Somewhere between Paseo and Arima, in their underground bunker, the Guardians were leaping into action. First, they'd heard the explosions, far in the distance. Almost immediately afterward, the Guardian radio frequencies came to life.
"Emergency in Paseo!"
"The Central Tower has been hit. Repeat--"
"We're going to have a lot of wounded people here!"
Anna and Kip stood in what seemed like the middle of a tornado. Guardians ran all around them in ten different directions putting on armor, grabbing weapons, stashing their pockets full of monomates and dimates, getting to their teleportation pads. "Listen up, Guardians," Anna shouted over the noise. "We're going to arrive in front of the Central Tower in one minute." She glanced at Kip, who was now looking over the shoulder of a Guardian running the communications board. "Our job is to help the wounded. We don't care about the Rebels. We'll send--"
"We do now," Kip interrupted, turning to Anna. "There were a total of 12 shots, all from heavy laser cannons, three shots from each of Paseo's old Control Towers. And now, our scouts in the city say the Rebels are teleporting into the Tower."
"They're after their captured comrades," Anna said. It wasn't a question, but Kip nodded in confirmation.
"Okay," she raised her voice again, "change in plans. We're going to teleport directly into the Central Tower. Now be ready for anything. Besides the fact that there could be four Rebels in your face the minute you arrive, you could also find yourself very close to a fire, or standing right above a hole in the floor. Our scouts say the building has been pulverized, so be careful."
Kip clapped his hands together. "All Guardians to your teleport platforms, now!" They obeyed. Anna stepped over to the teleport controls, where Kip was waiting with the controller. "Spread us out throughout the building," she ordered the Guardian at the console.
"Scouts say the top three floors are gone," Kip chimed in.
"Okay, then don't send us there," Anna corrected. "But Kip and I are to materialize right in the detention area, understood?" The controller nodded, and Anna and Kip stepped onto their platforms.
"Initiate teleport," Anna said, and a moment later, the Guardians were gone.
"What did I just hear you say?" Peter asked Rudo. The man who trembled with anger a few minutes earlier was now trembling with fear. But Rudo could see as Peter walked towards he, Shir, and Kain, with Agent Gwen right behind him, that Peter was trying his best to hide it and be brave. In the process, Peter earned new respect from Rudo.
"We're being invaded," Rudo repeated. "The Rebels are teleporting in all over the Tower."
"They're going to free the prisoners," Kain realized.
"That's right," Rudo nodded. "Which means we have to get down to the detention level fast." He glanced across the room. Half of it was filled with the Tower's two upper-most levels. Of what was left, one huge portion was taken up by a hole in the floor. "And that looks like the fastest way to start."
They walked over to the hole. Somewhere on the floor below, they heard laser fire.
Rudo turned to Shir. "Are you okay? Can you come with?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she nodded.
"Kain," Rudo addressed the Mechanic, "your arm is probably broken. Stay here and give first aid to these people. If you find anyone trapped underneath the rubble from the top two floors, do not try to free them. You might end up bringing the rest of the floor down, too, is that clear?"
Kain nodded. "I'll stay with him," Gwen chimed in. Then, turning to Kain, "There used to be some dimates and trimates in a cabinet over there. I'll go get them."
Gwen and Kain broke off. Rudo and Peter crouched down before the hole and grabbed Shir's hands, lowering her down to the floor below. She hopped down the rest of the way, then Rudo lowered Peter. Lastly, Rudo himself jumped down.
This floor wasn't in much better shape than the one they had just left, though there were no dead bodies on this level, and the peoples' injuries seemed only minor. They crossed the room they had landed in and exited into a hallway. Even emergency lighting had failed, and the only illumination came from the small fires that burned periodically throughout the hall.
"Rudo," Peter began. "Commander's office was on the top floor. Do you think--"
"We don't have the luxury of being able to think right now, Peter," Rudo interrupted. "The Rebels have already hurt and killed enough people by nuking the damn building. It's up to us to see that they don't hurt anymore."
They approached an intersection in the hallway. Just then, two Rebels jumped out of the cross-corridor and aimed their rifles at Rudo, Shir, and Peter.
"You can die trying, government dogs!" one of the Rebels yelled before they both pulled back the triggers on their rifles. Rudo and Shir jumped to the side of the hall, but Peter wasn't quite quick enough. He took the brunt a rifle blast in the thigh and fell to the floor in pain.
Rudo raised his Sonic Gun and aimed at the head of the first Rebel, fired, moved his gun inches to the side, fired again. Both Rebels fell.
"Let me help," Shir said as she helped Peter to his feet. Rudo approached the dead Rebels and confiscated their rifles. He handed one to Peter and kept one for himself. "Are you all right?" Rudo asked Peter.
"I can make it," was the non-committal answer. He leaned on Shir for support as they made their way a few steps down the hall.
Just then they heard the sound of an incoming teleportation right behind them. Rudo spun, aimed his rifle down the hall.
A second later, he was aiming at two Guardians.
"Don't shoot!" the first one said. "We're only here to help the wounded and stop the Rebels."
Rudo smiled and brought back his rifle. "Hey, you won't hear any complaints from me. You guys are great in my book. It's this guy here," he chuckled with a wave towards Peter, "who thinks you guys are... what was it? Vigilantes and criminals?"
Peter grunted. "Did I say that?" He met Rudo's eyes. "I stand corrected."
Rudo turned to the two Guardians. "We're trying to make our way down to the detention level. The stairs are right up here," Rudo announced.
"How many floors down is the detention level?" Shir asked.
"Three. Come on, no time to lose."
Rudo reached the door first. He threw open the door just as two Rebels were coming up the stairs to investigate the shots from a minute before. He cut them both down with his new rifle.
They started down the stairs, Peter coming along very slowly, limping and gritting his teeth in pain anytime he touched down on his wounded leg. One of the Guardians had administered a dimate to him, but it hadn't done much besides stopping the bleeding. He stopped at the next floor's landing, two flights of stairs below.
"Go on," he said. "Leave me. I'm holding you guys up."
Shir hefted his arm back across her shoulders. "Stop that nonsense talk. Let's go."
"No, Shir," Rudo said. "He's right. We have to get down there."
"Rudo!" She fixed him with a look.
"Go," Peter said, leaning on the railing. "I'll be along shortly." He handed Shir his rifle, then waved her ahead.
She stood where she was a moment, mentally deciding. Finally, before she changed her mind, she started down the stairs. The two Guardians followed immediately, but Rudo paused long enough to nod at Peter. "Good luck," he said.
"Do me a favor, Steiner," Peter gasped through the pain. "Don't let any Rebels get out of here. At least..." He grinned. "At least not alive."
Rudo smiled and nodded, then followed Shir and the Guardians down the stairs.
"Here's the deal, guys and ladies," Ricktus shouted as he slammed the keytube into the slot next to one of the cells. "You are all once again free!"
Five Rebels were with him in the cell block; four dead Agents were behind them in the guard room. The group of liberated Rebels from the cell blissfully accepted the rifles their comrades handed to them. Ricktus had moved onto the next cell. Once again, he jammed the keytube into the slot next to the cell, and more Rebels were freed.
"There is but one condition of your parole," Ricktus continued, his speech peppered with laughter here and there. "You have to help us destroy what's left of this wasteland they used to call the Central Tower!"
He moved the keytube towards the next cell's slot, but turned to the other Rebels before inserting all the way. "So enjoy, guys and ladies! It's party ti--"
His words disappeared into his scream as an AC Slasher ripped a chunk of flesh from his arm. The keytube clattered to the floor as the Slasher in question then turned around in the air and flew back to the open and waiting hand of Anna, who had arrived with Kip and about twelve other Guardians. "If you want to party, Ricktus," Anna called to him, "celebrate our victory."
The third cell of Rebels forgotten, Ricktus drew his gun and aimed at Anna. He fired off one shot, which Anna dodged, before the assembled Guardians charged at the Rebels.
Kip's staff was out of his overcoat and into his hands immediately. Facing a Rebel, he brought the staff down hard across the Rebel's wrist, forcing him to drop his weapon to the floor. Quickly, Kip then drove the other end of the staff into the Rebel's abdomen, before completing the move by introducing his staff to his opponent's face. The Rebel quickly joined his weapon on the floor.
Three Rebels closed in around Anna, two from the front and one from behind. Sensing that the one from behind was closest, she quarter-turned and threw her leg out in a kick that caught the Rebel across the jaw. The inertia of the kick took her all the way around to come face-to-face with him, so she completed the job with a punch to the face.
By this time, the other two Rebels, who were now behind her, had reached her. She quickly stepped in between them so that she could face one head-on, then threw an elbow behind her, catching that Rebel in the gut. She lashed out at the Rebel in front of her with a chop to the throat, sent the Rebel behind her to the floor with a back kick, then grabbed the Rebel in front of her and flipped him onto his back, right on top of his companion.
Without warning, her heavy breathing was cut off as a Rebel grabbed her from behind, wrapping his arm around her throat and cutting off the air. He swung her around, and as he did so, she saw that another Rebel had taken Kip's staff and was using it to pin him against the wall, holding the staff across Kip's throat as he sent knees into Kip's groin and punches into his stomach.
The Rebel taunted Kip as he punished him. "Gee, I'm sorry," a punch, "you can't," another punch, "seem to breathe," a knee, "Guardian." A rifle blast cut through the air and through the head of the Rebel that had Kip pinned. As he picked his staff up off the ground, Kip saw that Rudo and Shir had arrived with two other Guardians. He nodded, then looked down at the Rebel that Rudo had saved him from.
"Sorry you can't seem to live."
When they reached the guard room and found the four Agents assigned there dead, Rudo feared the worst, but once he, Shir, and the two Guardians they had met up with entered the cell block, it wasn't so bad.
Six Rebels were there in uniform; another ten wore prison clothes but had been armed with rifles by the others. Rudo counted fourteen Guardians, including Kip and Anna. With six Rebels and seven Guardians on the floor, this arrival of reinforcements gave the Guardians a slight lead.
Upon entering the cell block, Rudo saw that a Rebel had Kip pinned against the wall. One shot from his rifle and chalk up one more bad guy.
Kip moved on to other matters, as did Shir and the two Guardians they arrived with. But Rudo immediately noticed that one Rebel had Anna in a choke hold across the cell block.
Before he could charge in that direction, a Rebel came from behind and leaped onto Rudo's back. He then proceeded to deliver punch after punch to Rudo's head. Rudo tried desperately to shake him, but couldn't do it.
"Can't get me, Agent! Can't get me!" the Rebel taunted as Rudo spun around the room. Finally, he noticed Shir, who was nearby, fighting a Rebel with her hand-to-hand weapon of choice: knives.
She saw Rudo and the riding Rebel heading her way and quickly finished her opponent with a slash across the throat. Just then, Rudo had his back to her, putting the riding Rebel between the two of them. Shir drove one of her knives deep into Rebel's back, and the punches to Rudo's head immediately ceased.
But as Shir was occupied with this, she did not notice the Rebel sneaking up on her until he snatched her other knife from her hand. Stunned, she turned to face the man who had stolen from the Thief.
Before she even faced him completely, the Rebel had buried the knife in Shir's stomach.
"Shir!" Rudo cried. He turned to the Rebel who stabbed her and, almost as an afterthought, slammed the butt of his rifle across his face. Shir, meanwhile, just stood still, her face a wide-eyed mask of surprise. Her hands, which rested on the knife handle still protruding from her stomach, slowly turned red as blood ran over them.
Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fainted. "Oh God, Shir!" Rudo caught her, helped her to the floor safely, and prayed silently that she'd live.
Anna's hands grasped at the muscular arm that was wrapped across her throat. As the man behind her began to speak, she realized who it was: Ricktus Tenbern.
"So you know me, eh, Guardian Leader?" he spat into her ear. His face was so close she could feel his breath on her ears. "So you're on a first-name basis with me, can I be on a first-name basis with you, Anna?" She was starting to feel dizzy; her lungs ached for oxygen. This isn't working. Think, Anna, think! All at once, she both thought of a plan and acted on it. She reached down to her belt, grabbed one of her AC Slashers, and fumbled with it until she held it by one end. "Yeah, I like that name," Ricktus went on. "I'll personally write it on your headstone for you!"
Anna drove the other end of the Slasher deep into Ricktus's thigh.
He released both her and an ear-piercing scream at the same time. Anna took a breath of wonderful air and turned around to finish Ricktus off, though her peripheral vision still saw nothing but black spots.
"Anna!" It was then that Anna heard Rudo call her name. She spun around towards him and found herself face-to-face with a Rebel who had seen what she did to Ricktus. With no time to react, she saw the Rebel bring his metal bar into the air, and then saw it swinging towards the side of her head.
And then the world went black.
Rudo saw Anna fall to the ground, then brought his rifle up to bear on the Rebel with the metal bar. Laser fire ripped his body apart, though Rudo, in his blind rage, almost hit a Guardian, too.
Ricktus barked out orders and called into a radio while all the Rebels still alive and still able to move gathered around him. The remaining Guardians -- four of them -- gathered behind Rudo and Kip, who immediately assessed the situation. "They're about to leave," Kip realized.
But Rudo's mind was working one step ahead. He began running across the cell block towards Ricktus, who was bleeding from his shoulder and thigh, as Ricktus picked the unconscious Anna up off the ground and threw her over his shoulder.
"No!" Rudo shouted. By this time Kip realized what was happening, too, and he began charging forth two steps behind Rudo. But Rudo was still several steps away from Ricktus, who fixed Rudo with an arrogant smile, when he and the rest of the Rebels teleported away with Anna.
Back in what was once the room outside Rudo's office, Agent Gwen stood before the ruins of the Central Tower's top two floors. A few moments earlier, she and Kain had begun hearing cries for help from inside the rubble. "It's all right," she called in the general direction of the cries. "Reports are coming in from all over the building. The Rebels are gone. A rescue team will be here soon. Just hang in there. You're going to be okay!" Gwen, the eternal realist, wished she could believe herself.
Kain was across the room, using a fire extinguisher to finish off the last of the fires that had erupted in the room during the attack on the Tower. Gwen's radio, which she had handed to him while they performed first aid on everyone present, was active and alive with casualty reports from all over the building. As the fire finally died out, Kain heard his name over the radio. It was Rudo.
"Rudo, this is Kain," he called into the radio. "There was only one other fatality up here besides the guy who took the window in his face. Everyone else has received first aid, but there are some people trapped in the rubble up here."
"Fine, I'll have a rescue team sent up," Rudo replied impatiently. "But I need you down here on the detention level right away with any trimate you have left."
"What happened?" Kain asked, not really wanting the answer.
"The Rebels kidnapped Anna," he said softly. "And Shir has been severely wounded."
Where are they? Where is Pioneer 1? I need to know!
|Please send all comments and feedback to mike at ripplinger dot us|