“Oh my god, you reek.”
Govinda coughed and took a step back as Roderick moved toward her. He did indeed smell rank, like chemically treated sewage, but it was his expression which made Lynda retreat.
“Might have figured finding you lot,” he snarled. As the two of them recoiled, he darted out of the lift, dodged Govinda, and lunged at Jack. Before the Captain could react, Roderick had him by the throat.
“You fucking bastard!” he hissed in Jack’ s face, teeth bared. “D’you like assaulting people? Get your kicks that way? I almost died in that hole, you smug twat, I — geroff me, you gorilla!”
Amidst the clatter and clang of dropped weaponry, Hsieh had moved more quickly than seemed proper for someone of his bulk. He ducked around both of the other men, pivoted on one foot as he moved, and pinioned the furious Mayhew with two very long arms from behind.
Roderick screeched with anger and dropped Jack, but before Hsieh could consolidate his attack, the little man threw himself backward, aiming for Hsieh’s head with his own. He was too short to accomplish that, but his right elbow somehow found Hsieh’s ribs. Lynda heard the chief huff in pain as the impact forced out a lungful of air. He stumbled back, and Roderick launched himself again at Jack. Who, in turn, slid fluidly under the other man’s thrust and rammed a fist into his solar plexus.
Roderick grunted and folded in on himself, but even as he collapsed he grabbed at Jack’s left knee. Both of them went down.
Jack recovered first, somehow rolling to one side and back into a balanced one-kneed crouch.
“Ruthie, he’s yours.”
“Got him...shit — “ Lem tried to obey Jack’s calm order, but she was hampered by the equipment hung about her shoulders, and by the close quarters. Mayhew tried to trip her as he scrambled away. He might have regained his own footing, had Govinda not thrown down her own baggage and joined the fray.
“Jack? What the hell is going on?”
Davitch sounded faint and tinny. Lynda looked around for the source and saw Jack’s wrist-comm on the floor, apparently a victim of the melee. She dropped to her knees to retrieve it.
“Davitch, you there?” Lynda winced even as she said it; of course he was there, she chided herself.
“We’ve got the doors blocked, but they’re cutting through,” he said in a rush. “What’s all the shouting? Did they find you, too?”
Lynda ducked again as someone above her — Lem — staggered and almost fell into her. “Watch it!”
“Sorry, not you, No, it’s not them. It’s Roderick. Here, hold on...” She scooted backward, and maneuvered herself into the lift. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, we’ve just, uhm, had a little — ”
“Mayhew? What’s he doing?”
“He’s mine,” Hsieh growled, his breath recovered. He waved Lem and Govinda off, then moved in on Roderick again. This time, he applied a choke hold, and nodded over Roderick’s head at Jack..
“Get off...you sons of bitches!” Roderick managed to speak past his captor’s beefy forearm, but no amount of squirming could gain him purchase. While he struggled, Govinda limped into the lift, the only space not blocked with bodies in motion, and checked the hand she’d cut outside the apartment. During the tussle with Roderick her bandage had come off.
“Lynda? You still there?”
“Sorry, yeah. You said they’re cutting?”
Before he could answer, Jack suddenly loomed over her and grabbed for the comm. “Lynda, give it here.” She bit back her own snarl of surprise, and relinquished it. “Thanks, sweetheart. Davitch, are they trying to cut through the door, or the lock?”
“Lock? What..oh. Uhm...no, they’re trying for the door itself.”
“Good. They’re still idiots. Look, it’s going to take them at least a little time to get through, but I don’t know how thick the door is, so don’t count on much. Get everyone back as far as you can — watch it Hsieh, that’s my kidney — sorry, Davitch; get them back as far as you can into the kitchen. While you’re there, find knives, meat mallets, anything that could be used as a weapon. Give ‘em to anyone who looks like they won’t run or lose control of their bowels in a fight. And Davitch? Boil some water in the largest pots and pans you can find, then drag them somewhere near the door — ”
“Got it,” Davitch interrupted. “Alex and Rog are already moving people. I’ll let them know about the water. That should surprise our visitors...But get your ass down here, anyway, OK?”
“Soon as possible, my friend. As soon as fucking possible. Out.” Jack keyed the comm off and shoved it into the pocket of his leather pants. Lynda hauled herself to her feet.
“Right. Have you got him?” Jack said to his security team. Hsieh and Lem nodded. Roderick was immobilized between them, quivering with silent rage.
Jack cricked his neck to one side, then the other, rubbed at a spot on his scalp and checked his hand for blood, then turned two very flat blue eyes on their captive. He took the two steps necessary to bring him within inches of the other man’s face.
“I’ll make this quick; we’ve got places to go and people to save. You have two choices. I can put a bullet in you right now, which is tempting because every time I see you, you’re more trouble. The other choice is to help us. Take orders from me. If you give your word, you live.”
Jack looked so tired, Lynda thought. He started speaking again, with a bitter humor that frightened her: “I’ll sweeten the deal. When everyone’s safe. You can try to kill me. Really. You can try to take me apart. My word, even if you don’t give a damn what that’s worth.”
Roderick stared at Jack a moment before responding. “You’re mad, you are. Completely barking. Fuck you. I’m not gonna help you or your goons. You’ve done nothing but laugh at me, threaten me — attack me! Attack me, right, just for asking questions. Then you offer not to kill me if I take orders from you? Where d’you get off, you self-righteous prat? What’ve you done to deserve my help?” He almost spat the last words out.
Lynda risked a look at Jack’s gun hand. It twitched, but he did nothing, and Lynda relaxed very slightly. The idea of killing another human, even Roderick, made her gorge rise.
(“No, Jack. Please?”)
He started, looked back into the lift at her, his face dark.
(“Please.”) She showed him the image of Roderick on his back, eyes surprised and milky, head haloed in sticky red.
Jack sagged infinitesimally, and didn’t respond.
“We’re not asking for us,” Lynda said, stepping up to his side. “We’re asking for the people in the cafeteria. Some of them are just kids, and some are old. They can’t fight. They don’t know how. And you heard what she said, what Iris said. Think about it. She worships Daleks, Roderick.” She wavered momentarily, sickened by the enormity of what she said, but ploughed on. “She wants to kill all of us for the Daleks. She’s got weapons now, and our people have none.” She tried to talk to him as if he weren’t being forcibly restrained by two increasingly impatient paramilitary specialists.
“Yeah? So what? They’re no one I know,” Roderick said, but with less heat, and a speculative glint in his eye.
“There’s a woman there who’s probably just had her baby.”
She couldn’t think of anything else to say, so she just stood and looked him in the eye, ignoring Jack and her own instincts about the man. Did she actually think she could convince this blowhard of anything? What she knew of him argued against it. And Mayhew had a point, Lynda admitted to herself. Even a saint might get irritable after being repeatedly insulted, knocked out and stuffed in a cubby hole, and Roderick had already been mouthy, unpleasant and cowardly from the first time she’d met him.
That said, they couldn’t simply knock him out again — assuming Lem had any hypos left — and leave him up here with the weaponry. Oh please listen, you miserable man, she thought to herself.
Roderick spoke again. “You must think I’m as balmy as you are.” He stopped. Then, unwillingly: “You’re saying some bint’s dropped foal?”
Beside her, Jack rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t have phrased it quite so agriculturally, but, yes.” With that, his darkness appeared to dissipate, and a hint of the other Jack returned.
Roderick’s face twisted with distaste. “Kids. Bleeding kids. Like we’re supposed to think they’re special. Fight for the baby, she tells me. Do I look like a hero, then?”
Lynda held her breath, which was easy this close to Roderick.
“Care to be one?” Jack’s eyebrow spoke volumes, and Mayhew was reading carefully. With his next noisy breath, the fight left him.
“Alright. Tell you what. Get the gorilla off me — ow!”
“The Major doesn’t appreciate being called names, Roddy-boy. I wouldn’t provoke him,” Jack said mildly, as Hsieh mouthed Major? unseen behind Mayhew.
“Fine. Whatever. Just, get...get Major Gorilla off me and I’ll do it. What choice do I have, eh?”
Jack nodded. “Thought you were a smart man.”
“Sod off, you bastard.” Roderick said, almost reflexively, rolling his shoulders away from Lem and Hsieh’s grasp. They stepped back only reluctantly.
“So now what, you gonna give me one of those — “ he started to jerk his chin at the impromptu hill of ordnance everyone had dropped in the struggle, then really noticed that he was effectively standing in an armoury. His eyes went wide and Lynda could see the wheels turning in his head. “What is all this? Man alive, you have enough firepower here...you gonna let me get my hands on one of those?”
“Can you use a gun?” Hsieh asked. “Have you ever handled firearms? Weapons of any kind?”
Roderick looked at Hsieh and Jack quickly and licked his lips. “Well it’s not as if anyone here is gonna try to re-educate me now, I guess. Yeah. I know my way around a few of what you got there. Been a while, though.”
“Fine,” Jack told him. “Pick up something you recognize and remember, if you make one move I don’t like, or Hsieh doesn’t like — ”
“ — or I don’t like,” Govinda interrupted, glowering at their unwilling team mate.
“ — or ‘Vinda doesn’t like,” Jack said, with a grin. “You’re dead. Again.” His smile disappeared.
“Right,” Roderick agreed hurriedly.
“And Roddy-boy? After we pull off this little sideshow, I want to talk with you about just how you found us. Not to mention what the hell you rolled in to make yourself so...memorable.”
Roderick ignored him and knelt to investigate the pile. He found nothing there, but went for one of the dustier shelving units. After a moment he made a small pleased noise and hoisted a compact snub-nosed revolver, dull brown metal, old and obviously pieced together with parts from other weapons.
“Why am I not surprised,” Hsieh said under his breath. “Gum gun.”
Lynda looked at him.
“Guys like him don’t have access to real guns. They have to make their own from whatever they can cadge, trade for, or steal. Spit, twine, duct tape and chewing gum.”
“If it works, my son, it works,” Roderick said, checking the gun’s cylinder before sighting down the barrel. “It’s rifled. Didn’t expect that. You have any .38 calibre ammo?”
“Here.” Lem fished about herself and found a box, which she tossed at him. “This ought to do the trick.”
“Yeah. Perfect.” He loaded the revolver, put on the safety and shoved it in his waistband. Then he looked at what else was on the floor. “Love these things. But I’m probably gonna need something that’s non-projectile. Let me have that one, too. That one over there, that neuron tingler.”
Jack’s lips thinned as he picked up and proffered the weapon: “You know your way around firearms.”
“We could have used you — ”
“ — not bloody likely, mate,” Roderick interrupted, “Wasn’t going to get myself killed, now, was I? Didn’t get out of the studio from hell for that. Keep your head low and your nose clean, my old dad always said, stay out of the line of fire.”
“Yeah, well, that strategy worked brilliantly,” Govinda muttered. “Come on, let’s get sorted and head out.”
Lynda picked up the medikits and the gun Hsieh had given her. The others followed suit. Before reloading himself, Jack opened one of the cabinets, pulled out an empty two-sheath holster, and tossed it at Roderick. “Keep both of those things holstered until I give the word.”
Roderick nodded, then moved to the back of the cab. Lynda couldn’t tell whether the slight distance cut down on his smell, or whether her olfactory nerve had simply been burned out.
“That’s that, then,” Jack said. “Hsieh, what’s our route?”
The security chief fiddled with his newly-filled holster before saying,“I think I know where this lift goes, even without your, uh, mental friend. This is the secondary Ops lift, or should be. Everyone in. We’re going to 251.”
“— one floor above the caf, yeah. I don’t know whether Anders’ lot knows we’ve even left, but we don’t want to risk running into them. Especially if we can get into the cafeteria unseen, and be there to greet them. We can do that from 251.”
“How?” Govinda asked.
“The kitchens will have a back door. All we need to do is get to the floor above the caf, get into the staff area and find it. Then we’re in and we’re armed,” Hsieh explained, as Jack and Lem ushered Roderick into the lift.
“A back door?” Jack’s brow furrowed. He punched the button, then snapped his fingers as the cab dropped soundlessly toward Floor 251. “Oh, for the love of Pete — freight delivery lifts! There’ll be one right in the kitchen. Kitchens have to take in supplies. I’m an idiot...” He looked at Hsieh in surprise. “Why didn’t you bring this up sooner?”
“I...” Hsieh looked at his hands with some discomfort. “I...didn’t think about it before. Can’t for the life of me tell you why not, except my head’s been fuzzy. I swear, I couldn’t remember my mother’s name for a bit.”
“Memory problems. Lots of us have had them since coming back,” Jack said with regret. “Never mind. I’m the last person to be talking about mental acuity.”
Lynda wondered why their guardian hadn’t mentioned the back door, then jumped slightly as she felt the voice.
(It is difficult to speak and show you things, and see everywhere. I am...new. Don’t be angry.)
(“No, we’re not angry with you,”) Jack’s thought echoed in Lynda’s head. (“Just tell us if we’re right about the delivery cab.”)
A schematic blossomed in Lynda’s head. The freight car was large enough to take all six of them, but it would be close in there. She thought of the smell, and shuddered.
Everyone jumped when Roderick cried out.
“Goddamned buzzing...it’s killin’ me,” he whimpered, rubbing at his eyes. “Why doesn’t it stop?”
“Mayhew?” Jack stared at Roderick.
“Something in my head...I dunno what,” the other man said “It woke me up in that...that closet. Every time I think it’s gone, it comes back.” He moaned a little.
(He almost hears me, but he can’t.) the voice said matter-of-factly.
Jack listened silently, then asked Roderick, “Did it ease up when you got into the lift to get to us?”
“I don’t know...yeah, I guess,” the other man said as he massaged his temples frantically.
“You’ve got psi abilities, right?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, no bloody surprise there, mate,” Roderick said. “And if I’d thought it would do this to me, I’d have paid some doc to burn it right out of my brain.”
“Brought you here, right?” Jack persisted.
“Look, I don’t know what brought me here. I just went anywhere the pain didn’t go. And, yeah, I went through a couple of recycling stations, and that’s why I smell like this, you preening bastard.”
Jack nodded slightly. Lynda heard his silent question.
(“Did you bring him here?”)
(He heard me. Badly. I thought he would be useful. I pushed him. If you think he won’t be helpful, you can kill him.)
Jack didn’t respond.
Lynda was taken aback by the voice’s casual brutality. It probably should have shaken her more, but she found herself more upset by the idea that Roderick could have any type of access to the voice, no matter how scrambled.
The lift descended into the metal forest of Game Station’s main shaft, then shivered gently to a stop . Hsieh turned and held up a hand to get everyone’s attention.
“We’re coming out into a semi-public area. It’s probably abandoned, but just to be sure, don’t move until I tell you.”
The lift door opened onto three corridors, all of them utilitarian and lit poorly by flickering wall-mounted light strips. Lynda started to head out, but Hsieh put a hand out, stopping her. He and Jack moved smoothly out, guns drawn; Hsieh checking the left and Jack the right. Lynda waited until Hsieh motioned the rest of them forward into the lobby.
He pointed silently to the hall in front of them. Lem put a hand on Govinda’s shoulder as the two came into the lobby. Jack spoke softly. “Hold on, let’s not surprise our friends.” He keyed his wrist comm: “Rog, Davitch...come in.”
“Jack! They’re moving fast!” Davitch’s voice was tight.
“So are we. We’re coming in your back door, in about — what, Hsieh? — In about a minute, so don’t panic when you hear us behind you.”
“The freight lift in the kitchen.”
Lynda heard a faint background curse from Rog or Alex, undoubtedly as whoever it was realized how unprotected they’d left themselves. Davitch just sounded grateful to hear an arrival time from Jack. “We’re coming back to meet you. Look, can we use the lift to get some of our older folks out of here? And Maisie and the baby?”
They started moving, Hsieh in front, as Jack responded.“New arrival, eh? Congratulate the young lady. Yeah, once we’re in, start siphoning folks out of there, but be aware, the lift’s small.”
“Let’s just bring them back up here for now,” Lynda suggested. “That way, we can get more of them out of the kitchen, faster.”
Jack nodded, “Good idea. Lynda, you get ‘em started, then get out front with the rest of us. We’ll need you.”
“What, is she some sort of great shot?” Roderick asked. He had tried to take the rear-most position, but moved in front of Jack when the Captain fixed his icy-blue stare on him.
“She’s a team leader,” Govinda said, limping a little behind Lem. “You’re not.”
Twelve hours ago, Lynda would have blushed and held that close to her heart even as she demurred. Now she reached for Govinda’s hand, gave it a quick squeeze, and forgot the comment as she opened a door in her mind to feel for the voice, checked her gun — for what, she didn’t know — and tried not to remember the breath-stopping pain of ruby heat across her face. Her cheek burned.
(Flame and acid)
Lynda looked at Jack, said it aloud: “Flame throwers?”
He looked stricken, and shouted to Hsieh, all pretense of stealth forgotten, “They’ve got flamethrowers! Go!”
She and Jack pelted down the hall, overtaking Hsieh and reaching the black lift door together ahead of him. It opened so slowly.
“In, in,” Jack chanted. Govinda gasped as her injured foot left streaks of blood on the hall floor, and her hand did the same on the lift wall. Lem shoved a charge into her stunner, then steadied Govinda. Hsieh slowed long enough to grab Roderick and swing him into the cab, before hitting the down button.
The cab wasn’t moving, Lynda thought. It wasn’t moving. “What kind of flamethrower?”
(“Look”) Jack told her silently. A shoulder-held tube, a slight ear-popping, an oily sheet of orange jetting from it and across the shoulders of shrinking, shriveling, crisp—
(“What do you think we should do?”)
“We take it to them the old fashioned way. One body, one bullet,” he said aloud. “Hit them before they hit us. Only way to stop them.”
“No,” she said firmly, also aloud. “No killing, not if we can help it.” Now she was thinking furiously, calling back her borrowed weapons knowledge. “Jack, we have the noise bomb. Is it directional?”
“No, but the light bomb is,” he said. His eyes narrowed, “You seriously think we can use it against flamethrowers?”
“Dead serious,” she said aloud. Silently, she pleaded: (“No more death, Jack. Not even them.”)
“It could stop them momentarily,” the big man answered Jack, but he frowned. “You have any follow-up? Bomb’s no good without follow-up.”
“A moment’s all we need,” Lynda said. “We’ve got the stunners, right? Roderick, that’s what you have, isn’t it?”
He shrugged, looking nervous. “Yeah. Well, a tingler, but, yeah.”
“I’ve got one,” Lem said, nodding. Lynda could tell Ruthie was much happier with something less than lethal.
“OK, it’s actually simple. While they’re blind, they’re not going to use the flamethrower, and we can...we can stun them, take them out that way. If we do it really fast....” I’m not really telling these military people what to do, she thought, I can’t be, not really.
Jack nodded: “Light bomb ‘em long enough to get close and stun them. We can go one better than that, too. ‘Vinda, you’ve got the nets— ”
“Crowd Shrouds,” Lynda corrected unthinkingly.
“Whatever. You’ve got them?” Without waiting for Govinda’s answer, he said. “Get behind me. When I give the word, lift the big end on that one and aim it at the opening. I’ll steady it and you hit the button. See the red button? Brace yourself, and hit it.”
“Right,” the programmer said, wiping her bloody palm on the front of her skirt.
Then they were down, door opening, no more time for talk.
Their immediate view was of a bank of shelving, holding boxes and bottles of foodstuffs. Another set lined a narrow wall directly to the left, while the kitchen proper opened up on the right. Jack dashed from the lift, Lem and Hsieh close behind. Lynda hung back and extended her left hand — the one not holding her mag gun — to Govinda. “Come on.”
She smelled hot metal, the throat-closing tang overpowering even the pungency of steam table and deep fat fryers. Her mouth dried and the blood pounded in her ears, but she kept moving forward, after the others.
(Be brave, be strong, hold on) the voice commanded. Or was it her father? Or her mother?
“Davitch!” Govinda’s shout startled answering cries from some of the people crouched behind kitchen equipment in front of her. She paid them no mind, just dropped Lynda’s hand and ran into his embrace, burying her face against his shirt. He murmured something into her hair, his eyes closed.
“Later,” she said, looking into his face. They disengaged as if they’d been one flesh, slashed apart.
“You cut it close,” Davitch said, speaking to Jack, but not taking his eyes from Govinda. “The door’s almost done for.”
“Think we have the cure for that,” Jack said, his smile strained but real. “You two are too sweet to be believed, but if we can have a little focus up front?”
Davitch looked past Jack, toward the lift. “Where’s Meg?”
“Later,” Govinda repeated. He looked at her, then wordlessly took the gun Hsieh handed him, put his other arm around Govinda. All of them except Lynda headed for the dining rooms. People in the way stood back to let them through.
Lynda remembered her order.
“Where’s Maisie?” she called, as she checked the nearest group. “Maisie? Someone bring Maisie and her baby here.” Without stopping to see if anyone was obeying her, she looked for anybody else who needed immediate moving. She spotted the grandmotherly woman she’d first seen in the control room. The young man was still with her. “You two, over here,” she said, pointing behind her. “The larder.”
“What?” The boy had his arm around the older woman, but he wasn’t moving.
“Now! Shift it!” She didn’t recognize her own voice, but it had the desired effect. The boy pulled his companion to her feet, and they made a dash, shoulders hunched, past her to the lift. “Hold the lift — Maisie?”
Two men chair-carried a pale young woman, her sweaty face lined with recent effort and exhaustion, her arms cradling a new responsibility. One of the men ducked his head at Lynda. “Where d’you want us, miss?”
“Follow them,” she said, indicating the duo already at the lift door. “Go up one floor, stay there and send the lift back down. Now!”
Roderick was still in the cab, she realized. She swore, rage bubbling up, rich and overpowering. “Roderick — get over here!”
She didn’t have time to be surprised, or pleased, at his immediate obedience, just held her breath once he approached her and got into his face the way she’d seen Jack do it. “Give me your gun.”
“Give me the gun,” she repeated, taking Mayhew’s non—projectile weapon from his grasp with one hand, slapping her mag gun into his palm with the other . “You keep that lift filled with anyone who doesn’t have a weapon. Move them upstairs, as many as you can. Once you’ve finished one or two trips, put someone else in charge and get out front. Or I will personally come back here and...”
“Keep your britches on!” Roderick backed away from her without protest, no interest in hearing the rest of the threat. “Fine with me...” He turned around shouted, “You heard the lady, everyone over here by the lift. Uhm...six at a time.”
Lynda turned away herself, satisfied, and felt something hard coalesce inside her. Not the old weight; something sharp and dark. It felt horrible, and wonderful. She didn’t know she was smiling, or how frighteningly wolfish the expression was.
(You know, you’re always smiling, Lynda, the docent said. I never know what’s going on in your head. She’d smiled some more, not knowing what else to do. The docent handed over her education completion certificate, and told her good luck before ushering her out of the office.)
A dull, percussive reverberation prompted more shouts from the kitchen refugees. Lynda ducked instinctively, then turned and ran for the front.
Smoke stung her eyes, but she could see a sizeable rectangle of the main door was gone, the excised slab fallen forward onto the cafeteria floor, crushing one of the overturned trestle tables. The resulting gap was perhaps two meters high and a meter across.
Lynda glimpsed motion beyond the opening, then cried out involuntarily as it resolved with a tangle of heat beams and force shots. Iris’s group were very evidently trying to lay down enough fire to clear their path into the cafeteria. The narrow-gauge enfillade (where had she learned that term?) was successfully preventing Jack and Govinda from setting up the net-shot.
Jack hand-directed Davitch, Rog and Alex, all standing two paces behind him, to head to the right. He and Govinda checked their weapons, then moved, still well back, to the left. As they crouched and scampered to their new location, the fire from the hall subsided briefly. No one outside could get a bead on the forces inside, now that they’d moved to the far sides of the room; besides, it was probably a great time for them to change clips and charges, Lynda thought fleetingly. Or would they be setting up the flame thrower?
In the relative silence, Jack lifted his head and checked his scanty forces. Lynda looked too; just nine of them, plus five or six ex-contestants standing just behind the main cafeteria line in the kitchen. They were armed only with knives and various other kitchen implements. Lynda turned back to the opening.
Jack stood up and gave a thumbs-up to Hsieh at the back of the main cafeteria. He’d stayed close to the kitchen forces until now. The Captain nodded. The security man nodded back, took a breath, and dashed straight down the central aisle, dangerously close to the opening.
He skidded to a stop about a meter away from it, standing motionless for one heart-stopping moment. Then, silhouetted in blue light from the hall outside, he shouted “Now!” and cracked open the bright blue tube he suddenly held in his two huge hands.
Lynda covered her eyes just in time. Even a directional light bomb could blind carelessly shielded retinas in the so-called safe zones. As it was, Hsieh’s outlined figure burned on the backs of her eyelids. She couldn’t believe how bright the thing was.
She heard curses and shouts from beyond the door, then heard Iris shouting her troops to silence. She risked opening her eyes, and ran forward. She couldn’t see clearly, staggered and hit the corner of a table; pain flared in her hip, and she plunged ahead, grunting with effort before sliding into position next to Lem.
To the right, Jack and Govinda pulled themselves to their feet and did some sliding of their own, almost into Hsieh.
He jumped out of the way, allowing Govinda a clear shot with her net-shooter. As calmly as if she’d been setting up a video shot, the programmer depressed the shooter’s button.
The device jerked in her hands and against Jack’s shoulder, but its payload shot out neatly through the opening, an expanding mushroom of slim, sticky webbing. Nobody within 15 paces of the door could escape. She heard shrieks of anger and confusion.
That was her cue. She moved forward with Roderick’s neuron tingler; Lem moved in synch with her, both of them dashing to the center, around Jack and Govinda, dodging Hsieh.
The tingler was surprisingly easy to use, Lynda found. She had no particular difficulty aiming it at anything that moved, either under the webbing or outside of it. No sound, no visual sign of the effect, just bodies melting into limp helplessness in front of her. To her left, Ruthie mirrored her with the stunner, and more of Iris Anders’ troops collapsed. No one dead, Lynda thought with satisfaction, just out of commission.
Something hissed from just outside the door, something made Lem gasp, something tumbled the little woman backward, something made her land, all dead weight and unnatural, impossible angles. Someone yelled with satisfaction.
A man, standing just beyond the first pile of opponents Lynda and Lem had hit. No one special, no one at all. Lynda howled, and hit him with the tingler. Once. Twice. A third time. The man fell, his mouth stretched in a rictus of pain with spittle at its corners. She kept firing, until the gun grew hot in her hand, until the charge was depleted. Blood trickled from the man’s ears, from behind his eyes. He didn’t twitch anymore.
“Lynda! Stop! Get down!”
She didn’t react.
(“Lynda, honey? Can you hear me? You can stop now.”)
She didn’t answer.
(Child, move or you’ll die.)
She didn’t move.
Someone grabbed her left leg, and pulled her down, just as a woman in the hall took a shot at her with a force stunner.
Lynda rolled to the side and back up on one knee, as Jack had done in the armoury. She realized with fierce elation that Lem had saved her. Ruthie didn’t look so impossible now, she was alive (thankyouthankyouthankyou) but she was bleeding just below her left breast.
“It hurts,” she managed to whisper.
Everything went bright and sharp and slow around the two of them. Lynda embraced Ruthie and carefully, gently, helped her stand. She stooped to pick up the other woman’s fallen stunner, readjusted Ruthie against her chest, then shot in front of her, to one side and the other, at anything that moved, as she dragged both of them back, out of range.
“Shhh,” she soothed, as their retreat jolted another cry from Ruthie. “I’ve got you.”
Over their head, she heard and felt heat and flashes of light. Rog and Alex were firing stunners Lem and Hsieh had handed them. Davitch was shooting one, awkwardly; Jack was shooting one very, very well. He was terrible to see. Hsieh spared Lem and Lynda one look, grief warring with anger, then ducked to avoid the renewed hall attack. He emptied a clip from his gun, slapped a new clip in, and commenced firing, apparently less interested in preventing projectile decompression than he had been.
There was still no sign of a flame thrower from the hall.
Medikit. She had one, she remembered.
Lynda scrabbled about herself, found the tiny white box and tore it open. Bandages, some wound closure spray, a bottle of pills, probably pain killers. She pulled the torn cloth away from Ruthie’s wound, wincing in sympathy as the woman hissed in pain. “Sorry. Sorry. Have to see...uhm...oh...”
There wasn’t an entry wound, just a deeply burned gouge, seeping lymph as well as blood. That was good, she thought, she wouldn’t have to dig anything out. The closure spray — that probably had anaesthesia and antibiotics in it, that’d help Ruthie. Lynda tore the top off the can and sprayed the burn. She had no idea how much to use, so she just kept spraying until she saw the corners of the burn start to pucker.
“That’s enough,” Ruthie whimpered. “Bandage.”
She was grateful to find the bandages were self adhesive, but she hoped distractedly that that wouldn’t mean they would stick painfully to the wound. She gingerly pressed the edges tight to the uninjured skin around Ruthie’s wound. “That OK?”
“Good. Fine. Thanks,” Ruthie managed. Then she gasped, as a shadow fell over the two of them.
Lynda looked up at Iris Anders.
The woman had come from nowhere, from behind her troops in the hall. She had apparently avoided every shot, every stunner charge, and gotten inside the cafeteria without running afoul of their defensive shots.
Smoke streaked her face, her eyes were wild, her hair was undone, wet and stringy around her fleshy neck. Her sweater was, improbably, still neatly buttoned. She carried a very large gun. Lynda didn’t know it, but it was an exact replica of a 20th century German Mauser.
She aimed it at Lynda’s forehead.
They looked at each other.
“I’m doing my masters’ bidding,” Iris Anders said, almost apologetically, before the air whickered, and a hole appeared, red and black rimmed, in the middle of her forehead. She toppled over, the Mauser skittering from her dead hand.
A whiff of sewer reached Lynda.
“Gotcha,” Roderick said behind her. “Stupid bint.”
There was silence in the hall.
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