SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

17. Cold Water

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

Kolteo had done many things in his life. Crashing in a sky car was not a new experience. He had done it once before on the day his parents had been murdered.

As he braced himself now, clasping his hands over his neck, staring down at his feet, he wondered if Julin could keep outmaneuvering the rockets.

He he glanced up and saw tall buildings, saw the river rising up to meet them, saw a rocket disappear under the sky car.

The whole car heaved with a noise that canceled out all other noise but itself. Julin cried out, the sound distant and detached. The horizon spun, then a wall of water slammed into them. Darkness enveloped them all.


He came to with a start. He hung upside down from the safety harness. His head felt full and stuffy. His ears rang. Groans issued from behind him.

Another strange sound made itself known: the echoey creaking of stressed metal and flowing water.

The dim cabin lights illuminated the interior. Ahead, the windscreen was dark. Of course. The river. They’d hit the river and sunk to the bottom. He looked up—down?—and saw several inches of black water pooling on the deck. The ceiling.

Splashing and more groans from behind. Romik’s voice: “Here, ma’m, let me help you.”

Kolteo shook himself. Sari was in danger. That thought cleared his head. He began exploring his safety harness with stiff fingers. The buckle was jammed. He tried hoisting himself up against the seat to relieve pressure on the buckle, but he couldn’t manage it by himself.

More splashing behind him, and some feminine but un-ladylike grunts. Then, “Thank you. I’m alright. See to the others.” Relief flooded Kolteo. She was alright.

Romik splashed up beside him. “Here, sir, let me help.”

“Buckle’s jammed,” grunted Kolteo.

Romik produced a knife. “Hold on to the webbing, sir.”

Kolteo nodded and did so. Romik slashed the harness then sheathed the knife. Kolteo held on, leaned forward, and managed to get his legs on the seat, then down. Romik helped. Finally, he was standing right side up in cold water. Thankfully his boots were watertight.

He joined Romik in seeing to Julin. The man was unconscious. Together, they cut Julin out of his harness and lowered him onto Romik’s back in a fireman’s carry. The armsman grunted but did not complain.

More groans and curses and splashing came from the back of the sky car. The other troopers were extricating themselves and helping each other. Kolteo found Sari huddled, shivering against one of the bulkheads.

“Sari, are you alright?”

Her teeth chattered. “I’m alright. Cold. Where’s Julin?”

“Knocked out. Romik’s got him.” Kolteo took off his coat and set it over her shoulders, then held her close and chafed her arms. He looked down into the water but couldn’t see much. He imagined she wore her “practical” shoes, lightweight and low-cut, with sturdy soles. Good for walking, or running short distances, but not for this.

Romik came and leaned against the bulkhead beside him, letting the wall take some of Julin’s weight. “Well sir, now what? I expect they’ll be watching the river for a while to see if we come up.”

Kolteo nodded. “We’re going to have to swim for it before long.” He looked down again at the pool of water at their feet. It was rising slowly but steadily.

Romik agreed. “We’ll have an easier time getting out if we wait until the water’s up to our necks. Don’t know if we could get a hatch open otherwise.”

“We have lights, that means power, so we could get the ramp open.”

“But the flood would knock us back. Someone would get hurt.”

Just then, the lights went out. More cursing issued from the back of the sky car.

“Oi!” Romik raised his voice, “Mind your tongues back there, men. There’s a lady present.”

Muttered apologies and more splashing issued from the back. Flashlights winked on.

Sari shivered against Kolteo, but he heard her laugh lightly. He thought about waiting until the water was up to their necks. She was wearing light, indoor clothes. Though she was tall, she was slender, and she had always hated the cold more than most. Getting as wet as they would, they would all be at risk of hypothermia, but her especially.

No, they couldn’t just sit and wait for the water to slowly rise to their necks. That would give their receiving committee too much time to prepare. But with the power out, how could they get a hatch open against the outside pressure?

“Romik, we can’t wait for the pressure to equalize. We need to get out of here as soon as possible. Give me options.”

“Aye sir.”

He splashed heavily away to the back to consult with his men, still carrying Julin over his shoulders. There was another problem. How would they get Julin safely to the surface? Hopefully he would come to before that became necessary.

“Kolteo?” Sari’s voice wavered, muffled by the coat pulled up around her face. “Why? What’s happening?”

He sighed and rubbed her back. “One of the other directors must have gotten word somehow that I was leaving. He decided to make his move.”

“Can we call for help?”

“Best we don’t, love. We don’t know who to trust at the moment.”

She said nothing but huddled closer against him.

Who to trust? He really didn’t like the line of thought that led him to. Someone in the chain of command had betrayed them. Probably someone directly under Marrem, someone Marrem trusted. But given Marrem’s position, that included a lot of potential suspects. He shook his head. There would be time to work through that later. If they survived the next hour.

He hugged Sari tighter. No. They would survive the next hour. They must.

Romik splashed back up to him. Someone had relieved him of his burden. The water was shin deep now.

“Sir, Andadán thinks he can get the hydraulics moving to spring open the back ramp. We’ll have to brace ourselves along the wall against the flood. Then we can swim out.”

“What’s the situation with our weapons?” asked Kolteo. That was the other worry that had been nagging him.

Romik sighed. “They’re supposed to be water resistant so long as they’re assembled correctly, but I’m assuming a forty percent failure rate.”

“Tactical assessment?”

Romik grunted. “I have to expect we’ll come up under fire. Shields make swimming near impossible, so it’s pretty grim if they’re waiting for us.”

Kolteo thought about that. “If we came down where I think we did, the current’s fairly swift here. They probably aren’t accounting for that. We can stay below the surface, let the current carry us a ways, and come up downstream. Armor first, activate shields, screen the soft targets as they emerge.”

“Hm, I like that, sir. What’s our fallback position?”

“Hard to say without knowing where we’ll come up. Nearest ground floor doorway, unless there’s cover we can reach first.”

“Got it.”

“How’s Julin?”

“I don’t know. I left him with Cottack. He’s a combat medic.”

“Alright. I can take Julin when it’s time to go, if he’s not under his own power yet. You men will have enough trouble swimming in armor.”

“Not too much trouble, sir.”

Kolteo smiled in the dark. “You can’t fool me, Romik. I was wearing that armor when you were in diapers. They say it’s neutrally buoyant, but that doesn’t make it easy to swim in. Alright, consult with your men, and bring me a plan.”

“Aye, sir.” Romik splashed away.

Kolteo caught himself shivering. The air had grown noticeably cooler in the short time they’d been down here. The water would be over the top of his boots soon. He made sure Sari wasn’t leaning against him, then bent down to feel the water with his hand.

Cold.

There wasn’t ice on the river this winter, not yet at least, but they were quite a ways north here, and few swam in the River Turga even in the summer.

Not if they could help it.

He stood and wrapped his arms around his wife again. “Sari,” he said, “we’re going to have to swim for it here in a few minutes.”

He felt her nod. “I heard.”

“I want you to do your best to stay with me as we swim. Don’t come up to the surface until after I do. There may be men with guns up there.”

“Let me take Julin,” she said, her voice muffled.

Kolteo was taken aback. “Don’t talk nonsense, my love. He’s far too heavy for you.”

He felt her shake her head and look up at him. Her voice came clearly. “Not in the water, Kolteo. He’ll float. I’m a better swimmer than you, and I’m not wearing boots.”

He drew breath to begin an argument but stopped himself. She had a point. He’d forgotten that she’d always placed first in the hundred yard freestyle when she was in school.

“Alright. Once we’re in the water, I’ll hand Julin off to you.”

She huddled against him again and nodded.

“But you stay behind the rest of us!”

She nodded and shivered.

He looked up at the blackness above him and fought despair. Every chance was stacked against them. He would feel lucky if half of them survived the next hour.

Splashing announced the return of Romik.

“We’re ready, sir.”

“How’s Julin?”

“Still out. Cottack’s got a jury rigged mask and air supply on him. It’ll get him to the surface.”

“Good. Once we’re in the water, we’ll hand him off to Sari. She’s a strong swimmer, and that will free us to assault the beachhead.”

A moment’s hesitance, then, “Aye, sir.”

Just then, the water began pouring into his boots. He winced in the dark at the cold but kept the shiver out of his voice: “Alright, let’s go over your plan.”


Continued in:

Our heroes escape the crashed sky car… but can they escape the assassins?

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