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Durrond stared at the hatch for a second he couldn't afford. His mind, blank in shock, shivered back into gear.
The leasemen were coming.
He tied Excalibur to his belt in place of the fake Excalibur. He didn't have time to put it in place; he didn't even have time to conjure an escape plan.
I'll make sure you're safe.
He'd promised the waitress. He could save her life, could save millions of others. If his robbery looked like a failure he'd have a chance to fix everything, later, if the Alliance held off for long enough. And If I manage to rescue Sarah.
Alarms echoed beyond the hatch. He could taste the salt from his sweat. Fear sweat: fear of the leasemen, fear of failing his wife. His gaze drifted back to the eviscerated bubble and he tightened his grip on the fake Excalibur.
He'd broken enough promises for one life time. He eased it into the bubble, sealed the hole and deactivated two of the magnets. He drifted backward into the wall and bumped into a computer, making it squeak.
The opened hatch loomed below him. It was dark beyond, with long moaning wails echoing up from within as if it were a hole into purgatory itself. It was the end of his life, the end of his wife's life and the only way out of the lab.
Or was it? He turned from the hatch, searching for a gap between the computers and machines. All vaults, regardless of size, shape or location needed two things: scrubbed air and power. A planet-side vault could get power through underground cables, but here that power had to come through the rock. It had to be laid through a tunnel big enough for maintenance, for someone to crawl through.
His gaze settled on an overhead grill and his chest tightened. A cable bundle as big as his chest scaled the wall, turned and disappeared through the grill.
He grabbed his fuzzer from the door then leapt to the grill. It would be tight, but he'd probably fit if he left the cargo buoy behind. Leaving evidence—traceable evidence—was anathema to his trade, but as the noise beyond the hatch grew louder—Fates knew how many leasemen on their way—he knew it was his only chance.
The grill was screwed into the rock. Durrond pulled a driver from his bag and worked the screws, holding the grill to steady himself.
The noise outside the hatch crystallised into words. He had seconds left. One screw came out, he moved onto the next. A sheen of sweat coated his face, his arms, his palms. The driver slipped from in his hands. The second screw came loose.
"I can hear something," said a surly voice beyond the hatch. "Someone's in there."
"Charge weapons," boomed another voice, deeper and slower than the other, its confidence and assuredness like a thunderclap of realisation in Durrond's ears.
They weren't going to bother with minor details like due process. They would shoot to kill.
The third screw came out and Durrond twisted the grate aside. He pulled himself in by the cables, wriggled in further and further then used his feet to straighten the grill back into place.
"Freeze," yelled Deep Voice. Durrond followed orders, barely daring to breathe. Charged weapons buzzed below, their pitch rising and falling as they swung back and forth. The leasemen were checking the lab, but there were no hiding spots and Excalibur was still in place. How would they read the cargo buoy?
Seconds ticked by, booming in his chest, a hammer crushing his heart down and down until it felt too small to pump blood. Finally Deep Voice boomed again. "He couldn't have got far. We'll keep this sector in lockdown and search every tunnel till we find him. One of you get this buoy checked out. The rest of you get back to your stations."
Someone pushed through the hatch, probably Deep Voice, but the way back was clearly blocked. He stared up through the impenetrable gloom of his narrow tunnel, wondering where it would take him.
Durrond pushed aside the service hatch, crawled out of the tunnel and collapsed in a gasping mess. His arms were numb, his fingers blistered and bleeding and his mouth tasted like old dust, but at least he was free.
When some strength returned he rolled over and opened his eyes, but that was as far as he got. There were too many aches and too little energy and a deep dread in his heart. The climb had taken too long. He couldn't get back to Sarah in time.
He assumed he was in a sub-station. Rows of ceramic isolator stacks and transformers surrounded him. A large power cable bundle ran overhead, smaller cables splitting off to other service hatches.
Condensation dripped behind him, the splash and ripple echoing down the cavern. Ahead, dim light panels illuminated maintenance stations and abandoned tool kits.
He was alone.
Something or someone had made the crew drop their tools and run. Durrond's fake lockdown? Or were the leasemen expanding their search?
He lumbered to his feet, fighting a dizzy spell, then stumbled for the exit. His legs felt leaden, clumsy and his footfalls echoed down the corridor but he didn't have time for stealth. He didn't have time to play it safe.
He was all out of time.
The tunnel narrowed. The main cable bundle turned, entered a passage on the right. An open hatch loomed ahead. Glass grew from the rock on the left, another security station, but this one was dark, empty seats lit only by the muted glow of the monitors.
Durrond raced past, stepped through the hatch and ran for it, each step bringing him closer to Sarah.
It wasn't until he reached the main concourse that he realised how much trouble he was in.
It was quiet.
The people were still there, continuing on with their lives, but a preternatural silence had fallen over the concourse. Gone was the cacophony of conversation. Gone was the sizzle and splatter of frying meat, the bubble of boiling rice. Gone were the ceiling projections—news, sports, stock trading—leaving naked, exposed rock.
Then he saw them, the rows of armed guards lining the far perimeter, blocking the elevators down to the docks.
Durrond slunk into the crowd. They were waiting for him to rush in and expose himself but he couldn't waste another moment standing still thinking of a better plan.
He pushed past people, trying to remember what else was on this level, if there was another way down to the docks.
Someone commanded him to stop, so he sped up, barging people aside. Movement caught his eye from both sides, closing in. People were jumping out of his way now and he increased speed. His bag smacked against his back, the hidden sword digging in. There was a lift ahead, unguarded. It wouldn't go down to the docks but it would get him off this level. He unzipped his bag as he ran and removed the fuzzer.
There were more voices now, footfalls thundering behind him. He reached the lift, pressed the call button, squeezed inside and slapped the fuzzer on the controls before the doors had half opened. They ground to a halt, Durrond hit the down button and the doors closed again.
A leaseman dived through the closing doors, crashing into Durrond. They both struggled to their feet as the lift dropped. Durrond threw his bag of tricks at the leaseman, who deflected it with an arm and lunged forward, ramming his head into Durrond's stomach.
He banged into the wall and doubled over, mouth agape, lungs paralysed in shock. The leaseman kicked Durrond in the ribs and he dropped to the floor with a scream.
A foot came at his face. He managed to grab it and twist it aside but another came at him.
Stars burst around him, twinkling in the darkening sky of his vision.
The leaseman pressed his foot to Durrond's neck. "The Station Master doesn't like thieves," he sneered. "In fact he hates them so much he gives us free rein to dole out their punishment."
Durrond saw the leaseman tense his body, waited for the crushing blow, but it didn't come. Instead the leaseman drifted away. His face blanched and his eyes widened, just for a moment, as if his brain had crashed with the loss of gravity.
Durrond rolled to his haunches and kicked off, arms straight out in front, and smashed into the guard's chest. The leaseman grunted and they both spun away, the guard into a light panel, Durrond into the wall by his bag. He grabbed the handrail, wrestled into the bag for his resistance master and kicked off again.
The leaseman had stabilised against a foot loop just as Durrond flew into him again. Durrond grabbed another loop, swung the resistance master in an arc and smashed it into the leaseman's head. He cried out and went limp. Durround hit him again, harder, just to be sure, and spheres of blood squirted from his head like a geyser.
The lift stopped but the doors didn't open. Durrond, panting, pulled back down to the controls and removed the fuzzer. The doors snapped open and he heaved himself out.
The tunnel ahead was clear, but the alarm would already be sounded. Adrenaline kept him pulling forward on leaden arms. Adrenaline, and visions of Sarah's death. It's not too late, it's not too late, it's not too late. Just keep moving forward.
He found another lift and swam inside. The button for the docks was dark so he pressed the next level down and pulled out his fuzzer. He counted seconds between levels, then secured himself to two loops and pressed the fuzzer to the controls. The lift jerked still, almost wrenching him free. He used Excalibur to prise open the doors and found a sheer cliff of rock. He chewed his lip and grabbed the fuzzer when he noticed a foot of dim light glowing above the rock. He pushed off the lift floor, got a hand hold and wriggled through.
It was the docks. His ship's airlock was a hundred metres to the right. He paused by a tee intersection and leaned around the corner. A leasemen floated down the right-hand passage about a dozen airlocks down. He held a pistol in one hand and a radio in the other, pressed to his ear. His fingers curled tight around the pistol and he jerked his head around, searching. The alarm had been raised.
The leaseman turned toward Durrond and he jerked back behind the corner. Worms slithered through his stomach, a nauseating fear that turned his courage to jelly.
He peeked around the corner. The leasemen was closer now but moving slowly, checking every airlock, taking his time as if to ensure he didn't miss a single grain of dust.
The worms slithered faster, making him sick, but this was his only shot. He dived forward. The airlock was locked down. He attached the fuzzer to the controls and it reactivated.
"Hey," yelled the leaseman.
The airlock opened. A boom echoed through the tunnel and the door sparked, burning his face. Durrond shrieked, snapped the fuzzer off and pushed through the door just as it slammed shut.
The leaseman crashed into the door, his face filling the window, eyes wide and leaching anger, breath fogging the glass. He was screaming, but Durrond couldn't hear anything. He waved and turned for the second door. Within moments he was back in his ship's command chair and powering up. He flew through the asteroid's central tunnel. Patrol ships gave chase as he passed them.
He pushed his engines to maximum. His engine wash rocked the anchored ships, cracking armour and hulls alike, but at least they were empty.
The spinning stars reached out for him and once clear he changed course for the massing fleets. Out in the open the patrol ships lost ground and they quickly turned back.
Durrond sighed and closed his eyes, his first chance to take stock in days.
He awoke suddenly, panicked, but it had only been ten minutes. He rubbed his eyes and cheeks awake then leaned over and pulled Excalibur from his bag.
It looked much the same as before, its blade radiant in the dim cockpit but more rounded than he remembered. As he turned it around in his hands, feeling not cool metal but warm ceramic, he thought of a Chameleon, a meta-material projector and a favourite tool to disguise stolen objects. Its projector looked similar to Excalibur's dished pommel. He placed the pommel against his bag but nothing happened. Not that he had really expected it to. It was just a stupid sword.
The bag disappeared in a flash of light and Durrond twisted away, cringing. When the light faded his bag had turned into a duplicate of Excalibur.
"Well, bugger me," he said. Then he straightened up. He'd just figured out how to save Sarah.
His wife had two hundred seconds left to live when Durrond heard the ship. A few wisps of cirrus clouds, a flock of squawking birds and then suddenly the scream of turbines thrashing through the air. A long sharp edged body, a long neck to the cockpit which tapered to a sharp beak. A bird of prey coming in for the kill.
Durrond sighed, a weight off his shoulders. He'd linked the Old Man about his delay and the change in location but hadn't know if he'd accepted the change in deal until now. Of course he could have already killed Sarah and was only here to kill Durrond too.
Durrond brushed the dirt from his hands and wiped his sweaty brow with his forearm. He was ready for that too.
He'd landed on a dusty trail at the bottom of a prairie valley and now stood sixty paces from his ship, just out of earshot of its idling engines. An abandoned farming village cluttered the trail behind him; ahead, the empty trail twisted out of sight. Wild dogs barked in the distance and his skin prickled. He would probably die here. It felt a lonely place to die.
The Old Man's ship landed about a hundred paces away, just where Durrond thought it would. The landing jets roared, whipping up dirt into Durrond's face and clothes, pushing him back.
The engines finally stopped and he breathed in, squaring his shoulders, steeling himself. He'd stolen to feed his mother, he'd fought to protect his wife, but he'd never stuck out his neck for strangers before. He was out on the smallest limb and he didn't know if he would survive the fall to earth.
The bird of prey sighed and creaked as its chest parted. A boarding ramp extended to the ground. The Old Man appeared first, big glasses bobbing on his nose, cane tapping on the steel ramp, then Jim the Ox, dragging Sarah by a chain leash.
Durrond's stomach clenched into a tight ball and he gasped, from both relief and fear. Relief she was still alive, that he had a chance to save her, fear that he couldn't, that he would never be able to hold her again, that he'd never be able to tell her what he'd decided.
The trio stopped four paces away. Sarah stood tall, chin up, arms manacled in front, but her legs trembled slightly. He tried to flash her a boyish grin but his guts were cramping so hard he'd probably just grimaced instead.
The Old Man shook his index finger. "I'm not impressed with the change of plans, Mr Durrond. You have the sword?"
Durrond removed his jacket and pulled Excalibur from the scabbard on his back. He rotated it to catch the light then stabbed it into the soil.
"Bring it to me," said the Old Man.
"My wife first."
The Old Man snorted. "I didn't get this old by being stupid, Mr Durrond. Bring it to me."
Durrond narrowed his eyes but held his tongue and stepped forward. The sword was heavy but the Old Man took it with apparent ease. He gestured to Jim, who dragged Sarah over and pulled a small black box from his pants pockets. He pressed it against the blade.
Moments passed. The cirrus clouds, light and rapid before, had slowed and darkened, dimming the sun. The birds were long gone. The box flashed red.
The Old Man clasped his cane and clucked his tongue. "Do you want me to kill your wife Mr Durrond? Why else would you play these stupid games with me?" Jim pulled a bowie knife from his belt and pressed it to Sarah's throat.
"Wait," gasped Durrond, palms out. "Hang on, hang on." The explosion of adrenaline had choked him up. "Ok, ok, I buried the real one. You give me my wife, I tell you where it's buried. Everyone wins."
"I'm not interested in everyone winning Mr Durrond." Jim pressed the knife into Sarah's throat. Silent until now, she stifled a sob. Her legs buckled. A string of blood formed along the knife, little red teardrops splashing to the dirt below.
"Fates, Ok, don't hurt her," Durrond begged. "Please. About twelve paces behind you."
He watched Jim toss the fake aside then turn and count twelve steps, dragging Sarah with him. He stamped the ground and nodded.
The Old Man waved at Durrond. "Dig it up."
Durrond chewed his lip, hesitating a moment, then stepped forward, bent down and scooped away the dirt until he felt the sword. He pulled it up into the sun. The blade shone as if it had stored up a lifetime of sunlight and was expelling it all at once. He passed it up to the Old Man and stood.
The Old Man cradled it in his palms, caressing it with his fingers. His face went slack, the wrinkles and crow feet gone so his face looked young again. Young and in awe. Then his mouth curled into a thin, cruel smile. "You have no idea what you've done, do you? Excalibur, the Chalton artefact, the Pegasus Incident? All these alien items are linked. They're a map, a blueprint to the weapon that wiped them out a millennia ago. And you've delivered it into my arms."
A chill swept over Durrond, a river of ice freezing him from his core outward. Had his attempt to save the asteroid risked the rest of humanity?
He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on Sarah. He only had one goal right now. "My wife."
The Old Man scoffed. "Did you really think I would just let her go?"
Sarah moaned, but Durrond forced himself to ignore her cry. He pulled the electromagnet remote from his pocket and held it high, hoping he wasn't shaking. "No, I didn't. That's why I planted thermal charges beneath your ship."
The Old Man blinked. "You're bluffing. You couldn't have known where we'd land."
Durrond shrugged at their surroundings, sneaking a glance at his ship. "Where else would you land?" he said, casually stepping to his left as he spoke, "but you're right. I played it safe and planted a good hundred feet of explosives along the road. Look down."
The Old Man peered downward, head bent to look over his glasses. He examined the dusty road for a moment, then rolled his foot off a round depression. He jumped back, mouth agape. His gaze lifted slightly, taking in the whole grid of rake-handle-made holes along the trail. He looked up and stared straight at Durrond, enough fury in his eyes to melt steel.
The sun dipped behind a cloud. The wind picked up, howling down the road and flattening the prairie grass. The Old Man snarled. "Jim."
Jim's arrogant grin, so permanent Durround thought it stitched on, slowly drooped. He pulled Sarah's leash tight, whispered into her ear, licked the side of her face then released her.
Durround's fists clenched, his face suddenly hot, but then Sarah ran into his arms and Jim was forgotten. He hugged her too tight, his mouth on her ear. "Get ready to run. Directly toward the rear wing. The wing, ok?"
"You won't be so lucky next time Mr Durrond," the Old Man spat.
"There won't be a next time." Durrond wrapped an arm around Sarah and turned away. The air went still; thunder rolled beyond the hills. Footsteps crunched behind him. He counted the steps, holding his breath, praying to the Fates.
"This one's fake too!" yelled Jim.
Durrond pushed Sarah forward. "Run!" She sprinted for the ship's rear, but Durrond swerved right, dropped to one knee, scooped up the discarded sword, climbed back to his feet and ran.
The boom of a gun echoed between the hills. Durrond sped up, risked a glance backward. Jim was thirty feet back and gaining, pistol in outstretched arm. He was a big man, with long, strong legs. Durrond's legs hadn't worked this hard in years, and he was carrying the artefact.
He scanned the ground as he ran. He'd laid a minefield of hoes, rakes and spades between him and his ship. He'd lined Sarah up for the clear passage through the field but he'd gone and buggered himself up.
His heart pulled at his chest like gravity on a launching ship. He passed a mound in the ground to his left.
And to his right.
He instinctively slowed, dancing past the mounds, catching his balance one way and then the other. He passed mound after mound. How many had he planted? Then he was through and he sped up.
His breath rasped in his ears, blanking out Jim's footfalls, but not his curse and the thwack of a rake in his face.
Jim's gun boomed again. A mosquito buzzed Durrond's right ear. Liquid splashed his face. He clutched his ear as his wife hit the boarding ramp. Durrond dived over the edge of the ramp five seconds later and rolled to a stop. He stood and slammed down the ramp controls.
Jim was already there, a lump on his forehead, arms pumping hard, knees rising to his chest, gaze riveted to the moving ramp.
The ramp hydraulics whined like rusty cogs, the ramp inching upward, groaning as if it were trying to lift the world.
Durrond watched. Jim clamped onto the edge, his mouth smearing into its default grin. He swung a leg up—
The end of the ramp snapped off. Jim disappeared with a yelp and the ramp closed.
Durrond hefted Excalibur and grinned. "Amazing what some wood and alien technology can do." He raced to the cockpit and pulled back on the stick before he'd even sat down.
Rain pummelled the cockpit as they soared for the heavens. Below, the bird of prey took off, but it was too far behind and he put it out of his mind. His ship was designed to outrun the law.
He sat down and Sarah settled onto the arm rest, Excalibur in hand. He put an arm around her and kissed her hip. He could feel her heart pounding. "I've never been happier to see your damn ship," she said breathlessly.
Durrond tried a cavalier shrug. "I was thinking of selling it actually."
Sarah smiled a true smile, the one that only came out in unguarded moments, but wider and brighter than he'd ever seen. "Really?"
"Really. I want us to have a future. All three of us."
Sarah pulled up his chin and kissed him, casually, but intimate, the way people kissed when they expected to kiss every day for the rest of their lives. "Four of us." Her gaze went distant. "We can't go back home, you know."
"We'll find somewhere better. Close your eyes." He took Excalibur, aimed the pommel into a shiny bulkhead and thought of Excalibur without a thin layer of bonding cement. The cockpit flashed white. When it passed the sword was still in his hand, but its glow had returned.
Sarah gasped. "This is the real one?"
He turned it over in his hands as if he'd only just understood what it was. "It makes its wielder invincible." Then quieter, "I broke my promise."
She put her hand on his. "Can we take it back?"
He shook his head. "I didn't understand how its creators could be extinct if they had such power, but there will always be those that crave power over life. Aliens, people, governments, they'll all kill for it, go to war to own it. There's two navies about to destroy each other and an asteroid for it. Death will follow it wherever it goes."
He turned away from her. "I can't take it back. I'm sorry, I know its stealing, but for our children, for everyone's children, we have to get rid of it. Lead those fleets away then destroy it."
Sarah turned his head by his chin and gazed into his eyes like she was seeing him for the first time. "Ok thief, let's go save our children."