I lay upon the floor of the small cubicle, trying not to move, listening to repulsor fire echoing off the metal floors. The smell of my sweat and everyone else’s combined with the sludge on my uniform to create a sickening stew. What feeble light we had came through the translucent floors around the carpet runners. We all inhaled as softly as we could. I had no idea that Croctoids had such sensitive hearing! The surviving members of the militia and my ship’s crew were piled haphazardly upon one another. It was difficult to breathe with Captain Chan and Bailly all but piled upon my chest. I didn’t dare chide them or nudge them off. No matter how little noise we made, the pirates heard it. The walls were perforated with holes—most of them small, the result of hot plasma drilling its way through the heavy, reinforced wall panels. Several of the militia had been wounded more by accident than design. I had left the injured in a corner room under the protection of Oskelev with two of the captured pistols, and continued on with the depleted force of soldiers, but the rooms into which we fled had progressively grown smaller and smaller as per my own design. It was meant to corral the pirates so they couldn’t move, but it was having precisely that action upon us. At the current state of crowding, we could not possibly defend ourselves. I peered sideways at my viewpad, propped against the wall next to my head, silently echoing the countdown to the next three-minute sequence.
I tapped Chan’s leg. Three, two, one—move!
As the wall behind me dropped down, the amorphous blob of soldiers rolled, scooted and crawled into the next enclosure like a frightened amoeba. To my relief, a hallway had opened up. I believed that the maze key now was right-left-right. I had been wrong before, and the chiding looks of my depleted force reminded me of that unhappy fact. Instead of triumphantly leading the enemy into a trap, we were the ones who were trapped, while the unbridled brutality of the pirate crew had been unleashed upon an innocent and harmless hotel ballroom. I winced as I beheld some of the scars and gouges on the fine décor. Sconces swung loosely on the wall or lay on the floor. Even the crystal floor had scars in it. The aesthetics of my soul were offended.
At least I still held the ace in this hand: the ship’s license. As long as I had it, the pirates must remain here on the station.
But it was a stalemate. They knew by now that we had no weapons to counter theirs. They were larger and stronger than we were. Our strength lay only in remaining out of reach, and that, I realized as I saw a man-sized hole blasted in the side wall of the hallway through which we crept, was becoming a less likely proposition all the time. We had to carry our wounded with us. The militia members did their best not to moan or cry out as they were jostled along the hallways, but we couldn’t control every noise we made.
“Sir, I’m going to sneeze!” Rous whispered suddenly.
“Don’t!” I breathed back. “That’s an order.”
“Respectfully declined, sir!” the Uctu replied, his large eyes filling with involuntary tears. “Wha-ha-chooo!”
A Gecko sneeze is a forceful exhalation that clears out the entire respiratory system. As a result, the report that issued from the slender form of my midshipman was explosive, to say the least. Our eardrums had just stopped ringing from the sound when I heard blasting noises coming from directly beneath us. A red pinpoint of flame erupted slantways out of the wall beside my feet. Involuntarily, I broke into a dance to avoid more firepower. The enemy had found us.
“Aaagh!” Bailly yelled, hopping up and down on one foot. Another pinpoint stung him. We thundered into the next room, followed by gunfire from the left stitching the wall with red-lit holes. How many charges did a hand weapon like that hold, anyhow? I would have liked to get a look at the power plant. It would be a useful modification to make to existing military handguns. I would make the suggestion to the ship’s armorer—if we lived.
The pirate captain, alas, had worked his way back to rejoin his fellows some half an hour before. As he had a carrying voice, I couldn’t help but overhear his ringing condemnation of our force, me in particular.
“. . . Light-footed, weak-chinned softskin thinks he can make fools out of us, I’ll blast off a piece of him at a time and make him cry before he dies!”
In the pale light, I caught smirks on the faces of my shipmates from the Wedjet, particularly Plet, but only temporary ones.
“Then the rest of those meddling rent-a-cops. Not a real threat in the bunch!”
At that, Plet had frowned, and her fingerspelling to me had become much more purposeful. Together we had worked out a defense of evasion and eluding. She would continue to send out SOS messages to Parsons, the Wedjet and the station authorities, until the rest of us were overcome or rescue came.
We came to a T-intersection where our choices were to take stairs up to the right or down to the left.
“By my calculations,” I spelled to the viewpad, “we should go left.”
“But that takes us down, right into the arms of the enemy,” Plet argued back.
“Our last turn was right,” I pointed out.
“But we keep hitting dead ends,” she reasoned. “This can’t be your way out. Let’s take another right and get the sequence back in order.”
I could hardly fault her reasoning. According to the maze I had designed, we should have had an easy egress from the pattern. We turned upward, keeping our pace as light as possible.
The stairs up were as solid as though carved from a mountain. I led the way with my sword drawn, hoping I would not have to use it. I heard repeated over and over again the request for assistance, but I refused to lose hope. I was the undefeated champion of maze croquet in the Imperium Compound on the homeworld. Once I got my bearings, we would be out of the puzzle in a moment, and I could seal off the escape route behind us.
Up, up we climbed, four, five, six flights. No exit offered itself until the top, when we were confronted with another flight of stairs, this one pointing downward and to the right.
“That can’t be correct,” I said, frowning.
“Obviously, you miscalculated,” Plet spelled.
“Not a chance!” I flashed back. I experienced an unnatural feeling of doubt. Had I miscalculated? Not possible! But more than a game hung upon my decision.
“Should we go back?”
“No way back,” Chan interrupted, adding her own signs. “Got to keep going ahead of them. We’re behind you, Ensign-Captain, whatever happens.” I turned to see eagerness and admiration shining in her eyes. “We haven’t had this much fun since we hit a pocket of laughing gas in the mines.” Her fellows nodded their approval. “If we buy it, then, hey, we buy it, but you won’t let that happen. We know it.”
I felt a weight of responsibility on my shoulders, but it was lightened by the feeling of being accepted as a leader.
“I’ll try,” I said humbly. I straightened my back and brandished my sword. “Downward, then, to glory.”
To my relief, the maze opened out into wider corridors. The right at the top of the stairs was followed by a left, then an unmistakable right and another left. Success! I picked up the pace, heedless of the noise of my boot soles. We would be out in a trice. And we had not met another pirate in minutes.
There was no doubt that we were following their path, however. Destruction had been rained down upon the facility to a point where I was certain that the place would have to be gutted and rebuilt before it could be used again. The soiree that Ms. Lutsen had mentioned was scheduled to use the room, I feared, would have to be relocated. It must already have been. I had lost track of time.
Damaged lamps lent feeble illumination to the floor, but to my astonishment and delight, another source of light was visible. At the end of the corridor through which we were running, brilliant lights gleamed. The exit must be there! I signed to my force to pick up the pace. We must have time to reach it!
I could hear the sound of running paralleling our course. I looked down. The enemy had found us! They shook their fists at us and fired off more charges. Luckily, the floor was made of the same material as the landing strip. It did not shatter. I heard the pirate captain’s voice shouting, exhorting his comrades to hurry.
The walls of the corridor fell away, revealing a parapet. An atrium that bisected the entire complex reached all the way to the ballroom ceiling. Above me, several floors up, I could see the landing strip and the hijacked vessel. I hurtled over the low rail and leaped across the short gap onto another. The pirates, one level below us, ran into a blank wall, no egress to the atrium. I heard their shouts as they looked for a way up. One after another, my company followed me. The last to come were the two soldiers in power suits.
“Hold it, sir,” came a weary voice, the sturdy young woman. “We can’t keep up with you.”
“Hurry,” I urged. “Can’t you launch your way over?”
“No thrust,” said the old man in the other suit, the one that had one arm torn off by the Solinian. “These ain’t really made for runnin’. Let us take care of the wounded. Those scum won’t get past us, I swear it, Ensign-Captain.”
I glanced at the glistening faces of the injured soldiers, and realized it was my call to make. They were tolerating pain, but they were too tired to go on. I feared for them, but they were better protected in their suits than the rest of us. It was a good solution.
“So ordered,” I said. “Keep as silent as you can. Stay out of sight!”
“Got it, sir,” the old man said. “You’re a good man.” The creaking cyber arm bent upward in a salute. I returned it with respect and humility.
More silently than I would have thought of such decrepit armor, he and the young woman withdrew into the corridor from which we had come. Staggering on one another’s shoulders, the injured went with them, including Bailly, my own midshipman. Angrily, I took a stunner rifle from Margolies and blasted it at the chamber where the pirates were.
The bark of energy weapons sounded from behind the wall. Explosive impacts meant they were trying to blast through to get at us. I sent most of the troop on ahead, remaining behind with Chan and Oskelev until I saw the pirates break through. I waved the license at them. They roared and swore at us. The captain had indeed rejoined them. He gestured to them to start swarming over the edge of the balcony to make a leap at the floor two below us. I fled into the corridor, overtaking the remaining militia.
Pew! A solid object shot out from our right. We flattened ourselves and looked for the projectile. Had they acquired pellet weapons from somewhere? Juhrman picked up an object from the floor and tossed it to me.
“Capacitor,” he said.
I breathed a sigh of relief and clambered to my feet. The others followed. The pale light of the anteroom beckoned to us.
But another light asserted itself ahead. On the right-hand wall, a blob of redness blossomed at chest height. I heard the rising whistle of alarms from the energy weapons, informing me that their safeties had been turned off. The pirates were pooling their resources to break through. I opened up my stride. We were moments from freedom. We must escape now!
“The timer, sir!” Plet shouted.
I looked at my viewpad. My heart sank as the digits flipped from one second to none. Suddenly, the walls shifted again. The exit disappeared, and a corridor opened up to the right at the end of the room. I groaned. It was closer than the previous turning, but it pointed the wrong way!
Ahead, the dark blue wall covering burst into flames, and the structure itself slagged into a pool of molten sludge. The Croctoid captain leaped through the glowing opening in between us and our escape, and leveled his pistol at us.
“Gimme that license!” he roared.
“Retreat!” I shouted.
We turned on our heels, and charged straight into a wall. The open corridor had become a dead end, a very brief dead end. I plowed directly into Plet and Chan, who fell over Juhrman and Margolies, who had impacted half a dozen other soldiers.
I had no choice. I picked myself up, turned back and charged, sword point forward.
“Attack!” I cried.
“The Imperium!” bayed my crew.
“Smithereen!” the militia yelled.
We ran at the captain, ducking and weaving to avoid his shots. What stun charges we had left, I ordered discharged at him. It was a forlorn hope, indeed, but what choice did we have? Chop off the head, and perhaps the rest of the gang would surrender. I knew in a similar circumstance that I wouldn’t give in. The pirates had proved worthy adversaries.
More pirates poured out of the still-hot hole in the wall and engaged with my troops. My heart was heavy that some of the brave males and females of the Smithereen militia would be killed. Our only consolation was that it would be a glorious death, for the sake of the Imperium. Perhaps the Emperor would even say our names in one of the memorial broadcasts at the holiday season. Parsons would find my body and see that it went home to my mother.
My heroic fantasies were interrupted by a searing pain in my right upper arm. One of the captain’s blasts had struck me at last. I staggered backwards a pace, shocked by the agony of my limb as it fell limp.
“Sir!” Plet cried. “You’re wounded.”
“Keep going!” I gritted my teeth. My sword was intact. With my left hand I grabbed for the weapon before it fell to the ground and brandished it.
With a bound, I leaped and lunged, sticking the point of my sword into the Croctoid’s throat. Purple ichor spurted.
“You will never defeat a Kinago!” I cried.
The Croc grabbed the blade in his fist and squeezed. Heedless of the blood running down between his pads, he bent the end of my ancestor’s sword. I yanked it back and struck again. He clouted me in the head with his pistol. Sparks of light flooded my vision along with the pain. He would tear me apart now, and I could not stop him. In my mind, I imagined for myself a beautiful funeral, citing my bravery. I hoped that at least one of my companions who had witnessed my last stand against the pirate captain would survive, when suddenly my communications unit erupted with a familiar voice.
“Prepare for unconsciousness, sir.”
“Parsons!” I cried, relieved. “Where have you been?”
“Prepare, sir. Mobicon Nine.”
I knew the chemical in question. It and others like it had been part of our training. M-9 was a gas that would incapacitate even the largest and most dangerous being in a matter of seconds. Those who breathed it often injured themselves falling after being knocked out.
“Everyone lie on the floor!” I ordered. My voice was just audible over a barrage of shots from the enemy, but the interference that had plagued us for the last hours had passed. I let my knees go limp and fell right out of the surprised captain’s grasp. My entire remaining force dropped to the floor. I had just enough remaining consciousness to see the gigantic Solinian squeezing through the wall over my head as the gas hit him. Then he landed on me, and I knew no more.