The wail of a siren warned Larry that he’d been detected.
Oh shit – he’d stayed too long. Either the Ziloni had spotted him from below, in spite of his care, or there were hidden intrusion detectors he hadn’t seen. He was in deep trouble. The Ziloni had carefully concealed their illicit operation deep underground on this remote, frozen planet, and damn fool that he was, he’d stumbled across it.
Of all the planets in the Galactic Union, Zilon had the most hard-line regime. Not the best group to tangle with if they were planning something illegal on this scale.
Like an overturned anthill, the cavern far below became a flurry of activity. Four vehicles began driving purposefully toward the start of the slope leading up to his hiding place in the mouth of the tunnel.
Time to beat a rapid retreat. He jumped up from the shadowy recesses of the rock crevice and fled back up the tunnel. The low gravity enabled him to bound up the slope in long leaps, despite the encumbrance of his bulky spacesuit. As he climbed, the light from the cavern faded.
He’d been an idiot to ignore Annek’s worries, and climb down this fissure alone to try and find the source of the anomalous gas discharge, even though he’d never dreamt that it was manmade.
What would happen if the Ziloni caught him? Would they find Annek as well, before she gave up waiting for him and went for help? Worse still, what if she ignored his instructions and left the ship to come after him? She was still a trainee agent and might not understand the need to follow the Interstellar Exploration Program protocols. In desperation he tried calling her on his comm. earpiece, but it brought no reply. It wasn’t surprising, the rock would be shielding the signal.
He paused for a moment to glance back. The men pursuing him had reached the tunnel entrance. Their vehicles slowed on the rough, sloping rock, but they were still gaining on him.
His helmet lamp cut a bright, circular hole in the inky blackness, as near panic drove his exhausted muscles. Light beams flashed around him from below, seeking him out. The way grew steeper and the sound of the vehicles stopped. But now he could see the Ziloni troops were chasing him on foot, and they would be fresher than him.
The narrow beam from his lamp bobbed furiously about with his exertions, making it difficult to see the uneven terrain. Twice he slipped, and barely managed to grab a rock to avoid falling backward. He had to slow down, in spite of the danger. He could only hope his pursuers were having the same problem.
The first glimmer of light filtered down from the planet surface above. Up here in the top section of the fissure, the slope was much steeper, and it was no longer possible to run. Sweat poured down the inside of his suit as he gasped for breath, progressing in a succession of leaps. Occasional glances told him the men behind were closer each time. Now and again, the beams of their lights caught him. When that happened, he leapt sideways to try and lose them, praying his reaching hands would find something to hold onto.
At last he could see the mouth of the fissure above him. Blood pounded in his ears as his heart hammered. His breath came in great, wheezing gasps. A burst from a laser rifle hit the tunnel wall just above him, making him jump. A cascade of ice fragments showered him and a large puff of steam burst from the hard-frozen ice that formed the rock on this iceball of a planet.
A sudden chill ran through him in spite of his efforts. They weren’t just trying to capture him, they wanted to kill him! His suit had a regulation laser pistol, but it might as well have been a water pistol against a large group armed with rifles. No point in bothering with it, and anyway he needed both hands for his precipitous climb. He called to Annek again on his comm. earpiece. Damn it, still no reply.
More laser bursts followed. None were close yet, but the daylight above, though dim, made him more visible. When he reached the top, he would be a silhouette against the sky.
Thank goodness they hadn’t sent up flyers. Maybe trying to navigate the tunnel in the darkness and the turbulent wind was too risky for them. But there could be a welcome party lying in wait for him at the top.
As he reached the rim, the laser fire came with renewed fury. Long bursts raked around his position, trying to cut him down.
He kept bent double and leaped diagonally over the edge. He emerged onto the surface unscathed, to a brief respite from the shooting. His gaze scoured the surroundings for signs of an ambush. Nothing. Thank the saints, they hadn’t had time to set one up.
He bounded up the long incline toward his ship, dodging amongst the rocky prominences that littered the landscape. Why did I land the ship so far away? Stupid question – it was the nearest level ground beyond these same rocky prominences that were giving him cover.
As he ran, using big hops in the low gravity, he struggled to find the breath to call his partner.
“Annek, we’re in big trouble. Open the ship’s door. Quick.”
“Larry, what’s the matter? I’m not in the ship. I’m up on the ridge to the north. You said it was safe so I climbed up to practice operating in a heavy-duty spacesuit.”
What the hell is she doing up there? Surely he’d made it clear to her that she shouldn’t leave the ship until he got back. Maybe not – he’d been so certain it was safe. Who would have imagined a secret Ziloni operation on this deserted planet? He looked up to the north and saw her outlined on the ridge against the sky.
“Oh dear God, Annek. Get back to the ship, RUN!”
“Okay, but what’s going on?”
Larry saw her start to move downhill as she spoke.
His followers crested the fissure and the laser bursts started again. Annek was still clearly visible on the ridge, running toward the ship.
“Annek, GET DOWN!” He had no time – or breath – to shout more. A long laser burst drew a zigzag line of fire up the ridge. It clipped the moving figure just before she reached the protection of a large rock.
A single scream rang out over his earpiece and he saw Annek fall. Please the saints, let her just have tripped. But he could hear no further sounds over his own labored panting. An icy hand clutched his heart. He veered toward her, yelling her name over the comm. There was no response.
Laser bursts lashed the rocks around him. He only avoided being hit by dodging from one rocky outcrop to the next. It was agony to be pinned down when all he wanted to do was get to Annek. He pulled his own laser pistol from the suit holster and returned fire over his shoulder – a token gesture, to try and distract the shooters.
This is useless. He would never make it to Annek and back to the ship in time. He could no longer even see the rock she’d fallen behind.
Has she survived? He was desperate to go and find her, but the pursuers were hard on his heels. Logic said he’d just get them both killed – if she wasn’t dead already.
With a scream of frustration, he switched direction back toward the ship. There he had proper weapons to fight the bastards off. Then he could go back to her.
The few seconds it took to reach the ship dragged by as if he was running in slow motion. After a seeming eternity he arrived, slapped the door release pad and suffered an agonizing wait as it swung sedately down. He scrambled through the half-open door and banged the interior closure pad. Before it had finished closing, he was squeezing his bulky spacesuit between the seats to reach the controls. Attack missiles – they were his best chance.
Without taking the time to switch on the gravity compensator, he jerked his power stick up for vertical thrust and lifted the ship ten meters. Thank goodness the gravity-wave drive was on permanent standby. He tipped the nose down and located his pursuers, who were closing fast. Laser beams flared against the canopy, but the automatic shielding flicked on each time, absorbing the energy. He ripped off the outer glove of his suit and stabbed the buttons on his weapon control panel to launch an attack missile at the enemy.
It exploded against the ground near the men outside. The blast and shock wave created mayhem. The canopy shield turned opaque against the flash, and the ship bucked from the backlash, smashing him against the controls. Maybe he’d been reckless there, exploding a powerful missile so close. But he needed to finish this fast and get back to Annek.
When the canopy cleared, no one close by the ship was left alive, but in the distance men were running in big leaps back to the fissure. For a moment Larry was sickened by the sight of the broken bodies scattered about, but then the rage over what they had done to Annek took over. Hopefully the murdering bastard who had needlessly gunned her down was among the dead. Now at last he could go to her aid.
He lifted the ship higher and tracked it up the ridge to where Annek had fallen, setting it down on the slope at a precarious angle. Not stopping to put on his outer glove, he rushed out of the ship again. The bitter cold quickly ate into his hand but he didn’t care. He needed to find Annek fast.
After a short but agonizing search in the rocks, Larry found her lying half-hidden behind a rocky outcrop. Air hissed steadily from the fist-sized hole that the laser had burnt in her spacesuit, just above the knee. Her lips were tinged with blue and crystals of ice covered part of the inside of her helmet. He couldn’t make out whether she was still breathing.
By all the saints, this is not good. It looked horribly likely that Annek might be dead, but he couldn’t tell for certain. Surely there had to be a chance she had survived.
He picked up her slim body, lighter than normal in the low gravity in spite of the heavy spacesuit, and rushed her back into the ship. He desperately wanted to get her out of the suit and try to resuscitate her, but he fought down the temptation. The best chance was the stasis unit. That would keep her in suspended animation until he could get expert medical attention and equipment.
He threw all their provisions out of the stasis unit and lowered her body inside. Now he had to get her home fast.
He stopped only long enough to close the ship’s door, before cramming himself into the control seat and ripping off the left outer glove of his spacesuit to handle the controls. His unprotected right hand had the beginnings of frostbite, but he cared nothing for the mixture of numbness and burning. Without waiting to re-establish the ship’s air supply, he switched on the gravity compensator, pointed the nose upward and rammed the thrust stick forward. The ship quickly went supersonic and the howl of the shock wave rose to a banshee wail that suited his mood.
Now established in the climb out of the atmosphere, he had time to take stock. First priority was to get the suffocating atmosphere pumped out of the ship and the air supply restored. Then he struggled out of the cumbersome spacesuit. As he did so he thought bitterly what a fool he’d been to get himself into this mess. Why the hell hadn’t he resisted the urge to investigate that damned anomaly and left it to a proper investigation unit like Annek had suggested. Instead, the girl he was responsible for was paying the price of his recklessness.
As his ship ploughed up through the atmosphere, traces on his viewscreen warned that his troubles were far from over. Showing up weakly through the attenuating effect of the atmosphere were the traces of three ships that had just taken off. Even for this low gravity planet the hyperspace boundary was about a hundred and twenty thousand kilometers out. He couldn’t make a jump to safety until he got to the boundary and there was no way he could reach it before they launched a missile attack.