Occupational Hazard: Part Four
Elaine was stalking between the tables of an empty mess hall when the alarm sounded. She dropped into a crouch, tightening her grip on her blaster as she listened attentively for any sign of an approaching patrol. She had been listening for barely half a second when a pair of hunter-killers raced into the room, sending a table and several chairs flying in their haste. They quickly killed their momentum and spun on the spot towards another one of the hall's many exits.
Joining their squad, she realised, taking careful aim. They don't want me picking off any HKs.
It was too late for these two, however. Elaine squeezed the trigger twice, and two concentrated packets of molten plasma whispered through the air and punched clean through the robots' torsos. Had she fired on them while they were moving, the RipMatter A1's two silent kills would have been somewhat spoiled as the hunter-killers careened through the mess hall's maze of tables. Instead, the two robots simply continued to rotate for a few seconds, then fell silent.
Elaine didn't have any time to admire her handiwork, however - another two hunter-killers had appeared at a different entrance, weapons hot and targeting sensors active. She rolled under a table to get into a better firing position.
Aim. Pull. Repeat. The two new arrivals were reduced to a faintly sparking heap.
Elaine advanced cautiously through the suddenly much less empty mess hall, heading towards the freshly decommissioned hunter-killers. If two of them had already entered through that door, hopefully the rest of the pack would be approaching from a different direction. As she moved forward, she kept a careful watch for any sort of incoming flanking attack. Upon reaching the doorway, she edged carefully around the corner, peering through the smoke cloud rising from the disintegrated chassis.
Eight alert hunter-killers peered back at her. Time to run again.
She pulled herself back just in time to avoid being roasted by a barrage of high-powered plasma blasts, turned, and ran for another exit. Ducking through the next doorway, she found herself face to face with yet another loaded blaster. She twisted to one side and fired on reflex, just as she felt a bolt of energy streaking under her right arm.
Yikes! she thought, shoving the hunter-killer's molten frame to one side as she continued to run down the hallway. Emerging onto one of the station's main cargoways, she was almost instantly speared by a dozen more blaster bolts as two squads of hunter-killers closed in from either side, firing furiously. Stopping was definitely not an option. She bent low and milked every bit of speed left in her rapidly tiring legs, aiming for another passage directly across the cargoway. An alarmed cargo hauler swerved to avoid her, scattering its load of heavily packed crates in a wide arc. Miraculously, Elaine managed to get across the cargoway intact, overturning one of the crates and pulling it into the hallway. Crouching low, she backed speedily towards the hatch on the other end, dragging the crate with her. She glanced backwards and managed to catch a glimpse of the area she was heading towards. The good news: it was one of the station's primary air cycling plants, located around the outer ring. That meant she was near the escape pods. The bad news: it was a wide open space. As her aching left arm constantly reminded her, she hadn't had much luck with wide open spaces today.
Elaine paused briefly to pull out a second blaster from her waistband, crossing her arms at the wrists to keep her aim as steady as possible. She would need the extra firepower. Loosing several blasts in the direction of her pursuers, she broke from her crouch and jumped through the hatch, dashing out into the cycling plant. A light switch flashed past her as she ran out into a withering storm of blaster fire, with shots zipping towards her from every conceivable direction. There were thirty metres of open air above her, and a fifty metre drop menacing her from below. She was running along one of the numerous flimsy walkways that criss-crossed the plant. The walkway had no guard rails. Fortunately, balance was one thing she was exceptionally good at.
Three of the walkways converged at a single point on the opposite side of the plant, where an enormous open blast door opened onto several different passageways. Elaine was on one of the walkways. Several hunter-killers were moving to intercept her on the other two. Countless more were flooding every available space on the remaining walkways, raining a perpetual torrent of hot plasma on her from above and sending sizzling bolts of energy at her from below. Moving attackers aiming at a moving target from perilously swaying walkways made for a lot of erratic fire, but the blasts were still drawing gradually closer. At this rate, she wouldn't even make it halfway across.
Acting on that rare blend of brilliant conscious thought and raw instinct possessed only by the very best soldiers, Elaine swung her right arm backwards and fired off a quick burst. She scored a direct hit on the light switch. Every light strip in the plant went out. The walkways were plunged into pitch darkness.
The hunter-killers wasted two and a half critical seconds switching to infra-red targeting mode, and another three re-acquiring their target. At that precise moment, the emergency lighting came on. The hunter-killers automatically cycled back to optical targeting. Elaine sprinted five and a half seconds closer to safety.
Not at all disconcerted by the thought of running along a walkway above fifty metres of empty space in the dark, the Wocky glanced towards the two other walkways heading in the same direction as she was. The interceptors had managed to edge ahead of her, and had almost arrived at the blast door. If those hunter-killers arrived before she did, she was toast. She quickly fired a series of blasts at the ends of both walkways, severing the joints that connected them to the platform beneath the door. With a metallic screech, barely audible over the overwhelming sound of hundreds of repeating blasters, the walkways collapsed and sent the hunter-killers spiralling down towards the immense turbines below. Firing three more bursts, she was able to take down another walkway with its occupants. The intensity of the firestorm centred around her dipped only marginally. More hunter-killers were constantly streaming into the plant - one of them would get lucky sooner or later.
Fortunately for Elaine, she made it to the far end before her luck decided to throw in the towel, scrambling onto the platform and diving through the doorway. Whirling, she used her dual blasters to cut away the supports of the last walkway connecting her position to the rest of the station. A final blast at the door's control panel triggered its emergency protocols, sending the colossal blast door crashing down and sealing Elaine off from her pursuers. She was safe, for now.
This time around, the Wocky didn't stop to catch her breath. Instead, she immediately reached into her backpack and pulled out the plasmite charge she had packed earlier. Working as quickly as she dared, she carefully suctioned the charge to the nearest wall and ran a detonator check.
An observer might have wondered what was worrying her so much that she had decided to set the charge now, of all times. Their question would have been answered right then by a tremendous crash, an impact so great that it left the blast door she had just sealed buckled and rent out of shape. Of all the things a Reaper has to be equipped with, Elaine groaned, why flight packs? Nevertheless, she didn't miss a beat, punching in the last four digits of the arming code and bolting down one of the passageways as fast as her legs would carry her.
A second devastating impact shook the hallway behind her. The gargantuan blast door, capable of withstanding a direct hit from the primary cannons of most battleships, crumpled like a tin can. Two massive hands reached through the resulting holes and wrenched the door from its frame, tossing it aside like a useless piece of Styrofoam. The Shadow Reaper's menacing silhouette hovered in gap for a moment. Illuminated from behind by the cycling plant's red emergency lighting, it vaguely resembled a twisted, malevolent angel of death.
The Reaper was not concerned with its appearance, however. Activating its tracking sensors, it stepped rapidly forward with a series of long, yet eerily quiet strides, sniffing the air for traces of its prey. It immediately picked up some very strong traces of plasmite.
The explosive detonated. Eight kilograms of charged plasmite ignited and blasted outwards in all directions, instantly superheating their surroundings to temperatures in excess of fifty thousand degrees Celsius. The Reaper dropped into a crouch, bringing up both arms into a shielding position. The plasmite struck its armoured casing at supersonic speeds, roaring around it like a living, cackling, demented furnace. The Reaper's temperature tolerance readings rocketed up, peaked at one point five percent, then levelled out as the heat began to subside. The plasmite dissipated out into the air cycling plant, cooling rapidly as it expanded. The explosion was over as quickly as it had began.
The Reaper lowered its arms and stood smoothly, sheets of molten Skaridian-6 cascading off it to reveal its perfectly unscathed, glossy black armoured casing. An optical scan revealed a crater full of slowly cooling molten alloys, some of which were pooling around the android's feet. What remained of the area's walls and ceiling was glowing red hot. The plasmite charge had certainly slowed the Reaper down, but it also had a far more important consequence.
The Reaper focused its scanners on the small pocket of air it had been shielding with its arms. Nothing. It widened the search to the entire surrounding area, hunting for any biological or chemical remnants of its target. Not a trace. The plasmite bomb had eliminated every last hint of the subject. There was no way to identify which passageway it had proceeded down.
Incapable of feeling disappointment, the Reaper ran a brief diagnostic, then continued with its methodical search.
* * *
"Reaper Eight reports that it no longer has a direct trace on the prisoner. It appears that she used a plasmite charge to cover her tracks."
"Hmph." Ylana nodded, unsurprised. "All right then. Split the HKs into their squads and spread them out again. Make sure the teams guarding pod bays nineteen to twenty-one stay right where they are. When Nevergreen re-engages, we'll be able to box her in easily."
The door buzzer sounded, and Ylana whirled to find herself staring into the amused eyes of Commander Gormos.
"What are you doing here, Gormos?" she snapped indignantly.
The Kougra kept his expression neutral as he stepped into the command centre, save the slightest hint of a smirk that had found its way onto his lips. "I heard you were having some trouble containing the prisoner. I came to see if I could be of any assistance."
"The situation's under control. Nevergreen's trapped near the manoeuvring section of the outer ring. There are only three escape pod bays she can get to, and I have two squads covering each of them. When she tries to punch her way out, we'll have her."
Gormos snorted. "I doubt 'trapped' is an appropriate word to use while describing such a ridiculously large area. You know, Ylana, I liked you better when you took a more proactive approach instead of just waiting for something to happen."
"Being proactive doesn't mean you have to be stupid."
"And twiddling your thumbs won't help you to catch a Resistance spy," Gormos shot back. "What was the prisoner's last known location?"
Ylana forcefully jabbed a random Grundo in the back.
"Air cycling plant five, heading outward down one of the primary passageways," the Grundo responded hurriedly.
"Useless information," Ylana added, scowling. "She's not there anymore."
"A trail barely thirty seconds old is hardly what I'd call useless." Gormos turned to address the room. "Divert every hunter-killer available to cycling plant five. Have them all form a line and comb through every hallway in a six hundred metre radius. When they find the prisoner, make sure she's left with no way out."
"You'll be moving HKs away from the escape pod bays," Ylana warned.
"No point in waiting for her there if we can catch her now."
"This is my shift, Gormos."
"And Doctor Sloth placed me in charge of defending this station from any and all forms of attack. This matter falls under my jurisdiction, so I'm assuming command."
The Acara shook her head and snorted in disgust. "You're wasting your time. If I know Nevergreen, she's long gone by now. All you're doing is giving her a free pass to the nearest escape pod."
"Nonsense. Assuming your incompetence isn't overly contagious, we'll have her long before she gets anywhere near an escape pod."
* * *
Elaine crouched uneasily behind a pile of abandoned maintenance equipment, sizing up the twelve hunter-killers standing between her and the door to an escape pod bay with more than a little trepidation. Twelve-to-one odds in a straight-up firefight weren't favouring her by any means, not even with the RipMatter A1. And no doubt reinforcements would arrive in seconds once she engaged. One last battle, she reminded herself, and then you'll be off this blasted hunk of metal.
Lowering her blaster, she reached into her backpack and prepared a grenade, hefting it carefully to make sure she had a good feel for its weight. With a little luck and some good aim, she could take down two or three hunter-killers immediately, and hope that the element of surprise could handle the rest.
She was just about to yank out the grenade's safety pin when the two squads of hunter-killers suddenly jolted upright and charged down the hallway towards her. Reacting on instinct, she rolled around the pile she had been hiding behind, staying out of the robots' sightlines while keeping her blaster at the ready. But the hunter-killers rolled right on past her, speeding down the hallway and off towards some other unseen target.
Well, thanks, she thought gratefully. Whoever was in charge probably thought she was still back near the air cycling plant. They wouldn't keep thinking that for long, however. As soon as the hunter-killers were safely away, she broke cover, crossed the distance to the pod bay, and hopped through the door.
Ten small hatches ran along either side of the dimly lit space before her, marked with diagonal black and yellow warning stripes. It didn't take a genius to figure out where they led to. But Elaine ignored the escape pods for now, heading instead towards the large bank of controls situated at the far end of the bay. This phase of her escape would require a little preparation in advance.
The most pressing concern was that there was no way a single escape pod would be able to make it safely away from the station. Its tiny single-engine drive was exceedingly slow at the best of times. Throw in the manoeuvring she'd have to do to dodge the station's massive banks of weaponry, and she'd be doing little more than flying around in circles until one of the shots found its mark. There would have to be a diversion of some sort. Launching more than one pod might do the trick. Well, there were twenty escape pods in this bay...
Arriving at the console, Elaine flipped open her toolkit and pulled out a magnetic screwdriver. Seconds later, she was looking at the exposed circuitry of the bay's main logic module. She conjured up a mental image of the module's schematic, then swiftly cut through three wires before reconnecting the loose ends directly to the power supply. As a finishing touch, she carefully shorted two contacts on one of the circuit boards.
Straightening up, she shot a nervous glance back down towards the hallway. This would be a really bad time for that Reaper to show up... She hurriedly packed her toolkit away and entered a series of launch codes into the console, adding a twenty second delay as the last command. After one last check, she hit EXECUTE, then bounded up to the nearest escape hatch, popped it open, and dropped nimbly inside. The hatch sealed automatically behind her, and two faint light strips flickered on to illuminate the pod's cramped interior. Elaine yanked open the craft's solitary storage locker, stashing her backpack and the four blasters she had acquired inside. The locker's gel-padded walls would keep the items safe and secure, while also keeping her safe from the items in case the ride got a little rough. Swinging the locker shut, she leaned back and strapped herself in.
Moments later, the pod's launch tube opened, and a powerful blast of compressed air sent it rocketing out into space.
* * *
"Sir! We have an escape pod launch!"
"What?!" growled Commander Gormos, angrily slapping a small bag of Neopoints into Ylana's waiting palm. "Where?! Where did it launch from?"
"It looks like bay number twenty sir, but... this- this can't be right. We're reading multiple escape pod launches, from different pod bays. Bay fourteen, bay five..."
Gormos stormed furiously over to the evacuation control station.
"How many?" he demanded, leaning over to get a good look at the rapidly flickering monitors.
"Erm..." The Grundo worked his console furiously, double and triple-checking his figures to make sure he wasn't making some sort of crazy mistake. "All- all of them, sir. All six hundred. Somebody managed to trigger a full batch launch in every single pod bay."
"We have six hundred small ships coming up on sensors!" called a Grundo from another station.
Ylana barked out a short, sharp laugh. "And I thought I was having a troublesome day."
Ignoring her, Gormos moved across the command centre, arriving at the weapons control station in three quick strides. "Activate the auxiliary generators and bring our weapons systems up to full power! I want those escape pods destroyed. All of them! Now!"
"Are you sure that's the best idea, Gormos?" Ylana asked, wandering over to join him. "You do realise this is the first time we've run our weapons systems at full power, right?"
"Save it, Skyfire. I'm busy."
"Well, fine, but I still think it's too late for us to catch her. In fact, I'll put my money where my mouth is: fifty thousand Neopoints says she makes it to lightspeed in one piece. You in?"
Gormos rounded on Ylana, eyes seething with a rarely seen streak of rage. "Look, Skyfire, I realise this is all some petty game to you, but I was assigned to protect this station, and I take my assignments very seriously. If you're so concerned about my decisions, why don't you jump out of an airlock and chase after the prisoner yourself?"
The Acara folded her arms sternly. "Hey, as I recall, when Nevergreen escaped it was you who were on duty, not me. And who was it that wanted to have as many HKs on patrol as possible, instead of leaving a squad to guard her cell? Oh, I remember now, that was you as well."
"That's what you like to think," snorted Gormos. "It doesn't matter anyway. This station has twice as much firepower as the rest of the fleet combined. The escape pods will be reduced to scrap metal long before they can make it to lightspeed."
"Then what are you afraid of?" prodded Ylana, jangling the bag of Neopoints tantalisingly. "Don't you want your money back?"
"Fine, you're on." Gormos turned back to the weapons officer. "Status report!"
"We are acquiring target locks as I speak, sir. The auxiliary generators are spinning up now. All weapons systems are nominal and at full power. Tertiary batteries are charging up. Secondary batteries: coming online. Primary batteries: FIRING!"
* * *
The viewports on either side of Elaine's escape pod suddenly blossomed into an impossibly bright display of multi-coloured beams, slicing through the void to mingle with blinding flashes of superheated metal and exploding rocket fuel. She fought the urge to squeeze her eyes tightly shut, forcing them to stay open and adjust to the new light levels as quickly as they could. Here we go, she thought grimly, first come the lasers, next comes the Gauss.
A vast swarm of hypersonic projectiles shot past and perforated several more unlucky escape pods, smashing through them like a giant with an invisible hammer. Over the next few seconds, the normally placid starfield was pierced by the outlines of every weapon imaginable, from rockets to fragmentation shells to titanic globs of plasma that would have dwarfed an average Neohome. The firestorm kept on coming. Whoever was operating the station's weapons systems knew what they were doing. They were cycling the weapons batteries instead of firing them all at once. Less overkill. More efficiency. More dead pods.
Elaine kept a steady eye on the rear viewscreen, holding her pod's straight and level course. Any form of evasive manoeuvre would give her away immediately, so she needed to save that for when she really needed it. A hyper-velocity cannon shell flashed through the space above her and annihilated a nearby pod, ripping it open shortly before exploding into a brilliant ball of flame. She flinched as the shrapnel ricocheted off her pod's hull, glancing impatiently at her lightspeed core readout. Of course she knew that it was supposed to take well over sixty seconds to finish charging, but this was really pushing it...
Over on her left, a pair of astronomically huge laser beams were making quick work of every escape pod within reach, slicing rapidly from left to right in a humongous arc of destruction. The pod directly beside hers exploded, bursting open like a supercharged soda can. Elaine felt the radiation burn sinking into her skin, and twisted around to get a better view. Two terrifying green pillars of energy were swinging purposefully towards her. She was next.
Fighting down her reflexes once more, the Wocky held her pod steady. "Closer," she murmured quietly, "just a little closer... NOW!"
She shoved her control stick forward, nudging the pod down and to the right. The massive lasers missed her by mere metres, scything overhead and proceeding directly towards the next pod in the line. A bead of sweat ran down Elaine's neck, and she realised that the beams had actually raised the temperature inside the pod by several degrees. The wait had been worth it, though. On sensors, it would seem as if her pod had simply been knocked away by the adjacent blast wave. Hopefully.
* * *
"We are firing all weapons, sir," the weapons officer reported. "Escape pods are being destroyed at a rate of seven per second, with an accuracy level of ninety-nine point eight percent."
"Ninety-nine point eight?"
"Affirmative, sir. One miss occurred eight seconds ago, when one exploding escape pod displaced another. We'll catch it on the next pass."
"I'd concentrate my fire on that pod if I were you," interjected Ylana.
"Ignore her," Gormos growled, "she's just trying to waste our time. Maintain your firing pattern."
"Come on, Gormos, you know I don't need to sink that low just to win a bet."
"Keep firing!" the Kougra roared. "Maximum efficiency! We can't afford to let a single pod survive!"
* * *
Elaine glanced around anxiously at the rapidly thinning pack of escape pods. She had made sure to stay as far as possible from the main clusters of pods, where the station's batteries were now concentrating their fire, but it was only a matter of time before they picked her up as a target again. Her fingers clenched tightly around the control stick as she willed her lightspeed core to come to life. Come on, come on...
A deafeningly loud alarm tone startled her out of her reverie, accompanied by several urgent visual warnings flashing in her face. The visuals were completely unnecessary - every cadet in their first week of flight training had learned to recognise that chilling, heart-stopping, stomach-sinking tone. She focused on her rear viewscreen, and sure enough, a pair of distinctive blue engine trails gave away the position of the two Cobrall Mk4 seeker missiles that had emerged from the station and were now streaking towards her at no less than seventy kilometres per second. The missiles were faster, more manoeuvrable, and could probably keep flying for far longer than her measly escape pod. There was no way she was going to evade them successfully, and depending on what payload they were carrying, a single hit from any one of them would be enough to either vaporise her or pierce her through with hundreds of fragments of scorching-hot metal. She had mere seconds to figure out a way to shake them off her tail. Or rather, she would have had mere seconds to do so, had it been possible.
The Wocky watched the missiles close in on her with a growing sense of dread. She wrapped both hands firmly around the control stick. With careful timing, there was a slim chance that she'd be able to dodge the first one. There was virtually no chance of outmanoeuvring the second. Even then, both missiles could simply come around for another pass. The escape pod should have been ready to go to lightspeed by now, and she was beginning to believe that it never would be.
"Great," she moaned, "I'm going to be killed by a malfunctioning lightspeed core."
Right on cue, a single line of red lights on the lightspeed panel flashed once, then turned green. "Lightspeed core ready," announced a cheerful monotone voice, "please begin by inputting the destination coordinates using your navigation com-"
Elaine jabbed the mute button and toggled the system to manual, wrenching the control stick around. The escape pod banked hard left, its nose angling towards a distant pinpoint in space. Puffs of gas vented forcefully from its manoeuvring thrusters as it lined up with its destination's orbit.
Home, sweet home.
Elaine made one last adjustment to her course, then rammed the throttle as far forward as it would go. The pod shimmered briefly, glowed bright blue, and winked out of the visible spectrum.
* * *
"What is it?" sighed Gormos, frowning as he inspected one of the command centre's larger displays.
"Sir, it's the escape pod that we identified earlier. The one that we missed."
"Has it been destroyed?"
"Well, no sir. The pod - it's gone. It just went to lightspeed."
"Sensors indicate that one escape pod went to lightspeed, sir."
Commander Gormos let out a thunderous roar, slamming his fist into a nearby console in frustration. There was silence for several seconds. Eventually, the Kougra straightened up and turned towards the comm station.
"Contact Doctor Sloth immediately. Inform him that the prisoner has, regretfully, managed to escape... and that we will need to order six hundred replacement escape pods."
"On a more positive note, you can also tell the master that his command station's first full weapons test was an absolute success," added Ylana drily.
Gormos turned to focus down the bounty hunter with his most potent threatening glare. "I suppose there's an 'I told you so' coming up right about now?"
"Actually, I was thinking something more along the lines of 'Pay up'."
Snarling, Gormos reached for another bag of Neopoints.
* * *
Resistance Intelligence Agent Elaine Nevergreen arrived safely back in Neopian orbit forty-seven minutes after reaching lightspeed, and was picked up by a Resistance retrieval team shortly afterwards. She was immediately debriefed upon her arrival at Resistance Headquarters, and later served with an official reprimand for questionable conduct and negligence in the line of duty. An official hearing was held two days later, where it was decided that she would be stripped of her rank and placed on probation. Nevertheless, the information that she was able to gather, as well as Agent Nevergreen herself, would prove vital to the success of Operation Vacuum Sword, an all-out attempt by the Resistance and its allies to neutralise the threat of Doctor Sloth's rapidly expanding spacefleet once and for all.
What's that you said? You want to know more? Well, sir, I'm going to need to see your security clearance...