In the last few minutes, more Rogue Coalition soldiers had shown up. We now had superior numbers to the Kos troops on the ground, but the hallway worked against us, too. The narrow entrance meant only a small fraction of our troops would have a clear line of fire.
“Where’s our next fallback point?” I asked. Ari had experience leading troops and planning battle strategies. I had experience flying solo, so I left the details to her.
The market sprawled to our north. It provided plenty of cover, but any troops stationed there would be cutoff from quick escape to the tunnels. They would have to go up and around through the main hangar which might be an attack point by then.
Ari must’ve shared my fears because she said, “On the other side of the market, at the hallway to the barracks. Soldiers are setting up a blockade, but we won’t be able to hold it long. It’s mostly to buy us time to get the last of the stragglers out.”
The tunnel entrance was twenty meters past that hallway intersection. If we lost the intersection, anyone left in the residential part of the base would be unable to escape. We needed to hold it as long as possible.
Movement in the security video caught my attention. The soldiers stacked in single-file lines outside of each hallway. At some unseen signal, all of the soldiers in the atrium simultaneously lowered the visors on their combat helmets. Two seconds later, every single soldier shimmered and disappeared.
Holy fuck, Kos had perfected their personal camouflage. Rumors had been rampant for years but I’d never met anyone who had seen the tech in person.
Ari and I shared an incredulous look before the fire doors in front of us slammed closed. Ari was obviously still linked to the security system which controlled the doors.
“Bar the door!” she shouted.
Five soldiers picked up a long metal beam and wedged it into the hooks that had been hastily welded to the back of the doors. Once they were clear, a dozen soldiers heaved the makeshift barricade forward into the door. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would slow the Kos soldiers down.
“Fall back!” Ari commanded. She waved Stella and her nurses ahead of the soldiers.
In the security video from the atrium, the doors to all three hallways opened at once but none of the soldiers showed up on the video. It was creepy as hell.
After our soldiers had cleared out, Ari did a final sweep of the area. “Time to go,” she said.
I nodded and we jogged for the next barricade. We’d barely made it when a deafening explosion echoed down the hallway. The Kos soldiers were not wasting any time, the bastards.
The small stream of civilians had frozen in place. “MOVE!” I shouted. “Get to the tunnel now!”
They broke and ran, but they weren’t trampling each other, so I didn’t try to stop them. We needed them in the tunnel ten minutes ago. The stream slowed until only the occasional straggler hurried through.
I turned to Ari. “Shut down your neural links and tell the soldiers to do the same. We may be too busy to notice the Emperor’s escape.”
While she passed the order, I shut down my own neural links and closed the incoming sockets. I lost my connection to the security video, but I couldn’t see the Kos soldiers anyway. I’d know they were here with the closest fire doors opened and they starting shooting at us.
“I want everyone out of the barracks and every civilian in the tunnel in the next two minutes!” Ari shouted at her troops. “Lorenzo and Montgomery, take a team each and make it happen!” Two soldiers saluted, gathered three more soldiers each, then headed for the residential section at a run.
The remaining soldiers shoved additional shielding across the hallway. Overall, this blockade was smaller. The lower half looked like hull shielding again, but most of the height was achieved by using overlapping riot shields. They would deflect some distance shots, but once the Kos soldiers closed on us they would offer less protection.
Ari kept a squad of eight with us and sent everyone else, including Stella and her nurses, to wait in the tunnel. We would hold here until everyone was out of the barracks, then retreat down the hallway until we were safely behind the tunnel’s blast door.
I positioned myself behind the barricade where I had a clear shot at the door through a gap in the riot shields. I did a final check of my blast rifle, then settled down to wait. The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness. I focused on breathing and blocked out the fidgeting soldiers around me.
Ari crouched down next to me and tilted her head. “They’re coming,” she said quietly. “You should head to the tunnel.”
“Did you really think that would work?” I asked.
“No, but I had to try,” she said. Louder, she said, “We will hold this line until Lorenzo and Montgomery return! Do not let me down! Do not let your Queen down!”
Our soldiers roared their assent.
“The Kos soldiers will seem invisible, but trust your spotter. If your spotter is blind, then suppressive fire is the name of the game. Now let’s show these assholes who they’re fucking with!”
The soldiers roared again.
“Spotters?” I asked.
“I pulled everyone with vision augments. Three of them have thermal vision augments.” Her voice dropped. “I had to give them hope.”
Then there was no time for talking. The fire doors ten meters in front of us burst open and stayed that way, wedged open by part of our own fucking barricade from the market. So much for shooting fish in a barrel.
The barricade inched towards us, pushed by invisible hands.
I listened as the spotters started giving targets and our soldiers opened fire. Ari left my side to move up and down the line, giving orders. The nearest spotter said, “Center, ten cm left of the high point.”
I fired off two quick rounds and red mist sprayed out from a still invisible body. I couldn’t even tell what I’d hit, but Kos reacted with a wall of blaster fire.
“Down,” Ari yelled. Bolts dented the riot shields above us and left behind the acrid stench of hot metal. A couple bolts punched through and a Coalition soldier screamed.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to use a bucket of grenades right now. But in an enclosed area like this, I’d be just a likely to take out my own soldiers. The Kos troops must’ve decided the same thing.
The world narrowed. Shoot. Duck. Reposition. Repeat.
We missed more often than we hit and the Kos barricade crept steadily closer. A bolt clipped the top of my left shoulder, centimeters from my face. I repositioned again, but there was nowhere to go. In minutes we’d be overrun.
“The barracks are clear! Team one, fall back and support! Team two, suppressive fire!” Ari shouted over the noise of battle.
Half of our soldiers disengaged and ran bent-over towards the tunnel entrance while the rest of us put enough bolts in the air to keep Kos from firing at them. I was down to a single extra magazine for my rifle. I slammed it home and prayed it would be enough.
“Team two, fall back! Stay low against the wall,” Ari said.
“But—” a male voice started.
“That’s an order, soldier!”
The soldiers ran for the tunnel. Ari and I swept the Kos barricade with blaster fire. Bolts whistled overhead from behind as our teams in the tunnel shot at the Kos soldiers over our heads.
Ari pulled two grenades.
“Planning to go down in a blaze of glory?” I asked.
“They’re smoke. When I toss them, grab a shield, hold it behind you, and run like hell.” She cut me off before I could protest. “I’ll be right beside you. Stay close to the wall so our soldiers don’t shoot you.”
She pulled the pin and tossed the first grenade over the barricade. Thick white smoke billowed up. She pulled the pin of the second grenade and tossed it a meter towards the tunnel entrance. More smoke billowed until I could barely see.
Bolts still flew overhead. We moved to the edge of the barricade, grabbed a riot shield each, and ran for the tunnel door. Twenty meters had never seemed so far.
A bolt grazed me just below my existing thigh wound and stars exploded in my vision. I gritted my teeth and forged on. Four meters from the tunnel entrance, Ari went down. “Leave me!” she shouted.
I swung my shield around and backtracked two steps. I pulled her to her feet. I would not leave my best friend to be murdered by the soldiers I’d called down upon our heads.
Her left calf was a mangled mess. I looped my right arm through the middle shield handle and wrapped it around her back, then pulled her left arm over my shoulder and half-carried her. My right leg burned with the heat of the sun, but we hobbled for the tunnel entrance.
Blaster fire sparked and sizzled all around us. From our front, Coalition soldiers laid down suppressive fire as they tried to avoid us while shooting targets they couldn’t see. Behind us, the Kos soldiers did their best to kill us before we made it to safety.
Ari and I were just a meter away from the door when white-hot pain blasted through my back and out my left side. Numbness immediately followed. I didn’t need to look to know it was a devastating, potentially deadly wound.
I summoned the last of my reserves and heaved us through the door opening, then collapsed. I took Ari down with me. I didn’t feel the impact, but I did hear the reassuring sound of the heavy blast doors closing. I breathed out a sigh of relief. The Kos soldiers would need a mountain of explosives to make it through. My people would be long gone by then.
Someone rolled me over and tore off my shirt. Stella’s face appeared above me, wan and wavy. I blinked as her lips moved. She rolled me onto my right side and clamped something hard and heavy around my left side that burned like acid and compressed my chest. I tried to wiggle away but my body failed to respond to my commands.
I blinked and I was on a stretcher, being carried by two soldiers. My side hurt. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt.
Another blink and the white walls of medical blinded me. Were we still in Arx? Had we failed after all?
Ari leaned over me. Her face was too pale and her mouth was pinched the way that it did when she was unspeakably upset. She radiated pure, ferocious determination. “Do. Not. Die,” she commanded. “I forbid it.” She continued but her voice faded out as my vision edged in black.
I blinked, but this time my eyelids were too heavy to open.