Rifle fire greeted Jo as she met up with Malcolm and Grant. She flattened herself again the tunnel wall and peeked out, and saw several men in black advancing quickly, those in front on one knee and laying down covering fire for those behind. She did not take time to count, but there must have been a half-dozen or more.
The fact that Grant and Thomas had taken down half the force was pretty impressive, all things considered. But not impressive enough.
“We need to get this door shut,” Jo said.
The men nodded agreement. Jo took a minute to look them over. Malcolm was sound, and had his rifle. Grant was without his weapon, and badly wounded. But his eyes burned with fury and determination. Jo’s own rifle lay where she had left it, up on the driver’s seat; far to exposed to get it right this moment.
Jo pressed her pistol into Grant’s hand then looked him and Malcolm in the eye. “Cover me. I’ll get the loader in here and then we’ll seal the door.”
Malcolm looked as though he was going to protest, but then he nodded. Sometimes he was a very smart man. He helped Grant lean up against one edge of the door, then he took station on the other. Jo drew a deep breath and nodded.
The two men began to fire. Instantly, the advancing troops stopped. Those in the clear ducked behind the closest cover they could find. The others returned fire, but it was more sporadic than a moment before; they had to be careful not to hit their fellows as they darted out of the line of fire.
It was by no means a clear dash to the loader driver’s seat, but it was only a couple of meters, and there would not be a better time to go. So Jo went.
She almost got shot immediately; a plasma ball just missed hitting her in the face, but the act of flinging herself onto the driver’s boarding ladder got her head out of the way in time. Still, the heat of the passing shot singed her. Again.
Twice in less than a minute.
That was too much good luck for any one person. Jo scrunched down as tightly as she could, shoved the motor into gear, and floored it.
Fortunately, Malcolm had managed to get the loader aligned with the door before he got back down to help Grant, so flooring it was all the thing required to surge through the door into the tunnel beyond.
“Malcolm!” Jo shouted as she rocketed past him.
Nothing else needed saying. She stopped the loader and turned around on the seat in time to see the door shut as Malcolm activated the control pad on the inside of the tunnel.
Or rather, in time to see the door almost shut. The two halves of the door slid out from their housings on either side of the doorway, but very quickly began to shudder and jerk until they finally stopped with a half-meter of open space between them.
“Son of a bitch,” Jo breathed. The door’s operating mechanism must have been damaged by all the plasma bolts. Lucky they moved at all, if that were the case. More loudly, she said, “Malcolm, help Grant up here. That’s not going to slow them down much.”
Malcolm was way ahead of her. As soon as the doors began to move, he darted across the opening – and almost got shot for his effort – to Grant’s side. Again looping his arm around Grant’s shoulder, Malcolm half-pulled half-carried him toward Jo and the loader. He paused only for a brief moment to look back as Jo spoke. Then he breathed a curse and redoubled his effort.
In a moment they had Grant perched on the driver’s seat next to Jo. She had to squeeze over, and even then he only got a very narrow bit of the seat, but it was the best they could do on short notice, and he had plenty of handholds.
“Hold on,” Jo said, earning a nod from Grant and a look that screamed, “I’m not stupid.” She quirked an eyebrow at him, then hit the accelerator again.
* * * * *
Three hundred meters does not seem like much, but when you are running from a bunch of goons with guns who are intent on shooting or arresting you, it seems like forever. Or at least it did to Jo. At its best, the loader was not slow; a tad faster than the average running man. But right then it felt like she was riding a tortoise, with a half-dozen hares coming up fast from behind.
She looked back over her shoulder several times during the drive down the airlock tunnel. At first, the only things moving were Malcolm as he labored to keep up – he gave up on that early on and just hopped up onto the boarding ladder below Grant – and Agent Moore. She managed to push herself up onto her feet and got over to the inner door’s control pad, but all her blind tapping at it was to no avail. The door operating mechanism must have been completely shot, because it did not move at all.
That was good.
Not good enough, though. Shortly, troops began squeezing through the gap, and soon a quartet of them joined Agent Moore in the tunnel. They paused a moment to free her hands from the cuffs, and to grab her pistol from where it had fallen – and why had Jo not thought to grab it? Then they were off at a sprint.
“Well that didn’t take long,” Malcolm noted, his voice tight with strain. “Where are the others? I could have sworn there were two or three more still up.”
Grant adjusted himself on his precarious perch, and hissed in pain as he jarred his injured leg. “Probably going to the other personnel airlock,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Jo ran the numbers in her head. Airlock 2 lay a quarter of the way around the ring; a walk of a little less than a kilometer. But the troops would not have to walk. The loading rings had transport trams, similar to the intra-ring transport system aboard the starliner itself. The tram would get them to the airlock entrance in a minute, maybe a little more. Then it was a short sprint to the inner door, then three hundred meters to the junction with Agrippa.
“It’s going to be close,” Jo said, “but once we’re onboard I’ll be able to seal the ship’s hatches. We should be secure, then.”
“Unless they override it.” Grant was always so cheerful.
Jo shook her head. “Can’t do it. Safety interlocks prevent access without permission from within the ship itself.”
“Ok. But they could – “
A plasma ball shot past, interrupting Grant’s words and making him duck down reflexively.
“Son of a bitch,” Malcolm cursed. “Are they stupid? You don’t shoot rifles inside an airlock tube. It could cause a breach!”
Jo glanced back again, and saw one of the pursuing troops had lagged behind the others. He bent over to pick something up – his rifle. Looked like his fellows had upgraded him.
Jo’s group was almost to the outer door, and the junction with Agrippa; just thirty meters to go.
“I’m going to need to hop off to get the door open,” Jo said to Grant. “Can you drive this thing with your leg?”
He took a second or so to answer, considering. Then he nodded.
“Good.” Jo shot him a half-smile. “Looks like you’re coming with us after all.”
He just grunted, scowled.
Fifteen meters. Ten. Five.
Jo stopped the loader and hopped off. She did not bother with the ladder; it would be too much trouble to dislodge the men, and it was not that far a drop, nothing she had not done before. So naturally, she rolled her ankle painfully as she landed. “Damnit,” she muttered. She may have broken something – or had she just sprained it? No time to worry about that now. She forced herself to push past the pain and limped over to the control pad.
Moment of truth. Again. She swiped her holocard and entered the code again.
The screen flashed red, then a fake-sounding female voice said, “Access Denied.”
“What’s the problem?” Malcolm asked.
Jo tried again. Maybe she had mis-typed.
“Son of a bitch,” Jo said for what felt the hundredth time that day. “Their techs must have seen the code I used back there and changed it, or removed its access.”
“Isn’t there a backup?” Grant asked.
Jo scowled. “Just Agrippa’s internal access codes. I’m not sure if they’ll work out here or not.”
The two men looked at her flatly. Right. Only one way to find out.
Jo replaced her personal holocard and pulled the other one, the one that IT had made specifically for Agrippa’s network, from her pocket. She took a deep breath, then swiped it and entered the code.
There was a long pause. Too long. It was not going to work.
Then there was an electronic beep and the screen flashed green. The same female voice said, “Welcome Aboard. Enjoy your flight.”
The door began to open. They were in.
* * * * *
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