Chapter 12
Near Charon, Plutonian Sphere
Date: Mon 27 Apr 123
Time: UST 0303

Having only qualified as a tertiary candidate, Sean had never flown a Tigerhawk outside of training. Ironic that his first time seeing any real action pitted him not against the Shellies but against a Union facility in a mission of questionable legality. He didn't care about the law, though. He cared about getting Cav out of the Icebox. He'd light up Atlantis City itself if that was what it took.
As far as he was willing to go for Cav, he'd be lying if he said his conscience wasn't pricked at the thought of killing people on his own side to get the job done. Even if the control station was lightly staffed, the Icebox was filled to the brim with the worst scum in all the Union. People were going to die once they got loose.
He couldn't worry about that, though. He'd already committed himself. If the guilt was going to be on anyone's head, it might as well be on his.
Whoever set up this little op had marked the target so it would register on the Tigerhawk's passive sensors. It further narrowed the window Sean would leave himself exposed to detection. Although the Plutonian Sphere's defenses were nothing compared to what you'd find inside the Belt, there was still more than enough to dust a lone fighter.
He let the computer do all the number crunching first before breaking stealth and unloading his missile revolvers. With the target softened up, he then launched a torp to finish it off.
An amateur would gun the engines and try to get out as quick as possible, but that was not only a waste of the Tigerhawk's abilities but also a sure-fire way to get killed. Instead Sean killed the engines and went back into stealth mode. All he had to do was drift away until he was out of sensor range.
He'd done his part. He could only hope everyone else did theirs.

* * *

Location: Earth Union Detention Barracks, Pluto, Plutonian Sphere
Date: Mon 27 Apr 123
Time: UST 0328

Things were just starting to settle down after the 0300 count when the lights outside the cells flickered and went dark. Red emergency lights switched on and there was a dull click as the cell door opened a few senches.
Matt looked at the door. The first instinct of a caged animal is to take the opportunity to get out, but Matt was no mere animal. Even if he could somehow evade the guards and the other prisoners, where would he go? He could not possibly be further removed from civilization, but of course that was the entire point of having a prison colony out here.
Although the prisoners seemed pretty well conditioned, a lot of them were bound to get ideas now that the doors were open. Things could get ugly quick, but maybe if he just stayed put in his cell, he could ride out the storm.
A guard could be heard yelling into his radio, "Code Red, Code Red! We have a power failure in Charlie! Send reinforcements ASAP!"
To the prisoners, another guard shouted, "Stay in your cells! If you try to get out, we will use deadly force!"
The threat should have been enough, but in this pod alone, the guards had to be outnumbered at least twenty to one. How many of the prisoners were doing the math and weighing their chances?
"Get back in your cell! Last warning!"
The report of an old-fashioned firearm had a considerable intimidation factor. The shots of a pulse rifle, on the other hand, were nearly inaudible. Even the sound of pulse fire hitting its target was muted. Matt could barely hear it over the rising clamor of the prisoners.
He sat up on his bunk. If someone tried to get in, he needed to be ready. There was nothing in the cell he could use to defend himself besides his hands and feet. They would not get him too far against most of the people here. Still, even though he nothing left to live for, he was not going to go easily.
When the door was pulled open, it was not a prisoner but one of the guards.
"Come on, Colonel! We have to get you out!"
Matt recognized the guard's voice as the one who spoke to him a few days ago. Was he telling the truth all along? Was there really a plan to extract him and the others? It was too good to be true and after all that had happened, Matt did not have much trust left in him.
When he did not move from his bunk, the guard shouted, "Colonel, this your last chance! If you want out of here, move it!"
Matt remained where he was, but then another voice yelled at him.
"Colonel, don't let these bastards win! Get your ass outta that goddamned hole!"
It was Colonel Vasquez. Seeing a fellow captee from the Ticonderoga with the guard made the guard's story a lot more plausible. Surely someone as hard-bitten as the Colonel would not fall for a cheap trick so easily. Before he even realized what he was doing, Matt was walking out the door.
Just as he was taking in the riotous swarm of prisoners and the raking streams of pulse fire, the guard used his free hand to push Matt into a stooping posture.
"Keep your head down!"
Matt remembered the squatting walk they taught you for field exercises back at the Academy, but it was never particularly relevant for an Air Force officer on space duty. Colonel Vasquez, on the other hand, seemed much more adept at moving under fire.
Charlie Block was divided into eight pods, each one six levels high. They were on the fifth level of Charlie-Three, one of the closer pods to the block's central hub. Even so, there were hundreds of rioting prisoners and dozens of embattled guards between them and the exit.
The guard who was helping them escape--Matt noticed his nametape read 'Zhao'--did not pull any punches. Any prisoner that attempted to rush him got two rounds in the chest for his trouble. This was not a guaranteed long-term strategy, though, as he would run out of charges long before they ran out of prisoners.
Speaking of the prisoners, many of them had taken to tearing off the mattresses from their bunks and using them as makeshift cover. They would not stop a pulse shot, but they did make aiming more difficult.
As they were making their way down, the three of them came across a guard who immediately took aim at them.
Whether he perceived Zhao as a threat or not was unclear, but Zhao quickly moved in, hitting him in the gut with the butt of his rifle and following through with a buttstroke to the head that felled him. Slinging his rifle, Zhao dragged the downed guard into the nearest cell. He gave Colonel Vasquez the guard's rifle and Matt his stun gun. It was better than nothing, Matt supposed, though being properly armed would likely make him a bigger target.
"Stay with me," Zhao said. "We need to get to Charlie-Five. We've got one more to pick up here."
"Where's Nyx?" Matt asked. "You're getting her out too, right?"
"It's being taken care of, Colonel," Zhao replied. "We've got people in Alpha and Delta extracting the others."
Matt was not sure what he would have done if they did not get Lydia out as well. Hopefully Zhao's allies were as effective as he was.
The fighting had not yet reached the central hub. All the available guards were busy trying to suppress the prisoners in the detention areas. That made their task all the easier.
What did not make their task easier was a makeshift barricade manned by five guards on the other side of the door leading into Charlie-Five. At least they were not expecting anyone coming from behind.
"Look away!"
Matt barely reacted in time to the warning. Zhao tossed a flashbang and rushed over the barricade while the guards were disoriented. Matt awkwardly followed behind. He had a hard time keeping up, but if he fell behind, he was dead.
They then fought their way up to the third level. In truth, Zhao and Colonel Vasquez did most of the fighting, but Matt had to use his stun gun on a couple prisoners. He did not want to think too much on what would happen when the battery failed.
Shots started to come their way. Apparently the guards at the barricade were looking to get even for Zhao's surprise attack.
While Zhao was providing cover, he told Colonel Vasquez, "Colonel, I'll let you do the honors. Three-Twenty-Seven-Bravo!"
Colonel Vasquez obliged by going to the designated cell, opening the door and shouting to the prisoner inside, "Grisson! Let's move!"
"Thought ya'd never ask, sir," the prisoner replied.
Out stepped the abnormally tall soldier from their group, Sergeant Grisson if Matt recalled.
"Back to the hub!" Zhao shouted. "We're running out of time! We need to get to the hangar!"
"What about Ally?" Sergeant Grisson asked.
"Don't worry, Sergeant. We're getting her out. Your sister too. They're all in Alpha. Now follow me!"
Not only did they now have to fight their way back through the prisoners but there was also the barricade to contend with. Zhao tossed another flashbang and it was surprisingly just as effective the second time. The guards shot wildly, but Zhao grabbed a nearby prisoner and used him as a human shield as he charged the barricade. Throwing the prisoner into the barricade, Zhao jumped over and attacked the guards with brutal efficiency. He took down three on his own and Colonel Vasquez and Sergeant Grisson got the other two. Zhao tossed a pulse rifle to Sergeant Grisson and shouldered another. Matt did not try to get one for himself. The stun gun would do for now.
Back in the hub, some prisoners from the other side started filtering out from the other side. They were unarmed, so a few shots from Zhao were enough to make them run for cover. With the way clear, they headed to the north gate, which was locked tight.
"You got a plan for getting us out of here?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
As if to answer the question, the gate opened. The main power was still down, so it was the manual override. Waiting for them was another guard who was apparently one of Zhao's comrades.
"You're late, sir," he said.
"You try swimming through all this shit," Zhao replied as his comrade shut the gate behind them before any other prisoners could get through.
Once the gate was locked, they walked to the nearby control room. The other guards manning the station were sprawled out unconscious.
Zhao asked his comrade, "What's the word from Gerkin?"
"Wang got through with Pfeiffer and Bianchi," the other--whose nametape read 'Allende'--replied. "She's waiting for you on the other side. Saylor and Ntembe shouldn't be far behind."
"Good," Zhao said. He set his pulse rifle down against the wall and drew the stun gun from his belt. He looked to Allende and asked him, "You ready?"
"Don't forget to lock the door behind you, sir."
"I won't."
Zhao hit Allende with the stun gun to knock him out.
"What the hell was that for!?" a confused Sergeant Grisson demanded.
"Not everyone gets to come along," Zhao replied. "This should cover him. We're not out of the woods yet, boys. Let's go."
There was nothing to do but go forward. They headed down corridors Matt had not seen since his initial inprocessing. Unlike the cell block, the central tramline still had power. Matt had a feeling this was a deliberate move to facilitate their escape. Waiting for them was a female guard with General Pfeiffer and Chief Bianchi.
"Sir!" the female guard exclaimed.
"Good work, Wang," Zhao said. "Have you had any trouble?"
"No, sir," Wang replied. "Still waiting on Saylor and Ntembe."
"Hopefully they'll be on the next tram."
There were four stations on the tramline and the entire circuit took about twenty minutes. When the tram came back empty from Alpha Block, Zhao looked at his watch.
"They're late..."
"What do we do, sir?" Wang asked.
"I'm not goin' without Ally," Sergeant Grisson said. "Or Sis."
"We can't leave Jeff--Lieutenant Wallace, I mean," Chief Bianchi added.
Matt did not intend to leave Lydia behind either, but there was no need to add his voice to the chorus.
"I don't plan on leaving anyone behind," Zhao said. "My mission is to get you out, all of you."
"They'll have the power back up anytime now," Wang said. "Once they bring in troops from post, the riot will be put down in no time."
"I know."
"Do you not have some way of contacting your people in Alpha?" General Pfeiffer asked.
"We're jamming all comms," Zhao replied. "It keeps the guards and the garrison from coordinating, but keeps us in the dark too. Wang, take the package on the tram and go on to the hangar."
"What are you going to, sir?"
"I'll go on foot to Alpha."
"If it means gettin' Ally, I'm going too," Sergeant Grisson said.
"I can't move around freely if I have armed prisoners with me, Sergeant. This isn't up for discussion. I'm your best bet at getting out of here so do as I say."
"He's gotten us this far, Sergeant," Colonel Vasquez said. "Let him do what he needs to do."
Though Sergeant Grisson looked reluctant, he did not press the issue any further. Zhao unslung his extra rifle.
"Colonel Harold, catch," he said, tossing it to Matt, who barely caught it.
"We'll get the others out," Zhao told them. "Stick with Wang and we'll be out of here shortly."
"Good luck, sir," Wang said.
Zhao gave a little wave, then turned and began jogging down the emergency walkway.
Wang looked at her watch and then said, "The tram will be leaving soon. We need to get on."
The six of them boarded the tram just as it chimed and a recorded voice said, "The doors are closing. Please be careful."
"Everybody get down," Wang said. "We don't know what might be waiting at the next station."
They all went prone as directed and couple minutes later they arrived at the next station. Fortunately, there was no one there to greet them when they arrived.
"This is where we get off," Wang said. "Come on."
They got off the tram and headed to the door out of the station. However, in the holding area between the station and the corridor, Wang's card was rejected when she tried to swipe out.
"Dammit," she mumbled under her breath.
"Problems?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
"It's fine," Wang replied. "Just give me a minute."
Slinging her rifle, she knelt down and unbloused one of the legs of her trousers to get to a small prybar taped to the side of her leg. She then pried off the control panel for the door and pulled a multitool out of her pocket ask she quickly went to work on the wires. The lock released but the door only cracked open, forced them to push it open.
The corridor that followed led them into the assembly area where General Watts addressed them on their first day.
"We'll hold here," Wang said.
"I thought you were told to go on to the hangar," General Pfeiffer replied.
"We can't go until everyone is here anyway."
"This is a bad position," Colonel Vasquez countered. "Open area, elevated position for the guards to take shots at us. If we're going to wait around, we should pick a more defensible position."
"No one is going to come here, Colonel," Wang argued.
Colonel Vasquez did not seem interested in arguing. Instead, he turned to Sergeant Grisson and said, "Grisson, I want coverage on the south side. I'll cover the north."
"Sure thing, sir," Sergeant Grisson replied.
"We need to stay together," Wang said.
"If we're going to be waiting here, I'm not having any big-ass blind spots," Colonel Vasquez insisted. "I'd advise the rest of you to space out a bit. No point in them getting all of us at once."
Wang had no real way of stopping him and so Colonel Vasquez and Sergeant Grisson took up positions on opposite sides of the assembly area. Besides the balcony up on the third level General Watts used, there was a narrow walkway ringing the second level. If any guard took up position there, the assembly area would turn into a shooting gallery.
Because Matt had a rifle, he decided to make himself useful by getting on the other side of the door and helping Wang cover the way in. Even so, he didn't think he could actually fire on any guards. They were fellow servicemembers doing their duty. Even if he was wrongly imprisoned, how could he shoot them to save his own skin? But what about for Lydia? He just hoped he would not be put to the test.
They were waiting for some ten or fifteen minutes before Wang put her hand up to her ear. She mouthed something wordlessly and then looked up to Matt.
"Our jamming's been compromised," she said. "We can expect reinforcements within the next thirty minutes."
"What about the people in Alpha Block?" Matt asked. "Have they gotten out?"
"They're en route, but we're going to have to move quickly."
Several tense minutes passed before Zhao could be seen leading the remainder of their number down the corridor. A man dressed in nurse's scrubs had Lydia in a fireman's carry, Lieutenant Wallace was being led by Specialist O'Connor and another guard was pulling up the rear.
"Wang, I told you to get to the hangar!" Zhao shouted from a distance.
"I thought you'd need cover," Wang replied.
"Well, we're all here now, so let's get moving."
Matt asked the nurse, "Is she alright?"
Hearing his voice, Lydia's head bobbed around a bit.
"Cav? Cav, is that you?"
"I'm here, Nyx."
"She'll be fine," the nurse said. "She's just too weak to move as fast as we need her to."
While they were talking, Chief Bianchi went up to Lieutenant Wallace and Sergeant Grisson to Specialist O'Connor.
"Dammit, Grisson!" Colonel Vasquez shouted. "Get back in position!"
Sergeant Grisson ignored the Colonel, shouting out, "Shorty!"
"Jack!" Specialist O'Connor cried back.
Chief Bianchi took over leading Lieutenant Wallace so Specialist O'Connor could go to Sergeant Grisson.
"You're not hurt, are ya, shorty?" Sergeant Grisson asked her.
"I'll be okay, Jack," Specialist O'Connor replied.
As Sergeant Grisson looked at her, Specialist O'Connor seemed to get self-conscious, blushing and trying to hide her shaved head with her hand.
"Don't look at me, Jack."
"What happened to your hands?" Jack asked, noticing how heavily bandaged they were.
Before Specialist O'Connor could say anything, Zhao interrupted them, saying, "Everyone can catch up when we're out of here. Come on!"
They were making their way across the assembly area when the whole place lit up with rifle-mounted flashlights beams and the red dots of laser sights. As many as twenty guards were up on the second level walkway.
"Halt!" a voice shouted.
"Keep going!" Zhao shouted, taking a few shots that forced a couple of the guards to duck down.
"Open fire!" another guard shouted. "Take 'em out!"
Pulse fire streamed in from all directions. It was exactly the nightmare scenario Matt had feared. They had about forty meters of ground between them and the door and no cover whatsoever. Those who had rifles among them were laying down some suppressing fire, Matt excepted. The big woman with the Shelly exoskeleton--Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, was it?--took notice of this and snatched the pulse rifle out of Matt's hands.
"If you're not going to shoot, give that rifle to someone who will!"
Matt let her take the rifle and she immediately began taking shots at the guards. When they got to the door, Zhao's card was rejected.
"I'm on it, sir!" Wang said.
Taking the prybar from before, she went to work on the panel.
"Get down!" Zhao shouted. "Make yourself a smaller target!"
Thanks to the suppressing fire, the guards were shooting more intermittently. It lessened the threat, but didn't eliminate it.
"It's open!"
Zhao waved them on, shouting, "Move, move, move!"
As they were slipping into the corridor, the nurse who was carrying Lydia took a couple shots, falling dead to the ground.
"Saylor!" Wang cried.
Ignoring the incoming fire, Matt turned back and rushed to Lydia.
While Matt was struggling to pick up Lydia, Ntembe went to the fallen Saylor's side, only for Zhao to yell at him, "He's gone! Leave him!"
"Bastards!" Ntembe howled, taking aim at the guards on the walkway and opening fire.
Zhao pushed them on ahead, circumventing the processing facility to access the hangar directly. Once again Wang had to hack the door, twice in fact because it was an airlock. The prison's hangar was comparatively small, through it seemed somewhat larger than it was because it was currently occupied by only three shuttles.
Zhao pointed to the shuttle down on the south side of the hangar and said, "That's our bird. Just a little bit farther and we'll be out of here."
He looked over to air traffic control room on the north side. A lone figure standing at the consoles gave Zhao a thumbs-up. Zhao returned the gesture, but as soon as he did, the ATC operator whipped around, apparently in the direction of the door to control room, and drew out a pistol hidden under his ACU blouse. He only got off a single shot before he took several rounds and slumped over.
The ATC operator must have used the last of his strength to open the bay doors. Alarms sounded and warning lights flashed. The ground crew quickly fled for the exits.
"Get them the in shuttle and get ready to take off!" Zhao shouted to Wang. "I'm going to get Ntembe! Take off in three, with or without me! Go!"
Wang led the nine of them into the shuttle while Zhao ran back. Once inside, Wang headed to the cockpit. General Pfeiffer helped Matt lower Lydia off his shoulders and into a seat. Thoroughly exhausted, he thought he was going to pass out.
"Ya alright there, Cav?" Lydia asked.
"I'll be fine," Matt replied. "Are you okay?"
"Fucker got me in the leg when he took out nurseyman."
She looked down as she twisted her leg a bit to show of the burn mark where a pulse shot went through her calf.
"Oh my God..." Matt said. He quickly got up and looked around, asking anyone who would listen, "Where's the medkit?"
"Fore and port, sir," Chief Bianchi said. "It's attached right to the bulkhead."
Sergeant Grisson happened to be closer and fetched the medkit. He handed it to Specialist O'Connor, who then carried over.
"Um, sir," she said, "I'm trained as a combat lifesaver."
Realizing her training was superior to his own, Matt told her, "Then I'll leave it to you..."
"O'Connor, sir."
Matt already knew her name, but he simply nodded and stepped back to let her do her work. Looking around at the others, he asked, "Is anyone else wounded?"
No one replied in the affirmative. Although he had never piloted a Sparrow before, he was going to go offer his help to Wang when Zhao darted into the hatch.
"Alright, people," he said, "sit down and strap yourselves in. We're getting out of here."
"Where's Ntembe?" Gunnery Sergeant Grisson asked.
Zhao did not answer. Instead he went straight to the cockpit and locked the door behind him. Within moments, the engines fired up and they took off.
Matt was sitting directly across the aisle from Lydia. She looked like a completely different person, but he supposed he did too. Though wincing a bit from the pain of her injured leg, Lydia leaned back in her seat and glanced over to Matt.
"Ya wanna put down some creds on whether or not they blow our asses outta the sky before we're even a gim out?"
Matt did not gamble anyway and that was was certainly no bet he wanted to take even if he did. The Plutonian Sphere was lightly manned, but how far could they hope to get? Even if they escaped the surface and orbital defense grids, the Air Force and the Orbital Guard, what then?
He did not have any answers. There was nothing he could do but pray everything would work out.