Deathstalker Rebellion (8 page)

“That shouldn’t be possible,” said Stevie One. “The cyberats were supposed to have cut off the elevators.”

“Never trust anyone who has an unnatural relationship with his softdrive,” said Stevie Two.

“Right,” said Stevie Three.

They spread out before the elevator door, guns and blades at the ready. It was very quiet in the corridor. Owen’s hands were sweaty, and he wished he had time to dry them. The elevator chimed again, and the doors slid open to reveal a medium height impeccably dressed man with a heavily lined face and long, carefully styled white hair. He smiled at them all engagingly, and the Stevie Blues let out their breath and lowered their weapons.

“We should have known,” said Stevie Two. “If anyone could slip past an entire army of guards and just waltz in here, it would have to be you.”

“You know how it is,” said the newcomer, in a deep, resonant voice. “I do so love to make an entrance. Now, be a dear and introduce me to your friends. Guns make me nervous.”

“This aging reprobate is Alexander Storm,” said Stevie One. “Longtime rebel, adventurer, and gadfly by appointment. Hero of the rebellion, professional clotheshorse, and a general pain in the ass. We only put up with him because he’s so good at making the Empire forces look like pratts.”

“Right,” said Stevie Three.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Alexander Storm. He stepped out of the elevator and clapped Owen firmly on the shoulder. “I’m an old friend and comrade in arms of Jack Random. I’ve been semiretired for a while, you know how it is, but once I heard Jack was back in the thick of things, I knew I had to join him. It’ll be just like old
times, fighting shoulder to shoulder again. I haven’t seen the dear fellow since Cold Rock. Not one of our better showings, I’m afraid. Still, it’s the thought that counts. Anyway, I contacted the underground, pulled a few strings, and here I am. The Stevie Blues will represent the clones and espers, and I shall speak for the other parts of the underground. Delighted to meet you at last, Deathstalker. Word of your exploits has spread far and wide. Everyone in the rebellion is delighted to see you following in your father’s footsteps. He’d be so proud of you. But then, Deathstalker has always been an honorable name. Great things are expected of you, my boy. You are the hope of humanity.”

Owen became aware of a dangerously quiet, fuming figure at his side. “This is Hazel d’Ark,” he said quickly. “I’m sure you’ve heard of her, too.”

Storm smiled at her dazzlingly. “Of course. The rebellion can always use another canny fighter. Tell me, Owen, how is Jack Random these days? Last I’d heard, he’d taken a hell of a beating at the Empire’s hands.”

“He’s … better than he was,” Owen said carefully. “Try not to look too shocked when you see him. He’s been through a lot.”

“Are we going to stand around here chatting all day?” said Hazel ominously. “Or is someone going to check whether the program’s finished running yet?”

The barricade filling the top of the stairs shifted suddenly, as someone underneath tried to move it, but it just settled itself more comfortably. And then an energy beam tore right through the mass of equipment, scattering fragments of molten metal in the air. The rebels ducked back and covered their heads with their arms. The security forces began dismantling what was left of the barricade.

“Let’s save the official getting-to-know-each-other session for a better time,” said Owen hastily. “I’ll check the program. You shoot at anything that moves till I get back.”

He sprinted down the corridor and into the computer room, and saw with relief that the program discs had finished their task and ejected themselves. He grabbed them, pressed the attached self-destruct, and watched with satisfaction as the discs were consumed in smoke flames. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and dropped the burning discs to the floor. Now, even if he or any of the rebels were to be captured, there would still be no way the Empire could re
construct what the program had been. He ran back to the stairwell, where Hazel was spraying the disappearing barricade with bullets, to no obvious effect.

“Time to go,” Owen said briskly. “The program’s taken care of, and we have more than outstayed our welcome. Grab anything that’s yours or might be useful, and head for the roof. There are gravity sleds waiting there.”

“We can use the elevator,” said Storm. “The cyberats have control of it.”

“We’ll use the stairs,” said Hazel. “The cyberats’ commands could get overridden, and it’d be a damn silly way to get trapped.”

She headed for the stairs, without looking back to see if the others were following. Storm raised an eyebrow at Owen, as though surprised he wasn’t taking charge. He was the hope of humanity, after all. Owen shrugged sheepishly and hurried after Hazel. Storm and the Stevie Blues followed behind. Owen kept his gun trained ahead of him, just in case, but there was no one lying in wait on the stairs, and they reached the top floor without incident. The gravity sleds were waiting where they’d been left, for which Owen was very grateful. This would not be a good time to have to walk home. Hazel was already aboard her sled and powering it up. Owen took Storm on his sled, while the three clones insisted upon crowding onto Hazel’s.

The two sleds rose into the air and headed for the shattered windows they’d originally entered by. Energy beams stabbed the air around them as Dram and his people burst into the top floor, firing wildly. Owen and Hazel pushed the gravity sleds to full speed and shot away between the pastel towers, dodging and diving erratically to throw off the guards’ aim. The sleds had force shields, but the power needed to sustain them would quickly drain the sleds’ energy crystals of power they needed more urgently for speed. The Stevie Blues hung on grimly to the bucking gravity sled and fired back at their attackers. More guards appeared at the windows of other towers and opened fire on the sleds. Dram must have got the word out. Owen and Hazel darted in and out of the towers, fighting updrafts and dodging unexpected protrusions, and the energy beams came at them from every side.

A disrupter beam hit the front of Owen’s sled a glancing blow, blasting it off course. White-hot metal spattered across
his hastily flung-up cloak as he struggled to regain control. The cloak burst into flames. Storm pulled it free from Owen’s shoulders and threw it overboard. It fell away, burning brightly, finally disappearing into the long drop. Owen fought the sled back under control, but its speed had dropped by half. Hazel dropped back to keep pace with him. Owen gestured for her to go on, but she shook her head stubbornly. Owen activated his comm implant.

“Hazel, will you please get the hell out of here! Dram will be putting sleds into the air anytime now.”

“Exactly,” Hazel said calmly. “You’re going to need someone to watch your back. We can’t let you die. You’re the hope of humanity, remember?”

He would have argued more, but they whipped around the side of a tower to find themselves facing rows of armed guards waiting for them on top of the next tower. Owen and Hazel cursed simultaneously and threw the sleds into a dive. Energy beams slashed past them, and one hit Stevie Two squarely in the back. The force of the blast threw her over the side of the sled. The other two Stevies screamed in unison as the burning body plummeted toward the distant ground. Owen sent his sled plunging after her, pushing its speed well past its recommended safety limits. The engine whined protestingly, but he ignored it. He overtook the falling body, swept the sled underneath, and then surged up to catch her. The burning body slammed onto the deck. Storm wrapped his cloak around her, to smother the flames. Red warning lights glared all across the sled’s controls, and Owen snarled back at them. He’d saved a life from the Empire’s venom, and that was all that mattered.

Hazel’s sled swept in beside him. Stevies One and Three were firing Hazel’s projectile weapons at the guards, driving them back under cover. Hazel gestured back over her shoulder, and Owen glanced back briefly. Imperial gravity sleds were coming up behind and closing the gap fast. Energy beams flashed past the rebels’ sleds, from behind and ahead. Warning shots fired, to show they’d got the range. Owen caught Hazel’s eye and pointed upwards. She nodded, and the two sleds darted straight up, leaving the sheltering towers behind. Owen activated his comm unit again.

“This is Rebel One to Golden Boy. I can’t come to you, so you’ll have to come to me. Lock on to my signal and get your ass here fast.”

There was no answer, but he hadn’t expected on. The two Stevie Blues were firing down at the pursuing Empire sleds, tears for their fallen sister streaming down their cold, set faces. Their guns ran out of ammo, and the espers dropped the projectile weapons to the deck and grabbed two more from Hazel’s belt. They opened up again, and one of the pursuing sleds suddenly erupted into flames and fell spiraling between the towers like a burning leaf. Owen and Hazel sent their sleds whipping back and forth over the towers, their Maze-amplified speed and reflexes enabling them to make decisions and pull off evasions their pursuers couldn’t hope to match, but still the Empire sleds came on, remorselessly closing the gap with their superior speed.

And then the great golden ship of the Hadenmen appeared out of nowhere right before them as it dropped its cloaking shields, filling the sky, gleaming brighter than the sun. The pursuing sleds took one look and did everything but throw themselves into reverse. A few fired off useless shots at the huge ship, but most just settled for shuddering to an unruly halt in midair. Owen glanced back over his shoulder and saw Storm looking up at the ship with his mouth open. Even the Stevie Blues had stopped firing at their pursuers. Owen grinned and flew up into the open cargo bay doors in the ship’s belly, Hazel right behind him.

“Get the hell out of here right now!” yelled Owen. “Go, go, go!”

The belly doors slammed shut, and Owen and Hazel landed their sleds. Owen slumped over the controls, exhausted, but made himself turn around as Stevie One and Stevie Three ran over to the sled. Storm was bending over the unmoving body of Stevie Two. He looked up as the esper clones reached him and shook his head sadly.

“I’m sorry. She must have been dead from the moment the beam hit her.”

Owen wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Stevie One nodded stiffly to him. “You risked your life to save her, even though she was just a clone. It’s not your fault she didn’t make it. We’ll never forget what you did, Owen Deathstalker. Wherever you lead, we’ll follow.”

“But now there are only two of us,” said Stevie Three quietly.

Stevie One put her arms around her and hugged her hard. After a while she let go, and the two Stevie Blues walked off
a way to be by themselves for a while. Hazel came over to join Owen and Storm.

“Nice flying, Deathstalker. Maybe you are the hope of humanity after all.”

“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” said Owen.

“Listen, aristo,” said Hazel. “You need me to keep you honest. If you’re the hope, we are in deep shit. Hey, Hadenmen! Any chance of showing us what’s happening outside?”

A viewscreen appeared, hovering on the air before them. The planet was falling away below them, but a dozen starcruisers were coming after them. They were unusually large, bulky ships of a kind Owen didn’t recognize. He looked at Storm, who was biting his lower lip and frowning.

“The Empress’s new fleet,” he said quietly. “E class, all with the new stardrive. Reputedly even faster than the legendary Hadenman ships. It would appear we’re about to find out whether that’s the case.”

The Empire ships opened fire. Disrupter cannon fired in sequence, one after the other, so that the starcruisers could maintain a constant fire. The golden ship fired back, but the Empire ships were rapidly closing the gap. Owen assumed the Hadenmen’s shields were still holding—on the grounds everyone on board would have been breathing vacuum by now if they weren’t. And then the ship’s engines roared, and the viewscreen disappeared as the Hadenman craft dropped into hyperspace and was gone. Owen let out a long slow sigh of relief, and Hazel slapped him on the back.

“Told you we’d make it, aristo. Personally, I was never worried. Not for a minute.”

“Then, you should have been,” said Owen. “If those new ships are typical of the E class, we are all in real trouble. Think of a fleet of ships as fast as my old
Sunstrider.
We’d been relying on the Hadenman ships to give us an edge, but it would appear they’re not number one anymore. Which means, if we’re going to go head-to-head with the Empire, we’ve got to have ships with the new stardrive, too.”

“What the hell,” said Hazel. “We can worry about that later. The mission was a success. The Tax and Tithe computers are toast, and we got most of the contacts out alive.”

“We still lost one,” said Owen.

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Storm. “You tried. These
things happen. I’ll go and have a word with Stevie One and Three. Offer them some comfort and a friendly shoulder to lean on.”

He bowed formally and moved away. Hazel watched him go. “These things happen! He’s going to be a real comfort, he is”

“I think we could both use a drink and some rest,” said Owen. “Perhaps you’d care to join me, Hazel? Or we could have a meal together. Would you like that?”

“Not really, no,” said Hazel. “No offense, Deathstalker, but let’s keep our relationship professional, okay?”

She smiled at him briefly, then strode over to Storm and the two esper clones, gesturing for them to follow her. Owen watched them go. He was sure he must have been turned down faster than that at some time in his past, but he was damned if he could think when. Things like that weren’t supposed to happen. He was a Lord, after all. And the hope of humanity.

“Nice try, though,” said the AI Ozymandius through his comm implant.

“Shut up, Oz,” said Owen. “You’re dead.”

CHAPTER TWO

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