A hallway with gray carpets and thick gray bulkheads was lit by bulbs in the ceiling that were designed to match natural sunlight. Officers of the Space-Corps scurried about in their black uniforms, some carrying tablets, others rushing off to battle stations while alarms blared.
Anna slid a pistol into its holster.
She stood in the hallway in black pants and a t-shirt under a light armoured vest, her peroxide-white hair pulled back in a ponytail with thin strands framing her face. “So, you ready for this, kid?”
When she turned, Melissa was there in similar attire, standing with her arms limp and her eyes downcast. “As much as I'll ever be,” she murmured. “When I signed up for this, I really didn't think about zero-G missions.”
Grinning ferociously, Anna shook her head. “You'll get the hang of it,” she said, turning her back on the girl. Girl? True, Melissa was still a cadet, but she was as skilled as most seasoned Keepers. “Come on!”
The ship was jostled by enemy fire, throwing Anna sideways into the wall. Behind her, Melissa grumbled something under her breath. Lights flickered, and people down the hallway shouted at one another.
“You'll be fine,” Anna said.
In the wall to her left, a set of double doors opened to reveal a large room where a breaching pod was being checked by two young women in black uniforms.
Lieutenant Kyla Soree was squatting on the floor with her back turned, scanning the tiny pod with her multi-tool. A short woman with black hair that she wore tied up in a ponytail, she seemed to know whenever someone was coming up behind her despite not having a symbiont of her own. “Breaching pod is ready to go.”
The pod was shaped like a saucer that stood on four legs so that its underside was a good four feet off the floor. These things came in various sizes, but this one was just big enough for four people.
Good thing they were only bringing three. Or maybe two if their companion took her sweet ass time in getting here. Damn that woman.
“She's late again,” Anna said. “Bleakness take me, sometimes I cannot figure out why we bother to bring her on these missions.”
Melissa was at her side with one hand upon the grip of her holstered pistol, staring anxiously at the pod. “She'll be here,” the girl mumbled. “She always comes through for us in the end.”
The doors behind them slid apart to reveal the silhouette of a woman who wore the same gear they did. Tall and slim with hair cut so short it may as well have been stubble, Keli Armana flowed through the door. “So, that's our ride.”
Kyla Soree got up, knuckling the small of her back as she let out a grunt. “I would suggest you all get aboard, ma'am.” She turned around to reveal herself as a gorgeous woman with smooth olive skin and dark eyes you could just drown in. “Our last report from the bridge says the enemy's shields will be down soon. You'll need to get ready.”
A hatch in the side of the saucer opened with a hiss, unfolding to make a set of steps that led inside. With one deep breath, Anna ran up and ducked through the opening.
There was just enough room for a tall person to stand upright without their head brushing the ceiling; fortunately, Anna was short. Space was definitely at a premium, however. Other than that, there was nothing to see: just four harnesses on the metal walls and a rolled up rope ladder hanging from the ceiling.
Melissa came in next, ducking low to avoid bumping her head. The girl muttered something under her breath and then immediately went to one of the harnesses along the wall. “This thing is shielded, right?” she asked, strapping herself in.
Keli popped through the hatch before Anna could answer, looking back over her shoulder at something outside. “Insufferable woman,” she said. “That she would think to hurry me…”
Among Keli's people, telepaths were pretty much considered royalty, the apex of genetic achievement or some such nonsense. Of course, Keli had spent most of her life in a cell, trapped in a facility where she had been a victim of ungodly experiments designed to enhance her talent; so, you would think that she would have developed a little humility – Raynar certainly had – but this woman had enough arrogance to power a star-ship.
Anna smiled, then covered her face with one hand, massaging her tired eyes. “Yes, Melissa,” she said. “This thing is shielded. And cozy too! Is anyone else in the mood for an all-lady threesome?”
The other two looked at her.
Anna went red, then hung her head to stare down at the floor. “Yeah…That's what I figured,” she said, backing up until she was pressed against the wall. “Suppose I'll just have to take out my frustration on the bad guys.”
Melissa was straight, and Keli seemed to be completely uninterested in intimacy of any kind. Not that Anna would have seriously considered it. The woman was gorgeous – no doubt about that – but Anna wanted more than just good looks in a partner. Even if it was just a one night stand.
She strapped herself into one of the harnesses, grunting at the tightness of the strap around her midsection. Traveling by breaching pod was hardly pleasant, but it wasn't as if enemies would just unlock their SlipGates for you.
The pod had only the bare necessities for quick, ship-to-ship travel: thrusters and limited life support. No artificial gravity, no seats. Just enough room for a handful of people.
“You sure you're up for this, Keli?” Anna asked. “We'll be going up against your people; could be rough.”
The woman's lips writhed, revealing pearly-white teeth that she clenched. “They stopped being my people when they threw me in a cell.” Her words were delivered in a voice as cold as ice. “I will not hesitate.”
“No unnecessary killing!” Anna insisted.
Keli glared at her.
Lifting her chin, Anna narrowed her eyes. “I'm serious,” she said with a curt nod. “Do what you have to do to stay alive, but you will avoid the use of lethal force unless you have no other option.”
“Breaching pod, stand ready,” a voice came over the speaker. “Enemy shields are down. You will launch in ten seconds.”
The hatch in the side of the pod folded upward, forming an airtight seal. Lights in the ceiling dimmed, and the panels on the wall displayed big red Xs, indicating that it wasn't safe to exit the pod.
“Launch in five…four…three…two…one.”
They were pushed sideways out of the shuttle bay, and suddenly Anna felt as if she were floating. Without gravity, her stomach was doing flip-flops. There was no sound of any kind, nothing to indicate that they were moving. Then again, Anna suspected that if she had a window, she wouldn't have wanted to look through it.
The sight of small fighters zipping back and forth through the blackness and firing particle beams at each other while her lonely little pod wandered through the fray wasn't something she wanted to see. If a stray plasma bolt killed her, she did not want to see it coming. Better to be surprised by random fiery death. Hopefully, the fighter escort they'd been assigned would keep them safe.
The pod reoriented itself, and her stomach protested the sudden shift in velocity. From Anna's perspective, it now seemed as if they were traveling “downward.”
Across from her, Melissa was hissing with teeth bared, shaking her head so fiercely she was going to make herself even dizzier. “Why did I sign up for this mission?” the girl squeaked. “Why?”
Keli seemed perfectly at ease, standing across from the hatch with hands gripping the straps of her harness. “You both complain too much,” she barked. “Just sensing your discomfort is going to make me sick.”
“So sorry for the inconvenience,” Anna snapped.
She winced as sweat prickled on her forehead, then tossed her head about with a growl. “Just a little further,” she assured the other two. As leader, it was her job to put on a brave face. “We'll make it.”
The soft rasp of thrusters and the feeling of something pushing upward on her feet told her that the pod was slowing its approach. Of course, that only made the nausea even worse. She liked roller-coasters! Most of the time, anyway. But those only exposed you to weightlessness for a few seconds at a time.
There was a groaning sound as the pod's feet magnetically attached themselves to the enemy ship and they were jostled about as the pod's legs flexed to cushion the impact. It would only be a few more moments.
Right now, lasers in the underside of the pod were carving a hole in the Antauran ship's hull. With any luck, no one would shoot them down while they waited. Anna felt pretty damn helpless.
There was a sudden jolt as the legs flexed and the saucer-shaped pod was pressed flush against the other ship's hull. Those panels along the wall with big red Xs suddenly displayed bright green circles to indicate that an airtight seal had been achieved. Anna checked the readouts.
Closing her eyes, she sucked in a breath. “0.77 standard atmospheres in this section of the ship,” she muttered. “Some of the air got out before the pod could seal the breach, but we should be fine.”
She slapped a hand against one of the panels.
A second hatch in the bottom of the pod swung open to reveal a wide hallway with flickering lights on the other side. Some air rushed through as the pressure equalized. Not that she minded; it would give them a little extra oxygen.
Reaching up, Anna unsnapped the restraint that held the ladder to the ceiling and let it unfurl. It dropped through the hole. “Come on,” she said, unfastening her harness. “We don't have a lot of time.”
Without another word, she jumped into the hole
Anna landed on the chunk of scorched hull plating that had fallen to the corridor floor, then jumped and flipped through the air. The damn thing was still hot. No need to risk an untimely burn.
She landed and turned around.
Melissa dropped through the hole next, floating gently downward as if carried by invisible angels. In reality, she had used Bent Gravity to cushion her fall, and when she landed on the piece of scorched metal, she simply stepped off and gave a quick nod of approval.
Keli was the only one to use the ladder, muttering the whole way as she made the descent. “Many, many things,” she said as if no one could hear her. “Many things that Isara will pay for, and this not least among them.”
Anna rolled her eyes.
Unlike its counterpart on the Leyrian ship, this corridor had dingy gray walls and tiles on the floor. Lights on the ceiling flickered erratically, no doubt damaged by enemy fire or perhaps by the pod's intrusion.
“Let's go,” Anna said.
They were here to perform one simple task: destroy a shipment of military-grade weapons before the Antaurans could hand them off to smugglers who would deliver them to colonists on the Antauran side of the border. Weapons embargoes were stipulated in the treaty between Leyria and Antaur, which was why the Antaurans had to deliver them through back channels.
A team of Justice Keepers had intercepted some of these smugglers operating on the Leyrian side of the border. The intel they extracted suggested that the smuggling ring was run by a former Justice Keeper who matched Jena's description. That was why Anna was here.
Anything that might be related to Isara and her cronies was officially labeled task-force business. If the woman was trying to start a war on the Fringe, well…The last thing they needed on top of everything else was hot-headed colonists shooting each other over issues that could be resolved diplomatically.
It was one reason she had such trouble empathizing with Ben. The man insisted that he had allowed a smuggling ring to operate unchecked because the Fringe worlds had to defend themselves somehow, but any rational person could see that with a little patience and communication, there would be no need for self-defense. Anna detested killing. She would do it if she had to, but only if she had to.
“The ship's power grid has been damaged,” Melissa said, checking the readout on her multi-tool. “Emergency force-fields are offline. We should have a clear path right to the cargo bay.”
Keli shut her eyes, tilting her head back as she focused. “Trouble,” she said, jerking her head to the right. “Around the next corner.”
The corner she had mentioned led to an adjoining corridor that was both shorter and somewhat more narrow, ending in a T-shaped intersection. Red lights in the ceiling were flashing to indicate a state of heightened alert.
At the end of that hallway, two men in tactical gear – heavy armour and helmets – came around the corner and stumbled to a halt. One set his jaw and then lifted his assault rifle. “Freeze!” he screamed in Raen.
Anna ducked around the corner.
“What can you do?” she asked Keli.
The telepath was squinting, concentrating so hard you might have thought she was in the middle of a very hard math test. “There are five,” she explained. “Three more out of sight, and they're advancing.”
Anna drew her pistol, setting it for stun-rounds. At a nod from her, Melissa did the same. “Can you slow them?”
“I can try.”
High-pitched yelps echoed through the adjoining corridor, and when Anna peeked around the corner, she saw the two lead men on their knees with their hands pressed to the sides of their helmets. Three others behind them were backing off, visibly shaken by whatever Keli was doing.
“Now!” Anna shouted.
As one, she and Melissa spun to stand side by side in the intersection, raising their pistols in both hands. They fired, and charged bullets struck the first two men in the neck, in the soft spot where their armour would not provide protection from stun-rounds. The two tactical officers spasmed and fell backwards.
At the end of the corridor, one of the three remaining officers was aiming around the corner, trying to fix her with his rifle. Anna reacted without thinking.
Her hand came up, and the light was distorted so that everything seemed to stretch into long streaks of black and gray. Bullets veered off to her right, burying themselves in the wall.
Anna moved sideways, grabbing the back of Melissa's vest and pulling her out of the intersection to the safety of their corridor. “Careful,” she barked, letting her Bending wink out. “You let your guard down for a moment-”
Red-faced, Melissa glared at her. “I saw him!” she insisted. “I was gonna take him out while he was aiming at you!”
“We don't have time for this!” Keli shouted.
“Distract them for me,” Anna ordered.