Our hero’s life balances on a knife’s edge in a struggle with deadly foes. In the gaping silence, the cloud of dust from the explosion drifted and
Our hero’s life balances on a knife’s edge in a struggle with deadly foes.
In the gaping silence, the cloud of dust from the explosion drifted and settled to the stone floor. The barrel of my gun fluttered with my trembling, though I held it with both hands. I pressed into the wall to steady myself as I took long breaths to slow my galloping heart. I squinted, searching for shapes in the haze of dust.
A grenade soared down the tunnel mouth, pinged off the wall, and came sailing toward my face. I threw up my hand, felt it smack my palm, and closed my fingers around it. Then a little voice in the back of my head screamed at what I was holding, and I tossed it back.
Even half-concealed, the blast dazzled my eyes and spun me as I caught the edge of the blast wave. An instant of blackness passed, and for a moment, I didn’t who or where I was.
My eyes discerned shapes. I was in front of the tunnel, on my back, but it seemed I was floating in a soundless void. A thought drifted through my head, that the grenade had deafened me. I patted myself for my pistol and realized I was still holding it.
All around me, little puffs of dust rose from the stone floor. Then a rush of sound washed over me and time sped back up. One of the soldiers in black was firing blindly around the elbow of the tunnel.
I rolled away from the entrance, and a brief hot line was scored across my back. Shaking, I got to a knee and leaned out to return several shots. I didn’t hit anything, but the shooting stopped for a moment.
Then two black-clad soldiers dashed down the tunnel. The lead one practically stumbled over me as I shot point-blank and took him in the throat. He toppled back and tripped up the second. The shots from his machine gun went wild and ricocheted. With that brief opening, I threw myself forward and caught him in the knees.
We lost our guns. We were all fists, feet, and tangled limbs. He got leverage, circled behind me, and got his arm around my throat. My vision faded and narrowed to a tunnel. I slapped at him but couldn’t get purchase. Then my hand fell on the handle of my pistol. Holding it backwards, I slid my thumb into the trigger guard, jammed the barrel into his side, and clenched my fist to fire.
The soldier only grunted at the muffled thump of the shot, but he released my throat. I twisted around as he drew back to headbutt me with his helmet. I stopped it with the barrel of the pistol against his visor.
Then I pulled the trigger.
Blood and brains splattered on the wall behind him. He fell lifeless.
Suddenly there was no one left to fight. I was numb, staring at the body. The details were sharp. Clad all in black, he was thick-limbed, stocky, barrel-chested. On the side was the ring of singed fabric where I shot him, and the deformed slug stopped by his armor. Through the jagged hole in his shattered visor, surrounded by red gore, a lifeless and over-large eye stared back at me.
I doubled over and retched, spewing an acrid brine of bile and vomit that splattered onto the stone floor. I fell to my knees as my legs gave out. I trembled like a leaf in a storm.
There was a pressure on my shoulder, and I spun, gun raised to the ready.
Aeliana drew back.
I sucked in a deep breath. “My apologies, lady, I…”
“You are bleeding.” She stooped and turned me by my shoulder to check my back.
It was then that I realized I was smeared with blood, my blood.
“Ah!” And the pain returned.
“It is a graze.” She turned me back to face her, took my chin in her hand, and dabbed under my eyes with the handkerchief. It came away damp.
I was crying. “Lady, I’m sorry…”
She clucked her tongue. “Tears are no unmanly thing. And you interposed your body to defend your empress.” The last words she spoke with warmth. “That is a worthy deed!”
She gazed at the bodies around us, and I gazed at her face. There was vengeance there, but for a moment it softened to pity.
I stood on shaky legs and held out my hand. “Come. It’s time to go.”
She took my hand and stood straight-backed. “No truer words, my bannerman. The controls are set. Let us depart.”
She led up the steps as I covered our withdrawal with a machine gun from one of the black-clad soldiers. I kept the pistol holstered.
We made it to the walkway without anyone else coming through the tunnel. A hatch on the stratobooster opened into an airlock. After it cycled, we entered the cockpit.
It took a moment for me to make sense of what I saw. The whole space was tilted up on its side, so that the deck was a wall to one side, the controls were above our heads, and the canopy was a skylight. The chairs, rather than being bolted to the deck, were fixed to armatures that let them swivel their orientation.
I turned to her and lifted an eyebrow. “I assume you know how to launch this.”
She bristled. “Of course!” She pointed to the blinking red light on the controls above us. “I already set the coordinates below. I just need to press that button.”
There were footholds along the interior to reach the frontmost—or topmost—of the seats, those closest to the controls. I ascended behind her, keeping most of my attention on the hatch, though occasionally sparing a glance for her. She was quite distracting.
We settled ourselves into our seats, and I copied her movements to secure the harness in place. As soon as she pressed the button, wailing sirens echoed through the silo and we were bathed in strobing red light.
Aeliana raised her voice to be heard over the sirens. “The launch sequence has started!”
I heard the hiss of the airlock and turned.
A third black-clad enemy pulled himself through, but he had discarded his helmet. He had a broad, brutish face, with a wide nose, heavy brow, and sloped forehead. His huge, deep-set eyes caught the light like a hound’s, so that they were burning coals as he stared up at us, a knife set between his teeth.
As he closed the airlock, I tried to swing the machine gun around, but the harness pinned me in place. Aeliana struggled to draw her pistol from her holster. We worked at the buckles of our harnesses with frantic fingers.
Then the rocket engines ignited.
To be continued…