The bloodstained wrench rose and fell again, ending the last thrashing movements of the downed crewman. Xander straightened up and swung in a simultaneous motion, catching another onrushing attacker under the chin, shattering the woman's jaw with a single blow. Grappling with another man behind him, Isla drove a small, flat-headed screwdriver into the side of the crewman's neck, extracting a gurgling scream before the man crumpled to the deck.
Yet another possessed man came hurtling out of the mist, crashing into Xander in a flying tackle. The pair stumbled backwards, fighting for control of the wrench. Twisting, he drove his elbow down hard into the sickly blackened eye socket of the man, sending him reeling back into the blue-black smog.
While the melee raged on, Cassie fought desperately to open the airtight bulkhead door, crossing wires and circuits in any combination she could think of. The screwdriver twirled in her hand as she altered the circuitry, shaking violently at the screams and cries from just a few feet over her shoulder. A body crashed into the door beside her with a dull thump, causing her to leap away. Biting back a yelp of panic, she tried to concentrate.
Wedging the screwdriver hard into the aperture of the circuit board, she gripped in with both hands, gritted her teeth behind the breather mask and twisted savagely. A bang rose above the clamour of noise, followed by a blast of smoke that hit her squarely in the face. Cassie reeled backwards with a scream, and crashed into another possessed crewman. Flailing wildly, she felt a pair of strong arms wrap around her from behind, while a hand clamped down onto her upper arm in a vice-like grip. Blinking furiously, her vision cleared just in time to see Xander lunging towards her with his wrench raised high.
"CASSIE!" The weapon came down over her right shoulder, smashing her attacker solidly between the eyes. Tumbling backwards, the possessed man grasped wildly at his quarry, until his left hand found a purchase. As he fell to the deck, his fist clenched around the air tube of Cassie's breather apparatus, tearing her mask from her face and exposing her to the toxic fumes of Alsace IV.
Xander reached out and pulled his young companion close, hugging her to his chest as he flailed left and right with the wrench. Behind him the blast door had opened fractionally, its mechanism sparking and hissing in protest. Isla sent another attacker tumbling back into the fog with a kick to the chest before grabbing the pair and guiding them into the gap. They tumbled through the narrow aperture amidst the swirling fumes, and Isla leapt through after then with a shriek as another crewman scrabbled for her ankle. Kicking him hard in the face, she wriggled through the rest of the way, scrambling backwards on all fours. Xander yanked down the emergency manual operation lever on the other side of the bulkhead, causing the huge metal construction to slide shut again.
Cassie slipped from his grasp and crumpled to the floor, coughing and choking with tears of pain streaming down her face.
"Oh, fuck no, Cass," he growled, dropping to his knees at her side. "C'mon, kid, stick with me!"
inhaled too much," Isla whimpered, falling down and cradling the young
engineer's head in her hands. Cassie convulsed violently, pushing out her chest
and arching her spine as she fought to breathe.
"C'mon, c'mon." Taking a breath, Xander removed his mask and placed it over her nose and mouth.
"Breathe, Cassie, breathe!"
She pawed feebly at the breather unit, before another spasm racked her diminutive frame. With a shudder she flopped limply against the floor, her throat still bobbing as she gurgled for air. His hand shaking violently, Xander removed the mask and placed it back over his nose and mouth. Another cough sent a gob of blood onto the deck and she shuddered.
"Xander," Isla sobbed. "What do we do?"
"I…" He shook his head blankly. "I don't…" He swallowed hard at the sight of the girl twisting and writhing in pain. In a sudden motion she grabbed his hand, digging her nails into his skin. Xander bit his lip. "Not like this, Cass."
"If I had the gear I could…" Isla's voice trailed off after a fresh convulsion, followed by a ghastly, screech that tore itself from Cassie's throat. "Oh my God." With a final rattling breath she went limp and slumped against Isla's lap, her sightless eyes staring at the ceiling of the corridor where whisps of gas slithered and turned in the air.
Xander watched numbly as his crewmate burst into a frenzy of action, laying Cassie's head down against the desk and pressing both hands down over the young engineer's chest. He counted twenty attempts to restart her heart before he reached out a shaking hand, grasping Isla by the forearm. She tried to shake him off, tears rolling down her cheeks as grief-stricken sobs escaped from her throat.
"She's-," he began haltingly. "She's gone, Isla."
"Let go of me!"
"Isla!" He yanked her arm hard until she faced him, glaring through bloodshot, tear-stained eyes. His tone dropped and he said gently, "She's gone." Twisting her arm free, Isla slumped back, putting her head in her hands and curling up into a ball. Her frame shook with violent sobs. Fighting down the lump in his throat, Xander reached forward again and gently closed Cassie's eyes. Only then, staring down at the peacefully sleeping face of his young charge, did the bitter memories of the girl come crashing into the front of his mind like an avalanche. Images of her playful impudent smile, her twinkling eyes and energetic liveliness finally forced a pair of hot teardrops out of his eyes to trickle down his cheeks.
They sat there silently in the corridor for what seemed like an eternity, until an echoing clang from the other side of the blast door snapped Xander out of his stupor. In a slow, laborious motion, he stood up dry-eyed. Taking a deep breath he moved over to Isla. She had her chin resting on her crossed arms, staring despondently at the wall above Cassie's body.
"Isla, we've got to get moving." He looked at Cassie and closed his eyes for a moment. "We have to leave her here."
"I know," Isla answered hoarsely. He grasped her under one arm and helped her upright. As he turned to start walking again she caught his arm, pulling him back to face her. She looked him in the eye, her jaw set tightly. "Xander, it's not your fault. No-one's blaming you."
"Thanks." He managed the faintest of smiles. "Let's just get off this ship."
"You've been saying that for a while," she laughed weakly.
"Well this time I mean it."
The pair set off at a jog, side by side as they made their way through the Gehanon's passages. Ascending another stairwell, they reached a level of the ship that had yet to be filled by the poisonous toxins of Alsace IV. With airtight bulkhead doors closing behind them, their pursuers fell further and further behind. A merciful silence pervaded the halls of the factory ship, only their footsteps echoing in the spotless white interior. Xander removed his breather unit, taking in a lungful of the clean oxygen of the ship.
"Xander?" Isla said, pulling her own mask off.
"What are we going to do when we get off this thing?"
"What do you mean?" He gave her a quizzical look as they jogged on.
"Say we get off the ship," she continued. "And back to the Lunchbox, what then. Do we let this lie? What do we tell people? What can we tell their families, Redge, Cassie, Brodie?"
"Isla, I don't know," Xander grunted. "We may not be able to say anything. If the O.X.R.T is involved then we are in some deep, deep shit. Their superiors outrank our superiors."
"It's just wrong. They got us all killed."
"Not yet they ha-," Xander was cut off by a sudden deafening boom that shook the entire vast bulk of the Gehanon from stem to stern, throwing them both into the right hand wall of the corridor. As they tumbled to the deck the white, luminescent lights died, replaced by the dull red of the emergency generators. Another explosion rocked the ship, setting the alarms blaring.
"What the fuck now?!" Isla screamed above the noise as he hauled her upright. Xander hesitated for a moment, then his eyes widened in shock.
may have spoke to soon," he murmured, glancing at his watch.
"I think our friends from the Colonial Navy have arrived." He almost laughed at the bitter absurdity of it all. Shaking his head, he shrugged. "Well there's nothing for it. Let's run!"
And they did. Hurtling through the shaking corridors of the factory ship they sprinted for the bridge of the vessel, the protruding nose cone being the best option for the plan. He hoped the placing of the charges would be simple. Bumbling their way through the shuddering passageways, they made it onto the main broad corridor, with the open doors of the bridge lying in wait for them at the far end.
"Almost there," he shouted. A thunderous blast sent them both into the air for a brief instant, and the leftward connecting corridor was sealed off as its bulkhead slammed shut. They scrambled upright together and continued on, reaching the narrowly open doors. Xander skidded to a halt and dropped to one knee, pulling the mining charges free of his backpack. He handed two of them to Isla.
"Attach them to that wall, top and bottom. You need an exact two metre spread." She nodded and began placing the charges. Taking the other two, he followed suit on the opposite side of the passage. The clamps of the small blue bombs burrowed into the wall plating, locking them in place against the shaking. Xander glanced sharply back down the corridor as another, roaring blast sounded, belching a fireball into the far end before another bulkhead slammed shut. With sweat running down his cheeks, he primed the explosives and set the detonation timer. Standing up, he followed her into the bridge.
Isla spun to the left towards the manual operating lever of the bulkhead. With a curse she tugged at it, but the mechanism refused to budge. She tried again, throwing her whole body weight against the lever. This time it gave way, but only to give a feeble hiss of hydraulics. The bulkhead stayed open.
"It must have been damaged by the blasts," she shouted. Xander clasped his head in his hands, his mind racing. Isla pushed the lever up and down, but the result was the same. "We might be able to work around it-,"
"No time," he snapped. He darted over to the entrance of the room and poked his head out, looking left and right. He spotted the second manual release lever on the outside of the door, and cast a fervent glance back to Isla. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed hard.
Turning around he watched as Isla broke open the wall panel of the manual release, fiddling desperately with wires and circuits to no avail. Looking from his crewmate to the flame filled corridor beyond the bridge, he shrugged the backpack resignedly from his shoulders. He placed it gently on the floor, then stepped in close to her.
"Isla, there are two of the Gehanon's computer logs inside that bag," he said calmly, pointing. "Make sure they get back."
She looked up from the circuits. "Xander, what…?"
"And I'd appreciate it if you get the chance, tell my folks what happened yourself."
"G'bye, Isla." Before she could react he spun and dove out of the bridge. Twisting to his right he lunged for the manual operator, slammed the lever downwards and stepped backwards from the bridge. He caught one last glimpse of Isla's shocked face before the airtight bulkhead boomed shut in front of him. Taking a breath, he turned around slowly, and sat down.
Flames danced in his eyes as the explosions drew closer, the naval bombardment hammering the bulk of the factory ship to shards. A storm of fire swirled its way towards him, brilliantly flashing tendrils of orange, red and yellow flaring left and right. A strange sense of peace swept over him as he watched the oddly beautiful display. At least he'd finally been given a chance to balance the books. Glancing to the right he saw the tell-tale change from green to red on the indicator of the nearest explosive. With the instant he had left, Xander closed his eyes and crossed himself before the mining charges detonated.