I leap over the rest of the cars and run headlong into the fray. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ky doing the same, her finger already tensing on the trigger of that terrible gun. I hit somebody in the back- and they step aside. I push into the thick of shoving bodies- stink of sweat and desperation- and they push back. Somebody makes a grab for my coat, and I deck him. He goes spinning back into the maelstrom and falls. I dodge someone's elbow and press further into the crowd. I can see thick black smoke rising somewhere overhead. To the northeast- the myriad screams of many people are dying, all at once. I shove a blue-suited lady out of the way and move out onto a momentarily empty section of sidewalk. Everything is a confusion of running, shouting bodies, but to the north I think I can see the blue-black outfits of the Polis. I sprint as fast as I can across the empty swatch of sidewalk and dive up onto the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. It works- momentarily- and I slither over the heads and backs of a dozen people in my progress forward. For a moment, I have a decent view over the heads around me and I see something huge and mechanical going on to the north, and- no, couldn't be. Not in a city this size...well, maybe. The crowd parts around me- scatters, in fact, like quail, and I fall four feet to the pavement. I hit on hands and knees and scrape my palms a good one. By the time I look up again, I'm alone, and looking down the wrong end of a Polis-issue heavy sidearm. I hit the convex shield and turn my face aside just in time. The heavy shot richochets off the surface- and almost breaks my arm. There's a big black stain all over my clear shield now, and I'm dodging sideways, which is good, because I feel the heat of another shot pass by my right leg. I move left fast, take a running leap, and slide across the surface of a low-ground riot vehicle- and that starts to slide away, and I'm sure there are guns under there, too, but I'm still moving- thank Krin- and there's a burning hunk of mutilated debris in front of me. I leap through the low flames and hide behind the choking black smoke for a minute to catch my breath- ha ha. There's proper fighting in front of me- guns, bombs, more exotic weapons. The shock troops, in their shiny silver-black all-over armor, are breaking apart under a wave of bodies that I recognize as belonging to the Underground. In the thick of it, platinum hair- I HAD seen it earlier!- shining in the murk like a beacon, Aden Zephirus is cutting a swath toward the looming hulk of a riot tank. He's using- of all things- two long, flat swords. He whirls and dances, and they whirl about him as if they had a mind of their own. One of them bites deep into the helmet of a shock trooper, and the trooper goes down. They work, then, at least. Aden is laughing, dancing around with a balletic grace I couldn't duplicate if I had a hundred lifetimes to practice. His face turns briefly toward me, and I can see it in his eyes: He knows he won't be killed here. Somehow he knows he won't take a scratch. I run forward, shield held out in front of me just in case, and when I look up again, I'm in the middle of the Underground ranks. I get jostled backward, bump someone who looks vaguely familiar, and look up again- into Aden's wild eyes. He winks at me, turns almost casually around, and cuts through into the throat of a frightened regular Polis-officer. He dances back, cocks his head, and yells- over the screaming of the masses:
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"To Hell with you!" I shout back. "You're early!"
Aden just laughs.
Something cuts a line of fire and ice across my shoulder, and it starts hurting almost immediately. I look over and down, and I'm pretty sure I can see blood, but then something bangs heavily off my shield, and I fall to the ground. I struggle back to my feet, and then-
A blast of hot wind from above. I shield my eyes and look up.
Five micruisers- fast and maneuverable, but only room for two- hover down to just above head-height. Their turrets turn, almost as one, toward the shock troops (and now I can see a couple mechanical suits pounding in from the northeast, and those are trouble). There is a burst of ear-splitting gunfire, and five unlucky souls are blasted out of their boots. The crowd parts to let the minis land, and I skip backward to make room for the one nearest me. It touches down, powers off, and unhatches. From inside steps-
"Juronco!" I yell. "Hey! Juronco!"
He yanks off his headset and grins widely at me. "Good afternoon, sir!" he yells back. "Fine day for it, wouldn't you say?"
"None better!" I yell. "Good to see you all!"
"When in need..." He turns away from me for a second. "Krin! Sitarsky! Malrode! Suits from the northeast!"
Two of the figures emerging from the nearby minis turn and aim heavy firearms the make of which I am not familiar at the powered suits. The weapons- thick tubes covered with, hell, I don't know, covered with other machinery- emit twin flashes of blue-white light. The afterimage burns into my eyes, and I can't see what hits the suits, but one of them goes down in a burst of flame and noise, and the other retreats, trailing smoke. I can hear something making hollow thump-thump noises as it approaches. Something big.
"Come on!" says Juronco. "Hurry!"
I follow him into another fray.
Time blurs. There is fighting, and then more fighting, and then different fighting in the same places. At one point, we come down to melee combat, and I put away my shield and start swinging. I get in a few good ones here and there- faces I've seen before, some I've thought of punching before, others... I get done pounding a blue-suited officer into the ground and go to wipe the blood off on my pants before I realize the broken-toothed face lying on the street belongs to my old friend Kyzik. He looks as stunned as I feel, and I wonder if I will ever be forgiven for my crimes. Time blurs again... There are more suits, and a huge robotic monstrosity that takes seven people to run. It comes down, eventually, after taking many, many blasts to the legs- although that becomes much easier when someone- I think it may have been Ky- kills off an operator with a nicely placed shot. There is more fighting. At one point, I think I see Tomorrow, firing rapidly with two guns. I realize, later, that all of this fighting took place, for me, in the same two-hundred-measure stretch of street and square, but in the heat of the fighting, it feels like another world. Time blurs again. We wipe out the last of the local troops against the front of the HyPeriCo Building- one of the largest in Midport Square. The blood of the last troops splatters across the reflective windows of the ground floor in a warpaint scrawl. The crowd parts suddenly to let a stolen riot tank- with Zeb at the helm move into position. The thick, heavy turret takes almost a minute to charge. Those closest to the tank duck for cover, and I put my hands over my ears and duck my head down. The explosion is very loud, and it shakes the ground beneath my feet. When I look up again, the front doors- and much of the wall around them is gone. I can see guards- those few that are still inside the building- running in the general direction of away. Some of them make it. Some get mowed down by gunfire. The crowd forms itself into a tight, driving wedge around the opening, and Juronco is suddenly tugging at my arm to pull me forward.
"Come!" he says. "This is our moment!"
We move through to the front without obstruction. People part like grass, and Juronco steps through the opening, and suddenly I'm at the head of this mad procession, and Juronco is tugging on me, saying
"This is it! Our moment of glory! We will lead them into the very fortress of the enemy, and claim it for ours! See, Professor Jones? Even our Empress has come to witness this moment!"
He points into the sky. I look.
She is there, standing upon a floating platform amidst a phalanx of minicruisers, garbed in diaphanous robes of shimmering, brilliant white. She directs them from up there, pale, perfect arms waving, gesturing; her robes billowing in the fierce winds, hair whirling around her head as though it had caught her fury and taken it into itself- and in that moment, I know- truly know- that she will be the next ruler of Midport.
As one, we pour into the HyPeriCo Building.
The first four to enter the building are cut to pieces by the security system, and even Juronco takes a shot to the arm before they blast it to Hell. The guards and resident staff have fled, but the automatic defenses take their toll- and Silva seems to have installed defenses the likes of which no other building in Midport can boast. Our forces split up and take floor after floor. Somewhere along one of the maze-like hallways, we come face-to-face with a machine that seems to be (as far as we can tell) ALL weapons, designed to rotate and fire randomly. Something is burning on a nearby floor, and I can hear the screams of my comerades- somewhere inside the building. The walls are littered with traps. Looking back, it's a wonder I made it through unscathed.
Nevertheless, our force cannot be banked. We swarm the building like ants, and take it for our own. I am running beside Juronco when he stops, suddenly, and cups his hands around his earpiece. He listens.
"Everyone!" he shouts, loud enough for most of the room and nearby hallway to hear. "To me! To me! Forces gathering in Sector II! We need transportation!"
A monster of a man with what looks like a section of water piping over his shoulder lumbers into view. He motions us back with one gigantic hand, and I start to move- and then stop. I look again. It IS.
"Mr. Grund!" I shout, and grin when recognition dawns on his face. The man-machine was an integral part of the raid that- in a roundabout way- led to this situation. I always wondered what became of him.
He winks at me, and raises the pipe to eye-level. I move out of the way- fast.
Mr. Grund presses a button on the side of the pipe, and the far wall explodes outward. Beyond, sheltered within the fences of Silva's building, is a private airfield with maybe forty single-person cruisers sitting unmanned near the far end. Juronco comes up beside me and grins.
"Erythrummius comes through again," he says. "Come on, I'll see to it you get one to pilot..."
I put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from darting off again.
"No," I say. "I can't."
He turns and looks at me, really looks, for the first time in ages.
"I have something I have to take care of first."
The tattered remains of his excited grin fade away. He looks at me for a long moment- or at least it feels long- and finally nods.
"I understand," he says. "Honor, yes?"
"Honor, or something more vital. Yes."
He nods again, and reaches into his tunic pocket. When his hand emerges, it is holding a small, burnished object of dark and moody metal. He looks at it for a moment, his eyes far away- in another time, another place- and then reverses it. He holds the gun out toward me.
"It was my father's," he says. "If you find him...When you find him...will you? For honor?"
"Yes," I say, and I take the ancient gun from his hands. It feels remarkably heavy. It glimmers mellowly in the harsh, sterile light. I put it into the pocket of my longcoat next to Tomorrow's sleek little disruptor.
"Yes," I say. "I will."
"Go, then," says Juronco. I can see tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. "We will meet again."
The cruisers rise like a swarm of hornets, and fade away into the mid-day sky.
I am alone.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.