The main hallway echoed with the shrill cadence of the evacuation alarm. All of the fire doors were closed, narrowing my view to a small sliver of the long hallway. Around me, nothing moved. I did a quick sweep of the storage and utility rooms but anyone who had been over here had already cleared out.
I ran towards the center of the base. I burst through a set of fire doors, and ahead of me, Eddie Tarlowski emerged from the mess hall with a blaster in his right hand and a huge kitchen knife in his mechanical left hand.
He paused when he saw me running towards him. “Boss, what’s going on?” he yelled.
I slowed down as I caught up to him and he fell in beside me at a jog. “The Kos Empire is attacking. We’re evacuating through the western tunnels. Why are you here?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said with a half shrug. “Decided to get started on the day. Then the alarms went off. Thought it might be a drill, so I put the food away before I left. Brought the knife in case it wasn’t.”
“It’s not a drill,” I said as I checked on the vids. The soldiers outside had nearly made it to the main door. The door was two levels up, but the entryway was a three-story open atrium. Once the door was breached, we wouldn’t have any cover. They could pick us off from the balcony.
“Come on,” I said to Eddie. “We have to get past the entrance before they blow the door.”
I sped up and Eddie easily paced me. My thigh burned with a distant pain but whatever drugs Stella had given me were awesome. I’d likely pay for it later, but for now, I’d take it.
The doors to the atrium loomed just ahead. On the security vid, soldiers stuck explosives to the main entrance door. The timing would be dangerously close.
We burst into the atrium just as the soldiers pulled away from the door. “Move!” I shouted. I grabbed Eddie by the arm and dashed into a sprint. He kept up, proving he, too, had augments, so I dropped his arm and focused on running.
The fire doors on the west side of the atrium were open and I could see all the way to the market, where a makeshift barricade made out of what looked like hull shielding blocked the hall just behind an open set of doors. Ari stood in the middle of the havoc, shouting orders.
We had barely cleared the first set of doors into the western hallway when the building shook with an explosion. Two seconds later, I heard the distinctive sound of grenades hitting the atrium steps.
Eddie dropped the knife and tackled me to the ground. The rifle across my back dug in painfully as Eddie covered me with his body. Behind us, the atrium exploded into a fury of sound and light. At least our unwelcome guests were only using stun grenades. Eddie pulled me up and pushed me in front of him. We bolted for the barricade.
Once we were safely behind cover, Ari looked me over, checking for injuries. “I’m glad you made it,” she said.
“Me, too. What’s the situation?”
“I’ve got most of our soldiers helping the civilians evacuate. Imogen took a squad to lead the way to the ships, just in case they meet resistance on the way. We’ll hold here as long as we can, then close and blockade the doors to give us time to fall back.”
“The Kos soldiers went straight for the entrance. I think they have a map and will head for the holding cells,” I said.
Ari nodded in agreement. She was linked in to the security feed, too.
“Spread the word that our troops are not to fire on Kos until they start shooting at us,” I said.
With the holding cells in the south, maybe the Kos soldiers wouldn’t try to push into the western wing of the base. It galled me not to engage enemies in my home, but I wouldn’t be doing my people any favors by starting a fight we couldn’t win.
Deeper in the market, Stella and two of her nurses stood beside three huge duffels emblazoned with red crosses. She’d cleaned out medical in preparation for a firefight.
I dearly hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I hunkered down behind the barricade. The hallway to the atrium was clear. I checked the outside video. Soldiers were entering the building in teams of four. They crept down the east stairs, sweeping for targets.
Outside, a team launched a Kos Ghost miniature surveillance drone. Nearly silent, the drone was smaller across than a typical dinner plate and only ten centimeters tall. The pilot’s teammates covered him as he directed the drone inside. In the atrium, both the east and south tunnel doors were closed, so the drone headed our way. Yay.
I stood from behind the barricade and drew my blast pistol as the drone came into view. “I am Queen Samara Rani. Your Emperor is in the cells in the south wing. This wing contains civilians, including children. If you continue, we will be forced to defend ourselves.”
The drone paused and I mentally watched the security feed as the pilot relayed the information. His commander waved his hands and the drone resumed course.
I brought my blast pistol up and shifted into an unmistakable ready stance. “I will shoot you down,” I warned. I kept an eye on the vid of the inside soldiers. I’d long ago learned to split my focus, and I wouldn’t put it past them to use the drone as a distraction to get a shot a me.
It’s what I would’ve done if I were in their place.
Behind the drone, two teams of four crossed the doorway. I tensed to dodge behind cover but they crossed without taking a potshot at me. Leaving cover was ballsy, though at this distance a blast pistol with standard ammo wasn’t a serious threat with them in full-body combat armor—but they didn’t know that I wasn’t using standard ammo.
I gritted my teeth and let the soldiers pass unscathed. The drone, however, was another story. “Last warning,” I called.
The drone pressed onward. I took a slow breath. When the drone came within six meters, I aimed for a weak spot in its armor plating. The hallway behind the drone was clear, so I wouldn’t have to worry about clipping a soldier. The drone changed course as the pilot finally realized I was serious, but I adjusted my aim then squeezed the trigger.
The bolt tore through the drone’s armor and shredded the internals. The fuel exploded in a flash of light and sent shrapnel skidding down the hallway, then the drone dropped to the ground, dead.
Well, that got someone’s attention.
All of the soldiers in the atrium froze, then two teams moved down the stairs with swift efficiency and stacked against the entrance to our hallway. I shifted until I was mostly behind the makeshift barricade and watched as the lead soldier peeked around the corner for a heartbeat before ducking back into cover.
There was a very thin line between brave and stupid and I wanted to stay on the right side of it. Kos had some elite sharpshooters and while I didn’t know they were out there right now, I didn’t know they weren’t, either. I moved further into cover.
“Nice shot,” Eddie said when I crouched down beside him.
“Thanks,” I said. It wasn’t the first Ghost I’d shot down and hopefully it wouldn’t be the last.
Ari crept closer, being careful to stay behind the barricade. “Will they attack?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “How close are we to having everyone in the tunnels?”
“Not close enough,” she muttered.
An arm appeared at the soldiers’ end of the tunnel and slid a small puck-like object down the hallway towards us. A blink later, the atrium disappeared and my reflection stared back at me, mostly hidden behind the barricade.
It was one of the better active camouflage units I’d seen. The technology was usually used to hide large vehicles by taking a video from behind the vehicle and displaying it on the front, effectively rendering the vehicle transparent. In this case, they’d flipped the camera around. When I shifted slightly, there was no visible lag between my movement and the reflection—it looked just like a mirror.
I checked the internal security video. Three teams were positioned outside of the southern hallway and three more teams were outside of the eastern hallway.
Four teams waited outside of our hallway. The only consolation was if they tried to enter, they would have no cover. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel, something they very well knew.
I couldn’t keep track of all three groups, and watching the Emperor’s gloating face when his troops arrived was liable to send me into a killing rage. I opened a neural link to Ari and waited for her to accept.
Once the soldiers breach the other halls, I’ll keep an eye on the atrium, I said. You keep an eye on the southern hallway and the cells. Let me know as soon as they find the Emperor. Once Emperor Kos was freed, we’d have to stop using neural links or risk him eavesdropping—or worse.
Ari nodded, her mouth set in a grim line.