Continued from 18. Wet Exit.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
As they barreled down the edge of the river, a thin cry prompted Kolteo to look over the edge. Sari!
“Shields up! Shelter us!” he ordered, then dove to the ground at the edge of the river.
Sari was clinging to the rungs of a ladder with one arm while supporting Julin in the water with the other.
Without hesitation, Kolteo slid over the edge of the concrete, tearing his shirt. The water was frigid, but he barely noticed. He clung to the ladder beside Sari and slid his own arm under Julin’s back. “Here, I’ll take him. You get out of the water!”
Sari’s teeth chattered, and she nodded, then climbed up the ladder, assisted by several strong arms above.
Then came the hard work of getting Julin’s dead weight out of the water and over the edge without hurting him. With four men standing tall with their shields on, the other three assisted in lifting Julin out of the water while Kolteo guided him from beneath.
In another minute, he lay sprawled and dripping beside Julin on the ground. After catching his breath, he sat up. The medic was attending to Julin.
“Cottack, how is he?”
“I think he’s waking up, sir.”
Julin’s whole body convulsed in a shiver, and his head moved weakly.
Kolteo knelt over him. “Julin? Good to see you again. Can you walk?”
“Give him a minute, sir,” said Cottack.
“We don’t have a minute!” snapped Kolteo. He slapped Julin’s face gently, avoiding the mass of bruises that were developing on one side. “Julin, wake up, we need to get out of here. Sari’s in danger. Can you move?”
Julin’s eyes widened, and he sat up suddenly, sending both Kolteo and Cottack back on their haunches. “Where’s Sari?” he gasped.
“I’m right here, Julin.” She knelt down beside him, hugging herself and shivering. The water had ruined her quick-change makeup, giving her mottled skin and tangled hair, making her look all the more pitiable.
“Where are we? What’s going on?”
“We crashed in the river, now we’re on the bank,” she said. “There are people shooting at us.”
Kolteo broke in. “We need to get to shelter. Julin, do you know where to find an entrance to the tunnels?”
Julin looked around at the buildings. “Maybe,” he said, slowly.
“Good enough. Get up, we need to go.”
He and Cottack hauled Julin to his feet. He wobbled. Cottack supported him.
Sari stood also. Kolteo pulled her close. “Stay close to me. We can share my shield.”
She didn’t resist. Her face was deathly pale. The shock and exertion were setting in.
“Shields up!” he ordered. “Julin, lead the way, quick as you can.”
Julin was considerably taller than Cottack. He had to hunch over as he leaned on the other man, while Cottack had to extend his shield to its maximum range. Kolteo and Sari had an easier time, but her feet dragged, and she stumbled frequently.
If one person in a shield was clumsy, two were slapstick comedy. But they managed.
Julin led them down the plaza at a halting plod. Kolteo looked back frequently. The sky car hovered in the same place, watching them but doing nothing.
Julin led them around the corner of a building. Unaccountably, the sky car did not follow.
“Shields down,” ordered Kolteo. “I don’t know why, but they’re not following us.”
They moved faster down the street after that, but not by much. The shields had at least sheltered them from the wind, which now picked up. Kolteo’s bones ached with the cold. Julin moved like a man in a dream and stumbled frequently. Sari leaned more and more heavily on Kolteo. Even the Enforcers stumbled again and again. They must find shelter from the cold.
Around them, citizens who had taken shelter inside when the sound of explosions and autocannon fire first broke out were beginning to stick their heads out. When they saw the Enforcers, they went right back to hiding again. The street was otherwise empty.
Finally, Julin led them to the entrance of a building. “In here,” he slurred. “I think this’ll take us down.”
A crowd of frightened citizens at the door gave way as they entered. Kolteo grumbled to himself. Too many witnesses. He raised his sidearm and fired twice into the ceiling. “Everybody down!” he yelled.
The crowd instantly complied, cowering, men shielding women and children. Now, he hoped they would remember Enforcers and a uniformed man firing and giving orders, rather than descriptions of their “prisoners”. There would be no way to hide any puddles they left behind, however.
The air inside was mercifully warm, lending each of the desperate group a second wind. Julin led them to a stairwell and down. When that stairwell ran out, he considered the signs and pointed decisively left. Soon they found another stairwell and went down. Then they were no longer in the brightly lit corridors of the building, but the dimly lit tunnels of the underground.
Kolteo called a halt. The air was cooler, even a bit chill. They wouldn’t be able to rest for long. “Alright,” he said, “I think we’ve escaped. We’re safe for the moment, but we can’t sit still for long. Romik, report.”
Romik removed his helmet. “Sir, we lost Frens and Andadán at the beachhead; no extrication possible.”
Kolteo nodded grimly. He’d liked Frens. A good man to have at your side. Andadán he hadn’t known very well.
Romik continued. “We have four rifles, your sidearm, and our swords.” He patted the pommel of his own. “All seven shield generators operational.”
“Only four rifles?”
Romik nodded. “One more jammed during our game of peek-a-boo. We’ve retained our jammed guns, in case they can be field repaired.”
“Good. Troop status?”
Romik nodded at Cottack. Cottack stood a bit taller, though with Julin leaning on him he didn’t try to remove his helmet. “Sir, we’re all waterlogged. This armor won’t dry until we can take it off. Mr. Terch has a concussion, I’m sure of it, and both he and Mrs. Ais,” he nodded at Sari, “are showing definite signs of hypothermia. Fact is, sir, we’re all likely to catch it if we can’t dry off and get warm soon. It’s not warm down here.”
“No, it’s not,” Kolteo agreed. “We need to find somewhere we can lie low, dry off, and rest. Julin? Any ideas?”
Julin chuckled. “Considering that not twenty-four hours ago you were trying to capture or kill me, I’m still getting used to this newfound trust.”
Kolteo waved his hand as if to brush the remark away. “Twenty-four hours ago, our interests were opposed. Now, they’re aligned. You’re a resourceful opponent and a valuable ally. I’d be a fool not to rely on you. Don’t you have a friend living somewhere down here? Dorfo or something?”
Julin grinned ruefully. “Dorgio, but he’s miles away. He wouldn’t be very happy to see me again, anyway.”
“How many miles?”
Julin frowned. “Romik, let me see your light.” He took it and shone it on the sign at the next junction. “Looks like only twelve or thirteen, actually. Maybe fourteen.”
Kolteo nodded. “We’ll have to cover it, then, unless you know of someone closer.”
Julin frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Marching will keep us warm.”
And it did, for a while.
Back at Central Command, Director Iani’s face was livid. “They ran out of ammunition, and they simply left?”
Major Marrem Mus kept his face carefully neutral. “That’s right. They were under orders to maintain radio silence.”
Iani fumed. “Why didn’t they go down and finish the job themselves?”
“They were outnumbered and had no support.”
While Iani raged, Marrem stood quietly and considered his own choices over the last day. Had he made a mistake by not abandoning his post and following Director Ais? Perhaps, but it was too late now for regrets.
Should he have sent a better-equipped force to destroy Director Ais? Yes, most likely.
Had he secretly hoped that his old friend would escape the trap?
He genuinely liked the man. Most in the Service did as well, he was sure. The two Enforcers who had flubbed the hasty attack on Director Ais’s sky car had mixed feelings, at least: despite the fact that he’d picked them for their reputations as remorseless killers, they couldn’t have been trying very hard.
Betrayal was a harder thing than he’d imagined.
His lip twitched as he suppressed the barest smile. Director Ais was a leader who commanded respect, because his men knew that he would never send a man to do a job that he himself was unwilling to do. Yet there was a softness to him that Marrem had never understood. And serving under Director Ais had rendered Marrem soft himself. He could not afford that sort of softness any longer. Not with this puerile waste of a man before him taking the helm of the Empire for a time.
He studied Iani, who was going on about some string of perceived slights he had suffered under Director Ais. Iani had a fearsome reputation for cruelty and conniving, but seeing him up close, Marrem had to wonder. Director Ais had always kept the other Directors at a distance from the military chain of command, and now Marrem recognized the wisdom of that. If his own plan was to succeed, he would have to do likewise, suffering fools like this himself and shielding the men of the Service from their incompetence. Why, he wondered, hadn’t Director Ais moved against this snake earlier? He would have to understand that before he made any moves of his own.
Iani was beginning to calm down. Marrem would pick things off the floor later.
“Will there be anything else, Director?”
Iani, breathing hard, transfixed him with his beady little eyes. “Find Ais, and kill him. I don’t care how you do it.”
“We’ll do our best, Director.”
He watched Iani’s retreating back, then turned and went around the desk—formerly Director Ais’s desk—and sat down. He looked out the windows at the skyline of Siben. Yes, he did like the view from here.
Continued in: 20. Shelter…
Wet to the skin and bone weary, our heroes have a long way to go on foot. Will there be shelter for them when they arrive?
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