Dorsa panted and bent over. She was exhausted. She'd been firing the club in Burn mode, over and over, trying to keep the oncoming troopers at bay; and each shot had taken more and more out of her. Samuel took the club from her hands, aimed it around the corner, and squeezed the tab. The same orange plasma that she'd been firing ripped through the air, charring the first two Karthosian troops; but the others merely sidestepped their incinerated bodies and kept right on coming. And shooting back.
That one blast had worn him out nearly as much as Dorsa was. He tugged on her arm and they wearily trotted away from the oncoming footsteps. Their feet must have weighed a tonne; every step was a challenge. They were half way down the corridor when another group emerged from around the corner in front of them, pointing and running and shouting, "There they are!"
They both glanced around, but there was nowhere to turn. There wasn't a single doorway in this corridor. Blasting their way to safety would take minutes — and stamina — that they didn't have. Dorsa turned to face the soldiers who'd just come around the corner, and backed up slightly. Almost instinctively, Samuel faced the other way and braced his back against hers. "This is it," he said in solemn terror.
The bunch in Dorsa's direction jogged closer by the second. They knew they had them. Dorsa and Samuel knew what to expect. Dorsa expected that the soldiers wouldn't even need to fire on them until point-blank. Samuel expected those four-hundred-kilo Karthosian behemoths to rip him to bits with their bare hands.
Neither of them expected the ceiling plate over the troopers in front to crash down on top of them.
Samuel jerked his head around and gaped. A large metal object was standing on top of the plate that had just collapsed. The object twisted around and hit two of the petrified troopers into the rest of the line-up with a square metal rod. No, it was a square metal arm. The head turned around and, despite its soulless-looking black eyes, seemed to positively beam at Dorsa and Samuel. "I thought you could use some help," his transceiver said.
"Strangen!" they both yelped in relief.
The troopers in the line-up who were still conscious turned around and scattered. Strangen scanned his lover and his Outsider friend, noted how exhausted they looked, and then caught sight of the artifact still in Samuel's hands. He clanked toward them.
"I think," he began, reaching for the long, narrow end of the club, "That I might be able to put this to better use than you could."
Samuel gladly relinquished it. Strangen grasped it in his zinc-plated clutches once more, then looked up as his transceiver sent him the sound of running, metal-tipped boots. He couldn't tell where it was coming from, but just having heard it was enough to alert him; he'd almost forgotten how useful hearing could be in these situations. Samuel pointed around the far corner at the group that had been chasing them originally. That was all Strangen needed to know.
He stepped out in front of Dorsa and Samuel and turned on his shields. Samuel covered his ears against the loud, rushing noise of force field activation. Alerted by the sound, two troopers rounded the corner, and stopped cold at the sight of the Starlane Destroyer. Strangen glanced at their armaments and felt a wave of relief; they were only carrying ordinary antipersonnel weapons, not those A.C. zappers that could bypass his shields. If he could have re-tuned his force field, he could have taken that advantage away from them completely; but that would have required tools. And time. He pointed his club at them and transmitted, "Get out."
The first trooper scampered away and yelled "Destroyer!". The clatter of bootsteps got suddenly louder, now coming at random intervals as tens of soldiers hidden by the walls panicked and scrambled away. The three of them were safe for the moment.
"Let's get out of this building," Strangen's transceiver said. He twisted his club into Smash mode and knocked a meters-wide hole in the wall, then stepped through with his companions right behind. They were in an old conference room, with light streaming through the windows. Daylight. Another smash, and they were outside.
The city was an old one, built before antigrav cars had caught on. Aging, cracked streets and avenues crisscrossed between blocks of buildings, each road wide enough to accomodate choking levels of ground traffic. The scale of those wide-open streets seemed almost opulent, but they made it harder to find cover. Thankfully, they also made it easier to see any would-be attackers. Strangen could see no troopers anywhere in the immediate area; they must not have been covering this side of the building. Perfect. He shut down his force field, letting his companions experience a brief, eerie quiet. He didn't want his shields getting in the way for what came next.
"Samuel," he transmitted, "I'm going to fly us back to your cargo ship. Can you hang on to me?"
Samuel blinked. "I'm not sure."
Strangen transmitted, "Dorsa, can you hold on to both him and me at the same time?"
Dorsa had already wrapped her left arm and leg around Strangen's metal frame, and before he could protest, she'd hefted Samuel under her right. "Sure," she said, "This little guy hardly weighs anything."
Strangen switched on his antigrav and drove upward with both of them in tow. Samuel looked down and nervously quipped, "Ugh, not again!"
They hadn't ascended a hundred meters before Strangen angled his legs backwards and fired his thrusters. The noise was deafening. As they picked up speed, the wind whipped their skins and soon drowned out even the boom of the twin thrusters. To Dorsa and Samuel, it was like lying down head-first on a bucking bronco in a hurricane, while dodging skyscrapers.
An angry message in Strangen's heads-up display told him he was violating at least six aviation laws at this moment. At this low altitude he couldn't fly supersonic, even without passengers clinging to him for dear life, but they were still going fast enough that he might make it to Samuel's ship ahead of the air police. He hoped.
But if airborne attackers were coming, he wanted to know about them early. His telescopic thermal infrared vision could, in theory, pick up any incoming heat signatures miles away, but he wanted even more insurance. He twisted his club to Scan mode, and swept the skies for blips. Tachyon radar was overkill, here in atmosphere, but no regular radio-based radar was available to him.
For the first few minutes, the skies were clear. He'd covered many klicks in that short time, enough to bring the spaceport up to their horizon. Then the first aerial blips appeared, and Strangen puzzled. These weren't air police. They were much too high. And their trajectories . . . they looked to have been dropped from space.
Strangen put on the brakes and settled to the ground. Dorsa let go, and Samuel nearly dropped to the ground from dizziness. Strangen focused the full magnification of his artificial eyes at the falling dots in the sky, and at at last made out their basic shape. They were almost rectangular. And that meant . . .
"Tanks," Strangen's voice decided. As he watched them drop, he glimpsed green halos fringing their hulls. "With shields. You two've got to get out of here." He grasped Dorsa's upper arms in his metal hands. "Get to Samuel's cargo ship and take off. It's me they're after. I'll keep them distracted." He released her arms. "You should be able to reach a safe corrugation distance from Karthos without them opening fire on you. Samuel already has my maps of the least-patrolled routes through the Karthosian blockade."
"But you —"
Strangen turned to face the airborne attackers, kicked in his antigrav, and shot skyward. He didn't look back.
Closer . . .
Closer . . .
The tanks were spread out over the sky. They must have picked him up by now. Why weren't they converging on his position in unison? Maybe they had a craftier tactical plan. Or maybe they'd just never practiced attacking the Starlane Destroyer before. Regardless, it gave Strangen the opportunity to divide and conquer. He singled out the closest tank and thrusted toward it, using the same random zigzag motion he used when closing in on a ship in space.
The tank was now close enough to make out its shape without magnification. His enhanced vision could see the creases between the shield generators. There — there was the weak spot, on the tank's top side. He checked his club again to make sure it was in Smash mode, the only mode powerful enough to breach force fields like these. The tank's main cannon belched fire; Strangen instinctively jinked to one side. A solid mass snapped past as the round missed him, pulling the air behind it. That was no shrapnel round, no mere antipersonnel weapon. It was a hypersonic slug. A direct hit could give even a shielded target a serious beating. These tanks were armed for bear, and were treating him just like another airborne tank.
Then again, his shields were built to withstand shipkiller weaponry. Even a tank's shields weren't that strong. And there were a few things the Starlane Destroyer could do that a tank couldn't. As he closed in, he —
A knob on the front of the tank flashed. An electrical arc surged between it and Strangen. Lightning. Impossible in the vacuum of space, but here in atmosphere it reached its target and glanced off Strangen's left flank. It passed right through his shields and made him buzz with pain.
A.C. lightning. 30 Hertz A.C. lightning!
Damn it. They were prepared for him.
He regained his bearings and reassessed his situation. The little knob that had shot lightning at him was fixed to the front of the tank. If he could get behind the tank, or even to its side — and stay there — it couldn't harm him. But those damn flying hellraisers could turn turn on a dime if they needed to. Maybe . . . deflect mode? Could the Artifact bat away lightning the way it did with particle beams? He dialed the handle to "deflect." It'd be dicey to find out, because he'd have to expose himself to —
Another lightning strike. No time to ponder. The arm holding his club flew between himself and the tank, assisted by the club's own fluid motion, and the Artifact caught the electrical discharge by its fringe. It was enough. The energy dissipated harmlessly away. Yes! Deflect mode could handle these lightning bolts! They were harder to track than the straight flight paths of beams or slugs, but not impossible. If he could dodge randomly on the way in at the same time . . .
He surged ahead and twisted around, avoiding another lightning strike, and managed to position himself right above the tank — and outside of its electric emitter's firing arc. Good. The Artifact could be put part way in both Deflect mode and Smash mode at the same time, but then it would be less effective in both roles. He wanted full Smash mode power against this tank's shields. He angled for the weak spot he'd seen on the way in and, Smash mode on max, drove the club into the tank's topside with his full cybernetic strength.
The tank's entire top surface crumpled instantly. The shields failed. Then a heartbeat later, its antigrav gave out from under it and eighty tonnes of metal fell from the sky. Strangen watched, briefly, for both its occupants to bail out. One Karthosian-sized figure did eject out the side, a parachute blossoming from it a second later; but that was all.
But now, five more tanks had formed ranks and were closing on him as a single unit. Five lightning bolts flashed, just as he got his club back into Deflect mode. Four of the bolts missed wide; the fifth came close enough that Strangen had to deflect it. At the same time, a hypersonic slug smashed into his torso and sent him reeling. Only his full-power force field saved him. Damn. He didn't react fast enough to deflect both threats. These tanks were coordinating their assault. They would probably have each others' backs, too, if he got too close to any one of them. Smashing any of these guys was going to be a lot tougher than the first tank had been.
And more tanks were moving toward him from above. His odds of getting an opening to exploit were rapidly dwindling. If he couldn't get in a position where no tank could zap him, he couldn't risk switching his club into Smash mode. But if he focused on deflecting each lightning strike, he might be unable to aim for an opening.
His fusion furnace was going full tilt, too, between his thrusters and running his shields at full power. He was dumping as much of the waste heat as he could into his thruster exhaust, but it wasn't enough. His containment temperature was slowly and steadily rising. He couldn't keep this pace up forever. But with the threat of a stray slug slamming into him at any moment, from any direction, reducing force field power wasn't an option.
He glanced at the ground. As grim as things looked for him, the distraction seemed to be working. No one was paying attention to the Karthosian woman and the little Outsider man running toward the spaceport.
Well . . .
If these were going to be his last moments of life, he didn't want his last thoughts to be of cold, calculated battle tactics. He tuned his tachyon receiver in to K1010 to hear the music play, one last time. It was beautiful. They were in the middle of Grenda vil Dift's "My Love" again, right after the big modulation, and she was about to launch into the second verse.
"My love, . . ."
He picked one tank that had maneuvered slightly below him, and dove in for the kill. Lightning flashed, Deflect mode intercepted it, and somehow he closed to point-blank range without getting knocked from the sky.
". . . when all is said and done, . . ."
He got on the tank's back and quickly located the weak point between its shield generators. He didn't have time to smash it, though — two more tanks behind him shot more A.C. lightning at him, and he had to deflect both bolts.
". . . What we have will not be lo-ost. . . ."
A third lightning bolt arced close to him but missed, hitting the tank he was on top of. It dissipated quietly against the tank's own shields. Uh oh. This would make things even harder. They didn't have to worry about missing him and hitting another other tank by accident. Their force fields weren't tuned to ignore 30 Hz A.C.. like his was.
And at this altitude, no stray electric bolts would even reach the ground, so they wouldn't even need to worry about collateral damage to civilians.
". . . The darkness won't last for-e-e-ver, . . ."
There was a lull in the firing. It was now or never. He switched the Artifact into Smash mode, drew back his arm, and brought the club down squarely onto the tank's upper armor. Perfect placement, just like last time. The crumpled remains of the tank fell out from beneath him. As soon as he felt it go, he twisted the club's handle back to full Deflect mode — just in time for another volley of electrical strikes.
". . . And the dawn shall break through the frost! . . ."
Behind the swarm of tanks, he picked out a new target, a black airborne limo. The design was ostentatious and unmistakable. It had to belong to Bourne the Third. Why that dirty, self-aggrandizing . . . he'd followed him here. He either meant to oversee the Starlane Destroyer's destruction so he could hide the unsavory details from the public, or he just wanted to gloat over bringing him down.
Okay, Bourne, let's see how that ungainly limo of yours keeps up with real aerial combat. The zaps from the tanks were short-ranged enough that, Strangen figured, he might be able to draw them out into a chase. Then he could pick off the ones that got close. Maybe he'd even get lucky, and Bourne's limo would be caught by a stray bolt or slug. He took off toward an opening, dodging and deflecting all the lightning (and the occasional slug) the whole way. Now, all the tanks were behind him. That meant he could no longer deflect their shots, though, since he could only swing his club in front of himself.
". . . My love, . . ."
Keeping his leg thrusters pointed directly away from his attackers, Strangen flipped over and bent fully forward in the middle. Now, he could continue flying away from them while still keeping them in view, and still being able to swing his club in Deflect mode. This awkward pose did increase his drag profile somewhat, though, and this cut into his speed. He hoped it would still be enough to outrun them.
". . . Together we were once, . . ."
He chanced a glance at Samuel and Dorsa. They were still running away, dwindling into the distance, still without a hint of pursuers. So long as they could make it to the spaceport, they . . .
The spaceport . . .
". . . And though that time refused to staaaaay, . . ."
Two more lightning blasts got too close to dodge, and had to be deflected away. Before the next burst came his way, he caught a look at the spaceport off in the distance. There seemed to be a lot of little somethings moving around its perimeter fence. He looked again, and zoomed his vision in. Troopers!
Maybe they were just in front of the main gate. . . . No. They were everywhere. There was no place Samuel and Dorsa could possibly hop the fence without being seen.
Dummy. Strangen, you big, steel-plated dummy. You heard Joden say how their ship's arrival had been suspicious. They knew how you and Samuel got here. They knew your most likely avenue of escape. Why the hell did you just fly them back to the same spaceport you landed at?! Couldn't you have gone to the southern coast and stolen a different ship? Your whole last-stand distraction here in the air will all be for nothing.
". . . My love, . . ."
The Artifact. He couldn't let Karthos get its hands on the Artifact again. Bourne would make good on his promise to build it into a Starlane Destroyer Mark II. He'd power it with Strangen's own flesh again, or if Strangen was dead, then the flesh of whomever he could find to hook up to it. Strangen imagined this new ship, an unstoppable behemoth blasting every foreign ship in sight . . . sweeping through the colonies until they all submitted or died . . . taking the war to the inner worlds . . .
Coordinated blasts of lightning shocked him out of his reverie. Two of them arrived at the same instant. He instictively deflected one of them, but the other struck home. He reeled with the pain. His torso unfolded and flattened out against his will. His left thruster sputtered and reignited; then before he could regain control, another zap shot through him.
More pain. His force field flickered. His antigrav shut itself off. He started to fall.
". . . For all it's wo-orth, . . ."
More zaps. No way to recover. He was falling splayed out, the way a skydiver might fall if he lost consciousness. It was all over. He'd lost. He would smash into the pavement far below and die. The only thing that mattered now was if he could hit the ground in such a way as to destroy the Artifact. Could it even be broken? It could deflect weapons fire meant to take out armored ships. It could smash through the hardest armor without getting so much as a scratch on it. Maybe if he could land right on top of it, drive it into the ground with the force of his own impact . . . the pain made it hard to move his arms, but he could move them enough. He positioned the club below the small of his back, then stared off into the deep blue sky receding above him and waited for the end.
". . . I know we'll be together again someday."
Despite the electric bolts clawing at the remains of his nerves, the sky almost looked . . . peaceful. No clouds. No sense of motion, of the greater and greater speed with which he was hurtling toward the ground. Just the same unchanging, serene blue he'd lost himself in all those years ago, back before puberty had come crashing down upon him, when he'd lain out on his back in the middle of a field and just stared upward.
All too soon, though, the tops of the tallest skyscrapers started to intrude into his peripheral vision and the illusion shattered. He'd . . . what . . . what were those whitish streaks in the sky? They were laced with hints of green. Force shield green. They had to be spacecraft, aerobraking from atmospheric entry. A lot of spacecraft. But why? The tanks were already finishing him off. Why would Karthos need to send a fleet this large after him too?
The tanks! They'd stopped shooting! The pain from all their zaps was gone. He could feel motor control start to return, read system after system returning to operational status.
His antigrav kicked in; now the sky was "down" and the pavement was "up." It slowed his relentless pace toward the ground, but he still had an awful lot of groundward momentum. He could twist his head around now, see how close he was coming to the streets. His antigrav was putting on the brakes pretty hard, but it wouldn't be enough. He swung himself fully upright, pointing his feet straight toward the ground, and ordered his thrusters to full. Only the left thruster sputtered into life; the right thruster was still recovering from all the zapping he'd received. He balanced as best he could on the single column of exhaust from his left leg. The pavement came up and hit both feet like a hammer blow, knocking the artifact loose from his grip; but the combined braking from his thruster and antigrav had been enough. Bending at the knees was all it took for him to absorb the impact.
He looked back up, trying to figure out what was happening. Where had the tanks — there they were. It looked like they were flying toward the re-entering space fleet. And then . . . one of the tanks burst into flame. A second seemed to break in half. Those new streaks, like bright lines flashing between the ships and the tanks . . . it looked like . . .
The spacecraft were firing on the tanks!
They weren't a Karthosian fleet at all. They . . . they had to be . . . he scanned the transmitter frequencies. Sure enough, a high-power signal on the civil emergency channel was overwhelming all other communication there. It was a single, clear message on repeat:
"Attention all Karthosians. This is Second Fleet, Inner Worlds. Your home defense fleet has been neutralized. Stand down, and you won't be attacked."
They did it. Xiaoshen's Star b did it. Their message got through!
As the last tank evaporated in the sky, the fleet descended, lower and lower, until each ship cast its shadow on the ground below. Strangen could make out the details on their undersides. He recognized some of the shapes from tactical briefings — Inner World cruisers, heavy destroyers, even a few monstrous dreadnoughts. This fleet meant business. He glanced where Dorsa and Samuel had gone, now obscured by buildings. Would they . . .
He set his transmitter to a military side channel. There was a chance someone in this fleet might be listening in, someone who might hear his plea. "This is the former Starlane Destroyer. Please, don't hurt these people. They don't all support their government's actions."
Maybe they'd heard him, maybe they hadn't, but their broadcast civil emergency message abruptly changed. Loudspeakers affixed to the ships boomed the same new message across the sky: "All aircraft, land immediately. All ground vehicles, pull over and stop. Everyone, everyone on Karthos, put your hands behind your head and Don't. Move."
Strangen would have smiled if he'd had a mouth. He stepped toward his battle club to retrieve it.
"Don't you move either, Starlane Destroyer!" a loudspeaker blared. "Everybody keep their fingers interlocked behind their heads until we get this mess straightened out!"
Strangen slowly moved his metal hands behind his head and began to chuckle. His chuckle grew. It was the first time he'd laughed joyously since he'd been flesh and blood. "It doesn't matter," he transmitted. "It doesn't matter! Ha ha ha ha ha, I did it! We won!"
"Damn you, Starlane Destroyer," Strangen received Bourne the Third's voice. He glanced around telescopically and picked out Bourne standing less than a hundred meters away . . . speaking into a collar transmitter with his hands behind his own head.
"No, Bourne, no!" he half-insisted, half chortled. "I'm no Starlane Destroyer. Not any more. I'm Strangen of Karthos, and you and your precious Karthosian fascism are nothing — do you hear, Bourne?! NOTHING!!"