Through Fire – Snippet 25

Driving Blind

I ran until I could run no more. Out of breath, lost, I leaned against a wall and took stock of my surroundings.

I’d somehow run myself out of the cheaper neighborhoods, and into one of the more expensive areas. Not quite to the palace, but an area where Simon’s clerks and accountants would have lived, together with clerks and accountants for other businesses, with middle class shop owners and managers of various enterprises.

It had been a pleasant neighborhood, each house set well within a garden, and from the smells in the air, distinct beneath the smells of fire and blood, there were scents of orange and of various exotic flowers.

I had a vague memory, without a precise date, of coming to a neighborhood like this, perhaps this very same neighborhood, with Simon, to visit his old nanny. The house, accounting for the fact that houses on Earth were above ground and in Eden tended to be underground, was as comfortable as anything I’d grown up with. And there had been gardeners at work in the grounds of various neighbors.

If the fury of the revolutionaries, or the looters, if there was a difference at this point, had burned itself out in the cheaper neighborhoods it carried on here, with vigor.

While I leaned against the wall, I heard the sounds of the same song I’d heard in the palace, and then a series of blows, as of a blade against wood.

Near me, a house was aflame, completely engulfed, with the fire licking at the roof, and casting an uncomfortable heat all the way past the walled garden to where I stood across the opposite side of the street.

From the other side of that house came the sounds of something hitting wood, and from the house to the side nearest me came screams and the zap of burners, the curious smell the burner rays left in the air.

I didn’t want to move. I’d run so far, and I was in a place I didn’t understand, surrounded by people with hostile intent. What I wanted to do, arguably what I should do, was to stay still and shut up, and save myself first, then find Simon and save him, and find out from him what to do to quell this or at the very least to get him to safety.

But I remembered Martha telling me that whatever Simon had tried to do had escaped his control. And then I thought that there were innocents being hurt, innocents dying, through no fault of their own, but because they’d been caught in a peculiar time and place. If I’d been armed in the ballroom, during the ball, I could have stopped the nonsense right then, and then Simon might have been able to hold onto power; to figure out what to do next, and this would never have happened.

I didn’t get the option of staying still; of doing nothing.

With a groan, I pushed off the wall and ran towards the sound of burners zapping.

The gate to the garden had been torn open, and a group of young men in liberty caps were making a semi-circle around the entrance of the house, zapping at anything that moved, or seemed to move inside.

The defenders were not totally helpless. One or more people in there had burners. It wasn’t easy to figure out if it was one or more, because whenever a burner ray came out of a side of the house, all the attackers would turn on it, and the burner would go silent. The first time this happened, I thought the attackers had hit the defender. They thought so too. The song they were singing raised up and became more mocking.

But they didn’t advance towards the house. They were, I realized, just past the maximum range where a low power burner could hit them. The defenders — who presently shot out of another window, drawing the attackers’ fire — only had the sort of little burner that is sold for personal defense. Good for about six feet but not more, the sort of weapon that is fine for every day, but not much use in this situation. Probably a lady’s burner, since those tended to have limited range in order to be small and portable, capable of being hid in a handbag or a pocket.

The attackers, on the other hand, were using long range burners.

Which put the defenders at a distinct disadvantage. While the attackers were cowardly enough to stay out of range, not risking even a minor burn, they could draw the fire of the defenders. The defenders had to know the only thing keeping them safe was the remaining charge in their burners. But those burners always had a low level of charge, and the attackers knew that too.

They were keeping safe, drawing fire, until no more burner-rays came from inside the house, and then they would take over and… I wasn’t sure what they’d do, not the details, but there was the house next door burning, and there was the song they were singing, about bringing the high down low and raising themselves up to make justice over the unjust.

This would not end well.

There was only one thing I could do. I did it. I had a burner in each pocket, and I pulled them both out, and shot as fast as I could. One, two, three four, starting with the ones in the middle, who were nearer me and therefore could respond with better accuracy.

I had the advantages of surprise and speed but, as Alexis Brisbois had so clearly told me, you can’t fight a mob.

They had the advantage of numbers. I’d managed to take six of them out, with deadly accuracy, when I had to duck returning fire, because one of the attackers had turned around and was firing at me. I fired back and got him, but then one of them said, in a loud voice, “Hold up or the next one goes through your heart.”

I looked and realized his burner was, in fact, pointed at my heart in such a way that, should he press the trigger, I would be dead.

“Drop the burners,” he said.

I did, with an inward groan, as I tried to calculate my chances of running away. I would have to run away. At least I’d given the people inside some respite, and perhaps now they could fight back. There was, of course, a chance I’d get shot running away, but I didn’t think so, even though — I noted — there were now three burners trained on me. The other two defenders were going through the pockets of their fallen comrades, removing valuables and weapons. I wondered if this was done in the spirit of not wasting anything, or if it was that sort of group.

My chances of escaping totally unscathed from three burners were good. Not perfect. Nothing in life is perfect, but good.

I shifted my weight to my other foot, ready to start running any moment. And then I saw him. I saw him out the corner of my eye, and was momentarily startled out of my calculations because the young man looked like Len. The resemblance — a lanky build, pale hair, cat-like movements — was almost exact in this half-light, by the reflected fire of the blaze next door. And while my mind knew Len was dead, my back brain clearly didn’t.

Before I could stop, I had reacted, with a look in his direction, a movement. One of the guys with a burner on me turned. Before he could aim, I’d got the third burner from my pocket, and was shooting him, and then his friend to the right. The one to the left I couldn’t get to in time, but the young man had taken him out with a shot of his totally inadequate burner. Only now the two who had been searching the corpses were going for their weapons. I nailed one in time, but the other got me. I felt the burner singe through my shoulder, shouted “merde,” which is either a testimony to the wonderfulness of the implant, or a learned reflex, and then not-Len had shot the bastard, and left me gasping, grabbing my shoulder, while a sticky substance ran down my sleeve.

The man approached, curious but wary, his burner still in hand. As he should be, since he had no idea if I was a friend or yet another would-be looter.

His eyes widened as he got closer, and he said, “Uh. Hello. I didn’t realize you were — I didn’t expect a woman.”

“Do you want me to drop my burner?” I asked through clenched teeth and not just because my shoulder was hurting with that peculiar kind of burn a wound has when your body is trying to figure out how to react to the injury. The other part of it was that he still looked like Len. Oh, not exactly. He was younger and his shoulders were narrower, and his nose was perfectly straight, while Len’s had been broken early on in his pilot training due to his forgetting to close his safety belt and taking a header into the control panel. It had healed slightly crooked, which made him look less than blandly sweet, which this young man did look. Save for the glint in his gray eyes, which was very much as Len’s had been.