crooked smile of a perpetual smartass. Seldon liked him instantly.

“Weamond?” Gin asked. She had a hand on one bulkhead and was straightening her back ever so carefully.

“Ayup,” the kid nodded, glancing warily at Chinomu. “Thaaat’s me. Kriss Weamond. I'm guessing you haven't heard anything nice about me?”

“I haven't heard anything about you," Gin told him. "I just wanted to say thanks for the heads-up back there.”

“Frak that!” Eri said. “I'll bet my next paycheck that he's just trying to save his own skin.” Her tone become acid. “That’s just what he does.”

“Oh go to hell, Chinomu!” Weamond stepped toward her. “Would you be happier if I'd kept my mouth shut?"

"I'd be happier if I never saw you again."

"You are such a bitch!"

"What's your point?"

"You know I wouldn’t even be in this mess if not for you!”

“If not for me?!” Eri stepped toward him, thrusting a finger at his face. “If not for you, Kaylen Cruise would…!”

“You are so full of shit!” he roared back.

“…still be alive!”

Gin and Seldon exchanged bemused glances.

“She panicked, Chinomu! SHE did!”

“… and you ran like a little bitch at the first sign of the enemy!”

“What the frak did you expect?! We had NO TRAINING! And we were in COMBAT! I didn’t even know how to activate my HUD!”

“Because you were too busy hitting on everything with a pair of tits to bother paying attention while I explained…!”

“ENOUGH!” Gin roared. Both of them blinked and stepped away from each other. In that instant they both looked like nothing so much as scolded children. “Bloody hell!” Gin exclaimed and in that instant sounded so much like Drake that Seldon laughed. Gin turned and met her eye and the rueful, angry expression on her face was again so much like Drake that Seldon only laughed harder. Gin blinked, then seemed to understand and started laugh along with her.

“What the frack…?” Weamond asked.

“Hell if I know.” Chinomu replied. Then they locked eyes and started to bristle again.

“We’ll need to keep ‘em separated,” Seldon chuckled while looking from Chinomu to the kid and back.

“We need to get the hell out of here,” Gin stated.

“Yeah we do,” Seldon nodded. “You alright to move?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Yeah,” Seldon looked at her sideways. “ Frak you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Gin growled and then rolled her eyes. "Bitch."

Tasha laughed again and Gin smiled thinly. Seldon lifted her chin toward the kid. “We keepin’ him?”

Gin nodded while Chinomu curled her lip and said, “no.” Both Gin and Seldon turned to look at the CAG. An instant later they were both laughing again. Chinomu was pouting.

********

Mike Durden needed a new plan. The corridor the women retreated through was now cut off at both ends by the station's pressure hatches. He guessed that either the grenade or a stray shot compromised the station's integrity. Either way, anyone stuck in the apartments off that corridor was going to be there for awhile. Not that he cared. What he needed was to find the women responsible for killing his team and arrange for them to die, ideally painfully. So he leaned back and sat on the chest of one of the two dead security guards. He was mildly curious about who killed them, but not enough to devote any energy to the investigation. Instead he called up the station schematics on his wrist computer. He'd downloaded them weeks ago. A quick glance around the security station said that he was lucky he had. The place was a wreck.

He quickly found the corridor they were in and began studying the options the women had. He knew better than to underestimate them at this point. Not only were they skilled, competent and resourceful, they seemed to have the devil's own luck. So while examining the station he asked himself what he would do. Comms were cut off. They were being hunted. It was unlikely they'd wander into an ambush. So what would he do?

What would he do?

After several moments he nodded to himself, fairly certain he knew where they’d go. He found the fastest route to intercept, then collected his stolen rifle and stood. As his weight came off the dead man's chest the corpse seemed to inhale. The air being sucked through the ruined face made a gruesome sound. Mike shook his head and stepped out of the sec-station's hatch. Just then he heard a chirp from the subdermal transmitter embedded behind his jaw.

“This is Vanguard,” he replied. “Go ahead.”

"Vanguard," a deep, booming voice answered him. "This is Harvester. We are on the station and in need of instructions.”

Mike Durden felt a rabid grin stretch his face. "Oh Harvester," he said, "I am just tickled pink to hear from you. Tell me, are you boys up for a fox hunt?”

********

"Okay," Seldon said, "that's it." She pointed at an enormous hatch ahead of them. To Gin it looked like it was about the same size as a fighter docking port on a carrier. As Gin watched, her friend jogged the last twenty meters to the hatch's control panel and promptly began hacking her way through it. Gin turned and looked around. They were in a T-junction of corridors large enough to accommodate multiple lift trucks. Which meant they were a good ten meters across and five high, with smooth bulkheads and a tile deck polished to a mirror shine. There was absolutely no cover.

"I'm feeling a bit exposed, Tasha."

"Yeah, yeah. Keep your panties on."

"Chinomu," Gin turned to the CAG, "watch the port corridor. Weamond, starboard." Chinomu and Weamond exchanged a brief, hostile glare and then each did as they were told. Gin put her back to the bulkhead beside Seldon and watched the way they came. She had her long barreled pistol in her hand. It felt oddly heavy.

"You alright?" Seldon asked her.

"I'll be just grand once we're back aboard the Shirubāurufu," she replied.

Seldon glanced at her sideways but didn't comment. "Crazy about Chinomu, huh?"

"Yeah," Gin scoffed from the back of her throat. "That's one word for it. Shit, what the hell am I gonna too, Tasha? If she can work it out..."

"Calm your ass down. I don't know if you've noticed but there isn't much of an anti augmentation sentiment out here in the commonwealth, and..."

"Oh yeah?" Gin cut her off. "What do you call what happened back at the bar? A parade?"

Seldon met her eye. "I call that somebody stirring the pot."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I think those Terran assholes back there are Wakiya. And I think that... yeah!" she shrugged, "they've been stirring up anti-augmentation feelings on this station. I grew up on Argon Prime, Gin, and I've been around Argon pilots, mercs, and freelancers my entire adult life, and I have never seen that kind of reaction from human pilots before."

"Really?" Gin was shocked. "It's fairly common where I come from."

"Cause of those body-temple nutjobs or whatever they're called?"

"Them and others." Gin stated.

"They always seem to find you, girl?"

"Sooner or later, yeah."

"Think maybe that has more to do with who’s after you than it does popular sentiment?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you've got some pretty heavy-duty pricks after your ass, girl. Now those same pricks are after Drake. It's not much of a stretch to think they've got the whole rabble rousing bit down to an art form. I mean it’s probably a great way to shake the bushes and flush you out."

Gin felt like she'd just been slapped across the face. It was so obvious. How had she never seen it before? Of course it was deliberate. Of course it was. "That son of a bitch," she growled.

"Who? What?"

"A guy named Rik Erwyn," she said.

"Who?"

"Ask me again sometime. Shit! How the hell did we let both Huritas and the Wakiya get such a foothold down here?"

Seldon shook her head. "Dunno, sister," she said, "but once Drake finds out, it's gonna get frackin' hot around here."

Gin nodded. Of that she had no doubt. There was a sudden pop and spark of electricity, then the enormous hatch to the cargo bay on C-deck began to open.

Then Weamond shouted, "I see him!"

Both women turned their heads at the same time. A few paces away, Weamond, who was carrying one of the rifles dropped by his Teladi guards, opened fire, spraying bright red plasma at a man taking cover at the end of the corridor. A single glance told Gin she was looking at the last surviving Terran from the bar.

"Him again," she said, sounding bored.

"Shit!" Seldon cursed and lit up the wall the man was hiding behind. She ran to the far side of the open hatch while she continued to suppress the enemy soldier. Then she raised her voice. "GET INTO THE CARGO HOLD! KEEP YOUR GODDAMNED HEADS DOWN!!"

Gin winced. One thing she'd never managed to work out was how the woman was capable of being so ungodly loud.

********

Mike felt the wall heat up behind him. Bits and pieces of plastic were blasted off the corner to litter the deck nearby. He didn't care. He didn't even shoot back. All he needed to do was guide Task Force Harvester in to target. So his teeth were bare as he activated his communicator. It would feel good to watch these bitches die.

"Harvester," he said, "this is Vanguard."

"Go ahead, Vanguard."

"I've got eyes on our foxes, Harvester. They're right where I said they'd be. Did you get a chance to look over those schematics I sent you?"

"Yeah," the other man answered. His voice was hard and uncultured. Mike figured him for New York City, possibly Harlem. "I looked 'em over. And I agree with you, Vanguard. Don't worry. They ain't goin' anywhere."

"Oh they are going somewhere, my friend," Mike informed his associate, "somewhere hot."

"Somewhere hot," Harvester alpha chuckled. "Yeah. I like that. We'll send 'em somewhere hot for you, Vanguard."

"Are you sending me any backup, Harvester?"

"Yeah. I got four men comin' your way." There was a pause. "They should be at your position in... three minutes."

Mike grinned. "When this is done, Harvester, I want you and your boys to help me raise a glass to my brothers."

"Sit tight, Vanguard. Help is on the way."

********

Seldon didn't like it. Something was wrong. The asshole never even stuck his head out. He didn't take a shot. He didn't even look around the corner. He just let them all get into the hold without hitting them with so much as some harsh language.

"What is it?" Gin asked her.

"Is he still out there?" she asked Gin. The other woman turned and looked through the wall. Then she nodded. The closing of the hatch boomed in the enormous hold. To Seldon it sounded ominous. "Frak," she spat.

"What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that I don't like that motherfrakker anticipating us."

"Sure he didn't just follow us on the camera?"

"I'm not sure of anything right now, but I DO know that if he's got friends who can cut through this hatch..." She aimed her rifle at the control panel and emptied her charge pack into it. "... then I don't want to be here when they do." With that she turned and looked around the compartment. As she did so her hands ejected the spent mag and slapped a new one into the rifle seemingly of their own accord. The hold was enormous and poorly lit. It was nearly the size of the Necromancer's hangar deck and there seemed to be endless stacks of cargo crates piled, in many places, all the way to the ceiling. As she was looking around, a flicker of Cherenkov blue light announced the arrival of a few more crates materializing around the compartment. After a moment she shook her head to clear it and remembered where the hatch was. "Alright, come on," she said and started for the back left corner. "It's this way."

"Are you sure?" Weamond asked from behind her. "I mean what if more crates appear... you know... where we happen to be?"

"There are safety systems in place, dipshit," Chinomu snapped at him.

"What kind of safety systems?" he snapped back.

"The kind that keep you safe!" Chinomu said scathingly.

"Very informative," he said acidly.

Chinomu rounded on him, hackles raised and teeth bared. "There are sensors, you moron! And aisles for walking! What do you think? Production stops every time somebody needs to check a shipping label?!"

"Frakking hell, Chinomu! Why do you have to be such a bitch?!"

"I don't know," Eri quipped back. "Why do you?"

Seldon ignored them. She was scanning the lid for a very specific tile, and the lid was nearly fifteen meters above them and covered roughly half a hectare. Which meant the tile, which was only one square meter in size, was literally one in five thousand. And with the shadows and poor lighting, even knowing approximately where it was supposed to be, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. And as she searched that sense of foreboding grew. Something was wrong. She could feel it. The son of a bitch anticipated where they were going. He saw them lock themselves into the hold. The idea was to look like they were finding a place to hide, but if that were the case they would have taken off, wouldn't they? They wouldn’t have deliberately backed themselves into a corner.

She saw the tile. "There you are," she whispered, and then immediately became aware of a new problem.

"That's where we have to go?" Gin asked her.

Seldon took a breath and met the other woman's eye. "Yeah?"

"Oh frak me," Gin groaned and shook her head. "You're killing me, Tasha."

The hatch was in the middle of an empty aisle that ran between several mountainous stacks of crates. Which meant it was directly over a fifteen meter drop and nearly five meters from the stacks on either side of the aisle. "Sorry," Tasha admitted. "Normally I'd just hack the controls and lower the ladder but..."

"Lower what ladder?" Weamond asked.

Seldon looked over her shoulder. Chinomu was standing several paces from Weamond but was curious enough not to snipe at him. "There's a segmented ladder on a spool beside the hatch," Seldon explained. She pointed. "Look, you can see the end of it there. If I had my kit I’d just hack it wirelessly and drop it, but..." she shrugged, “...I don’t.”

Eri looked up at the hatch and frowned. "So how the hell do we reach it?"

"That's my job," Gin groaned, approaching one of the stacks of crates with a pained expression.

"No!" Eri said, obviously alarmed. "You can't! You're... you're injured!"

Gin glanced over her shoulder and the confusion on her face was so obvious it actually hurt Tasha to see it. "What?" Seldon shrugged. "Your friends care about you. Get over it."

Gin blinked, then shook her head and looked at Chinomu. "I'll be fine," she said.

"What the hell are you?" Weamond asked.

"None of your goddamn business!" Chinomu cut him off.

"Frak you, Chinomu!"

"HEY!" Gin cut them both of. "Enough already!” She looked back to the stack of crates. “The two of you are giving me a headache."

"Sorry," Chinomu said at the same time Weamond said, "Sorry, ma'am." They glared at each other for an instant and then pointedly ignored each other.

Gin shook her head and looked up at the cliff of crates before her. A moment later she took a breath and leapt a third of the way up the stack. Her fingers grabbed hold of a crate that was over four meters off the deck.

"Holy shit!" Weamond exclaimed. He reminded Seldon of a little kid at his first fireworks show, and beside him Chinomu was wearing a nearly identical expression.

Gin scrambled up the stack like a cat climbing a tree. At the top she turned and looked over her shoulder at the maintenance hatch. Reaching it would require a three meter horizontal leap into empty space. At the end of which there was a slight recession on one side of the hatch where she could grab the bottom rung of the rolled-up ladder. Gin's face pinched with concentration and then she leaped, pushing off the crate she clung to hard enough to shift it halfway onto another stack.

Eri and Weamond both held their breath. Gin almost seemed to be in slow motion, suspended in midair. Then she caught the rung with a muffled rattle from the spool. It was then Seldon realized that she was holding her own breath as well.

For a moment Gin just hung there, swinging back and forth. "Alright!" Seldon shouted, "do you see the control panel? I can walk you through hacking it. First thing you need to do is..."

Gin grunted and slammed her fist into the center of the hatch tile. It sounded like sledgehammer hitting a steel drum, and left a fist shaped indentation in the steel panel. A moment later Gin grunted and hit it again. Then again. And again. And again. Each hit stretched the steel in the center of the hatch further out of shape, thinning and warping it. She hit it over and over until at last she snarled and there was a sudden, horrific screech as the metal gave way and the hatch tile crumpled inward.

Seldon was vaguely aware that she, Chinomu, and the shirtless ginger were all wearing identical expressions composed of wide eyes and slack jaws. Above them Gin took a breath, then pulled and twisted herself up to plant one foot on either side of the hatch. A moment later she thrust with her whole body and yanked on the hatch hard enough to make it squeak as it crumpled outward. She yanked once, twice, then three times on the center of the hatch. Each time the metal screeched in protest as she pulled it a little farther out of shape. With the fourth yank the metal seemed to scream and the hatch exploded out of the ceiling. An instant later both it and Gin were tumbling toward the deck accompanied by the rattle of the unspooling ladder. Seldon, Chinomu and Weamond all leapt backwards as the fifty kilogram hatch cover hit the deck with a thunderous crash. Gin landed lightly on her hands and feet beside it as the chain ladder piled itself on the deck with a scaly hiss. After a moment the ladder stopped unspooling and for a few sezura the only sound was that of Gin's breathing.

“Or,” Seldon spoke into the silence, “you could just... do that.”

"Frak. Me." Weamond whispered.

Beside him Chinomu blinked. "Gin, if I ever make you angry..." Gin wrenched her hand free of the torn and twisted hatch cover. The sight of it cut off whatever Eri had been going to say. Between the pounding and the sharp edges of torn metal, Gin’s left hand and wrist were a bloody mess.

Gin stood with a groan and looked back up at the exposed hatchway. Then she looked at Seldon. "It's going to be cramped in there," she said. "No room to maneuver."

"Yeah, I know," Seldon nodded. "And I think that son of a bitch out there knows what we're up to."

"How could he?" Eri asked.

Seldon shrugged. "I think he just figured it out."

"So what does that mean?" Weamond asked.

Seldon took a breath and puffed out her lips. Then she shrugged. "If I was them I'd booby trap the tunnel with sentry guns. It's so tight in there we'd be like fish in a barrel."

“Yeah, well,” Eri looked around, “if we stay here we’re cattle in a box canyon. Personally I don't like either option.”

"Me either," Seldon admitted.

“You still have those schematics?” Gin asked her.

“Course!" Seldon stated. "I downloaded ‘em.”

“Is there a less obvious route?” Gin asked.

“Less obvious than crawling through a kilometer of dirty, greasy maintenance tunnels?” Eri griped.

“No, I get what she’s saying," Seldon nodded and called up the schematics on her wrist computer, "and she’s right. If we go straight for the ship and that jackwad is on to us," Seldon shook her head, "we won't stand a chance." She began studying the schematics. She flipped from one side of the station to the other, zoomed in and then out several times. Then she focused on the central engineering core and began to trace a path. "Alright, well… we can double back, then cut across the engineering core…” Seldon stopped and shuddered.

"What is it?" Gin asked.

"You remember the last time I was in a station’s engineering core?"

"Oh," Gin blinked, "right."

“What?” Eri asked.

"Don’t worry about it," Seldon said. "It’s not a fond memory and we’ve got shit to do. But yeah, we can cut across the reactor core and then get lost in a maze of service tunnels and maintenance shafts."

"Pick the one they’re least likely to booby trap," Weamond offered.

"As opposed to the..." Eri started.

"Will you knock it off?" Seldon snapped. Eri blinked and closed her mouth. She looked as if she'd just been slapped. Seldon took a breath and tried to soften her tone. "We've just got more important shit to do, okay?"

Chinomu nodded. Then deliberately avoided looking at the kid. Seldon looked back at the holographic image of the station. She didn't like any of their options.

“So?” Gin asked.

“I don't know," Seldon shrugged. "I guess we make for the core and figure it out from there."

Gin's head suddenly whipped around toward the loading hatch behind them.

“What is it?” Eri asked.

“Four men in power armor,” Gin said. “We've got to go. Everyone up the ladder!”

"Hold on," Seldon looked around and then focused on the label of the closest shipping crate. A moment later she turned and looked at the other three. A wolfish grin stretched across her face. “I’ve got an idea.”

Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Wed, 26. Oct 16, 06:52    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

... continued.

********

1st Sergeant Miguel Ángel Garcia Quiñones led his squad mates Möller, Hasegawa, and Brown of Task Force Harvester through the empty station. As they traveled, moving through the empty corridors at fifty kilometers per hour, the smooth hydraulic action of their power armor was very loud in the silence. It was typical, he thought. When the shooting started people always found a way to disappear. Logically, he knew they were still around. They were just hidden in their hidey-holes. But it was still creepy. Space stations were inherently spooky even at the best of times. Empty ones, though, always made him feel very, very small. So he was relieved when they reached their contact.

Then he got a good look at the man. The dude was tall and rangy, covered in soot, dust and blood. His blue eyes seemed to look right through Garcia and his squad as they approached, and only focused after the guy gave himself a little shake. As Garcia, Möller, Hasegawa, and Brown slowed to a jog Garcia noted that, under the dirt, the entire right side of Durden's face was bruised and swollen so badly the man's vision must have been impaired.

Garcia whistled softly to himself. Then, over the comm, "this guy's fracked up, Alpha."

"How bad?" Gunnery Sergeant Derrick James, Harvester Alpha, asked him.

"He looks like he's been through a frackin' war, Jefe," Garcia answered.

"He has. He just lost his whole team. He's prob'bly in shock. So be gentle... but watch yo' ass."

"Will do, Alpha," Garcia said as his power armor stomped to a halt in front of Durden. "Garcia out."

"Keep me in the loop, Garcia. Alpha out."

Staff Sergeant Garcia de-polarized his armor's face plate to allow the guy to see his broad smile. "'Sup, 'mano?" Garcia asked. "You call for backup?"

The dude saw his smile and bared his teeth. At first it did not look like a friendly expression. "Hell yeah, I did," the guy said, and his expression seemed to flicker. The predatory rage was replaced with a sudden, horrifying servility. "Boy am I glad to see you fellas."

"Ja," Moller interjected from behind, "I bet. After losing your whole team."

"Shit," Brown hissed, "you don't even know the meaning of the word 'tact', do you Hans?"

"Well," Garcia said to the guy in front of them, "we're glad to be seen. I'm Staff Sergeant Garcia. That asshole's Sergeant Hans Möller. The guy behind him is Corporal Rick Brown and that quiet, brooding fellow over there is Lance Corporal Sadao Hasegawa."

"I'm Gunnery Sergeant Mike Durden," the guy said then nodded at the two story hatch to his right. "Three of Drakhars target's top commanders are in that hold, including the Queen of Spades, the traitor Erika Chinomu, and one of Drakhar's top marines."

"Your orders were to observe and remain hidden," Möller stated accusingly. "Why did you engage?"

"We didn't! Some goddamn Teladi blew herself to kingdom come in the middle of the bar! After that everything went straight to hell! When I activated that beacon I was playing a game of pool with Sergeant Dobrowski, and Chief Wilson was serving those women drinks!”

Garcia held up a hand to calm the guy down. “Take it easy, 'mano,” he said. “We're grunts like you, all right? We're not running an inquest, just tryin' to get the facts.”

“Well,” Durden rubbed a hand over his head. “They’re in there,” he pointed at the cargo hold, “and my team’s dead. They’ve been shooting it out with both us and some local Teladi. And as far as the Teladi go, I don’t know what their beef is. But I can tell you that they are well armed and in the area. Which means they could come back at any...”

“Don’t worry about them,” Garcia told him.

“Don’t worry about them?” Durden’s eyes seemed to blaze. “Didn’t you hear me?! One of those goddamned lizards took out half my team with a grenade!”

“They’re with us,” Garcia stated

Durden blinked. “They’re with US?!” he roared. “Nobody told me! Why the hell wasn’t I informed?!”

“Calm down, ‘mano. It’s a new development. We only found out on the transport in.” Durden was reeling. His jaw and hands were clenching and he looked like he was about to hit something. “Hey!” Garcia got his attention. “How are they armed? The women?”

Durden closed his eyes and shook his head. Then sighed heavily. “Small arms,” he said. “Nothing serious. As far as I could tell they were here to unwind with a few drinks. Honestly I couldn't believe my eyes when they walked into Planetside. So," he shrugged, "figure side arms and whatever they could salvage off the Teladi they plugged.” He held up the rifle in his hands. “A couple of these and maybe a few plasma grenades.” Durden looked up. “But don’t underestimate them. That’s Gin Ookami in there. You know who she is?”

“Yeah, we’ve been briefed,” Garcia nodded. “Black ops cyborg, right?”

“Yes. So you know what she’s capable of?”

Garcia shrugged. “I know I’m glad I’m wearing power armor.”

“That armor will mean jack shit if she gets close to you. She’s carrying a pair of Split blades that can cut through steel like butter. If she gets close enough to touch you with one of those," Durden gave a small shake of his head, "well then, partner, you’re fracked.”

“Was that her that chopped up those Teladi?” Möller asked.

“Yeah,” Durden said. Then met Garcia’s eye. “And Latasha Seldon? She trains Drakhar’s marines, and I can tell you first hand that that woman can shoot. She shot a grenade right out of the air not fifteen minutes ago.” He leaned toward Garcia to emphasize his point. "A thrown grenade! While in the middle of a firefight."

“Alright,” Garcia nodded, thinking, and my brother's wife's father's friend caught a fish THIS big! “Well," he went on smoothly, "we’ve cut off their escape. If they try to use that access tunnel to get to their ship they’re dead, ‘mano.”

“I can’t wait,” Durden said and checked the readout on his charge pack.

“Bunchie,” Garcia said to Corporal Brown, “Samurai,” to Lance Corporal Hasegawa, “see if you can get us through that door.” Both men nodded and moved to the task.

"You know if we take these women out," Durden said to him, "we cripple that little prick's whole operation."

“Yeah, ‘mano,” Garcia smiled at him. “That’s the plan.” Durden dropped his head and sighed heavily. "You know," Garcia said, "now that we're here you can go..."

"Frack that!"

Garcia nodded. "They killed your team. I know. But Gunny, you've done a lot, Holmes, and you're lightly armed, unarmored..."

"I'm not leaving until I see those bitches in a body bag, Staff Sergeant."

Garcia nodded. It was more or less what he expected. In Durden's place, he probably wouldn't leave either. "All right, 'mano," Garcia said, "but extra rocker or not, these are my men, and from here on out I'm in charge. Got it?"

Durden stared at him for a second or so. Then nodded. "Yeah," he almost sounded relieved, "I got it."

********

Mike watched as the Harvester marines cut their way through the cargo bay doors. They were fast and efficient but he didn’t expect the women to be inside. They were too damn smart to back themselves into a corner. He was fairly sure they were scurrying through the maintenance tunnels toward the hangar deck, and whoever ‘Alpha’ was, the guy agreed with him. Supposedly the rest of Task Force Harvester was setting up sentry guns and trip mines in the tunnels ahead of them, and fortifying the hangar deck to cut them off from their ship. Soon they’d be sandwiched between Alpha's traps on one side and Garcia and his heavies on the other.

Mike sighed heavily. He was starting to feel again. It was not a good thing. For the better part of the last hour all he felt was determination and the black acid of hate. Now he could feel the brittle edges and the yawning depths of his grief, and it was exhausting. He’d just lost eight men, well, six men dead and two more in limbo. It was horrifying. They were good, competent men. Men he thought of as friends and brothers. Their loss hadn’t hit him yet but he could feel it looming and part of his mind wanted to retreat into sleep to avoid it, and he couldn't, wouldn't do that. He wanted, no, needed to see these women dead. More than that he needed to see them defeated, to see the understanding of their failure in their eyes. Otherwise his men died for nothing.

“Alright!” one of the marines announced. “Cut is complete!”

“Cut is complete, aye,” another acknowledged and stepped forward to attach a shaped charge in the middle of the ember outline of the doorway sized cutout. Mike moved off to one side to wait a few meters down one of the corridors. The four man squad formed up a few paces from the breech and then one of them activated the detonator. There was a brief crash of thunder. The cutout disappeared leaving a perfect hole in the hatch to the cargo hold.

Then the world lost it’s mind. There was an instant when all four of the marines were moving forward into the hole. An instant later Durden staggered away from a sudden blast of heat and flame. He landed on his ass and scrabbled backward. In front of him the cutout to the cargo hold had become the maw of a dragon. A ten meter plume of fire completely engulfed the four Harvester marines, and it was hot enough to boil the floor tiles.

********

"Son of a bitch!" Brown was screaming.

"Booby trap," Möller stated calmly. "Clever."

"Oh yeah, 'mano," Garcia said, stepping out of the fire. His shields were already down in the low fifties. "Real clever." He turned to look at Durden, who was wide eyed and picking himself back off the deck.

"I told you not to underestimate them," Durden told him.

"Yeah you did, 'mano. Yeah you did." Garcia looked at the ten meter column of fire and started waving his men away from it. The station would soon be locking the whole section down before venting it into space. Durden, who was in the most danger, was already jogging down the corridor to get on the other side of the nearest pressure hatch.

There was a burst of static in his ear, followed by the deep, slow voice of Gunnery Sergeant Derrick James. "Garcia."

"Yeah, Jefe."

"What happened?"

"Our ladies hid in a cargo hold full of spacefuel and rigged a fire trap behind them."

"Any injuries?"

"No, but..." There was a series of small rattling explosions from inside the cargo hold. Garcia shook his head. Bottles were bursting inside the crates. Soon the fuel would boil away and fill the crates with pressurized flammable gasses. When the temperature got hot enough those gasses would detonate, turning each and every crate in the hold into an improvised fire bomb. "... I don't think we're going to be able to follow them through there."

"I understand," Alpha told him. "We know were they're headed. Move up the line. Find another entrance to that tunnel and deploy a tracker drone. If you find 'em, send in a hunter to drive them toward us."

"You got it, Jefe."

********

Eri winced as the entire station shook around them. “Whoop! There it is!” Seldon laughed from the head of the group. They were squat-walking through the maintenance tunnel toward the station’s engineering core. An instant later there was a sudden rush of air from behind them. It was so hot that it was almost painful, and heavy with the sweet chemical stench of burning spacefuel.

Eri laughed with her. “That should slow ‘em down!”

“For how long?” Weamond asked from behind her.

“There was half a hectare’s worth of spacefuel back there,” Eri told him. She’d already decided that she didn’t like him behind her. She could feel him looking at her ass. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room to change places. Even so, she forced herself to be civil. “It’ll be burning for a while.” She managed not to sound completely scathing. She knew she was drunk. Consequently she wasn’t entirely sure that killing him the way she wanted to was appropriate, and neither Gin nor Seldon seemed to be encouraging her. She decided then that she missed H'nt. He would let her kill Weamond.

“Think that blast killed those marines?” Weamond asked and she just knew where his eyes were focused.

“Doubt it,” Seldon answered from up front. “The armor they’re wearing is hermetically sealed and shielded. We didn't even give ‘em a sunburn.”

“That’s disappointing,” Eri said.

“So if they can take the fire,” Weamond asked, “won’t they be able to follow us?”

There was another explosion from behind them. It was followed immediately by several more and then several more after that. “Oh,” Seldon sounded pleased with herself, “I think it’ll be a while.”

“What is that?” Weamond asked. Behind him the explosions continued, one violent eruption after another.

“Crates of super-heated spacefuel,” Seldon chuckled. “It has all kinds of uses!”

“If that fire gets hot enough," he asked, "won’t it damage the station?”

“No,” Seldon said opening a hatch in front of her, “the station’ll be fine.” There was a sudden pneumatic hiss from twenty meters or so behind Gin. An instant later a valve hatch unfolded out of the bulkheads and cut them off from the tunnel behind them. A moment later there was a muffled roar from beyond it, and a vibration that they could feel through their feet.

“What the hell is that?!” Weamond asked.

"That," Eri said calmly, “would be the station venting that fire’s oxygen out into space.”

“Ayup,” Seldon said from ahead of them. “And the reason I’ve been rushing you the last five mazura. We did not want to be on the other side of that hatch when that happened.”

“Agreed.” Weamond said it at the same moment Eri did. She instantly felt like shooting him again, and for some reason both Gin and Seldon started chuckling.

********

Garcia shook his head as he looked at Durden. After the station cut off the cargo hold to put out the fire, Gunny Durden lost it. The guy became convinced that he was wrong. The women weren't using the tunnel to get to their ship. When Garcia asked what they were doing Durden said he didn't know. He only knew that they knew that Harvester knew what their plans were and changed them as a result.

"Don't worry, 'mano," Garcia smiled at him and held up a segmented chrome sphere the size of a grapefruit. "This baby will find your girls."

"Not if it's looking in the wrong place," Durden stated.

Garcia sighed. The guy had lost a lot, so Garcia was willing to cut him some slack, but Durden was starting to get tiresome. "Bunchie," he said to Brown, "how long is going to take you to get that hatch open, 'mano?"

"It's open now, Sarge," 'Bunchie' Brown hit the execute command on his kit and the ceiling mounted access hatch dropped down and then slid to one side. The segmented ladder unrolled from it's spool and then snapped into a solid piece when it reached the deck, but they wouldn't use it. Garcia pressed a button on the drone in his hand to activate it. A moment later it synced with his HUD and lifted into the air. It was connected to him through the neural links in his armor. As a result Garcia was able to direct it through thought alone. So it promptly spun around, faced the open hatch and flew through it.

"In a few minutes 'mano," Garcia told Durden, "we'll know exactly where your ladies are."

"Uh-huh." Durden did not sound convinced. Twenty minutes later Garcia was forced to admit that the man might be on to something.

********

Gunnery Sergeant Derrick James was not feeling pleased. He was standing in the control tower for the station's alpha tower. Through the windows he had an excellent view of both the Centaur his team used as transport and the Hyperion Vanguard belonging to his targets, a ship he had trouble not admiring. At the moment, though, his attention was on the three dimensional holographic image of the complex HUB. The maintenance tunnel where Durden expected the women to be ran nearly the length of the HUB. In one direction it followed the port wall of the station almost directly to the cargo processing center two levels up in the tower James was now standing in. For that reason the tunnel had been booby trapped with trip mines and sentry guns. But Garcia's drone just passed by the sentries and exited the tunnel without encountering the women. So he was now looking in the other direction and not liking what he saw.

It was clever. He had to give them that. They picked a direct route to their ship and then went in the other direction. Back in his neighborhood they called a move like that a 'fake out'. In boxing his trainer called it a 'feint'. In the military they called it misdirection. James scowled at the image of the station's engineering core and the hundreds of kilometers worth of maintenance tunnels, air ducts, sewage pipes, access corridors, crawl spaces and uncountable rat-holes that could be reached from it and decided that no matter what you called it, it was damn effective.

"Jefe?" Garcia asked in his ear. "You want us to follow after them? Maybe see if we can pick up their trail?"

Gunny James stared at the schematics for another moment. "Send Möller and Brown after 'em," he said finally, "and give 'em your drones. There's a lot of terrain to cover, and those women could be anywhere."

"All right, Jefe," Garcia confirmed. "What about me and Samurai?"

"I want you to help the Teladi defend the station's shield controls. They're in compartment zero thirteen, nine eighty, five, charlie. Confirm."

"Compartment zero thirteen, nine eighty, five, charlie," Garcia confirmed.

"That's correct. Go there and help the Teladi defend the scrambler. The enemy has two frigates and three corvettes in spitting distance of this station, and he likes to keep marines on all his ships. So one call out and we won't last the night. Got it?"

"Oh I got it, Jefe."

"Good. Once again, our goal is to find and eliminate the targets. Then we get the hell out of dodge before anyone knows we're here. Make it happen, Garcia."

"I'm on it, Alpha. Hey Jefe?"

"Yeah, Garcia?"

"What about Durden?"

"What about him?"

"What should I tell him?"

"Tell him to stay out of the way."

He heard Garcia chuckle. "You got it, Jefe." A moment later the channel cut out.

James looked up from the station schematics and turned his head. Beyond the window he could see the Yaki kariudo Necromancer. It rested in the dark just a few kilometers away, broadside to the gate. Without any air to obstruct his vision the ship looked close enough to reach out and touch. James scowled at it. There was a very good chance Drakhar was aboard that ship right now, and James couldn't help but wonder how difficult it would be to get a man on board. All it would take is one second with that son of a bitch lined up in his crosshairs and the universe would be a much safer place.

********

"So?" Durden asked. Garcia met his eye for a moment and then looked at his men.

"Möller," he said, "Bunchie, you need all the drones. You're on bloodhound duty. The fire's out now. Get back to the maintenance tunnel and track the targets, flush them out. Drive them toward the kill zones in the main gallery, co-ordinate with GeeGee. You know where the ambushes are."

"Ja," Möller nodded. "We will search and destroy them."

Garcia looked at Hasegawa. "Samurai, you're with me."

"What about me?" Durden asked.

Garcia looked at him again. He smiled, but it wasn't genuine. "Keep your head down, 'mano. Leave it to the professionals."

"Are you serious?" Durden asked. "Are you frakking serious?!"

"See you 'mano," Garcia said, and his face plate polarized, becoming opaque and reflective. A moment later Mike watched as the four men went off in two directions.

“At least give me the fracking encryption frequency!” He called after them. Their laughter drifted back to him, scornful and dismissive.

“Just stay out of the way, ‘mano. We’ll take it from here.”

“Asshole!” Mike spat. He was on his own. He took a breath. Then out of habit he checked the charge in his rifle. It read 77%, and he had three more mags in the bandolier on his chest. He also had the compact phase pistol in its clutch at the small of his back, and three full mags for it. He checked the three grenades in the lower pockets of his bandolier and then took a deep, steadying breath. The station was a maze of hidden corridors and passageways, crawl spaces, access corridors, maintenance and service tunnels, ventilation ducts and God only knew what else. So unless those women got sloppy or those two space cadets secretly possessed the ability to track boot rubber on steel deck plates he seriously doubted they’d find their quarry, and he had even less chance.

He recognized the frame number that Garcia repeated back. It was the shield control and monitoring station. Which probably meant they were being sent to reinforce the defense of the comm scramblers the Teladi had in place. It was necessary, but something was off. Latasha Seldon would know the shield controls would be heavily defended. She'd expect to be tracked, just like she'd expect to find kill zones in the main gallery and heavy fortifications on the landing platform. So what was her plan?

“What would you do, Mike?” he asked himself.

A moment later his eyes widened slightly. Then he clenched his teeth together, turned and took off at a dead run.

********

Gin was hanging back, listening. About half an hour earlier she'd heard footsteps behind them. Seldon led them from the cargo hold they'd set on fire to the engineering core. Then, from the core into the ventilation system. They were currently making their way down one of three primary ventilation ducts, which was a two story pipe that ran the length of the main gallery. There were immense fans every several hundred meters that kept the air moving, and every few minutes she thought she heard another footstep or two, chopped up and echoing off the giant fan blades.

Ahead of her Weamond was grunting and trying to scratch his back. A few minutes earlier he'd ignored Seldon's warning and opened a grated door, getting himself covered in dust. Now he was squirming in various attempts to wipe off the center of his back. "Oh shit! That itches," he complained. "Whoever heard of a fan with a door in it?"

"I told you," Seldon laughed at him.

"It itches like crazy," Weamond said.

"Well you shouldn't have pushed it open while the fan was running."

"Aah!" he growled. "It's sharp!"

"It's tiny flakes of metal," Seldon told him. "The vibration in the ducts wears out the fasteners and that makes dust. Make sure you don't breathe it in."

"What happens if I breathe it in?" Seldon didn't answer him. Gin rolled her eyes. She knew Tasha found it more amusing to let the boy wonder. "Hey!" Weamond demanded. "What happens if I breathe it in?"

"You are such a pussy," Eri told him.

"Frak you, Chinomu! If you hadn't blown that Teladi's brains all over me I'd still have my shirt and I wouldn't be itching like...!"

"I wish I'd just let her rip your throat out," she said. Then, to Gin and Seldon, "why are we bringing him with us?"

"You weren't even aiming for her, were you?" Weamond accused.

"I don't know," Eri shrugged, sounding pleased with herself. "Maybe."

"God! You are such a bitch."

"Shut up, the both of you," Seldon told them. "We're getting close to the people spaces again and sound carries in here. Don't give away our position."

"Yeah, Weamond," Eri goaded him, "don't give away our position."

"Will you please stop breaking my balls, Chinomu?" he whispered back.

"You've got to have balls before I can break them, Weamond, and you demonstrated that you don't the day I met you."

Weamond rounded on her. Before he could say anything Seldon reached back, grabbed his arm and hauled him away. He opened his mouth to say something but found Seldon's steady gaze looking back at him.

"What did I tell you?" she asked and he closed his mouth again. Eri smirked at him from behind Seldon's back but Seldon rounded on her a second later. "And you," she shoved a finger in Eri's face, "stop provoking him."

Eri opened her mouth but found herself confronted by the same icy stare that just silenced Weamond. "Alright," Eri said. "I'll leave the little bitch alone."

"Really?!" Seldon snapped, sounding amazed, disgusted and tired all at the same time.

Eri rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said, then held up her hands. "I'll be nice."

Seldon shook her head and walked away. "We've got people trying to kill us and the two of you are making me play babysitter."

"So where are we?" Gin asked.

Seldon blew up the schematics so they were projected in the air above her wrist. Then she pointed ahead of them. "See that vent in the sidewall there?"

"Yes," Gin replied.

"We take that to... here," she used her fingers to expand the hologram. "That's the ventilation shaft for the port arm of the HUB. We'll have to get out... here," she pointed, "but from there we can access these crawl spaces, which we can take to... this tunnel, which will lead us all the way to the base of the alpha docking tower." She looked up. "But you do understand that all that is gonna be the easy part."

Gin looked at the hologram suspended over Seldon's wrist. The HUB had two spindles that projected out and away from the station. Each spindle then had two towers that projected even farther out into space, and each tower had the ability dock five ships. At the bottom, or top depending on one's perspective, of each tower was a platform that served the five docking tubes that serviced docked ships.

"They're going to be waiting for us," Gin said, understanding.

"Oh yeah," Seldon nodded. "You can count on it." She used her thumb and forefinger to expand the tower's bottom floor. "That platform is gonna be a goddamn killing field."

"What else can we do?"

"What if we EVA to the ship?" Eri asked. She was looking over Seldon's shoulder. A moment later Eri, Weamond and Gin were all looking at Seldon.

Seldon's eyes went wide and round. "Well," she said. "I don't have an EVA suit in my pocket. How about you?"

"There's got to be a maintenance locker around here somewhere," Gin stated. "And if we can get to the ship I'm sure we can get the crew to open an airlock."

"You do realize, of course, that if anyone looks out a window and sees us," Seldon was still wearing the same wide eyed expression, "we're in serious shit. There's not much cover out there and at best we'll be wearing maintenance suits."

"What's your point?" Weamond asked.

Seldon blinked and shook her head. "These guys are wearing power armor and carrying heavy repeaters that put out a thousand rounds a sezura."

Weamond still didn't get it.

"You ever skeet shoot?" Eri asked him.

Seldon nodded and closed the hologram. "They won't even have to try very hard. Just pull the trigger and walk the tracers right through us, one at a time."

"The rock," Gin asked absolutely no one, "or the hard place?"

Eri nodded. Weamond and Seldon looked confused. "It's an Earth expression," Chinomu told them. "We're caught between a rock and a hard place."

Seldon looked back to the diagram. "Well," she said, "it's a gamble. It'll work so long as they don't anticipate us."

"But if they do we're all dead." Weamond summed it up.

"Right," Seldon said, "well, how about we go take a closer look, then make our decision?"

********

Alpha looked up as Gunnery Sergeant Michael C. Durden jogged into the tower's control booth. "Vanguard?" James inquired. "What are you doing here?"

"They're going to EVA to the ship!" Durden panted.

"What?" James blinked.

"They're going to EVA to the ship," Durden said again.

"How do you know that?"

"Think about it," Durden panted. "You've got enough firepower on that platform to invade France. There's no way those women can hammer through it. But they're not going to wait around for your drones to sniff them out either. So what do they do?"

"I didn't know you were psychic," James crossed his arms over his chest. "You a mind reader, Gunny? I didn't see that in your file."

"Funny," Durden grimaced as he sucked in some air. "Listen, there's an airlock on every level of this tower. I don't have a space suit or I'd just do this myself. Put a man with a rifle in one of those airlocks. If I'm right..."

"Task Force Harvester consists of seven men and one woman," Gunnery Sergeant James cut him off, "and that includes me. I have two men on the target's trail and they say those women are coming this way. I have two more men overseeing the defense of the comm jammer in shield control. I have three men here on this platform to make sure they can't reach their ship. So tell me, where am I supposed to pull the man from to man this airlock?"

"Shield control," Durden said instantly. "You already said they're coming this way, right?"

"And if they double back?" James turned and pointed through the windows. "Look out there, brother. Do you see those ships? How many marines do you think that man can put on this station in an hour? Twenty? Forty?" James leaned in. "Sixty?" He raised his eyebrows. "More? Cause if I leave that jammer undefended, we could find out."

"Gunny..."

"Listen to me, Mike," James cut him off. "Can I call you Mike?"

Durden rolled his eyes and waved him on.

"I know you've been through a lot today, but even if you're right, and they do EVA to that ship, they still can't leave." James pointed at a control console nearby. "The docking clamps are controlled from right there. Hell!" Gunnery Sergeant James laughed. "I hope they do EVA. I hope they do get to that ship. You know why?"

"No," Durden shrugged.

"Cause once they're on board they're trapped. We can breech right through the docking tube and they won't even be able to retreat."

"With all due respect, Gunny...!"

"Mike," James cut him off again, "I'm being polite cause I know who you are. I know what you've done. I respect you. But this is my command. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly," Durden nodded, not quite keeping the frost out of his voice. "Do me one favor, though, alright?"

"What?"

"Give me access to your communications," Durden said. "At the very least let me talk to you. That way if I find them at least I can tell you about it."

James stared at Gunnery Sergeant Mike Durden for a moment and turned the suggestion over in his head. Finally he nodded. "Alright," he said. "But exercise radio discipline."

"So, what? You don't want me to start singing Dixie over an open channel?"

********

“Shit,” Seldon whispered. She and Gin were peering through a vent from the crawl space under the control booth. The docking tube to their ship was twenty meters directly in front of them. In between them and it were several sections of open floor, several seating areas, a parked hover car, several pallets of cargo crates... and three Terran marines in black power armor wielding heavy weapons, an entire squad of Surachach Irechli Teladi with various small arms, and a number of combat drones and heavy duty sentry guns. "That is a lot of motherfrakking firepower.”

"Yes it is," Gin breathed, “but what I want to know is what the hell Huritas’s Teladi are doing working with the Wakiya?”

For a moment neither woman said anything.

"Come on," Seldon said. "Let's go back."

A few moments later they emerged from the crawl space and dropped down into the cramped little maintenance tunnel where Eri and Weamond were pointedly not looking at each other.

"So?" Chinomu asked.

"They're dug in," Seldon stated. "Terran heavies in power armor," she sighed heavily, "and a dozen or so of Huritas's Teladi."

Eri nodded, "the USC is subverting the Yaki clans and turning them against each other."

"Aye," Gin shook her head. "It just keeps getting better and better."

Chinomu frowned. "This Huritas is one of the clan leaders, right?"

"Yeah," Seldon nodded.

"What's her beef with Drake?"

Seldon shrugged.

"He witnessed her being embarrassed," Gin told them.

"He witnessed her being embarrassed?" Chinomu was incredulous. "That's it?"

"Pretty much." Gin nodded. "From what I've gathered she's about three hundred years old. Ambition and vendettas are how she stays young."

"Sounds charming," Chinomu said.

"Oh yeah," Weamond said, "she's a doll. A real peach."

"How the hell would you know that?!" Chinomu rounded on him.

"Shit, girl!" Seldon hissed at her. "Will you please keep your voice down?!"

"Sorry," Chinomu held up her hands.

"It's still a good question," Gin said, looking at Weamond. "Those were Huritas's people holding you in that apartment."

Weamond nodded. "Yep."

"What were you doing with them?" Gin asked him.

"Selling us out, I bet,” Eri hissed. "You give her my formation patterns? You tell her how we train?"

“Go to hell, Chinomu!” Weamond barked at her.

Seldon stepped between them and put a hand on both of them. "Listen to me," she said, as softly and calmly as she could. "The both of you need to put this shit to bed right now. You obviously do not comprehend the danger we're in so allow me to explain it to you. If anyone out on that deck, and that's right-over-there!" She looked from one to the other and back again. "If anyone, anyone on that deck hears you... We. Are. Dead. We won't last five mazura. Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" She looked at Eri and held the woman's eye until she nodded. Then she looked at Weamond until he nodded. "Good," Seldon said. "Now please, please! don't get me killed. I really don't want to die on this fracking station."

She lowered her hands but stayed between them.

"Look at me,” Gin said to Weamond, "what were you doing with them?"

"Huritas," he said and then swallowed. "Are you going to take me with you?"

“What?” Seldon blinked.

"Always covering his own ass," Eri scoffed, grew red, and turned away.

"Look," he said, "I’ll tell you everything! I will! But you gotta take me with you. Don't leave me here!"

"I told you," Eri whispered, sounding disgusted. "It’s just what he does."

Seldon glared at her. "Chinomu!" She hissed. "Stop. Provoking. Him."

"Well who the hell else is gonna look out for me, Chinomu?!" Weamond hissed. "You never did!"

"Enough," Gin said. Then, she turned Weamond to face her. "You can come with us," she said. Then she leaned in and held his eye. "But do not cross me."

He blinked and swallowed. "I-I won’t," he assured her. "I’ll tell you everything. I promise! As soon as we're off this station."

Eri scoffed, thoroughly disgusted, and refused to look at him. Gin and Seldon exchanged looks. "So," Gin asked, "what are we going to do?"

"We find some spacesuits, I guess." Seldon shrugged. "And pray."

********

Mike Durden was trying to think. It wasn't easy. He kept slipping into rage, and the deeper he got the more wanted to find a target to shoot, punch or kick. It was nearly all he could do to stay calm and level, and he needed to stay calm. He needed to think. There had to be a way.

"Come on, Mike," he told himself. "Think. What do you need?" He was in the corridor leading into the station from the tower and he leaned his forehead against a bulkhead. "Well, Mike," he told himself, "I need a goddamn EVA suit," he said. "Then I'll get into and airlock and do it my damn self." He nodded and stared at the polished tiles beneath his feet. "Okay, Mike. Where are you gonna find an EVA suit?" He took a breath and stared at a piece of cellophane at the base of the bulkhead, and a stray bottle cap near the tip of his right boot. Then he nodded. "Yeah," he agreed with himself, "of course. Mechanics'd need 'em. Sometimes those docking tubes need maintenance, right? Right. So," he lifted the computer strapped to his left wrist, "where the hell is the nearest maintenance locker?"

********

Seldon led them away from the crawlspace and back into the station. At the end of the maintenance tunnel they took a ladder down five levels to the base of the tower. From there another hatch led to a small maintenance closet, through which was a corridor that Seldon thought of as a 'real people space', which had niceties like overhead lighting and enough room to stand up straight. She stopped them there and studied the display on the back of her wrist. The entire level was only used by the maintenance crew that worked in the tower, and she and her companions would only need to travel about seventy meters from where they stood to the compartment where she expected to find what they needed, but she was still worried. 'Real people spaces' tended to have cameras.

"Alright," she said, and tried the hatch. It was locked, which didn't bother her. The hatchway opened into a small tool closet that held small, valuable items that could easily go wandering on a station that catered to drug addicts... that and it wasn't a difficult lock to defeat, especially if you didn't mind causing some damage. "We're heading back into areas with cameras," she told them, already ripping the cover off the lock.

"Where are we?" Weamond asked.

"The tower's engineering section," Seldon told him, once more with her knife in hand. "It's were all the machines for the docking arms are monitored and accessed. The schematics say there's an airlock off the crew's locker rooms." She found the cable she was looking for and ripped it out of the locking mechanism. The electromagnet holding the hatch closed let go and the hatch relaxed in its frame. She closed the knife and stood. "But we need to move quickly, and I want you all to stay right behind me. They're not marked, but I'm betting there are cameras watching these corridors."

"We can disable the cameras," Gin told her.

"What?"

"We can actually disable the cameras pretty easily."

Seldon blinked. "Well don't keep me in suspense, girlfriend. Spill."

Gin took a breath and then looked at the three people looking at her. After a moment she frowned and just shook her head. "It'll be easier if I just do it," she said. A moment later she climbed back up the ladder. One level up she got off and disappeared from sight.

"Okay," Seldon called after her. "We'll just... wait here... then."

"She do that a lot?" Eri asked.

"Yeah, pretty much," Seldon admitted. "We're still workin' on gettin' her to use her 'out-loud' voice."

Several moments later Gin poked her head back over the decking above and gave Seldon one of her looks. It was amazing how much the woman was capable of saying without saying anything at all, especially considering how subtle her expressions were. Seldon knew, for instance, that she'd just been called crazy and a pain in the ass.

"Yeah," Seldon said to Eri as Gin slid down the ladder. "It's a work in progress."

"Cameras are down."

"How?" Eri asked at the same time as Weamond, then shot the kid a look that should have stopped his heart.

"I disconnected the network cable linking them to the tower."

"Yeah, but," Weamond stammered, "how..." his mouth worked but nothing came out of it.

"How do you know which cable is which and where any of them are?" Eri finished for him.

Gin looked from one to the other. Then she shrugged. "I can see the electrical currents in the walls," she told them.

"Seriously?" Eri asked.

Gin nodded. "The cameras are in plain sight," she shrugged, "once I know where they are I can just follow the wires back to their source. Then I cut all the cables that looked the same."

"Frakkin' A!" Weamond exclaimed.

Eri just blinked and stared at Gin with wide eyes.

Seldon pursed her lips and nodded. "Kewl," she said.

Gin shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with the attention. "Can we go now?"

Seldon was smirking as she opened the hatch into what looked, to her, like a well stocked armory. Only instead of rifles, side arms, ammunition, grenades, various explosives, and all the means and supplies to keep those tools of death and destruction operating this armory held various socket and wrench sets, jacks, welding units, measuring devices in a hundred different forms, adhesives, sealants, and a thousand and one other devices whose use she wasn't acquainted with. As they moved from one side of the tiny compartment to the other it was hard to avoid knocking things off shelves or kicking something sticking out from in between a pair of cabinets, something Weamond seemed to be incapable of.

"Shit!" he cursed after stubbing his toe for the second time in three meters.

"Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, boy," Eri said, once again blistering the boy's ears. "Are you going to trip over everything in this locker?"

The kid gave her a hard look but didn't say anything. Seldon stepped up to the far hatch and looked through the window into the hall. "Gin," she said, "anyone out there?"

"Not this corridor," Gin said, "beyond that I can't say yet."

"Infrared?" Eri asked.

Gin met her eye, then saw Seldon watching and shrugged. "Among other things," she admitted. "Thermal, EM and atmospheric distortion. Sound." She shrugged.

Seldon palmed the hatch open and stepped out into the corridor. She moved carefully, keeping her rifle up and aimed ahead of her. The corridor circled around the tower's central spire, which included both the ladder they just used and the three high speed transport tubes that led to the station proper. There were five evenly spaced hatches that led off the circular corridor like the spokes of a wheel, and a sixth that led to a corridor that, in turn, led to the primary mustering area for the tower's maintenance team. At the very end of the corridor was a large compartment that served as a locker room, break room, and lounge area. Beyond it was the preparation area for spacewalks, where she hoped they'd find EVA suits and an airlock from which they could reach the ship.

Seldon set a quick pace in the corridors, where she felt very exposed. Moving down the corridor toward the maintenance locker they passed tool closets, rest room facilities for both male and female humans and Split, as well as another facility for Teladi. Another claimed to be heavy equipment storage. One was unmarked and the last, at the very end of the corridor, was a hatch marked with the symbols for both the maintenance locker and an airlock. At the end of the corridor she palmed the controls for the last hatch. It promptly responded with an ugly buzz and a flashing red light.

"Shit," Seldon cursed. "Give me a minute," she said and drew her short bladed utility knife again. She was just about to remove the panel beneath the controls when they all heard the sound of a voice from the far side of the hatch.

"Civvies," Gin stated just as Seldon started to look at her.

"Shit," she cursed again. "Just what we need."

Weamond, however, simply leaned past her and hit the intercom.

"What the hell are you doing?" Eri hissed at him.

"Asking them to open the door," he said as if it were obvious. A moment later the intercom popped and they could all hear the white noise of an open line. Weamond leaned in. "Hello? Hey we're not here to cause any trouble. We just need some EVA suits and we'll be on our way. Can you let us in?"

The line cut off and for a moment there was nothing but silence. Seldon grumbled something under her breath and bent toward the panel again. Then the intercom popped to life again.

"Who are you?" The voice belonged to a human male, one sounding very close to panic.

Weamond leaned toward the com again and Seldon put a hand in font of his face. As he backed up she leaned in herself. "My name is Master Chief Warrant Officer Latasha Seldon. I work for the guy that owns this station. We're not here to hurt you."

The intercom closed again. Eri heard the muffled sounds of voices beyond the hatch. She looked at Gin, who was obviously feeling the worse for wear. "Three of them," Gin told her. "Male human by the hatch. Female human a few meters in and a Teladi... unarmed."

"The Teladi's unarmed? You're sure?"

Gin nodded as the intercom popped back to life. "How do we know you are who you say you are? We've heard explosions! We saw armed men on the landing platfrom! Now all our communication systems are down! We can't reach anyone!"

Seldon rolled her eyes. "Well," she said to the intercom, while once again slipping the tip of her knife between the edge of the panel and the rest of the bulkhead, "you're gonna find out one way or the other in a minute or so."

"Tactful, Tasha," Gin said.

"We don't have time to babysit these people," Seldon retorted as she pried the panel open to begin working the fasteners. "They don't want to help? Fine. I'll just go through 'em."

There was a whispered gasp through the intercom. Apparently it was still open. "Wait!" the speaker said. "Wait! I-I'll open the hatch. Just don't hurt us!"

********

Eri saw Seldon step back, calmly raise her weapon and aim it at the hatch. She followed the marine's example, albeit halfheartedly. Neither Gin nor Weamond bothered. A moment later the hatch opened and two very nervous looking humans stood in the middle of the compartment with their hands up. Behind them, near the end of a double row of lockers, a Teladi also held her hands up but was clearly ready to jump for cover at the first sign of trouble. All three wore identical jumpsuits. As Eri watched, the Teladi's face stretched into one of those impossible smiles they were capable of.

"Move!" Seldon used the tip of her rifle to direct them all toward one side of the compartment.

"Don't hurt us!" the man said. He didn't look like much. He had an unassuming face, thinning hair and not much of a chin. Yet he had the nerve to place himself in between the strangers and the woman beside him. The woman was attractive and had an aura of no-nonsense competence about her, but at the fellow's bravery she blinked, then looked at him as if she'd never seen him before.

You go, boy, Eri thought approvingly.

"We're not here to hurt you," Seldon told them. "Just stay where we can see you, and no sudden moves." She looked at the Teladi, who was still stood by the lockers. "Come on," she said, sounding tired and annoyed, and twitched her rifle toward the two humans. The Teladi, still smiling, moved to join her companions.

"We need EVA suits," Weamond said again. "Do you have any here?"

All three pointed at a hatch on the far side of the small compartment. "Perhapsss you would be willing to purchassse them?" the Teladi asked hopefully.

"Oh shut up, Yanos," the woman said. The Teladi immediately turned a wounded expression on the woman. Seldon walked toward the hatch without lowering her weapon. She glanced through the glass panel in the center of the door and then looked at Gin.

"What?" Gin asked.

Seldon actually winced. "Well," she said, "I've got good news and bad news."

Eri stepped up next to the woman to look. The next compartment held EVA suits, bottled air, tools designed to be used in space, and led to a set of pressure doors that were ringed with yellow and black danger stripes. Through them she could see the Shirubāurufu and, beyond it, the Necromancer.

"What's the good news?" Gin asked.

"We've got EVA suits and an airlock," Seldon replied.

"What's the bad news?" Gin asked, sounding as if she already knew the answer.

Seldon opened her mouth but couldn't seem to make herself speak.

"There's only three of them," Eri said for her. "Well, there's five, but two of them are for Teladi."

"Oh frak!" Weamond's eyes grew wide and round. "Hey! You can't leave me here! Huritas will...!"

"Shut the hell up!" Eri cut him off, but it was too late. The Teladi's eyes went wide and round at the mention of Huritas' name.

"Huritasss?" the Teladi whispered. An instant later she leapt toward the hatch. She zipped past Weamond in a flash and would have been out of the compartment and into the corridor had not Gin grabbed her collar. "No! No-no-no! You mussst let me go! I wasss never here!"

"What the hell is your problem?" Eri asked.

"Huritas is crazzzy!" the Teladi thrashed in Gin's grip, clearly panicked. "Ssshe'll kill usss all jussst for being here! If sshe wantsss you and thinksss we helped you ssshe'll sskin uss alive! Pleassse let go! Pleassse!"

At those words Weamond's own eyes grew even wider. Then he fell back against a bulkhead. His eyes were wide and showing the whites all around. "You can't leave me here!" he shouted. "You can't!" The barrel of his rifle twitched upward and Eri suddenly wondered if she really would end up killing him tonight. "She'll kill me!"

"Hey!" Gin shouted and Weamond looked at her. "We're not going to leave you," Gin stated. "Calm the hell down." She turned to the Teladi thrashing in her grip and then shoved her back toward the two humans. "You too. Stand over there and be quiet."

In that instant something occurred to Eri and she found herself staring at the other woman. Gin noticed. "What?" she asked.

Eri opened her mouth. Then looked through the hatch at the EVA suits. Then she looked back at Gin and arched an eyebrow. Gin seemed to understand. She sighed and nodded. "Really?" Eri asked, amazed.

"For short durations," she answered. "Yes."

"What?" Weamond asked.

"Never mind," Seldon said and pointed at the maintenance crew. "Tie them up and gag 'em."

"Wait!" the woman exclaimed. "You can't...!"

"Would you rather it looked like you helped us?" Seldon cut her off. Then, to Eri. "Prep the suits. We've got zero time."

"Right."

Just then Gin turned and faced the hatch behind her. "Oh shit," she said.

"What?" Seldon asked.

An instant later the hatch opened. A tall, rangy man with a military haircut, a rifle, and a dark angry bruise on his right temple stood in the hatchway. He was sweating and seemed to be out of breath, as if he'd been running. Eri recognized him instantly.

"DOWN!" she roared, but Gin was faster. The woman took three steps toward the man Eri'd hit in the head with a 3-ball, but as fast as she was she wasn't quite fast enough. The guy stepped back and raised his rifle. There was a rapid series of loud, singing Pops! accompanied by flashes of angry red light and the cycling hum of the plasma rifle's rail-gun. Then Gin shouted a Kiai! and kicked the man from Houston, Texas ten meters back down the corridor.

"Shit!" Seldon cursed and ran toward the hatch.

"Frak me!" Eri was a step behind her.

The pair of them hit the doorframe and, to Eri's horror, Gin took two steps back and then dropped to her knees. She gasped and bent over. Her head drooped toward the floor and Eri heard her cough. A splatter of blood hit the deck between her knees. "She's been hit!"

"SHIT!" Seldon cursed beside her. "Check on her! I'll deal with the asshole!" Seldon immediately began firing down the corridor.

Eri crouched down and looked at Gin. She couldn't see the woman's face through her hair but she could see the charred, bloody clothing and smell the reek of burned leather, clothing and flesh. "Hey!" she shouted. "Are you all right?! Are you...?! You can't be....!" She couldn't bring herself to finish the question.

Above her head Seldon's plasma rifle pulsed with blood red light. That light lit Gin's hair and hands and thighs. It pulsed on the deck and in the depths of the shining drops of blood spattered on the patterned metal deck. Some part of Eri's mind was suddenly wailing denial. 'We went out for drinks!' it cried. 'We just went out for drinks!' The horror of what was happening hit her like a thousand tons of snow and ice crashing down a mountain side, and suddenly, out of nowhere, she was thinking of her sister, Yomi, and wondering if she'd ever see her again.

Then, ever so slowly, Gin's head turned. Bright blue glints of color looked through the sweaty strings of her hair. "I think," the woman whispered, hoarse and raspy, "you're gonna need a new jacket."

********

"You find anything?" Gunnery Sergeant Derrick James asked Sergeant Hans Möller over the comm.

"We have a trail," Möller told him. "Thermal indicates that we are perhaps ten minutes behind them and gaining. One of them is wounded. We found blood."

"Keep me in the loop." James told him. Then his comm chirped. "Alpha out." He switched to the incoming channel. "Yeah?" he answered.

"J-James..." The wet, wheezing quality of the voice in his ear put Gunny James on instant alert. His eyes immediately flitted to the holographic display in front of him to search for the source of the signal.

"Vanguard?" he asked.

A wet cough answered him. "I... I found 'em, G-Gunny," Durden wheezed. James could literally hear the blood in the man's voice. "M-muh-maintenance... locker... my... *cough!* ... my p-position!"

Gunnery Sergeant James found Mike Durden's location and then ran from the control booth onto the landing platform. "GeeGee! Irish!" he thundered.

He was answered by shouts of, "Aye, Gunny?" and, "Yes, Gunny!"

"Maintenance locker at the base of this tower! Vanguard is down! I'm marking his position on your HUDs. Hostiles are present! Secure the locker and our friendly!"

"Secure locker and friendly, aye!" Gloria Guzzetti confirmed his order as O'Malley thundered up beside her.

"Our targets may be attempting to EVA to their ship," I need you to make sure that doesn't happen! Go!"

"Aye aye, Gunny!" they both shouted back and then began charging for the lift.

"GeeGee!"

"Gunny?"

"Watch your ass!"

"Oorah!"

James re-opened the comm frequency. "You hang in there, Vanguard!" James told the man on the other end of the comm. "Help is coming! You hear me?"

There was no answer.

"Vanguard?" James asked, staring at the polished tiles of the landing platform's deck.

Again there was no answer.

"Mike?!"

********

Seldon strained to listen but couldn't make out whether the guy was actually speaking. Gin had kicked the son of a bitch nearly halfway back to the central spire and Seldon hit the doorframe less than a sezura afterward, but somehow the prick still managed to get to cover before she could finish him off. He'd lurched through a hatch in the side of the corridor just as she sent a burst of plasma through the frame beside him, missing only because he moved oddly.

She was pretty sure he was now in the women's restroom. The hatch was still open but he hadn't shot back, and Seldon thought she could hear him. 'My kingdom for a grenade, she thought.

That was when she realized that she could see him, or more precisely, she could see his reflection. She leaned to her left and looked through the hatch. High in the inside corner of the compartment, at the end of what looked like a little L corridor that blocked the interior from passerby in the corridor, was a convex mirror. She squinted, trying to decide if she was actually seeing what she thought she was seeing. Then she glanced at Eri and Gin. Shit! she thought.

"How is she?!" she asked, unable to keep the tension out of her voice.

"Alive," Eri replied, "but hurt."

"Do what you can for her," Seldon instructed. In the women's restroom, the soldier coughed. It sounded wet. "Stay here," she whispered. "I'm gonna go take a look at this guy." Before Eri could reply, she sucked in a breath and moved foward as fast as she could while still maintaining her aim.

As she reached the hatch she saw that she was right. The man was, in fact, leaning with his back against the bulkhead beside the hatch. His rifle hung loose on its sling, resting against his leg and side. She heard him breathing. It alternated between a pathetic gasp and a slick, bubbling wheeze. As she turned the corner she saw his boots splayed toes up away from her. He looked up at her as she stepped through the hatchway. Blood spilled from his nose and mouth. It soaked his upper lip and chin. It seeped from his mouth with every breath. He met her eyes and his hands twitched in a weak attempt to lift the rifle. She put a boot on top of it, pinning it against him. As she applied pressure against his side his mouth opened in a horrid, gurgling wheeze. It took Seldon a moment to realize he was trying to scream.

"Damn, boy," she said, "you should'a just stayed in bed this morning."

"You! Y-you killed... my... whole team!"

"Is that right?" she asked.

"I'm gonna haunt... you... for the rest of... your life!"

"Yeah," she smirked down at him. "Somehow I doubt it." She kept her rifle trained on his face and her boot on his rifle. Then she leaned in and squeezed the pockets of his bandolier. He tried to stop her but was so weak that he couldn't keep his hands up. The effort started a wracking cough that she wasn't sure he'd survive. She took three grenades and two mags from him and quickly put them in the pockets of her own bandolier. Then she unclipped the rifle from its sling and took it away from him. He was so weak that it simply slid from his grasp.

"He's got a pistol in his waistband," Eri called to her, "in the small of his back!" Seldon glanced at the woman from the corner of her eye. Chinomu and the female maintenance worker were tending to Gin, who was still on her knees. Weamond was moving down the corridor, presumably to back her up. Seldon fixed her eyes on the man in front of her. Looking at Gin hurt.

Weamond stepped through the hatch beside her and aimed his rifle at the Terran. "Cover him," Seldon told him and felt the kid focus behind his rifle. Seldon stepped back and let her own rifle go slack against her chest, freeing her hands to check and then eject the mag from the rifle she'd taken away from the man at her feet. When it was clear she tossed the rifle away, hearing it clatter loudly upon the tiles. A moment later she crouched down to reach behind the dying soldier.

"I'll..." he gasped breathlessly, spattering the side of her face with a mist of blood, "...see you... in hell."

She found the pistol in his waistband and took it away from him. As she leaned back she met his eyes. They were a clear light blue that made her think of a cloudless desert sky. They would have been pretty if not for the hate in them. That hate was absolute. "Maybe," she answered him and stood, "but not today."

He bared his bloody teeth in a feral grin. "We'll... see." She stood up and thrust the pistol in her own waistband. The Terran held her eyes as she backed away, still showing her his bloody teeth.

Seldon raised her rifle, aimed it at a point directly above and between his eyes. "This is for my friends," she told him, and squeezed the trigger. The plasma bolt instantly burned his face off, boiled his blood, and blasted his brains out through the back of his skull.

"Holy shit!" Weamond leapt back. His mouth was wide open. His face was a rictus of shock. Seldon glanced at him and after a moment he looked at her. His mouth was working, but nothing came out of it. A moment later he stepped back and then quickly turned away, jerking as if trying not to vomit.

"Chief!" Eri barked at her.

"Yeah?" Seldon growled back.

"She says we have incoming!"

Tasha saw Gin's right hand pointing back up the corridor. "How many?!" Seldon barked.

"Two guys in power armor!" Eri replied.

Seldon looked at Weamond and pointed at the maintenance locker. "Get back inside and close that hatch."

"What?!" he demanded. His face was pale. "You can't...!"

"MOVE, BOY!"

Weamond moved.

********
Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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Joined: 27 Oct 2010
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Location: Milky Way galaxy. Sol system. Earth. Most of the time anyway.
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PostPosted: Wed, 26. Oct 16, 06:52    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

... continued.

********

The hatch opened off the central spire and Staff Sergeant Gloria Guzzetti stepped through it. She instantly saw the dead man ahead of her. "Aah, shit," she cursed inside her helmet. She thought it was the same guy that talked with Gunnery Sergeant James just ten minutes earlier, but it was hard to tell. Whoever killed the guy shot him in the face with a plasma weapon, which meant he no longer had a face. So most of her deduction was based on his build and clothing. She immediately turned her shield to full power, activated her laser sights and target acquisition software, then flipped the safety on the massive, sixty kilogram Vulcan heavy repeater to the 'on' position. "Weapons hot, Irish," she told O'Malley.

"Weapons hot, aye," he confirmed behind her.

She took another step down the corridor and heard the hatch close behind them. Her eyes kept returning to the dead guy just inside the hatch to the women's head. He was sitting with his back against the bulkhead and his feet splayed out in front of him. But his face, his head, was now a something straight out of a nightmare. Instead of the handsome, healthy soldier she'd seen run into the control booth earlier, there was now just a smoldering corpse. His face was gone. It was completely burned off, leaving nothing behind but a blackened, charred skull with a gaping jaw, missing nose and empty eye sockets. All of which was wreathed in the withered remains of what used to be flesh. The back of the head had exploded, covering the wall behind him with boiling blood, scorched bone and blackened brain matter. But what really worried her was the fact that his hair was still burning. Flickers of flame sizzled and flared through the fuzz at the nape of his neck. He'd been shot only seconds ago.

"They're still here," she said.

She was just about to radio Alpha when she saw movement in the hatch. A woman's head and arm flickered out of the hatchway and threw something at them. Before Guzzetti could raise her weapon the woman was gone, disappearing back behind the bulkhead. Guzzetti targeted the wall, thinking to blast the bulkhead to shreds and destroy the woman behind it, when two matte-silver balls landed at her feet. One look identified the objects as NMMC knockoffs of the Argon G-830 plasma grenade.

Guzzetti had time to scream, "OH FRAK ME!" before the world went white.

********

Seldon closed her eyes, covered her ears, and grit her teeth as the shockwave of the dual explosions sent a wave of blistering hot air through the open hatch beside her. The instant it passed she opened her eyes and worked her jaw. She stepped forward and brought her rifle up. She had one chance. One chance to survive a firefight with two Terran heavies in full power armor.

One.

She turned the corner. She sighted the two marines, like walking tanks in the twisted metal ruin of a fallen building. She aimed carefully, slowly exhaling all the air from her lungs. Then she squeezed the trigger.

********

Guzzetti was reeling. As the only woman in Task Force Harvester she'd gotten used to sparring with much larger and stronger opponents. Once she'd gotten into the ring with Alpha, and Alpha didn't believe in taking it easy. She'd been wearing headgear, and he wore 18oz gloves. But even with all that padding, when he hit her it was like somebody put a ream of paper against her head and then swung for the fence with a baseball bat.

This was worse.

She was on her hands and knees after falling out of the wall. She felt like she'd just been hit by a truck. Her head was ringing. She couldn't think or see straight, and she thought she was going to puke inside her helmet. She also knew that she and O'Malley were in deep shit. The dead guy in the bathroom was proof of that. So she got one foot underneath her chest, then pushed herself upright. Her weapon was nearby but one look told her not to trust it. She reached for her sidearm instead. That was when she felt the first impact, like three punches hitting her shoulder almost simultaneously. There was a sizzling hiss near her right ear, just outside her helmet. An instant later the hydraulic frame for her right arm let go.

No frakking way! Guzzetti thought feeling the weight of her armor drag her arm down. She raised her head and immediately saw the bitch. She was in the hatchway by the corpse. Guzzetti screamed inside her helmet and tried to raise her weapon despite the weight, willing the targeting reticule and the laser sight to line up but there was a sudden, ringing Clap! as the other woman fired again. An instant later a sudden, bright pain leapt out of her fingers. The bitch just shot the gun out of my hand! Guzzetti thought in pure amazement.

She saw the woman taking aim and in that instant knew that she was dead. Then O'Malley roared and lunged to his feet. The bitch switched targets and fired another three-round lance at O'Malley. She heard him grunt over the comm and saw the armor protecting his right side shoulder hydraulics just boil away.

"Son of a bitch!" he roared. The ass end of his Vulcan heavy repeater dropped hard enough to wrench his shoulder out of the socket.

You have got to be kidding me! Guzzetti thought and cycled a grenade into her left hand. She stepped forward, raised her arm to throw... and another ringing clap preceded an impact and sudden pain in her left hand. The grenade bounced off the side of her helmet, shoulder and tumbled through a gap between the twisted deck plates, landing just out of reach.

"Oh you have GOT to be kidding me!"

The world went white.

********

"Möller!" Alpha barked over the comm. "I need you to high-tail it to this position!" He sent a waypoint indicating Guzzetti and O'Malley's location. "GeeGee and Irish are under fire. How fast can you get there?"

"We are in these damn ventilation, tunnels, Gunny. Giant fans block our path."

"I need you to move, Hans! And move now! Your teammates are engaging the enemy right now!"

There was a sudden alarm from the console monitoring his team's suits. On its display there were eight windows labeled with the names of the men and woman of Task Force Harvester. Beneath those names were the feeds from each man's power armor. When he turned he saw two of those names flashing red and Edward O'Malley just flatlined.

"Shit! Listen to me, Hans! Eddie is down! You need to MOVE! Blow those fans to hell for all I care! JUST GET THERE!"

James cut the comm before Möller could reply. He stepped to the console and expanded the window access for GeeGee's suit feed. Her vitals were through the roof. Her heart rate was 120 BPM and climbing. Her blood pressure was spiking. He entered several commands and brought up her helmet cam.

At first the image was hard to decipher. A vast, flat plane filled the left side of the screen. In the distance two oddly shaped columns were scissoring back and forth. It took him a moment to realize he was looking at patterned steel decking and a pair of boots getting closer, which meant GeeGee was lying face down on the deck with her head turned to the side. As he watched whoever those boots belonged to stopped just a pace away from her. Then one boot disappeared and the camera jerked, then swayed as the owner of those boots used a heel to shove GeeGee onto her back.

The camera rotated, swinging up to reveal the legs those boots were attached to. Dominating the screen, though, was the cavernous black hole of a rifle barrel which, from this point of view, looked roughly the size of Mars. Far, far away, above and behind that rifle, a woman's face looked down with one the grimmest expressions he'd ever seen.

"No," James heard himself protesting the inevitable. "No-NO-NO!"

There was a sudden flash of light... and then static. An alarm sounded and a steady, monotonous tone accompanied GeeGee's heart rate monitor.

"GOD DAMN IT!"

********

The maintenance locker was completely silent but for the sounds of their breathing, and the small, furtive sounds caused by the occupants' trembling. When the hatch opened both the male and female maintenance workers let out brief, panicked screams. Beside Eri Weamond snapped his rifle to his shoulder and nearly fired through the empty hatch. Eri merely looked.

Thirty meters away, at the far end of the corridor, the decks, bulkheads, and lid were blackened and twisted. Two Terran marines were in sight. One lay face up on the deck with a melted face plate. The other seemed to be both impaled on and embedded into several beams in the lid.

"Don't shoot!" Seldon said from just outside the hatchway. "It's me."

"Holy shit, Chief!" Eri replied. "How the hell are you still alive?"

Seldon looked through the door with a wounded expression. "Thanks, Chinomu," she said wryly, "good to see you too." Her eyes moved to Gin. "Hey, baby-girl," she stepped inside and crouched down to look through Gin's hair, "how are you?"

Gin raised her left hand and gave a weary thumbs-up.

"Just hang in there," Seldon said and put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll be home in no time."

Gin nodded.

"I need to borrow one of your pig-stickers, okay?"

At that Gin lifted her head to look at Seldon.

"It's important," Seldon assured her.

Gin responded with a very tired shrug.

Seldon reached behind her and took one of the blades from Gin's waistband, sheath and all. Then she met Eri's eye. "Do what you can for her."

Eri nodded and immediately turned toward the two maintenance workers. Behind her Seldon was already sprinting back down the corridor with Gin's knife. "Do you have a first aid kit?" Eri asked.

"Yes," the woman squeaked, swallowed, and then nodded. "I-I'll get it for you."

"Thanks," Eri told her. Then looked back at Gin. "And a pair of scissors," she said. A few moments later she was working to cut Gin's clothing away from her burned flesh. Her eyes saw and her hands worked carefully and efficiently, but the mind behind both was numb with shock. Gin's chest and abdomen were thoroughly cooked. Charred, blackened flesh crumbled with the slightest pressure, revealing deeper, cooked flesh that, disturbingly, reminded her of overdone pork. Around and beneath that was traumatized tissue that simply oozed. If Gin was still human she'd already be dead.

"That was the bravest thing I've ever seen," the female worker was telling Gin. She sounded on the verge of tears.

"Brave," Gin whispered, "is a synonym for stupid."

"You probably saved our lives," the woman told her. It was obvious that she didn't expect Gin to survive. What she made of Gin kicking the Texan over ten meters back down the corridor Eri could only guess at.

"Do you have a way to cool these burns?" Eri demanded.

The woman turned to the man. "Get the burn medicine, Howard." A moment later the man handed Eri a twenty centimeter long cylinder. Eri scanned the instructions. It was an aerosol applicator for a regenerative cooling foam for humans. Perfect, she thought, and began carefully spraying a thin, bubbling foam onto Gin's burns. Gin trembled and exhaled sharply.

"You okay?"

Gin met her eye with a baleful gaze.

"Er... right," Eri nodded. "Stupid question."

"What the hell is she doing?!" Weamond asked from the hatchway.

Eri looked up with the intention of saying something scathing, but when she did she saw Seldon. The woman was using Gin's knife to hack the arm off one of the marines.

"Huh," she grunted. "I... honestly don't know."

********

Gin's blade was unbelievably sharp. Even so it took a few whacks to cut through the marine's power armor. When she was done there was a very bloody mess due to the marine leaking all over. She stood and stepped back, holding the severed arm out in front of her to drain it onto the deck. A moment later she turned and jogged back down the corridor.

"How are you honey?" she asked Gin as she stepped through the hatch.

"I'll manage," Gin replied. Her voice was a horrid, gravelly rasp.

"You sure about that?"

Gin nods. "I won't slow you down."

"Good lord!" The woman interjects. "You can't be serious! You can't take this woman anywhere, you'll..."

"Ma'am," Seldon interrupted, and gave the woman a frozen stare, "with all due respect? Shut the frak up." The woman's mouth dropped open and she took a nervous step backward.

"Why?!" Weamond asked. He was pointing at the arm. "Why do you...? Why did you...? WHY?!"

"I can tell you or I can show you, kid," Seldon replied. "I'd prefer to just show you, especially since we're short on time and there's a lot of shit going on right now." Then, to the maintenance people, "Hey? You got a blow torch?"

"Err..." the man blinked. "Aah... yes! Yes I do. Er... right here." He crossed the compartment and opened a tool cabinet.

"You are going to get usss all killed, you fool!" the Teladi hissed at him. The guy shot the Teladi a harried look but otherwise ignored her. "Do you know what Huritasss will do to usss when sshe findsss out we...!"

"I can always shoot you," Seldon offered, raising her eyebrows at the Teladi, who met her eye indignantly. Seldon shrugged. "Then it won't look like you helped us." The man withdrew a small acetylene torch from the cabinet and handed it to Seldon.

"Getting shot by you will be quick and painlesss compared to..."

Seldon drew her sidearm and shot the Teladi's tail. There was an instant splatter of green blood and bits of flesh. The lizard screeched and leapt over a meter into the air before scrambling behind the double row of lockers. The last fifteen centimeters of her tail lay twitching on the deck. As Seldon holstered her pistol she saw the horrified looks that Weamond and the two human maintenance workers were giving her.

"What?" she shrugged. "It'll grow back." All three looked at her like she was a dangerous lunatic. "Won't it?"

"No," Gin rasped. Her shoulders were shaking with weak laughter. "You crazy bitch! Teladi don't regenerate."

"Oh," Seldon blinked. "Well that sucks." She popped the torch to life. "Sorry about that," she called after the Teladi. The Teladi shrieked something back in rapid fire Thechlachi. A moment later there was a crash and what sounded like a large number of small metal things skittered across the deck.

"I think you upset her," Gin whispered. Beside her Chinomu was gritting her teeth as she peeled the remnants of Gin's clothing away from her burned flesh. Seldon shrugged and began cooking the severed stump with the blow torch.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Weamond demanded, sounding shocked and horrified. Seldon sighed and glanced at over at him. The boy was wide eyed, shaking and so pale that he was ever so slightly green.

"You gonna be alright, kid?" she asked him. "If you're gonna be sick you should just get it over with now. The toilets are down the hall on the left, just past the dead guy with no face."

Weamond shuddered but persisted anyway. "Why did you cut that woman's arm off?!" he asked her.

Seldon snorted impatiently. "To get her computer," she used the bottom of the torch to tap the armored computer. "Trust me, this baby'll solve all your problems."

Weamond blinked and shook his head. Then he wrinkled his nose at the smell of burning flesh. "Okay, but even if that's true, why in the name of the expanse are you burning...?" Weamond gestured to the arm but his mouth just hung open.

"To stop the leaking," Seldon said matter of factly. "With it dripping blood we'd be too easy to track." She cut the gas to the flame and handed the torch back to the maintenance guy. Then, to Eri. "Throw me some gauze, will ya?" Eri tossed her a roll and a moment later Seldon was wrapping up the stump. As she did she looked at Gin. "We can't stay here. They're bound to have reinforcements en route. Are you gonna need help?"

"No," Gin said and touched Eri's arm.

"Give me a second," Chinomu told her. She was wrapping the woman's torso with medicated bandages. Gin sighed with obvious relief as she did.

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Don't worry about it," Eri told her, sounding utterly sincere. When she finished Gin groaned and rocked back onto the balls of her feet. Chinomu hovered, ready to help if needed, but a moment later Gin stood smoothly.

"God damn, Ookami," Seldon shook her head. "It's too bad you don't drink cause right now I'd buy you a bar."

"Buy me a month's rest in an amnio tank," Gin replied hoarsely.

"Shit, girl," Seldon said, inspecting the arm, "you frakkin' earned it tonight." She turned the now cauterized and bandaged arm over, and shook it. Nothing dripped. "I guess that'll have to do." She looked at the three of them. "Alright, come on. Lets get the hell out of here before more of these assholes show up."

"What-what about us?!" The woman asks. "Are you just going to leave us here?"

"Trust me," Seldon told her, "you do NOT want to come with us. Just keep your heads down. Identify yourself to any marines you see. Neither side is likely to harm you."

"Might want to avoid the Teladi, though," Gin rasped.

Seldon glanced at her, then nodded. "Yeah," she agreed. Then, to Eri, Gin and Weamond. "Come on. We gotta move."

"We're not going to EVA?" Weamond asked.

"No," Seldon said. "Too dangerous. Another one of these jackwads shows up while we're floating out in space and that's all she wrote. Even if they don't kill us outright, a single hole in one of those suits'd do us in."

"Then how are we going to get past that bulkhead?" Weamond asked. "That marine couldn't do it and she was wearing a tank."

Seldon blinked, then turned to Eri, and finally Gin. Gin shook her head. "Not me," she whispered. "Not like this."

"Ah," the male maintenance worker said, "I... I believe I might be able to help you there."

********

Rick Brown followed Hans Möller off the lift. An instant later Möller cursed in German. Bunchie followed his gaze and immediately saw why. Off to their right the hatch leading to the maintenance locker, and the entire bulkhead around it, were bulged outward, warped and distorted as if beaten by a giant. Both men ran to the bulkhead. Möller tried the hatch but neither man expected it to open.

"Help me," Möller told him and grabbed the crumpled edge of one of the partitions. Brown stepped up to push as Möller pulled. The hatch partition was eight centimeters thick and made of an aluminum-titanium alloy. It didn't want to budge, but with both men yanking on it they were able to pry the hatch open just far enough to be able to see through it. The instant he did Bunchie felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut. GeeGee was lying on her back a few paces away. The front of her helmet was slag, and there was a pool of blood spreading away from her far side. O'Malley was to his left, impaled on a broken beam jutting from the lid. Blood still dripped from the tips of his boots.

"Frak me!" He swore. Beside him Möller was already contacting Alpha.

********

Seldon crouched on her haunches. The marine's severed arm was propped across her knees. Gin leaned against a bulkhead a few paces away while Chinomu hovered nearby. Weamond was close enough to touch, and fidgeting. They were all in the grimy little maintenance tunnel under the landing platform. The only light was a yellow strip that ran along the wall with the pipes, power conduits and mass of network cables that flowed from one wall into the crawlspace where they'd spied on the Terrans earlier. Above her head the entrance that crawlspace was a low rectangle of thick, black shadow.

Seldon was worried about Gin. Cyborg or not, the hits she'd taken were serious. Seeing her wounded contrasted her normal experience of the woman. Chinomu was right. Gin didn't change. She was calm and level all the time. She never seemed to get tired... and there were a number of tiny little details that were always the same. Now, though, she was hurt, and seeing her hurt was unsettling. But there was nothing she could do for her friend but get her off the station, and she felt that their best shot for doing that was hidden in the guts of the computer now wrapped around the severed arm of a dead marine, which was useless until she hacked through its security. So she put everything else out of her mind and focused on the task at hand.

Terran tech was different from what she was used to. In many ways it was superior, but not all. It was more advanced, but that didn't necessarily make it better. In some ways it was much more powerful. It had better architecture, more powerful components made of superior materials. But in other ways it was just over-engineered. One thing that was true, was that it was just as subject to brute force attacks as any other computer. So she networked her wrist computer with Gin's and Eri's and tasked them with battering through the Terran defenses. It was neither graceful nor elegant, but it was effective, and after a while her companions started to see a grim light in her eyes as she worked.

********

Five meters directly above Seldon's head, Task Force Harvester Alpha received a call from Sergeant Hans Möller.

"Yeah?" James answered.

"Gunny," the German sounded flustered. "They are both dead."

"I know."

"What do you want us to do?"

"Get back here as fast as you can."

"Aye aye, Gunny," Möller replied. "We are on ze way."

James pulled the helmet over his head. His HUD flickered to life as it networked with his armor, and a moment later he heard and then felt the internal air supply kick in. Oxygen rich atmo cleared his head, helping him focus. He walked out onto the landing platform to survey the battlefield.

The landing platform was a large, circular area roughly fifty meters in diameter. There were five gates evenly spaced around it's circumference, each with it's own seating area and personal cargo management facilities. At the very center of the circle a ten meter structure housed the control booth, the local restroom facilities, and access to both the transporter pads for teleportation and the high speed transport tubes for locomotive transport to and from the station. The Hyperion Vanguard that belonged to the women was docked at gate five, which Alpha was using as his 0, or 12 o'clock position. On either side of gate five was a sentry gun equipped with a high powered, hypervelocity twelve barreled chain gun. There were two more guns flanking gates 1 and 4, or roughly the 2:30 and 9:30 positions. He activated all six of them with a single series of commands given through the neural links in his armor. All three pairs immediately whined ferociously as their high speed actuators lifted the cannons up from their resting positions and began scanning the room with LADAR based target acquisition systems.

Then he turned his attention to the half dozen roughly cylindrical shapes laid out in a line at gate five. Each was a little over a meter long by half a meter thick with complicated curving seams lining the surface of the tubes. They were Mark VII Sparrowhawk drones. Each was equipped with a 75 kilojoule shield, dual electromagnetic plasma repeaters, and micro-grenade launchers with various ammunitions. With another series of commands all six cylinders unfolded, expanding wings and maneuvering stabilizers from their bodies to reveal thrusters and weapon systems within. A moment later they leapt into the air with a series of electric roars. Then they, too, began searching the landing platform for targets.

Gunnery Sergeant James ran through the checklist, confirming and then double confirming each drone's targeting protocols. He confirmed and then reconfirmed the targeting exceptions for friendlies. Finally, he armed all the drones and sentry guns and released the drones into pre-established patrol patterns. The dozen or so of the Teladi Yaki noticed all this and began exchanging glances and chirping nervously to each other. After the drones began their patrol routines James turned to see one of their group sauntering belligerently toward him. "Isss everything alright?" she asked him with a broad, unpleasant smile.

"Everything is fine," he replied, "but you should prob'bly get your people into position." He pointed at a number of cover positions he and his team set up around the platform. "Things are about to heat up around here."

The Teladi looked him up and down insultingly, then returned to her people and began issuing orders. James didn't trust the lizards, just as he didn't like the Split, the Boron and the Paranid. In this case, though, he didn't mind their presence. As he saw it, they were cannon fodder. With that thought he turned around and inspected his defenses one last time. When Möller and Brown arrived they would be as good as he could make them.

"Bring it," he said.

********

"Oh hell yeah!" Seldon growled. Eri and Gin turned to see her baring her teeth in a wolfish grin.

"Did you just save all our lives?" Gin asked, sounding only partially interested. "Find us a way off this dump? Or did you finally discover the secret, hidden formula for perfect toast?"

"Not yet on the toast," Seldon grinned, "but I'll get it someday. You mark my words."

"What'd you do?" Weamond asked, fidgeting as if he were uncomfortable in his own skin.

"Well, kid," Seldon said, tapping several more commands into her wrist comm, "I just hacked into that marine team's network."

"So?" Weamond raised an eyebrow. "What does that mean? Cos if all you can do is read their e-mail you can consider me unimpressed."

Seldon met his eye. "Oh ye of little faith," she said. "Come here," Seldon told him, "look at what I have for you." She activated the holoprojector on her computer. A moment later they were all looking at an image that showed the landing platform. The feed was from a high angle, and they could see a lot of mechanized hardware deployed across the platform, supplemented by a number of well armed Teladi.

"Cameras?" Weamond asked, sounding disappointed.

"Not unless cameras fly," Eri corrected him and stepped closer. Seldon was still grinning. Eri looked up at her. "What is that?"

"You're looking through the 'eye' of one of their hunter-killer drones." At that all three heads looked up and fixed on Seldon. "Oh!" she said. "Do I have your attention, now? Yeah! Uh-huh." She made a sour face. "E-mail! Pfft! Who do you think you're talkin' to, boy?"

"You have control of one of their drones?"

Seldon shrugged. "Not yet but yeah, kinda, and not just one."

"That," Eri pointed out, "was a very confusing reply."

Seldon backed out of the camera angle. In the display projected over her wrist it reduced down into a window at the top right hand corner of the screen. It was one window of twelve. Beneath the two rows of six camera feeds were several larger windows. In one was a very fast string of text running from the bottom of the screen to the top. In the other were a series of command icons, each with attached variables. Seldon entered some commands into her console and all twelve groups of variables changed simultaneously. 0's became 1's and vice versa. Seldon looked up and winked. "Ready to rock their worlds?" she asked.

"What did you just do?" Eri asked.

"Nothing yet," Seldon said. "But with the press of a button I'm gonna reverse the targeting instructions for every drone and sentry gun on that platform. Hostiles will be friendly and friendlies will be treated as hostile... and thus blown away." She looked at Weamond and lifted her chin belligerently. "How do you like me now?"

"Oh hell yeah!" Weamond was grinning. "Frak 'em up!"

"Keep your goddamn voice down!" Seldon hissed at him. "Damn boy! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"Sorry," he said, still grinning.

Seldon rolled her eyes, then looked at Gin and Chinomu. "So, y'all ready to do this?"

Eri couldn't help but grin. "Yeah," she said and even glanced at Weamond. "Frak 'em up."

Seldon looked at Gin. "Well?" Gin raised an eyebrow, "what are you waiting for, bitch? Frak 'em up."

Seldon grinned. Then she hit the 'EXECUTE' command. Then she winked.

********

Gunnery Sergeant James was pacing back and forth near the doors to the transport tubes. He was nervous. Three lightly armed women just took out two of his heavily armed and armored space marines. He'd dismissed Vanguard's destruction as incompetence, but GeeGee was one of the most competent soldiers he'd ever seen. He simply did not understand how she and Irish were killed by three women with nothing but small arms, and his lack of understanding worried him. So shortly after activating all of his force multiplying hardware, he'd gotten on the comm and recalled not just Möller and Brown but Garcia and Hasegawa as well. His ship was docked behind gate 1 and he was feeling the need to keep his escape route open. If the worst case scenario happened, he figured he and what was left of his team could fall back to the Sinon, undock and be light years away ten seconds later. Even with all the ships Drakhar had in the sector, he didn't believe the man could bring enough firepower to bear in time to stop them from getting away. He didn't like the idea of running, but the situation already felt out of control. What was worse was that he couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something.

********

Ugalirias Rusiris Tzessosis (the eighth) was standing at the end of docking tube number five. She was admiring the smooth way the Paranid overlapped their seams, and wondering what it would be like to own a Hyperion Vanguard. It was a pretty ship, she thought. It was sleek and powerful, with strong shields and a cavernous hold. She wondered how difficult it would be to make it comfortable for a species that was a quarter the size of the Paranid who designed it. She tapped the hatch with one claw and grinned. She would find out. Huritas had already promised it to her.

"You are mine," she told the ship in Theclachi. "You just don't know it yet."

She turned then and started sauntering through the tube back toward the station. She wondered if the human females would scream when they died, and what they would sound like when they did. Would they beg for their lives? Curse their killers? Would they die quickly? Or would they pray for death before the end? Ugalirias had been with Huritas a very long time and it amused her to think of such things. She always found out eventually. Besides, this upstart young Argon boy needed humbling. She wondered what his face would look like when he discovered that his women were dead and that his station no longer belonged to him. She was very pleased with the questions she was pondering, when a sudden mechanical whirring began at the end of the tube.

An instant later the world ceased to make any sense.

She was several meters behind the sentry guns when they began to fire, and for an instant she thought the women had decided to commit suicide through a frontal assault. Then she realized that the guns were targeting her sisters. Gobanis, Lalundas, Kokalis and Gradias all ceased to exist in between the moment her back claw left the deck and the time she set it down again. One moment they were crouched behind cargo crates filled with sand, awaiting the arrival of their victims. The next they were gone. In their place was nothing but blood mist, random body part and pools and pools of ichor. A claw with Kokalis' ring lay beside the cargo crate. An arm with Gradias' bracelet lay like a forgotten toy on the tiles. And there, by a row of chairs was Lalundas' wide mouthed face.

Ugalirias couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She was shaking from head to toe. The guns were still firing. She another explosion as another of her sisters vanished like a burst balloon. And there, by the control booth, one of the Terran marines was firing at one of the winged drones while being shot from five different directions at once. She saw his shield wink out. An instant later his armor disintegrated and instead of a green cloud there was a red one, and bits and pieces of human being littered the deck.

********

One moment the landing platform was still and quiet. The only sounds were the silvery humming of the drones and the occasional chirp as one Teladi said something to another. A moment later the roar and pulse of gunfire filled every last square centimeter of the landing platform. It was like a thunderclap out of a clear sky, and made James flinch despite decades of training and experience. He whirled around to find the source of the noise, but it was everywhere. He began moving toward the edge of the control structure when one of the Sparrowhawk drones whiplashed around the building and painted him with it's LADAR. Before his mind processed what was happening the drone began to fire. Blinding white plasma flashed from the drone to bludgeon his breast plate, and despite his armor and personal shielding it felt like being hit in the chest by a series of 200kph fastballs. Acting on pure reflex he raised his Vulcan heavy repeater and reduced the drone to scrap. That was when all the noise began to make a horrific form of sense. He was hearing his sentry guns and his drones coupled with the sounds of both his men and the Teladi being torn to shreds.

Every mechanical unit they had just turned on them.

"Aww, HELL no!"

Another Sparrowhawk whirled around the edge of the control structure. It was firing before he could aim, pummeling his shields with bright plasma. He matched the targeting reticule with the laser sight on his Vulcan and unleashed a stream of hypervelocity devastation. After several seconds the drone's shield winked out. The Vulcan then tore through its armor and sent it crashing to the deck. But by then his shields were dangerously low. Understanding the threat James moved quickly to use the building as cover, then made his way toward the control booth where he'd set up the command console for all the mechanized units. He reached the hatchway, palmed the door open and then flinched back as two more drones rocketed around the building and began shooting the instant they had line of sight.

His shield was overwhelmed almost instantly and he felt his armor get painfully hot as the ablative plating boiled away under the onslaught. He retreated into the control booth while returning fire with the Vulcan. He pummeled one drone back and overwhelmed its shield, but before he could destroy it the Sparrowhawk jet out of sight and the other one began shelling him with grenades.

He was inside the building by then, and from the corner of his eye he saw the tell-tale flickering of the LADAR arrays tracking through the transparent metal windows. He realized then that all the sentry guns had stopped firing, which meant they were looking for targets. Meanwhile both of the Sparrowhawks hovered just out of line of sight and shelled him with grenades. The barrage drove him backward a pace at a time, pushing him into the sentry guns line of sight. Three paces away to his left he could see the console with the kill switch. If he could only reach it...

Suddenly he was under fire again. One of the drones ducked down to fire upon him with its plasma repeater. He returned fire just as his breastplate crumbled. Then another grenade knocked him backward. He tripped and fell at the top of the stairs. Before he could get to his feet another micro-grenade hit. Then another. He abandoned the Vulcan and lurched toward the console on his hands and knees. He was almost there. But just as he reached for the console, he saw a flickering green laser stream over him. It outlined his hand, arm, face and upper body. He glanced to his left and realized that he could see both guns at gate 1 through the HyperGlass windows under one of the desks.

"Shit," he cursed.

A moment later both guns opened fire. An instant later thousands of hypervelocity impacts caused the layered aluminum-silicate windows to spall, sending tens of thousands of transparent metal fragments slashing through the interior of the control booth. His shields were gone. His armor was severely compromised. Gunnery Sergeant Derrick "Alpha" James was cut to shreds.

********

"Shit," Eri said after the guns went silent. "That didn't take long."

"No it didn't," Seldon agreed. Then she shook her head. "One of the nastiest ambushes I ever executed, and I didn't fire a shot."

"So they're all... dead?" Weamond asked. He somehow looked green even in the yellow-orange light of the wall strip.

"Not all." Seldon shrugged. "There are other marines on this station. But yeah, all the guys on that landing platform should be soup. We should still be careful but I think it's safe to move. As safe as it's gonna get, anyway. So, you all ready?"

"And those guns won't..." Weamond blanched, "you know... turn on us?"

"I hope not," Seldon smiled at him. Weamond somehow managed to pale even further. "All the more reason to hurry," she said, then turned and climbed into the crawlspace. A few moments later they were underneath the control booth, looking through a slotted vent at the devastation the machines just wrought. It was fairly horrific. Behind her, Eri heard Weamond gag.

"Boy," Gin said from the rear, "if you make me drag myself through your puke I will be very displeased."

"Told you you shoulda taken care of that back at the toilets," Seldon told him. Then, "holy shit!" It took Eri a second to realize Seldon was laughing.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Look!" Seldon pointed toward their gate. Eri followed her finger to the docking tube leading to their ship. Just behind the sentry guns a very wide-eyed Teladi was standing completely frozen.

Eri snorted. "If she was human she'd of pissed her pants."

"Yup," Seldon chuckled. Then she maneuvered around to kick the vent cover out onto the deck. "Well," she said, "here goes nothin'. Just a tip, though," she said as she kicked the vent cover, "if the guns shoot me? Don't follow."

"Uh... yeah."

********

"Nothing?" Bunchie asked. Hans shook his head. They were both standing in the car of high speed transport tube number 2. "How can there be nothing?"

"Communications could be down."

"Yeah, but you don't believe that, though, do you?"

"Nein," Möller stated. "I think they are all dead."

"How far out are Garcia and Samurai?"

There was a pause as Möller checked his HUD. "Twenty, maybe thirty seconds behind us."

"A lot can happen in thirty seconds," Bunchie grumbled and activated his weapon systems. The car was slowing down.

********

Eri sighed as she heard Weamond empty his guts. She couldn't really blame him, as much as she might like to. The scene was a nightmare. Everywhere she looked there were great swaths of blood, piles of shredded meat with broken bones protruding at odd angles... but almost no bodies. The sentry guns simply didn't leave much in the way of identifiable remains, and the drones were nearly as bad. They charred their victims to cinders instead of blasting them to bits, but it was still hard to look at. Weamond made it about halfway to the gate before he lost his lunch.

It was the sight of a Terran marine that did it. They were following Seldon past a makeshift barricade of cargo crates when the guy came into view. He was literally in pieces. The sentry guns cut him in half, then blasted the pieces to pieces. Bits of his organs and ropes of intestine were strewn all over the place. His legs were one way, his torso another. His hands were somewhere else and his head was nowhere to be seen, unless it was that long smear drawing a line away from the guns by gate 1. Weamond took one look at the gory pink and yellow mess and then puked right between his shoes.

"Shit, boy," Seldon shook her head but even she seemed disturbed by the sight.

Eri turned to grab Weamond's arm and hurry him along when she saw Gin turn and look back. On the far side of the landing platform the two remaining drones began firing at something behind the control building. An instant later Ookami whirled around and met Eri's eye. "Move!" It was the loudest whisper Eri'd ever heard.

From beyond Gin the thunder of gunfire filled the landing platform. The drones were both smashed to bits. She saw them fall, each spinning and spraying sparks before crashing to the deck with a horrific clatter. Eri was running by then, with Gin and Weamond just behind her. As she reached the gate to the docking tube the sentry guns at gate 4 roared to life, tearing into the side of the control structure. A moment later a pair of explosions shook the deck beneath her feet.

********

"Oh shit!" Seldon swore. She was standing just behind the sentry guns at the gate to Gin's ship. She thought the Terrans were trying to come around the corner of the control building, which meant the guns at gate 4 were holding them back. So the marines, jarheads that they were, were using plasma grenades to take out the guns which were right next to gate 4... and the flexible, extendible, relatively delicate docking tube. "Hurry the frak up!" she yelled at Weamond. "Before these idiots vent us all into space!"

Eri was already halfway down the tube behind her. "I'll get the hatch!" she called back.

Gin stepped past Seldon and shoved Weamond along ahead of her. Tasha met her eye. "Think you can get us out of here before these dipshits get us all killed?!" she asked.

"I'm sure as hell going to try," Gin assured her. "Come on."

They stepped into the tube and Seldon looked at the Teladi standing frozen in front of her. The bitch no longer seemed quite as rigid as she had a few moments earlier. Seldon drew her pistol and aimed it at the lizard's head. She got an instant reaction. The Teladi's eyes grew round and wide. The slit pupils expanded dramatically. "Don't ssshoot!" she hissed and threw her hands up. "Pleassse! Take me with you!"

Seldon blinked. "What?!"

Then Gin stepped up behind the Teladi. She met Seldon's eyes and the two women shared a thought. Seldon looked down at the lizard. "I want you to give a message to Huritas for me."

"What messsage?"

Gin snatched the Teladi up by the tail and the scruff of the neck and tossed her out of the docking tube. The lizard flew a good eight meters before hitting the deck. When she looked up four of the sixsentry lasers we're painting her with their LADAR. An instant later the guns roared and the Teladi exploded.

"That message?" Gin asked.

"That's the one," Seldon nodded. Then she manually closed the hatch behind them and fired several shots from the plasma rifle to weld the locking mechanism in place. It wouldn't do much more than annoy the marines behind them, but she was fine with that. She turned and jogged after Gin. At the end of the tube Chinomu was climbing down through the top of Gin's new Hyperion Vanguard. Weamond was lurching up behind her when Seldon grabbed his arm. "Let the captain go first, Ginger."

Weamond staggered back and nodded. Then as Gin stepped past him a thought seemed to occur to him. He turned to Seldon with wild look in his eyes. "You're not gonna leave me, right?"

"What?!" Seldon blinked and looked him quickly up and down. "No, I'm not gonna leave you!" she told him, incredulously. "I just want you out of the pilot's way so she can get the damn ship warmed up! Shit, son. I think you've got abandonment issues."

Gin swung onto the ladder and disappeared into the ship. "Yeah, well," Weamond said while looking after her, "they're the result of being abandoned."

Seldon shook her head and shoved him toward the ladder. "Go on, kid. Get a move on!"

On the landing platform she heard another series of explosions. The deck trembled beneath her feet. As soon as Weamond was out of the way she climbed onto the ladder herself. A moment later she heard the guns at the end of the docking tube roar to life.

"I knew we shoulda gone to Argon Prime," she said to no one at all.

********

Gin felt exposed the instant after she was aboard her ship. She knew that wasn't the way it was supposed to work. But the instant she was exposed to her crew she felt that old familiar dread creeping out of the depths inside her. She was instantly aware of every detail about her that would give her crew a reason to suspect what she was. Her clothes were burned. Her flesh was burned. The bandage wrapped around her breasts and belly didn't conceal the thickened, deformed flesh below her navel or crawling up her throat. Her voice was a gravelly rasp and as she walked down the corridors of her ship she found that she couldn't bring herself to meet the eyes of her subordinates. She knew that if she did, she'd see their revulsion, their disgust, and their hatred. She knew it. And in that rejection she'd see the end of her life with Drake. She knew it. It was a fact. And she couldn't face it.

She was vaguely aware of her crew following along behind her. She wondered if they were already exchanging whispers about the freak, wondering why the bitch wasn't already dead, asking themselves if they shouldn't just help her along.

"Captain!" Fui t'Nnt shouted. She blinked and met his eyes. She realized that he'd been trying to get her attention for a good five meters.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" she asked, and wondered how she could sound so calm.

"Captain," he said in a high Split monotone, "we cannot depart! The station will not release us!" His eyes were bright violet as he stared directly through her. For a moment she felt very confused. What she saw in his face was not revulsion, but the simple conviction of duty. She was his captain and he expected her to know what to do...

...and she realized then that she did.

"Announce general quarters," she told him, and instruct Abmanckalsann to give us full power. We're going to need our weapons."

Fui t'Nnt's eyes blazed, not with hatred, but with pride and honor. She was his captain and she was leading him to battle! "Yes, Cap-tain!" he acknowledged her order and moved to carry it out. Gin shook her head and turned toward the ladder to the cockpit. As she did she saw Petty Officer Halter, the ship's steward, looking at her with...

Disgust!

...pride. Halter held her head high, and in her eyes Gin saw...

Loathing!

...respect and...

Hatred!

...admiration. "Ma'am," she said proudly.

Gin nodded, but felt disoriented. It was as if there was a hand holding on to something inside her. The hand had talons, and it was squeezing. She mounted the ladder to the cockpit. The pain in her burned and battered flesh was excruciating. At the top of the ladder she stood and saw Chinomu. The woman was already in the pilot's chair and had the turret controls called up and ready. She glanced back over her shoulder and met Gin's eye.

"Hey," she said. "So, we're still inside the station's envelope, which means we might be able to use the Shirubāurufu's weapons to..."

Gin nodded. "I was thinking the same thing," she rasped. She nodded at the station. "Looks like they got past the guns."

Eri turned to look. Two marines were looking through the station's windows at the Shirubāurufu. Another jogged past behind them, heading for the docking tube.

"Permission to engage, Captain?" Eri asked. The woman sounded eager.

"Frak 'em up."

********

Garcia couldn't believe what was happening. The mission had been so simple. They were to land, coordinate with existing allied forces already in control of the station, track down and execute three high value targets, then return to the ship and evacuate. Their targets were three lightly armed women with no backup who were already trapped on the station and cut off from any means of escape. It was a simple, straightforward operation! The Teladi had control of the station. Enemy communications were blocked and Task Force Vanguard had been already tracking the targets. Garcia had even laughed, asking what Vanguard needed them for. So TFH docked, established a beachhead to cover the unlikely need to retreat while simultaneously cutting the enemy off from their ship. Garcia and his team deployed to meet Vanguard and begin tracking the targets. Everything was simple, clear cut and by the numbers.

So why had it all gone to shit?

When he and Hasegawa stepped off the lift they found themselves in a horror show. Gunny James was dead. Corporal Anand was dead. TFH's own mechs were shooting at them! The Teladi were soup and hamburger everywhere he looked and Möller and Brown were pinned down by their own sentry guns! And, impossibly, the targets were back aboard their ship! So, first things being first, he found the control console for the mechs, which happened to be in sight of two sentry guns, and hit the kill switch before his shield hit zero and he was subsequently reduced to new paint on the back wall of the control booth. After that, though, he was at a loss.

Pursue? Breech the ship? Or let the targets go?

"What do we do, Staff Sergeant?" Bunchie asked him. Garcia's first thought was to punch him.

He pointed at the docking tube. "Cut through that hatch. We're gonna take that ship." He heard the words come out of his mouth. They were confident, macho, and more than a little ballsy, but underneath his bravado he didn't know. The entire mission felt cursed, and the superstition that lurked in the back of every front line soldier had him wondering if he just condemned his team to die. Feeling nervous, he walked to the window and looked out at the sleek, dangerous lines of the enemy ship. Brown and Hasegawa jogged down the tube to begin the task they all thought of as "can-opening" while Sergeant Hans Möller stepped up beside him.

"Bad mission," Möller stated.

"You got that right," Garcia responded. Half the team was dead. All their drones were destroyed, and the targets appeared to be getting away. He turned to meet Möller's eyes. "Man to man," he asked, "what do you think?"

He never found out what Möller thought. There was a subtle shift in the shadows on the starboard side of the Hyperion's upper bow spur. The movement got both men's attention. An instant later the window directly in front of Garcia's face cracked in an expanding series of segmented circles that looked just like a spider web. An instant later the center of that web bulged inward. Then it burst. All in less than a second. Then a wave of five centimeter thick shards of layered, transparent metal exploded inward, but before any of them could travel more than a couple meters the platform's atmosphere pushed back. A moment later the landing platform's atmo was rushing through the new hole in the station, carrying all the pieces of the broken window along with it. An instant after that an incredible impact knocked him clear off the deck and zeroed his shield. His last thought was the amazed realization that he was dead.

********

"Aha-ha!" Eri laughed. "I bet he didn't see THAT coming when he woke up this morning!"

"See if you can get the other one," Gin rasped from behind her. Eri immediately walked the stream of energy bolts across the landing platform to cut of the other marine before he could scramble out of her line of sight. The first shot blasted him off the deck. The second blasted his armor to fragments. The third reduced what was just a human being into blasted parts and a fine red mist that rushed out through the ruptured windows along with the air. Eri smirked. After fleeing for her life for the past three hours, shooting back felt decidedly cathartic.

Then the intercom chirped. "Go ahead," Gin rasped. To Eri the woman sounded as if she had laryngitis.

"Hey!" it was Seldon's voice. "Hey, can you hear me?!"

Eri leaned over and shouted. "She says 'go ahead'!" she bellowed.

"They're trying to cut through the hatch!" Seldon told them.

Gin and Eri exchanged looks. "You'd think they'd know when to quit," Gin whispered.

"Turn the guns on the docking tube?" Eri asked.

"We can't reach them at the hatch."

Eri pursed her ships musingly. "We don't need to..." she suggested. "If we cut that tube in half we cut power to the mag locks. Then we're free, and when this baby's shield kicks in..."

"Those marines get fried," Gin finished for her, then looked at the station. Her brow furrowed with doubt.

"Oh come on," Eri said, "he can afford it. Our lives or a few hundred thousand credits? It shouldn't be that tough a choice." Gin looked at her. The doubt on her face became hostile suspicion. Eri took a breath and let it go. "Just saying," she said, "it shouldn't be a hard choice."

After a moment Gin's face relaxed. Then she nodded. "You have the starboard guns?" she asked.

Eri blinked, then nodded. "Yep."

"Okay, I'll take port."

********

Bunchie was amazed at how resilient the Paranid hull plating was. His suit was equipped with a plasma cutter that used a 24,000°C plasma jet that could cut titanium like butter. But after the better part of a minute he'd barely made any progress cutting through the lock and, even though he didn't want to admit it, he wasn't sure he wanted to. In his opinion the mission was tits up. He liked Garcia, but Garcia wasn't Gunny James, and James was dead along with GeeGee, Irish, and Sandman. It was time to throw in the towel not pick another fight, especially on enemy terrain. He was wrestling with the idea of telling this to Garcia when a hand touched his shoulder. Bunchie turned and looked at Samurai. "What?" he asked.

"Garcia and Möller are dead."

"What the frak?!"

"The ship shot them." Hasegawa waved. "We have no air."

Bunchie killed the plasma cutter. It was definitely time to go. "Frak this, man! Get back to the ship. We're gone."

"Yes," Samurai nodded. "I agree."

They both turned and began lumbering toward the end of the docking tube. Then there was a flash and Bunchie's face plate polarized. He blinked and felt the deck shaking underneath him.

"Frak me," Samurai said quietly.

As Bunchie opened his eyes he saw twin paths of destruction walking down the docking tube toward them. Brilliant pale green explosions were blasting the docking tube apart. Lances of light punched through the deck and floors from either side. Deck plates and telescoping bulkhead panels tumbled almost languorously through empty space. He felt the gravity waver and fail beneath him. The explosions walked closer. Then the wall reached out and slapped him. He floated backwards. Then he felt a tingling sensation. A moment after that every muscle in his body cramped up so hard that he felt his bones break. A moment later there was pain, intense pain as all the cells in his body exploded one by one. Then there was nothing.

********

So, there I was pickin’ Cornell’s brains about the best way to run four ships with fully functional hangars... I mean the plan is to have the Shuri as my flagship, the Condor protecting Savage Spur, the Necromancer as a rapidly deployable support ship for the Predator and Osan'gar, with the Endless runnin' salvage. So, with the Shuri able to carry sixty planes, the condor thirty five, the Necromancer eighteen, and the Endless with the ability to dock and repair another fourteen and, well, that’s a lot of goddamn fighters and I wanted to get an idea about how he thought this shin-dig should be run.

Now when we first started chattin', and I told him what I want to do and how fast I want to make it happen... I mean, I already own three of the ships and plan on buyin’ the fourth by the end of next week at the latest... well, his eyes start bulgin' outta the front of his skull so bad that I actually started worryin' that he might be about to burst a blood vessel. But after we talked for a while I could see the gears turnin’ and he actually started warmin' up to the idea. The biggest hurdle, he tells me, is gonna be people. Namely gettin' 'em all trained up the way 'we', meanin' 'he', wants 'em... and then holdin' on to 'em once we've got 'em all trained'. I pay good, he tells me, but I run one frackin' dangerous operation. There'll be a lotta folks who take the skills we give 'em and find a less excitin' way to earn a livin'.

"But you can do it?" I ask him.

"Not instantly," he tells me. "Don't you hand me that Shuri and expect her to be combat worthy three stazura later!"

My knee jerk reaction was to tell him how exceptional that situation with the Necromancer and Gil and Sal really was, but honestly, a lot of that was none of his business and, well, I don't think it would have helped anyway. So I just nodded and told him that unless it was do or die the ship would have as much time as she needed to get up to speed. I even told him that he had my word. After that we got down to brass tacks and soon after that we were both talkin' civilized and takin' notes to remember things the other guy said. I didn't even realize how much time had passed until I saw a flash of light from the Nova Somnia. From the docking hangar to be precise. I remember standin' up and walkin' to the window. Then usin' the built in optics to select and expand the view of the station. While I was doin' that, that flicker of lightning from the station continued. After I zoomed in all the way I saw that it was the Hyperion Vanguard that I gave to Gin. The forward turrets were blasting the hell out of the docking tube... while the ship was still attached.

"Well that's different," I said to no one in particular.

"Sunnuva bitch!" Cornell growled beside me. "Is that...?"

"Ayep," I confirmed. Then I called Gin. At first it didn't go through. Then the Hyperion's EBC's literally cut her docking tube off halfway between the ship and station. A moment later the ship slipped away from the part of the tube that was holdin' on and then sped away from the station. My next call went through.

"Hey," Gin answered me with a whisper.

"Honey?" I said, "Are you okay?"

"Oh I'm fine," she breathes, and I know she's lying through her teeth but it's one of those lies I'm supposed to believe, or at least pretend to.

So I just tell her, "that's good. I was gettin' a little worried there for a moment. So-ah... care to explain why my station is uhm... exploding?"


_________________
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