Authors: Michael G. Thomas
“Now!” he cried.
First the gunfire from Artemas and Roxana ripped into the drone, along with the odd round that slammed around the soldiers. Xenophon and Tamara moved to the right column while Glaucon leapt over the marble and to the next piece of cover offered by a large statue of a Medes god. All three carried their carbines in one hand and one of the ancient relics in the other. Glaucon made it into cover safely, but Xenophon and Tamara managed to land beside a startled soldier. Tamara quickly sank her blade into his chest, and Xenophon blasted with his carbine at a range of nearly a metre.
“Stay down!” he cried and only just in time. Dozens of rounds slammed around their position, each one ripping chunks of marble from the beautiful pieces of art all around them. They were pinned down, and unless Artemas and Roxana could regain the attention of the drone, they would be done for. That was when Glaucon did the unexpected. He jumped up and rushed a group of three soldiers who were sheltering behind half a statue. He hit them like a bull and forced two to stumble around the drone. He held onto the third, pushing him back until the man was forced onto the robotic warrior. It was their chance.
Xenophon was on his feet and covered the remaining steps in a few seconds. One soldier tried to stop him, but Tamara leapt on him and smashed him down onto the floor. Now in range, Xenophon ducked passed the weapons on the left side of the drone and slammed his blade down behind the gun mount. It was the least armoured area he could find, and the charged blade easily cut through the cables and motor unit, leaving the weapon arm impotent. The shattered stump swung at him and struck him in the chest. The impact was heavy, but the layered polymers of the relic he now wore took most of the force. He staggered back and almost lost his footing. Artemas grabbed him and pushed him back to the drone. She slashed at it, causing more damage until the stump itself tore apart.
“Glaucon, the arm!” she cried. She saw the right arm of the combat drone twisting. At the far end of the arm was a pintle mount, and attached to that a rotating gun mount. A clanking sound was the last warning that it was loading in more rounds to its arm-fitted chaingun. Tamara spotted the movement and ducked to avoid the gunfire.
“Look out!” shouted Xenophon.
It opened fire with a roar at Glaucon. The muzzle flash was massive at this close range. A great yellow fireball with scores of hot projectiles blasted from its muzzle. A hit at this range would tear through even modern body armour like tissue paper. Glaucon threw himself up and over the machine so that he landed behind it. Normally, such a move would have meant his death, but it couldn’t see him due to the wounded Medes now resting on its flank. He ducked around also and suddenly all three were around it, each firing and hacking away with their weapons. Just four more cuts were all that was needed. It dropped to its knees and toppled over. It writhed and shook on the ground, and sparks ran around its central processor. Movement caught Xenophon’s eye. It was the remaining soldiers already trying to retreat. He almost chased after them, but there was something else; a dull rattling noise coming from the far side of the apartment. The other four wiped the dust and dirt from their faces and took cover. Glaucon’s helmet had sustained a major blow in the fight, and he tore it off to reveal bruising down the side of his face. Roxana moved from the smashed drone towards two columns to give her greater protection from the direction of the arched entrance.
“Can you hear that?” asked Glaucon nervously.
A segment of the dark windows that ran along the outside of apartments flashed white and disintegrated in a massive blast. Even the metal shields that had covered them up for security couldn’t stand against such heavy firepower. The shockwave blasted Roxana from her feet, throwing her against a statue of an unidentified Median goddess. She fell to the ground unconscious.
“Hold this position!” he called out.
He crawled along the floor to Roxana. She was now totally exposed to potential weapons fire. No sooner had he reached her than a dozen heavily armed Medes soldiers arrived. They were all wearing the mock Laconian uniforms, but these moved with confidence and skill that implied professionalism. Lady Artemas spotted their style of movement and took aim with her carbine. She took a shot, but the enemy quickly rolled into cover and continued to close the distance.
“Those are Anusiyan soldiers, the sacred protectors of the Emperor. They will not stop!”
Xenophon lifted Roxana up to his shoulder and moved as quickly as he could to the cover the others were using. The other three put down considerable fire, and it did its job of slowing them down. Even so, they were only thirty or so metres away and moving in for the kill. Artemas kept low and moved over to Roxana. She checked her eyes and breathing, reaching inside her clothing to pull out a small case. Two rounds struck nearby and sent handfuls of marble dust over her. She coughed and then removed a short metal device with a dozen micro tips at the end. Xenophon looked down to her and reached out to stop her.
“No, it’s alright. She is concussed. This will bring her out of it. We need her right now.”
She didn’t wait for his approval and removed the woman’s helmet, so she could place the device on her temple. It hissed, and a moment later Roxana’s bloodshot eyes opened. Glaucon leaned out from his cover and fired a short burst that hit one of the soldiers in the face. The man flew backwards but was instantly replaced by another two soldiers. Xenophon pulled out a spare magazine, but his heart turned to despair as he could see more shapes arriving through the smashed windows.
They must have aircraft bringing in more soldiers.
He turned to the archway and noticed the small number of surviving soldiers from the initial attack. They were dragging some of their wounded back to the elevator. Glaucon turned and called to the two still in cover around the throne.
“Hey, either we say here or we get out there!”
He pointed to the archway and open ground and gardens that ran around the entire floor. One of the soldiers watched him pointing and lifted a weapon. Glaucon took careful aim and hit him in the face with a single shot. The others near him scattered in fear at the execution of their comrade.
“Come on, out of this place, now!” shouted Xenophon, upon seeing the soldier drop to the ground.
All five of them broke from their cover and ran as fast as they could. Multiple rounds struck around them, but the distance to the exit point was short. They were out in the open before the newly arrived soldiers realised what was happening. Remembering an old trick, Xenophon set his carbine to overload and dropped it next to the archway. The others kept moving forward though and chased down the retreating soldiers. With gunfire hitting them in the back, they didn’t last long and what started as a withdrawal, quickly turned into a bloody rout. They were nothing like the soldiers in the apartment building itself. By the time Artemas was out and in the open, she spotted Tamara dropping down and embedding her blade in the back of the last soldier’s skull. It was bloody, shocking and violent, but necessary. Each of them dropped down to reduce their size, in case anybody else was watching. Then they checked back to see Xenophon leaving his weapon.
“What are you doing?” shouted Artemas.
Xenophon ignored her and ran towards them as fast as his legs would take him. It was then that she saw the glowing weapon near the stone and a rising wail coming from the same area. Glaucon grabbed her and pushed her down.
“Get down!” he yelled.
In answer to his shout, the weapon overloaded and exploded, its half expended magazine core sending the weapon’s charging capacitor to unsustainable levels. The explosion was modest but extremely hot and violent. Part of the entrance was smashed, and large parts of masonry collapsed down to partially block it.
“Not bad,” said Glaucon, lifting himself back to his feet. He turned to Artemas and helped her up. She removed her helmet, shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
“Uh, okay, what now then?”
They all looked around at the area they were now in. There were many bodies dotted around the open space, and the columns and water features exhibited various degrees of damage from the battle. It looked like a cross between a garden of tranquillity and a suicide bombing. Glaucon stopped turning and looked in the direction the soldiers had originally arrived from. A trail of bodies led back to the elevator and the primary access point for the Royal Apartments.
“The elevator?” suggested Glaucon.
“What, the way they came in?” asked a less than impressed Roxana.
Xenophon picked himself up and increased his speed towards the doors of the elevators, passing the two naked bodies of the mute assistants.
“Yes, it’s the last thing they would expect!”
He jumped inside and looked for a panel or some kind of control unit. By the time the others arrived, he was still looking but no closer to finding something. Glaucon joined him with a close search of the interior walls of the elevator.
“Where is it?” he asked in frustration.
Lady Artemas waited near the door.
“I was trying to tell you. The elevator is controlled by those two,” she explained, pointing to the unfortunate victims of the first wave of soldiers.
“The system is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, so guests will not notice the technology in the spire.”
Roxana moved to the side of the elevator so that she could look down to the open shaft leading to the ground level. It gave the impression that the glass elevator was actually fitted to the exterior of the spire. Although she could see the outer parts of the spire, it was impossible for her to see the other five elevators. They were blocked from view by the shape of the central hexagonal shaft.
“What? There must be an override or an emergency mode to get to the ground level?” Xenophon asked with a slight trembling in his voice.
Artemas was busy watching something much lower down the structure of the spire. Xenophon followed the direction she was watching, but either her eyes were substantially more effective in low light or he was looking in the wrong place. Without warning, Artemas jumped back, almost knocking Xenophon to the ground.
“Get out, now!” she shouted, continuing to move away.
Glaucon and Roxana were out first, but Xenophon only made it to the doorway when the elevator started to move. The two of them reached in and pulled him hard, managing to drag him from the falling platform in the split-second that it took for it to accelerate away. He landed hard and didn’t stand back up. Roxana and Tamara looking down into the shaft where the elevator had been just seconds earlier.
“What happened?” he asked.
A terrible crashing sound of twisted metal and smashed glass answered his question. Glaucon helped him to his feet, and Tamara handed him back the carbine he’d dropped.
“So they aren’t too bothered about taking any prisoners, then?”
Glaucon’s expression confirmed his comments.
“There must be another way down. What happens in case of fire or damage?”
Artemas looked over the edge and staggered back, regaining her balance. Roxana grabbed her, worried for a moment that she may have been shot. Instead, the Medes lady turned to her and stared intently at her face.
“There is only one other way down, but they will know we’re coming.”
“Well?” demanded Xenophon.
Artemas pointed to the thick marble pillar with a diameter of nearly thirty metres in the centre of the spire. Tamara was already there and running her hands over the smooth marble.
“No, to access the escape system, you just have to place your hands anywhere on the stone. Like this. It leads down to landing platforms every twenty floors. We will have to head down a full twenty levels to reach the first one.”
She placed the palms of both of her hands onto the stone, and immediately an entrance of at least five metres wide opened up. Glaucon moved to its centre and looked inside, expecting to find trouble.
“Let’s go then!” said Artemas, and she stepped into the oval shaped tunnel that appeared to curl downwards like a massive corkscrew. Xenophon refused to move, however, and stopped near the entrance.
“No, you saw what they did to the elevator. They have plenty of people down there and like you said, your uncle will be sending help. I was wrong. Our advantage is time. If we hold out long enough, Terran soldiers will rescue us. Their advantage is numbers and firepower.”
As if to emphasise his point, a glimmer of dull blue light flickered from inside the tunnel. The sound of footsteps could just about be heard.
“Yeah, you hear that?” asked Glaucon.