Transverse: Part 3 – In a Rut

  In this installment, death nips at the heels of Wyatt Escher and his companions as they battle waves of enemies and scramble for escape… This story is part 3. Here are part 1 and

  In this installment, death nips at the heels of Wyatt Escher and his companions as they battle waves of enemies and scramble for escape…

This story is part 3. Here are part 1 and part 2.

      I was at the steps to the monument. The good news was the soldier who’d just shot me short-stroked his shotgun and jammed it. The bad news was the military truck barreling toward me.

      My legs were faster than my brain. I back-scrambled onto the portico as the truck jounced up onto the steps. With a screech of metal, it wedged itself between the pillars. A cloud of steam exploded from the twisted cab.

      The soldiers jumping from the truck were just shadows and shouts in the steam cloud. I moved toward the monument entrance on my right, kept my gun trained on their silhouettes, and trusted to stealth.

      That lasted for thirty heartbeats, till the steam cleared and I was a man-sized target for everyone with an itchy trigger finger. The gunner on top of the truck swung his machine gun around and tried to drill me with holes. I took a shot and let his brains out for some air as I dove behind one of the two big bronze doors to the monument entrance.

      Their return fire was like lead hail pelting a gong. Between the wall and the door, I had maybe a thirty-degree arc of open space. It was a good bet I was only moments from being ventilated with bullets or a grenade.

      Go low or go high? They’d expect me to dive low, so I shimmied up between the wall and the door and, with strength greater than a normal man, made a flying leap over the heads of shocked soldiers who’d been about to kill me. It was the last thing they saw before I landed, turned, and cut them down with some well-placed shots.

      I caught up a grenade that rolled from a dead soldier’s slack hand, pulled the pin, and tossed it at soldiers by the truck as I ran inside the monument. The only things that followed me were a boom and a dust cloud.

      I ran down the marbled halls of the mausoleum, past the walls of placards and the statues of the dead. I brought two fingers to my brow in a small salute to brothers in arms. “Rest in peace, gents.”

      “Escher, do you copy? What’s happening?” It was Refaeli’s strained voice on my neuralink. The vibrations were passed through my jawbone to my inner ear.

      “Played a little game of rock, paper, hand grenade. The other guys lost.”

      I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Escher…”

      “It was a short platoon of heavily armed troops. Killed a few and slowed them down, but I don’t know how many are left.”

      “How are you?”

      “I’m in one piece.”

      “Escher—”

      “I’m at a T-junction. Which direction?” I had taken a right and the hall ended at an alcove with a bronze bust and routes to the left and right.

      “Statue or bust?”

      “Bust.”

      “What does it say on the nameplate?”

      “Johann de Kalb.”

      “Okay, take a left and turn into a gallery at the second right. We’re hunkered in one of the side galleries toward the back.”     

      There were shouts and the sound of boots. I ran to the left. “More men are coming. A lot more men. Way more than before.”

      “I think I know why. I’ll explain when you get here.”

      A sprint down the hall and I was at the gallery, where the first thing to greet me was Zhang’s bead rifle. “Little close.”

      He snorted and hefted his weapon. “You’ll live.”

      Refaeli, needler in hand, was with Donovan, who didn’t look happy. Behind them was the man in the coattails who’d been negotiating with Angstrom. He peeked his head out from behind the corner. I raised an eyebrow.

      Refaeli eyed Donovan and cleared her throat. “This is Sénateur Pierre de Musset. We’ve—”

      Donovan puffed out his chest and waved his hand vaguely toward the little man. “I’ve agreed to extend him my protection.”

      Part of me wanted to punch him out. I decided to grin, or at least I tried. “And why is that…sir?”

      Now Refaeli interjected. “He says that he knows where Angstrom might’ve been taken.”

      I could feel my grin getting tight. “Does he know why we’re being shot at by masked men?”

      She looked back at Musset with knit brows. “He thinks it’s a coup.”

      The little man came out from behind the corner and started babbling. I put a hand up to stop him while I stared at Refaeli. “Explain.”

      She shrugged. “Their last president was recently impeached over bungling an unpopular war. There have been riots in major cities and some of their army units mutinied over pay and combat losses. This deal was supposed to pay down war debts so they could shift spending.”

      “You got all that out of him?” I pinched the bridge of my nose.

      She tapped a finger to her temple. “He left out a lot, but encrypted signals filled in the gaps.”

      “So those extra troops are coming for him?”

      I pointed a finger at Donovan. “We’ll negotiate the extra pay.”

      He puffed up and opened his mouth, but I cut him off. “We’re not a damned army,” my wounds were burning, “and you hired us to protect you! From now on, you will do what Zhang or I tell you, when we tell you to do it!”

      Donovan flicked a smoldering look at Refaeli. She was sheepish, but said nothing. Then he looked at Zhang, who looked to me.

      “I’m with him,” Zhang said.

      Donovan turned very red as he wheeled back to face me. “How dare you dictate terms to me! You’re my employees!”

      “We’re contractors, not employees.” I smirked. “And you might want to check the terms of the contract.”

      He wheeled on Refaeli. “What terms!?”

      The blood drained from her face. “In a combat zone, you’re protective detail has, ‘…full discretionary powers to decide the disposition of their principal or principals where it concerns the integrity of life and limb.’”

      The smile on my face felt much better. “It means you do what we say or you can go pound sand.”

      Musset started babbling again. Refaeli turned to listen and talked to us as Musset spoke to her. “He says there’s an exit tunnel that leads out of here. It’s not far.”

      There were distant shouts, but they were closer by the moment. I turned to Zhang. “Guess our ambush is a fighting retreat.” He gave a rough chuckle.

      I turned to Refaeli. “Get them moving. We’ll cover you.”

      Donovan was deflated. Musset seemed baffled. Refaeli herded them as we went first into the hall.

      A squad of soldiers was advancing when they spotted us, which was a moment too late for them. The paper-tearing buzz of Zhang’s bead rifle cut down two of them. The other two ducked into alcoves. There was the squawk of a radio and babbled conversation in their weird French.

      The reinforcements came on in a wave. We dropped them by the dozen as Zhang and I leapfrogged each other, but they kept coming. It must’ve been a company-sized force after us. I took more hits on my armor and a few scratches from flying shrapnel.

      Musset stopped us around a corner and babbled as he pointed to a statue. Zhang and I had plugged up the soldiers temporarily, but it looked like we might run out of ammo before the balaclava brigade ran out of bodies.

      I looked at Zhang, who was puffing with exhaustion. “How much ammo you got left?”

      “Not enough.”

      “Same here.” I looked over my shoulder. “Refaeli, what’s happening?”

      She wiped a hand on the leg of her pressure suit and kept her needler trained down the other hallway.  “We’re waiting for an elevator. It’s almost here.”

      There was more shouting from the soldiers. “I think they’re about to make another push.”

      “Oh, they are. I really wish I couldn’t hear what they’re saying.”

      “We’re almost out of ammo. So that elevator better—”

      There was an explosion of gunfire. Zhang’s head snapped back and he fell to the ground. I dived for his bead rifle and slid across the marble floor as I unloaded it and what was left of my sidearm into the charging soldiers. It staggered them.

      I rolled over and was met with Zhang’s blank gaze. I closed his eyes and took his old dog tags from around his neck. “I’ll make sure your family gets these.”

      Three things happened. There was the chime of the elevator, Refaeli and her charges disappeared behind a bronze statue, and a grenade came bouncing down the hallway. I tried to make it around the corner, but found myself in the air before making contact with the opposite wall. Then Refaeli was dragging me by my arm into the elevator and the doors closed behind us.

      She was in my face, saying something to me, but my ears were ringing and blood was sheeting down into one eye. I swiped at my forehead and there was the burn of a new gash. Whether that was from shrapnel or crashing into the wall, I couldn’t tell, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t concussed. All in all, I wasn’t in bad shape for having just been blown up.

      The ringing was dying away and I could make out some of Refaeli’s words. “Start over. I didn’t hear you.”

      “Are you alright!?”

      I got a hold of a handrail and stood. Donovan and Musset were both white as ghosts. Donovan worried at the collar of his pressure suit. “Where’s Mr. Zhang?”

      “Dead.” I could hear my flat tone and feel a lump in my throat. I’d feel the rest later.

      Donovan didn’t say any more. Refaeli was also quiet.

      “Where does this elevator go?”

      Refaeli exchanged words with Musset. “To a deep bunker. This world has atomics, apparently.”

      I ran my hand through my hair. “Any transport from there?”

      Another exchange of words. “There should be an underground garage with vehicles.”

      I sighed and nodded. “Good enough.”

      The elevator came to a stop, dinged, and opened to darkness.

      To be continued…

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