Chapter 6: Abandoned
I paused just below the opening. It was very dark still. The city of Rii has no street lights; the planet Rii has no moon. I peeked over the edge. Chang’s house was heavily pock-marked. There were a few bodies in the street, all in Rii garb.
There’s been some fighting, Ari. But the house looks intact.
How far away is it? Can you make it safely?
Oh, I can make it; don’t know about safely.
Dri! Be careful!
I’m the very soul of caution. I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye from one of the holes on the side of Chang’s place. Some of these holes looked deeper than the others-like, perhaps, loopholes. Could it have been the muzzle of a weapon? If the Rii had taken the building, they wouldn’t be covering the street through loopholes. Ari, I think our people are still inside. I’m going to give it a try.
Are you sure?
Not completely, no. How far away can you read my thoughts?
Not much further than you are now. You’re worrying me.
I’ll make it quick then. It was about twenty meters and around a corner to Chang’s door. There were no other openings I could use. If I were quick, the Rii would not notice me until too late. If our friends opened the door fast enough and didn’t shoot me, I should be fine. I scrambled out of the well and ran, crouching.
I made it about half-way before the first shot rang out. The bullet snapped by my head and exploded against the mud brick. Suddenly, all the loopholes erupted. Tracers crisscrossed the street. First green (ours) and then red (theirs). The night lit up as though it were the Emperor’s birthday. I rounded the corner, hoping my bare feet wouldn’t slip. I charged the door. It opened at the last second and I flew through, slamming shoulder first into a stack of canned strawberry preserves. The steel door then slammed shut, several bullets thudding against it.
“Nice of you to drop in, sir,” said Windridge. “Shiro! Did you mark their firing positions?”
“On it Sergeant.” There was a series of shushes and thumps as missiles slammed into several buildings across the street. Soon, the enemy stopped firing.
“Cease fire! That’ll teach ‘em.” Windridge offered me his hand.
“Thank you Sergeant. I would’ve knocked, but I was in a bit of a hurry.”
“How are we doing?”
“Not too bad, considering we’re all alone on a planet full of hostiles.”
“Can we hold?”
“We can hold this position as long as our ammo lasts; and that’s about a third gone.”
I shook my head. “Not good. We’ve only been at war for six hours. Casualties?”
“A few nicks; no penetrations yet.”
“Lieutenant Morgan!” Chang emerged from behind a counter. “By God’s green Earth, you must be the luckiest son of a bitch in the Galaxy!” He came around and offered me his hand.
“Thanks! I hope I haven’t just used all my luck up.”
“Where’s the Ambassador?” asked Chang. “Is she all right?”
I nodded, “She’s waiting at the bottom of the well I just crawled out of.”
Chang stroked his chin and looked thoughtful. “Yes, she should be safe enough there for the time being.”
I turned back to Windridge. “Sergeant, I’m thinking we’re gonna have to bug out of here. This position isn’t worth spending all our ammo, let alone our lives. We need some place to hole up and hide ‘til help comes.”
“We were kinda thinking the same, back when we thought you were prisoners or worse.”
“What did you come up with?”
“I’ll let Mr. Chang here tell you.”
The older man grinned. “Seems one of the previous tenants here was involved in smuggling or thievery or something. There’s a passage leading from a storage bin to the water tunnels.”
“The same one Ari, the Ambassador, is in?” I felt a load being lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps I haven’t abandoned her!
“I believe so. The tunnel ends at a wall, but it’s rigged to collapse with a firm push.”
“Won’t they figure it out and follow us?”
Chang pointed at Windridge. “The sergeant here rigged some explosives and booby trapped the door to the bin. If the enemy gets too curious, the whole place goes boom!”
Orange light started coming in from outside the loopholes. “Sergeant! Take a look at this,” said one of the troopers. “Look up and to the right.” Windridge stepped over to a loophole; I took my place at the one to his left. Above the dark line of buildings across the street, a formation of meteors was streaking across the sky.
“Drop-ships. Looks like we’re gonna have company Lieutenant.”
“I count nine,” said Windridge. “If they’re the same size as Whirlwinds, that’s a battalion.”
“Shit! They’re not screwing around,” said Kelly.
“Maybe they expect more trouble than just us,” I said.
At that moment fire erupted again from the Rii positions, followed by an assault. The Keeper’s men knew it was their last chance to prove that they were effective allies, able to defeat an Imperial detachment on their own. It took only five minutes to break up the attack, but it was five minutes we could ill afford. As for the ammunition, it was now almost half gone.
“It’s now or never, sergeant,” I said. “Edgar’s regulars won’t give us the chance to break off.”
As the men filed down the stairs behind the storage bins, I noted the scattered canned goods and ruefully rubbed my sore shoulder. “Chang, I know water will be no problem in the tunnels; but what about food?”
“Already taken care of.”
The tunnel was low and narrow, almost too small for an armored man. It was very roughhewn, clearly more recent and less carefully done than the water paths. At its end was a room perhaps four meters across. A small boat packed with supplies sat in the middle.
“That’s the wall.” Chang pointed across the room at some dry stone masonry.
“Windridge is still rigging the trap. D’you want to do the honors, Yuri?” I asked.
The private handed me his rifle. “A pleasure sir.” He walked up to the wall and gave it a shove, then pushed and pushed again.
“A firm push you said?”
Chang shrugged and shook his head.
Finally, there was a loud crack followed by a rumble and a tremendous splash. The whole wall fell outward. Soon, the boat was pushed into the water and Chang and I boarded. I scanned the tunnel up and down with a flashlight, no Ari.
Ari! It’s us. Where are you?
A moment later she emerged with a splash next to the boat. “You scared the crap out of me, coming through the wall like that! I had no idea who it was. I hid on the bottom!” She was obviously relieved, however. I was also relieved (and just a little disappointed) to see that Ari had moved her sash up to cover her chest, even though that would mean having to keep her pistol in the boat.
“Did you miss me?” I smiled. She grabbed me about the neck and kissed me, almost pulling me into the water. Everyone stared.
“I’m guessing you two have been through a lot together.” Said Chang.
Ari released me and took a deep breath. “Why hello Justin! How’ve you been?”
“Not too bad, Milady, considering the circumstances.”
“We need to move,” said Windridge. “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s going to get very unpleasant here real soon.”
“Which way should we go, Dri?” Asked Ari. “That way leads to the edge of town, if I remember rightly. Or should we go back toward the palace?”
“Back toward the palace,” I said. “They may not expect it and there are more branches back that way. We’d be less likely to get ourselves cornered. Let’s go, Sergeant.”
The water was up to the chests of the armored soldiers, but that would only serve to slow them down. Their armor was insulated and even had its own air supply if necessary. The boat, which was pulled along by a couple of the troopers, hauled me, Chang and the supplies. Ari either hung around the boat or swam ahead to scout things out.
We had gone perhaps a kilometer when the water trembled and a few bricks fell from the ceiling. A quarter-minute later, a surge nearly pulled the boat out of the grasp of Yuri and Galt. I picked up an oar and fended off a wall. “Damn, Sergeant! What was in that thing?”
“Uh, I lent him a few kilos of high-grade rifle powder. It’s what the Rii use in their muzzle-loaders,” said Chang.
“That was good thinking,” I said.
“Actually, it was the Sergeant’s idea.”
“Just earning my pay,” said Windridge as he waded past.
“With any luck, they’ll think we went up with it,” I said.
“With any luck, some of Edgar’s boys did go up with it,” said Yuri.
“That’ll teach ‘em to glory-hog,” agreed Galt.
Some minutes later, Ari emerged from the water with a pale, silvery fish in her mouth. Look what I caught! She spat it out into the boat. “I’m in the mood for something fresh. Don’t suppose any of you lads like sashimi do you?”
“I do!” said Shiro.
“Great! We’ll split it when we stop to eat.”
“You do realize those things are kinda dangerous,” said Chang.
I drew my feet up on the bench to keep my toes away from the flopping, gnashing, angry beast’s long, sharp teeth.
“They’re also kinda tasty. I had one while I was waiting under the well. Here.” She deftly snatched it up behind the gills and bit off the head, which she noisily chewed. “Not so dangerous now, is it?” She then threw the body back in the boat and spat out some of its teeth.
I thought Justin was going to be sick. I must have looked almost as bad.
She laughed. “Didn’t your papas ever take you boys fishing?”
“Not like that,” said Justin.
“Except occasionally for sport, we don’t fish on Caledon.”
“Why ever not?” said Ari with a look of dismay.
“There’s an enzyme in the fish there that makes them inedible. They taste horrible.”
“How sad. That makes me not want to visit, even if it was your home. Anyway, there’s a shallow spot about a hundred meters down that away that would make a good resting place.”
We stopped and shared out rations. Ari crawled into the boat, sat next to me, and ate a portion of the fish, giving the rest to Shiro.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you two make it out of the palace?” asked Justin.
“We had some help,” I said.
“Help?” Justin raised an eyebrow. “Who or how?”
“An old friend of yours,” said Ari.
“Of mine?” Then he smiled. “Jen.”
Ari nodded. “We stumbled into her or she stumbled into us, depending on how you look at it. She led us to one of the maintenance well openings and showed us the way out.”
“I’m not surprised.” He sighed. “Hers is a sad tale. Her father was a good friend of mine. I’m sure, had he lived, he would’ve been able to protect her from what happened.”
“And what was that?” asked Ari. She leaned forward, listening intently.
“Her father died in an epidemic, about two years ago. Unfortunately the Keeper’s two sons also died of the same cause. They were his only heirs. Jen was orphaned and available, so the Keeper put aside his old wife and married her, despite the fact that she was too young, even by Rii standards.”
“Other than being a horny old bastard, why did he do it?” I asked.
“I think I can answer that,” said Ari. “To prevent a disputed succession.”
“Right,” said Justin. “Without a direct heir from the present Keeper, the royal family is just a tangle of cousins.”
“So the fate of the dynasty rests in her womb now,” said Ari. “What if she bears a girl? I’m sure that won’t be met with celebration.”
Justin shrugged. “I assume they’ll just try again, unless Parthans can provide the Keeper with some reason to turn to someone else. Which, I’m sure, Parthans would like to do.”
“Let me guess,” said Ari. “Parthans has a daughter.
“Not as pretty, but probably just as fertile. I suspect Parthans is behind this switch to Edgar. He would want a friendlier pair of lips next to the Old Man’s ear, especially if the switch starts to prove costly.”
“With the succession so precarious, why did the Keeper decide to risk everything by allying with the pirates?” I asked.
“I suspect that this has been in the works for a while- since before the epidemic.”
“Still, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Parthans could have been bribed, of course, but why should the Keeper listen to him?”
Justin shook his head. “I don’t know.”
We decided to look for a place to sleep after that. We took a side tunnel and found another shallow spot. A watch was set. The other Marines sought comfortable positions, protected by their suits from the cold and wet. After kissing me good night, Ari used her tail to scoop out a bed in a deeper spot and settled in, only an occasional bubble marking her presence. Justin and I had a more difficult time, trying to find room to lie down on the small, heavily loaded boat. Eventually, I found a position comfortable enough to drop off to sleep.
I woke up shivering. Shirtless and shoeless is not a good way to try to sleep in those tunnels. I would’ve never thought I’d be spending so much time cold and wet on a desert world. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but it was long enough for daylight to stream down from the nearest well, about eighty meters away. I started to rise and shift about to a less uncomfortable position when I heard sounds. I froze and listened. It was splashing and talking. Judging sounds in that subterranean maze is tricky at best, but they sounded close.
I next watched, fascinated as an armored gauntlet slowly emerged from the water, reached over and shook my shoulder. It was Windridge. He opened his visor and whispered.
“Abe is watching a Rii search party. Too small to be meant for us. Probably looking for you and the Ambassador.”
I nodded. “Let ‘em be, unless they find us. If they do, then ‘no survivors’.”
“Got it.” He closed his visor and slipped back under.
I was sitting up and trying to restore circulation to my legs when Ari surfaced next to me. I put a finger to my lips. She nodded.
Something’s up? She thought.
Somebody hunting for you and me. For their sake, I hope they find nothing.
Suddenly, there was a shout, a short burst of gunfire, a scream and then silence.
“Damn! We’re gonna need to move, I’m afraid.”
“What the Hell was that?” Justin sat up, his eyes wide.
Windridge raised himself from under the water. “Sorry, they walked right into us.”
“Anybody hurt?” I asked.
“Not on our side.”
“I know there was no helping it,” said Ari, “but we need to keep Rii casualties to a minimum, sergeant. Most of these people would probably have rather stayed loyal, peaceful citizens.”
“We’re Marines,” said Windridge. “We only kill when lawfully ordered to.”
“I understand. And thank you,” said Ari.
I felt myself start to flush. “I gave the ‘no survivors’ order, not Windridge.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have interfered. It’s a bad habit of mine.” She looked rueful.
I couldn’t blame her. I hardly took myself seriously- shirtless, shoeless and being towed around in a dinghy. She was in over-all command anyway. “Well, let’s get moving.” I climbed out of the boat. “As long as the water’s shallow, I’m going to wade and stretch my legs.”
“Then take these.” Justin began pulling off his boots. “There might be broken glass or other sharp stuff on the bottom.”
“Thanks.” His boots were a trifle large, but quite tolerable. “Keep angling toward the palace, Sergeant. I’m beginning to get the ghost of an idea.”
“I’m mapping as I go.”
The water gradually grew shallower. Eventually, Ari had to climb back into the boat. I noticed as we passed each well-opening, that Justin became more troubled. I fell back to wade next to him. “Something wrong?”
“Perhaps. I’m not sure.” He looked at his watch. “This time in the morning is when most people collect their water ration. I haven’t seen a single bucket yet; have you?”
“Not one. What do you think it means?”
“A curfew maybe?” said Ari. She sat up.
“Imposed by whom?” asked Justin. “It would take a lot of intimidation to keep people from their water.”
“I can venture a guess,” I said. “But I should see for myself. Justin, may I borrow your robe?” I was starting to feel restless and saw this as an opportunity to get out of the tunnels for a while.
“I’ll bring it right back.”
“You’re not going up there, are you?” Asked Ari.
“Yep. We need to know what the hell’s going on while we’re slogging about down here.”
“Alright then.” She kissed me. “For luck, and I hope you don’t need it. The luck I mean.”
I gave her shoulder a squeeze, put on Justin’s Rii garment and waded to the nearest well. The water was less than a foot deep here. That would make it difficult to draw water, which made me think that this opening would be little used, and therefore, I hoped, less likely to be watched.
I climbed as quietly as I could and paused just inside, to listen. It was eerily quiet. It was as though the city had been completely shut down. I chanced a peek. The well was in the middle of a narrow street, lined by low buildings. Not a soul was in sight. The only movement was a swirl of dust picked up by a light breeze. I leapt out quickly, before anyone could round a corner and see me do it. The buildings were featureless, with no windows and few doors. There was nothing to indicate whether or not they were inhabited. Perhaps this is their equivalent of a warehouse district.
I guessed which direction might lead me to a busier street. I knew it would be safer to lose myself in a crowd, if I could find one. I walked at what I figured to be an appropriately casual pace. I was almost to the next intersection when there was a shout.
“Hey you! Stop right there!”
Shit! I turned slowly and held out my hands. At the other end of the street, about a hundred and fifty meters away were two men, armed with battle-rifles and wearing yellow power-armor; two of Edgar’s Free Worlds Alliance Marines.
I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear whatever it was they wanted to say to me, so I ducked and ran. Hitting a man-sized target at one-fifty meters takes either skill or a cooperative target, preferably both. I resolved not to provide the latter. As it turned out, neither of them was equipped with the former either. Nevertheless, there seemed to be an awful lot of metal zipping close to my head when I finally rounded the corner.
Except for being longer and wider, this street was a close match to the previous. Not only was it not crowded, but again, there was not another soul in sight. It was obvious now that my little scouting mission was a bad idea. There was nothing left to do but get back underground at the nearest well. Unfortunately, that opening was a good two-hundred or more meters off. Getting there before my pursuers got some more shots at me was unlikely; also it was almost certain that they were calling for backup. I saw no alternative, however, but to sprint for it and hope for the best
I’d better make it, Ari would never forgive me if I got myself killed just because I was feeling restless and wanted some sunlight.
I was just getting up to speed when there was movement to my right. An arm reached from one of the few doorways and yanked me in.
The arm belonged to a middle-aged man wearing Rii clothing. He had a short beard and blonde hair. He quickly closed and barred the door. I don’t like being shoved around, but he seemed a reasonable alternative.
“What makes you think they won’t search in here?” I rubbed my sore chest.
“We’ll be gone by then. Follow me!”