They piled into the van at full tilt, the robocrate struggling to keep up. Dex was in the process of battening down the solar panels as Lang and Priss burst out of the building and, between the three of them, they managed to haul the self-propelled box into the vehicle almost without breaking stride. Lang pushed his way into the driver’s seat and started the van without bothering to strap in, beside him Priss was connecting to the rudimentary sensors they’d pulled off the drop pod and attached to the van’s roof during their brief overhaul the previous day.
Dex pushed the Terrans into the back seat and then started unpacking the crate they’d left in the van. The one with the light missile tubes in it.
“We’ve only got two of those, Dex,” Lang said as he put the van in gear and peeled out of the parking lot. “No firing blind. I want you to get a sensor profile lock from Priss before you waste a shot. No playing cowboy.”
“Me? When have I ever done that?”
“Any day ending in Y,” Priss said.
Their words were lighthearted but their tone was tense and focused, the banter a verbal filler to keep their minds occupied while they ran through procedures they’d drilled on dozens of times but hoped never to do when playing for keeps. Lang gave his armory man something more constructive to think about. “I need to go west, Dex. What do I look for?”
“We need a highway. They called them Interstates, back in the day.” There was a lengthy pause, maybe six or seven seconds, during which Lang was too busy driving to look at what was going on, although he suspected Dex was punching in his authorization to release the missile tube. “They tended to accumulate large shopping or vehicle service centers around them, if I recall correctly.”
There was a grunt, then Sean said, “The highway is to the north, although I don’t know as anyone uses it anymore. Corporal, where the fuck are we going? You said we have rights, shouldn’t one of them be knowing where the fuck we’re going?”
That was actually a good question. He’d never been a prisoner of war but every spacer was briefed on their rights as one. He knew a prisoner couldn’t be removed from the planet he was captured on without being told but within that very broad limit a prisoner basically didn’t need to be told where they were. The problem was, he was hardly dealing with a traditional prisoner of war scenario.
“Nevada. We’re going to Nevada.” He tapped his AI to life and brought up a navigation overlay. “North it is.”
He wove through the quiet streets for several tense seconds, leaning forward to scan as much of the sky as the van’s windshield would allow. He was just beginning to think they’d somehow slipped through unnoticed when Priss said, “Sensor contact.”
“What’s happening?” Aubrey asked from the back, her quiet voice carrying with odd clarity.
A dozen possible scenarios ran through Lang’s mind, many pulled from training drills. A few from a terrifying, ill-fated visit to Minerva during his first year of service. None even remotely relevant to their situation. “I don’t know.”
He drove faster.
“Contact is two point five kilometers and closing, approaching from east-northeast at a rate of two hundred meters per second.”
In ten seconds they were going to have a very clear idea of what was coming.
“Two hundred?!” Sean sounded incredulous. “Nothing can maneuver that fast in the city. Not unless it’s on a monorail.”
“I think it’s airborne, Sean,” Dex said.
“Air travel has been banned for the last sixty years as part of UNIGOV’s environmental reforms,” Aubrey said. “If it’s flying, it’s not from Earth. Must be one of your friends, come to pick you up.”
She sounded almost hopeful at the prospect. Lang didn’t share her optimism. A second later the vehicle slipped into view. It was a long, flat wing with an enormous fan blade rotating in a large, circular housing at either end. It didn’t seem to have a clear front or back, although there was a pod bristling with protrusions slung beneath the center of the wing.
“A bicopter?” Lang snorted. “That shit can’t even break atmosphere. No way the fleet sent it down.”
“But air travel poses a hazard to the avian-”
Lang shut her up by slamming the accelerator down and whipping the vehicle around the nearest building, putting it between them and the bicopter. “Priss, I want a ping on the HUD every time that thing establishes line of sight with us.”
“On it.” An instant later his display blinked red in the rear righthand quadrant. As Lang slammed the brakes and fishtailed to the left, breaking contact, Priss added, “There’s no place on that thing big enough to hold an adult human and a piloting cabin. It’s a drone.”
“Can you jam it’s controls?” Lang asked.
“Don’t know enough to try yet,” she answered.
“How can you not know how your own fucking equipment works?” Sean demanded.
“He said it’s not ours.” Dex was busily clipping himself to a set of hardpoints in the floor intended for locking in the vehicle’s removable seating. They’d left one row of it out entirely and Dex was taking advantage of the space to set up shop. “No colonial expeditionary force relies on drones. They’re the shit for planetary defense, when you can count on friendly satellite and ground networks to keep them running. But off your own territory they’re just shit.”
A bright flash of light shot over the top of the building they were using for cover, hitting an overgrown tree on the other side of the road that flashed into a cloud of woodchips and vaporized sap instantly. “And that drone is outdated, too,” Lang said. “I know laser fire when I see it.”
“Lasers are outdated now?” Aubrey asked.
That didn’t warrant a response so he asked, “Anyone spotted the highway?”
“There,” Dex said. Since Lang was in no position to turn and look, Dex added, “Four blocks north east, big open stretch of road.”
“Great. We’ll just drive right at the flying gun platform. Everybody hold on.”
Lang broke away from hugging the buildings and swerved the van into a roundabout, spinning around 270 degrees on the compass and cutting back in the direction Dex had indicated. The bicopter had kept a high elevation up until that point but as they started back towards it the drone lost altitude quickly, almost skipping back and forth through the air as it tried to keep its weapons trained on them. It only fired twice more, both shots going fairly wide.
“At least the fucker can’t shoot,” Dex said, sounding almost cheerful. “Want me to take a shot at it boss?”
“Sensor lock, Dex,” Lang snapped.
The bicopter swooped down closer still, juking back and forth across the street in sudden, insectoid bursts of movement as its guns tracked the van, short laser bursts chewing up the pavement every half second or so as it got more aggressive.
“Calculating firing solution,” Priss said, hunkering down over her sensor equipment, wrapping the wires that connected it to the van around her forearm to keep it from going too far if her grip slipped.
“Think a carbine will have any effect?” Dexter had already pushed the side door open and leaned out, his harness creaking against the anchors points.
“I’ll get it, sit tight,” Priss muttered.
“Better to save the heavy stuff,” Dex yelled over the wind, his short barreled energy weapon tracking the bicopter back and forth.
“Keep going for a solution but let him have his fun.” Lang whipped the van onto an overgrown on ramp fast enough that the undercarriage popped loudly in protest.
The bicopter skidded to one side and dropped altitude, spinning on its axis to bring the van under its guns once again, chewing through rusted guard rails and scattering hot metal debris in front of them and forcing Lang to curse and skid the van in a snaking pattern, brakes screeching, around the largest pieces. Despite his best efforts something skipped up and through the open door, smashing against the other side of the van to a chorus of screams and yells.
“Everything okay?” Lang asked, only half listening for an answer.
“Fine,” Dex bit out.
“Shit, Lang, call your guys and tell them to back off.” Sean sounded more pissed than scared, so Lang figured he was fine too.
The bottom of the ramp came up and merged into a long stretch of road with no noticeable cover save an overpass a few dozen feet from the ramp. There were buildings across the road that would serve better but a low concrete ridge divided the road. Lang bared his teeth and floored the accelerator. “Lean in and brace yourself, Dex!”
There was a scrabble and a clunk from the back and Lang grabbed the lever by his seat and yanked it up, firing the maneuvering thrusters they’d scrounged off the pod. They’d calculated the drop pod was six times the mass of the van. It gave them a lot of thrust to work with. The amount of thrust was supposed to be proportional to how hard he was accelerating, but Dex had repeatedly stressed that if he was hitting the gas too hard there was a chance the van would jump.
“Hold together, now,” Lang whispered, then floored the accelerator.
Although someone who specialized in guns, not thrusters, Dex proved to be correct. Putting thrusters on the van was, indeed, enough to make it jump like a jackrabbit.
The vehicle soared up and over the barrier. It was like a drunkard trying to fly a warehouse with a rocket on one end through the Galileo lunar maze. But it worked. The van crashed to the ground on the other side of the road, groaning as it slid along the pavement and shooting sparks from the underbody, the frame protesting loudly. Lang snapped the wheel hard to the left and brought the van ninety degrees around into the furthest traffic lane just before it jumped the curb and went into the building beyond. The side door rolled forward and slammed in Dex’s face as he tried to lean back out. Behind them the bicopter swung around to reacquire its target, the pilot having anticipated they would follow normal traffic patterns and gone in the opposite direction.
“What did you do to the emergency brake?!” Sean demanded.
“Emergency brake?” Lang snorted. “I told you it was an emergency system!”
“Firing solut-” Priss was cut off as Lang snapped the van around another corner into a side street, breaking her sensor contact.
“It’s done more good as thruster control than a break,” Dex said, wrenching the door back open and drawing a bead on the corner of the building, firing charged plasma at the bicopter as it came around the corner at them. “Besides. Don’t all pilots think emergency go is better than emergency stop?”
The side road was only wide enough for two vehicles at a time and the buildings to either side loomed very close to the street, forcing the bicopter to either pull up above the taller, nine story building for room or fly with very little margin for error. The pilot chose to do the later and Dex’s plasma bursts walked slowly forward from a glancing hit by the tail to the main body of the craft. There wasn’t much effect.
“Firing solution achieved,” Priss said, bailing out of her seat and grabbing a missile tube off the floor and holding it out to Dex. “Shoot the damn thing for real!”
Dex braced the tube across the length of the van, one end supported on his shoulder, the important end pointed up and out the door.
“Clear backblast!” Lang snapped. Priss grabbed the door on the other side of the van and yanked it open before diving into the back seat with the Terrans amid more incoherent yelling.
Dex watched it just long enough to see Priss get out of the way. “Backblast clear.”
“Brace yourselves back there!” The distressed sounds from the back seat faded but Lang was ignoring them already. “Fire tube one.”
The counterweight in the launcher shot out one side of the van, bouncing off the pavement and through the window of an empty office building while the missile shot up and fishtailed to acquire its target, buffeting the rear of the van with its exhaust and rocking it violently. There was a tense moment while the spacers wondered if the bicopter pilot would have the reflexes and technological assistance to target and shoot down the missile before it hit them – then there was a loud boom and a flaming hunk of metal smashed to the ground and skidded to a stop a short way behind them.
Almost as soon as it registered the wrecked bicopter was fading into the distance as the van sprinted down the empty city streets. Lang took his foot off the accelerator and let some speed bleed away. “Priss, contacts?”
She hauled herself up and into her seat again, dodging Dex as he closed up the doors on either side of the van. “Nothing on sensors now.”
Lang let the van coast to a stop as he thought for a moment. “Keep a weather eye on it, Priss.” He did a loop around a block and took them back towards the downed bicopter. “This is enemy territory. Dex, let’s you and me steal some shit. For intelligence gathering purposes.”