War and Resolution (Part II)
"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." James Baldwin
It had been a long time - too long - since he had had this feeling. Ever since he had been a boy, he loved to fly. No, even more than that - he loved to pilot. There was a difference. Flying meant utter freedom in the emptiness of the sky, unrestricted, like suddenly having wings. Piloting meant being restrained to a machine that, no matter how sleek it was, was still a bulky metal thing that could crash to the ground more violently than a bird ever could.
But Zechs preferred piloting. It offered such an incredible sense of control, which was more seductive than freedom. In the sky or in space, against the force of gravity or lack of the same, doing something nature never meant for man to do, he was the master of himself, of his destiny. Shifting the controls, adjusting his destination, his speed, his height, he could decide it all. Only his own will and the laws of physics and machinary itself could bring him down.
Perhaps that control wasn't genuine, but it still tasted real enough. And it was his drug.
It was this love for piloting that had kept him going throughout his entire career as a soldier, his moment of control in a life that had been manipulated by others for so long, too long.
He was damned good at it, too.
His mouth quirked in grim amusement at that last thought as he expertly maneuvered the Version 46.701 Starfighter out of the launch bay. For a moment, all he saw were stars . . . and then the targeting system started going insane, picking up on all the enemy craft that now surrounded them. Six - no, seven targets on the screen of space in front of him. All turning to survey their new opponant.
"This is going to be one hot welcome from hell," he heard Noin grate over the comm., and his hands tightened on the piloting controls. "Pick one."
"Whoever shoots first." Zechs narrowed his eyes and pulled a sharp turnaround to bring the enemy cruisers into better range. The goal was the main ship; they couldn't waste too much time with this. It had to be hard and fast.
The Lightning Count's speciality.
Two of the cruisers recovered from their surprise and the Starfighter's sensors picked up on them charging weapons.
"Targeting . . ." Noin began. He could hear the beam lasers unsheathing from the hull of the ship and taking aim. " . . . and locked. Say when."
Zechs suddenly leaned on the controls, sending the craft flying straight into the faces of their opponants. He hit a breakneck speed that almost guaranteed collision, waiting for the perfect moment . . . the weapons were nearly charged, in a few more seconds he wouldn't be able to dodge . . . wait for it . . .
"Now!" he snapped.
He shifted into a incline just as a jolt let him know the lasers were firing at full. They swept right over the top of one of the enemy crafts, so close that he knew they had to have breeched the hull, and as soon as they flew clear he pulled up hard in a tight loop that left his stomach somewhere far behind them.
The risky move annihilated one craft and injured another, but they weren't out of the woods yet.
"Missiles!" Noin snapped over the comm., slightly breathless as Zechs brought the ship right side up again. "Standard heat seeking, at least six!"
He had seen the flash of one of the larger cruisers launching the set, and reacted accordingly. He picked up speed and led the missiles on a wild chase, he pulled enough turnarounds to allow Noin the chance to use the lasers to destroy their pursuers, all the while trying to stay away from the enemy cruisers. It was close, but she killed the missiles.
Most of them.
A single missile brushed their side, but it was enough to make it explode. Zechs clenched his teeth as the Starfighter did a violent snap motion to the left, but recovered. Over the comm., though, he heard a sharp intake of breath and a curse that let him know his partner hadn't been so lucky.
"Noin?" He brought up her image on the viewscreen - she looked dizzy but otherwise fine, one hand to her forehead.
"The hull took minimal damage, we're still good," she reported, then winced. "I don't know why the hell this keeps happening. My head can only take so much abuse."
"Third time is a charm." His mouth twitched in a feral smile as he pulled back around to face their enemies. "Maybe you'll remember a past life."
"I'd rather hold on to this one. Incoming in both directions!"
"I see it!"
Zechs sent the ship into a hard rollover and nosedive combination, confusing the missiles enough to send them ramming into each other. Explosions lit up the darkness of space, and, adrenaline thick in his veins, he prepared for the next attack. The best offense equalled the best defense, and he was as aggressive as common sense would let him be. In the next seven minutes, they destroyed another cruiser and crippled two more.
"Hey, you wanna play a game of 'Gut The Fish'?" his partner asked him slyly.
He barked a short laugh. "I prefer 'Chicken'."
With one of the smaller enemy ships right on their asses, out of missiles but firing insanely with lasers, he took them right into the belly of the beast, what their enemies seemed to think was a trap. The tight circle of ships turned on them, but he was too fast. The nosedive he pulled would have made them scrap metal on the ground if they had been in the atmosphere, but in space it took the Starfighter right under the cruiser.
At the last minute he twisted the ship into a sideways sweep, and the right wing, sharply edged, slashed into the underbelly of the other craft. As if that weren't enough, the ship following them couldn't dodge down in time, and the two collided in a delightful show of flames.
This was it - this was good. This was what he loved. The heat, the ferocity of battle, nothing else felt quite as exhilarating. He had to be faster, stronger, fiercer, better than his opponants in order to survive. The point was to get out alive - it was that simple. No long-term decisions, just make it out. A shift here, a dive there, no one could catch up to him, no one could stop him. He felt almost invincible. He had grown up on it, was addicted to it, and couldn't imagine his life without it.
And somehow, it fit, it made sense, having Noin over the comm., cracking jokes and making challenges, helping him out. It made him think of those days back at the Academy, allowing themselves to enjoy the mock battles of the simulations.
Just like him, she couldn't go fast enough, couldn't do enough damage. Being the best.
They had to be the best.
Suddenly, he heard Noin's console start making the most annoying beeping sound. She put up schematics on his viewscreen and said, "Okay, I've finished scanning the main ship. There's an empty docking bay on the port side we can use. But the lasers aren't going to be enough to get us through."
Zechs narrowed his eyes. "No, they aren't."
With that, he sent the ship whirling back around, towards the waiting enemy. They reacted accordingly, sending more heat-seeking missiles their way, about a dozen this time. It was probably the last launch they had, and they were going all out.
I'm only going to get one chance at this, he thought, and went into full gear.
The result was another wild chase, but this time, he snapped, "Noin, don't fire!"
"What do you mean don't fire, you can't dodge that many missiles!"
"I'm going to give them a bigger target. Port side, right?"
A pause, and then she laughed as she understood. "Go for it, Count."
And so he turned and aimed the Starfighter . . . right at the port side docking bay of the huge raider main ship. The defense lasers mounted on the outside immediately became active, and it was all he could do to avoid the worst of the shots.
It was a gamble, at best, but he had full confidence in his own ability. It was the Starfighter he was worried wouldn't hold out.
The scarred gray metal of the main ship loomed up in the viewscreen as they raced straight at it in a suicidal collision course. If Zechs had been a praying man . . . but he wasn't, and he was going to do this, statistical chances and all the heavenly guardian angels be damned.
Just as the do-or-die point reared its grinning head, one of the missiles caught up to them and the ensuing explosion rocked the Starfighter - but not enough to break Zechs' icy calm.
He pushed the weakened ship into the sharpest upward sweep he could get out of it, cutting it so close he scraped its belly against the hull of the main ship before pulling out.
The remaining missiles impacted in a series of violent explosions that tore right through the hull and left a big, ragged, and rather inviting entryway into the bright hole that was a docking bay tunnel. Zechs caught sight of this upside-down as he led the Starfighter into a tight loop that set them in the right direction again, right towards the hole.
"Knock, knock!" Noin started firing the lasers to make the hole as large as possible, but it was still a tight fit and it was a wonder they weren't stuck.
But they weren't, merely hit the floor of the tunnel hard and half-skid, half-flew in sort of a wobbling shimmy, since one of their thrusters had taken the brunt of the missile attack. Both soldiers clenched their teeth and held on for dear life.
At the last second, Zechs remembered the other door.
The lasers weren't any good on the hull, but they did wonders on the airlock that would get them into the bay. Her firing skills did most of the work, and their slender, barreling ship did the rest.
They slammed into the dock practically nose-first to the wall, and this time, Zechs was the one who hit his head, blacking out.
All Noin could think as she shook cobwebs out of her head and looked at the flickering screen in front of her was how many ways Lady Une and the head of the technological department of the Preventers were going to kill her and Zechs for trashing their precious experimental spacecraft.
This little joyride might amount to patrol duty for a month, she thought, and had to choke back a laugh. As if that was the biggest of her problems right then.
"Zechs?" She managed pull up a staticky image of her partner's cockpit, and frowned to see him slumped over the console, obviously knocked clean out. The landing must have been harder than she thought, at least for someone in the front. "Zechs, wake up, I know your head's harder than that. Zechs!"
She put on her spacesuit's helmet and closed the visor, activating the oxygen tank, and opened her hatch. The docking bay's emergency airlock had been activated and was slowly sliding into place, but air had yet to fill the space again, so the helmet was a necessity.
Gun in hand, she looked around. Flashing lights announcing their unauthorized presence to the rest of the ship stained the otherwise darkened bay in red, but they were still alone. No one had been expecting them to get through in quite the manner they had, so that bought them some time, but not much, and certainly not enough for a quick nap.
When air filled the bay again, she opened her partner's cockpit using controls at her console. Then she maneuvered over in the semi-gravity to study him. There was a small cut in his forehead trickling blood, but nothing looked serious.
She anchored herself on the side and shook him, none-too-gently. "Come on, snap out of it!" She didn't know what she would do if she couldn't wake him up in time.
Fortunately, he started coming to, then snapped into full consciousness so quickly she wondered if he wouldn't be delirious.
But his eyes were clear as they met with hers. "We're in?" he asked roughly.
"We're in. You okay?"
"I'll live." He shook his head once, wiping away the blood, then reached for his rifle with one hand and his helmet with the other. "On a scale of one to ten," he began, releasing the harness and then hauling himself out of his seat.
She smiled. "Ten being graceful and swanlike? I think that landing was about a two. Maybe a three for effort. You've done better."
"I've also done worse," he pointed out. "Any landing you walk away from is a good one."
They started for the exit, guns at the ready. Still no sign of any reinforcements, but that probably wouldn't last long.
"How many times have you actually walked?" she asked, remembering all of the occasions his crazy piloting ended up with him having to be carried to a hospital.
He glanced at her. "It's a metaphor."
"It's inaccurate." Noin absently checked her clip. "So is the plan the same?"
He eased out of the docking bay exit first, cautiously looking around the corridors lit in flashing red. Nothing moved, and he replied, "Stay alive and disable that beam laser."
"And improvise on everything in-between." Noin smirked at the recklessness of it all. "I just love these well-thought-out strategies."
If her partner had anything to say to that, he didn't get the chance, because that was when the delayed attack began.
There were ten assailants, all armed and pissed. Instead of a close-quarters brawl, the ensuing battle became quite the shoot out. Their attackers had home-field advantage, not to mention bigger guns, and the only thing that kept Fire and Wind from getting thoroughly snuffed was the fact that they weren't afraid to jump right into it. Guns weren't much good if the target slipped right into your personal space and rammed a fist into your diaphram. Three times the raiders ended up taking down their own men with friendly fire, and the concussion grenade Zechs had been saving for the right oppurtunity did nothing to help the situation.
Unfortunately, guns were still guns and Noin saw a bullet tear through Zechs's left shoulder before the fight was through.
When the smoke cleared, ten people were either unconscious or dead on the floor, Noin had herself a new P-20 rifle and extra clip, and she turned to Zechs, her hands going to his wound.
He waved her off, face expressionless as he examined the blood flow. "It went clean through. I'm fine. Let's keep going."
"No, let me wrap it." She made do with a strip of cloth that took care of the worst of the blood and decided they had better make this quick.
They came across several more lackeys with guns before they came to an intersection that split five ways.
Noin heaved a sigh of frustration, too tired to waste breath on a curse in Italian. "We can't keep running around like this," she said. "We're not getting anywhere."
"There has to be a control room somewhere around here that can give us access to the main system," Zechs grated, looking as if he could go six more rounds with an entire platoon. Noin knew he wasn't quite so inexhaustible, so she scanned all of the corridors, and randomly picked "mo."
The first doorway she came upon, she raised her rifle and blew the electronic lock apart. The door slid open . . . "Voíla. Instant system access."
The two people stationed at the console got up to stop them, but resistance was futile and in a few seconds they were out-cold on the floor from well-placed rifle butts.
While Zechs stood guard at the door, Noin got to work on the system. She was no serious hacker, but every military recruit was taught the basics of cracking into secured systems, and she had been an especially good student. The raidership wasn't exactly the U.S. Pentagon, so she managed past the firewalls and drew up ship schematics more intricate than those she had scanned in the Starfighter.
"What do you have?" her partner inquired.
"This piece of space debris has better security than we thought. The firewall around the beam laser is pretty thick, and this system is all tangled up in the core of the base's computerized mechanisms," Noin reported, her fingers flying over the console. "We can't do anything about it from here. We'd have to go to the bridge."
"Suicide. They'll have that entire area cordoned off, and even if they don't, if we get in, nothing short of detonating the whole thing will get us out of there."
She couldn't resist. "Do I sense just the slightest bit of fear, Wind?" Noin glanced over her shoulder to meet cold blue eyes.
Zechs glared at her. "Reasonable caution."
A sudden bang at the door made both of them whirl to face it. Muffled voices through the barrier announced the arrival of raider reinforcements, and it sounded as if it was going to take more than a sheet of steel to stop them.
"Plan B," Noin said to Zechs as he backed away from the door towards her, holding his rifle at the ready.
He made an ungentlemanly sound of derision. "There was a Plan A?"
"We let them take us," she went on.
He looked at his partner as if she were insane - and it wasn't the first time the possibility had occurred to her about him, so she recognized the look. "Noin," he began slowly, trying to feel out her apparent lunacy, "Celluci is not going invite us to his quarters for tea and conversation."
"No, he's not stupid enough for that." She looked at him with a sly smile in her eyes. "But he might be stupid enough to take us right where we want to be: The bridge."
"And he might just have us shot on sight."
"No guts, no glory. Didn't that used to be your motto?"
He stared at her, then shook his head and laughed. For the first time in a long time, it sounded like a real laugh, free of the sarcasm and morbidity that had been his signature since - well, since awhile ago, really, and it made Noin smile.
The moment was ruined, however, when the door was blown in.
"Get them in the cuffs, now! Before the pretty-boy tries somethin' funny," a rough-looking man grated, and he was immediately obeyed.
Enemy soldiers were, typically, unpleasent people exorcising their violent tendancies by beating up on whoever had the misfortune to come under their care. Zechs could have forgiven that, if these particular guards weren't also cowards who made sure he was tightly restrained, his arms locked behind his back and his bullet wound blazing with pain, before punching him in the gut to force him to his knees.
He grunted and clenched his teeth, doing his best not to react, even as he was pinned to the floor and manacled at the wrists. What the hell did they think this was, an episode of "Interstellar Cops"? If one of them had said "assume the position", he would have had no choice but to laugh and make the situation even worse.
What a wonderful time to gain a sick sense of humor.
When they yanked him back up, he saw that Noin wasn't getting much better treatment. His eyes narrowed to icy slits when he saw how one particular man ran his hands much too freely over her body, searching for hidden weapons. They had the P-20 already and she was wearing a goddamned spacesuit. Where would she hide a gun?
"She's cute," the raider remarked with a lecherous grin. "Wonder if the captain'll let us have a little fun with her when we finish this job?"
Even in cuffs and held down by three men Zechs would have found just enough strength to kill the bastard for that. So it was more than a little satisfying when Noin maneuvered herself in one athletic motion and clipped the pervert in the chin with her boot with enough force to send him flying back into the wall.
Another raider backhanded her across the face, but before anything more severe could be done, the one who seemed to be leader snapped, "Stop fucking around. Let's get them to the bridge. Come on, move it."
They were hauled, dragged, and basically carted to their destination. Zechs wondered if he and Noin would live long enough to put their pseudo-plan into action. Their continuing health depended on Celluci's ego, and they had taken it down quite a notch with their attack. He might just have them shot through the head.
The Lightning Count hadn't survived a war just to end up killed by some uppity thief who used to serve under him. This plan had better work, or he was going out the hard way and taking everyone around him down with him.
He was good at that.
Noin caught his eye and held his gaze pointedly, violet eyes narrowed and piercing. He could read the look as clearly as if she had said the words. 'Don't you do anything yet. Don't you dare.'
His own eyes flashed back at hers, darting quickly to their captors and back to her. 'If this thing you call a plan goes to hell, I won't have a choice.'
She made a soft, exasperated sound through parted lips. 'At least wait for it to work before you go kamikaze, idiot.'
He tightened his jaw and glared at her. 'Kamikaze missions have a greater chance of being successful.'
And she rolled her eyes with disgust. 'The volunteers always end up dead, too.'
Neither one of them marveled at how easily they communicated without words. It just came so naturally that they had forgotten they even knew how to do it. Maybe later it would seem amazing, but right then Zechs was irritated and snorted derisively. 'Better than being dead and unsuccessful.'
His partner glowered at him. 'Shut up.'
Two of their captors glanced at each other and shrugged, clueless.
The cockpit of the Pirate was large and in surprisingly good repair, with little of the second-hand look of the rest of the ship. Mars loomed in several different viewscreens at various angles, and the huge glass-and-steel base seemed almost insignifigant in the red expanse. The two hundred personnel that lived there, however, were not insignifigant.
His eyes discreetly flew over the equipment. Screens, buttons, lights, comms., captain's seat, workers' seats . . . weapons console. The beam laser. Fifteen feet away - maybe sixteen. Two seconds in which to get shot trying to get to it. Damn.
Celluci looked up from where he stood beside the right console, and smiled at the sight of his captives. The expression was all teeth and no good tidings; he looked like a shark when he did it.
"Nice to see you two again," he remarked, nodding to a worker seated at the console before walking over to the two Preventers. "Manacles are a good look on you, Noin."
"Gee, thanks, psycho," she said flatly.
Celluci glanced at his lackeys and she was promptly forced to her knees, Zechs right beside her. "You're just in time for the final act. You see, this is the part where I win and you die. It's like a Greek tragedy."
Zechs couldn't resist. "And I'm sure you speak Greek fluently, Celluci."
Noin audibly choked back laughter. It took two seconds for the double meaning to register - and rage crossed the other man's face. Three seconds later, Zechs had a boot buried in his gut.