Chapter 23
Ocracoke Island

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Thu 05 Jun 121
Time: UST 0842

Major Knox got an urgent call to report to the war room at once. Once he got there, he saw Commodore Frazier, General Pfeiffer and Admiral Mfume waiting for him. As the Commodore was his immediate superior, that was the one he faced.
"Major Knox, reporting as ordered, sir," he said. Remaining at attention, he acknowledged the other two officers, with a curt "Ma'am. Admiral, sir."
Genial as always, the Commodore grinned broadly.
"At ease, Major. Glad you could make it. It's go time."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"You heard about the Seven Deadly Sins?"
"We talking theology here, sir?"
The Commodore shook his head. "Negative," he said. "We're talking space pirates. Real badass mofos. Feds and OG can't handle it and our dance card just happens to be open. You ready to hear the plan?"
"Anytime, sir."
"The Tico will engage the enemy flagship while the rest of the ships set up a perimeter. Major, you'll select two armor platoons to infiltrate the flagship, apprehend as many of the pirates as possible, and extract our men on the inside."
"Men on the inside?"
"Covert operation," the Commodore said. He handed Major Knox a DataPad. "Here's the list. The team leader is this guy, Commander Aaron Joachim, squadron leader of the VF-133 right here on our ship. Have your Marines bring 'em home alive, Major."
Major Knox went back to the position of attention and said, "Aye-aye, sir. Are there any other orders?"
"Negative. Two platoons, top and bottom. Make it happen."
"Aye-aye, sir."

* * *

Location: Malebolge, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 05 Jun 121
Time: UST 1718

The first crewman to see Pride enter the bridge shot up from his seat, shouting, "Captain on deck!"
The bridge crew were all standing at attention without a moment's hesitation. They may have been pirates, but Pride ran a tight ship and the consequences for slack discipline were harsh. They would stand there all day without moving a muscle, as good as any Marine, but now was not the time for that. They called him for a reason and he wanted to know the situation.
"Carry on," he said. Once they were back to their assigned duties, he asked, "Helmsman, what do we got?"
The helmsman promptly replied, "Captain, Union ship at two o'clock, five hundred klicks off and holding. Sensors detected over ten ships forming a one-mick perimeter before they initiated jamming. Union commander is hailing, requesting to speak with you, sir."
Pride gestured to the communications officer. "Commo, put him on. Audio-only channel."
"Aye-aye, sir. Connected."
With the channel now open, Pride asked the Union commander, "Who am I speaking with?"
"This is Vice Admiral Ibrahim Mfume, commander of Heavy Carrier Battle Group One. Is this the captain of the pirate vessel?"
The pirate captain relaxed in his chair and said, "You can call me Pride, Admiral."
He thought on the name. It sounded familiar. Where had he heard it before?
"Mfume, Mfume..." he mumbled to himself. Then it came to him. "I remember you now. You were the guy in charge of that task force a couple years back. At Ganymede. Bailed out Sixth real nice."
"You seem to know a bit about me," Mfume said, "but what can you tell me about you?"
"I'm not in a talking mood, Admiral. I'm in a listening mood. Give me your ultimatum."
"You have five minutes to power down the weapons systems on all ships. You and your men will surrender and be taken into custody, where you will be transferred to the nearest federal detention facility pending trial. I would like to avoid bloodshed. I hope you are a reasonable man."
"I'm a very reasonable man, Admiral. You want to avoid bloodshed and I want to run my operation without interference. Why don't you and your ships withdraw and we both get what we want?"
"You know that isn't an option."
Pride leaned forward. "Of course it's an option. You simply fail to consider it. Perhaps you just need a little more data. You see, Admiral, I've prepared for this contingency. I have a number of hostages in my custody. I'm willing to trade their lives in exchange for safe passage. If you make any aggressive moves, not only will they die, but my ships will fire everything they've got. You won't be able to block all of it and you will suffer casualties. Do you want all that blood on your hands, Admiral?"
"I'll have to talk to my superiors."
"Not very decisive for a three-star, are we, Admiral? You're stalling."
"So are you."
Pride grinned. This one was pretty sharp after all.
"You have until midnight UST, Admiral. Make me a deal."
"Mfume, out."
The line went dead. The opening scene was over and now it was time to set the stage for Act I of this play.
"Looks like we need a little help from our friends," Pride said. "I don't care how you do it, but get me outside comms. And I want targeting. If we're going to shoot, we're not shooting blind. Make it happen or you've got a date with the airlock."
"Aye-aye, sir!" the bridge crew exclaimed.
Pride rose up out of his chair. He had business of his own to attend to. Preparations had to be made. Guests were coming, after all.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 05 Jun 121
Time: UST 2330

Miranda's platoon was loaded into a Combat Sparrow and ready to launch. Including herself, there were twenty-four Marines in full battle rattle, minus the usual heavy weaponry. Only four of them, one of them being her, were armed with the standard arm cannon. The rest were stuck with P43s and disruptors. It rubbed her the wrong way, but orders were orders.
Because of the urgency of the situation, there was no time to brief the Marines before loading up. Usually the platoon leader would handle briefings, but Lieutenant Dixon was too green, so the task fell on Miranda. She was more than happy to accept. They were going in hot and the Marines needed to hear a voice of experience.
"First Platoon, listen up!" she shouted. "This is not a drill and it ain't a regular creep sweep either. We have a hijacked Invincible-class destroyer with four hundred armed and dangerous pirates and reports of at least fifty hostages. Our mission is to take control of the ship, detain the pirates and rescue the hostages. Operation codename is 'Ocracoke Island'. Command is 'Spotswood'. Our bird is 'Pearl' and Third's is 'Lyme'. First Platoon is 'Ranger' and Third Platoon is 'Jane'. You'll be deployed in two-man teams. Your team callsign should be displaying right now. Are we tracking, First Platoon?"
There was a universal 'Tracking, Gunnery Sergeant!', which meant the HUDs were working and all the MediSuits were properly plugged into to the network. The last thing they needed was a malfunctioning suit this late in the game.
"Good. Now you should be seeing your team objectives. We come in dorsal, Third comes in ventral. Once we secure the bridge and Third secures the reactor, we make our sweep deck-by-deck. Our goal is to catch these bastards alive, but standard rules of engagement apply. We aren't trading live scumbags for dead Marines. Besides locating and extracting the hostages, we have undercover operatives you need to look for. Their data's been loaded into your scanners. Let's bring our people back alive. Can I get an 'oorah', First Platoon?"
Their response indicated that they were all psyched and biometrics backed it up. They were looking good, but this would be First Platoon's first real operation. They had performed well during the exercises and most of them had combat experience. Miranda was confident they would do well, but they would not know for sure until they were in the thick of it. For the time being, she had to keep them focused.
"Check and double-check all systems," she said, "then check 'em one more again. We dock in fifteen."

* * *

Location: Malebolge, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 05 Jun 121
Time: UST 2356

The deadline would be passing soon and there was no response from Admiral Mfume. Pride was not expecting this. He expected Mfume to get back on the line and stall for more time. Pride pegged him for the diplomatic sort. Fighting against the Shellies was one thing, but he did not have the stomach for fighting fellow humans, even if they were pirates. While he was trying to find the right carrot to waggle in front of his quarry, the pirates' friends in high places would call off the battle group. That was what Pride was counting on. Then the bridge went dark.
"It's a blackout, sir!"
"Switch to auxiliary power."
"It's out, sir. All we have is life support."
Well, this was a surprise. Mfume actually sent a team or two to infiltrate the ship. A risky move for someone who said he wanted to avoid bloodshed.
Of course, even though Pride expected Mfume to take the cautious route, he was prepared for this scenario as well. The infiltrators were not the guests on the list, but he would give them a welcome all the same.
"Use the emergency comm line," he said. "Alert all stations. This is a Harrowing."
"You heard me. Now make it happen."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Pride got up to leave the bridge. They would be there soon and he had a mind to be somewhere else. Before he left, though, he punched a quick key sequence into his chair. He certainly hoped his guests appreciated the welcoming gift he had for them, even if he was not there to give it to them personally.

* * *

Miranda took point navigating through the narrow passageways. The Ticonderoga was luxuriously spacious by comparison. It was a fortunate thing they trained with the even older Endeavour-class destroyers. The planners behind Aggressive Infiltration would have never guessed how relevant their exercise was proving to be.
Third was fortunate enough to dock close to the reactor, so they had it knocked out in no time. First was not so lucky. They had to hoof it a ways before they could get to the bridge. While Miranda's team escorted Lieutenant Dixon to the bridge, two more teams were closeby, port and starboard, in case they needed backup. The rest of the platoon had fanned out to begin the search.
Keeping a sharp eye out for any potential ambushes and processing all the data flooding into her helmet, she heard Staff Sergeant Comanescu's voice over the radio, bringing up something she had noticed herself.
"Ranger One, this is Ranger Three. I've got no tracker signal."
Another voice spoke up, not following proper protocol. Maliki, it sounded like.
"What, are these people unregistered?"
"Not likely," someone else replied. Chandraraja. "They dug 'em out to avoid detection. Only sure way to take them off the grid, pirate and hostage both."
"So how are we supposed to find these people?" Maliki asked.
Miranda would have chewed out Maliki and Chandraraja for treating the radio like some civvie walkie-talkie, but there were more important things to worry about. Without trackers, locating and identifying the people on board would be all the more difficult. The pirates could not make it too easy for them, now could they?
Miranda knew they needed a unified response and had no intention of waiting on the officers to sort it out.
"Ranger Team, Jane Team," she said, "this is Ranger Two. Be advised: We have a negative on tracker signals. Use biosensors and motion trackers to locate targets. Once you've secured a target, quickscans should ID them, tracker or not. Now get to your objectives."
They were getting close, but they had yet to make contact with the enemy. The pirates were not likely to have anything that could stand up to a MediSuit, but these were the people who stole an entire destroyer, so it was best not to underestimate them.
The door to the bridge was closed. Without power, it could be opened manually from the inside, but not from the outside. They had to cut their way through, but there was no telling what waited on the inside. Miranda motioned to her partner, PFC Herschel, who had been rearguard for the escort.
"Cut her open. I'll cover you."
While Herschel went to work with the cutters, Miranda put her hand on Lieutenant Dixon's chest and pushed him back softly.
"Stand back, Ranger One," she said. "We need you out of the enemy's potential line of fire."
The Lieutenant and his partner got out of the way. Miranda turned her attention to the door, steadying her aim center mass, occasionally averting her arm cannon whenever Herschel got in the way during the course of his work. While she waited, she got in touch with the two teams backing them up.
"Ranger Five, Ranger Seven, this is Ranger Two. We are outside the bridge, cutting through the door. Be ready to converge on my location if I give the signal."
"Aye-aye, Ranger Two."
"Aye-aye, Ranger Two."
They should have responded in unison, but Miranda was being picky again. Certain allowances had to be made under the circumstances. She could not let trivialities distract her.
Just then, Herschel had finished cutting on the door. He swapped the cutters for his P43 and signaled to Miranda that he was ready. Miranda then signaled to Lieutenant Dixon and once she got the go ahead, she motioned for Herschel to get the show on the road.
He kicked in the door and then got out of the way so Miranda could go in first.
Switching to external speakers, she burst into the bridge, shouting, "Freeze!"
Three pirates in immediate sight held up their hands in apparent surrender. She had to keep them covered, and could on hope that Herschel and Lang, the Marine partnered with the Lieutenant, were getting the corners for her. Someone screwed up, though, because a pirate flanked her and got off a shot. She recognized that hiss. A Shelly flechette pistol. Not enough punch to pierce through her armor, but enough to put her in a right foul mood.
"Little shit!" she spat, springing at her attacker and laying him out with a stiff backhand, all the while keeping her arm cannon trained on the three pirates in front of her.
There were five pirates there in total. They were brought to the center of the compartment, near the captain's chair, and placed under guard by Herschel. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Dixon got in touch with Command. Using her access as platoon sergeant, Miranda listened in.
"Spotswood, this is Ranger One. Bridge is secure."
"Ranger One, this is Spotswood. Disable the ship's weapons systems, neutralize the crew and recover the hostages."
"Roger that, Spotswood."
There was no time to waste. They needed intel and they needed it quick. All she had to do was turn up the heat a bit for their captives. She grabbed the nearest pirate and threw him down on the deck, shoving the barrel of her arm cannon under his chin.
"Where are the hostages!?" she demanded. "Talk or I blow your fuckin' head off!"
"Stand down, Ranger Two!"
It was Lieutenant Dixon. She did not need his interference.
"Leave this to me, Ranger One," she said. "I'll make this fucker tell me everything we need to know." She turned her attention back to the pirate, pulling back her arm cannon. "Guess you can't talk if I blow off your head, so how about your legs? You don't need your legs."
Lieutenant Dixon, not appreciating what Miranda was trying to do, repeated himself.
"I said stand down, Ranger Two. Go help the rest of the platoon. We'll hold position here."
It was not worth an insubordination charge. She would find another pirate elsewhere. Best to obey for now.
"Aye-aye, Ranger One," she said, tossing the pirate back with the others. She then motioned to PFC Herschel. "Let's move."
Just as she walked past the captain's chair, an alert came up on her HUD. There was no time to think about it. She simply reacted. She pushed Herschel out the door and shouted to Lieutenant Dixon and Lang.
"Get out of there!"
It was too late. The bridge erupted in a blinding fireball. Miranda was thrown back into the aft bulkhead. Her display went dark, but she could still move and got back up while the system was rebooting. While she was taking in the damage report on her own suit, she assessed what had just happened.
The whole compartment was wired to blow, but it evaded the sensors until the detonator switched on. The blast was not strong enough to breach the bulkheads, but the captive pirates were gibbed and all the equipment looked toasted. Her concern shifted to Lieutenant Dixon and Lang. Thanks to her quick action, Herschel was unharmed, so he could help out.
She pointed to Herschel and then to Lang. "Check him," she said. She went over to the Lieutenant and knelt down beside him. "Ranger One, are you okay?"
Dazed, the Lieutenant could only murmur, "Wha--?"
"Radio still works. Damage report."
"Uh, I..."
He was too out of it to even perform such a basic function. Miranda did not have time to waste on him getting back in sorts, so she manually jacked into his suit to get the report. 75 percent functionality. An acceptable loss, but with the Lieutenant's disorientation and inexperience, it was more than Miranda would allow.
"I'm pulling you from the mission," she said.
"You can't--"
Miranda cut him off. "I can." She looked to Herschel. "How is he?"
"Within tolerances."
Miranda nodded. "Good." She then told Lang, "You take him back to the Pearl."
Steadily regaining his senses, the Lieutenant raised his objection again, this time on a private channel.
"You're just taking advantage of the situation to hijack this mission."
"Negative," she said curtly. "You'll still have full operational control. From the Pearl." She then switched to an external channel to call for backup. "Ranger Seven, this is Ranger Two. Report to the bridge. Check the terminals in here for anything usable. Orders are to disable weapons systems."
The Ranger Seven team moved in while Lang led Lieutenant Dixon away. Miranda checked the layout of the ship, along with the locations of the other Marines. Seven Ranger teams were on Deck 1 and the other five on Deck 2. She would go ahead and begin the sweep on Deck 3. It would be a little dangerous with just her team, but the others would finish their sweeps soon and head down. No problem.
The lifts were down, obviously, so the companionways were the only way to go below. They were a tight fit for a MediSuit, though. Because it was so difficult to go down the companionways, she could not simply drop down and get the jump on any pirates who might be lying in wait for them. Miranda tossed down a Fly Eye to scout things out first. All clear. Down she went.
Once both she and Herschel were on Deck 3, they began their sweep. She wanted to get her hands on another pirate and beat some information out of him, this time without Lieutenant Dixon getting in her way.
It was odd. Given the supposed manpower at the Seven Deadlies' disposal, there should have been more resistance. Besides the five on the bridge, there were only two other contact incidents so far. That only accounted for twelve out of more than four hundred. Were they massing their forces at a few critical points? Or was it some kind of trap?
Before she could worry about it any more, she was hailed by Lance Corporal Lee from the Ranger Seven team.
"Ranger Two, this is Ranger Seven. The terminals here are all shot."
She figured as much. It was times like this that redundancy was a double-edged sword.
"Move to the substation on Deck 3," she said.
Now she just needed to clear the way for them. She outlined a path from the companionway to the weapons control substation and forwarded it to the Ranger Seven team. That would minimize the ground she needed to cover.
The Seven Deadlies were smarter than pirates had any right to be. They had clearly anticipated the boarders and withdrawn their personnel. The bomb in the bridge was only the beginning of the traps they had set up. There was little doubt of that. And that was not all. Besides taking out their trackers, there was algae growing on the bulkheads, throwing off the biosensors. Deck 1 was not so bad, but the growth was thicker here on Deck 3, as if they had a greater interest in protecting the area. Were they counting on using the substation from the start?
Expecting extra trouble near the substation ultimately saved her life. Just as she rounded the next corner, three pirates were waiting for her with a nasty surprise. She jumped back just in time to avoid a tow harpoon as it punched into the opposite bulkhead. Tow harpoons were designed to puncture the hulls of ships in order to latch on, more than enough to go right through a MediSuit's armor. Another team armed with a harpoon launcher appeared in front of her. The narrow passageway left her with no room to maneuver, so she had no choice but to fire her arm cannon. The blast of plasma incinerated the pirates and burned through at least one bulkhead.
There was still the first team. She had to get to them before they could reload the launcher. She whipped around the corner again, rushing at the pirates before they could attack. She punched out the loader, kicked the human tripod, and then went for the gunner. The moment she took hold of the gunner, she got another nasty surprise. The gunner grinned and held up a grenade. The safety was already off.
It was an HE frag, an old pre-war model. The blast was not strong enough to even knock Miranda off her feet, but it did take out the three pirates, leaving her with no one to interrogate. A few choice curses floated in her head, but now was not the time to focus on her frustration.
"All units, this is Ranger Two. Watch out for hostiles armed with tow 'poons. We've got interference with the biosensors, so have one team member switch to IR."
That would hopefully be enough to keep the pirates from getting the drop on any Marines, but there were no doubt more tricks they had up their sleeves.
For the time being, Miranda decided to go in the substation and check it for traps before the Ranger Seven team arrived. At this point, she half-expected another explosion. What she did not expect was to find a naked man slumped up against one of the terminals. He was unconscious, grimy and covered with sores from head to toe. Miranda ran a quickscan and waited a few seconds for the results.
Joachim, Aaron M. Earth Union Navy. Commander.
He was the leader of the mission to infiltrate the Seven Deadlies. By the looks of it, they had been found out, which did not bode well for the rest of the team. Still, she might actually get that intel she was after without any threats of blowing people's legs off.
His vitals were dangerously low. The Corpsman was on the Combat Sparrow, so Miranda would have to do what she could. She took out a stimpack from her medkit. She had to be careful, though. The autoinjector was designed to inject the needle through a port in the thigh plate of a MediSuit. The needle was too long to inject into a bare leg, especially one that had atrophied so much. Even sticking him in the glutes would be a bad idea, she reckoned. It may not have been the best idea, but she held the autoinjector a couple centimeters from the Commander's leg and gave it a good hit to deploy the needle.
The stims worked quickly and the Commander was fully conscious again. He was still in pretty bad shape, but at least he now would be responsive and halfway coherent.
She shook his shoulder. "Commander Joachim?"
Bleary-eyed, he struggled to look up at her, like his head weighed a ton. Even though he could not see on account of her helmet, Miranda smiled.
"Sir, we're taking you home."
The Commander held out his hand and Miranda took hold of it and helped him to his feet.
"Can you walk, sir?" she asked.
His legs buckled and she had to catch him before he fell.
"Guess not."
Releasing her arm cannon for a minute, Miranda lifted him up and draped him over her shoulders in a fireman's carry. She had to get him out of there, but first, the intel.
"Do you know where the others are, sir?" she asked.
"Dead," he rasped in a hoarse whisper. "All dead."
"Can you confirm that, sir?"
"Do you know anything about the hostages?"
He was too weak to answer many more questions, at least not without some medical treatment. Time to report in.
"Spotswood, this is Ranger Two. Friendly secured. Repeat, friendly secured. According to friendly, other friendlies have been terminated. Friendly has no intel on hostages. Request immediate evac of friendly to the Pearl."
"Ranger Two, this is Spotswood. Evac granted. All units, continue the operation as planned."
There was no way to fit two people into the companionway, especially not with one in a MediSuit, so she had Herschel go on ahead and clear the companionway. She then lifted up the Commander so Herschel could pull him up the rest of the way. After repeating this process, Miranda did not follow them up to Deck 1.
"Take him back to the Pearl," she said.
"That's an order. Execute."
Herschel was right to object, but Deck 1 was more or less secure and there was no need to send two Marines all the way back to the Combat Sparrow. There were better things Miranda could be doing in the meantime, like holding down the weapons control substation while the Ranger Seven team did its work.
As she was heading back, she heard a broadcast from Jane Team, possibly an accident on the platoon leader's part.
"Jane Four, this is Jane One. Report to the Engine Room ASAP."
That did not sound good, but Miranda had her own objectives to worry about. By the time she was almost back to the substation, she heard Jane One on the radio again.
"All units, this is Jane One. Be advised: The enemy has rigged the reactor to overload. Automatic shutdown deactivated. Attempting manual override."
Definitely not good. Miranda did not know a lot about reactors, but if the automatic shutdown was disabled, she had a hard time seeing how anyone who was not an engineer could do much of anything about it.
"Jane One, this is Ranger Two. How much time?"
"About ten minutes."
She did not like the sound of that. She had been keeping track of the times in her head, to get from one place to the next, how long it would take to evac if worse came to worst. They could make it out in five minutes. The Combat Sparrows would need at least a minute at full speed to be clear of the blast. At least another minute of padding. That left three minutes for Jane Team to stop the reactor from overloading. Not likely, but she would afford them that chance first.
The Ranger Seven team was in the substation, working on disabling the weapons systems as ordered, not that it would make much difference if the reactor went. At least there were no signs of any more pirates moving in to intercept them.
It was Lee, the one working at the terminal.
"What is it?" Miranda asked.
"They set us up," Lee said. "When I disabled the weapons systems, it triggered a subroutine that diverted all power from life support into the weapons systems. They rigged it so we'd do exactly what they wanted."
"Cancel it."
"I can't."
"Cut the line."
"It's too late."
Miranda had to let Command know.
"Spotswood, this is Ranger Two. Weapons systems have been activated. Countermeasures have failed. Put all ships on alert."
"Copy, Ranger Two."
The Seven Deadlies were really taking them for a ride. They could not afford to stay there much longer. Miranda got Jane Team on the line.
"Jane One, this Ranger Two. Status."
"We're still working on it, Ranger Two."
"No time," she said, as she switched to broadcast. "All units, this is Ranger Two. Mission abort. I repeat, mission abort. Evac at once."
"Ranger Two, you don't have the authorization to--"
"Damn the authorization! Ranger One, Jane One, give the order. Ranger Team, I'm opening up the overheads stagger-step, center point Frame Two-Three. Fall back to the Pearl. Jane Two, clear a path to the Lyme. Move it, people!"
Even as she was talking, Miranda darted out into the passageway and blasted a hole in the deck, big enough for any MediSuit to jump through. She then blasted another hole in the overhead, jumping through the freshly opened hole to shoot the next overhead. Now there was a clean path from Deck 4 up to Deck 1, enough to get Ranger Team out. She only hoped Staff Sergeant Muttalib on Jane Team was doing the same for his people.
"What about the hostages?" Jane One asked.
Miranda had had her doubts and now was the time to test them.
"Any unit who's found a hostage, sound off."
Nothing. Just as she thought.
"You see?"
"We need more time!" Jane One insisted. "We haven't even searched 50% of the ship yet!"
"We don't have more time! The hostages were a bluff! If we don't pull out right now, we sacrifice Marines for no reason. Ranger One, Jane One, issue the goddamn order."
There was a pause, then Lieutenant Dixon sounded off.
"Ranger Team, fall back to the Pearl at once. Use the escape route prepared by Ranger Two."
Jane One followed in suit.
"Jane Team, fall back to the Lyme."
Although Miranda was sure the pilot of their Combat Sparrow knew what he was doing, she opted to play it on the safe side.
"Pearl, this is Ranger Two, have the engines ready for immediate takeoff."
"Roger that, Ranger Two."
The Ranger Seven team was topside and on their way back. Miranda watched her team's progress as the clocked ticked down. There were some stragglers. They did not have time for stragglers.
"Ranger Team, two minutes!" she barked. "Get your asses in gear!"
"I'm hit!"
That was the last thing she wanted to hear. She traced the signal. Lance Corporal Fernandes of the Ranger One-Zero team, down on Deck 4. She hurried below, weaving through the passageways to get to where he was. When she got there, the pirates were already dead. Even those puny P43s could do the trick on an unarmored target. The pirates had hit Fernandes with these 30-centimeter spikes with wires coming off of them, essentially an armor-piercing taser. Primitive but effective, shorting out the MediSuit's locomotion and incapacitating the person inside at the same time. Fernandes' partner was already kneeling over him.
"Ranger One-Zero, can you move?" Miranda asked.
"Sys... ms... min... mal... won't... in time."
His radio was malfunctioning, but Miranda got the drift. She detached her arm cannon and handed it to Fernandes' partner, then put the wounded Fernandes on her back. This one would be tricky. Given how short the time was, it might not even work.
"Make those holes bigger," she told Fernandes' partner. "And get to the Pearl. I've got him."
While he was busy doing that, she issued what could very well be her last instructions.
"Ranger Team, continue evac. Pearl, set time Zero-Zero, One-Four, Two-Eight. If we're not there by then, detach and get clear."
Lieutenant Dixon jumped on the line.
"This is Ranger One. Ranger Two, I'm ordering you to evac to the Pearl at once."
Although he could not say it directly, she knew he meant for her to abandon Fernandes. It was the logical course of action given the situation. Why lose two Marines when at least one can survive? Such brutal practicality was offset by his behavior back on the bridge, but both were the product of his by-the-book straight-out-of-the-Academy thinking. That was not how her Corps worked, though, but neither was disobeying orders. Although some would say that she had already crossed the line on insubordination, she had her limits. All she had to do was follow orders. After all, he did just tell her to evac at once. That was exactly what she intended to do.
"Roger that, Ranger One," she replied. "Proceeding with evac. Casualty inbound."
"Ranger Two!"
She cut off external comms. She did not need to be distracted. The optimal path as lined out on her HUD. All she had to do was get to the Pearl before it was too late. With the suit's thrusters, she figured she could compensate for the extra weight. That was what she was hoping for. If only the gravity generators could have given out...
The time for thinking was over. She simply had to execute. She fired up the thrusters and made the first jump, then the second, then the third... In the middle of the jump, the thrusters failed.
She reached out to grab the edge of the deck, ignoring the flashing error messages and the steady countdown ticking to her impending doom. She saved herself from falling, but letting go with one arm meant Fernandes would fall. Before he slipped away, she tightened her hold on his leg with her other arm, leaving him dangling awkwardly.
Even with the MediSuit's load-bearing capacity, Miranda had to struggle to pull the two of them up one-handed. She thought she was going to die, but if she did not hurry, she really would be dead. Still, there was no way to make it in time.
Then it hit her.
It was a desperate last resort, but she dragged Fernandes along to the passageway that gave her a straight shot to the Pearl. One hundred meters in twenty seconds. She went down on her back, holding Fernandes on top of her. Manually jacking into his suit, she was able to make a connection to his thrusters, which had their own circuit apart from the damaged systems. It was a gamble, but it looked like it would pay off.
She activated the thrusters and then shot across the deck. She only needed five seconds of thrust before she cut them off and let momentum carry them the rest of the way.
About ten meters ahead of the mark, she extended her arms, using the bulkheads to brake. She grinded to a halt, overshooting the docking breach by only a meter or two. One of her Marines was waiting with outstretched arms to pull in Fernandes, then her.
As she was being pulled up, Lieutenant Dixon shouted to the pilot, "Detach!"
Someone else yelled, "Get us the hell outta here!"
The pilot did not need to be told twice. The Combat Sparrow launched at full throttle before the docking tube was even retracted.
Though spent from the ordeal, Miranda did a quick headcount. Two, four, eight, fourteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-three. She was twenty-four, Doc made twenty-five and then there was Commander Joachim, wrapped in a thermal blanket. Everyone was present and accounted for.
Just as she was about to breath a sigh of relief, the pilot shouted over the intercom, "Brace for shockwave!"
The Combat Sparrow rocked violently, but its shields spared it and its passengers from any serious damage. When the ship leveled out, Miranda noticed something on her HUD. They ran thirty-seven seconds over the time she told them to detach and leave. In spite of what Lieutenant Dixon had said, he waited for them after all.
"I'll be damned," Miranda muttered to herself.