FreeLancer: Breaking the Wall
J. M. F. Stokes
Kit's joints cracked as he stretched and pulled his checkered shirt over his reddish-brown skin. He went to the lavatory, stained from age and poor filtration, and splashed water in his face to wake himself.
Kit stared at his dripping visage in the mirror. Broad and muscular, his face was clean shaven and his glistening black hair shoulder length, often in a ponytail. His high cheekbones crowded his severe eyes, which were split with an angular beak of a nose.
He trotted down to the motel's bar and ordered coffee and a roll, then found a greasy console in a dim corner and logged on to the Bounty Hunter Guild's job board.
"Welcome, Kit," the Guild's server said in its lithe, feminine voice. "I have a priority job request for all Bounty Hunters level 27 and above. Shall I display it now?"
"Display." Kit took a sip of coffee. He made a face and spat the ghastly stuff back into its mug, opting to gnaw on the breakfast roll as he read.
Uriel Khan's planning a jail break? I remember Bulldog bragging that he brought Khan in. The pay is enough to retire on.
He grinned and accepted the job.
Kit caught up with Bulldog in the debris field near Pittsburgh, the focal point of a nasty dogfight. It was Bulldog against 5 or 6 Junkers, so the Junkers were in serious trouble. Normally, Kit would sit back and enjoy the show, but he needed to chat with Bulldog fast. He gunned his afterburner to pull in behind one of the Junker's Bloodhounds and unleashed his dual Lavablades. The ship danced before him as the Lavablades' furious energy clawed at its shields, reaching hungrily for the pilot inside. The Junker struggled with his ship, but managed to drop some mines. It was a maneuver Kit had not expected from a Junker, and the first one was a direct hit. Kit jerked his stick to the left and rolled under the remaining mines.
His evasion had given the Junker enough time to bring his guns to bear, and the little Bloodhound cut loose with all it had. Kit rolled again and came up shooting, his turrets tracking the Bloodhound with pinpoint accuracy. The Junker was worth his salt, though. Kit slammed his afterburner and then cut his engines, letting his momentum carry him along as he swung to target the Bloodhound. Once again his Lavablades flared, and he launched a Javelin for good measure. The Bloodhound went up in a ball of flame.
Kit swung around to see that Bulldog was spending most of his firepower on a Wolfhound – a heavier ship – with a pilot who knew how to handle her. The two remaining Bloodhounds continued to harass Bulldog's flanks, but his Hammerhead was a tough ship to crack, and he largely ignored them. Kit picked up a Bloodhound's trail and squeezed off a shot. This pilot was a run of the mill Junker: some poor sap who barely knew how to work autopilot and tractor beam. He went down easily.
The last Bloodhound ran for it, and Kit let him go, instead turning his attention to the Wolfhound. He swung in under the ship's belly, targeted, and fired. The Wolfhound apparently didn't want to take on two, and turned tail. The Junker knew enough to pave a convulsive course away from the two bounty hunters, but Bulldog let fly two Stalker missiles, and the Wolfhound was gone.
"Thanks." Bulldog was a squat, thick man with a deep, raspy voice that befit his name. Kit had worked with him several times.
"Hope you don't expect me to split m'bounty with ya, cause I ain't."
"So whaddya want?"
Kit grinned. "I want you to tell me about Uriel Khan. You brought him in a few months back, right?"
To Kit's surprise, Bulldog chuckled. "So you saw that job, too, huh? Well, that's good. This is one I don't want to m'self. Uriel Khan is one mean son. Took four of us t'bring him in last time."
"Who else is in on this?" Kit's baritone voice rose in surprise.
"Th'four of us what brought him in last time: me, Mole, Rock, and Blade, and you's all I know about. Y'know it was restricted to th'best. LPI always thought he was small time. Didn't know what he could really do 'till we brought him in. I hear that now they think he's one of th'biggest Xenos bosses there is. He's got some network what lets him still run things from inside The Wall."
"Ain't tellin' ya. That's my bounty." Bulldog chuckled.
"Fair enough. What're you going to do?"
"I hear there's a Xenos power build up around Ouray station in Colorado. Me and Mole are gonna be hangin' around there."
"Good. That'll free me up to keep an eye on The Wall."
Kit jumped to the Texas system. He had a contact within LPI who was stationed on Huntsville Prison, commonly called "The Wall." The Bounty Hunter's Guild had some information that might prove vital to the Police if a prison break was attempted.
"Huntsville Prison Station Control. Identify yourself."
"Bounty hunter sigma three one, Quantos Kitfox, here to see Officer Mary Gruzsen."
"Stand by... Confirmed. You are cleared to dock at bay two."
She started, and spun on one heel in front of her quarters.
"Quantos! I... I didn't expect you." Mary Gruzsen was an attractive woman with slender features and piercing eyes. Her dark, shoulder length hair had an artistic streak of white running through it, and a faint, rosy smell followed her wherever she went.
"It's all right. This isn't a social call."
Her eyes narrowed. "What is it?"
"The Guild has gotten wind of a plan to attack the Battleship..."
"Mississippi," she cut in. "We know. LPI intercepted that communiqué, too."
"You know we don't put much stock in rumors. If we did, we'd be chasing them all over the system. We advised the command staff to keep alert."
Kit snorted and crossed his arms. "That'll help."
"What do you want – the Mississippi to leave her post?"
After a pause, Kit gave a terse nod and turned to go.
He stopped, back still to her.
"Will I see you soon?"
"...after this mission."
For the next two days, Kit accepted simple jobs that would keep him in the Texas system. At every opportunity, he'd plan his route to take him by The Wall. On one such run, his ship's scanners picked up Blade.
"Blade, you got Bulldog's message?" Kit asked.
"I did. Don't worry. I'll cover your sorry butt." Blade hadn't changed.
"I hear Rock's on this job, too. Any word from him?" Kit asked cautiously.
"None. What's Bulldog doing?"
"He's watching Ouray in Colorado." Kit found Blade's question out of place and thought it best not to mention that Mole was with him.
Blade grunted, cut the connection, and resumed his flight path.
Another day went by. Kit had already passed by The Wall three times today, but this time he paused. Something had changed. He scrutinized the traffic moving through the sector, scanning several vessels, and watching ships come and go. Nothing looked amiss, but he had learned to trust his senses. He aborted his job, powered down, and waited.
Over three hours passed. Kit did not waver, hanging silent and watchful in space. Finally, his comm. chimed. As Kit switched the channel, a flood of foul language washed out of his comm.
"Bulldog! What's wrong?"
"They were expecting us - knew our exact position. We're being swarmed!"
Kit heard the spatter of laser fire against Bulldog's hull and more swearing.
"You got a crate full of 'em coming your way. Look alive!"
Within seconds, ships began pouring out of the trade lanes. Junkers, Outcasts, and the best the Xenos had to offer swarmed into space above Huntsville Prison. Seconds later, more clouds of ships appeared from both sides of the planet and behind the Abeline Moon.
Kit slammed his throttle forward, flying straight into the cloud. The first ship in range went down with his first volley. He spun and took another, then rolled and took another. Kit flew like a banshee, and within the first minute had collected 12 kills. Only then did that strike him as strange. His rough, reddish hands dropped from the controls, and he watched. Most of the ships were just flying tin, many resurrected from the salvage yard. In addition, every ship was dropping mines, countermeasures, missiles, active torpedo hulls – any piece of metal that would generate a sensor signature, clouding the scanners and giving The Wall's turrets more targets than their AI could handle.
Kit unleashed all his Barracuda had to offer. The only way to clear this cloud was brute force.
Within The Wall a rhythmic thumping had begun, as hundreds and then thousands of prisoners pounded their cell bars in time. The enraged shouting from the guards was lost in the din. Sergeant John Harper, commanding officer of Huntsville, dispatched a security detail to Uriel Khan's cell. Prisoners screamed and clawed at the guards as they trotted by.
Khan sat calmly on his bunk, the only prisoner not pounding his bars. He had the ghostly face of someone who had spent too long underground, and gaunt features that exuded danger and rage. A vicious grin twisted across his mouth.
Captain Gregory Marcus, of the LPIS Battleship Mississippi, looked up casually, expecting to give the standard "deploy countermeasures" order, but jumped from his seat when he saw what was incoming. Seven Bloodhounds were forming a suicide shield for a Xeno customized Anubis, which Marcus guessed was carrying a bomb.
"Evasive maneuver Delta. All turret gunners – cease supporting fire and concentrate all firepower on that Anubis. I want that ship downed before it can detonate."
As ordered, the gunners concentrated all fire on the group of ships encircling the Anubis, but as quickly as the Bloodhounds fell, supporting ships swooped in to take their places and the suicide shield remained intact.
"All off duty personnel abandon ship! Helm, put as much distance between us and The Wall as you can."
"Sir, the Anubis is adjusting course to intercept," telemetry officer Bain said.
"Of course it is. It's going to ram us!"
Kit caught sight of the Mississippi's evasive maneuvers, and saw that the Xenos did indeed plan to blow it up with a kamikaze strike. He punched his afterburner and dove to the far side of The Wall, placing the Prison between himself and the Mississippi. Several Xenos ships were over here, so he released a volley of Stalker missiles and rushed at them with guns blazing. The Xenos scattered, but deftly dodged his fire. They all flew the Anubis, a frighteningly agile ship with dense armor, and within moments had set him in a crossfire. Kit jerked his stick and pumped his burner, diving and bobbing to avoid their relentless onslaught.
In spite of his prowess, the combination of the Xenos' skill and numberswas taking its toll. Laser fire found its mark, and his shield failed as he swung around to target one. Before he could evade, though, incoming fire connected with the Anubis on his six, and it burst into flame. Rock had joined the fight. Working together, it was just a matter of time before the Xenos ranks were thinned.
"Status?" Captain Marcus called.
"The Anubis is still coming, sir. We have been unable to get a clear shot."
"Time to impact?"
"Calculating... Holy! 6... 5..."
Captain Marcus said, "All hands, brace for impact!"
"2... 1... IMPACT!" Bain winced as he shouted.
Seconds passed, and Captain Marcus noticed that his knuckles had gone white. He released his chair. "Status?"
"Sensors show debris, sir. The Anubis collided with us, but no detonation."
"A dud? Lieutenant, scan that wreckage."
"Aye. Mass and alloy are consistent with a stock Anubis, sir. There doesn't appear to have been anything on board. Perhaps it was just a diversion?"
"A diversion?" Marcus swore under his breath. "I don't like this."
During the desperate moments when all eyes were focused on the Mississippi, several squads of Xenos ships took up positions around The Wall and began boring through its bulkhead.
Kit's comm. was alive with reports of the Battleship Mississippi's survival. He sensed that something was very wrong.
"Bounty hunter sigma three one to Officer Mary Gruzsen. Mary, where's Uriel Khan's cell?"
"Kit, I really don't think..."
"WHERE'S HIS CELL?"
"Block C29 - lower section of the port bulkhead." Mary's tone told Kit she was not happy. He didn't have time to be gracious.
"Thanks." Kit skimmed under the prison. In the station's shadow, he cut engines where he could watch the port bulkhead relatively undisturbed.
Captain Marcus ordered the Mississippi to return to her post and resume supporting fire for Huntsville Prison. He was troubled by the diversionary suicide run on his ship, but couldn't see another explanation for it. Nothing seemed amiss – the surviving suicide ships had fallen back and other small fighters continued to harass his flanks. He felt the Mississippi reverse course and slowly move back to her post.
"Captain, the reactor is redlining! She's going to overload!"
"How...?" Captain Marcus began.
Bain shouted, "Reactor is critical, sir! She's going to..."
The Mississippi erupted in a ball of white fire.
Inside The Wall, everyone felt the Mississippi's shock wave. The security detail guarding Khan's cell turned their backs, unnerved by Khan's perverse smile.
"Gahhh!" came a startled cry from one of the guards, and his gun clattered to the floor. The other three spun around to find Uriel Khan holding a makeshift knife, the dead guard pinned against the bars as a human shield. Khan swung the knife menacingly, and clawed at the guard's belt for some other weapon. Another guard rushed Khan, but Khan drove the knife into his arm and seized his gun barrel. Khan seemed inhumanly strong, and wrested the gun from the guard in mere moments. The security detail and every guard in sight, distracted by the maddening thumping, fell in the next few seconds.
From his hidden vantage point, Kit saw lifeboats drifting by. Those who had ejected from the Mississippi during the suicide attack had not been recalled, so many members of the crew survived.
Something caught Kit's eye. One lifeboat was floating across the trajectory of the others, moving toward the prison instead of sliding by it. A few meters out, thrusters suddenly came to life, and maneuvered the lifeboat against the bulkhead. A magnetic lock sealed, and Kit was willing to bet there were Xenos in there boring through the bulkhead. Scanners showed two life signs and machinery. He powered up his engines. Within moments, the magnetic lock was released and the lifeboat drifted free. Kit scanned again, and found that there were now three life forms and less machinery. He rose in front of the lifeboat, blocking its path, and brought guns to bear.
"Lifeboat theta six, I know you've got Uriel Khan in there. Save us both some trouble and surrender him."
Kit's answer was a Javelin missile, something no lifeboat should be able to launch. The blast sent his ship spinning, and the moments it took him to get it under control gave the lifeboat time to run for it. Kit throttled up and gave chase, but Xenos descended on him en masse. Kit drove his stick forward and left, the incoming fire grazing his Barracuda's rear thrusters. Knowing the Xenos only needed to slow him down, he yelled into his comm. "All ships, intercept lifeboat theta six! Repeat – all..."
Kit's transmission was cut off by an emergency signal from The Wall. "All ships, evacuate the system! We have a reactor overload."
By the Name! They're going to blow the whole prison!
Even the Xenos joined the flood of ships crowding the trade lanes. Kit blasted several out of the way in his rush to the lane, and made his escape.
"Sergeant, reactor four is critical, and now we're showing reactor one redlining."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Sergeant Harper responded, and turned to his comm., "Get damage control teams to ALL the reactors. What's the status on reactor four?" Harper heard the comm. click in, and the sound of weapons fire washed from it. "We lost three men getting the damage control team in, and we're trying to keep the Xenos pinned down. Backup is on its way."
Sergeant Harper sat back uneasily. "Now all we can do is wait."
Kit exited the trade lane near the New York jump gate, and spun his ship to see what remained of Huntsville Prison. To his surprise, it was still intact. He had no time to wonder at this though, as the Xenos exiting the trade lane opened fire on him.
"Sergeant, reactor four has dropped from critical, but reactor one is reaching overload."
Where are those teams? Harper wondered. "Damage control. Status?"
"The Xenos have wiped out our team at reactor four, sir. We have already dispatched another. Team one has reached the reactor, but is meeting heavy resistance. Only two members of the damage control team have made it in so far."
The violence at the New York gate ended with the bounty hunters victorious. As the last Xenos went down, Blade vanished into the jump gate without a word. Kit opened a comm. channel to The Wall.
"Huntsville Prison, this is Bounty Hunter sigma three one. What's your status?"
"Reactors are secure. It's safe to return to the sector."
"And Khan?" Kit asked.
Kit met Bulldog on planet Denver in Colorado to debrief.
"We had about thirty of ‘em," Bulldog droned. "Knew our exact coordinates, and sent some of their best fliers at us. Someone ratted us out. That comm. to you was th'only one I got off, and Mole's dead. Saved m'life, though.
"This is your game now, Kit," Bulldog continued. "You're the best tracker'n Liberty. You're the only one what's got a chance at getting Khan back."
"Not even I could do that alone," Kit responded.
"Me and Rock're with ya."
Guild intelligence reported that a lifeboat had been towed in to Ouray station several hours ago, and shortly thereafter a squad of Xenos had launched. From Ouray, the bounty hunters headed east into the Silverton asteroid fields, and picked up the characteristic radiation trail left by an Anubis fighter.
"What the?" Bulldog moaned, looking over his scanners. "There's gotta be a million of 'em. Seems the only ships what have been this way're Anubis."
"We are looking for a group of five," Kit responded distantly, "and the center ship is likely to be an elite. Khan wouldn't fly less. This way."
Kit led them further into the asteroid field, occasionally pausing and circling, then again picking up the trail and leading them on. Thirteen kilometers out from Ouray, he pulled up short.
"Something's wrong," he said. "There's another signature mingling with the Anubis's trails... Blade is with them." Bulldog swore.
Blade's modified Stiletto left a distinctive signature, which led them to a large asteroid that had been mined out years ago. Kit picked up a docking hatch, and the bounty hunters cut engines and drifted in.
Bulldog led them with confidence through the dusty, rock-lined halls of the asteroid mine. The rough surface scuffed Kit's arms as the group hugged the wall. Suddenly, Bulldog stopped short.
"What is it?" Kit said.
"Every asteroid mine is set up with a circular tunnel what connects all th'main areas. I'm a guessin' that over yonder is the command center, but off to th'right leads to the energy plant."
Kit couldn't help but smile at the brilliance of it: using the same trick on the Xenos that they had used to destroy the Mississippi. "Let's do it."
"OK. Rock, you take the reactor. Kit'n me'll handle Khan." Rock gave a nod and rushed down the hall to the right.
"OK," Bulldog whispered, "we wait for the reactor, then storm the command center."
Tense seconds passed, but soon the station's computerized voice announced, "Danger. Reactor overloading. Estimated time to correct: six minutes."
"GO!" Bulldog shouted.
Kit flicked the door control and started firing before it had fully slid away. Within seconds half the command crew had fallen, but in those same seconds the survivors had grabbed their weapons and returned fire. Kit rolled behind a console, and fired cautiously, steadily picking off the remaining crew.
Suddenly Bulldog cried, "Hold your fire!" and charged forward. "I caught ya once, Khan. You shoulda known I could do it again," Bulldog sneered.
Bulldog injected Khan with a tranquilizer, and Kit strapped an antigravity harness on him. As they pushed him out into the corridor, the station's computer announced, "Danger. Reactor critical. Estimated time to meltdown: 90 seconds."
Bulldog swore, and they broke into a run.
When they reached the hangar, Rock had his Hammerhead powered up and the cargo bay open.
"No time to get your ship!" Bulldog called as he dove into the hold. Kit followed close behind with Khan. Rock gunned his engines and sped out of the hangar.
"We'll never get enough distance in time!" Bulldog said.
"Pull behind that large asteroid on the left!" Kit yelled in response.
Rock jerked his ship around, and nestled it into a crater as Khan's asteroid base blew itself apart.
A few hours later, Kit was walking the corridors of Huntsville Prison Station. The three bounty hunters had handed Khan over to the Liberty Police and collected their reward. Bulldog and Rock were on to their next job, but Kit had one thing left to do. He waited impatiently until door before him slid away, wafting a rosy scent to his nose.
Copyright 2003, J. M. F. Stokes. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this work is prohibited without written consent from the author.