SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

18. Wet Exit

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

“Alright, open ‘er up!” called Romik from the head of the line.

The two squads were braced against the bulkheads on either side of the downed sky car. Kolteo and Sari were furthest from the ramp door, supporting Julin between them. The unconscious man’s head lolled on his chest, a plastic mask and inflated bag crudely taped against his face. The bag puffed and crumpled lightly as he breathed.

No one knew if it would hold against the water or not.

The troopers had mounted their lights on their helmets. One was bent over an exposed access panel.

The hydraulics shifted. Rivulets of water began to seep down the door. The hydraulics shifted again. Water foamed and sprayed.

“Here it comes!” called Romik. “Last chance to breath!”

The deluge came, along with a sudden piercing pain in the ears as the air pressure spiked. Men bent over with the suddenness of it. Kolteo clapped a hand to his head, surprised. Sari clung grimly to the wall, bracing herself and breathing deeply.

The water was shockingly cold, and fast, sweeping their feet out from under them. One man fell and was swept past them back to the cockpit. Kolteo flailed his arm and caught hold of one of the seats above him just in time. The water was at his waist, at his chest, at his neck. He shuddered at the cold and gulped in as much air as his lungs could hold. His last thought before the water covered his head was to wonder if the bubbles on the surface of the river would betray them to the enemy.

Then the sky car was full of water, and he could dimly see the two squads moving out. He looked back to check on Sari. She waved her hand insistently, gesturing for him to go. Together they pulled Julin out of the sky car.

Once they were out, the current took them. Kolteo let go of Julin and began swimming for all he was worth downstream. The boots hindered him some, but he could not kick them off. Same with his weapons belt. His scabbard slapped against his legs as he kicked, but there was nothing to do about it. Decades prior, as a young Enforcer, he had learned to swim in full armor and kit. The lessons came back to him. One simply had to move differently to conserve energy.

He couldn’t swim fast, that was for certain. If Sari weren’t weighed down by Julin, he was sure that she could have easily passed him up.

He pressed on.

Other than the fleeting glimpses they’d had on the way down, they had no way of knowing how far away the shore lay. The plan was to let the current take them and swim to the left of it, making for the shore. They were sure to come up at different points along it, so Romik would plant a flare somewhere visible, and they would all rally to the most defensible point nearby.

Now in the water, caught up in the current, it was hard to tell which direction was which, beyond light being up, dark being down. He made his best guess and swam for where he thought the shore must be.

The cold pierced him, sapping his strength. His legs felt heavy, like they would drag him down to the bottom. His lungs burned as he fought the urge to panic and take a breath. But his adrenaline surged, and he struggled on with new energy.

Before much longer he knew he needed to breathe. He wasn’t far from the surface now, and he kicked a few times. His head broke the surface, and he expelled the stale air from his lungs and gulped in the sweet, cold, fresh air.

Treading water, he looked about, glad to see again. The dim glare of the clouded sky made him squint after the darkness under the river. There, ahead, he saw the flare, and he heard the chatter of a mounted autocannon. Too much to hope that they would be left alone. Perhaps the enemy would focus on the men in armor and not notice him or Sari. So long as they were in the water, they were defenseless, and Sari had no shield generator.

He submerged and switched to a combat side stroke, conserving energy, skimming along, only breaking the surface with his elbow and head, no splashing. The current carried him along, and he slowly drew nearer to the riverbank.

The cold grew duller, his limbs heavier, and he felt an overwhelming urge to turn onto his back and float for a bit, maybe close his eyes. He fought the urge. His form began to fall apart, and he splashed quite a bit. He began to worry what his instructor would say about his poor form. Would he fail the test? Then he realized that he had passed the test decades ago, and his instructor was probably long retired by now. Where was that bank?

Finally on a stroke, his forward hand knocked against hard concrete. Yes, there it was. Relief, with a new shot of adrenaline, coursed through him. A few yards ahead he saw metal rungs embedded in the river wall. He made for them. His hand grasped hard metal and he drew himself to it, clung to it. He allowed himself a moment to recover while he scanned the river. There, he could see Sari as she struggled toward him with a one-armed rescue stroke. He could just make out the inert form of Julin floating behind her. His heart swelled, and silently he urged her onward.

Summing all his remaining strength, he hauled himself up the ladder and out of the water. It seemed hardly possible, but it felt colder out of the water now than in it. He collapsed on the edge, shivering, then remembered and switched on the shield generator at his belt.

Not a moment too soon. The autocannon chattered and sparks flew around him. He stood shakily to his feet, willing himself to spread his arms and shoulders, and looked steadily up at the armored sky car. The autocannon chattered again, and more sparks flew round him, forcing him to take a step back, but he stood tall beneath the onslaught.

A smile spread on his lips and he laughed out loud, raising his fist in defiance. “Not today!” he yelled.

A glance told him that Sari and Julin had disappeared from the dark surface of the river. He hoped she had heard the autocannon and submerged. He must draw the assassins attention away from her.

The shield was his only defense, and he could not drop it to fire his own weapon, so he began to jog upriver toward the flare. He had forgotten the cold for now. He was fixated on the next objective.

He saw two black-armored forms sprawled on the concrete near the edge. He grimaced. Then he spied an Enforcer huddled behind a concrete wall. He angled off toward him and joined him behind the wall. Yes, seven men had taken cover here, and there was Romik. He switched off his generator. “Report!”

“Sir, we lost two men coming out of the river. We have five operational weapons. Enemy has air superiority. This cover won’t last long.”

“Right,” said Kolteo. “Sari and Julin are still in the water. We need to draw fire.”

He looked about. This was a waterside plaza, with benches, concrete walls, and ugly sculptures scattered about haphazardly. It was about sixty yards of mixed open ground and cover to the nearest building. Not bad.

He drew his sidearm, shook the excess water from it and peeked around the side of the wall. The sky car hovered above the river. He took aim and fired one, two, three rounds. Sparks flew off the windshield of the sky car. He ducked back as chips flew from the wall under the autocannon fire.

“Make that six operational weapons, Romik.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Get a couple men at the each end of the wall. We’ll play peek-a-boo.”

“Aye.” Romik gave the directions.

It was a dangerous game. A man popped out on one side of the wall, took a couple of pot shots, then ducked back. When the autocannon swept over his position, a man at the other end popped out and did the same.

For each couple of rounds Kolteo’s men expended, the autocannon chattered plentifully.

As the game proceeded, the wall eroded quickly under the withering fire of the autocannon. The Enforcers’ wet armor was now caked gray with a thin film of concrete mud. Kolteo kept looking downriver for some sign of Sari. How long would this take?

Then, on the next turn, the autocannon did not sound. Instead, they heard a high, thin, zipping sound.

Kolteo’s heart soared. This was the moment he’d been waiting for. “They’re out of ammo! Shields up, follow me!”

As one, shields glittered, and they staggered out from behind the wall and over the field of shattered concrete. Kolteo led them downriver at a trot.

It was hard running with a shield on, even on smooth ground. The shield interacted with the ground in strange ways, tending to twist the bearer to one side or another. When no fire greeted them from the sky, he called, “Shields off! We run!”

The shields flickered off, and Kolteo led them in a dead run down river. They had to find Sari before the assassins could reload that autocannon.

Where was she?

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