Fire With Fire – Snippet 30

Using the cover of their noise, she limp-sprinted to the elevator, wedged her arm through the partially open door, braced her legs and pushed one direction with her arms, the other direction with the shoulder-blade she had squirmed into the gap. A moment of resistance — and breath-stopping pain — and the door opened enough for her to slide through sideways.

Inside the elevator, she found what she had been hoping to find at a medical facility: handrail/bumpers lining the interior at about waist height. And at the rear left corner of the ceiling, an overhead panel.

One last agony, now. Facing into the left rear corner, she raised her shaking left leg up onto one of the handrails and wedged her left hand into the crevice between the left and rear wall panels. Trembling with the effort and pain, she hoisted herself off the floor, got her other foot up onto the rear wall handrail. Once she was steady, she pushed upward against the overhead access panel with her free hand. Stuck or locked. But flimsy. No choice. She hammered upwards with her fist, thinking: any second, they’ll hear it.

But after three blows, the panel popped up, the sheared head of a single restraining screw dropping past her. Now, both arms through the access panel, palms to either side, and lift. Slowly, she rose into the darkness of the elevator shaft, choking on the dust — and then began shaking convulsively. She couldn’t tell if it was from relief, exhaustion, pain, or noradrenal aftermath — or all of them.

Guiding the access panel back with careful fingers, she snuggled it in place, thought: I just might make it —

She heard a faint metallic squeak overhead, threw herself to the side of the elevator car’s roof, almost tumbling into the gap between it and the wall. She was still, silent. So too was whatever had made the noise overhead. Where, looking up, she saw a faint hint of something other than absolute darkness. Not a light, per se: more like a reflection of twilight? And were those voices she heard? A hint of a whisper and then nothing?

Alongside her, disappearing up into the near shadows, was a ladder in a recessed channel. It was a pathway to salvation — or to death. The all-important variable was this: whose voices had she — maybe — heard up there? Was it the intruders? Had they come in that way?

She leaned back against the ladder: wondering won’t do any good. You have to think, and then you have to act. So she thought: this might be a secure facility, but she doubted it was top secret. It had the sprawling look of a complex built for, and worked by, civilians. That meant it would have high security, but was unlikely to be some remote subterranean warren that was dozens of klicks from human habitation. So the building was probably situated in a typical civilian environment. If that was the case, would the bad guys have come in through the roof?

Probably not. Aerial insertion would be risky if they were in a developed area — and aerial extraction would be suicide. Local forces would be on the way in, and the first thing they’d be able to assess and control was the surrounding airspace.

Unless this was a black op — where the “intruders” were actually the “men in black” from the government — in which case there was no hope either way. Local law enforcement would be countermanded or delayed long enough to give the hunter-killer teams plenty of time to finish their sweeps.

So it was either men in black and certain death, or honest-to-god intruders — which meant that the cavalry was probably be on the way, and they would almost certainly come by air and secure the roof first.

She turned slowly, reached out for the rungs of the ladder and hoped her legs would hold her for what looked like — judging from the distance of that little bit of grayness above her — a five story climb.


Little Guy’s hand appeared in the shaft above him, waving sharply. All clear.

Caine yanked himself up the last five rungs, but, despite his eagerness to be outside, kept low as he came out. Little Guy, watching from a crouch, gave a nod of approval, then stared meaningfully off into the night. Caine followed his gaze.

A green and red light, blinking, about three kilometers away, and coming closer — rapidly. The roar of VTOL jets crescendoed: the approaching craft was swiveling them into more of a vertical lift attitude.

“Our ride?”

Little Guy nodded, scuttled crablike to a spot a few meters away, where he set and adjusted a black disk about the size of a hockey puck.

“What is it?”

He didn’t look up. “Multiphase UV beacon: can’t see it without special goggles, set to see the right frequencies at the right intervals.”

Meyerson burst out of the doorway, somewhat crouched, but ready to stand. Caine reached up, grabbed the front of his web-gear, tugged him down.

“Son of a –“

Little Guy interrupted. “Meyerson.”

Meyerson looked away. “Okay. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”

“You’ll get dead if you do it standing up. Stay low.”

The VTOL roared closer, looming larger and on what seemed like a collision course.

“Hey –” began Caine.

“No worries,” commented Little Guy. “Standard operating procedure for a hot extraction. They’ll keep pouring on the speed until the last second, then they’ll swivel into vertical hard and fast: can shake your teeth loose, but minimizes the amount of time that you’re a sitting duck for hostiles.”

Caine tried hard to believe Little Guy’s explanation as the twelve-meter attack sled cleared the far end of the roof — and then, like a bristly mechanical wasp, came to a sudden, shuddering midair halt, vertical thrusters slamming forward with a high-RPM scream.

Meyerson was coiled to go, Caine — for once — ready to follow his lead, when Little Guy’s hand came down on his left bicep. “No, we wait for the signal.”

“Which is?”

But Little Guy was watching the vertibird through narrowed eyes. The craft seemed to roll lazily toward the left side of the roof, turning slightly as it did so. A ready door gunner rotated into view; the chin-mounted autocannon swiveled in the opposite direction.

Meyerson fidgeted. “What’s taking –?”

Little Guy made a harsh noise. “Something’s wrong.”

The VTOL stopped for a second, then danced quickly to the right, thrusters swiveling sharply into lateral flight mode. It started picking up speed, swinging back out over the street —

From somewhere off to the left, a sharp, growling cough gave birth to another sound — that of a severed pressure hose, which up-dopplered sharply. A flash of motion from behind them — and then the object was past, the sound down-dopplering. Caine identified it as a missile just before it hit the VTOL a meter behind the cockpit.

The explosion was ferocious: the sudden blast of flame and heat whited out his goggles’ thermal imaging circuits, blinding Caine just as the shockwave knocked him back several feet. Something heavy and hot — he couldn’t tell what — went crashing past him.

The goggles faded back in: burning wreckage, a madman’s arabesque of twisted metal.

“Jesus Christ!” shouted Meyerson.

“Stow that, or I’ll kick your ass when — if — we get back to the shack.” Little Guy scanned to the left, took off his goggles, stared intently, then put them back on and signaled to Meyerson.

“What’s up, Petty?”

“Target, adjoining rooftop. Wearing a cold suit — probably running a chill can, so no IR signature: that’s why the bird didn’t see him at first. He won’t be alone.”

“I’m on it.” Meyerson went past, running a jack from his goggles into the scope of his gun.

Caine felt himself being tugged in the other direction: Little Guy was moving low and fast to the center of the roof, into a cluster of fan cowlings, ventilators, and elevator access sheds. The master key appeared in his hand as they drew abreast of a waist-high tool and materials locker. He opened it, raised the lid. “In you go.”

“In there?”

“Now. No time for arguments.”

“Wait a minute; I can help you wi –“

The stunning blow — a palm heel strike to Caine’s chin — was so fast and unexpected that he didn’t even see Little Guy unleash it. Didn’t even feel himself fall into the locker backwards. Caine was dimly aware of Little Guy’s voice. “You’re a stand-up guy, but you’re a newb — and you’re the package we’re here to protect.”

As Caine started swimming up out of his unsteady fog, he heard Meyerson’s rifle stutter off into the night. The lid of the locker banged shut over him and the key turned in the lock. Damn it…

Meyerson’s fire went on — a sustained raucous ripping sound that lasted three or four seconds: he had emptied his magazine in one long blast of fire. A moment of silence, another — and then, even through the metal sides of the locker, Caine heard a roaring response that sounded like a horrible mix between a calliope and an immense, high-speed chainsaw. A rotary machine gun of some kind: good Christ. After a brief pause, it roared again — but was swiftly counterpointed by a whispering rush that ended in a sharp blast. The rotary gun abruptly fell silent, did not speak again.

Caine couldn’t follow much after that, as sporadic bursts of fire alternated with long stretches of silence. Eventually, the thin metal walls of the locker started to hum with the approach of something airborne and powerful — just before the lid lifted up and a hand came in to help him out. Again, Little Guy. Caine clambered out, saw another VTOL swing past, firing single rounds down at a nearby roof, although not the one from which the missile had been launched. He turned to Little Guy. “Where’s Meyerson?”

Little Guy shook his head. “He didn’t make it. Come on.” Yet another VTOL — a troop carrier — was skimming across the rooftops, approaching swiftly. Little Guy led the way back toward the elevator access doorway, put down another UV beacon. Again, the sudden shrill blast of thrusters as the VTOL rotated them into the vertical mode — so loud that the pair almost didn’t hear the faint scrabbling in the doorway behind them.

Caine rolled to the side; Little Guy spun, gun up so fast that it didn’t look like a human action at all. It was as though he went from cradling the gun to having it ready and aimed without any intervening motion of his arms or body.

A gasped “Hold…your fire!” stayed his trigger finger long enough to reveal that it wasn’t an assassin emerging from the shaft behind them. Not unless one of the assassins had disguised herself as a young woman in a drenched and clinging hospital gown, with blood staining the back.

Caine, doubled over to run low, reached her and helped her out onto the roof. The blood was not just a stain on the back of her shift: a steady trickle ran down the back of her right leg.

He uttered what he knew to be an idiocy: “You’re hurt.”

Her eyes followed his to the blood, and she smiled. “Hell, I think I was dead.”

She was going to add something, but just then the VTOL came down — loud, massive, ominous. Her almond-shaped eyes grew large and round. Little Guy whistled: Caine looked over. “You’re clear. And sorry about clipping you earlier.”

Caine grinned. “No problem. I’m probably alive because you did.” He started helping Opal over to the VTOL, looked back at Little Guy. “What about you?”

“I stay here, mind the store. See you safely on your way. We don’t want any more surprises. Go.”

Caine nodded and obeyed, helping the shivering woman up toward the hands reaching down from the passenger section of the vertibird.

As he climbed in next to her, finding and securing her belt, then his, he noticed that she was looking around, dazed and uncertain.

“Where are we?”

Good question, Caine thought. The thrusters roared: they swooped off the roof and swung upwards into the night sky. They could see more clearly now; off to their right were the unmistakable moonlit coils and windings of the Potomac. In a town always making news, Caine had the strange feeling that this just might make the morning edition.

“We’re near DC,” he said.

The young woman nodded, eyes now locked on a distant and immense white cubist finger that was accusing the sky, brightly lit by floodlights: the Washington Monument. Then, her pecan-brown eyes slid sideways, seeking Caine’s. “And when?”

Caine, not sure he had heard her, leaned closer, shouted over the thrusters, “I’m sorry: say again?”

She closed her eyes; when they opened, they were bright with tears. He felt his chest constrict as she repeated: “I asked you ‘when’: when are we?”

Unable to speak — silenced by seeing his own loss in her eyes — Caine reached out without thinking, placed his palm softly along her left cheek.

She smiled, eyes brighter and more liquid still, and held his hand there. Tightly.