Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tunnel Rats

The tunnel was a gloomy reminder. Once Zao Prime (now called Zaoprym as language drifted as sure as the continents) was ten times the present area and twenty time the population. Once before the Collapse Zaonia had a score of similar cities, now blasted and scavenged ruins.

Much of Zaoprym was still abandoned outside its bright beating center but ruins remained and were there were ruins there was infrastructure.

Professor Elevator knew infrastructure. He had mapped a good third of the old tunnels used for express transport ad various services and, knowing his future was as a revolutionary, did not share the information with the Order of the Flaming Sword. Now his quarrels with his brother and sister Knights seemed petty as invaders camped on their starport and waited for the strength of numbers to truly destroy them.

To Professor Elevator the tunnel was a means, of escape and of insertion. He was an old hand at defying oppressors. Offworld oppressors were dumber than most local tyrants. He had the going for him. He risked a light and checked his map again. Maybe another hundred meters and he'd arrive. He smiled as his plane began to gel, despite the sweat on his forehead. He carefully rolled the map back up and replaced i in its case on his belt. then he took a small nip from a hip flask.

"We should have brought the rest of the Elevator Operators ... don't you thi ... maybe ... never mind ..." Mezzanine trailed off as her leader's glower deepened at her words. Then he was smiling again. For a criminal mastermind he was alarmingly upbeat.

"Too many people would be noticed. We can only succeed by stealth. Remind me to have Mort slap you when we're done here."

"Yes sir. Maybe you should slap me now. It seems unlikely we'll survive."

Professor Elevator's fist balled to strike out. Mezzanine didn't flinch but the hand descended gently and beeped her nose. The professor even intoned >beep< gravely. Mezzanine's eyes crossed a little.

"I did not take you out of that abominable waitressing job, train you, put my faith in you, to see you die. Your attitude though ... you need to stay upbeat girl. Don't give me that look ... if I'm too old to date you then I can call you 'girl'," he said squeezing her shoulder a moment.

Mezzanine smiled, "If anyone can do it, you can sir."

"We can."

"Why don't you sing a couple fucking songs?" Basement muttered as he joined them. He pointed back the way they'd come. "A couple of mercs found our entrance and are investigating. I don't think they made me. We better move."

"Those offworld scum hold no fear for Professor Elevator ... but as it happens we were just about to leave."

***
"Fan out now and tell the psionics we're all walking down to the water on the east end of the island. They'll get instructions once we all meet up," the Captain said. Luch nodded and headed down an alleyway. 

"What about me, Captain?" Sandoval asked  trying to keep up.

"You ... stay with me," Captain said grimacing.

"But why?" the navigator demanded.

"Luch can kill a man with his barehands. Can you?"

"Maybe. If he was little ..."

"Also, you're fricking blue! Because you're blue. That doesn't go with a low profile. What were you thinking?"

"I get bored with basic caucasian sometimes." 

***

"Word from our people and robots in the starport is we're going to get hit tomorrow," the Mayor said to the assembled police and squires. There was some muttering till Twoomey stepped up beside him and glared.

"Were you expecting an easy ride this time?" the sergeant snapped. The muttering stopped.

"Sleep in shifts," the Mayor said. "Get some food in you. this is the last of it. At least they ain't waiting till we're starving to hit us."

"Why is that?" Twoomey asked.

"I think ... they're on the clock. They mean to smack us down fast before the Subsecgov or the Outreach Foundation can get nosey. We gotta hang tough and wait till we make them go over budget."

"I think I'm making them dip into the petty cash for more of these drones," Steigen said. There was some chuckling at that.

"We hang tough. We don't knuckle. There's always hope," the Mayor said. He wasn't making a speech so much as talking to the troops. 

"On the bright side ... we did finally work out a medical plan for you guys the Union found acceptable ..."

***

A steel grating barred Professor Elevator's way, an obstacle to lesser minds perhaps. He gestured to Mezzanine and she took up guard position watching their backs. Basement removed his backpack and extracted a metal saw from it.

"Brilliant, Professor," Bullethead said admiringly.

"Thank you my lad."

"Professor?"

"Yes?"

"Where do I plug it in?"

"Sonuvabitch! Zao damn your eyes! Why didn't you ..."

"It's gas powered you stoops! Pull the Zao damn starter cord!" Mezzanine snapped.

"Oh ... " Basement grabbed the handle. "I thought this was a funny shaped plug. You'd be amazed how often this kind of thing happens to me."

"Try not to surprise us further, lad."

"Okay ... now this engine is going to be a little noisy when I start 'er up ... but don't worry. The blade sawing will drown it right out."

"... well let us put our earplugs in. That will make it quieter."

"Professor, you're a genius."

***

Staff Sergeant Thadh watched the free trader crewmen and officers walking down to the East Side Beach. The Beach was a nearly enclosed bay. Two rock pillars, the Gargoyles marked the entrance. The normally strong but placid current played hell outside the bay throwing spray as waves dashed themselves on the twins and other rocks below the surface. You'd be hard pressed to get into the bay with a power boat. Swimming out was out of the question unless you were an uplifted porpoise.

Behind him Tradh's squad clambered out of the truck, The people kept walking. Tradh grabbed the bullhorn on his belt and hollered, "Return to your quarters. There is no escape this way. The currents outside the bay will drown you." He hit the rep[lay button and the horn repeated his words.

"They're looking to kill themselves, Sarge?"

"You got me. We didn't make internment so bad it seemed. We can't let them drown themselves ..."

"Should we open up on a few and turn them back? We can shoot low," another trooper said. That got him pained looks. A mercenary was not paid enough to die for his boss. That was true. He was paid enough to kill but wholesale slaughter of civilians was another matter entirely. You could be up on charges for that.

Sergeant Tradh settled for calling it in to his platoon leader. Let him sweat the details.

***

Basement was cutting through the last of the steel bars when Mezzanine gestured and the Professor tapped him on the shoulder to cease.

"Someone's coming," Mezzanine hissed. Sure enough a long shadow could be seen coming around a corner. The three got under cover and readied their weapons.

"Sir Bert!" Mezzanine gasped.

"Indeed. What have you been up to Cuthbert?"

"The usual ... Elihu. There were a couple of guards trying to follow you down here," sir Bert said matter of factly. He checked his own weapon, an automatic pistol with a large silencer and judged the silence to still be sound. He reached into a pouch on his equipment belt and handed Professor Elevator a small shining cube.

"Metallic. Hydrogen. Where?" Elevator asked.

"I was just at the Venture Project. I was all night riding home. When I heard about this soiree I decided to horn it. That's yours, Sir Eli, compliments of Mr. Gutman."

'He's a good fellow. This is wondrous stuff.  ... so he faked his death?"

"Came close. He's in a healing suspension awaiting transport to an offworld hospital. His wounds were too extensive for the gear we have here."

"He's a lateral move from a brain in a jar ... he has to be one of my people deep down. We'll talk after this is done. Basement ... continue." Basement should have engaged the saw and  continued working at the bars. Instead he stood looking at the small cube in the Professor's hand.

"Hey ... izzat stuff stable? Ain't it like nitro? Last time we used nitro ... you needed to wear a wig for a couple months ... sir"

"Perfectly safe. The only things that set this off are lifter effects or a temperature in excess of 2000 degrees."

"See scale or Kay scale ... that 273 degrees leeway? It could mess you up." 

"Get to work!"

"Oh. I'm done. You got more stuff what needs sawing?" Basement pulled the last bar out.

A short jog down the corridor got the group to a series of switches controlling valves, if the old signage was correct. 

"When my robot friends staged their little tea party it was very easy to get down here. Who watches a robot carefully? The offworlders have shut them down now. Pity."

"I do when it's toting a damned ground car."

"Ah Bert, the Elevated Man missed. Let bygones be bygones."

"It was my fucking ground car he threw. Technically he still caused me injury. I loved that car."

Elevator threw several switches and watched some old gauges carefully. He spared himself a chuckle. "We're almost there. The software on my laptop already accessed the controlled of the starport mainframe ... and the computers of our interned merchants. They are going to begin a partial power up as part of a maintenance cycle. I just flooded their tanks with deuterium. Mwahahahahahaha!"

"Huh?" echoed around him. 

"Isotope of hydrogen? Gives off a ton of neutrons when it fuses? Neutrons screw up lifter tech, make people sick?"

"You used this plan awreddy ... for the robot uprising! Remember?" Basement looked shocked.

"I can use a plan again," Professor Elevator said, almost petulantly. "Besides ... using the interned merchant ships is new ... "

"Can he Mezzanine? This don't seem ..." Basement trailed off as Sir Bert stuck his pistol in the minion's ear. Mezzanine had Bert covered. Elevator threw his hands up.

"No one shoot. Cuthbert, Basement will do as instructed. I assure you. He's just ... special. Like a big kid. Now no one kill anyone. I must insist. Comrades in arms and all that!"

The first bullets spanged off the walls and pipes and everyone dove for cover. Mezzanine peeked from behind a circuit box and saw mercenaries coming out a corridor not wasting time on words.

"I knew you gorillas were making too much chatter!" she yelled firing her submachine gun.

***

Sergeant Tradh's dliemma was solved by an alarm siren from the starport at the other side of the island. His ear piece simultaneously began squawking. 

" ... Holy ... follow them!"

"Sergeant?" 

"I said follow them."

"But the recall siren ..."

Tradh already doffed his helmet and pack and was running for the water.

***

Colonel Leogain peered out the bridge porthole at the people scurrying about. "Find out what's happening!" He said to the comm  tech. 

"Radiation alert. The interned ships are all running on a prelaunch cycle and they're hot! It's neutron radiation!"

"Nnngh ... ground all lifter tanks and trucks immediately. Are we in danger here?"

"Not short term. We're going to need anitradiation drugs if the cycle continues to increase ..."

Leogain was watching his beautiful tanks and attack speeders falling out of the sky. A troop transport was coming in for a landing. It suddenly lurched and began to drop . It was enough time for Leogain to shout "No!" in his head several times as the ship grew in size and held a steady position.

He never heard the crash.

***

The bullets echoed down the corridor. It must have been far worse for the mercenaries who weren't wearing earplugs. Thankfully they were firing single shots, afraid to hit vital machinery or send ricochets their way.

Basement crawled beside Professor elevator and said, "I can keep them off your back for a while. You guys beat it down the corridor. You can make it to the main tunnel from here."

Professor Elevator thought about it a moment and then said,"Go ahead, Mezzanine and Cuthbert. We will let Basement guard our rear. Mezzanine, go! Now!" His lieutenant loked at Basement a moment and then complied. Cuthbert and Elevatormoved behind her shooting over Basement's head.

Some mercenaries were moving forward while others kept up a stream of fire now. Basement couldn't get his head up long enough to take a shot without getting it blown off. He grimaced. There were too many. He made sure the others had left then opened his hand, looking down at the tiny cube of Metasol.

"You'd think a smart guy like the Professor would know when he's getting his pocket picked," he tsked.  What'd he say? It takes about two thousand degrees to set this Metasol off. He spared a glance at the metal saw. the sparks it threw would be hot enough. But there was no way to secure the two properly. The saw vibrated like a mother.

Basement or Bullethead had trouble telling time but he knew bullets. The muzzle blast from his pistol would suffice ... he hoped. He crawled near a steam pipe for good measure and put the muzzle over the cube.

***

Several pistol shots echoed down the tunnel they hastily fled. Then there was an explosion that hurt their ears a hundred meters away and round a corner. The steam explosion that followed hurt only less so. Mezzanine was looking back and the flash blinded her for a moment. Elevator swore and slapped an empty pocket.

"Dammit! I never lost a man till I started hanging with the good guys!" he hollered. 

Ahead of them was an old subway tunnel. They were nearly home free. "Come on! We can't let Basement's sacrifice be in vai ... what the hell?"

Basement was crawling out of the tunnel feebly and smouldering. Apparently he was just out of view when the blast hit. Mezzanne broke into a run back. "I got this boss!"

"She's breaking protocol Eli, shall I shoot her?"

"No. We do not leave a man behind. Go no further Bert."

Mezzanine had reached Basement and was struggling to get him upright with no success. It was very hard not to kiss every inch of his big stupid face. He opened his eyes which drew attention to his missing eyebrows and grimaced then got one knee under him. He had to be alive the way he felt. Otherwise the afterlife was very overrated though those bells he heard were kind of nice.

"C'mon hon. Get up. I don't wanna kill ya to prevent yer capture.We're almost home," she said. She got his arm around her shoulders and heaved with all her might. Professor Elevator had joined them by then and between them they got him the rest of the way up. 

"Sorry, I got a longer way to go when I stand up," Basement said.

"That's fine my boy. You ... used the saw to detonate the Metasol?"

"Naw sir, I couldn't rig that up. I was gonna use my pistol then I saw they had a camera drone with them ... it used little bitty lifters so I ran for it and threw the cube back," Basement looked around a little puzzled. "Hey I just realized I'm alive!"

" ... for the moment. Let's go!"

The trio rejoined Sir Bert where the tunnel opened into a large subway station As they stepped onto the plaform more mercenaries piled onto the opposite platform. 

Basement muttered, "They probably come to see why someone is ringing that bell so loud," and shook his head to clear the ringing to little effect.

From the tracks a huge cylindrical form rose with a chuff and a whine of engines. Elevated Man stood betweent them and the offworlders. He gave every appearance of trying to narrow his photoreceptors as he strode towards the invaders.

The troops rapidly lost all interest in the human Zaonians. Elevated Man did a quick visual scan, spotted no rocket launchers and went to town as the first bullets spanged off his armored torso.  An invader died under a hammer fist punch. A second was backhanded into a bloody smear on a dusty wall. He snapped a third in his graspers even as Sir Bert cut down a fourth and fifth.

"Let's see how you are at doing the dying, rats!" the old knight bellowed. "Holy Crap Eli ... you were going easy on us with him all this time weren't you." It wasn't a question.

"Bert, you shouldn't know," Elevator said in rapt attention at the destruction his robot was wreaking. "When I found his brain in an old ruin, he was programmed to style hair. Can you imagine? Wasting a synthetic brain on styling hair. Our ancestors were morons!?"

The Elevated Man activated the flamethrower in his left arm. He liked it.

It reminded him of hairspray.

***

Then mercenaries on the beach had remarkably little fight in them. When you're all bobbing water trying to minimize neutron radiation fighting takes a backseat to keeping your head under as much as possible. Besides the merchants had mobbed them and grabbed their guns.

"There's a lot more of us back at the starport, you know? A couple of small arms aren't going to get you very far ... neither is my comlink. Taking us hostage won't matter to them either,"  he said to the navigator, Sandoval.

"We're not taking you hostage. You can leave if you want. If I were you and your men, I'd stay with us. You seem a decent sort based on your not shooting anyone. We can afford you a little portection when the Zaonians come for you."

Tradh had heard the awful crash even a few kilometers away. But he was not the sort to just surrender when he was paid good money.

"This is not going to take us out. You forget, the supplies you brought for relief included anti-radiation drugs," he countered.

"Yes. I know. I was responsible for that little wrinkle myself. In fact we brought those drugs for you lot. As I said, I'm glad you're here. You seem a decent sort. The radiation is probably falling off by now anyway. No need to get sick over 10 or 20 rads.

"The. Anti. Radiation. Drugs."

"Not so much as you might think from the labels."

***

There was a fine mist falling as Ranna met with the surviving officers of the invasion force. Her squires stood behind her warily. She took her cigarette from her pale lips and shook her head angrily.

"No. You will lay down your weapons and file out of this port. We will see about your offworld transport. We want full access to your ships. If you do all that we demand you will not be harmed."

"We still have ships in orbit ... some of them are armed. We could strafe your city and lay waste to it.

"We could begin aerial bombing ... with Metasol munitions, did you think we'd use it all for propellant? We'll lay waste to our starport, the whole damned island if we must. Kill each and every one of you. Your ships will assure we keep our agreement ... but this is the goddam agreement you're getting. As soon as we get confirmation your commander and his posse are dead we will begin treating your men for radiation sickness and ... the tainted drugs you were given."

"That was against the rules of war."

"Then don't steal our fucking relief supplies. You want to start pointing fingers or turn this into a pissing contest your bodies will be up on that starport wall in 24 hours. Level our city ... we'll build another. Face it ... you are going to provide the example that keeps other mercenaries away from us for all time. It's up to you whether you're going to be around to tell them yourself or not."

"... you suck at negotiating. We need a couple of hours to get our people ambulatory. Those drugs messed them up pretty good."

"Good. We'll start treating your people as soon as we start getting them. It's better than you deserve," Ranna agreed.

"You people are barbarians ... irradiating your own ships and planet! Bring out robot monsters ... we would have kept fighting and won if the backer's check hadn't bounced!" the officer spat finally.

Ranna called Beppo and Mort off with a wave of her hand. She took a long drag from her cigarette and breathed it in the man's face. "Yeah we're barbarians. We care about getting things done ... not doing them the way you civilized mooks tell us."

***

"Gimme back that cigar gaddamit!" The voice snapped Sissy awake. Her head was splitting. Psi amplifiers did that. The oxygen tube in her nose was annoying and the gas had given her a dry throat and mouth.

"Yeronnor?" she croaked.

The door to the hospital room opened with a bang. Twoomey hobbled in, his right arm in a sling. the Mayor scuttled in behind him. The head nurse snagged hizzoner's cigar expertly as he entered and hizzoner produced a fresh one and clamped it between his teeth without breaking stride.

"Hey! What are you trying to do, you threadbare carpetbagging pundit, blow us sky high. This place is got oxygen!" Twoomey hollered.

"Great, I understand it aids the breathing. I ain't gonna light it you subpar ticket writing baboon. Here siddown before you fall down." The mayor grabbed a chair and stuck it under Twoomey. The big man sat down heavily. 

"Hello hon," Twoomey finally said.

"Hello, Galen. I see you guys made it through," Sissy smirked.

"The big dope stopped three slugs. If he worked a little harder I could've awarded him his medals posthumously," the Mayor growled.

"Sorry to put you out. Make the medals the kind you hang around the neck. I lost enough blood lately," Twoomey said. He winced as he took Sissy's hand. Sweat covered his upper lip and the short tirade had tired him. Truth was he wasn't up for much of a fight right then. The Aquires just shied away from shooting the ranking politician and a war hero.

"What was all the ruckus, boys?" Sissy asked.

"Old Dead-Eye Bert had you under lock and key here. We had to throw our weight around. chase a few Squires off," the Mayor said chewing his cigar.

"Oh," Sissy said. She didn't need to read minds. When the Mayor was chewing his cigar it was usually an appetizer, the main course being someone's butt. Berry pie for dessert. You wanted to get that taste out of your mouth. He gave her a glance and she knew she was going to be asked some questions when she was on her feet. 

Fine. She'd come clean. There was no way Sir Cuthbert was going to have a hold on her. Let him try some funny business and he'd learn why psionics  were feared. She gave the Mayor a small nod.

Twoomey didn't notice with all the stars in his eyes.

***

Thank you everyone for following the Zaonia Epic. I'm leaving it here because this seems as good a place as any. If I get a good idea I'll be happy to come back to it. For now I'm out of diesel fuel. I'm glad you liked it. If any of you run your own adventures using what I've given you please let me know. That would be awesome.