The Dillo abruptly slowed down and began to drift too the left. Gabriel heard screams from the cars behind him. Moments later the injured passengers, at least those that could managed to get out of their beds, were rushing into the dining car, desperate to get away. Even through the uproar Gabriel could hear the sound of metal on concrete.
The wheels had given out. It had been faster than he expected. The bare rims were now dragging against the ground, chewing up the road beneath. The dining car suddenly lurched as its own wheels were targeted. Passengers screamed as they lost their balance and slammed against the wall and each other.
An alarm blared loudly over the intercom. Orders were given, but they couldn’t be made out over the horrible screeching of metal on concrete mingled with the screams of the passengers. Gabriel had a feeling what was going to happen. He adjusted the grip on the table, holding on tighter as the Dillo’s emergency brakes engaged and the Dillo came to a grinding halt, the cars slamming into one another before rounding away.
Passengers went flying, first forward, then back before they landed in a tangle of limbs. It grew eerily silent as the alarms came to a sudden stop and the emergency lights switched on. The interior of the Dillo was bathed in soft, red light.
Gabriel pushed off a man who had fallen across his back and counted off four breaths before the firefight began. The screams followed almost immediately and Gabriel grimaced. As he stood up he placed a hand on a woman’s shoulder, stopping her as she tried to stand up.
“Don’t,” Gabriel said, pushing her back down. “Stay down for now. It’s safer.”
“Are we going to die?” she whispered. She clutched her hands to her chest and began to rock back and forth.
Gabriel didn’t answer as he made his way through the cart and to the door. He knew the next car contained mostly ELA storage lockers. There was almost always a soldier stationed in the room, but right now he doubted anyone would notice him borrowing some items. He would need to find a radio, and ideally, a weapon. So long as he could get far enough away from the Dillo, and now the Vultures, he could possibly use the radio to contact a Novan patrol.
His hand had just reached the handle when it slid open and two ELA soldiers shouldered past him, both armed with rifles. One began shouting, ordering everyone to stay down. Gabriel slipped by them and into the next compartment.
He saw Charlie. She was wrestling a large container that had fallen and blocked off a locker. Spotting him, she quickly waved him over. Wordlessly he assisted her, pressing his shoulder against the container and pushing it to the side. As it crashed down to the floor Charlie wrenched open the locker and pulled out a rifle.
“We’re surrounded,” Charlie growled as she slammed a fresh magazine into the rifle and slid the bolt back. She reached into the locker and grabbed two more mags and stuffed them into her pockets before clipping a grenade to her belt. “I knew it would be bad but...”
An explosion rocked the car and a second of the wall dented in as it absorbed the brunt of the rocket’s explosion. Charlie lost her footing and fell forward. Gabriel caught her by the shoulder and steadied her. Charlie stared at the broken segment of the wall.
“The doors to engine car were destroyed,” Charlie said. “We’re trying to cut through them, but it’s taking too long. At least three men are dead and the rest are pinned down. I have to get there and get the Shield Maiden up or we’re not going to make it.”
“The external door,” Charlie said. “If I can get to the engine the side doors should still be alright.
“There’s a lot of them out there,” said Gabriel.
“I can make it.” Her voice was steady, but her hands shook ever so slightly.
“Breach! Breach! Everyone down! Now!”
Charlie grabbed Gabriel and knocked him to the floor. Seconds later fist sized holes appeared in the wall of the Dillo as the Vultures opened fire with some kind of armour piecing turret. Blood splattered against Gabriel’s face, but it wasn’t his own. Charlie held onto him tight, pressing her body against his as the gunfire continued to rip through the car.
“Man down! Man down!”
The call echoed through the car as the attack came to an abrupt end. Gabriel sat up as Charlie rolled off him. The Vultures likely had a limited amount of rounds capable of piercing the hull, but they had used it effectively. Dead or wounded ELA soldiers lay strewn across the floor. The smell of blood was heavy in the air, mixing into a sickening medley with the smoke and gunpowder.
Charlie’s hand was on his face, wiping away the blood as she looked for a wound. “Are you alright?”
Gabriel nodded and gingerly returned to his feet with Charlie. She looked across the car and sucked in a reedy breath.
“I have to get to the front,” Charlie’s voice took on a hard edge. Gabriel had heard that same tone before when an Orbital Knight had lost his entire division in a skirmish with the ELA. Charlie’s training was taking over. She couldn’t afford to get emotional. She pulled another rifle from the locker and pushed it into Gabriel’s hands. “Have you ever used one of these before?”
Gabriel looked down at the weapon. “Yes.”
“Can you help me?” said Charlie.
Gabriel’s hand curled over the grip and his finger rested lightly on the trigger guard. If he said no, Charlie would go off on her own. She might make it to the front, but it was more likely that she would not. Even if he went with her it seemed unlikely.
The Vultures were giving him a chance for a clean escape that he would not get again. He could slip away in the chaos and maybe even steal one of the Vultures’ vehicles. He could find his way back to Nova, back to his life. To Fairy and Chance. To Rachel and Sara.
This battle wasn’t his to fight.
All he had to do was say no.
“Yes,” said Gabriel. His thumb flicked off the rifle’s safety.
Charlie nodded once before kicking the emergency door open along the side of the wall and throwing herself out into the chaos. Gabriel jumped out after her, ducking low and sliding into cover behind of one of the barricades the ELA had managed to erect around the Dillo. Charlie had already moved forward, diving towards the next barricade. Gabriel was about to follow her when someone grabbed his shoulder. Gabriel turned. Jayce stared back at him though one, large eye.
“Gabriel?” he sputtered. “What are you doing here?”
“Helping Charlie.” Gabriel held up his rifle.
“You aren’t even a… fuck it,” Jayce shook his head and tilted around the barricade. “What’s the situation then?”
“She needs to get to the Knivs.” Gabriel said. A bullet drilled through the barricade not an inch from his head. Gabriel tilted away from the hole.
“Right. Okay. I’m with you, then,” Jayce said shakily. “Go on three?”
“Go now,” Gabriel replied as he pivoted and took off after Charlie. He heard Jayce curse. He didn’t know if the soldier would follow, but he had a feeling he would. At least, he knew Chance would have followed him.
As he ran Gabriel kept one eye on the line of steadily approaching Vulture vehicles, the bright headlights almost blinding to look at it against the dark night. It was a smart strategy; with the bright lights the ELA’s night vision would be nearly useless.
As he moved to the next barrier he thought it strange. The Vultures were firing less frequently now. Even the shots they did fire were not striking the barriers that the ELA huddled behind, but rather above them, some clipping the top of the Dillo, but even more simply flying over the top.
A shadow moved out of the corner of his eye and Gabriel lifted up his rifle a fraction of a second too late. The camouflaged Vulture’s pistol flashed. The shot went wide and Gabriel trained his rifle on the Vulture. A single shot through the Vulture’s head dropped him back to the ground. Gabriel spied another flicker of movement and opened fire, spraying the area with automatic fire. He didn’t know how many people he hit, but the screams told him he had indeed hit someone. He ejected the spent mag and reached for another only to realize he did not have one. He quickly fell back behind the barricade as the Vulture’s returned fire. He could see Charlie moving further away, completely ignoring the danger as she sprinted from cover to cover.
“Hey Gabriel?” Jayce called out weakly. Gabriel ignored him and peaked around the barricade. He could see the Vulture’s more clearly now, rising up from the ground, black marks against the bright lights. There were more of them than there were of the ELA.
A lot more.
“Gabriel…” Jayce voice sounded strained and Gabriel turned around. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Jayce was lying on the ground, his hand pressed against his chest, just above his heart. Blood leaked freely from the large bullet wound. Jayce’s face was deathly pale and his one good eye was glassed over. “I think I got shot.”
Jayce tried to laugh but it came out a rattling cough. Drops of blood came out with each cough and slowly slid down his chin. Gabriel reached down and pressed his fingers to Jayce’s neck. His pulse was already slowing.
“I think… I think I’m going to die.”
Gabriel nodded silently. Somehow Jayce managed to smile at that.
“Do me a favor, then, yeah?” Jayce pulled two magazines from his pocket and pushed them into Gabriel’s hands. “Make sure you kill a few of them for me, alright?”
Gabriel accepted the magazines, sliding one into his rifle. When he looked back at Jayce, the soldier was holding out his hand. Slowly Gabriel reached out and took it. Jayce squeezed his hand tightly and shut his eye. A few tears leaked out from between Jayce’s lashes, but he had no strength to wipe them away.
“Welcome to the ELA,” Jayce murmured as his grip on Gabriel’s hand lessened before going completely limp. Gabriel held onto Jayce’s hand for a moment longer before crossing it over the fallen soldier’s chest. Jayce looked completely at peace with just the hint of a smile on his face. He looked like he could wake up at any minute ready crack a joke about getting a robot heart to match his planned robot eye.
Gabriel couldn’t bear to look at him and turned away.
Gabriel had seen many people die. More often than not he had been the cause of their death. He had seen fear, anger, and regret, but not once had he seen someone accept death with a smile on their face. The fingers in his right hand slowly closed into a fist and he could not unclench them.
He had barely known Jayce. No, he didn’t even know him. He didn’t know where the man came from, or what he hoped to do. He only knew that he was an ELA soldier that had an easy smile and was always ready to crack a joke. It made absolutely no sense. He had killed ELA soldiers before. He had watched them die. Jayce was no different from them.
But he was.
He was and Gabriel did not know why. He did not know why he felt a great weight form in his stomach. He did not know why he couldn’t look at the dead body that had grown painfully still beside him. He did not know why he lifted his eyes to stare after Charlie, even though she was long gone from his view.
A trio of ELA soldiers dove behind the barricade, one slamming into Gabriel and knocking him onto his side before pulling him back up.
“Are you okay?” the soldier yelled. His hands were covered in blood and left bloody prints on Gabriel’s jacket. Gabriel nodded. One checked on Jayce before shaking his head.
“We’ve got to get to the engine!” one of them screamed. “If we lose it…”
The threat hung in the air and the soldiers continued on their way. Gabriel watched them go before, very slowly turning to Jayce. With effort he reached out and relieved Jayce of his sidearm. Letting out a deep breath, Gabriel forced his hands back onto his rifle and closed his eyes.
The noise was tremendous, but he could distinctly tell most of it was coming from his right, towards the engine. Gabriel focused on the noise. He could hear the firefight, the ELA fighting to hold their position even as the Vultures moved forward. He could hear the steady high-pitched ring when the Vulture bullets connected with the barricades and the deeper clunk of the stray shots that struck the Dillo itself.
It would make sense for them to focus their attack on the Engine. It was the most important part of the Dillo and it was where most of the ELA forces would rally. If the Vulture’s destroyed it, then the ELA had absolutely no chance of escape.
But they already had virtually no chance of escape. The Dillo had come to a stop and it was clear even if it started back up, it had no chance of outrunning even the slowest Vulture vehicle.
The Vultures didn’t want to fight with the ELA. They were scavengers. They only wanted to salvage what they could and leave. The Dillo wouldn’t be of much use to them. It was far too large and bulky. They could destroy the engine at no loss. It would be what was contained inside that they would want.
Things like weapons and ammunition were hard to come when you lived off the grid, but they weren’t half as rare as medicine.
Gabriel was up and running, but not towards the engine. He would have to hope Charlie made it without him. With just her single Kniv she could easily turn the tide of this battle back into the ELA’s favor, but that would take time. Time that they might not have.
With very little enemy fire to slow him, Gabriel quickly reached the ELA car he had exited through. He pushed past the injured soldier guarding the door and began to work his way back. The passengers in the dining hall cowered and parted for him as he strode quickly towards the infirmary cars, his rifle already up on his shoulder.
With the ELA primarily concerned with protecting the engine, the back of the Dillo had been left without a guard. The majority of the civilians were in the front cars. There would simply not be enough men to cover the entire Dillo and even fewer as the battle raged on. They back cars would be completely exposed to attack.
Gabriel’s theory was proven correct as he slid open the door and came face to face with a Vulture. He had one hand deep inside of the medical cabinet and the other holding a ratty duffle bag. An SMG was hanging uselessly around his shoulder. Gabriel put two shots into his chest and one in his head before the man fell silently to the floor. As the noise alerted the other occupants to his presence, Gabriel took in the situation, a small amount of adrenaline slipping into bloodstream and sharpening his mind.
There were three more Vultures in the room. Two had been bagging up the medical supplies and the third had a pistol held by his side. Most of the beds were empty or overturned. Of those that hadn’t been able to escape, many had been killed already. Out of the corner of his eye Gabriel spied Tomkins. He was still in his bed, though blood had splattered his sheets. Gabriel didn’t know if he was alive or dead.
Without hesitation Gabriel fired off another round, catching the armed Vulture in the shoulder. The man howled with pain and tried to lift up his pistol, but Gabriel silenced him with two more shots. The first missed and ricocheted off the wall before lodging inside of a bed. The second caught the Vulture in the temple. He did a half spin and slumped against the wall.
Gabriel wasn’t sure which one yelled at him. It didn’t matter as he shot the closest one, putting four in his chest before diving to the floor as the remaining Vulture managed to get his weapon up. He pulled the trigger and sprayed wildly, the recoil bucking his weapon up and sending the shots high and wide. From the floor Gabriel aimed down the sights and fired a trio of shots. The Vulture let out a gurgling cry as the rounds tore through his chest and knocked him back. He remained on his feet long enough for Gabriel to stand back up and finish him off with a another shot to the head.
As the Vulture fell to the floor Gabriel ejected the half empty mag. It was precisely the wrong time to do so as the door leading to the next infirmary car slid open. Gabriel dropped the rifle and sprang forward just as the first Vulture stepped in, his weapon up and ready to fire. The Vulture panicked and hesitated, his body blocking his comrades from entering the room. By the time he managed to recover, Gabriel was already on him.
Reaching out with his left hand, Gabriel grabbed the barrel of the rifle just as the Vulture fired. Wrenching the weapon to the side, the shot just missed Gabriel’s chest. With his right hand Gabriel drew Jayce’s pistol and punched it against the Vulture’s head. As the Vulture stumbled back Gabriel fired once, twice, three times. The bullets tore through his head and into the chest of the woman standing behind him. She screamed once and fell. Gabriel shouldered the dead Vulture forward and used him as a shield as the two remaining Vulture’s opened fire. One of the bullets penetrated the Vulture’s body and caught Gabriel high the left arm, passing cleanly through his bicep. Grunting in pain he swung up his pistol and returned fire. He managed to down one and wing the other, forcing him to retreat back into the final car.
Gabriel tossed the dead body aside, dropping his pistol and pulling the SMG free from the dead man’s fingers when a sharp pain in his thigh buckled his leg. As he fell to the floor the weapon slipped from his fingers. Twisting around, Gabriel saw a Vulture he had thought dead earlier was still very much alive and had thrust a knife into his leg. As the Vulture pulled it back to strike again, Gabriel kicked out with his uninjured leg and caught him in the chin. The Vulture’s head snapped back but he still managed to swing the knife down. It pierced through Gabriel’s flesh and stayed there. Gritting his teeth Gabriel rolled away and onto his hands and knees. He spotted the SMG only a meter or so away and lunged for it. Just before his hand made contact with the grip, a hand grabbed his leg and pulled him back, knocking him onto his stomach. Gabriel howled, unable to bite back the sudden surge of pain, as the Vulture’s hand found the hilt of the knife and yanked it back. Gabriel spun his body around and sat up, reaching out and grabbing the arm that held the knife. With a cry, Gabriel jerked the Vulture’s arm up and forced the knife out of his leg. Blood gushed from the wound and Gabriel felt like he was going to pass out, but he fought off the feeling.
Gabriel kept his grip tight on the Vulture’s arm as he kicked his legs out, wrapping them around the Vulture’s arm and trapping it between them. His arm locked into place, the Vulture screamed as Gabriel began to pull back. The Vulture struggled wildly, but could not break the grip as Gabriel continued to pull, hyper-extending the man’s arm until, with a loud crunch, Gabriel heard and felt the man’s elbow break. The knife slipped from the Vulture’s hand and landed on the floor bedside Gabriel’s shoulder.
With a gap Gabriel released the Vulture’s broken arm before reaching back to grab the knife. Pushing himself up he hurtled forward, landing on the Vulture’s chest. He received a weak punch to the side of the head, but it was not enough to stop him from leaning forward, and with all his weight, slamming the knife into the man’s throat. With a grunt he twisted the knife for good measure before releasing the weapon and falling to the side.
His breath came in short, sharp gasps, but he didn’t have time to regain his breath. With shaking hands he recovered the SMG and trained it on the door. When no one came he quickly ripped off strips of bedding and tied them around his wounds as best h could. It was far from perfect, and he knew he was still bleeding, but it would have to be enough. Grinding his teeth he managed to get back to his feet, and stumbled his way to the door that would lead to the final car. Taking in a calming breath he slid open the door and stepped back. When no one fired he tentatively peeked his head inside.
The entire back of the car had been blow away, exposing it to the cool night air. The cabinets had been all but ripped from the walls and the doors hung loosely on broken hinges. Shell casings were scattered across the floor and those unfortunate to be unable to leave their beds when the attack had started would never have the chance to rise again. He could hear movement outside and the sound of gunfire, but inside the room was clear as he swept the SMG from one corner to the other as he cauitously moved through the car. The Vultures had taken what they needed and retreated in the face of opposition, no doubt sure other ELA soldiers would be coming to assist Gabriel. .
Gabriel carefully approached the destroyed back end of the car, wary of another surprise attack. The firefight had not completely ended, but the battle had reached its crescendo and was beginning to taper off. He could see the bright lights of the Vulture vehicles beginning to swirl as they started to move. They would fall back now. They had gotten as much as they could and had started to incur losses as the ELA regrouped from the surprise attack. If necessary they could even come back later and attack again.
Gabriel began to lower his weapon when he heard a single voice echo out over the dying battle. A voice that made his blood run cold and his eyes widen as he frantically searched for the source.
“Help me!” Millie screamed. “Someone help me! Charlie! Gabriel!”
Gabriel stepped out into the night, his SMG ready as he swung from side to side, trying to find the girl. Against the blinding brightness from the Vulture’s lights and the long shadows they cast Gabriel spotted a pair of Vulture’s struggling towards their vehicle, a kicking body held between them. Gabriel brought the weapon to bear on them and his finger to the trigger, but he faltered before he could fire.
He could make the shot. He knew he could make the shot.
But if he missed…
If he missed he could kill Millie instantly.
Lowering the weapon he ran after the Vultures, completely tuning out the battle around him as he charged forward. His legs burned and bullets whizzed by him. He fired back, aiming purely on instinct as he ran. The Vulture’s were beginning their retreat in full scale now, their lights turning off to help cover the escape. Gabriel kept his eyes focused on Millie, even as she was forced roughly into a truck. He memorized every detail he could about it as it began to pull away.
The blood-red paint with a yellow stripe across the side. The large dent in the right side of the front fender. The trio of bullet holes in the hood. The cracked back window. The single functioning taillight on the left sight.
He couldn’t catch it. Not on foot.
His eyes scanned across the battlefield until he spotted a vehicle that was just beginning to back up, the driver’s side door left open in haste. Gabriel brought up the SMG and fired a single shot. It struck the windshield and cracked the glass. The car jerked back and Gabriel trailed it, firing again. This shot penetrated the cracked windshield and hit the driver. Gabriel took no chances as he ran forward, dragging his injured leg along, and unloading the entire magazine into the car, killing the driver and the two Vultures that had been unfortunate enough to enter the backseat. He threw the empty weapon aside as he reached the car and yanked the driver out, tossing him to the ground. Leaning into the backseat he pulled a sidearm, along with two grenades, from one of the dead passengers before slipping into the driver’s seat.