COMPANY

Gordon had frozen in his tracks, but he looked at me in alarm as Cal and the others came bursting out of his cabin.  He said, “What the hell was that?”

I said, “I don’t know,” about the same time Cal asked, “Did you get a good look at it?” and about the same time Vanessa said,  “Cal, I think it was a dark blue fighter.”

It was almost too much for Gordon to take in.  “You mean it’s not yours?”

“Dark blue is the color of the Russ Fleet’s aircraft.  I meant to tell you that there are still some renegades out there who haven’t accepted the treaty,” said Cal, scanning the treetops with his distance scope and ignoring the voice of Mission Control.

I said, “Maybe they tracked us here, and waited for us to land.”

“Oh, you’re a grand rescue team.  I thank you again,” said Gordon as he ran up the back steps and into his cabin.

Morris yelled, “It’s coming back!”  It hurtled over the hills toward us and banked for a turn.  You forget how fast space craft are until you see them blasting along above some real terra firma.  The Thalasso was fairly quick, but this thing would have run figure eights around us.  It was definitely dark blue, and definitely a fighter.

By this time Cal was hollering into the helmetcom, “Don, are you tracking this — shut up, Mission Control.  Don, are you with me?”

“Way ahead of you.  I’m trying to get a radar lock on him right now.  Looks like a Russ fighter,” said Don in his calm, unhurried, “I-can-handle-any-crisis” voice.  The poor son of a bitch was showing off for Mission Control, trying to brazen his way past the fact that we’d left the Thalasso completely exposed in the middle of a meadow and were not too well prepared to defend her against an unanticipated air attack.

The dark little fighter had finished banking and had begun following the line of the hills toward where the Thalasso lay.

“Don, get the hell out of there,” screamed Cal.  “Get into the trees.  Abandon ship.  Move!”

After that, I knew Cal was still yelling, but I couldn’t make out what he said for the noise.  There was a stream of fire that came from the Russ fighter toward a point on the other side of the hills.  Then there was a moment of loud static over the helmetcoms, and a shaft of flame maybe a hundred feet high shot up from where we’d left the Q.S. Thalasso.  Pieces of her were vomited into the air, and spinning crazily, began to shower the hills.  Then there was only a column of black smoke.

We stood there blinking for a couple of seconds.  I heard Morris say, “Oh, God.  Oh, Jesus.”  That seemed to sum it up.

A ball of shock, grief, and dread began to grow in the pit of my stomach.  I was trying not to think about Don, his young wife and his little boy.  I was trying to focus on what I should do now, but all I could see when I closed my eyes was Don, laughing at the end of some stupid game he and I’d been playing on the Thalasso; Don, teasing Vanessa until she left the room, shaking her head and blushing; Don, helping us with our packs as we prepared to leave him to his spectacular yet very private and personal death.

Gordon came bursting out of his cabin with a pack on his back, bristling with weapons, and said, “Well?”  It was a challenge, and it was a call to arms, and I think it snapped us out of our shock and confusion to the point where we began to think again.

“All right,” said Cal, taking his hand from over his eyes.  “All right, he saw the compound; he’ll be coming here next.”  Sure as hell, the fighter was couple lengths away, banking for a run at us.  “Gordon, I bow to your knowledge of the terrain.”

Gordon didn’t hesitate.  “All right, through that gate and down the hill into those trees,” he shouted, like a seasoned boot camp commandant.  We looked at Cal, and since he was already running in that direction,  we had but to follow.

Once, I glanced back at Gordon, who was not running with us.  He had opened the corral and was starting to chase his animals out and through the open compound gate.  Then I concentrated on running until I heard the fighter open fire.

It was so close it almost made my heart stop.  They were just exploding rounds from some small wing cannons, but they were enough to blow Gordon’s cabin to pieces.  I looked back while running.  There was a thunder storm of kindling propelled by a huge fireball in the center of the compound.  I didn’t see Gordon anywhere.

We were running like hell between the two hills we’d climbed on our way to the compound.  This was a good move because the trees were way too thick for the Russ pilot to get a good idea of where we were from overhead.  Unfortunately, all he had to do was toast the whole area in order to get us, and we all knew it.

From the sound of things, the fighter had banked about two lengths away, and was coming back for more fun and games.  We were crunching along through leaf litter and underbrush, and my breath was already loud and hard to come by — not a good sign if this kept up much longer.

In the midst of all this noise, I heard something I could hardly believe.  It sounded for all the world like an airbike zipping by above the trees overhead.  I remembered the one I’d seen leaning carelessly against the compound’s fence, just inside the gate.  But it was too much for me to figure out while I was running, taking up the rear and trying not to trample Beth, who was slowing down drastically.

We were already running at a crouch, from brute instinct as much as from any combat training.  Then the fighter began to open fire again, and we really hunkered down for dear life.  Oddly enough, though, whoever was flying that Russ death machine didn’t seem to be firing at us.  We heard the fighter bank sharply at about the same time those cannon rounds hit the ground a hundred yards away.

Then, I heard the staccato booming of an automatic shotgun, and the sound of that airbike again.  Cal’s voice drifted back to me from up ahead.  “I don’t fucking believe it,” he yelled, just a little out of breath.  I saw everybody looking off to our left, so of course I did too..

Then I saw Gordon.  My foot caught a tree root and I went down damn near face first in the dirt.  As I scrambled to my feet, I looked back again to make sure it hadn’t been a stress-induced hallucination I’d seen.  But Gordon was still there.  He was going after that Russ fighter — which, in a gravity like this one, could do over 1200 lengths per hour — with an airbike.

Granted, airbikes are maneuverable as hell, and he was putting this one through its paces with the lazy skill of a master, but seeing him up there certainly lent credence to our early impression that Gordon was, in a word, crazy.

It was hard to follow the action, since we were running downhill at this point into an area that had been logged and was now overgrown with new trees.  The cover was getting thinner, but beyond all this we were nearing what looked like a well-nigh impenetrable forest.  It was about two hundred yards ahead.

I heard the shotgun booming again.  The fighter started screaming back toward us.  I looked over to see Gordon do a sideways flip out of the Russ ship’s path.  The fighter had made no attempt to fire at such a flimsy target this time.  Its pilot had aimed the craft directly at Gordon, knowing that the turbulence alone would be enough to wreck him.  And it was.

The airbike was tossed upside down toward a stand of trees, totally out of control.  Gordon could only hang helplessly from the handlebars and watch those trees hurtling closer and closer.  By the time his airbike struck the lower branches of what I later learned was a mang tree, Gordon was twenty feet off the ground and sailing along pretty fast.  I saw him let go, just before the impact, but then I had to take care of a little business of my own.

The fighter had banked again.  I heard it coming, and that ball of fear in my belly was just about crippling me.  We were still almost a hundred yards from the deep woods.  We weren’t going to make it.

This area had obviously been part of the settlement at one time.  There were some ruined outbuildings, and, up ahead, what looked like a big earthmover.  It was half keeled over, with a deep depression underneath it.  Cal had lead us to it and was half directing, half pushing Vanessa, then Morris, then Beth, and finally me into that depression and under the treads of that huge machine.

By this time the sound of the fighter was almost deafening.  As Cal piled in on top of me, I heard the shriek of a missile being fired.  Then everything went black.

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