Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
Now the light quickly dimmed as the river plunged underground and its course became steeper. Seconds later, the only light was that produced by his helmet, and the walls moved in even more, until the river's entire volume was being forced through a channel only fifteen or twenty feet wide. Now Stell was forced to turn all his attention to controlling his course and speed, which was increasingly difficult to do. In some places the river had carved away softer material, leaving projections of hard rock. Up ahead he saw one—a big, black spear of rock, so hard that a million years of water had only served to sharpen it. He was heading straight for it. Desperately, he worked the hand grips as he opened his mic. “Obstruction chest high ... go for the bottom!” Behind him, the others did as ordered, dropping to slide along just above the bottom. Stell felt his own suit respond, and begin to angle down. but he wasn't going to make it.
He hit the rock spire with incredible force. His head bounced off the inside of his helmet so hard it seemed like the padding wasn't there. Searing pain exploded behind his eyes and darkness tried to drag him down. He fought it, tried to move but couldn't, as the current pinned him against the rock. His legs dangled down into the passageway under the rock, and his head stuck up into the flow passing over it. Meanwhile, his suit doggedly tried to repair the numerous small leaks through which cold river water was leaking in, all the while giving him the bad news via the readout in his helmet. Suddenly, something grabbed his ankles, and he felt himself jerked downward and off the rock. It took him a second to realize what had happened: Como had grabbed him as he passed under the obstruction, and now the current was carrying them both feet first into Devil's Dip. Stell felt his head clear as the suit injected him with a stimulant and pain killers. He noted that the suit's pumps were keeping up with the leaks ... so far. “Thanks, Zack. I'm okay ... watch yourself.”
Como didn't reply. He didn't have time. They were moving almost straight down now, and he was worried about what would happen at the bottom. He could have saved himself the effort. Once they hit bottom, the river took control. As the river's volume hit Devil's Dip it bounced back up, swirling and pounding against rock walls, tossing Stell and Como around as if they were grains of sand. One by one, the rest of the team followed and became part of the insane maelstrom. They were thrown against rock walls, bounced off the bottom, shot up into the ceiling, and knocked into each other like billiard balls. One trooper from Team A was knocked unconscious and swept away, his suit ripped and torn, water pouring in. Two troopers from Team B were literally torn apart. Sticks saw their arms, legs, and torsos all mixed together, jerking up, down, and sideways as though dancing a macabre performance at the river's request. Then, as though bored with its creation, the river tore its grisly toy apart and swallowed the pieces whole.
When the river decided to spit them out, it pushed them almost straight up; streams of bubbles poured from their leaking suits. Having been first in Stell and Como were first out. Adrenaline pumped through Stell's body and his thoughts churned. The hardest part was just ahead. In a few minutes they would pass the armored observation window. He struggled to pull the pack off his back and drag it around to the front. In it was the net. Its purpose was simple—to stop them from being carried past the window, and down-river to their deaths. He pulled the rip cord and let go. The river jerked it away as Stell did his best to brake. It would be five seconds before the pack exploded and threw the net across the channel. If he wasn't careful, he could be sucked past the net and down-river. Then B Team would have to give it a try with their net, though he hoped they wouldn't get the chance. The river pushed him forward. Up ahead, the glow of artificial lights marked the location of the observation window. Then he felt a dull thump as the pack exploded, releasing net in all directions. Everywhere it touched, a special mastic bonded instantly to the rock, forming an unbreakable anchor. Stell hit with such force that he bounded back against the current before coming to rest again on the net. “The corner!” Como yelled.
Instantly, Stell saw what he meant. One corner of the net had failed to make contact with the river wall and was flapping loose in the current. They had to close the gap before someone was swept through the hole. Desperately, they clawed their way hand over hand toward the loose corner, trying to reach it before the next man came, but knowing deep down they wouldn't make it. Stell saw a dark form hurtle by and go right through the hole as if shot from a gun.
“Shit!” The voice belonged to trooper Levitz. “Sorry, sir, but it looks like I'll be the one sending that post card.” And then he was gone.
Almost screaming with frustration, Stell scrambled forward, anchored his feet in the netting, grabbed the edge of the net, and shoved hard. He felt it make contact with the river wall and bond to the rock. As it did, he suddenly realized how lucky he'd been. If he'd touched the mastic it would have bonded to his suit. A series of thumps told him the rest of the team was arriving, hitting the net one after another. Turning, he saw the window for the first time and the chambers beyond. He heard himself say, “B Team, set the charges!” and wondered if they'd been spotted yet.
Feeg was tired. The sleepless days and constant tension had taken their inevitable toll. He was sitting in the very front row, his eyes half open, allowing his mind to merge and flow with the holy fluid. He watched the shadows dance and move as light and water interacted to create an endless work of art. In a few minutes he would have to kill another human hostage and the idea repelled him. Yes, it had to be done, and he would do it, but deep down he knew that the Council had miscalculated. The humans would not give up the planet, even if it meant the death of every individual in the room. Therefore, killing another hostage would make no difference. But he had his orders and, regardless of outcomes, those orders would be obeyed. The shadows shifted again, and somehow their movement seemed wrong, breaking the pattern, going against the holy flow. His eyes snapped open and his agile brain quickly made sense out of what he saw. He leaped to his feet, tail thrashing in agitation as he yelled, “Eyes front! They attack from the river!” Then he heard a dull explosion, and a huge chunk of the armored plastic window imploded, driven by a solid column of water. A corner of the plastic hit him like a duracrete wall, pushing him down, allowing water to rush into his nose and mouth. He tried to scream ... but couldn't make a sound.
Stell tumbled head over heels as the river plucked him off the net and threw him into the chambers. He landed with such force that it knocked the wind out of him. As he struggled to breathe, tons of water poured into the chambers and the level of water around him continued to rise. Dimly he heard people yelling and screaming as they fought the rising water and their own fear. Then the water closed over him, shutting down his external audio pickups. Fumbling about weakly, he grabbed a seat. Using it to pull himself up, he managed to stand. As his head broke through the surface of the water, he emerged into a nightmare of confusion and death. The Il Ronnian troopers toward the front of the room had been hit by the water and were thrashing around in it just like their human prisoners. However, the aliens located toward the rear of the room were untouched, and in keeping with their orders they were methodically shooting every human in sight. It was murder. But as Stell brought up his blaster, he saw one, and then another alien soldier jerk under the impact of slugs, as a few of the Senators produced hidden weapons and opened fire. Then their fire was joined by that of both A and B Teams. Energy beams screamed and threw up clouds of steam where they hit water. Slug throwers chattered, lead tearing through alien and human flesh alike. Stell fired and fired, cutting down three troopers at once, only to see more pour in from the emergency exits. As he moved, each step was made against the resistance of knee-deep water, and now out of its element, the LES slowed him down and made him a better target. A part of his mind noted such things as he cut down another Sand Sept trooper, but most of his attention was focused on finding Olivia. Then he saw her, and was almost certain that she saw him. It was hard to tell, because she was struggling with her father, trying to stop him from attacking a huge Il Ronnian soldier with his bare hands. But the trooper fired from inches away, his slugs going clear through the President's body, tearing huge chunks of flesh from his back. The alien was about to turn his weapon on Olivia when a man, it looked like Roop, hit her with a swift uppercut and started dragging her unconscious body toward an exit. The alien shrugged and turned his attention elsewhere. Stell blew the alien's head off and then started running, slowed by both the waist deep water and the suit. Suddenly, Como's voice shouted, “Behind you, General!” He turned, raising his arm just in time to block the descending battle axe.
Feeg was slowly drowning. He was gulping huge amounts of holy fluid. With a supreme effort he pushed up against the plastic holding him down and felt it give slightly. Again he heaved, and this time the weight vanished, allowing him to sit up, and then stand. Dazed, he waded toward the steps leading up to the stage. Perhaps from up there he could see more of the room and better direct his troops. At the opposite end of the stage, water still rushed in, cascading down to join the several feet already flooding the Senate. As he reached the stage and turned to survey the battle, he heard a noise he couldn't quite identify. By the time he did, it was too late. The huge durasteel doors slammed shut, trapping him with the river.
The only thing that saved Stell was his armor. The handle of the battle axe hit with enough force to break an unprotected arm. As it was, his blaster flew out of his hand and splashed into the water four feet away. The Il Ronnian grinned as he raised the battle axe once more. Stell chinned a switch and felt the control grips flip down into his hands. He managed to lift his left arm and point it at the trooper just as the axe started to descend. He pressed the red button on the side of the grip, and felt the recoil as a foot-long harpoon shot out from under his arm and buried itself in the alien's chest. A fraction of a second later, the explosive tip detonated and blew the Il Ronnian apart. A rain of shredded flesh turned the water red.
Behind the durasteel doors, the water had risen to Feeg's chin. In a few moments it would be over his head and since, like most of his race, Feeg didn't know how to swim, he would soon drown. But he reflected calmly, “Even if I did know how to swim, it would only prolong my life for the few short minutes until the river completely filled this space. And to resist the holy liquid would be unseemly.” He regretted the fact that he could not die with his troops, but that was not his destiny. His decision made, he waded toward the hole. Water was no longer pouring in, since there was no place left for it to go. Therefore it was a simple matter to step through the hole, and out into the river's main current. A quick slash with his power knife and he was through the net. Then, as he was sucked away into the darkness, he became one with the holy flow. Deliberately, he breathed in its perfect essence, dreaming of a hot orange sun, a desert of reddish sand, and, beneath it, the home he would never see again.
Stell turned to find Olivia but she was gone. The battle was over. All the Sand Sept troopers were either dead or taken prisoner. He moved carefully among the floating corpses, searching for Olivia, but she was nowhere to be found. Roop had evidently escaped and taken her with him. He cursed the Senator with his entire being. He'd find the bastard and kill him by inches. He chinned his mic on and said, “Sergeant Major!” There was no answer. A few feet away he saw a LES-armored body floating face down, and fear clutched his gut as he pushed through the water and rolled it over. There behind the sealed visor were Como's familiar features. Looking down he saw there was a hole the size of his fist burned through the Sergeant Major's chest. Tenderly, Stell bent and picked up the body before wading slowly toward the rear of the room. Carefully, he laid the Sergeant Major's body down in a dry spot against the rear wall. A huge lump formed in his throat and he felt tears trickle down his cheeks. Damnit, Zack, why'd it have to be you? Just when we finally had a home. And suddenly he knew that the big man hadn't cared about making a home on Freehold. The brigade had been his home. He would have gone anyplace it went. And Stell had never taken the time before to think or ask. He had just assumed that Como wanted the same things he did.
“I'll take care of him, sir.” It was Corporal Stickley.
“Thank you, Corporal,” Stell said. Slowly, he turned away and went out through the massive doors that now stood open. The halls were already full of brigade troopers and Free Scouts, scurrying about on a hundred errands. Many nodded to, or saluted the tall, gaunt officer who trudged past them toward the surface, his helmet under one arm. But he saw none of them. All he saw was Como's face—brown eyes, full of intelligence and humor, that had seen and shared so much. A tall, strong body that had saved his life many times. If only he could have been in the right place at the right time to return the favor. But when he finally emerged into the hot afternoon sun, he had left the grief behind him, as he'd done so many times before, accepting the responsibility for still another death, and hoping that those who still lived were worth the price.
Fingers of pain reached deep into the dark place where Olivia had gone, and squeezed. She came to, her head throbbing with pain. Reaching out, she grabbed something to steady herself, only then realizing that it was a rope. The rope was holding a large, unidentifiable bundle in place. Sitting up, she realized she was in the back of a hover truck, and it was bucking up and down as it traversed rough ground.
“So you're awake,” Roop said, glancing at her in the rearview mirror as he fought the controls. “Sorry I had to hit you.”
Olivia's hand went up to touch the side of her jaw and then the side of her head. Her jaw ached, and a large and tender swelling marked the spot where she'd banged her head into the side of the truck while unconscious. Then it all came flooding back—her father attacking the trooper, her fruitless efforts to hold him back, and then the horror as the slugs tore through him. All because of Roop. She would have flung herself at him and tried to kill him with her bare hands, but they were separated by a metal partition. A small window allowed communication between front and back. As though reading her thoughts, Roop said, “I know you hate me, and I'm sorry. But maybe someday you'll understand that I was right. The empire is already dying, and the Il Ronn will inevitably win. And when they do, we, all of Freehold, could have been in a very favorable position.”