Summer's Gambit (Part 3)


A figure in a pressurized suit is leaning over Henry. The smuggler found himself lying on a medical gurney. The man above him was fiddling with the straps on Henry’s left hand, but his right hand was still free. There was no time for reflection: the gradually returning sense of hearing was disturbed by the roar of sirens. Henry used all the strength in his numb hand and hit the person somewhere in the head, then turned and hit again with his foot. The man fell down, and Henry began to unfasten his left hand. To his surprise he found himself in the same suit.


He is now on the far side of the hangar, not far from the ‘Turtle’. Chaos reigned all around him. He heard shots of kinetic carbines and squeals of combat blasters. Ships sped by, one by one — pirates were leaving the station in a hurry. Whatever happened here, Henry decided to follow their example as soon as possible. A few seconds later he unfastened the straps, and he was free. The man who’d tried to fasten him to a gurney, meanwhile, jumped to his feet and ran somewhere in the direction of the hangar entrance.


There was no time to investigate. And even more so there was no point to catch up with the stranger. Thuds and rhythmic beats of kinetic weapons were heard from the place where he’d fled. One of the pirates jumped into his ship,but pointed his guns at the hangar.


Henry reacted at the last moment, when a mad technician jumped at him. The man in the green suit was running towards him, swinging a heavy wrench. The smuggler grabbed the gurney and pushed it at the attacker. He did not even try to dodge, got hit by it and fell down. Something was wrong with the technician. Henry looked closely at him and was horrified to find terrible blisters, swollen on the man’s neck. His eyes were covered by a bloody shroud, even the whites were red, and his mouth was foaming.


Henry cursed and rushed to the ‘Turtle’. His legs were still numb, as if he had been unconscious not for hours but for years. When he reached the ship, he jumped on the ramp of the cargo hold and hit the ‘Lift’ button. Only then did he realize that the ramp should have been closed. Henry turned to face the cargo, but the black box was still in place... yet the chains holding it were torn for some reason.


- This is not good. This is really, really bad, - he said to himself.


In the cockpit everything was as he had left it, even the bottle of protein brew. The smuggler collapsed in a chair and hit the ignition. ‘Turtle’ came to life, and the ship pulled away from the hangar floor. Henry guided it to the door, where he saw one of the pirate frigates. It was about to leave too, but suddenly changed the trajectory and released drones. The pirate was turning towards the ‘Turtle’. Henry yanked the wheel and went straight to the enemy. Pirate drones were clicking their lasers on the shield of the ‘Turtle’, but then vanished in an instant thanks to the coil mortar. Explosive shells turned them into scrap metal. Knock, knock, another blow — the smuggler was squeezing the trigger. Another pirate on an agile interceptor sped past, trying to break out of chaos that reigned in the hangar. He was caught by the blast for just a split-second, but it was enough. An interceptor was what entered the zone of fire, but just a flaming wreckage was all that was left of it. Henry’s enemy moved to position and immediately opened fire. Too late. ‘Turtle’ shields took the hit, strengthened by a multiphase adapter. The last two mortar charges hit the pirate’s hull, then the ships collided. The hull squealed, but held together. Pushing the pirate aside, Henry once again rushed for the exit. He was almost there already — where the force field was keeping oxygen from being sucked outside. But the pirate did not want to give up, he started turning once again.


- Get away! — Henry snapped and released the minelayer.


He did not even bother to watch what happened. He brought the vessel out of the hangar and immediately deployed a jump gate. There were too many ships and debris around: jumping was risky. But Henry knew that as soon as the pirates cleared through the minefield, he would’ve had dozens, or even hundreds of ships on his tail.


This time the gates opened. ‘Turtle’ together with Henry yanked forward. Acceleration was so strong that the Smuggler was pressed into his chair. And when the jump was over, they were already far from the station. An asteroid belt was visible ahead. Henry sent the ship there.


The intercom came to life.


- Good job, Henry, —Miss Summer smiled on the screen — you did the right thing.


- What the ... — the smuggler stopped for a moment — what happened there?


- My people will greet you, — she ignored the question.


- No one is getting the cargo until I get an answer!


- Your cargo, Henry? — Summer continued to smile, but something in her eyes changed.


Something squealed inside the hull of the ‘Turtle’ once again. It looked like the battle was not too kind to it.


- What happened at the station? the Smuggler repeated his question.


- The baron decided to ignore part of our deal and he got what he deserved.


- Is that a threat?


Summer was silent. The squeal and rattle repeated. Henry realized that it was coming from the cargo hold.


- Emperor, Bartle and Federal senators be damned, who the heck are you?


- I am the one whose orders are always followed. That's all you need to know.


The image of the beautiful stranger was suddenly distorted with noise and began to dissolve on the screen. A strange kind of symbol appeared instead — a pyramid with three spikes and an eye.


- You disobeyed my orders, Henry — Summer's voice lost all emotion, it sounded mechanical. — And now you are going to pay for it.


Henry flicked the intercom and realized that it wasn’t an incoming call. Years of flights alone made him forget what the ship’s internal comms looked like.


- Oh, no... — the smuggler whispered.


The rattle became permanent... and it was getting closer. Something was making its way to the cockpit through the ship’s wiring. The radar came on. It was showing ships hiding among asteroids. Three, five, ten, fifteen... there were at least three dozen. The broadcast was suddenly clogged with mechanical noise — those were Cybers.


- Henry... — the mechanical voice rang out behind him — I always get what I want.


- Oh, no, — he said, and turned on the jump gate — not this time.


Through the windshield, Henry Twenty-One was watching his own death. When the ‘Turtle’, crashing against the rocks, disappeared from the radar, he finally took off his helmet. Blood had dried up on his face. He looked at his reflection in the clear helmet visor. The stitches were split from the blow. It was pretty bad, but not as bad as what he had done to save his own skin.


There was no sense in staying. The smuggler turned his ‘Nyx’ to the system gate. Away from the infected plant, away from the asteroid belt, and away from himself. The only thing that warmed his soul, was the thought that the death of Henry Twenty-Two was instant.

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