Panic Button

Panic Button

A short story by Samantha Maguire

 

I

Captain Kate Sharpe stared down at the impressive array of illegal weapons spread out on top of the dirty bedcover inside of a room that smelled of desperation, gun oil, and rat piss.

“That’s a really nice gun.”

The vendor looked up from pretending to clean his nails and followed Sharpe’s line of sight with a grunt and a nod. “She’s the best I got.” He picked up the shotgun and checked the empty chamber before handing it to her.

Solid. Heavy. Three hundred years old if it was a day. Sharpe ran her fingers along the polished steel barrel and a chill tickled down her spine. Love at first sight. Anyone who didn’t believe in soulmates had never met a weapon like that. Crafted in an old-fashioned, bulky style, it was heat built for one purpose: to dominate.

Sharpe pressed the butt into her shoulder and stared down the sights along the barrel, a redundant and technically unnecessary feature—it was hard to miss with a shotgun like this; just aim it in a general direction and squeeze the trigger—but one that made Sharpe’s heart beat all the faster. Before her, a dingy wall with cracking paint and a frosted window came into focus. Sharpe took a breath and inhaled the tangy metallic scent of cold steel. Her finger instinctively bent to caress the trigger. One shell and she could melt that wall and all its dirty secrets with it. She needed this gun. More than she could remember needing anything ever, she needed this gun.

“How much for this one?” Lisa Runner’s voice didn’t break the spell, but when Sharpe glanced over her shoulder to see that her chief mate held up a tiny, practical, five-year-old pistol, she lowered the barrel.

“Oh, Runner, what the hell?”

The vendor reached around his broad girth to scratch at a dirty elbow. “Part with her for two-hundred credits.”

Runner turned the weapon over in her hand, frowning. She passed it from one hand to another with exaggerated movements, as though the gun was light and cheap, which of course it was. “Not a lot of scrap for two hundred, Bern.”

The man shrugged. “Best I can do, sweetie.”

Runner tossed the gun back onto the bed, where it clattered on top of another polyalloy shooter with an unimpressive clink. “Nothing here, then,” she said to Sharpe.

“I disagree.” Sharpe’s fingers wrapped tighter around the body of the shotgun in her hands.

Runner rolled her eyes. “Come on, boss. We have an appointment to keep.”

Sharpe gripped tighter still, even as the vendor moved toward her with his hand extended. “I could use this.”

“Seriously? You can’t even get that out of here and back to the ship. We have nothing to hide it in. It won’t fit down your pants.”

Sharpe glanced down at her left leg. Not her favorite leg. Did she need it as badly as she needed that shotgun? Hard to say.

Runner didn’t wait for Sharpe to come to her senses and she made for the door. The vendor had just enough time to wrench the shotgun from Sharpe’s stubborn hands and toss a blanket over the private arsenal before Runner hit the button on the wall with the side of her fist and the door flew up, exposing the room to the dark motel hallway.

Sharpe frowned at the lump under the blanket where her beloved lay, so close and so far away, before jogging to catch up with her chief mate.

“We couldn’t afford it, anyway,” Runner said.

“That’s what bartering is for,” said Sharpe.

“Yeah? And what have you got to barter with?”

“My winning personality.”

Runner let out a loud belly laugh that caught the attention of a hooker and her nervous date who was fighting with the lock of a door. First timer, figured Sharpe.

“That and a hundred-thousand credits will buy you the firepower of your dreams,” said Runner.

“A girl has needs, Lisa.”

A light popped and sputtered above them. Only half of the overhead lights in the hallway worked, and most of those flickered intermittently, giving the hallway a kind of alley-like gloom. But the heavy, almost overpowering, earthy scent of mildew that hung in the air and the glimpses of dark mold slowly crawling out of the shadows into warped Rorschach blots were enough to discourage patrons from asking for more illumination. No one wanted to see what those surfaces really looked like.

The John was still fighting with the lock as the two women passed. He glanced up after every attempt, no doubt embarrassed of his defeat at the hands of a motel door. The hooker knew the routine, though, and she kept her eyes unfocused ahead of her. Sharpe caught a whiff of cologne as they passed the pair. She spotted his clean hair, cheap but unwrinkled clothes, and trimmed fingernails. Dolled up for a hired date? Definitely a first timer.

“Looks like they’re really trying to class up the joint,” Sharpe whispered.

Runner smirked. “Not like it could get much worse. I mean, really, the only way you go from here is up.”

A door to their left rose and the mechanism in need of oil or maybe beyond oil and in need of a scrapyard squealed and screamed in complaint. Sharpe felt her teeth vibrate from the noise and she winced. An uncomfortable buzzing shock rose up through her feet in a way that felt so real that she couldn’t be certain the circuitry beneath their feet hadn’t misfired and electrocuted her.

Sharpe massaged her jaw as she and Runner stepped out of the way of a maid exiting the room with her telltale cart. The women exchanged surprised glances and watched as the cleaner walked down in the direction they had just come from.

“A maid?” asked Sharpe. “Here? They have maids here?”

Runner stood next to her and shook her head, staring back. “I mean, you figured the sheets got changed sometime, right?”

“I thought they just had semi-regular incinerations. You know, like after a body’s gone ripe and there’s no amount of chlorine that will bring that fabric back from…” Sharpe’s voice trailed as she watched the maid pass the next room. She felt Runner tense beside her.

The air hung heavy with the bitter, unmistakable sensation familiar to any mercenary.

Something was wrong.

“Nice boots,” whispered Runner. Sharpe glanced down at the woman’s shoes. Runner wasn’t lying, they were nice boots. Too nice for a maid, and hardly practical footwear for someone to be cleaning in all day. She glanced back at the now-silent John, who’d given up his sad fight with the door lock to stare at her and Runner. Beads of sweat on his forehead caught the weak fluorescent lighting from above.

The scene came together in Sharpe’s mind and she felt a rush as instinct took over.

“Run,” she said, even before she’d moved. Runner didn’t need much convincing, and as she turned to launch down the hallway toward the airlift, the maid reached the arms dealer’s door and held up her keycard. Sharpe heard the door whoosh as it opened and it wasn’t until the maid drew a gun from out of her cart and pointed it into the room that Sharpe’s own body kicked in and she spun and raced to join her chief mate, already three steps ahead.

“Stop!” called a masculine voice from behind. “Allied Authority, stop where you are!”

So he wasn’t a John, after all. The cop was quick and Sharpe could hear him on her heels, but she was quicker, and she kept just out of his grasp.

Sharpe could hear the maid’s voice down the hallway. “Get down on the ground! Down on the ground, now!” and it spurred her faster. She was gaining distance on the John, and as she and Runner rounded the hallway toward the airlift, she thought that they might just get lucky enough to get a lead wide enough that they could get into the lift.

There was more yelling from behind, but Sharpe was running on adrenaline and instinct. The only sound her brain bothered to process was her own heartbeat thundering in her ears.

The cheap motel was a favorite of the underworld dealings because, among other conveniences, it had no lockdown procedures. If Sharpe and Runner could get safely into the lift, then the cops would have no way of shutting it down and trapping them. Local authorities routinely closed the place down for the code violation, but they were always forced to reopen once they realized that the dirty deals had to take place somewhere, and this shithole wasn’t in their constituents’ backyards.

A door opened on the right and a shirtless man too drunk or too stupid to stay inside his room while the obvious—and no doubt familiar—sounds of a bust rang out in the hallway stumbled in front of Sharpe. He smelled of stale beer and week-old sweat. Sharpe grabbed his bare arm and, using her own momentum, spun him behind her. She heard the satisfying crash of two bodies as the undercover chasing her smacked into the foul obstacle. The young cop let out a frustrated shout, and Sharpe’s lips curled into a smirk as she heard him stumble and bounce off the walls behind her like a pinball.

Taking advantage of her lead, she reached into her pocket and pressed the panic button carefully tucked inside. Her stomach fluttered as the button depressed. She’d never had to hit it before. Shaking local cops wouldn’t be a fire-the-alarm situation, but that undercover had invoked the Allied Authority. A fresh pump of adrenaline pushed her feet to move faster.

One more corner and she could see the doors of the lift, its half-illuminated lights glowing like a beacon of safety and hope.

The doors opened.

God above had looked down and taken pity on the women.

Two men stepped out. The first had an average frame with a solid, planted look to him. The second was taller and broader and wore a hat down low over his head with a scar running on his upper cheekbone which peeked out below the rim.

Runner didn’t even try to dodge them. She looked ready to trust that they would move out of her way, but the second man held up an arm and clotheslined her neck, and she fell backward. Sharpe came to a stuttering, sliding stop in front of the first man, who held up a badge with a bored expression on his face.

Gold illumination spun around a blue leaf of some kind, though from the distance, Sharpe couldn’t make out the shifting lettering on the badge. A cop, but a local one. Not Allied Authority.

Sharpe leaned forward with her hands on her knees, panting so hard that her nose tingled. Runner coughed from the floor and rolled over to push herself up to her knees. Sharpe wondered which was worse: getting knocked in the neck while running at full tilt or having to land on that hard, filthy, infested floor. She saw a lone insect skitter away in the shadowed crevice near the wall as though in answer.

“Alright, let’s go,” said the man as he pocketed the badge inside of his plainclothes jacket. “Hands up.”

Still breathing heavily, Sharpe straightened and held her hands out. She knew the routine. The fake John thundered down the hallway behind her just as the cop who’d knocked back Runner helped the woman to her feet and extended the chief mate’s arms.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Sharpe protested.

The detective ignored her and patted his hands over her curves to check for weapons. She half expected him to take advantage of his situation and to linger closer and longer than necessary, but he stepped back before he’d crossed the line into groping. Sharpe breathed a sigh of relief. Local courts carried a hefty two-year sentence for assaulting their officers, and Sharpe didn’t have that kind of time to waste.

“On your knees,” he said. “Hands behind your head.”

Sharpe rolled her eyes, but she obeyed.

“They were both there, Detective Jackson,” said the undercover between wheezing breaths. He leaned against the wall and rested his sweating head against the chipping plaster. His face was bright red and there was a white line around his lips from overexertion. In contrast to the chiseled features of the man now processing Sharpe’s right thumbprint with his pocket scanner, the John had a delicate, boyish face. He couldn’t have been older than twenty. As he reached up to wipe dripping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, he moved with an almost adolescent awkwardness, as though he still wasn’t quite sure what to do with his limbs.

“Hey detective,” said Sharpe, “maybe you wanna tell Officer Johnny Greenhorn over there not to lean on that wall. He’s probably caught something by now.”

The younger cop all but leaped away from the plaster and spun, trying to look at his back as though she’d told him he had a spider on his shoulder.

“They came out of the suspect’s room?” Detective Jackson asked while staring down at his beeping scanner. Sharpe knew that her record was currently clean, but she still felt her breath catch while it processed until the screen lit up with a green border. It was a reflexive fear developed over a year and a half of near-constant law breaking. “No local warrants,” said the cop, nodding without smiling at Sharpe.

“Yeah,” said the young undercover, a pinker shade of red than before. “Both of them. Trying to make a deal.”

“News to me,” said Sharpe with a lazy shrug when the cop turned back to her with a questioning expression.

“But I saw—”

“Prove it.”

The detective looked from Sharpe to the bright red John to his scarred partner. The broad-shouldered silent partner who had been busy scanning and searching Runner handed something to Jackson. It took a moment for Sharpe’s mind to wrap itself around what she was seeing. It was the gun. The plastic, toy-looking joke that she had seen Runner toss back onto the bed just before walking out.

Sharpe’s jaw dropped. She had seen the chief mate toss it down, recalled the sound as it clattered on top of other weapons. She looked at Runner, who shrugged. The woman was a goddamn magician.

“How did you…” Sharpe began.

“Anything to say now?” asked the detective, whose bored expression had morphed into a look of smug satisfaction. The corners of his mouth turned up in a way that gave Sharpe the impression that smiling was a normally foreign concept to those features.

“It’s not mine?” Runner replied.

Sharpe didn’t resist as the cop secured two restraining bracelets around each wrist and then pulled her arms back behind her. She winced in anticipation of the humming buzz as the magnets inside the bracelets engaged and the two snapped together hard enough to make her bones shake.

The first cop pulled a tablet from his pocket and tapped something into it.

“Do you want me to ride with you?” asked Johnny Greenhorn.

“No,” said the officer. “Report back to Agent Maker.”

Agent.

Allied Authority.

Shit.

II

Sharpe’s brain quickly added up all the myriad ways in which she and Runner were thoroughly screwed.

The detective peered down at her. Sharpe glared back. Her mood soured as the numbers in her head rose. In that moment, she hated the man. Hated the righteous expression on his solid face, his position of power and authority. He wouldn’t look so settled if she had that beautiful shotgun in her hands. She hated the filthy floor and the muck that she could feel seeping into and through the fabric of her trousers, settling into the pores of her skin and infecting her with plague, all while that smug asshole just stared down, so sure that he’d be the celebrated golden boy at his unit’s next staff meeting.

And where the hell was her ship?

Sharpe opened her mouth to say something slick, but her voice caught in her throat as a low rumble vibrated up through the floor and echoed off of the peeling walls. She exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Runner.

“Earthquake?” asked the previously silent partner.

Jackson shook his head, staring at the wall as though he could see through it. Another shake, this time longer and more pronounced. The door next to Sharpe rattled in its track and she shuffled a pace away from the unsteady steel.

And then a sound that Sharpe recognized, that pulled her back out of the reeking hallway in the cheap motel and thrust her into a battleship, back to a time when alarms echoed off of metallic walls and the thrill and terror of war were constant companions of her mind.

Cannons.

The ground rocked and plaster dust sprinkled down from above. Sharpe only half-felt the grit in her hair and on her forehead. Her eyes only half-saw the fear in the detective’s face as he stared at his detainees as though they’d planted the bombs themselves.

Part of her wanted to tell him to stuff his blame, that she and Runner were as much under fire as he was, but that part of her was silenced by the echoes of years-old orders ringing in her ears.

Again, instinct took over her body. But this time, it wasn’t the primal, adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight drive of a mercenary. It was the cold, meticulous actions that had been drilled into her through constant repetition by sergeants and then officers until they sank into her bones, until they were as natural as breathing. It was the instinct of a soldier.

Not enough information to make a solid call. She needed to know who was shooting at them, and from where.

“We need to get a visual,” she said. Her voice was almost cut off by another nearby cannon explosion. The young undercover crouched down onto his hands and knees, his face a pale picture of fear.

Jackson tapped his ear. “Agent Marks,” he said. A pause. “Agent Marks,” he repeated. “Can you read me?” He shook his head at his partner.

Another explosion, but this time farther away. The vibration from the blast could barely be felt through the floorboards.

“Get in one of those rooms,” said Sharpe, nodding to her left. “We can see out a window.”

The cops ignored her.

“We need cover,” said the young rookie, his voice barely above a whisper.

“We’re in cover,” responded Sharpe.

The rookie stared at her as though she’d spoken in a foreign language. Sharpe recognized the signs of panic. His mind had already begun to fray. His eyes were wide enough that Sharpe could see white around the whole of his pupils, and the corners of his mouth twitched reflexively. She hoped he would have the wherewithal to turn his head away before vomiting.

She looked up at Jackson. His jaw was clenched and his breathing had quickened, but his face was steady and he kept staring at the wall. The partner tapped at a datapad with trembling fingers, probably trying to get in touch with the Allied Authority waiting for them outside.

“Hey,” she said to Jackson, and she tried to keep her voice level and supportive. She needed him to hear her. “Hey,” she repeated, and he gave her a quick glance before turning back to the wall.

“Unless you got tech that lets you see through walls,” she said, working hard to keep the bite out of her voice, “you’re going to have to open one of those doors and see what we’re up against. We won’t know how to act until you do.”

He nodded, a quick, curt motion. His hands balled into fists. He was steeling himself, and he reminded Sharpe of a new recruit seeing action for the first time. He would have made a good soldier, probably. If she hadn’t been handcuffed, she’d have put a hand on his shoulder, offered him a supportive nod.

Then again, no she wouldn’t. If she hadn’t been handcuffed, she’d have opened the damn door herself, and she and Runner would have been halfway out of the shaking, unsteady building by now.

“Detective,” she said. “Jackson.” Another round outside, this time close enough to make the door shake in its track again.

The detective looked down at her.

“You need to move,” Sharpe told him.

He nodded. His jaw tensed further until bulges appeared beneath his ears and his nostrils flared. Just as Sharpe worried that she might have lost him, his hand reached mechanically into an interior pocket of his jacket and pulled out a master keycard. He waved the card in front of the reader panel on the wall and the door rattled and then swooshed open.

Even compared to the poorly-lit hallway, the room was dark.

A woman lay sprawled on the floor, half-clothed and unconscious or dead, next to a stripped mattress. The sheets from the bed had been tacked up over the window. Both detectives went to her, but Sharpe ignored the body and tried to squint past the sheet on the window, unable to make out any details through the fabric.

She could see large shapes flying and hovering in the sky, could see the red trails of the plasma fire racing toward the hovering shadows or the ground when the shots missed, saw one building to the left crumble and change the skyline.

The rookie cop must have walked into the room. Maybe it was the vague shadows of the firefight outside, or maybe it was the sight of the junkie on the floor, or maybe he could see well enough from the light streaming in from the hallway to make out stains on the mattress, but Sharpe heard him retching behind her.

“She needs an ambulance,” said Jackson. “Kid, don’t contaminate the room. Take it back to the hallway.”

Idiots, the lot of them.

A full-scale assault was taking place outside the window, close enough to see through a sheet, close enough to make the building shake. One misfire and they would all be distant memories in an uncaring universe, and they wanted to play detectives for some nameless junkie strung out on the floor of a motel.

Sharpe squinted harder through the sheet. She couldn’t see well enough to catch any details from the street level two stories below them.

“We’ve got to get these cuffs off,” muttered Runner in a low voice beside her.

“Any ideas?” asked Sharpe.

Runner shook her head.

Jackson stepped away from the woman on the floor. He pulled the sheet from the window and Sharpe had to squint against the fresh assault of bright light.

For a long moment, no one said anything. Sharpe stared at the scene before her in disbelief, her mind refusing to accept what her eyes saw.

“Well,” she said, “shit.”

III

Sharpe’s ship, the Hellbent, had engaged two Allied Authority ships in open-air combat. As far as Sharpe could tell, neither side had taken significant damage, though the Hellbent’s aft burners sputtered and sparked. Probably superficial, wouldn’t need drydock right away.

“Did you hit the panic button?” Runner asked. Sharpe didn’t like her officer’s tone.

“Of course I did?”

“Christ,” Runner said, “what were you thinking?”

“Well, I was thinking, ‘We’re getting chased by the AA, this is an appropriate time for a panic button since this is exactly the kind of situation the button was made for.’ Also, I was thinking that I’m the goddamn captain and I do what I want.”

Runner’s eyes spoke volumes, but she kept her mouth shut.

Sharpe turned to Jackson. “We have to get out of this building.”

“Is that your ship?” he asked, staring up at the Hellbent like it was a snake coiling to strike.

Another missed shot, another shake in the building. “On a good day, this place barely stays upright. Unless you want to be crushed, we need to go.”

“Uncuff us,” said Runner. Sharpe suppressed a sigh. She would have gotten around to that.

Jackson shook his head, his eyes focused on the chaos through the window.

“We need to run,” insisted Sharpe’s crewmate. “And we can’t do that with our hands behind our backs.”

“Call off your ship,” said the detective.

“Can’t,” answered Sharpe.

Jackson turned to stare at her, and Sharpe almost took a reflexive step backward. The detective only stood a few inches taller than her, and Sharpe’s training no doubt surpassed his, but his expression spelled pure, focused determination.

At some point in the past thirty seconds, it was as though the two temperaments had switched. The detective, having walked in on a potential crime scene, was in his element. He had control. Sharpe, having seen the surprising firefight through the window, stood both literally and figuratively on shaking ground, and her heart pounded up into her throat as panic bit in at the edges of her thoughts.

The handcuffs made him intimidating, that had to be it. Once they were off—and so help her, they would be off—she wouldn’t feel the sinking, overpowered vulnerability. It was the handcuffs.

“I don’t have a communicator on me.” What did he think this was, amateur hour? In the event of a bust, provide a clear, traceable link back to the ship of origin? Mercenaries carried panic buttons. Untraceable, unlockable, plausibly deniable panic buttons.

She could have continued to dodge admitting that the Hellbent was hers, and maybe she should have, but that fierce expression told her that the normal cat-and-mouse games wouldn’t work.

“My shuttle,” she said. “I can hail them from there.”

Runner shook her head, but Sharpe ignored her.

“Where is it?”

Sharpe nodded toward the hallway. “Other side of the building.”

Jackson narrowed his eyes. He was weighing her, trying to see if she was lying. Sharpe told the truth, but the panic crept in, wriggling cold tendrils into her skin, and she had to grit her teeth against it.

Goddamn cuffs.

“Let’s go,” said the detective, after what felt like hours. To his partner, who was still crouched over the unconscious woman on the floor, he said, “Benson, we’ll have to call an ambulance from outside. Someone’s jamming the building.”

Sharpe shook her head at the accusing looks the cops directed at her, though it was almost certainly her ship cutting communications in the building, and maybe the whole block.

The floor rumbled again, then something popped, and the light in the room flickered once before turning off as the door to the hallway slid down.

Electrical failure.

For a moment, the room was still as the ubiquitous hum of the building hushed and the muffled sounds of the fight outside could finally filter in through the window.

“This is fine,” said Sharpe, though she could hear the elevated pitch in her own voice. Her clothes and skin, still wet with sweat from the earlier chase, tingled sharp and cold. Her skin prickled as goosebumps formed on her arms.

Thoughts flashed through her mind’s eye. Memories. As a soldier, she had been in mortal danger more times than she could count, but there had only been three times where she had truly felt the certainty of death weigh in around her. The wicked part of her that now pulled those thoughts to the forefront of her mind listened for the sounds of creaking or cracking, something to signal the building’s crushing collapse. She wondered if it would hurt.

But there were no more sounds.

Only the rumbling outside, the edges of explosions worn dull through the wall’s cheap insulation, and the hanging stillness in the room.

The building wasn’t coming down. Not yet, anyway.

So there was that.

“Uncuff us,” Sharpe said. Tried to say, anyway. Whether it was the rush of fresh terror amplifying her voice or the comparative silence of the cut electricity, the volume of her words sounded disproportionately loud.

Jackson’s partner, Benson, was the first to move. With a face white with panic and wearing an expression that gave Sharpe the impression that he, too, had expected to hear the impending sounds of structural failure, he launched himself over the body of the blissfully ignorant junkie and bolted for the door.

For a few seconds, everyone else watched while the man attacked the solid steel. He tried to shimmy the door up by pressing with open palms, then he tried to wedge his fingertips between the crumbling bottom padding and the floorboard.

“Don’t bother,” said Runner.

Benson ignored her.

“He can’t get the door up without a charge,” she continued, appealing to Jackson.

“But we can,” said Sharpe.

Jackson’s face had turned an unfortunate shade of green, and panic sweat made his face shine in the reflected light from the window. Again, his jaw clenched until it bulged.

“You’ll have to uncuff us first.”

The detective glanced at his partner, grunting and clawing at the door, then down at the woman passed out on the floor, and finally nodded. He tapped at a datapad and the cuffs released.

Her freedom half restored, Sharpe moved into action with a weight lifted from her shoulders. While Runner pounded the space around the door controls to get enough leverage to pry the casing off, Sharpe opened the case beneath the viewscreen by the bed.

Jackson drew a pistol from a holster under his jacket, but Sharpe rolled her eyes and ignored him.

“It needs a charge,” said Runner with a grunt as she pulled back the case and exposed the control panel’s circuitry.

“We don’t have anything strong enough to power the floor in a building like this.” Jackson returned his pistol to its holster, but he stood in a way that kept both women in his sights. He was going to be tough to slip.

“Don’t need to,” said Sharpe. She tried not to think about what disgusting treasures lay inside the dark cabinet as she yanked out the video box. “There’s no lockdown in this building.” Her hand brushed up against grit and she shook her head as she tried to convince herself that it was sand. Just sand. Not rat droppings or insect bodies or the petrified remains of…

Just sand.

Sharpe tossed the box onto the bare mattress and squinted in the low light for the easiest way to open the case. Outside, a ship passed close enough to the window to momentarily shadow the room, and its engines made a whooshing sound as it sped past.

“No lockdown,” said Jackson. “So all of the doors run on their own circuits?”

“Bingo.” Sharpe gave up trying to find a gentle solution. She picked up the box and dropped it onto the ground. The case cracked and split, throwing tiny electronic components in multiple directions. Hopefully, Runner wouldn’t need any of those. Sharpe collected most of the larger pieces and took them, dragging the cord behind her, to her chief mate at the door panel.

“I need light,” said Runner. Jackson pulled a multitool from his jacket and tapped it. A blinding white light shone into Sharpe’s eyes before being directed at the exposed panel on the wall.

Runner used her teeth to strip the wire and Sharpe had to suppress a gag. Apart from the discomfort of copper strips being dragged along tooth enamel, she recalled the grit in the cabinet where the cord had been sitting. Runner spat out a piece of plastic and rolled her eyes.

“Lighten up, buttercup,” she said to her captain. “You want out of this place or not?”

“You ladies look like you’ve done this before,” said Jackson.

“Ladies,” repeated Runner with a smirk. “That’s a new one.” She adjusted Jackson’s hand to focus the light and her eyes squinted as she rubbed the side of her nose the way she always did when she was concentrating.

Benson had stopped pulling at the bottom of the door. Still crouched, he stared up at Runner and looked like he may have been getting a handle on his nerve.

“How did you know about the video box?” asked Jackson in a low voice.

Runner swore under her breath as a spark caught her fingertip.

“Electricity gets cut sometimes,” Sharpe answered without taking her eyes from Runner’s work. “Whatever reason. Clientele can get rowdy. Videos usually keep them occupied, so the boxes have battery backups.”

“Videos?”

“Yup.”

“In a place like this?”

Sharpe stared at him. “I mean… really? Is this your first day?”

Even in the dim light, Sharpe could see his face begin to redden. “Yeah,” she said. “Those kinds of videos.”

“And you know this…”

Sharpe’s expression cut him off.

“Not your first rodeo.”

With four people crowded into the tight space and no environmental cycling, the air thickened. Sharpe pulled at her damp, clinging shirt and willed Runner to work faster.

The longer Runner worked, the more uncomfortable Jackson appeared. He tugged at his collar with his free hand, and twice Runner had to glare at him and order him to hold the light still.

Sharpe watched him in something that might have bordered on amusement if she weren’t awaiting a swift crushing death. The more uneasy he looked, the more comfortable she felt. “Not a fan of locked doors, detective?”

He didn’t answer.

The panel sparked, Runner jerked back, and the door slid up. Benson hopped in a crouch into the hallway before standing. Sharpe followed him, and Jackson stood under the open door, ushering Runner through before ducking out of the way of the sliding steel, which crashed back down.

Apart from the small light in Jackson’s hand, the hallway was completely black.

“You should have left the connection open,” he said to Runner.

“You’re right,” she replied. “I was just thinking that this building needed more electrical fire.”

“That woman is still trapped in there.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” said Runner. Even in the low light, Sharpe caught her meaningful glance. Sharpe nodded and kept her wrists as far away from one another as she could manage without tipping off the cops. No way were those cuffs going back on.

“Looks like your rookie made a run for it.” Sharpe gestured at the missing airlift at the end of the empty hallway. “Hopefully he got out before the power cut off.”

Jackson crossed to other doors, banging on them. “Anyone in there?” he asked. “Do you need any help?”

Benson pulled out his own multitool and made a small light in his hands.

“He’s… kidding, right?” asked Sharpe.

“We don’t have time for this,” insisted Runner.

“Detective,” said Sharpe, “it’s no good. Everyone in this place is either like us,” she motioned to herself and Runner, “or like her,” she nodded toward the door they’d just come through. “They’re long gone, either way.”

Jackson frowned. He was compassionate. Good.

Made him an easier mark.

“This way,” said Sharpe, and she started walking down the hallway into darkness.

Benson was kind enough to shine his light ahead of her. “Is there another lift that way?” he asked.

“Nope, but there’ll be an access tunnel out.”

“You’re certain?”

“Believe it or not, detective, this building does follow one or two safety codes.”

“Why did you leave your shuttle on that side of the building?” asked Jackson. “Lot’s the other way.”

“Thinking ahead,” Sharpe called back. “In case we had to jump out of a window.”

“Windows in this building don’t open,” grumbled Benson.

“They do if you shoot them,” said Runner.

Sharpe had never realized how hard the environmental systems in the motel must have been working on a regular basis. After only a few minutes, the hallway smelled fouler than any trash pile Sharpe had ever walked past. The stink mixed with moisture in the air and it pressed in from all sides. She would never get that smell out of her nose, or her hair.

Runner paced alongside her, with Benson a few steps behind and Jackson behind him, still knocking on every door he passed, listening for movement, and then jogging to catch up.

The light from behind formed long shadows in front of the women, pointing into blackness. Sharpe listened ahead for any movement, any straggler who might have been trapped inside the building and was now out of his mind with panic or delirium, but the hallway was empty.

“How do we get the bracelets off?” Runner whispered. Jackson’s insistent banging and calling out provided cover for the women to whisper without fear of being overheard by the silent detective behind them.

“Might have to get them off back on the ship.”

Runner exhaled through her teeth.

“Keep your hands in front of you, just in case the cops get jumpy.”

Runner opened her mouth to say something, but a bright flash and high-pitched whistle cut her off as the hallway and the motel and then the world evaporated into whiteness.

IV

Sharpe’s thoughts came back to her slowly and with effort. Pulling her mind back into her body felt like trying to force rocks through a sieve. Her head ached, her body ached, and everything felt like it was on fire.

Good.

Pain was good. She was alive, then.

She could hear grumbles and stirring around her, and the clattering of falling debris. It took a moment for her to remember how to open her eyes.

“You okay, boss?” A layer of dust coated Runner’s face and a trickle of blood ran down from her ear.

Sharpe grunted. “You’ve looked better,” she said. Runner smirked, then winced. Sharpe sat up with effort and sharp protests coming from her ribs.

She sat some ten meters away from open air. It was a surreal sight, half of a hallway leading out into the bright sky. The building must have taken a direct hit, and half of it had crumbled from the impact. Dust and rubble settled everywhere.

Something stirred behind her, and Sharpe turned to see one of the detectives rolling over onto his stomach. She couldn’t tell which man it was, even when he groaned.

“We should go,” whispered Runner. Sharpe nodded and forced herself onto unsteady feet. Nothing felt broken, and she didn’t see pooling blood. But as she inhaled, her lungs rejected the dust in the air, and she coughed and felt a fire in her chest.

A man grunted from behind. Two shapes stirred now. Sharpe and Runner shuffled toward the edge of the rubble.

“Found the access tunnel,” said Sharpe. The pain in her chest increased. Her throat felt like someone had taken sandpaper to it.

She’d only get worse off as the shock of the blast wore off and the natural painkillers with it. Had to get moving, and then stay moving.

“Stay low,” she said to Runner. “Don’t stop, and stay low.”

Sharpe wasn’t normally afraid of heights, but standing on the edge of an unsteady precipice made her head spin. Or she had a concussion. The streets had, for the most part, emptied, but a few people scattered here and there, crouched and running and covering their heads to protect themselves from falling debris. The neighborhood was a war zone. Again, Sharpe was transported in her mind back to a time of rubble-covered streets, when cities lay in such ruin that Sharpe couldn’t imagine how they’d ever be rebuilt.

Runner pointed toward a high pile of crumbled cement to the left. “I think we can climb down that.” The chief mate moved with some tenderness, but she seemed steadier on her feet than Sharpe felt.

“Don’t look up,” instructed Sharpe as they started down the incline. “Those AA ships will use facial recognition. If we’re lucky, they won’t know who we are and we’ll just look like civilians.”

It was slow going, climbing down the unsteady and unnatural mountain. Every few steps, Sharpe shifted her weight onto a rock or a shard of metal that looked more stable than it was and had to draw back or risk tumbling down. Smoke that smelled of burning rubber and plastic filled the air. Fresh waves of pain rocked her when she made any sudden movement, and every step was agony.

Just a few meters shy of street level, Sharpe noticed several pebbles rolling down from above. She looked up to see Jackson following the pair. He clutched his side and winced with every movement, but his face was the same mask of determination that she’d seen back in the room.

“Hellbent’s moving off,” said Runner. Sharpe glanced toward the sky. Her ship raced back up toward the upper atmosphere, leaving a trail of thin black smoke in its wake.

“We’ll find them at the rendezvous,” she said. She hoped.

But as the women made their way toward the alley where they’d stowed their ride, Sharpe’s heart sunk down into her gut. “No,” she said. “No no no no no.”

The shuttle—or at least the place where the shuttle had been—lay under what might have been, judging by the smell, a butcher’s shop.

Sharpe looked up to see the Hellbent shrink away until it was just a tiny dot in the sky. “How long until their jammers give out?”

Runner shook her head. “Two minutes, maybe? Three, if it takes the AA a while to find them.”

Two minutes, maybe three, until Jackson would radio the AA ships. Until they would know that the Hellbent had not left with her whole crew onboard. Until the whole of the federal authority bore down on the women and there was no escape.

Bile churned up into Sharpe’s throat.

Runner grabbed Sharpe’s arm and pulled her back toward the building. Sharpe followed, but she looked up to see Jackson seated halfway down the pile of rubble, tapping furiously at his datapad.

Sharpe opened her mouth to tell Runner that they were headed the wrong way, to tell her that they needed to find a crowd, they needed to blend until she could find a way off the planet and back to the rendezvous before the crew would leave them behind. But her voice caught in her throat when she saw what Runner ran toward.

It was a shuttle. Unmanned, unwatched, sitting safely in the street with its door wide open. The only shuttle that could afford to sit out in the street without an armed guard. No one would dare steal that vehicle, even here, not with that Allied Authority insignia painted on the side.

“You’re insane.”

“We’re desperate,” said Runner.

Couldn’t argue with that.

The women ducked inside the shuttle. Sharpe clamped her jaw shut to keep her heart from leaping out through her throat. She glanced back up toward Jackson, who rose and watched in open-mouthed amazement as the mercenaries commandeered the AA vehicle.

“Sorry about this, detective,” called Sharpe. “But I don’t like locked doors, either.”

Runner closed the hatch behind them. “That was maybe a little much.”

“Really?”

“A little.”

“This will definitely get us killed, so I just thought—” Sharpe’s words caught as she looked around the tight space.

Evidence bags.

Evidence from Bern’s room. Bern’s guns.

Now Sharpe’s guns.

A dozen duffels at least, all neatly labeled and packed as though for a Christmas delivery Sharpe wouldn’t have had the balls to ask for.

Runner busied herself with the controls. “They left it unlocked,” the chief mate said with notes of surprise and maybe even hope in her voice. “I can take care of this up here,” she continued. “You know, if you want to putz around. Really, I got it.”

Sharpe only half heard her. “Uh huh.” She yanked at a zipper on a long bag.

No.

Yes.

“For a while there,” Sharpe said, tears threatening to spring to her eyes, “I was afraid that I might never get to tell you that I love you.”

The shuttle powered up.

“Cute,” said Runner. “But I’ll love you back if you say all that with money.”

“Wasn’t talking to you.” Sharpe pulled the shotgun, the shotgun, from the bag. All of the injuries and the bombs and the terror dissolved from her thoughts. “Also, I pay you plenty, Lisa.”

“Jammers are still up,” said Runner. “I’m going to fly low. They won’t expect this. If we’re lucky.”

Sharpe pressed the cold steel of the barrel against her cheek. “We’re lucky.”

“Rendezvous?”

“Rendezvous.”

© Samantha Maguire, All rights reserved