Confidence Under Fire

"CHEESE IT YOU FOOLS! Run For Your Lives!!!" Doc shouts into the megaphone.

The Time Operatives run. The crowd runs with them.

Gunfire claps and reverberates off the buildings around them and echoes down the halls of this hollow asteroid. Explosions from the APC's mortars deafen everyone. Windows break. People scream. Blood curdles

Everyone runs. The APCs follow.

Doc flashes back briefly to his time in the middle east. Fragments of an exploded mortar zing past his ear into the skull of a young man in front of him. His camo is a Hawaiian shirt.

The few members of the crowd with stolen guns do a rather excellent job of hitting their targets. Their targets, however, are thickly armored and bullets bounce madly off their hulls, pwinging and zinging everywhere.

There are a few lucky shots, however. A bullet or two find their way down the mortar muzzle on one of the tanks just as it is being armed. The mortar detonates within the turret, blowing a gaping hole in the top of the APC. The resulting fire sets off the remaining munitions, blasting the tank into shreds and taking out all the soldiers within it.

The crowd cheers. The other tank takes the opportunity to blow away almost a dozen people with one shot of it's mortar. The crowd continues to run.

All the crowd's gunfire is concentrated on the other tank. It holds up remarkably well. It continues to rip two or three people in half at a time with it's .50 calibur machine guns and turning half a dozen at a time into gibblets with it's mortar.

It takes only a bit more than a minute to run the two blocks, but it seems like a lifetime to everyone involved. The FastTrack station is inside a building forged from the iron of the asteroid they are within. The glass doors of the building open into a turnstyle-gated hallway which gives a merciful sanctuary for the people running from the tank. It can't fire much past the door, but it doesn't mean it won't try anyway.

They're only about a hundred feet away. Doc is feeling out of shape as he pushes it this last stretch with the last of his strength. Steve begins to breath too hard and slows down to catch his breath. The rest of the crowd pours into the station under heavy fire. Steve is caught out in it.

The machine gun still fires and the mortars still fly.

"Come on, Steve!" Doc yells.

"I--can't--run--any--more," he pants, completely out of breath and looking like he's on the verge of a heart attack. The rest of the crowd passes him up, at least those who are not cut down by gunfire.

As the crowd disappears beyond the shattered glass door of the FastTrack building and around the wall into the terminal, the APC stops its approach. The rear hatch flies open and a crew of six pirate soldiers hops out, weapons ready, under the cover of the continuing machine gun fire from their APC's turret.

Run For Your Liiiiiiife

Doc thinks the situation over. "Let's head straight for the command center and hope for the best. How long do you need to hack the fast track?"

"I'm already working on it. Should be ready when we get there."

Doc sneaks up to the glass door and looks outside. He can't see very well down the street towards the station, but there's nothing on his thermal sensors between him and their target, as far as he can see. A hover cart full of troops zips by every other minute or so. Two armed APCs are moving slowly in opposite directions, converging on a point between themselves and the FastTrack station

The crowd is getting antsy and beginning to press against him. The doors are locked. Doc tries to get them to wait a bit longer.

It doesn't take long for someone to throw a chair through the glass door. The crowd begins to flood outside, dispersing in many wrong directions.

"Forward! Towards the Command Center! This way!" Doc shouts into the megaphone.

The Time Operatives rush towards the train station. The crowd swarms around them, the few with guns firing wildly at the APCs. Only a couple of bullets find a target, barely dinging the thick composite hull.

The APCs respond quickly, returning fire into the crowd. One fires its machine gun, dropping a couple people immediately. The other launches mortars. The explosion tears almost a half dozen people to shreds.

The relative cover of the train station is another 1200 feet away.

Strategery Time

Even though Doc orders them tied up, the surrendering pirates are hauled off by the crowd and beaten senseless, their weapons taken and their armor ripped to shreds.

The Time Operatives lead this unruly mob down the utility shaft towards the engineering section. The hatch is clearly labeled and is already open. The vertical shaft receives a horizontal branch at this point, which leads towards the central artery of hot plasma lines between the two reactors.

Outside the hatch, they find themselves in the administration offices of the atmospheric processing center. The place is dark, lit only by blue emergency floods and the blinking orange of the security alarms. The building is empty, save for the angry mob flooding into its halls.

The door is easy to find, but beyond the glass is a sight Doc had hoped not to see. The arterial streets of the engineering center are busy with security personnel racing towards their emergency assignments in hover-carts. The place is like a hive of gun-wielding bees. Larger armored vehicles with machine gun turrets and mortars lumber through the swarm, either on patrol or moving into tactical positions.

There's no sign of any other rioters.

Doc attempts to hold the mob back in the shadows of the empty building, but they are getting difficult to control. They will almost assuredly be mown down by machine guns if he allows them to simply flood the streets. The entrance to the Command Center is nearly a mile down the road.

"Veronica," Doc calls. "Is there any way to reach the Command Center without using the main road on the Engineering Deck?"

"Besides the trains and elevators with which you could be ejected into space?" She responds over the com. "No. For precisely this security reason."

"The roads are completely filled with guards and tanks. What are our options?"

"Not much in the way of direct confrontation. You'll have to have a distraction, or press through by shear numbers."

Doc looks behind him. There's a lot of people here, but this meat shield is not big enough to run a mile through machine guns and mortars.

"Doc," Steve chimes in. "I've been analyzing the ships systems, and I think I might be able to hack the FastTrack. There's a station two blocks up. It's a big risk, but if I can maintain control over it, we won't be ejected into space."

"How big a risk?"

"Frankly, I'm better than anybody on this ship, but there's a lot of people working against me. Call it 50/50."

"Are there any other options?"

"We can crawl back through the utility condiuts and see what kind of trouble we can make in the reactor cores. Not sure what we can accomplish, though. With enough time and equipment I could make some antimatter bombs from the secondary core. But one bomb would take an hour at least if all the supplies and equipment are lined up in front of me when we get there."

"How big a bomb?"

"Just a milligram of the stuff is enough to level a skyscraper. I'll have to do some more calculations, but one or two placed strategically in the command center would be enough to severely cripple the ship. If we can knock out Spaaz's and his command structure, we might be able to convince the rest of the pirates to give up and turn over control of the ship to us."

"And if we accidentally detonate it in the reactor area, we could sterilize the Earth."

"And Alpha Centuari. Well, half of each. But yes."

Tight Corners

"Heads up people! We've got company!" Doc calls to his team. "Don't shoot in here unless we have to. I don't want to be blown up."

The HUD sunglasses analyze the threat. All four carry assault rifles similar in design to the slug throwers, which they also carry as side arms, as well as combat knives. They're also well armored. Their helmets make a perfect seal with their ceramic plated body armor, and they carry backpacks which are obviously housing oxygen tanks. They move surprisingly fast in these space suits.

These must be the elite units Veronica warned us about. Doc thinks.

The elite units move swiftly up the stairs. They stop just behind the column from them. They are out of direct line of sight, but Doc can see their thermal outlines through the haze and interference from the steam and plasma lines within the utility conduit they hide behind.

Doc focuses in further. His HUD glasses respond, zooming in and improving the resolution on the face of the squad leader. He's a hard man, out doing his job. He's sweaty and tired from running up the stairs in this space suit. He hasn't had much practice lately, probably spent too much time drinking and cavorting in the casinos upstairs.

Doc lifts the megaphone to hip lips. "You there! Surrender your arms and you won't be harmed! Fight, and you will be destroyed! Come out with your hands up!"

The squad captain's eyes change, as if this was a viable option he hadn't considered before. He stops to consider his situation. He's carrying an assault rifle which he plans to use in a confined and highly volatile space. His opponents are fielding some kind of unknown super-weapons, and he has the low ground. And if they somehow survive the initial confrontation, there's a hundred people above them ready to swarm down onto them.

"Alright!" He un-slings his gun and puts his hands on his head. "We surrender!"

His squad-mates look at each other in confusion, but cannot disobey their captain. They follow suit.

Mark and Thunderhorse look back at Doc, amazed that this actually worked.

Heading Down

"Let's make a break for Engineering and see if we can put a spanner in the works from there," says Doc.

He calls up an area map on his HUD sunglasses, one provided to him by Veronica. It shows maintenance pathways that are not on the public maps. Down an alley off the main road, behind the storefronts in the residential section of the deck, there's a maintenance portal that leads to a vertical shaft with stairs spiraling around a two-meter utility conduit.

"This way," he leads. The Time Operatives follow.

The riot is in full swing with nearly a quarter of the millions of passengers involved. There's no hope of Spaaz recovering order on this ship, even if he could turn the PA system back on without Dr. Ritenrong hacking into it again.

Rioters run this way and that through the residential section. No one is sure quite where to go, but all seem to be finding their way towards the front of the ship. Here and there, groups engage the security forces and overwhelm them with shear numbers. The blasts and ricochets of slog throwers echo down the endless hallways

At last they reach the maintenance hatch and open it up. Inside lies the immense spiral staircase. The utility conduit blocks the view across the small room, but the stairs themselves are corrugated metal. One can see down nearly twenty turns around the shaft before the overlapping grids obscure the view. There's no one in here. The only sound besides the clanging metal as they step onto the small landing is the sound of the sharp breeze blowing up the shaft.

Thunderhorse takes point, with Mark right behind him, followed by Doc, then Steve. They head cautiously down the stairs, leaving the hatch open at the top. The rioters leak in behind them. The trip down becomes ever more noisy, as their footsteps clang down the stairs, and more and more join above them. The voices of the rioters echo throughout the chamber, reverberating chaotically down the tube.

Doc keeps his sunglasses tuned to thermal imaging. Steam and plasma lines inside the utility conduit interfere, keeping half the shaft obscured at all times. But he keeps looking down in hopes of catching sight of anything comming up at them.

Steve pipes up. "Don't shoot the conduit. It could rupture the plasma, steam, or methane lines, or sever the high voltage lines. We don't want a high voltage power line in contact with these stairs. We don't want methane gas in a firefight. We don't want to be steam cooked or disintegrated by ionized gas as hot as the sun. Let's hope like hell they don't notice us up here and decide to blow a hole in it."

Doc acknowledges this. He makes careful note of every landing and hatch that they pass. There's one every ten stories or so.

And then his worst fears are confirmed, at least his currenty worst fears; or perhaps his priority worries. Four thermal color splotches race around the stairs below them, disappearing behind the bright violet line of heat from the utility conduit, and reappearing on the other side, slightly larger than before.