Nick was trying to make the best of the limited airspace hemmed in by the cliffs surrounding Refuge. The Pegasus was a fun vehicle but it really needed more space to make full use of its capabilities. How was he supposed to go fast if he had to brake almost as soon as he’d begun? He would have taken it out the narrow gap to the area outside, but Steph had advised against it.
He’d wanted to hang out with her. But she’d told him she had ‘computer stuff’ to catch up on. “I was hanging out with you for six months in the City,” she’d told him playfully when she’d seen his disappointment. “So me not coming out to play is really all your fault, isn’t it?
“Just run the Pegasus around a bit inside Refuge,” she’d added. “No one can see you in here. Don’t take it outside, okay? I know there aren't that many Peacekeepers around here but it pays to be careful. Plus I think if Jason caught you he'd have a fit."
If it hadn't been Steph who had asked him, Nick was sure he would've done it anyway. Even if it was just to see Jason have a fit. But though he’d decided to behave at her request, he found himself growing bored already.
"This sucks,” he muttered to himself, dropping the Pegasus' speed as he made another lap around the village. He should have gone with Rebecca. What did Jason want with her anyway? A rescue mission, sure. But that wasn’t very specific.
Nick was pretty certain Jason wasn't a bad guy but the interest he was showing in his sister certainly made him uncomfortable. He gripped the steering wheel tighter. Maybe he'd have a talk to Rebecca when she got back and see if Jason had told her anything yet. If not, he'd confront Jason himself, even though he knew his little sister wouldn't like that one bit. She might not like him looking out for her but that was what big brothers were supposed to do. One of the only things his father had bothered teaching him that Nick had held on to.
Nick sighed and decided he would bring the Pegasus around to the opening in the cliffs. Perhaps he could sneak it out for twenty minutes without anyone noticing. Particularly Steph.
So far, so good. The Pegasus slipped between the earthen walls. There were none of the hodgepodge runabouts the resistance used in the air, so no one to challenge him.
Nick felt a smile tugging at his lips as the landscape opened before him. The ocean surged below and though the young man had the tendency to push any vehicle he had the chance to drive, he wasn’t keen to take the Pegasus anywhere near the waters surface.
Maybe he'd just race the vehicle to that tall spire or rock to his left, then around and back. He couldn't get himself in that much trouble doing that, could he? Nick gripped the steering wheel tight and revved the engine.
That's when he saw two white specks approaching in the distance, moving in fast. Nick squinted. It definitely wasn't the Leviathan. "You've got to be kidding me." Nick's heart began to pound in his chest. The one time he decided to go out?! In his bloody bright red Pegasus!
Nick threw his vehicle into reverse and backed up towards the cliff face behind him, dropping down as low as he dared in the hope the sea spray would conceal him.
What sensors did those things have? What weapons? He was basically driving a street car and here he was facing some type of war bird. Maybe he could stay hidden. But they were fast approaching, straight for the entrance to Refuge.
"You know exactly where you're going, don't you? Shit."
Nick floored it, just as a lance of blue energy let loose from the leading Peacekeeper and sliced through the sea spray where he'd been seconds before.
Nick flew back into Refuge at top speed, pounding his horn frantically. He passed over the main dock and only came to a stop at its far end, so suddenly that the anti-gravs struggled to compensate and the vehicle's belly scraped the dirt.
"Nick, what the hell?” Sarah stepped out from the main hall. “You can’t park there!”
Nick leapt from the Pegasus and grabbed Sarah by the shoulder. "There're Peacekeepers. I just went out there and..."
“Shh, it’s okay. They'll never know we're here..."
"I saw them! They were heading right for the entrance! They knew exactly where it was!“
Sarah didn't argue with him anymore; she took out her handheld screen and activated something. Immediately a low frequency alarm blared out from a half dozen points about Refuge.
"I hope you're wrong," she said. "We don't have the Leviathan. Just a couple of stationary defence weapons. And the runabouts are too heavy to..."
The whine of engines cut the air and suddenly the two Peacekeepers punched through the entrance and into Refuge's airspace. They both split up and circled the edges of the village.
"Damn it,” Sarah muttered. “Okay, maybe they don’t know what they’ve found. Maybe they don’t know this is where the Leviathan is based. Maybe they just think we’re a safe haven they haven’t found yet…”
"Don't you have more Controllers? Can't they do what Rebecca did in the City. There's only two of them!"
"We've got about three other Controllers. But we only have two Controls at the moment. And Jason's taken both of them!" Sarah growled.
"I've got the Pegasus..."
"It's a street car..."
Sarah looked at him. "I've got a really big gun. Come on."
Nick hadn’t gotten further than putting his hand on the Pegasus’ door when the two Peacekeepers opened fire on the hillside. The boom of crumbling concrete filled the air, bouncing off the enclosing cliffs and echoing so it nearly drowned out the higher pitched sounds of the weapons fire.
Sarah swore again but leapt into the Pegasus without any further delay. "Head to the workshop."
"On our left, towards the... oh, forget it, I'll direct you. Just go left..."
Nick powered up the Pegasus and took to the air. But he kept them low; he knew the Pegasus’ paint job made them stand out like a bullseye.
The Peacekeepers whined overhead. More booms as buildings exploded under their onslaught. A deeper whine and heavier weapon fire joined the mix. But the Peacekeepers were fast, and the three points about Refuge that fired on them never found their mark.
The Pegasus shot away and the roar of the attacking Peacekeepers increased. On their right, about a block away, a building exploded in a flash of blue. Powdered concrete rained down and Nick coughed and spluttered.
"Through there," Sarah pointed.
Nick knuckled down, blinked grit from his eyes and did as instructed. The Pegasus responded instantly and slewed around the corner.
Despite the speed they travelled at the Peacekeepers seemed to be faster. They could not have been aiming for them - the attacks were random, the aim to create widespread destruction. But it was a building barely ahead of them, and exactly where Sarah had told him to go, that they chose to attack next. Half the side blew out and then the rest came crashing towards them.
"I can make it!"
Nick pushed the engine as hard as he could in the tight cliffside streets. The Pegasus slipped through before the building crashed down behind them and completely blocked off the street.
Nick came to a halt at the building Sarah indicated, so suddenly that he bumped up against the concrete and left a great gash in the Pegasus' red paint. The nanites in the hull immediately began repair.
"Come on," Nick leapt out and offered Sarah a hand to help haul her out of the vehicle.
The building opened into a wide open space one level up. Sarah flicked a switch and overhead lights flickered to life. Benches full of tools and small pieces of equipment through to larger machines and even a runabout, missing parts of its armour panelling, were littered throughout the space. A single gantry crane stretched across the high ceiling. The far side of the workshop was made up of high, louvered glass windows.
Sarah made her way to the other side of the shop, to a tarpaulin covered shape on one of the benches. She whipped the tarp off to reveal a long heavy gun just over a meter long. "I'd been doing some tinkering. I hadn't really finished troubleshooting it, but I guess there's no time for that now." She slung the gun across her back with a grunt. "Come on."
They raced back to the Pegasus and Nick took to the air. "Do you know how to use that..." he trailed off, because Sarah had the giant gun sitting on her shoulder, gaze intent on the nearest Peacekeeper.
"Got it." Nick powered after the Peacekeeper held by Sarah’s gaze. He could trust Sarah to shoot. And he'd drive the best he damn well could.
The Controller operating the Peacekeeper saw them. It stopped blasting a hole in the side of a building, turned towards them and opened fire.
Nick easily dodged the blasts, swung past close, and then shot off again. The Peacekeeper followed him.
"Well done! Bastard’s taken the bait!" Sarah growled. She swung around in her seat and fired a few blasts from her oversized rifle.
"That's not all he's taken!" Nick could feel his steering begin to wobble. Just like it had in the City. Only this time Rebecca wasn't there to take control of the Peacekeeper and fight back.
"Good!" Sarah fired another blast, rocking the Pegasus with the recoil. "That means he's not concentrating on his own driving!"
Nick felt his vehicle respond to him again. He glanced over his shoulder. The Peacekeeper was dropping from the sky, spewing black smoke. For a moment it looked as if it was going to crash into the waters below but its Controller must have still had some control. Instead it pulled a bit to the side and crashed into one of the buildings lower down the cliffs.
"Other one?" Nick shouted over the rush of wind.
"The other ones coming for us." The second Peacekeeper came rushing towards them, spitting rapid fire. It took out some of the buildings behind them and Nick only just managed to drop them down out of the line of fire.
Sarah fired off a couple of shots.
The Peacekeeper slipped nimbly around the first blast, then its hull rippled, and the second blast passed right though a hole that opened in its wing. The NIASteel reformed as the Peacekeeper rocketed past. It didn't come back for them. It simply began blasting some of the buildings across the other side, as if its Controller was simply concerned they had missed a spot.
"Son of a..." Sarah growled.
Then it turned and dropped towards the stranded Peacekeeper. It didn't get very far. The first Peacekeeper had fallen fairly close to one of the three defence turrets stationed about Refuge. This opened fire on the vehicle, far more powerful than even the weapon Sarah held.
The Peacekeeper was forced to pull up and back.
"Go on!" Sarah shouted at Nick. "We need to get that Peacekeeper out of here!"
Nick floored the Pegasus again, despite the pounding of his heart. The two Peacekeepers had all but torn Refuge apart! How many people were in those buildings they had taken down? Then Nick felt his heart rise into his throat. What about Steph?
The Pegasus shuddered, shaking Nick out of his thoughts, and for a moment he thought they’d been hit. But it was just the recoil from Sarah's gun as she fired blast after blast at the second Peacekeeper. Between her and the defence turret it was struggling to dodge the blasts. It couldn't get anywhere near its companion either.
The first Peacekeeper had smashed clear through the wall of a concrete building. It was only just visible from the air, but it didn't look in much better shape than the building itself. It was spewing black smoke and the NIASteel didn't even look as if it were trying to repair the massive damage. The pilot could be no better off.
The Controller of the second Peacekeeper must have come to the same conclusion. Because it turned, its damage done, and shot back out through the entrance to Refuge.
"We can still get it!" said Nick.
"No," Sarah put a hand on his arm. Nick could feel her trembling. "We need to clean up the mess here."
Nick looked down on the destruction around them. He swallowed hard. Every third or fourth building was rubble. Smoke wound its way up into the sky. The sirens still wailed.
"Why would anyone do this?"
"We've been harassing their Peacekeepers for years," Sarah growled. "Not that that's a good enough excuse for them; we've only been trying to help everyone else who weren't so well protected as Refuge. Well, so much for that. This was no chance attack. They knew exactly what this place was.”
Nick banked down towards the main dock, where people were beginning to gather. But he also angled his decent down so that he passed towards one of the buildings on his left. Where he’d left Steph to do her ‘computer stuff’. As it came into view, Nick felt his stomach rise to his throat. "No..."
The entire side of the building was blown out, rubble strewn across the street and down the hillside. One of the Peacekeepers had scored a direct hit.
She had to be okay, she had to! Nick dropped the Pegasus down, braking hard, and threw himself out of the vehicle. He rushed to the hole blown in the wall, slipping on loose rubble beneath his feet.
"Nick!" Sarah shouted. "Be careful, that isn't stable!"
Nick ignored her. "Steph!?" he called, then coughed as the dust in the air rushed into his lungs. Something sparked in the building's interior. Computer equipment. Nick stepped over the rubble and made his way towards that. He kicked something with his foot. Not rubble. Something softer.
Nick dropped to his knees. "Steph?" His eyes were adjusting to the dim interior. He could make out her face, covered in dust. The rest of her body was pinned beneath a slab of concrete. She wasn't moving. "Oh gods, Steph!" He shook her by the shoulder, then tried to tug at the slab of concrete. It moved not a millimetre.
There was a clatter behind him and Sarah slid down the pile of rubble next to him. She stopped as she saw Steph on the floor. "Oh, Nick..."
"Sarah, help me!" Nick said desperately. He hauled at the concrete slab again. "We can move this; we can get her out..."
Sarah moved around the slab and knelt beside Steph. She brushed her hair back from her neck and then pressed two fingers against her throat. "Nick…"
"Stop mucking around and help me move this!"
"Nick, sweetheart, she's dead."
"She can't be..." Nick stared at Steph, willing her to just open those brown eyes and look at him. But she was pale and she didn’t move. Nick slid over to her, grasping her shoulders again, balling his hands up in the material of her shirt. "Steph..."
Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
Nick's world spun. He had only started this thing because of her. He had only come because of Steph. Suddenly, the City seemed like a far safer place; they should have just stayed! He'd thought this was going to be fun. And this Refuge both Steph and Jason had told him about, it was supposed to be safe!
Nick drew in deep, shuddering breaths and his body started to shake.
Jeffery was young. Valerie hadn't had the chance to see what his skills were before they’d set off. But she had assumed he knew what he was doing. He was, after all, Julien's lead Controller. But the young man had been shot out of the sky in mere minutes. Sure, they had only the two Peacekeepers. But the idea had been to do as much damage as they could, see if any Controllers gave them any trouble, and get the hell out of there. That had been accomplished.
But they had lost Jeffery, and more importantly, his Peacekeeper. Horatio had only made three prototypes. Valerie didn't know if he had any other close to completion.
She should have stayed to see if either Jeffery or his Peacekeeper were retrievable. But the risk of losing her own had seemed too great and so she'd fled. And Valerie still had the terrible feeling in her gut that Julien would blame her for the failure. Not that he had any hold over her, as he had Jeffery. But she had failed before. She would not repeat her past failures. She was back below; she had a chance to reclaim her previous position. She couldn’t allow a mistake not even her own to jeopardise that.
Then Valerie smiled. She’d hadn’t jeopardised her position. In fact, Jeffery's had just been vacated. Julien needed someone to operate the Peacekeepers he did have. Controller's were difficult to come across, especially below. She was a much better candidate than some mine worker Julien might find with the ability.
Horatio would back her up. He knew her capabilities. And she'd kept Rebecca was out of harms way. The Leviathan hadn’t been at Refuge. There had been no attempts by Controllers to take down the Peacekeepers. So Jason couldn't have been there; he must have gone on the Leviathan. And if he wanted Rebecca so badly, for whatever reason, she had to be by his side. If she told Horatio this she was certain it would be enough to fully secure his loyalty.
It was the only reason she had told the man of his daughter’s involvement. Sure, they had known each other, but that had been a very long time ago. That decision would now pay off. He was of more use to her as an ally, than as a friend.
So no, she had not failed. Jeffery was the one who had failed. He had been in charge; he had lost his Peacekeeper. She had done damage to Refuge and returned victorious.
And Jason would return to find his precious Refuge in ruins. This thought, more so than her plans of shifting herself up the food chain, brought a twisted smile to Valerie’s lips.