This is one of my favorite scenes from the novel. I hope you like it too.
Who doesn’t like Big Damn Heroes?
== 28 aug 2064: courtyard level, UN Detention Facility, Nan Garde, Haiti, Earth
Kindig stood at the door that led to the courtyard, with one hand on the push plate. He turned and looked behind him at the line of prisoners. Most stood in the queue as they’d been directed, but some were confused, in shock, or overwhelmed by the stuttering rifle fire and occasional explosions coming from further back in the building. Mund worked his way down the line, grabbing one man and pushing him into position, then moving on to another who was facing in the wrong direction. In a moment he’d climbed on flight of stairs, readying people as he went, and then had turned at the landing and was out of sight, overhead.
Kindig’s phone beeped. Sixty seconds to landing. He turned to the crowd of prisoners and bellowed to be heard over the klaxon and the shots. “Everyone! Pay attention! One more time: when I open this door, you run – DON’T WALK, RUN! – for the ship. Don’t stop for anything. If the person in front of you trips, don’t help them, go around. Once on the ship, file to the back. Grab a seat if you can find one, stand if you can’t. Do you understand?”
He got a bunch of nods. From above, towards the back of the line he could Mund yelling the same set of instructions.
Kindig breathed deeply. They’d practiced every aspect of this drill dozens of times back in a spare warehouse in Aristillus. As the rehearsals got more polished John had started throwing tricks at them – telling the day laborers to stop, to trip, to act confused. By the twentieth run Kindig and the others had felt like they could manage the process in their sleep.
Now was the moment of truth.
Now they just needed the boat to arrive.
He looked at his phone. Twenty seconds. He pushed the door to the courtyard open a few centimeters, then squatted down and looked up and out through the crack. In the sky, nothing. Wait. There – a dot. It grew and then the noise hit him.
Fuck, it was coming in fast!
It took only a moment for it to turn from a small speck far up in the sky into a bird sized object, then a basketball, then faster than he could track the roar turned into an wall of air that smashed the door shut and jammed his fingers back painfully. Fuck! A loud thud from the far side of the steel as the boat landed hard on its heavy shock absorbers just a dozen meters away.
Kindig slammed the door open with one shoulder and stepped out into the courtyard.
The Deladrier sat in the center of the quadrangle, small shrubs and broken picnic tables crushed beneath it. The space was alive with a whirlwind of dust and blowing detritus. The ship itself swayed on its landing gear, still bouncing slightly from its landing. The ramp was already folding down.
Kindig turned back to the prisoners in stairwell and yelled over the klaxons, the distant rifle fire and the thrumming of the ship’s drive.
The first prisoner blinked and froze and Kindig leaned in and grabbed him, pulling him forward. He stumbled out into the courtyard but then started to shuffle, then run. Behind him the rest of the line got a jerky and halting start, but they were moving.
Kindig scanned the windows of the courtyard, then turned his eyes back to the column of freed captives. The first batch, the ones they had known about, were mostly on the Deladrier and now the ones coming out of the stairwell were the others – the ones in the red jumpsuits. The ones from the secret levels.
That’s when the problem started. People started bunching up around the ramp. There were a dozen, then more, prisoners pushing to get into the ship.
He wanted to move closer to help, but he had to stay here and watch the windows. In frustration he took his eyes off the windows and yelled at the prisoners “Get in there! Move!”.
There was a loud crack of rifle fire nearby. One of the freed prisoners near the ship clutched his chest and slumped to the ground. Kindig swiveled his head back towards the windows he’d just turned away from and bellowed into his mike. “Contact in the Courtyard!”. There was a second shot and another prisoner screamed. Where had it come from? Kindig scanned. None of the windows on the far side –
Then he realized he’d been hearing an echo, and looked. There – the muzzle of a rifle in a window two stories up.
Kindig turned, snapped the rifle to his shoulder, and backpedaled towards the rescue ship until he could see the window. He squeezed off a few quick shots as he ran backwards, and the PK’s muzzle disappeared back into the window. He didn’t have an angle to hit the shooter, but he could force him to keep his head down.
The machine gun fire from inside the complex was getting louder and more sustained and there was the deep crump of a claymore detonating.
There wasn’t going to be backup, was there? Everyone else was busy.
He was going to have to handle this alone.
He was almost to the ship, then hit it, his combat webbing and the gear on his back cushioning his impact as he backed into it.
Another shot from above and a prisoner just meters away from him at the ship’s ramp screamed and fell. The shooter was being smart – he was standing back in the room and shooting.
Kindig switched the selector on the second barrel of his firearm to ‘air-burst window grenade’ and snapped a shot into the open window. The round was perfectly aimed – it flew to the window in a flat arc and punched through the glass.
The small computer in the round and the software that ran on it was decades-old technology: debugged, open sourced, and documented in dozens of repositories. It was a mainstay of the border skirmishes of the Caliphate, the Central American Cartels, both sides in the Alaskan and Texan brush wars…and now in this fight too.
The software in the grenade worked perfectly – the round detonated two meters inside the room. The blast threw dust, glass shards and debris through the wrecked window frame and into the courtyard. Kindig tried not to flinch as the detritus rained down on him – his helmet and goggles would keep him safe. He had more important work to do – there were other windows to scan.
Mund yelled over the rising gunfire back in the building “Status?”
Kindig looked down from the windows. Mund was at the stairwell door and the prisoners had stopped streaming out into the courtyard and were packed behind him.
“One shooter, overhead, took him out. Worried about more, I -”
Mund snapped his rifle to his shoulder, got cheek weld instantly and shot a three round burst over Kindigs head into a window on the opposite side of the court yard.
Shit. The reaction team was better armed and smarter than the vast majority of the PKs. Kinding shouted to Mund “You keep covering that side, I’ll cover the near side.” He then toggled his mike and yelled “John, we’ve got the PKs in the courtyard under control, but we need bodies to move the prisoners.”
* * *
Mahoney had opened the last cell door on the underground cell block when he heard the call for backup in the courtyard. He turned and began to sprint to the stairs when one of the prisoners grabbed him. An older man, of indeterminate race – a light skinned Indian?
“The video – you’ve got to get the video.”
Harbert shook his hand off. “Don’t worry, we’re getting this all on video for the after action.”
“No, in the utility closet – that’s where they keep the video of the interrogation sessions.”
Harbert turned away. “No time.”
“I don’t know who are, but we’re on the same side. You need that video – people need to see it.”
Harbert paused for a few seconds then keyed his mike “Got something might be important – can you hold 60 seconds?”
Kindig said “I can give you 30 but shit is getting real fucking toasty here.”
Harbert looked back at the man, who just pointed to a door. Mahoney ran the pass-card past the reader; it flashed red.
Mahoney looked around. Chan with his shotgun and breaching rounds was already gone up the stairs – it was just him, this last prisoner, and the rapidly retreating backs of a few other detainees.
He pointed his rifle at the handle and emptied a dozen rounds into it. The old man gasped and held his hands over his ears. Mahoney slammed his shoulder into the door. It didn’t open. He stepped back and emptied the magazine, empty brass and bits of door handle steel flying. He kicked the door and it slammed open.
Behind the door was a small office with several flat screens mounted above a desk.
A century ago ago data was stored in drives the size of washing machines. Fifty years ago drives had been the size of a loaf of bread, or a deck of cards. Today a thousand years of video could be stored on something the size of a grain of sand.
Mahoney looked around. Shit. Among all the ephemera – mouse pads, coffee mugs, framed commendations and pictures of grinning troops shaking hands with senior officers – where was the data?
There were dozens of things on the desk that could hold data chips – data slates, a cup of pens, a headset with an archive chip, backup shards.
Harbert whipped his head around. There – a large janitorial garbage can on casters. He grabbed it, tilted it at an angle to fit the lip fit under the desk, then swept everything – keyboard, plastic organizer bin, mouse, digital camera, a stack of shards – into the can. The desk was clear.
Above him the firing grew more intense. Kindig yelled at him from his headset “Mahoney? The fuck! Get up here, now!”.
Mahoney ignored it and looked around the room. What else? Were two shelves over the desk. Mahoney grabbed books, folders and other crap by the double handful and threw it into the garbage can.
He looked one last time. The room was bare. He keyed the headset. “Coming!”
* * *
Darcy pushed forward through the line of freed captives, but as she got near the open door to the courtyard rifle fire started somewhere out near the ship the people ahead started moving back while the people behind were still pushing forward. In just seconds the line degenerated into a tangled mess of elbows.
Darcy tried to push through the crowd but people were jammed too tightly. She yelled “let me through! please”, but either she couldn’t be heard over klaxons and the rifle fire or no one was inclined to listen. She wanted to scream in frustration – she NEEDED to get out to the ship and see who was piloting it. Suddenly she felt someone grab her elbow. She wheeled – it was another freed prisoner – Benedikt Hallbjörnsson, the cook from the Poyekhali. He pulled her close and shouted at her ear, like a kid in a loud club. “This is an emergency? You getting to the ship?” She had barely begun to nod emphatically when he grabbed her by the upper arm and plunged deeper into the crowd. Like an Swedish icebreaker guiding a ship through arctic ice, Benedikt pushed through the packed bodies with Darcy in tow. Her arm felt like it was going to pull out of its socket and scraping past the other freed prisoners was painful, but they reached the open door.
Darcy looked out – an open courtyard, with some weird home brew ship – like an overlarge hopper – squatting in the middle. It had a open ramp. Next to her an Aristillus soldier ignored them, scanning the windows on the far side of the courtyard. Suddenly he snapped off a shot. AH! From just a meter away his rifle’s crack felt like a punch in the chest – and her ears stung.
Benedikt turned to her and yelled “What now?”
She pointed “I need to get to the ship.”
Benedikt nodded once and ran into the courtyard, dragging her behind. The Aristillus soldier turned in surprise as they brushed past. “Wait!”
Benedikt ignored him. They were outside, in the courtyard. The rifle fire was intense and she heard an occasional deep thump. Were those grenades? The ship was ahead. On the far side of the courtyard fires raged, licking out from two blown out windows. As she looked there was a low thump just behind her and a grenade sailed over her head and over the ship, striking a third window and exploding.
Benedikt plowed ahead. Darcy’s foot skittered on something and she turned her eyes down to the ground. As she did she saw two bodies – fellow prisoners – lying near the ramp, surrounded by pools of blood. There was a blast of machine gun fire from somewhere. She wanted to freeze – this was a war zone.
She had no opportunity to stop, though – Benedikt accelerated to a run and Darcy was pulled along, stumbling. She tried to get her feet under her but it was awkward with Benedikt holding one arm. The cook belatedly realized this and let go. The two of them sprinted side by side across the open space, past the bodies, and up the ramp. She caught the stenciled name “Deladrier” next to the entrance as she plunged into the airlock.
The inner airlock door was open and Darcy ran through. Inside she slowed and looked around. The ship was a single large compartment, laid out like a bus. To her left, down the length of the hold, she saw her fellow freed prisoners crushing towards the back among the furthest seats from the open airlock door.
To her right was a single door – that must be the cockpit. She opened it and stepped inside. An Indian seated in one of two cockpit chairs looked quickly over his shoulder and yelled “Get to the back – grab a seat and sit -” He interrupted himself. “Darcy?”
“Do I know you?”
“Prem Rohit. We met once when you were guest teaching a navigation -”
“Later. I didn’t realize how small this ship was. We’ve got more prisoners than you planned for. Can the ship handle that?”
“What do you mean more prisoners -”
“More. Prisoners.” She blew air out of her cheeks, still trying to settle herself after running through the combat zone of the courtyard. “Listen. How many passengers did you expect?”
“Uh…20 or so. 25 max.”
“The troops – are they coming out with us?”
“Uh…right. 40 max with the troops.”
“OK, you’ve got more like 70 or 75 …maybe 80. Can you lift that mass?”
“I don’t know, I -”
“Can you handle that many on life support?”
“Uh…probably. We’ve got extra air for a full week, Mike insisted on that in case of drive problems and a bad orbit, but -”
“What’s your name again?”
“OK, Prem. We’ve got minutes. Unbuckled and get back there -” she jerked a finger over her shoulder. “Get the prisoners to start unclipping those chairs and throwing them out the airlock. Look for anything we don’t need. Lose the space suits in the airlock. Throw the food out.”
“Food? This trip is going to take three days -”
“Lose it. Lose the WATER. Is the bathroom a module?”
“Unbolt it and roll it out.”
Prem looked confused.
Darcy felt the urge to cry. Why wasn’t he moving? “Darn it, Prem, do it – now. I’m talking left seat. I need to find an orbital solution with all this extra mass.”
Prem blinked – he was clearly out of his depth. Darcy wondered if the “slapping a hysterical person to calm them down” she’d read in historical romance novels actually worked. – but then Prem unbuckled himself from the seat, stood, and went back to the passenger compartment.
Darcy jumped into his seat and looked at the screens in front of her.
The user interface was revision 459 – good, that was a current one. She swung the keyboard into position then hit a control-alt-shift combination and the UI beeped.
It didn’t have her customizations loaded. Of course not. She spun the trackball, clicked buttons, and she finally had the data entry page up. She had revised mass figures entered and was just starting a simulation run with the AG limiter reset to 10% above red line when she heard the crash of the bathroom unit being rolled overboard.
* * *
John swallowed. The PK reaction force was coming on strong, and his team was undermanned.
He’d been trading distance for time, and they were almost out of both.
The first time they’d fallen back through a steel door and hot-epoxied it shut it had stopped the PKs for three minutes, but now they bad guys had the shotgun-and-breaching-rounds dance down cold, and it bought John and his men less time each iteration.
The claymore booby traps had worked well, but they’d only had six and they’d used them all.
He looked over his shoulder. They were at the top of the stairwell. The final fucking stairwell. Two flights down was the door to the courtyard. There was no more room. No more time.
Sanderfur leaned around the corner of the door-frame and fired two air burst grenades down the corridor. The PKs returned fire from with smoke grenades, bouncing them off the wall and filling the corridor with white smoke. John fired a short burst into the expanding cloud to delay the PKs rush. Vasquez, Lummus, and Ranco all took shots as well, despite their wounds.
He’d called the Mund and Kindig in the courtyard a few minutes ago and hadn’t gotten a response. He hoped they busy shooting, and not dead.
John looked over at Lummus on the landing. The tourniquet on his leg was helping, but not enough – the linoleum floor was slick with his blood.
John looked at his watch. They were at dust off + 12 minutes.
He keyed his mike. “Mund, Kindig, what’s the status? Answer me, damn it!”
Even as he was releasing the transmit button he turned to Chan. “Get down there, see what’s going on, report back.” Chan turned and ran down the stairs. A moment later several PK rounds punched through the door. Sanderfur fired back with another grenade which detonated on the far side of the white smoke cloud with a loud wimp.
They traded shots for another minute and then Chan was back, limping, his left thigh stained with blood.
“Bad news, LT – the ship is overloaded.”
John closed his eyes for just a moment.
“What does that mean?”
“That Darcy chick has tossed everything overboard – she’s even got people stripping down to underwear and has tossed the toilet. We’re 16 people over.”
Shit, shit, shit.
The klaxons and gunfire seemed to die away.
John made eye contact with Chan. Chan knew what he was thinking, and nodded once.
John yelled over the noise to get everyone’s attention.
“The ship is 16 over, men. Anyone in the mood to be a hero?”
* * *
Darcy flinched as another string of bullets slapped against hull of the Deladrier.
Prem, strapped into the right hand seat in the windowless cockpit, saw her jump. “Ignore it. The ship is armored against anything they can throw at us.”
Darcy scowled. “I wish there was a bit less armor – that’d give us lift capacity. Or, heck, we could carry a mini-gun or two.” She looked back to her instruments. This ship had a nice feature – strain gages in the landing gear gave a precise reading on weight. With all the excess stripped from the passenger compartment they were within a few hundred pounds of –
The gages jumped.
Damn it! More weight. Darcy barked at Prem “keep working the insertion, I’ll be right back”, then stood and threw open the door to the passenger compartment.
Four men of the rescue team were standing in the aisle, framed by the airlock door and beyond it, on the courtyard floor the piles of shoes, prepackaged meals, cabin seats, and the big cube of the bathroom unit. Each of the standing lunar troops was supported a bloody comrade…except the last one, who was towing a big gray garbage can.
One the troops yelled “Mam, John says we’re to give you the three seriously wounded, and that garbage can.”
“The garbage can? Wha -”
“Says that it’s super important – I don’t know. He was clear, though.”
“That’s too much! I just did a calibration run. We’re already over, now these men-” she used a practiced eye “- put us 400 kilos over.”
The troop lowered his partner to the ground, turned to her and yelled “John says you need to figure it out! We’re staying, now get out of here.”
…and then he and the other three were gone down the ramp.
Darcy looked around. The cabin was packed. People were sitting on the floor, standing, lying down half atop each other. With the chairs gone and everything else ripped out it was a nasty bare space…and with out food, or a bathroom, or water, it was going to get a lot nastier over the next two days.
Darcy rarely swore, but she felt an f-bomb percolating up.
Another 400 kilos.
Was there anything else she could toss?
Even she was standing there barefoot, wearing just her sweat-stained bra and shorts.
She had no idea.
Should she toss the three wounded troops? Could she even bring herself to do it?
Suddenly the incoming fire shifted and shots started coming in through the open ramp doorway and impacting against the far wall, not half a meter from where Darcy stood.
People started screamed.
The swear that had been straining at her lips finally burst through. She turned and raced to the cockpit, sat, and strapped in. Prem must have saw the determination in her; he hit the large red button to close the ramp. The hydraulics whined.
It was time to go.
Darcy crossed herself then ran a finger down the screen in an old ritual, passing each green box. She’d already played with parameters to boost at higher g’s than normal – the drives were more efficient the closer they were to the planetary mass they were pushing against, so in an odd parallel to chemical rocketry, the more of energy she could discharge close to the ground, the better.
That helped, but the math still didn’t work. Behind her the airlock hissed as the doors sealed and then there was a loud bang as the ramp folded up against the hull.
Maybe she’d think of something en route. Or maybe there was some reserve in the system she wasn’t aware of. Heck, maybe the batteries had a better charge than they were showing.
She yelled “Hold on!” and hit the “activate launch sequence” button. The thrumming built and her guts twisted.
She looked at the screens for the external cameras and saw John and his men near the doorway. Two of them snapped quick salutes at the ship, but the rest had their rifles to their shoulders, picking out targets at the open windows.
The sound and the gut twisting built and the lunar troops were obscured by blowing dust. Another string of bullets hit the hull and one camera went dead. On the screen the bar measuring the AG drive output pulsed and grew, turning from green to yellow to red as it surged past the 100% tick mark.
The launch countdown reached zero and drive kicked hard. A giant weight settled on and pushed her head backwards into the seat as the over-three-g acceleration hit. The ship was filled with screams and yells as passengers fell and tumbled.
* * *
As the dust dissipated John took a second to look up into the bright blue sky.
The ship was gone.
The PKs behind him opened up with a heavy machine gun.
He turned to face them.