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Nick waited, breathing so shallowly that he didn't feel like he was breathing at all. Mr Smith glared at him, not blinking. The spurts of blood coming out his neck had slowed to gentler wellings, then finally petered out altogether. His fingers stopped trembling in the shiny expanse of blood that had swollen in all directions. The shivers that rippled down his body ceased, and he was silent and still.
Nick stepped cautiously around him, as if afraid that if he got too close, Mr Smith could somehow be reanimated. More than anything else he just wanted to get away.
But he was afraid to take his eyes off his enemy. The smoke was beginning to choke him, and he could feel his precarious strength starting to slip away, but he couldn't avert his gaze to try and find another way out. With a concerted effort, he glanced through the doorway that Mr Smith lay against. It simply led into another office, with no other exits. The only way out seemed to be to go back the way he'd come.
He heard shouts, distant and dim behind the groans of the building. Then there was gunfire and cries of alarm.
They appeared to be coming from behind the rubble. It took a moment for Nick to realize what that meant; if the guards were shooting, there was something out there that they still considered a threat. He finally forced himself to tear his gaze away from Mr Smith, and he scrambled over the debris back into the room where Charlie had tossed him. The sound of gunfire was much louder, but less frequent. Nick made his way to the doorway, still blocked by an enormous slab of concrete, and shouted through one of the gaps, ‘Charlie! Charlie, are you there?'
There was no answer. ‘Sierra? Anyone?'
There was another rush of gunfire, and a confused babble of shouts from somewhere further away. Running footsteps loomed up, and the concrete slab suddenly twitched. Before Nick could draw back it groaned and tilted away, showering him with dust and grit, and someone grabbed him by the collar and yanked him through the space. The slab paused, then crashed back into the wall.
‘Are you injured?' Charlie demanded, without letting go of Nick's collar.
‘No, I'm okay,' Nick said. He looked at the warlog, than added, ‘What about you? You look like hell.'
Charlie's skin and clothing were scorched. He had holes across his upper chest and a few down one arm. There was a savage gash across his temple where a bullet had grazed him, and the translation gel seeping out of it was drawing shining lines in the dust caking his face.
‘I'm… adequate,' the warlog replied.
‘He is damaged but functional. He is dealing with the palace guards. We should leave before they regroup.'
‘I'm ready when you are.'
Charlie released Nick's collar, and the two of them threaded their way through the fallen concrete and broken doors.
When they reached the end of the rubble, they found Sierra. Like Charlie he was blackened and punctured, but upright. His right leg whined when he put his weight on it, and buzzed intermittently.
‘Report,' Charlie said.
‘Hostile combatants have been subdued,' Sierra replied. ‘I've put them in the first cell I could find with an intact door. But I expect that fresh forces will be here soon.'
‘Then we need to leave, by the quickest route possible.'
Sierra nodded. ‘Follow me.'
He led them down the corridor, then through a doorway into a room stacked with musty cardboard boxes.
At the back of this room was a steel door, so badly rusted that it almost fell apart as Sierra opened it. Beyond it was a stairwell. It was dark, and damp, and large flakes of the metal handrail came off in Nick's hand as they climbed it. Nick could hear alarm bells ringing, and the rumble of many voices echoing down. After they'd walked up three floors, they came out into a dusty little alcove off a reception room. They squeezed around a large ornamental plant to get into the room itself, and were immediately engulfed in a crowd.
Nick's heart raced, but Sierra and Charlie remained calm. Most of the crowd seemed to be civilians – secretaries, clerks, janitorial staff and other servants of the Governor - and if they showed any interest in them at all it was only to get out of Sierra's way. There were a few military personnel, either palace guards or troopers, but when they saw Sierra they saluted and let Nick and Charlie pass without question.
‘They're still loyal to Sierra?' Nick whispered to Charlie.
‘Perhaps,' the warlog replied. ‘It's more likely they just don't know that he's back with the UNPC again.'
The throng carried them though a set of doors and up a short staircase into the sunshine. They were on a broad lawn, and everywhere Nick looked there was confusion and chaos. A fire truck lurched up a nearby service road with its sirens wailing. People wandered through the crowd trying to find their colleagues. Palace guards shouted orders over their heads, but their voices were drowned out in the general clamor. Few paid any attention to the trio of blackened figures, and those that did were lost from sight in the crowd before they could do anything about it.
Sierra led them across the lawn and up another short flight of steps to a parking lot, and ushered them into his staff car. Charlie helped Nick into the back, then sat in the front as Sierra started the engine. He pulled out onto a service road, moving slowly as people spilled off the lawns and paths onto the roadway.
‘What's going on?' Nick asked.
‘Judging by the alarms, they're evacuating the entire building,' Sierra replied. ‘If it took out a support pillar and part of the roof, the explosion may have caused some damage to the levels above ours.'
Nick looked back through the rear windscreen. The palace seemed intact, but there was a faint smudge of smoke drifting out of one ground-floor window, and a few of the people wandering past the car were nursing cuts and grazes.
When they reached the inner gate, the guardsman stared at Sierra's scorched face, but he obediently raised the boom and allowed the car through. When they hit the outer gate, they had the same reaction. Sierra turned the car onto the main road and drove until they were out of sight of the gate, then pulled over and got out.
Charlie slid across into the driver's seat.
‘Go back via a different gate,' Charlie told Sierra. ‘If the same guards see you returning without your car, it will raise suspicions. Find the Governor, and tell him that you have released Dr Ostin and me in accordance with UNPC General Order 357.'
Sierra absorbed this. ‘He'll be unhappy. He doesn't class Dr Ostin as a Civilian Non-Combatant. And he doesn't recognise the authority of the UNPC, its General Orders or its agents.'
‘That's his problem, not yours. You have your orders. After you've spoken with the Governor, report back to me.'
‘The Governor may take steps to see that I can't.'
‘If you need to fight and escape, do so. But it would preferable if that need doesn't arise.'
Sierra sighed. ‘I understand.'
‘Good luck, MTS-059,' Charlie said gravely.
‘Thank you, sir.'
Charlie gave a brisk salute, which Sierra returned, although there was an audible whine from damaged mechanisms in his arm as he did so. As the car pulled away Nick glanced back to see the warlog striding off purposefully towards the palace.
He let himself sink back into seat. He wanted to protest, but he didn't have the energy.
He wanted to insist that Sierra come with them, but he knew that Charlie wouldn't pay any attention. Finding another UNPC warlog had apparently only cemented his delusions that the organization still existed. The Governor would never accept it. He would probably mow Sierra down in a blaze of gunfire, then send every trooper at his disposal after Nick. And when he found out about Mr Smith…
Nick covered his face with his hands. He could see nothing but blood and those empty, lifeless eyes. He didn't understand how he could hate Mr Smith and still feel so hollowed out.
He wanted to be jubilant, but nothing came. His fingers trembled against his forehead and his cheeks, stinging just a little where they'd been scuffed against pieces of broken concrete.
He didn't lower his hands until he felt the car stop and heard the engine cut out. It took him a second to recognize the inside of his garage. Charlie got out and closed the garage doors, then helped Nick out of the back seat.
‘We're home?' Nick said. ‘Is this really safe?'
‘It's safe enough for the moment.'
‘But I thought we needed to leave the Red Hill Dominion.'
‘That was before I knew we had an ally in MTS-059. That was also before you were involved in a car accident and a gas explosion. You need to rest for a bit.'
‘I'm not that bad,' Nick protested, but when Charlie let go of his arm his legs buckled as if they had turned to water.
‘Humans aren't like humanalogues,' Charlie said as he helped him into the house. ‘Under stress your bodies become flooded with powerful hormones. They provide an immediate boost, but then they incapacitate you when they ebb away. We need time for you to recover.'
He deposited Nick on the couch, shoved a cushion behind Nick's head, then vanished into the kitchen. Nick lay on his back and looked up at the ceiling. There were bullet holes even there. He'd expected that the front door would still be lying on the floor, and that the windows would be shattered, and that the surviving troopers would have torn through the rooms of his house like hurricanes, looking for someone to take revenge upon. But he hadn't expected bullet holes in the ceiling.
Charlie came back with the first aid kit and a glass of fizzing water.
He crouched down by Nick's side and put the glass in his hand.
‘Just asprin. Has your civilization discovered proxicetylin yet?'
‘Then this is the best I can do.'
‘I really don't need it.'
‘Drink it anyway.'
Nick took a gulp, and was annoyed that his teeth chattered against the rim of the glass. He could feel the shivers running through his limbs, and the more he tried to control them, the worse they became. Charlie had taken the full force of both the car accident and the explosion, but he seemed to be functioning normally.
He knew it was irrational, but he felt deficient next to the warlog. He needed to be treated for what was, essentially, fear, while the one doing the treating had bullet holes running right through him.
‘Are you okay, Charlie?'
‘Is there anything you need for repairs?'
‘I have everything I need. There are still some spare parts in the warlog we found in the Underwood basement, and there's sugar in the kitchen for me to make a translation gel substitute. Don't worry about it.'
Nick drained the glass and let his head fall back on the cushion.
A second later, he snapped it up again as the telephone suddenly rang. The sound seemed too normal amidst the broken furniture and bullet-raked walls. Charlie went over and answered it with a flat, ‘Hello.'
He listened, expressionless, for a moment, then said, ‘Report.' After several long seconds, he glanced at Nick and said. ‘It's MTS-059. You're safe for the moment. Rest.'
So the other warlog was still alive, Nick thought. That was probably a good sign… unless it wasn't. He had no idea. He tried to listen to Charlie's end of the conversation, but the warlog mostly just listened.
When he did speak, it was a low murmur of baffling military jargon that Nick could only half-hear. Despite everything that had happened, he found his attention wavering, and he drifted into a black, featureless sleep.
When he woke, the room seemed to be eddying around him, hazy with diffuse light. He tried to concentrate to make it steady, but that had no effect, so he just relaxed and let it go. He felt a dull sting on his forearm, and when he looked down, he saw a man dabbing one of the abrasions with a ball of cotton wool.
The man was familiar. He had a gentle, round face, better suited to smiling than frowning, with sand-coloured hair that was thinning on top. His eyes, when he raised them, were grey and knowledgeable.
‘I'm sorry, Dad,' Nick said.
‘What?' Benny Ostin replied, sounding a little surprised.
‘Sorry for what?'
‘Everything, I guess,' Nick tried to fix on exactly what it was that inspired the feelings of shame inside him, but he couldn't quite catch them. ‘I feel like I've let you down.'
‘I don't see how.'
It came spilling out faster than Nick had thought it would.
‘You sacrificed everything for what you believed in. You and Mum put your lives on the line, because you knew it was the right thing to do. But what have I ever done to follow in your footsteps? What have I ever risked? I've just felt sorry for myself and allowed life to carry me where it wants. I mean, what am I doing now? I work for the Governor!'
‘You work for the university.'
‘Owned by the Governor! I just another one of his pet scientists! I've been wet, I've been weak, and I've been cowardly.
‘No you haven't.'
‘Yes I have! I've never really stood up for myself. I've let a warlog doing all my fighting for me, and when I finally had a chance to bring the Governor down, I let this warlog just drag me away. I couldn't even stick at the one thing that really mattered to me.'
His father let the cotton swab fall to the floor. ‘I know how much it hurt you to be denied your revenge. But that's all it would have been. It wouldn't have brought any of the Dominion's victims back to life. It would have just created more.'
‘But I owed it to you…' Nick began.
‘Nick,' his father said. ‘You don't owe anything to anyone. It was the right thing to do.'
‘It doesn't feel right.'
Benny Ostin sighed, and gazed at his son tenderly. ‘History has taught me that vengeance usually feels right, right up to the point where you get what you wanted. Then it turns to bitterness. That may be hard for you to see, but you'll have to trust me.'
Nick didn't know what to think. His father's words resonated with something he'd pushed away from his thoughts, but which kept coming back.
It seemed to him that out of the corner of his eye he could see a figure dressed in black lurking in the doorway. He could probably have looked at it more closely, but he feared he might recognise what it was.
‘Maybe getting revenge isn't as simple as it seemed,' Nick mumbled. ‘I still wish… I still wish I could do more.'
‘Maybe you can. When you've recovered.'
‘I miss you. Both of you.'
His father looked troubled for a moment, but he seemed to fight it down. ‘I know you do. I wish things could have been different.'
‘But you can't change the past. All you can do is look to the future and do what you can to make it better. If you can do that… well, what parent wouldn't be proud of their son?'
Nick nodded. The room's gentle eddying was making him dizzy. He let his head fall back onto the cushion, and he tried to say something further, but the effort was suddenly too great, and he slipped back into sleep.
The living room was stable when he woke, and his head felt like there was a large car parked on it.
Judging by the way the light was slanting into the room, several hours had passed. There were neat bandages on his arms and around one knee. The remains of his handcuffs had been removed, and the smell of antiseptic hung over him. Every single joint in his body was complaining like a chorus of querulous old men.
Charlie was sitting next to him on a dining chair. Precise pieces of electrical tape covered the bullet holes in his face, across his chest and down his arm. His eyes were open, staring at nothing, and his chest gently rose and fell.
When Nick shifted a little, the warlog's head turned and focused on him.
‘How do you feel?' Charlie asked.
‘Like I've been carefully beaten all over with hockey sticks. And I have a headache like you wouldn't believe.'
‘I don't think you were concussed. I'll get you some more asprin.'
‘Thanks,' Nick said. Charlie went into the kitchen and returned with another glass of water. As he dropped a couple of asprin into it from the first aid kit, Nick commented, ‘I had a weird dream while I was asleep.'
‘I heard you muttering,' Charlie said.
‘What did I say?'
Charlie paused for a moment as he swirled the water in the glass to dissolve the pills. He seemed to wait a long time before answering. ‘You were mumbling, mostly. Here, drink this.'
Nick took the glass and sipped it. Charlie said, ‘MTS-059 reports that the Governor has been informed of the situation.'
‘How's he taken it?'
‘Badly. That's only to be expected. Things will be volatile for a while, and I think it would be best if we retreated to a more defensible position.'
‘There's only one obvious choice,' Charlie said. ‘I'm taking you back to Kerrigan.'
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