It had been a while since she had been awake.
Gretchen moaned in pain as a knife of agony shot through her, from her core to the base of her spine in a circle bounding her middle.
"She's awake!" she was dimly aware of hearing as she struggled to shift back into an upright position on the folded cot forming a pillow behind her.
"Hey, girl," said a comforting voice in her ear. "Easy. Just lie down for a second and breathe, alright? You shouldn't be doing that."
She opened her eyes and was blinded for a few seconds before blinking through the fluorescent white and resolving images through the acid wash of light against her quivering pupils. The voice was coming from a man in a long white labcoat and a surgical mask. He was fiddling with a dispenser from the IV at Gretchen's bedside, and as he turned a tiny worm gear attached to it, Gretchen felt the residual pain from her earlier movement subside.
"Synphene. A powerful painkiller. You should be alright to move a little under this dosage," the man said.
"Are you a doctor?" Gretchen asked, her voice coarse and disused.
"No. I'm a healer. There's a difference."
"Do you have any water?"
"Yes. Here," he said, picking up a bottle and decanting a few decilitres out.
"Thank you," Gretchen croaked as she took the cup and drank. It was powerfully sweet, and Gretchen almost couldn't force the liquid down.
"You need to drink it," the doctor said, seeing her distaste. "It'll restore your energy faster than anything else."
She forced the rest down and made a point to ask for regular water from there on out.
"Can I ask you a few questions?" the doctor said, picking up a clipboard from the table in the tiny room.
"Go ahead," Gretchen said, her throat aching less as the 'water' smoothed it and rehydrated her cells.
"Do you remember what happened before you wound up here?"
"I was on a boat with Devin and Parson before we crashed."
"Okay. Is that it?"
"When's your birthday?"
"What's the date?"
"No idea. I haven't seen a calendar since I got here."
"Alright. Last question. What did I say the painkiller you are on is called?"
"Good. I can say that you don't appear to display any signs of mental illness, induced or otherwise. Let me check your dilation and reflexes."
He shined a light in her eyes and looked at her pupils, then tapped her knees with a hammer a few times until her legs reflexively jerked.
"Alright, you're in fine physical condition. Please notify somebody if you decide to suddenly leave your bed," he said, smiling. "We've had a number of scares with people leaving their beds to try to return to their posts. Course, when your post no longer exists, it's hard to do."
"Why don't you take a look outside?" The doctor gestured to the window and Gretchen followed his hand.
Outside was nothing but clear green tropical waters and the occasional blurry Arkoral foundation.
"We're in a submarine!?" Gretchen asked, excited.
"Yes." The man stood from his little stool at her bedside and prepared to leave. As he slid the partition's curtain aside, he pulled back, turned, and called to Gretchen once more. "You've got a visitor!"
It was Parson.
Gretchen smiled up at Parson as he walked into the tiny curtained partition, his height and the bulk of his combat gear combining to increase his presence in the tiny room to an astounding level.
He looked over at her and smiled. "Hey," he said, voice cracking after a few minutes of letting his mouth work and his brain sort out what he wanted to say.
She got up and hugged him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into her hair as he crouched down to her level. "I'm sorry."
"No, no, it's not. I dragged you into this. We thought we were going to save you but we weren't. Instead we brought you here and it's even worse now than it was before."
"No, it's fine. We're all gonna be okay now. We can get away. We've got a new ship..."
Parson barely choked down a sob. "Yeah." He stood and smiled. "Yeah, we do." He reached down and ruffled her hair affectionately before turning and pushing aside the partition curtain.
Everything was shit.
Gretchen was quite possibly the only person in a partition who wasn't a casualty of the disastrous defense of Guest Pelgo 7. Not only that, she was the reason for the attack and it was quite possible that he was the only one who knew that all those Guests had sacrificed bodies, lives, and lead for a girl and a teenage boy.
It took all of Parson's resolve to turn away from rationalizing the situation, appraising the impossible forces arrayed before them, and to turn towards the next hill.
Which happened to be a staircase on the opposite side of the sub's passenger compartment. Twenty steps, four metres, a psychological leap closer to returning to duty.
He made the leap and found himself in the sub's kitchen-cum-triage room. Moans and gasps of pain were echoing out from behind the counter and down the airlock hall as wounded volunteer after wounded volunteer were brought in and laid on beds, waiting for a doctor to splint an injury or send them down a floor for more intensive treatment.
Parson sighed and sat down against a wall, resting his arms on his rifle and hanging his head. It wasn't shaping up to be the best day.
It got worse five seconds after that, when the ship exploded.
Well, it didn't explode, it just sort of shook, rolled a good thirty degrees to starboard, and then echoed down the line with ripping, shuddering sounds.
"Oh, shit," Parson whispered, rising shakily and slowly against the rolling ship when he suddenly found himself hurled against a wall by another impact.
He was on his feet by instinct and found his mind catching up with his body as he ran down a narrow hall to the bridge. It was an odd sensation and situation to experience, being attacked by invisible antagonists with no way to defend one's self. A sort of animal terror seized Parson's lizard brain while his intellect raced to find a viable defense for the battered submarine.
After half a minute or so, Parson reached the bridge, unsealed the door, and burst into a room flooding with water.
"Fuck." As he scanned the room, he found a half-dozen bodies at shorted terminals and two dying submariners, shrapnel embedded into their bodies and blood and salt water mixing into their bodies through their wounds.
He turned and slammed the door shut, then tore back down the twisting hallway. Unfortunately, there was a midshipman running in the opposite direction, and they collided soundly.
"Where's the lockout gear?"
"By the airlock, back down the hall, first door on the left." the breathless midshipman gasped.
"Thanks. Bridge is out. Everyone's dead or dying. Took a hit."
"Alright," the midshipman said, slumping against the wall.
Parson stood, turned, and continued his journey. The airlock wasn't far, and it was a simple matter to pull on a helmet, seal it, grab a scooter and lock out. Part of his mind screamed at Parson's stupidity, that you just locked out into unknown water! You could have been crushed, or caught the bends!
But he wasn't in deep. So he'd be fine. And there were more important things to take care of.
Like the attack submarines firing torpedoes at the Guest sub.
It was a move that could only have been described as decisive.
As the helicopter pulled out from Guest Pelgo 5 and over the water, Fred selected the man hanging from the handrail on the edge of the troop bay as a target, looked over at Amelie, sighed, looked back at the man, and lunged out of his seat at the guard, tackling low and reaching for his carabineer up above on the rail. As adrenaline pumped his world down to a speed where he heard the chatter of the guards' automatics going off at him as a one-by-one pop, his thumb pushed in the carabineer's clip and his wrist snapped it off the rail.
He and the gendarme tumbled out of the copter and down towards the welcoming waves below, past the fast-roped strike team and past the water's surface. Fred arrested their fall and pushed to the surface.
Now he had to finish this.
The gendarme kicked Fred away and frantically groped for his knife as Fred sloshed back through the water. He got a hold on it and made a jackknife move at Fred, knife arm straight.
His attack vector and form were good, but he was in full body armor while Fred was in a drysuit. Fred easily dodged away, grabbed the officer's wrist, and stole the knife.
"Fuck!" the officer shouted through the helmet. Fred kicked the officer away and began to swim away in the opposite direction.
"Moron," he muttered to himself as he escaped, the officer's service pistol at his side through just a bit of sleight-of-hand when he had stolen the knife.
It wasn't a long swim back to Guest Pelgo 5. They had barely made it a kilometre out from the artificial island, and Fred was a powerful swimmer. He pulled out of the water and looked up for the helicopter.
It had followed him.
It was closing fast, eight strike team members fast-roping down even as it moved, and then it airbraked and slung them forward. At the precise moment where they reached forty-five degrees, they let go of the ropes and sailed through the air, completing a graceful parabola, and rolled forward across the ground upon impact. Fred was already in the wind, though, and as he swung up onto a steel crossbar overlooking the street below, the last of the Sun receded beyond the horizon, and the pale lights of the Guest Pelgoes flickered on, candles and incandescents and chemical glows burning into the night and casting the dust in an eerie glow. They had no idea they were the ones being stalked now.
"Spread out! Find him!" said the strike team's leader, and the team complied, pairing off and moving out. They were in twos, a situation that Fred had commonly taught about during the stealth phase of his Practical Movement course. The secret, Fred had said, was to wait for one of them to make a blunder and take him out without the other one noticing, then finish him, too.
The strike team seemed to know this as well, unfortunately. They were not in the business of blundering. Their movements were quick and efficient, their sweeps of rooms were smooth, and they missed nothing as they progressed through the area. He had to stop them before things got out of hand and more Guests got involved.
There said his subconscious, and he dropped down on top of one of them, reaching down to stifle a cry of surprise even as he threw his weight forward and down to crumple the man with as little sound as possible. He dropped and Fred slipped the point of the knife between his vertebrae, leaving it in as he lunged, hands reaching for the neck of the second man. His choke prevented a cry for help, and as he pinned the struggling man into the ground, he reached for the back of the fool's head and twisted sharply about a hundred-thirty-five degrees to the left and forty-five up, snapping the hapless specialist gendarme's neck. Fred reclaimed the knife from the now-dead man's neck and found a new hiding place as the remaining three teams intensified their search.
Chen's boat was a quick one, and the process of obtaining the high-explosive charges had been easier than he had thought. They were being brought up now, as the boat lined up with the docking guiderails, and soon Chen would be able to place them.
Chen reviewed the plans on his foreman's tablet, spinning the wireframe architectural schematic idly as he fixed the location of the charges in his mind.
"So that's it? You're just giving me the most powerful man-portable explosives on the Ark? No questions asked?" he had asked the Security officer holding the case when he arrived at Security Tower.
"Yep. Here you go. Please sign here, Mister Chen." Chen had scrawled his signature onto the touch-screen claim kiosk, and a little window containing the order form popped up on the screen. His signature was overlaid onto it and two Security officers took the case onto the boat headed back to the new pelgo.
Oh! That was right. They had told him what the new pelgo's ID number was. Fourteen. Pelgo 14. While it was technically in Founder waters, it was being considered a Guest pelgo. They hadn't told him what it was for yet, but he was confident that eventually he'd find out.
He debarked and started out towards the construction site, walking the winding path along the floating bridges to the support tugs. "Markus," he said, keying his intercom, "how's it coming?"
"Great," Markus said. "The Arkoral set much faster than we expected. We've finished adding auxiliary flotation into the tubes and we're just about to lay it into the water."
"Really?" Chen asked, incredulous. Normally it took a few working days to set up an Arkoral structure on the scale of the new pelgo, but if they put on some running lights, they could have the new pelgo and all the structures ashore it ready by next morning at sunup. Chen cracked a grin at this new development.
"Foreman Chen!" one of the men handling the explosives called. "Where do you want these?" He gestured to the bright red plastic box.
"Down in the amenities ring," Chen said, waving to one of the ladders down into the toroid and a small hand-operated crane overlooking it. The two explosives men nodded and hooked the box into the crane, lowering it slowly down as one of the men slid down the ladder into the hollow ring's innards.
The application was swift; the explosives simply required a ten-centimetre hole to be drilled into the Arkoral, and then they could be attached and primed. After the delivery of the explosives, Chen handled it himself. Then, as per the plans, Chen hooked them up to a wireless receiver and keyed it into ArkSec frequency 449. Done.
When he returned to the surface of the new pelgo, the crew was laying in farming and housing partitions on the inside of the torus and a few hanging over the edge. Chen pulled out the ladder and shut the access hatch as the floodlights came on over the construction project and the sun receded to rise again in twelve-odd hours. "Done."
Amelie watched Fred tumble out of the helicopter, grappling a gendarme, with great surprise.
"Fuck!" shouted one of the guards. He slid the cockpit access hatch open and turned. "You two! Stay here until I get back!" He slammed the door shut and then a few seconds later the other two on deck swung out onto cables that unfurled from under the wings to fast-rope down. That left one guard immediately next to the door. Amelie nodded towards him slightly, looking at Isadora meaningfully, and Isadora nodded back.
They rushed him together, Isa going for his helmet while Amelie threw an elbow at his face. Blood spurted from his nose and his head snapped back against the titanium bay bulkhead, making an audible clang and knocking him out almost instantly. As they did so, the helicopter suddenly jerked back, knocking the women against the tail bulkhead.
"Shit!" Isadora gasped, as Amelie lifted the unconscious gendarme and raised his rifle. The door opened and the man who had entered earlier sprayed his unconscious teammate with a quick burst of submachine gun ammunition while Amelie struggled to brace the rifle, and then she fired, and the guard opening the door jerked back, dropping to the floor and clutching at his belly. She re-aimed and fired again for good measure, and then Isadora rushed into the cockpit, grabbed the pilot, and threw him out of the helicopter and into the thirsty ocean below.
After stripping the two armed men of all their gear and tumbling them into the sea as they had the first, Amelie and Isadora sat down in the pilot and copilot's chairs. The console was simple enough; their altitude was given in metres and their attitude in radians on three axes. There was a control stick and a trackball, which Amelie assumed was for quick angular adjustments, a fact she confirmed by pushing it forward and feeling the helicopter tilt forward on a one-to-one basis for every inch of arc she moved the little ball. She smiled and slowly pushed the control stick forward, watching a velocity dial spin up to ten, twenty, thirty kilometres an hour and climbing. Isadora, meanwhile, had a weapons console. The helicopter's gliding wings had mounted a few missiles and guns on underside rails. There were even air-to-water torpedoes.
"How's it feel to have air power?" Amelie asked.
"It's… nice," Isadora replied, and her voice made chills run down Amelie's spine. "Let's go blow up some ArkSec."
"Mayday, mayday! This is Guest Medical Submarine Alpha to anybody listening! We're under attack by Security attack subs! We are carrying injured and sick and our hull integrity is below sixty percent!" called a scratchy voice over the open-channel radio.
"Speaking of which…" Isadora said, flashing a predatory grin. Amelie set her jaw under the stolen pilot's helmet and jammed the throttle open, watching the helicopter's speed increase to sixty, seventy, eighty, as the little lights and flashes underwater of the attack subs' torpedoes exploding illuminated the battle against the darkness of the Ark's aquatic shelf.