Authors: Jamie McFarlane
My head was screaming, so I lay back down on the cot. I was looking forward to letting the med-patches do their work. Frak, what I wouldn’t give for a glass of whiskey. The Skampers had left the lights on, I supposed to keep me awake. If they thought that’d prevent me from sleeping, they were nuts. Find me a grunt who can’t sleep in the middle of a crowded room of monkeys singing the
and I’ll show you a grunt who hasn’t seen combat.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been down, but I estimated no more than two hours. When you sleep in a room, you get a sense of the rhythm of sounds around you - from the ventilation system to the opening and closing of doors. I didn’t sleep with one eye open, so much as with one ear open, so when I heard the change I knew it was time to get up and pay attention.
Something was out of place, but I couldn't immediately identify what that something was. My eyes stayed closed and I placed my hand against the wall. For ninety seconds nothing happened and I was about to dismiss my feeling as just nerves. Then I heard a low rumble and the wall shuddered beneath my hand. If you weren’t paying attention you would likely have missed it. In my cell, I had nothing else going on, so it got my full attention.
It made no sense. If Command wasn’t willing to send in a team to rescue Lieutenant Irawan they certainly wouldn’t send anyone after me. But no one uses explosive charges on a building they control. No, the Skampers had an uninvited party guest and I was all about turning up the music. What’s the worst that could happen?
“Hey! I need to talk to the Lieutenant! Open the door!” I banged on the door with my fists, as if it was a drum, and repeated myself as loudly as I could. I kept it up for almost a minute and wondered if my voice would go hoarse, when finally the door was thrust open.
Three squishies piled into the room with their rifles. First through the door was a big boy with a bigger attitude. He brought the butt of his gun up in an attempt to catch me in the gut. I’d been in enough scrapes to see it coming and stepped into it. I spun around and brought the back of my elbow into his head. The dumbass should have been wearing a helmet, should have used a stun weapon - lots of should haves – but all of them were moot. I felt him crumple. These guys definitely weren’t pros. They obviously thought three against one would be enough to shut me up.
My timing was pretty good. A loud explosion blew into the adjacent room, sending debris billowing into my cell. It was a perfect distraction for my remaining two guards. I was expecting it and they weren’t. Involuntarily, they jerked their heads around to discover the source of the explosion.
Lethal combat is the name of a class we take in Basic. There are twenty-two ways to kill a person with your bare hands. Personally, I like to keep things pretty basic as I’m a big guy, which is why they call me Big Pete. And if I could avoid killing someone, I was okay with that. My wrists were bound, so I just brought them around, smashing ‘em into the nearest nose I could find. Lights out, Betty Joe. Two down and one to go.
Unfortunately, I was more of a brawler than anything else and the third guard figured out what was going on in plenty of time to drop me like a sack of potatoes with the butt of his rifle. It wasn’t enough to completely knock me out, but I was stunned and fell to the ground. I heard the tink, tink, tink of something small and metallic bouncing on the floor and then recognized the marble-sized objects that skittered in front of me. It was all I could do to put one hand on an ear and roll into the guard who’d dropped me. I had to get clear of the doorway. A second later a loud explosion and a bright flash confirmed the flash-bangs I’d seen.
You can close your eyes and cover your ears all you want, but when flash-bangs go off, you know it. The design is simple and has been around forever. A really loud noise and really bright lights do a fantastic job of stunning a person’s ability to react. The fact that marbles were being used let me know that I wasn’t being rescued by an armored squad. We didn’t have any use for marbles. Small discs imbedded in our armor could generate both the lights and the noise.
Stunned as I was by the rifle butt and the near miss with the flash-bangs, I knew the last standing guard was having a much worse time. I pulled up to my knees and saw him stagger away from the door. He had his rifle half raised and was firing into the wall, slowly turning toward the open door. A lucky bullet will kill you just as dead as a well-aimed bullet and whoever had breached the room didn’t need the crossfire. I figured the guard and I were operating at about the same level and I've always thought fifty-fifty were acceptable odds.
I staggered to my feet and lumbered into him, while at the same time, tripping on the two bodies cluttering the floor. I was going down either way, as I was still too stunned to keep myself upright. The bodies just made it a lot less elegant. The guard didn’t see me coming and I threw my bound arms over his head and drug him down with me. I almost felt guilty, as the guy just wasn’t that big and I had thirty kilograms on him. I choked him, all the time hoping he’d make it. It had long ago stopped being personal for me. I had a job to do, and I’d do it, but I’d sure had enough of the killing.
A quick motion caught my eye and I squinted up through the haze and saw a Skamper guard take a thin black combat boot straight to the solar plexus. He stumbled and waved a blaster pistol back toward his attacker. Shock barely described my emotions when the transport pilot, Lieutenant Irawan, stepped into view and fired two blaster rounds into the man’s chest. She turned, looked straight at me and took aim.
She fired and the shot whizzed over my head. I swiveled around to see the big guard, who I’d dropped first, fall back.
It’s impossible to look cool when you’re lying on top of another person, with your wrists bound and wrapped around their head. Moreover, removing yourself from that position makes you look quite a bit more ridiculous. I wasn’t sure why, all of a sudden, I cared about that …
Check that. Of course I did.
“How’d you get here?” I asked, crawling over the bodies in the doorway. Again, there’s just no graceful way to do this with your hands bound.
“A simple thank you would suffice,” she replied and crouched down next to me. She was holding a pistol in one hand and flicked open a nano-blade with the other. I pushed my wrists towards her and she cut the simple but effective band-style restraints.
“Right, thanks. Did you come alone?” I picked up weapons and discarded them for the junk they were. The Skampers were fighting a war and they were radically underfunded.
“Yes. We need to get out of here,” she said peeking nervously around corners.
“Give me a second.” I found a decent, medium-sized hand blaster with a quarter charge. It would be a bitch to aim without an AI interface but it’d have to do. “Where’d you get the flash-bangs and breaching charges?”
“They were in my go-kit. We need to move, Sergeant.” Her voice took on an air of command.
I smiled grimly to myself.
That didn’t take long
, I thought. “Yes, Ma’am. Right behind you.”
“Don’t get pissy. You know as well as I do we can’t hang out here.”
“Agreed, but if I don’t get something on my feet, it’ll slow us down. What floor are we on?”
“Second,” she answered, “and I’ve only got one breaching charge left and no flash-bangs.”
“Perfect.” I looked over the four fallen Skampers in the room and chose the big guy I’d originally dropped. I was pulling his boots off when we heard the sounds of people running. “Is that door unlocked?” I indicated the one in the opposite direction of the noises. While she was checking, I dragged a Skamper soldier forward, setting him up so that he looked like he was peeking around the wall with a rifle, guarding the hallway.
Irawan ran to the door and was unable to open it. “Want me to blow it?” she asked.
“Nope. Help me with this guy,” I said. We pulled the big guard over to the door. Since this guy had been first in the room, I was hoping his palm print would open all the doors on this level.
Semi-automatic blaster fire lanced the room, just over the head of our dummy guard. Fortunately, we weren't directly in line with the hallway anymore, but it wouldn’t be long before we had company.
I heard the lock click and Irawan slipped through the opening. I quickly followed, pulling the guard through behind us, shutting the door and using the guard’s hand to lock it.
“One sec,” I said. She was already half-way down the hallway. The guard had been through a lot. He was still breathing, but not too lively after taking blaster rounds to the chest. Hopefully, he wouldn’t come around and let anyone through the door for a while. So far, we’d escaped cleanly. I caught up with Irawan and we ran to a corner and peered around. My ruse wouldn’t last long. They’d figure out the guy in the doorway wasn’t returning fire and that we’d found another way out. A few minutes could be a lifetime for us, though.
“Here,” I whispered harshly and jumped into an abandoned office. I closed the door behind us and looked out the window. It was raining which wasn’t unusual since the city was surrounded by a tropical rainforest. We needed a way down. My eye caught the branches of a tree brushing against the window and it gave me an idea.
“Put your charge on the window. Time to get out of here,” I said.
Once again, Irawan got right to the action and did as I asked. I hunkered down behind the old desk and pulled my borrowed boots on and laced them up. She waited for me to tie them off and then blew the window.
“We jump into the tree and climb down,” I said. “We’re only on the second level, so you’ll survive if you miss.”
I was floored. She didn’t even hesitate, but walked up to the opening, hopped up on the ledge and jumped into the tree. I suspected she’d had martial arts training because she made it easily and started climbing down. My jump wasn’t as elegant, but I made it and met her on the ground.
“There’s a curfew and they’ll no doubt have drones patrolling once the rain lets up.” I almost had to shout to be heard above the din.
I turned for no reason I could imagine and barely missed being hit by a blaster bolt. “Go!” I yelled and we both took off down the street at a sprint. It was complete luck that I hadn’t been hit and it wouldn’t happen twice. The rain obscured our flight, but any decent AI could pick us off.
“Trust me!” I demanded. She had no good reason to trust me, but I could feel the pursuit dialing us in. I didn’t give her much of a chance to decide and wrapped my arm around her shoulder and dove for the storm sewer, pulling her down with me.
So the good news is that the civil engineers of Manaus know how to build storm sewers. With more than twenty three hundred millimeters of rain each year, their very survival depended on the quality of their sewers. Turns out, so did ours. I also knew that we were in one of the driest months of the year, which just might save us from drowning.
We slid down a slimy ramp and then fell into the rushing water of the storm. My feet hit the bottom and I estimated we had fallen into about a meter and half of water. We accelerated quickly as the stream caught us and carried us along. The force of the water made standing up impossible and Irawan surfaced two meters ahead of me, sputtering. I hoped she was a decent swimmer.
For a few minutes there wasn’t much we could do other than fight with the water and try to gain equilibrium. Most of my life as a Marine had been spent in combat in and around large urban cities. I’d spent my fair share of time in sewers. I was grateful this was a storm sewer and not made for transporting sewage.
I maneuvered myself up next to Irawan. The roar of the water was significant but the enclosed tube echoed. “This should flatten out and slow down when it joins with a larger branch,” I explained.
“A little warning would have been nice.” She didn’t sound overly upset and I couldn’t blame her for the sentiment.
“Yeah, sorry. It happened pretty fast.”
Any response she might have had was cut off by the sound of approaching falls.
“Frak. This could get interesting.” I grabbed her hand.
For the second time that night we were in free fall in the dark. If I’d paid attention in physics class, I’d have had some idea how far we’d fallen by counting off the seconds. But it’s hard to count under those circumstances and I didn’t know the calculation anyway. We landed in a pool of water in a larger room, by the sound of it.
“Was that part of your plan?” she asked, annoyed and coughing water.
“No. We need to find the ladder. There’ll be at least one of them bolted to the wall. Swim away from the current. We don’t want to get further into the system.”
“You don’t say,” she said without humor.
I swam away from her and found the edge of the basin. The concrete side was straight up and down and it was difficult swimming alongside it, but the current wasn't quite as intense any longer.
“Over here,” she said. I was fatiguing and glad she’d found the ladder. The boots that I’d so desperately wanted were weighing me down. I found her holding onto the edge of a ladder that I knew would run the entire vertical length of the room. I locked my feet into it below hers and grabbed the edge. The water wasn’t overly cold, especially given our recent exertion, but the warmth of her body wasn’t lost on me. I don’t care how tough of a soldier you are, having company in a stressful situation can make all the difference.
“Well, that went pretty well,” I said.
“Where do you think this ladder goes?” she asked, ignoring my glib assessment.
“Probably street level, I’ll go up and get an idea of where we are. You okay here?” I asked.
I felt her body relax before she said, “Yes.”
We shifted so that I could climb up. Forty-two rungs later I reached a small alcove I suspected was directly beneath ground level. It would be a good place for us to dry off as long as no maintenance workers showed up. I sat for a moment and regained the strength in my arms and then climbed back down.
“There’s a dry location at the top, you good for a climb?” I asked.
She didn’t answer but started climbing. I followed. The alcove was a little tight for two of us, but it sure beat sitting in the water.
“I lost my go-kit and pistol,” she said. There was no complaint in her voice, but I recognized frustration when I heard it.
“Yeah, my blaster’s gone too,” I said. We were facing each other although there wasn’t enough light to see. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but for now it would do just fine while we recovered.
“You really know how to show a girl a good time,” she said.
“Why’d you come back?” I ignored her good natured flirting. The question had been burning a hole in my mind since I’d seen her breach the room, commando style.
“You first. Why did you come back?” she responded in a softer voice.
“It’s what we do. We don’t leave anyone behind. There are only a few things a Marine can hold on to in a scrape, one of those things has to be that someone’s coming for him,” I answered.
“You were ordered to evac, but you came anyway.”
“How do you know that?”
“I heard Lieutenant Bentrod give the order. My comm was busted, but I could hear the squad command channel. So why’d you come back? You know they could court martial you for that?” she asked.
“The way I figured it, I had evac’d my squad, just like I’d been ordered. The thing is, I knew you were alive because the AIs have nearly a hundred percent accuracy on reporting casualties. I really didn’t have a choice. I had a Marine down behind enemy lines and there was something I could do about it. So what went through your head?”
“Honestly, I didn’t have a plan. I saw them set the trap on the transport and I was hunkered down in a building. I wanted to warn you, but couldn’t without giving away my position,” she explained. “Once you surrendered, I followed you. You pretty much know the rest.”
“Thanks,” I said simply.
“Silver,” she said. I couldn’t for my life figure out what she was saying.
“I don’t follow.”
“My name is Silver Irawan. Thought you should know.”
“Pete Hoffen, most people call me Big Pete.”
“So, Pete, buy me a drink after we get out of this?”
Straight and to the point. I knew it was probably the adrenaline talking, especially considering the problems she could get into as a Lieutenant having drinks with a Sergeant. Nothing like being knee deep in crap to bring people together though. I didn’t know where this friendship was heading, but if I wasn’t motivated to come up with an escape plan before, I certainly was now.