For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
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The small group worked their way through the deserted Level Eleven. In stark contrast to the level above, this level had no visible sign of attack or debris. It also had no further weapons that they could find. Even the evacuation alert was silent now.
"How are you doing?" asked Jordan as she helped Red walk through the quiet hallway.
"The bleeding's stopped," he said, examining his side. "Do you think everyone made it off from this level?"
Jordan looked around. "Seems so, yes. Do you know what's going on?"
"Not much more than you. It looks like a full-fledged attack. Vtaryns if you ask me," said Red.
Malory joined them. "Did you see any Vtaryns?"
"No, but who else would attack a base station this far into Alliance space?" he asked.
They reached the stairwell on the far side of the common rooms after a successful foray into a small arms cache. They each picked out a laser strafer and shock grenades. Carson and Petros scouted ahead on the stairs as the remainder waited for their report. Dray kept her eye on Malory Grace, not trusting why the junior pilot had joined their group. Malory sat on her own, unusually quiet, while Jenny stayed with Dray, Jordan, and Red. Dray tensed at the sound of boots stomping down the stairs above them. She remained alert when she saw only Petros coming down the stairs.
"We found Ngollo," he said, out of breath as he reached their level. "She's with a group of junior cadets, holding position outside the evac area."
Red stood up with the help of Jenny and Dray. "How many enemy combatants are there?"
Petros shrugged. "No idea."
They worked their way up the staircase to Level Thirteen. They had to scramble over debris from numerous explosions blocking their path.
"Where to?" asked Malory, leading the group.
"To the left. She's in the control room. Announce yourself first. They're a little trigger-happy right now," said Petros.
Malory followed Petros' directions, shouting her name and rank as she neared the hallway leading to the launch bay control room. Two juniors came out of hiding to give the all clear signal, letting the group proceed behind their makeshift barricade.
Red squatted down beside the juniors. "Malory, I'll stay here while you go talk to Ngollo."
"Alright" said Malory, her usual arrogance completely absent.
The rest of the group split up along the barricade for extra protection while Dray followed Malory into the control room. Not that she didn't trust the junior pilot, but Malory's earlier bravery didn't make up for cycles of mistreating Dray's friend. Dray wanted to be sure of an accurate account of Ngollo's orders.
Ngollo stood over the holo-screens, the glow of their displays reflecting off her dark skin. Covered in dust and spots of dried blood, the instructor looked far worse than most of their own group, except for Red.
Ngollo turned to them as they entered. "How many in your party?"
"Eight, Ma'am. One wounded," Malory reported.
"Who and how badly?"
"Red Barron, Ma'am. A projectile wound on his side. The bleeding has stopped," said Malory.
Ngollo turned back to the holo-screens. "What are the ranks in your party?"
Malory thought a moment. "Four seniors, three cadets and one junior pilot."
Ngollo swore under her breath. "I've got fifteen juniors here." She looked back up. "That means you're second in command J. P. Grace. You better be up to it."
Dray watched the color drain from Malory's pale face. It hadn't occurred to Dray that rank would play a role in their escape, but of course, this was a military site and a military emergency. Dray regretted forcing herself into this meeting with Ngollo. Only one step above a junior cadet herself, she felt out of place and out of line.
Dray felt Ngollo's stare as the instructor's attention turned to her. "Draybeck. Can I assume Bowers is here as well?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Dray felt a trickle of sweat slip down her brow.
"Good. We need all the pilots we can get. Come here, both of you."
Dray and Malory joined Ngollo at the holo-screens. To Dray's dismay, three of the four screens showed scenes of destruction. Twisted metal and melted plasteen jutted out from billowing clouds of smoke and fire. Dray turned to the fourth screen. It took a while for her to make out the dark images displayed there. When she did realize what she saw, she turned away in disgust.
"It gets worse," said Ngollo. "That was a group of veterans trying to break through the blockade so our group of juniors could evacuate. The enemy had the corridor mined."
Dray closed her eyes, forcing the bile back down. "Is it Vtaryns, Ma'am?"
Dray opened her eyes again, shocked. The Alliance had no other enemies in this quadrant of space.
"They're humans," said Ngollo, her voice tinged with disgust. "Ever hear of the Universalists?"
Dray and Malory nodded.
"Well they've started a new kind of offensive to protest our war with the Vtaryns." Ngollo turned back to the holo-screen. "I can't tell how many there are left in this area."
"Ma'am?" Dray interrupted.
"Did the others, did anyone evac from this area?"
Ngollo looked down. "Not that I've seen, Draybeck. They've cut off external communications and vid-screens. We can't see how many evac ships made it off the station."
Ngollo punched up a different holo-screen. This one displayed a map of their region of the base station. "You remember our class was going on an excursion on the Cigna-major transport?"
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dray.
"That's where we are heading. It's geared up in one of the training launch bays. I'm hoping the Universalists didn't think to take over those areas."
Ngollo straightened up, wincing from a wound on her shoulder. "Are you all armed?"
"Strafers and shock grenades," said Malory.
"No stun launchers?"
Ngollo shrugged. "It'll do. Let's move out."
With Ngollo leading their combined group, they worked their way down six levels without incident. Red had regained most of his mobility and took up position as rear guard with Dray and Jordan. Ngollo kept Malory at her side in the front, feeding her instructions along the route. Dray felt sorry for most of the junior cadets, some of whom were not even adults yet. They met no one else on their circuitous route through the station. By the time they reached the final level, the group had regained some semblance of calm, though Ngollo kept strict military order in the group.
It came as a shock when shots rang out in the front of their group. Some of the juniors panicked, trying to run back down the hallway. Dray and Jordan pulled them behind storage bins for cover. The rest of the group managed to hide as well, while Red made his way silently up the corridor to see what happened. Half way along, Malory stepped into the corridor, giving the all clear signal. Her face was ashen and blood streaked her uniform. Dray and the rest trotted forward, catching up with Red as they joined Malory.
As the group parted, Jenny was huddled over a body on the ground. Red leaned over her, then fell to his knees. Dray pushed her way through and stood over the still form of Instructor Ngollo. By the size of the hole in her chest, there was no doubt that the older woman's death had been mercifully quick.
Red clenched his fists and let out a roar that could only compare to that of a Terran lion. His face clouded a deep red. "How?" he asked, staring at Malory, who backed up a step.
"We didn't see him," she explained. "He fired one shot." She pointed beyond their group. Dray turned and saw for the first time that Carson and Venkata held a straggly, bearded man in gray fatigues, bleeding from a laser wound in his leg.
Red growled, then charged the prisoner, raking the man's chest with his claws before Venkata could pull him off.
"Leave him," she said. "It won't bring Ngollo back."
"Why?" said Red, panting. "The filth deserves to die!"
"We need him," said Malory, stepping away from Ngollo's body to put a hand on Red's shoulder. "If he's down here, there could be more. Or they could have mined the training launch bay as well."
Red pulled away from them and leaned against a nearby wall. Jordan, kneeling by Ngollo's body, did the unpleasant task of stripping the instructor of her weapons and grenades, as well as her com-link. She unclipped one of Ngollo's ID tags and stuffed it in her pocket.
"Why?" asked Dray in a whisper.
"Just incase these sick bastards incinerate this station." Jordan looked at Dray with tears forming in her eyes. "I want to give something to her family, to remember her."
Dray brushed her hand along Jordan's cheek, drying her tears. She prayed they would all get out of this alive.
"We need to keep going," said Jenny, turning to Malory.
Malory pushed her blond hair back, fear and uncertainty shown in her blue eyes. "Yes, you're right." She clutched her weapon to her chest and looked back to Ngollo one last time. "She wanted us to try the Cigna-major. The launch bay is just around this corner."
She turned back to their prisoner and leveled her weapon at his temple. "Is it mined?"
His pale gray eyes widened, but he said nothing. Malory frowned, and then lowered her weapon. "Red? I need your assistance here."
Red pushed off the wall and walked to her side. The prisoner shrank back in fear.
"I'm not afraid to die," said the prisoner, his voice shaking.
Malory grimaced. "Have you ever met a Tarquin before?"
The prisoner shook his head.
"Did you know they used to hunt each other? Cannibals is what we'd call it on Earth."
The prisoner's hands shook.
"You have a choice," said Malory. "You can cooperate, or you can become lunch for my friend here. Tarquin males have excellent canines for gnawing the flesh off bones."
Red stepped forward, baring his white teeth.
"No," said the prisoner, holding his arm over his face. "No mines."
"And anyone else?"
"No. I'm not even supposed to be down here. I just "
Malory sneered at him. "You deserted."
The man nodded.
"What's your name, deserter?"
He kept silent.
"Fine with me, we'll just call you Deserter." She turned away and marched back to the group with Red.
"We keep with Ngollo's plan," said Red, taking his position in the rear again.
Malory pushed the prisoner in front of her. "Lead the way, Deserter."
"Franklin," he said. "My name's Franklin."
"Just lead," said Malory, pushing him along. "If your friends did put mines down here, you'll be the first to pop."
In single file, they followed Franklin and Malory down the final corridor and into the open training bay.
Cautiously, they made their way to the Cigna-major transport ship marked for the 28th squadron's training mission. Jenny and Carson scanned the interior of the ship while the rest remained on guard outside. Dray waited impatiently with the juniors. She hated their position, in the open with nothing between them and any attackers entering the area. At least they hadn't felt any more explosions rattling the station lately.
"Clear," said Jenny, poking her head out of the access ramp. "And it's got full provisions."
Carson's voice echoed down the rampart, "But no weapons."
"Hopefully, we won't need any," said Malory. "Let's go."
The group trotted up the ramp and into the transport ship. Five times larger than the normal Cygna class ship, the Cygna-major had ample room to hold their small group. Dray trotted up the ramp with Red following behind her. He seemed to keep as far from the prisoner as possible, and Dray didn't blame him. She'd never seen Red lose his composure before, and it was a frightening sight.
By the time Dray boarded the ship, the rest of the group had buckled in along the front side seats. Jenny and Malory sat in the dual pilots seat, leaving the main pilot seat open for Red. The prisoner was restrained in the far seats, with two guards at his side. Red walked to the front and leaned over Malory. Dray couldn't hear their quiet conversation, but Malory unbuckled and moved to the main pilot seat, letting Red take her place in the co-pilot chair.
Malory swiveled her chair to face the group behind her. "Ngollo said we should fly clear of the station, but stay within Zenon's perimeter until the rescue team arrives. There will be a good twenty evac ships out there with us, so we'll be in good company."
She turned back to the front and locked her chair in the forward position. "Prepare for launch."
Dray watched the long rampart fold up under the ship and the access doors seal shut. She felt the engines rumbled beneath her boots as Jenny and Red worked their way through launch preparations. Jordan slid her hand under Dray's as she leaned over and kissed Dray's cheek.
"This nightmare's almost over," she whispered.
Dray trailed her fingers through Jordan's dusty black hair. "Thank God," she said. She leaned in and sighed as her lips pressed against Jordan's.
"Clear to launch," said Red.
"Take us out of here," said Malory, staring out the ship's view port at the black expanse of space beyond the launch bay.
The transport rose and hovered over the launch bay a moment, and then moved toward the black open space. Dray let her eyes drift shut, relaxing into the smooth acceleration of the transport.
To be continued in part 6.
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