You have to make peace with this yourself. It's your decision, and it just saved the lives of a lot of people.
Dammit, can't you just tell me whether or not—
It's your fucking job to help me.
I'm a psychologist, Hayes. I don't have the training to tell you whether or not what you did was absolutely right or wrong. Hell, I doubt anyone does, especially if they claim to be able to. What I do is talk things out. I don't give you pills, I don't give you shots. And this is something I can't just tell you. Yes, you hurt one person deeply. But you may have saved many. Time will tell.
I want to shoot myself.
You did this because you believed that it was the best option, and that's what matters here. You didn't do it out of malice to Sully. I heard your conversation with him, I heard you forgive him. I realize how hard it must be to keep that in your head, but I don't believe you are a bad person for wanting to protect your men.
That helps. A bit.
Here's something else. I've worked with generals before, and commanders, and a lot of them were some really messed up people. Ordered assassinations more because they enjoyed it than for any strategic effect. And they barely felt a thing. They came to me because they were conflicted over affairs, other marital problems, over drug use—nothing like PTSD or any of that. They might at one point have realized how far they had fallen, but eventually they started ignoring it. You're one of the few I've seen who really feels the responsibility of being in command, who cares not only about the lives of your men but also those of the ones you're fighting. And that's a gift. It hurts to care, but you're smarter and stronger for it. And your men love you for it.
That helps too.
What's that blinking on your watch?
The first proximity alarm sounded at 0400.
There was a thunder of boots in the halls, and Hayes joined the crowd in the stampede to the airfield. Floodlights had turned night into a fluorescent day, but there was firelight flickering in the forests around the edge of the base, and a few of the pilots paused to look before heading to their gunships.
By the time he made it into the Dragon, the comm channels were hot with urgent chatter and the perimeter turrets were stitching holes in the banshees that dared to come close enough. Tracers blazed and burned and there were screeches of pain from animals that most humans would never get the chance to see. Hayes breathed a ragged breath, fear settling in his stomach. Then he set his jaw and pulled a helmet over his head.
"This is Dragon Lead, Dragon Lead. Fang, Arrow, Spear, in the air, I say again, in the air. Set visors to MAX VIS and hold perimeter cover until we get imagery. Viper, Tiger, Bull, load up and wait by your entrances, standby for my exit command. If I'm hit, Dragon Two is second in command. Over."
The deep roar of turbines was reassuring. Acknowledgements sounded on all the squadron channels. In the Dragon's rear command seat, Hayes watched the pilot and copilot key launch sequences, and suddenly the craft lifted and the canopy covers filtered over to night vision with thermal overlay. And he saw the scale.
The sky was full.
"All phoenixes, altitude, altitude! Get above them fast as you can. Weapons free, engage all hostiles but do not pursue. Maintain formation and break to counter."
Affirmatives. The assault ship, heavy as it was, lifted into the air at half the rate of the phoenixes, but the missile and gun pods flared hot and bright lines intersected flying shapes all across the night. Fire dripped from shattered corpses of banshees, and far below the ship the forest started to burn.
"This is Arrow Lead. There are a lot of these damn things, over."
"This is Dragon Lead, keep after them. Get as many as you can. Watch for Na'vi with weaponry. Over."
It was mesmerizing. The sky was a shifting lattice of thousands of thermal hotspots, so thick that the stars couldn't show through. Mountain and forest banshees, tetrapterons, giant hexapedes. Everything, all at once.
Then a wing of banshees swooped down, and riding on top of them were Na'vi. Hayes had enough chance to see the launchers they were holding before they fired, and before anyone could deploy countermeasures three of the phoenixes were down.
Just like that.
"This is Dragon Lead, all phoenix squadrons, evade, evade, evade. Over."
The formation broke and more rockets streaked across the night. Two more hit, four others missed. Banshees wheeled and dived away from the cloud, and autocannons spit fire at them, tracking and connecting. Below, the perimeter turrets shot at what was in range, hitting only occasionally.
"Dragon Lead, this is Devil's Throne, please respond, over."
Devil's Throne. Base operations. If Hell's Gate had been at the edge of he firestorm, they were in its center. Hayes fleetingly remembered the officer who'd suggested the name, then keyed the comm.
"Devil's Throne, this is Dragon Lead. What is your situation, over?"
"We have explosives coming down on our command building, we need more air cover. Request permission to send up the other phoenix squadrons, over."
He'd forgotten. Forgotten. In the middle of the battle, men fighting, men dying, he'd forgotten that there were more to call.
"Send them up. Double time. Over."
He allowed himself a moment of shock, then froze it and checked the TACMAP. No decrease in marked contacts. Thirteen out of thirty phoenixes down. Five damaged. A.M.P squads holding. Three out of thirty perimeter turrets inoperative.
He hit the comm.
"All squadrons, all squadrons. Switch to auto-target and let 'em all loose, over."
There was a second's pause where the noise of the fight stayed the same. Guns buzzed and missiles roared. Exhaust trails left thin wisps in their wake. And then there was a wash of red-orange that filled the cockpit when every active phoenix let off their remaining missiles, and each tracked a different target, flew, and exploded.
Seventeen remaining phoenixes. Roughly a hundred and fifty missiles each.
What Zeiher saw below was the fireball.
It started with a couple of flares and then expanded until it seemed to fill the sky, thousands of points of light that defined a huge curve above him. He tinted his canopy to maximum and it still seemed like daylight had come early.
Then the rain began. Bits of bone. Flesh still burning. Blood spatters, claws, eyes. Heads. A whole Na'vi landed on his squadmate and burst, and he recoiled in shock, then raised his arms as a banshee came down after and landed with a heavy, wet sound just beside his canopy.
There was blood, instant and everywhere. He set the washers to full and tried to cover under the suit's arms, but there was such a rain that it didn't matter. Blood pooled in the joints and the downpour was a hurricane of remnants, something he had never seen, never even dreamed of. It was something out of a horror story he had kept in the back of his mind, fuel for nightmares.
Mattisson let his craft hang as the skies started to clear. And cried.
Kel was in the prefab medical wing when a Na'vi crashed through the skylight.
The breach alarm sounded immediately, and metal doors slammed shut over the window. Kel grabbed the exopack on his bedside table and sealed it, then unholstered his sidearm and aimed. He would have moved to secure weaponry, but stem cell therapy only worked so fast, and he had a tendon wound.
The Na'vi wasn't moving. He looked bad; the glass had torn up his skin, and without any armor or clothing there had been nothing to protect him from every loose piece he'd landed on. His foot was at a strange angle, and his right arm. But he was alive. That much Kel could see. Possibly unconscious, but alive.
"Hey SIS boy, toss me something I can shoot, yeah?"
Strom. Of the occupants of the med wing, almost all had been put there by the Hell's Gate assault, and Strom was one of the few off meds. His pistol's safety was off, the round already chambered. Moving slowly, he shifted the gun to his left hand and drew a holdout flechette pistol—a Dies Kompact shettier—from an arm pocket, checked its safety, and tossed it to Strom without taking his eyes from the Na'vi. There was a brief grunt of acknowledgement and a tiny click. The safety.
"What you figure, dead?"
"Unconscious." Kel swept the scene again. Not much blood, surprisingly, but then again they had always known the Na'vi were thicker skinned. No broken bones either, but with corded bones instead of calcified that was hardly a novel realization.
Then he noticed the hand had five fingers.
Norm. Or Max. The only two avatar drivers on-planet.
"Avatar. Probably de-synced from shock. You good to move?"
A laugh. "Maybe. Let's see." She swung her legs out from under the thermal blanket and winced. "Ribs are acting up again. Cover me, yeah?"
She moved slowly, too slowly for Kel's liking. But she was moving, and it was more than he could do. There was a muttering from the others in the wing, but he kept his attention locked on the Na'vi's hands. No motion.
"Heavy sucker, this guy." Another grunt and the avatar was on its back, and Strom was coughing. After a moment she bent down and retrieved a pistol from a thigh holster, then a knife, tossing them both under Kel's bed. He nodded approval.
"See any rope?"
"In a med wing? Bandages maybe, but no rope." She scanned around. "Got combat bandages, carbon fiber overlay. That work?"
She hobbled over to a cabinet and Kel realized then just how extensive her wounds were. In the open-back medical gown he could see the bandages that plastered her back and shoulders, the braces locked around her ribs, the ugly patchwork of scar tissue along the bottom of her right leg. And she was still walking.
He smiled. Tough nut to crack.
She flipped the avatar over again, wheezed for a moment, and then started binding its hands and legs. A moment later and the job was done, the bandages taut and secure. She straightened too fast and then doubled over, hands on her knees, one finger still along the trigger guard of the borrowed shettier. Kel stayed patiently on target as she returned to her bed and climbed in, trying to hide her harder breathing.
"Fuckin' ribs." She spat onto the floor. No blood, but when you'd had to deal with bloody saliva it was a hard habit to break. Kel nodded.
"I've had the same. Recovery's a harsh bitch, but it's not the worst."
"What is? Tendon?"
She winced. "Would be, wouldn't it. Want me to cover for a bit?"
"I've got him." He adjusted his grip on the pistol, then laid it in his lap, ready to bring up if needed. "Dial yours over to sedate, if you please. If he's not dead there's a good chance we'll want to hear what he has to say."
"Got it." A click. "Done. Who you think this is, anyone important?"
Tough, but not observant. "An avatar."
She let out a breath. "That's a bargaining chip in our favor, for sure."
Kel nodded, checked the avatar's hands, and started to relax. "We may hope."
Tsu'kai had been a lieutenant before, but now that Jakesully was gone he was Olo'eyktan. And this was his second war.
On his neckband link, the remaining voices were mostly screams. Norm had gone silent, and Tsu'di, and Natir, and all of the other group leaders. Whether that was because they were dead or laying low he wasn't sure, but with the covering flock gone there was no real chance of stealth, or of accomplishing what they had all been trying for: taking out the perimeter cover and meeting the invaders on foot, inside, where they were weak.
But the fire—
He swept right, using firelight to gauge distance on the perimeter turrets. They had taken five and made a space many branch-lengths wide, but he wasn't sure if that would be enough. He made a closer pass and heard nothing, and no fire came to greet him. No thunder.
A crackle came through the neckband link.
"Tsu'kai, this is Norm, they have me in a room where they heal their sick and wounded, there's a window—"
A slight sigh, then silence.
He closed his eyes and touched the link.
"This is Tsu'kai. Whoever is left, and the rearguard, follow me through. We will do what we can."
There was a brief chatter, and then he spurred his ikran forward, others behind.
The base was eerily quiet. There were a few putting out fires, others still running to the flying monsters, others in their metal shells pacing slowly around. But the guns had stopped, and most of the flying monsters were still high above, otherwise occupied. He made it through the perimeter and was heading to the main building, but suddenly below him there was a heavy THUMP-THUMP-THUMP and his ikran's wing sagged, and he was falling down into the building as the thunder behind him grew louder and the wind tried to stretch his cheeks into strange shapes. He tried to control his mount but it was dead, had been from the very first bullet.
The impact sent blood spraying, but he lived.
The roof was flat, and he looked around for entrances. Behind him others landed their ikran and pulled guns and knives, dropping to prone. He waited as more came down, eyes alert, and when there were twenty he nodded and waved a hand.
At the first window, Tsu'kai broke a pane with the hilt of his knife. Metal sheets closed immediately. He motioned to another in the group, and with barely a pause the warrior held down the trigger on his gun, and the bullets tore chunks out of the steel. Loud noises sounded from below. The one who'd held the gun kicked the remnants in stepped back, and before anyone else could move Tsu'kai was through.
His first bow shot pinned a man to the wall, the second took a throat and almost a head. His knife was out and there was a third man who tried to bring up a knife of his own, but the Na'vi was faster and then there was no hand, then no arm to resist him.
Others dropped down, and gunfire made his ears ring. He pulled his arrows from the wall. And walked to a door, stooping to enter.
The next room was a link chamber.
He recognized it from Hell's Gate, the rings of covered beds where the tawtute lay, the multicolored glass, the lights. As he entered figures in white stopped and turned, startled. Then almost immediately the shooting began.
The ones behind him opened up, pulling fresh magazines and jamming down on triggers, cutting the tawtute in half with their weapons, riddling link beds, smashing the glass, hitting lights and walls and sending bullets ricocheting from every possible surface until the room was full of smoke and screams and the smell of death.
The clamor faded and Tsu'kai lowered his bow.
There were moans, gurgles. Sounds of gasps from torn throats, sucking of bullet-fractured lungs, the raw grating of bone. They moved out into the room and killed who remained, shooting through the link beds at whoever might have been inside.
Through her link Griffin was aware of a dull ache. Then almost immediately she was human and in darkness, and her leg was shattered and bloody and she was screaming murder into the link bed.
The cover opened and smoke poured in. She forced herself out and onto the ground, down to the floor and under the first table she could find. The pain. The pain. Her leg was not just broken but actually flopping, the knee ragged and almost disconnected. She could see bone and tendon and shuddered, shivered, then took off her shirt and wrapped it just above the knee, pulling as tightly as she could with no regard for the agony it was causing her. Tears came, but she pulled, twisted, tied a knot. She couldn't stop shaking, but it was done. She would live for now.
A shape loomed and there was a fist in her hair, and she was lifted screaming into the air.
For a moment training deserted her. She was a scared child in the hands of a leering bully, afraid and in pain. Then the anger surged in her. She wondered at this Na'vi that dared to come into her home and shoot her leg and try to kill her, and knew that this was not something that could go unpunished.
She twisted and drove an elbow into the Na'vi's throat. It dropped her, and her good leg held long enough for a short palm shot to the knee, driving it backward far enough to tear. The Na'vi collapsed and she was on it within a moment, palms clapped to the temples and then a quick twist. All motion stopped. She gave the corpse a once-over and found a pistol, loaded, and a rifle dropped a few steps away.
She couldn't see any others around, no blue legs or feet. Retrieving the rifle she dragged herself against the wall, breath coming short, and set her back to it.
The rife was heavy, but it had a full magazine. She hefted it and waited.
The reports were coming in from every possible comm link, and Hayes, for once, was having trouble sorting them all out. The skies were being mopped up, and the other phoenix squadrons were pursuing the survivors. The A.M.P squads were serving overwatch for the areas not covered by turrets. But now the Na'vi were inside, and Hayes was at a loss.
"Dragon Lead this is Devil's Throne, please advise—"
"Dragon Lead this is Arrow Lead requesting orders—"
"Dragon lead this is Viper Lead requesting permission to—"
He pulled off his helmet for a moment.
Inside. The inside was the most pressing.
He put the helmet back on.
"This is Dragon Lead. Devil's Throne, muster all available security personnel and set them to guard the reactor. Once that's secured task Alpha and Bravo squads with cleanup, protocol White Glove, over."
"Acknowledged, Dragon. Taskings going out, over."
He switched to the A.M.P channel. "Viper and Bull squads, form a perimeter around the command building and eliminate all visible hostiles. If you can get shots through windows, you are authorized to take them. Tiger squad, continue overwatch, over."
Affirmatives and acknowledgements.
"Arrow Lead, pull your squadron down and strafe the command building rooftops, kill the banshees left there. No missiles, repeat, no missiles, over."
"Acknowledge, Dragon. Taking them down, over."
His craft hovered at altitude, and the scans showed the turn of tide. There was sporadic chatter from the security squads, bursts of gunfire, code references and clearing orders. From the A.M.P channels he could hear the heavy thumps of GAU-90s, the terse German shorthand of some of the pilots. And on the phoenix band there was Mattisson's voice. Just Mattisson.
Another voice broke in.
"Dragon Lead, this is Devil's Throne, urgent: security forces have held the reactor, but several external coolant valves have been breached. We estimate three minutes to meltdown without repair, and our engineers are working on it fast as they can. We have no backup power, repeat, we have no backup. What are your orders? Over."
The word was out of his mouth instantly. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Evacuate all non-combat personnel to the Angels, get them to minimum safe distance, then orbit and hold at the lowest zero-decay altitude. Hold the reactor online for two minutes thirty or as long as the engineers can keep it stable. Give the general order for exopacks on. All combat personnel are to man their vehicles and make minimum safe distance. Over."
He switched to the A.M.P and phoenix channels and ordered them to minimum safe distance, knowing that the A.M.P drivers would never reach it. Knowing that even if the Angels were launched now, they wouldn't make it either. Not if there was a full-yield explosion.
The rotors roared and his assault ship peeled off, heading as far away as the pilot could get. The base shrank in the rear camera.
A minute ticked by. A minute thirty.
The reactor complex bulged slightly, and for a moment there was a tiny sun visible, not yellow but white, blinding white.
Metal turned to liquid so fast it didn't have time to glow. A white arc of energy streamed up like long lightning, then wavered and collapsed. Even at distance, Hayes could see the pressure wave go through the base as walls started to rip at the corners, letting in atmosphere.
No explosion. Just a containment breach. The only good news so far.
The turrets went dead on their mounts, and the base went dark as the floodlights died. Points of brightness appeared at the head of the evacuees and on landing ramps of Angels. Within a few more minutes the engines were hot and the shuttles, crammed to bursting, lifted off.
"Dragon Lead, this is Devil's Throne. Evacuation complete. We are lifting off and headed up. Engineers have volunteered to lock down the reactor and are staying behind. Remaining pilots are on their way to minimum safe distance. Over."
Hayes checked the integral friend-or-foe tags.
A hundred and forty-four dead.
Two A.M.P drivers. Eighteen phoenix pilots. Eighteen security personnel. And a hundred and six non-combat personnel.
A hundred and six.
Kel, blood-spattered and reeking of gunpowder, collapsed into one of the Angel's bucket seats, letting his crutch fall. Beside him, Strom breathed heavily, eyes slitted, clearly trying to resist throwing up. Around them both others were packed closer than the Angel should have been able to hold, murmuring and shifting in the red emergency lights.
Strom looked up for a moment, letting her breathing slow. They locked eyes for a moment, and smiled. Then she doubled over coughing again.
The damage was bad, but not impossible to repair.
Peter Emerson studied the reactor's damage with a critical eye. It would take time to repair, that was for sure, but if they kept the fleet up for defense they could have that. The external wall had been breached—melted to slag, in fact—and the containment shell as well, but for what was once such a complex machine a lot had been simplified. With replacement panels, they could have the reactor up again in a couple of days. The external walls would take more time, but that was just so much steel, and they could salvage that from throughout the base.
"Call it a class two, maybe class one?"
Peter turned to Wirth, the other engineer who'd volunteered to stay. He nodded.
"Class two, almost definitely. Only four panels need replacing, it's mostly a top breach." He knocked on one of the melted panels. "We get these fixed and run the mag containment, we could be up in a day, day and a half."
"Yeah, but how are we going to get the others back? No radio, remember?" Wirth shrugged. "They'll get back eventually, but it's going to be more than a day. Hayes wouldn't evacuate to orbit and then bring them back a few minutes later. He'll keep them there until he can be sure the base is safe, then set up a perimeter, then bring them back."
Peter opened his mouth, then closed it again. Wirth was right.
He looked up to the night sky where smoke gathered among the stars, wondering if he'd made the wrong choice. But there was work to do, and that left no time for wondering.
"Let's see if we can get to the A.M.P hangar and get the noncombat suits."
Wirth grinned. "Way ahead of you."
In the empty link room, the lights had died.
Cayce could hear her breath vividly in the exopack. She tried to think, but there were no words in her head. Only a blind, animal panic, something drawn from a source she had not known existed. Despite the pain and the resolution to survive she curled up sideways on the floor of the room, clutched her rifle, and waited for death.