Book: The View from the Imperium

Previous: Chapter 13
Next: Chapter 15

Chapter 14

It seemed an unnecessary caution to tiptoe behind Filzon in the loud, hot and busy street, but it was hard to control the impulse for silence. It was not as though our presence went unnoticed; I wore my full uniform with the bill of my cap facing smartly forward. At my side strode my shuttle crew and Captain Chan. Behind us, in their ragtag uniforms and mismatched weapons, were the members of the Smithereen militia. I regretted my small force had only two sets of powered armor, one under the command of a man so ancient that I doubted he could perform drills and exercises without its support, but he moved with the grace of a swallow, whereas the other suit, operated by a muscular young woman with broad shoulders, creaked and jerked at every step. The smell of overworked circuitry added an acrid aroma to the mixed scents of crowds, garbage, machine lubricants and unidentified minerals. Only the limited gravity helped to keep the suit moving in its state of decrepitude.

The locals looked oddly upon us marching with weapons on the busy main street. Crowds parted before us as we moved with purpose, though everyone I passed could have picked me up and broken me over a knee. Under normal circumstances, I would have been in field dress, with an optical pickup that fit over my right eye, feeding me intel from my viewpad as a heads-up display instead of having to rely upon memory and the occasional furtive glance downward at the pouch at my waist. Many of my troops had to link personal electronics into the military channel, hooked into the software by a hasty fix provided by Juhrman. We would all have been in light armor at least. Still, an army was an army, and we outnumbered the other force more than two-and-a-half to one, or so Filzon had informed me. That meant that once we engaged, each pair of my soldiers would acquire a preselected target and do its level best to apprehend that target without danger to the surrounding setting.

“They just ordered pancakes,” Filzon stage-whispered, pointing to a storefront with the sign Oatmeal and Son over the door. Blast-glass panels provided a slightly hazy view of the interior, but nothing could staunch the savory aromas coming from inside. My stomach, though it was well fed, squeezed appreciatively. Robot servers carried enormous food on trays to each table of hungry diners. A few humans in brightly colored tunics, folded cloth caps and wheeled shoes, no doubt the wait staff, skidded from group to group to assess the quality of service and comestibles, and to serve the platters from the robotrays. “I caught ’em comin’ out of Strange Bedfellows over there. Bruce always sends his clients over there for breakfast after . . . you know.”

I nodded. Of course I knew, though this was not the time to discuss my amorous past. My memory was suffering overload from other, more immediate cognitive centers. Dread of the unknown excited the primitive portion of my brain. I smelled fear. No, that sour odor was emanating from the restaurant. Naturally they served food for every species who visited Smithereen, and that included dainties for those who liked their meals less than fresh. One of those had just come out of the preparation area toward a waiting diner. My banquet dinner considered the sudden intrusion of the unpalatable aroma and threatened to depart via the easiest route. I fought it down again. Better to keep my mind focused upon the visual and aural input, absorbing the street scene, observing the escape routes that we had marked out in the architectural rendering—always provided that the shop owners had not done their own unlicensed renovations. I doubted—I hoped none would be found in the restaurant.

Beside me, Plet continued to attempt to summon the station manager, the Wedjet or Parsons. The station manager’s Wichu assistant hung up on us every time we called. So far no wireless transmissions had succeeded in breaking through to Parsons’s viewpad or to the compiler that would take our messages offworld to the ship. We continued receiving the “Your Data is Very Important to Us” recording, the bane of every intelligent being who had ever had the misfortune to fall prey to the inhuman voice mail system galaxywide.

“Your message has been placed in the queue and will be sent with the next possible data packet. Please check your inbox again later for confirmation. Your data is very important to us. Your message . . .”

It’s all on us, I realized, straining to see through the blast-glass of the restaurant’s front wall. We were the only hope to bring these felons in.

“Pawade!” announced a high-pitched voice near my knee.

I jumped. A tot of two or three years of age pointed at me gleefully from the hoverchair that his maternal unit was pushing. I gave him a weak smile.

“Yes, baby, parade,” said his mother, giving a sharp look at my archaic weapons and at the file of mismatched uniforms behind me. “Taking up the whole street. Some people!”

“I beg your pardon, madam,” I said, doffing my hat to her. “A necessary exercise.”

“Hmph!” She marched away. The baby waved at me gleefully.

“There they are,” Filzon whispered, his voice echoing in my earpiece, which had been tuned to the militia’s assigned frequency. As long as we were close together, the signal was stronger than the magnetite’s interference. He grabbed my arm and dragged me close to the open door. He poked a surreptitious finger, and I followed its vector. “There!”

That is our crew?”

“Yup,” Filzon said. “Every one of them is off that ship that you saw. They paid for their, uh . . .”

“Entertainment?” I supplied.

“Uh, yeah, with a credit chit from the ship. Backed it up with the license from the Holborn Empire, belongs to the Harmony Exchange Foundation. They said. So they don’t know we’re looking for them! What do we do first?” He regarded me with large, hopeful eyes.

I surveyed the crew. Only three of the twenty members of the pirate vessel were human. The rest were Uctu, Croctoid, and one Solinian, a reptilian whose bulk made Croctoids look like geckos, and the gecko-like Uctus like garter snakes. I swallowed hard. But we were now committed to action. I scanned the restaurant. Oatmeal and Son was a very large establishment. The restaurant was approximately two-thirds full. Most of the other patrons were seated as far away from the party from the pirate vessel as possible. As a Wichu slid to a controlled stop beside the Solinian with a platter filled with raw meat, I understood why. The Solinian didn’t wait for it to be lowered before him, but snagged a handful of dripping, red flesh and stuffed it into his clamplike jaws. I gulped.

“Plet,” I said, “please give me the overview of this area. I want to make certain we won’t be surprised from behind.”

With a disapproving sigh, she activated the appropriate section of the map and sent it to all of us. I perused it and nodded thoughtfully.

“This is absurd,” she whispered irritatedly. “Look at the size of them. How can we surround them without putting the other diners at risk? Families are sitting all around them.”

“They are relatively isolated,” I said. “We must move nonchalantly into the establishment, casually surround them and cut off their escape. Then I will inform them that they are under arrest.”

“Are you joking?” she hissed. “How?”

“Subtlety,” I insisted. “We must deploy ourselves subtly. Then, on my signal, we will move in. They don’t appear to be armed.”

Chan nodded. “They have to check their weapons at the port. You guys got a dispensation because you’re Navy.”

“Thank the powers for small favors.” I took a deep breath. “Very well, then. A few at a time, and . . .”

A voice blared out from behind me. “In or out, dammit! You trick-or-treaters can’t clog up the door of this place forever. Move it or lose it!”

I turned to confront the owner of the voice, and found myself facing an enormous, pale-furred Wichu female who towered a good head above me. She was accompanied by a litter of six massive youngsters with variegated fur, one of which was clinging to an exposed fuchsia nipple. “I beg your pardon, madam, but we are contemplating . . .”

“Contemplate on your own time! My kids are hungry! Move it!”

She shoved me through the doors of the restaurant. I stumbled in, tripping over my feet. When I straightened, I realized everyone was looking at me, including my quarry. They had stopped tearing and gulping gobbets of red flesh to stare. I averted my gaze, so as not to tip them off that they were the objects of my desire. Little hope existed that they thought otherwise. We had no choice but to act immediately. I had always heard that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and now I found it was true.

“Fan out and assume stations,” I ordered my troops over the communications link. Chan put both her hands together then outward. Whether or not her militia had drilled such exercises as “Separate into two files in a dining establishment and feign hunger,” they divided into two even packs and moved toward empty tables as though calorie replenishment was the sole reason for their presence. I admit that having two suits of powered armor creak in behind us rather stretched the credibility of the premise.

Plet and the other naval personnel kept right behind me. My heart quailed at confronting the enormous beings, but our duty was clear. Filzon had informed me that the Croctoid with the leathery brown skin in the white shipsuit was the leader. I marched toward him, my hand ready to draw my sidearm. My troops filled in around the party. The pirates could not fail to understand our motive, but remained seated. At my signal, the militia leveled their weapons.

“Captain Growteing?” I stated formally.

“Skreg off,” he said, not bothering to look up. Blood smeared his scaly jaws and clawed handpaws. I had never noticed before how unpleasant the burbling growl of a Croctoid sounded. “I’m eating.”

Undeterred, I continued.

“I am Ensign-Captain Thomas Kinago of the Imperium Navy. Your ship is one of a number that was reported missing and has been involved in acts of piracy. You and your crew are therefore requested to accompany me to a place of inquiry until such time as we can satisfy ourselves to what role you have played in its disappearance and misuse. You will all come with me now to the authorities.”

The humans in the party looked at me, and rose at once from their places, surprised at themselves.

“Satisfy yourself on your own time, softskin,” the captain snarled. He turned his head and glared at his crewmen. They sat down. He turned the evil eye toward my force. A few of them stepped backward, but resumed their stance, looking shamefaced at having retreated even a pace. I did not blame them, but duty called.

“Then I have no choice but to take you into custody,” I said, drawing my sidearm. “Troops! Take them!”

The Solinian, a brute with shiny gold skin, leaned over and bit the barrel off my antique pistol with an astonishing crunch! I stared at the truncated stock. The Solinian grinned at me.

I gulped but drew my sword. “Surrender now!”

“Or what?” the captain asked.

I felt the ire of my ancestors rising within me at his defiance. I aimed the point of the blade directly at his left eye. “Or we will have to take you by force.”

My troops raised the weapons in their hands. The pirate crew kicked back their chairs and stood up. The banging and sliding noises alerted patrons in the restaurant, who looked up from their consumption of mass quantities and saw us arrayed against one another. Those with shrill voices screamed.

“Move in to capture!” I shouted. My troops moved forward, arms set to stun force.

From hidden pockets, from sleeves, from among the cascading scales on their heads, the pirate crew produced lethal-looking handguns with shortened barrels. Even as my brain bellowed out, “Where did those come from?” the captain snapped a thumb down and disconnected the safety on his. The whine of the power supply rose through levels of sound until my skull sang in harmony. He pointed the weapon toward my head. My heart pounded.

Luckily, Croctoids move more slowly than humans. By the time the barrel reached its target area, my head was no longer in the way. I ducked. The single shot of heated plasma ripped through the air, leaving a singed metallic odor. The restaurant’s patrons grabbed up their children and valuables and made for the front exit, screaming and swearing. They could not all pass through the portal at once. I could hear yells of anger and fear behind me as they shoved and butted one another to get out. I feared smaller civilians would be trampled, but my immediate concern was for my own survival. I chopped at the Croctoid with my sword. The blade knocked his arm upward but failed to draw blood. The captain turned, his reflexes thankfully not as fast as mine, and readied another shot. I danced backwards and tripped over a chair. The light gravity was all that kept me from breaking a rib on a table edge. Hot pellets zinged over my head. The pirates started firing back. Their weapons were set to deliver full force.

“Defend yourselves!” I cried.

My orders were scarcely necessary.

Chan’s people opened up close fire on the Croctoid captain. He staggered, but did not fall. His small, beady eyes glared hate at all of us. He and his people snapped off shots. A drinks machine burst, spraying us all with bright orange fluid. Under its cover, I lunged in, the point of my sword aiming for the tendon in his wrist. He switched hands and blasted at me again. I dodged. My troops flipped up tables and took cover behind them. Beakers and platters crashed to the floor, depositing huge piles of food and lakes of sticky colored liquid. The pirates upended tables for their own defense, though their large bulk left huge expanses of shipsuit and scaly backsides and tails exposed. The only ones who remained within the suddenly cleared area were the pirate captain and myself. We circled one another, one eye on the other’s weapon, one on the mess on the floor.

“Stun the enemy!” I shouted. The militia duly peppered the parts of the pirate crew they could see. The reptilians howled with rage, and returned fire. Sooner or later even their metabolisms would give way under repeated energy rounds. The captain fired at me. I ducked him easily. He roared in fury and came at me, shooting. I danced around him, looking for an opening. My sword was of little use; I could try to engage him in unarmed combat. I eyed him. It would be a challenge. I had the reach, but several times more muscles writhed within that scaly skin than I possessed in mine. I needed to keep away from him. Besides the powerful tail that was a weapon in itself, Croctoids liked to grasp an enemy against their bodies and roll with it upon the floor. Their distant ancestors drowned their prey in that fashion; on dry land, the effect was to crush and disorient. We circled one another as our forces pelted one another with energy charges.

Miraculously, none of the shots hissing through the air touched either of us. The restaurant facilities took the brunt. Images of vegetables and fruit that were affixed about the top edge of the walls fell, blackened and smoking. I felt in my pocket for the handful of plastic restraints the constables among the ad hoc force had handed out. The captain bracketed me with two shots. I dodged both, dreading the third. I’d have to figure out how to secure even one hand.

P-yow!

A blast from one of the enemy Geckos drilled right through a tabletop and severed the spring holding the legs out. Margolies fell under it, clutching his arm and swearing. Behind him, a nanicarriage trapped by the melee swerved this way and that to avoid the hot plasma bursts. The baby inside it started howling angrily.

“You have woken the baby! You inconsiderate biped!” The nanibot raised a laser pistol from its control center and opened fire on us. Its attack distracted the captain. I leaped away from him. The nanibot peppered us all with fire. A blue-skinned Uctu pirate fell, her midsection smoking. Her fellows retaliated, but the nanibot was better armored than they were. It laid down a barrage of covering shots and retreated into the midst of the crowd jamming the doorway. I dove for cover under half a smoldering table. I was in more danger from a non-combatant than I was from the enemy.

The simple capture was not going as I had envisioned it. I was ashamed of myself. I had placed innocent civilians in harm’s way. Kinagos, let alone Loches, must never put those they were sworn to protect under threat! I had to get the pirates out of the restaurant and into a more isolated location. But there were few places in a colony like Smithereen that fulfilled that criterion. And how to move them there?

I had not much time to work out this conundrum. They had already decided on their own to depart from this arena.

“Come on, you salamanders! Together!” the captain bellowed.

Ignoring the barrage of stun charges, the captain and his crew sprang out of their hiding place and rushed toward the jammed entrance. They started throwing humans, Geckos and Wichus right and left as if they were rag dolls. Drawing the antique sword from my belt, I sprang out from my hiding place.

“Smithereen militia, with me!” I cried.

I advanced and executed a handsome ballestra toward the pirate’s back. The point of my sword went through the fabric of his shipsuit, but bounced rather than penetrating the tough hide underneath.

“Ow!” The Croctoid turned on his heel and backhanded me with a whip of his tail. Shocked, I staggered into the arms of Bailly. My ear sang with the blow. I shook my head and assumed an en garde pose. The captain’s little eyes were hot. He leveled his pistol. “You worm!” He peppered the gray composite floor around me with hot blasts. Tiles melted into goo. Bailly and I retreated. Employing my best footwork, I managed to stay out of the line of fire, but I was running out of room. A hot ball of energy erupted near my ear. I smacked out the fire in my hair with my palm and rolled under a nearby table.

In the meanwhile, the militia was pulling pirates out of the crowd and attempting to disarm them. Naturally, the illicit crew was uncooperative. At close quarters, it was more difficult to aim pistols, but each of them possessed physical weaponry that was nearly as formidable. The Solinian dropped to all fours and wrapped itself around Plet’s legs. She fired round after round of stun charges into its knobby head, but it shook them off. At last, she plunged the heels of her hands into its eye sockets. Bellowing, it rolled over, taking her with it into the midst of broken tables and chairs. Was she all right? Fearing for her safety, I crawled toward the spot where they had disappeared, ready to assist, but suddenly she emerged, straightening her hair with one hand, looking as cool as ever. I could have applauded. The Solinian crawled out after her, its hands bound together, looking sheepish. I would put Plet in for a promotion as soon as we were back on board the Wedjet. As soon as it caught me looking, it gnawed the strap off with one bite and spat it at me.

The Croctoids lunged at faces and necks with their sharp, hooked claws raking the air. The Wedjet crew beings were less prepared, but the local militiabeings dove in, proving themselves just as dirty fighters as their opponents. Knees to groins, fingers to eyes, elbows to the side of necks, all connected with thuds and crunches. Margolies clapped her hands over the sensitive ear holes of a Croctoid. It dropped to its knees, bawling. She smacked its jaws shut and wrapped a plastic strap around them. Its beady eyes widened with fury. It tried to gouge her with its claws. She kneed it in the belly and smashed down on its head with her joined fists. I rushed to help.

“Where are the authorities?” I bellowed into my audio pickup, as we each grabbed for a flailing claw.

Juhrman’s dry voice spoke into my ear. “Not interested in a little brawl. They’ll pick up the bodies when it’s all over.”

“What?” I was outraged.

“We can take care of it, sir,” said Hek-et-rahm, one of the local constabulary.

“Confound it, what is it with law enforcement today?” I demanded. “They’d have had me and my cousins in a cell before you can say ‘disturbing the peace’!”

A Gecko threw himself at me, falling over my sword. The captain raised his fist and smashed it toward my face. I leaped to the left. It impacted upon my right shoulder with the force of a flitter banging into a wall. I gasped at the pain.

“Self-correcting,” Chan said. I could hear the shrug in her voice. She backhanded a Croctoid with her stunner. Pointed teeth flew. It shook its head and snapped at her again, having plenty more to spare. “Let the unsavory elements take care of themselves. The people here know better than to hang out in alleys, and the ones who don’t aren’t gonna survive anyway.”

“What now, sir?” Plet’s breathless voice came in my ear as I scrambled to my feet. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her hanging onto the wrist of an Uctu, trying to snap a plastic restraint with the other hand.

My arm around a Gecko’s throat, I took a quick look around. At least five of the pirates were on the ground, but at least twice that many of my force were wounded and gasping. A human female lay on the floor as limp as a discarded sock. I couldn’t see her face. My heart wrenched with shame. These brave beings were my responsibility! I had to prevent any more casualties.

“We must isolate them somewhere until we can find Parsons,” I said. “We need a distraction.”

“Are you kidding?” she asked. She secured the crewbeing’s one hand and reached for the other. The Gecko kicked nimbly out at her and Rous dove for its feet, holding it still while she fastened the pirate’s arms under its tail. “How? What?”

What, indeed?

The captain shook off the four humans trying to hold it and made for the door again.

“No, sir!” I shouted. I sidled into his path with my sword pointed at its eye, daring it to defy me. “You shall not pass!”

“You uniformed action figure!” he snarled. “Get out of my way!”

He barreled forward, intending to go through me. I lunged, scoring a slash on the bridge of his nose just short of his left eye. Purple blood spurted. I wasn’t sure which of us was more surprised, he or I. I danced backward as he lumbered toward me.

While fending off the huge Croctoid with my sword, I scanned the enemy combatants. None of the pirates seemed worth taking as a hostage. Knowing the ruthless nature of such beings and their purported guidelines, I doubted they would pursue us to rescue one of their own. But lying on their abandoned dining table was something they could not and would not do without: their ship’s half-license. The captain had left the square of indestructible metal beside his platter, no doubt believing that he could retrieve it at his leisure after he had disposed of as many of us as necessary before the local constabulary was summoned.

I lunged toward the Croctoid, parrying the very barrel of the pistol in his hand. He let off a shot at the ceiling by mistake. A light fixture exploded, raining shards of plastic down on us. All around us, Chan’s militia was doing their best to control and contain the rest of the crew without killing them. The pirates were under no such restraint. Torkadir, or perhaps Premulo, fell, his leg sticking out sideways at a horribly unnatural angle. My internal organs knotted in sympathy, but I needed to look to my own survival. I recovered forward and ducked under Growteing’s crooked arm. He spun, more slowly than a human would, drawing a fresh bead upon me.

I took advantage of his dilatory movements. Beating another Croctoid’s gun with my sword hilt to point upward, I slipped among the thrashing forms of my troops wrestling with pirate adversaries in the direction of my prey. The captain finished his rotation and ended up facing me just in time to ascertain my intent.

“No! Curse you!”

I hoped his curse would not take. I reached the table and snatched up the metal square. I held it up triumphantly. He roared out more invective. I made a face at him and ran toward the rear of the restaurant.

“Retreat!” I called. With the map of the area limned upon my mind as brightly as the exit sign overhead, I headed toward the back door that opened out into the service passage where deliveries were made. “Team A, follow me! We can lead them into a trap! Team B, stay behind them and make sure none of them remains here! We can take them!”

“What?” Plet’s voice echoed breathless in my ear. “Where?”

My mind raced through the possibilities open to us. Our ship was out of the question. The crew might decide to flee to its own vessel and threaten others with its onboard cannon and missile until I was forced to return the license. The station manager had not taken my warning seriously, and was more likely to be hindrance than help. Sweating, I strained my cerebral faculties for inspiration.

Yes!

There was only one place that I could think of that would—could—act as a temporary holding cell until Parsons or the Wedjet returned to take the crew into custody.

“The hotel ballroom!” I cried.

“What?”

“We will lure them into that wonderful maze of walls and floors. If I stir it up, I believe I can box them in a room without doors until they could be taken into custody.”

“And that’s your plan?” Plet hissed.

“Yes!”

There was a brief silence, and I thought that I had lost her.

“Actually, that’s a good idea. We’ll try to buy you some time.”

“Carry on, troops!” I shouted into the communications link. “Evasive maneuvers, and protect the public!”

I shot away, waving my booty over my head in a fleering manner. The pirate captain let out a roar of fury and stumbled after me, shoving aside damaged furniture and dithering traybots. I ran down the length of the enormous room, weaving between hastily abandoned tables and upset chairs. I leaped over a cowering server and skidded to a halt at the control beside the service door.

My enemy bore down on me, as I had predicted. My move was not without precedent. I had once snatched the lunch of a bigger cousin with a notoriously bad temper on a dare when I was in school. My long legs gave me the only advantage I had, fleeing from an angry, much larger opponent. This time, however, I was unprepared for the frisson of cold fear that went up my body as the entire crew left their individual battles and came after me. There was a lengthy hesitation before the door opened. For a moment I was afraid that it required some kind of security code. In eight paces, the Croctoid captain would be upon me.

At last, with a weary explosion of sound, the door slid into the wall to the right. A noisome wind, redolent with the fumes of ancient garbage, fuel, body odor and mildew, whooshed into my face. I gagged in a breath of only half-rotted air, and fled.

Into a rectangular tunnel I dashed. Pools of faint yellow light from emergency fixtures were my main source of illumination at first, but a blast of bright whiteness blinded me. I burst through it blindly. Motion-sensitive lamps were fixed into the walls at the rear door of the business establishments on this corridor to facilitate deliveries during less hostile moments. I hoped that my pursuers were as taken off guard as I was.

The hammering of shipboots behind propelled me forward like an afterburner. I navigated by memory, feeling my way down the steel corridor for the third left. Was it the third? Could I be mistaken? No, I was positive it was the third. Here it was!

I flew into the darkened turnoff. My eyes, stunned by the flashes of light, took a while to become accustomed to the blackness of this passageway. I sought the second of two narrow doorways close together after six irregularly spaced doors. It should put me into the main corridor just outside the tavern to which Chan and the others had taken me for a drink. I did not want to chance leading the pirates through the crowds down to the hotel, but did I have a choice? I could not take the time to read my map. Oh, for the heads-up display in my combat helmet back in the ship! I could hear the captain behind me, swearing as he lumbered along. More heavy footsteps joined his. Alarmed, I increased my pace. A painful stitch arose in my right ribcage. I ignored it. The side of my head ached from the energy blast, and my shoulder ached from the Croctoid captain’s blow. Nothing mattered but getting the pirates to a place of temporary incarceration until Parsons could be located. I toggled my communications link.

“Plet, I’m about to emerge into traffic. Is there an alternative that will not put me into traffic? I am weary of annoying heavily armed babysitting robots.”

“Yes, sir!” Plet’s voice rose over static in my ear. “Stay on this corridor for another thirty meters. I can guide you through accessways. Listen carefully. You are getting out of range. Left, third left, right, right, down cargo tube four levels, left, long corridor, last door at the end. Do you have that? I will repeat it until team B rejoins you in the ballroom.”

Bless her efficiency. I was good at learning trivia and song lyrics on one hearing, but between alarm and static, I was uncertain. I listened, attempting to picture the route, mindful of the consequences should I fail. The next time, a nanibot’s wild shots would certainly do to me what the pirates had so far failed to accomplish.

Behind me, the movement-controlled lights flashed on and off, causing the shadow thrown ahead of me to strobe. I glanced back. Four-legged crewbeings swarmed after me. They were much closer than I had anticipated. Two Geckos passed their slower comrades and were in danger of catching up with me. Their voices echoed in the stinking hallway. Heedless of the pain now wracking the entire right side of my body, I summoned all my speed and ran.

The narrow alley into which Plet directed me had a floor that was both slippery and sticky. I only hoped that the uncertain footing would cause my pursuers to fare worse than I did. My boots alternately slid or caught in the dark green goo. I cannoned off the walls more than once.

Suddenly, a hand seemed to reach out of the darkness to my left. I flinched, then my eyes focused. It was not a hand, but a metal gate of some kind, left partway open by its last user. My approach made its circuitry wake up and close the rest of the way. I was unlucky enough to get caught in its sweep. I dodged, or thought I had, but it came out and struck me across the midsection.

“Oof!” Inelegant, I admit, but I hadn’t time to come up with a clever outburst. My ribs hurt! To my dismay, the license was knocked out of my hand.

The metal clattered upon the soiled floor. I looked back. My pursuers heard the noise, and picked up their pace. I dropped to my knees and fumbled in the dark for the square of metal, collecting a good deal of the stinking slime on my hands in the process. At last my fingertips met the edge. I scraped it up with my fingernails and clapped it to my side. Conveniently, the ambient sludge helped it adhere to my uniform tunic. I would not lose it again.

“Status!” I barked into my pickup. My voice sounded hoarse.

“Wait a minute,” said Chan. “Juhrman stayed behind in group B. I’m listening to him. I’ll be back to you in a moment.”

Plet’s voice came thinly through a wave of static. “The crew is nearly on top of you, sir. The alley will widen out in a moment, then you have a choice of directions.”

I scanned my surroundings. A bright yellow square loomed out of the darkness.

“I see an access sign! I can turn right out into the main road.”

“No! I can keep you out of the thoroughfare all the way to the hotel entrance, if you follow my instructions.” Her voice cracked, and I realized that I might lose her to the interference.

“Tell me, quickly,” I pleaded.

A hot red burst of plasma splattered a light fixture near me. The Geckos were much faster than their companions, and were at last on my tail. But I was still faster than they, and fear gave me afterburners.

“In one hundred meters, you will see the lift downward . . .”

My attention to the voice in my ear must have caused me to slow down in a darkened portion of the corridor. A weight landed upon my back and bore me to the sticky floor. I guessed by the weight it was a Gecko. We rolled together. A second body, as light as the first, joined the fray. I knew from wrestling with my shipmates that impact to their sensitive earspots could incapacitate them. They knew it, too, striving to keep my hands away from the sides of their heads. They knew, too, that knocking my nose in would incapacitate me. We flailed around the floor, trying to slap one another in the face.

I felt a hard mass ram into my hip. I felt downward and wrenched the pistol from the Gecko’s shipsuit pocket. It fought to get it back, scratching at my face and arms, but I forced my way to my feet and held it too high for the being to reach. You may call it wasted effort and time, but I dialed the setting back from kill to stun before I blasted its owner in the face. He dropped. I walked my shots to flank the second one, and succeeded in knocking her weapon out of her hand. I raised the gun to render her unconscious, but she was too quick. She dashed back into the darkness. The footsteps of the others were much nearer. I turned and ran, tucking the gun into my belt.

With Plet’s voice in my ear, I ran toward a door through which issued a pink light. An open-sided pressure tube there acted as an elevator. It was an old-fashioned type, but those that still ran were hard to get rid of once they had been installed, because removing the tunnel often caused the collapse of the surrounding structure, so most edifices, like old colonies, that had them kept them running, but did not use them as much as better and safer structures like elevators and moving stairs. Steeling myself, I took a flying leap for it. I needed to penetrate the outer stream, which was at least two meters thick in one of these contraptions, to the center core, which bore the rider or cargo downward.

My heart bulged upward into my throat as passed through the strong updraft and was caught half a floor upward by the equally powerful downdraft. I needed to count four floors. Two Croctoids, Growteing and one other, hurtled out of the darkness and plunged into the stream, hands outstretched for my throat and the precious license. I flinched backwards, and fell into the updraft with them tumbling against me. We were battered against the walls by our momentum. I was swept ten floors up in the outer stream until I fought my way back into the central column of rushing air that snatched me and dragged me downward. The Croctoids were swept upward several more floors before they swam into the downdraft to follow me. Their eyes gleamed down at me in the sickly pink light. They did not dare take a shot at me here lest they cause an explosion in the pressure tube that would kill all of us, but they shouted threats and demands. I held onto the license, attached firmly to my uniform, my only hope.

I faked jumping into open doorways twice. I lost one of the Croctoids on the floor immediately below my target. Captain Growteing stayed with me, but I still had an advantage over him: he did not know where I was going. After several dizzying ups and downs, I sprang out of the pressure tube. My first steps on a plascrete floor were as unsteady as a newborn lamb’s, but luckily the residue from the corridor floor on the bottom of my boots helped my feet stick tightly. I regained my equilibrium swiftly and began again to run. With the Croctoid captain’s angry shouts behind me, I opened up some distance.

Previous: Chapter 13
Next: Chapter 15