This was my submission to the second volume of Machine of Death. It wasn’t picked and could probably use a little bit of editing, but writing it was fun. (Fall ’11)
“ I lost sight of him off the starboard stern, sir.”
Arkivani glanced behind them. “Where on earth did the rear guard jump off to?” Another shape exploded in shrapnel and bright light. “Ross!”
“Gamma 2’s been hit, sir!”
“Sir! They’re too quick. I’m aiming manually, but I think they’ve hit the turret. I’ve lost half my range, and the aim is off.”
“Keep at it.” Arkivani glanced at the mountain range off the starboard bow and then looked ahead to the narrow pass between peaks. “Vaughn, when we get close enough, I want you to start dropping bombs. We won’t hit any of the planes, but we might cripple the force holding the pass.”
“Sir!” A flier zipped by, peppering the ship with little holes…and some big ones.
“Sir! Engineering’s been hit!”
“Reinforce the cargo bay.”
“Sir! Beta 1’s going down.”
Arkivani turned. The remainder of their escort limped after them. “Tell the others to peel off!”
“But, Admiral, we’ll all get picked off.”
“Not if they don’t have enough fliers, and we’ll be long gone by the time they get to us if they try to pick us off one by one. We present too much of a target here. Rendezvous at the delivery point.”
The coder turned back to his apparatus and let loose a rapid series of taps. A corresponding noise like a erratic foghorn with a bad cold cut through the air. “Done, sir.”
“ Langley, take us low west-north-west.” The airship slowly sank as they veered off on the larboard side. A flier buzzed around them one last, time, and turned tail for more interesting prey. “Engineering! Status report!”
“ The main engine’s down, but we’ve got one or two auxiliary. As long as we don’t hit any turbulence, we should be all right.”
“Better pray we’ve lost them, then.”
He spun. A fine net was stretched just a few feet above the tree-line. “Pull her up!” The engines squealed and the dirigible tilted. Arkivani closed his eyes. The propellers screeched and ground. He opened his eyes. “Somebody get back there and cut the propellers free!”
The zeppelin tilted forward into the tree line. “Sir! The engines are overheating!”
The engines stopped. There was a silence. Then everything happened at once. The envelope tilted forward. The net parted with a snap. Admiral Arkivani felt a brief moment of terror and weightlessness and he plummeted downward. The envelope hit the ground first. In a short silence, he heard shrieks from the depths of the airship, perhaps in Engineering. Far below, something exploded. The airship rumbled. A bright light burned itself into his corneas as a wave of heat washed over him, and the force of an explosion threw him up, through a glass window, and out of the dirigible. He glimpsed a hazy blue sky over a sea of trees before he shot downward. The branches whipped past his face as he hurtled down into the trees.
When he finally opened his eyes, he was draped over several bent branches about twenty feet from the ground. Arkivani groaned and carefully shifted himself onto the most sturdy-looking of the branches. The other branches catapulted upward. The branch on which he sat cracked. He fell another ten feet before he could catch another branch with raw and scratched hands. He carefully let himself down, and turned toward the direction of the commotion.
He found his second-in-command, Vaughn and the gunner, Miss Ross prying the loading-dock door open. Shouts and banging echoed through the metal door.
He watched them for a moment. “There’s an emergency release in the cockpit. No. I’ll go.”
Vaughn gave him a boost, and Arkivani scrambled upwards, just grabbing the window frame between two blown-out windows. Ross bounced up and gave him a quick shove up before she fell down. “Thanks, but I didn’t need that.” She shrugged. He pulled himself inside, and stood on the window ledge. Above, crewmen were pulling themselves out of the hatch on deck and working their way down the line of windows to a safe drop on the ground. There was one headed toward him now. He ducked outside, and carefully stepped from window to window up the exterior of the airship. He reached the top. Arkivani poked his head inside. The control desks were halfway across the width of the airship about eight feet below. He braced himself against the windowsill, took a deep breath, and made a flying leap.
He slid to a stop against the first of the desks. He stood up, almost perpendicular to the ground, and inched his way along the desks. He found and pressed the little gray button. Nothing happened. He crushed it to almost the level of the desk. The device made a clunking noise far below. On the back wall, a fire axe and hose dangled from their shattered casing. Arkivavi leapt up, and gripped the edge of the casing. He opened the faucet all the way, grabbed the axe, and slid down the fire hose to the bottom―or really the front―of the cockpit. It was not as damaged as it might have been, but Miss Ross’s equipment was irreparable.
The water dribbling down his great coat brought him back to reality. Arkivani slung the hose out a window, and let himself down it. “What are we looking at?”
“ The door came open a few inches, but something’s broken. Sir.” Ross added as an afterthought.
“That’s where I come in. Vaughn, put a few good knots in the end of this hose, and jam it into the top of the crack. In the meantime, I’ll make that crack larger.” He attacked the edge of the door with the fire ax.
Arkivani had succeeded in mangling the metal edge of the door to open a gap of almost six inches when Ross observed. “These are faulty doors, sir. They’re only secured at the two corners.”
Arkivani glared upwards. “Ah.”
“If you’d allow me, sir. I have excellent balance.”
Ross took the ax from him, got a running start, and bounced up to stand on the edge of door. She swung the ax. The first swing reverberated in Arkivani’s eardrums for a very long time, which was why he didn’t hear the second, or the sound of the other latch collapsing under the combined pressure of many bodies, as he watched the door swing downward.
“Is everyone well? Excellent. Now let’s get the Machine unloaded and moving. Yes?”
“Is now really the time to be worrying about that thing? We’ve got to get these people out of here before the Krashim show up.”
“ Miss Ross, when they joined Fighters Federated, they gave up any stake in getting out of trouble unharmed. Now do what the lieutenant tells you, and let’s just deliver it, and fulfill the contract with the Klungtons.”
“Admiral, did you ever get your death prediction?”
He did not turn. “As a matter of fact, I did. The physical required it before they realized it doesn’t mean anything. I am to be BLOWN UP, along with ten percent of the civilized world. It’s not a bad death for a mercenary, it’s quick and painless, and the Krashim can deal with their own deaths without having to butt in on anyone else’s.”
He stalked off to scout. They’d left a net, and the flier had known about it, so the Krashim had some presence in the area, and the crashed airship was visible for miles. So why hadn’t they shown up yet? The ground was uneven and soft, filled with little gopher holes and covered with long scraggly grass and lush green underbrush. The nearest hillside loomed above, its mass of dark green foliage casting a wide shadow on the ground beneath. He set off toward the hill. After ten minutes of scrabbling and crawling, he was forty feet above the ground and commanded a wide view of the wreckage. Little goat paths wound their way through the forest, and over gigantic boulders and fallen trees that cropped up along the skirts of the mountains. It was a bad place to fight the Krashim. They’d held the land since they won it from the Klungtons in a massive civil war fifty years past. It was a contested border land and had been heavily―Arkivani glanced down at the the little patch of grass in which he half stood―mined. He shifted his weight carefully to the other leg. There was a metallic click, and Arkivani flung himself head over heels down the mountain. “Mine fiel―”
There are moments in which time moves in slow motion, and every heartbeat is remembered for the rest of one’s life. There are other moments in which one knows one looks unspeakably silly. One never forgets those moments either. Unfortunately for Admiral Aubrey Alister Arkivani II, both of these descriptions applied to the moment of his death. He never forgot how, lingering at the edge of consciousness and a great black void, watching himself torn into five pieces by a chain explosion as his body bounced down a glacial hill, screaming with his last breath, he suddenly heard a voice.
“Was it all that you expected?” the voice asked.
“ You may call me Death.” said Death. “I thought I might keep you company for a while.”
“Of course you are. For the moment, at least. If it helps, you may address your comments to the darkness.” Death added.
“Wait. ‘For the moment’?”
“ I am not supposed to give away what happens next.” Death explained. “Now hush. The good part is coming up.”
Vaughn held the head of his former commander, Admiral Arkivani. “He’s not―”
“ Not with the equipment I have on hand,” the doctor agreed, examining the chest. “With a proper cryokit, and medical facilities, perhaps we could bring him back, but―”
“— well, it is his predicted cause of death. I’ll dig a grave. Sargeant Ross, tell Molde from Engineering he’s in charge of unloading, and see if you can find me a shovel.”
Miss Ross crossed her arms. “No.”
“‘No’? I’m in charge here. We’ve got to get moving.”
“Not any more. Maybe this was his predicted cause of death, but nobody put the Machine in charge here, and I’d sooner smash that thing up than leave the Admiral here.”
“But he’s dead!”
She waved the navigator down. “Tell me, second lieutenant Langley, have you ever had your death taken?”
He glanced around. “Once, but I don’t remember it.”
“Where I’m from, the Machines are at the fortune tellers’. They’re consistent, but that’s almost assuredly because a certain death is assigned to a certain DNA sequence. No one records them. It’s like a fortune cookie―no one takes it seriously.”
“And that is why Langley here, along with everyone else, is going to help me get the Admiral stitched up before and if they smuggle that blasted Machine past the Krashim, Lieutenant. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather preserve life than bring the shadow death to a group of people fighting against it. If you disagree, I’ll smash you up. Doctor, could you patch him up with the proper facilities?”
“Collect the pieces and prep them, or do whatever it is you do. Vaughn, remember that chemical freezer on the aft deck that always runs too cold? Put it on an All Terrain Cargo Allocation Transport.”
“But, Miss Ross, the Machine!”
“Well, if you feel so strongly about it, Mr. Vaughn, you can find another functional ATCAT and load the boxes onto it, but I have a feeling that most people here agree with me, and we’re leaving as soon as I get the Admiral frozen. Oh, and Mr. Vaughn, that’s ‘Commander Ross’ to you.”
“ What is she doing?” Arkivani exclaimed.
“I believe it is called a ‘mutiny,’ or, perhaps, a ‘coup.’” Death expounded.
“ I know that, but why?”
“ I think it is called ‘loyalty’ or, in Commander Patricia Ross’s case, ‘love.’” Death suggested
“ I can not say. The human psyche is a complicated thing, but it appears to me that Miss Ross places a high value on human life, even those she does not like.” Death pondered.
“And she’s a mercenary?”
“ There are pacifists in every army, although,” Death added, “she does not act very like one.”
“She’s going to have some difficulty getting through that pass, let alone keeping the temperature of that freezer within an acceptable range.”
“Oh.” said Death. “I believe that getting through the pass will be the least of her worries.”
The cavalcade stopped to rest that afternoon on the edge of a bare rock face. Vaughn pointed. “That mountain is the south wall of the pass. By maintaining a southerly course, we will reach the foot of the pass. I advocate taking a southwesterly course and passing over the shoulder of the mountain on the north side of the pass during the night.”
Commander Ross smiled. “That is a brilliant idea. However, I have a better one. Hows about you and a few men take the Machine over the pass. The rest of us will move southeast and create a diversion some time around midnight. Then, when you’re safely through and behind a mountain, release a smoke signal. Those in the pass won’t be able to see it, and anyone on the hill will be, like us, too far to catch you, but we will take advantage of the diversion to slip over the shoulder of the pass on the other side. We meet at Klungton.”
“I suppose so. May I ask the nature of this diversion?”
“No. Then if one of us gets captured, you won’t know where we are, and we won’t know your exact route. Time to get moving again.” She turned back toward lieutenant Vaughn “See you in two days time.”
Vaughn followed her back, and shortly ordered six of her men to get his ATCAT moving again.
After he left, she led the rest back west, around the shoulder of the mountain, and downwards.
“Commander, I wish to point out that unless we use the pass, this next set of mountains does not lend itself to being climbed. I would also like to point out that while lieutenant Vaughn took advantage of the opportunity to split off, he is most certainly not stupid enough betray his location with any sort of signal.”
“He won’t have to, Langley. When we cross the pass, we’ll leave more than enough evidence to set the Krashim scouts on high alert for the next week.”
“Then may I ask where we are going?”
She paused. “It’s a fair question. We’re going to get the Admiral sewn back together. We will hijack the Krashim hospital in their base of operations on the other side of the pass, hopefully without the rest of the base noticing. After resurrecting the Admiral, we will take advantage of the commotion over the discovery of our own footprints, and of Vaughn to make good our escape.”
“So you intend to betray Lieutenant Vaughn?”
“Only to the degree that he is betraying the Admiral.”
“But, he’s doing what the Admiral wanted, he’s simply―“
“Not helping us save the Admiral from his own stupid death. Yes, I agree.”
They plunged down into a valley bounded by the three nearest mountains. The ground was spongy, and the flies took advantage of the opportunity to become mosquitoes, the squishy black kind that crawl down into the boots and give the ankles a good biting. It was hot and the humidity hung stagnant in the air. The humidity decreased about an hour before sunset as they were crossing the pass.
Ross rubbed her hands together. “The footprints in the mud will be visible for days! And the ATCAT’s tracks will take months to erase. Brilliant!”
Langley groaned and swatted at his boots.
“ This doesn’t make any sense! By rights, when she revolted, no one should have listened. Is she honestly trying to get through the pass by sending Vaughn through as a diversion behind her? They’ve got a camp at the end of the pass as well.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” Death exclaimed. “That ridiculous little building perched on the top of that hill there is the Krashim base. Coincidentally, it also contains one of the best wilderness hospitals within a one hundred mile radius, which, I grant you, is not hard. I doubt she’s given much thought to actually getting through the pass, but, then again, I don’t know any more than you do. As for your other question, you were almost a good leader; or at least you tried to be; Vaughn is a spineless twirp; and Ross is a naive heroic sort with a spine.”
“I still don’t understand why she gave up the commission to get the Machine past the Krashim.”
“Do you really care about the Machine anymore―would you rather she did?” Death asked “Half the people who take the test die as a result of their reaction to the test. The other half grow paranoid and fight me to their dying breath. It makes things very boring. But someone who fights to keep someone else alive who has already died because he didn’t give a care―I like that. That’s why you get to watch this time round, but for heavens’ sakes stop talking! I’m trying to watch.”
Ross sent the sentry crashing to the ground. She whistled softly into the darkness. Langley came on his hands and knees.
“Only one sentry, or else we’re in big trouble.” she breathed. A muffled crashing sounded to her left. “Never mind.” She gazed up the rock wall. In the darkness, its ledges and crevasses were hidden in the vague shape of gray and black blocking half of the star-spangled sky above them. “Langley, you grew up on the fjords, didn’t you? Did you climb around much as a kid?”
“Great.” She gestured the rest over. “Hey, everyone, Langley and I are going up. Once we’ve cleared off the top, we’ll send a rope down and the heavy-weights can come up and haul the freezer up. Speaking of which, doctor, how are we doing?”
“ We’re still under 193 Kelvins, but the freezer has gained a little more than ten degrees, and, given the history of this freezer, I’m not sure how accurate the gauge is.”
“But it always ran cold, so we’re doing well, right?” Ross tied the lead end of a cord around her waist and handed another bundle of cord to Langley. “Alright then. There’s still a sentry up there, so don’t make yourselves visible. C’mon Langley.” She grasped a projection in the rock, bounced up a little, and fitted her foot into a crack. Then, spreading herself across the rock spider-wise, she slowly began to crawl up the rock face.
“ I was wondering.” said Langley, pulling himself up behind her, “What your death was.”
“That is a secret.”
“My grandfather died from heart disease. At first, the insurance refused to cover it. Then, after the government absorbed the insurance industry and all the major hospitals, they refused to treat him at all because it was a, ‘waste of time and resources’. They wouldn’t even let my gram pay for the treatment because that would be unfair to other people who couldn’t afford to pay themselves. With treatment, he could have lived into his nineties. They killed him at sixty. So when Vaughn started insisting that, ‘Well, it was the admiral’s prediction.’ and still talked about bringing that stupid Machine into Klungton when the Krashim believe it’s desperately wrong, something snapped. So yeah, I don’t tell anyone my death prediction because I don’t want to die until I’m good and ready.”
They climbed upward. The dew condensed and mixed with the sweat rolling down Ross’s forehead. Above, a dark shape materialized at the edge of the cliff. They froze. The sentry peered down into the darkness for a minute more before resuming his beat. A moment later, Ross pulled herself up over the edge of the precipice. The guard spun, drawing an oversized pistol from its holster. Ross darted away from the edge, trailing the rope behind her. The pistol discharged with an explosion of smoke. Ross leaped forward and locked her arms over the soldier’s neck, kicking his gun out of his hand. She flew backwards as he punched her in the gut but she held her arm-lock just long enough to hook her foot around his leg and bring him crashing down. She rolled away. Her hand closed around her sidearm. Ross pounced. With one hand she held him down, and with the other she brought the butt of her pistol down toward his forehead–when he knocked the gun out of her hand, kicked her over, and rolled to his feet. He retrieved another pistol from his belt and brought it up. He gave a sudden gasp, his eyes rolled backward, and he fell forward, to reveal Langley in his place, holding a pistol in an upraised hand.
“Only one. He’s down. These come in useful. You might want to look into getting one.”
She smiled. “Well, I did. I lost my other in the crash. Jettisoned the missile launcher. It was far too big to bring. On another note, we need to move. That shot should have alerted some people, and I saw some kind of watchtower around here, from the airship.”
They secured the ropes to a thick stand of trees and gave the lines a few jerks. Below, the first shadowy shapes advanced up the cliff.
“We should do something about these bodies.”
“Right. Help me get this one and we’ll throw them down a hill. Don’t look at me like that. Not the cliff, but just far enough they’ll be bruised enough and it’ll be steep enough that they’ll have trouble getting back up.”
When they returned from disposing of the second soldier, the troops were just beginning to pull the freezer up. The doctor lay on his stomach at the edge whispering cautions. She patted him on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go scouting.”
They had not walked more than five minutes roughly southeast, when Langley motioned quiet. The woods around them crackled. To the south, a dot of light gleamed. As they waited, it grew, and far off-voices gave commands. “Langley,” she breathed, “you’re good at this. Keep going, don’t get caught, and spy out the base for us. Figure out how to get into the hospital. Doctor, with me.” She loped back toward the cliff-edge. The freezer was five sixths of the way up the cliff, but the loop of rope supporting one side was beginning to slide alarmingly toward the center. She ignored the Doctor’s gasp and joined the crew at the ropes. They managed to get one side of the freezer over the edge before it slipped through the loops of rope. They painfully hauled the other end inland.
“We move. Now. In lieu of the ATCAT, we’re going to have to haul the freezer ourselves. Fortunately, there’s already enough noise from the people investigating the shots, that we should pass relatively unnoticed.”
The troop stumbled into the wood. By this time, her force had dwindled to a mere eight, but she wouldn’t track down deserters. This was voluntary work. Who knew? They might inadvertently serve as diversions. At first, they darted from tree to tree, but as the march wore on, the troop settled into a steady trudge. “That’s good,” Ross reminded herself. “people make less noise when they actually stop trying to be quiet.” The sounds of the search gradually receded, and the only sounds were their footfalls on the wet leaves and the steady dripping of water from the trees.
“But where’s the Machine?”
“This again? I have already explained that any reason you have for caring has been eliminated.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not curious. Besides, it looks like I’m going to be alive and have reason for caring very soon.”
“You’re not resurrected yet, and even if you were, it’s poor sport to give the living or the soon-to-be-living too much information. I’m the one who controls the view so I get to choose what we watch. Anyway, it’s boring.”
“More than this?”
Death sighed. “If this bores you that much, I can speed things up a little.” The image blurred.
“How’d you do that!”
“I’m Death, remember? When I’m bored, I speed-watch trees grow, but usually a good plague comes along before I’ve gotten to the good part.”
“Which is the tree’s eventual demise? Wait―earlier you said a good part was coming.”
“You’re going to have company soon.”
Ross held up a hand. “There’s a clearing ahead. You there, with me.
She crept toward the clearing. A hand descended on her shoulder. “Hey.”
She spun with a gasp.
“ Shsh. It’s me.”
“What have you found out?”
“The guards patrol in pairs, but they meet each other in the middle of their beat so they both need to go down at once.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Unless we need to take out the guards on the long side of the building. There are two beats there. However, the hospital takes up the entire second floor of the building. There’s windows on all sides, and they’ve left all the windows open. The barracks, mess, and officer’s quarters are downstairs. There’s an entrance on the long side of the building, and a smaller one on the short side that I think must lead to the kitchens. There are no downstairs windows, but they’ve got gun ports running all along the lower floor of the building. There’s another problem too. None of the upstairs windows are large enough to accommodate the freezer. Now, we could hoist it onto the balcony adjoining the hospital if it’s sturdy enough.”
“I remember the last time we did that.”
“The rest of it depends on how long you’re going to be in there.”
“We can’t afford to stay after dawn.”
“Even at night, there’s a lot of activity. We’re probably going to need a diversion.”
“Ok, come on.” Ross trotted back to her troops.
“Who speaks Klassi here?” She paused. “Has anyone ever heard of Klassi here?”
A man stepped forward from the back. That’s like Prig, isn’t it? I speak Prig.”
“ Your name is …?”
“ Great. Stay with me, Mr. Darcy. You two, go help Mr. Langley there. As soon as they’re done with that, the rest of us will come in through the kitchen door and clear the place out. Now depending on what we find, we’ll either bring the freezer up with us or we’ll help the doctor and two more guys, um, extract Admiral Arkivani from his freezer and send him up in bags. It won’t be that gross. He’s only in five pieces and he’s frozen. As soon as that freezer’s empty, chief engineer Molde here will take over and somehow rig it to blow up.”
“Engineering doesn’t work like that, miss. Just because it has wires and a motor doesn’t necessarily mean it can explode.”
“They’re going to drop it off a cliff. Can you supply a suitably large bang?”
“ Absolute silence goes without saying. One more thing , there are gun ports all around the base of the building. I don’t know if anyone’s sitting nearby, but you might want to, you know, stand between them. Let’s go.”
Ross returned to the edge of the woods to find Langley dragging two bodies from the clearing. “We’re done. What do you want me to do with this guy?”
“What about the other one?”
“Dropped as soon as we tapped him on the head. No pulse.”
“Right. I’ll be wanting you. Hey, you, could you tie him to the other guy and drop him somewhere? It’s not pretty, but it’ll delay him.”
Ross crept to the end of the hospital and turned back. “Ready. Remember, we take everyone in there down before they can sound the alarm.”
Ross opened the door, crept around the darkened corner and flattened herself against the wall. A wall clock tapped. Faint conversation and distant laughter filtered into the kitchen. Ross nodded them forward. They crept over the cold tile toward the light streaming beneath double doors. The signalman ran into the metal shelving. Pots and pans cascaded downward around him in a crashing, silvery waterfall. All conversation abruptly ceased. Ross leaped to the wall, bumping into Molde, who was muttering some very colorful metaphors under his breath.
“Hey, who’s in there!” “Just me!” as Mr. Darcy was later to interpret the exchange, although Ross could recognize swearing in any language.
The lights blinked on, and they spun. The swarthy man holding the carving knife made a universally understood sort of battle cry as he lunged forward and made a broad chopping motion toward the crown of the signalman’s head. At this point, the double doors slammed inward, temporarily trapping Ross inside. She leaped out and raised the butt of her pistol to the back of a nearby fighter’s head.
“Don’t shoot!” one of the engineering techs cried. His assailant leveled his gun. The doctor took advantage of the opportunity to spear him in the ribs with his new carving knife. Ross reached up and walloped the giant attacking the doctor from behind with all her might. The man turned, at which point Langley swept his feet out from under him. Ross spun aside. The giant fell full on one of his compatriots. Both landed with a dull thud. She blinked and surveyed the pile of Krashim.
“Well, there’s the night watchmen.” she whispered.
While the rest were locking their attackers in one of the pantries, Langley and Ross surveyed the main dining room.
“Huh. I would have thought coffee breaks were bad policy for night watchman.” Ross commented.
“Not if they want to stay awake. Anyway, they were ready for us.”
“Except we won. Ooo. Look at this.”
“An elevator. Nice. Let’s get moving, I don’t want to be down here if someone comes investigating.”
Langley and Ross ventured up the stairs. The hospital was still. The stairs came up by the pharmacy and storerooms. In a ward off to the left, someone was moaning. A nurse swept past the staircase with a soft rustle of fabric. Langley crept out of the stairwell. The nurse was bending over some dressings. He pounced and squeezed her mouth shut. “I don’t want you screaming.” He explained, balling some clean bandages into her mouth and taping them securely. “Ross, tie her hands and feet so she can’t bang and find a patient room to lock her in. I’m going to reconnoiter.”
Ross bundled the nurse into one of the patient rooms and locked the door. When she emerged, the doctor had somehow managed to fit the freezer into the narrow hospital elevator and was on his way up. It creaked alarmingly. Ross hoped that it had been built with a little more weight in mind than a gurney and an IV stand.
The doctor was already in the store room bustling about. He handed Ross a handful of syringes. “Here. Shoot everyone up here up with this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a strong sedative. If you have a chance, give it to that nurse Langley found reading in the surgery.” He rubbed his shins. “Ah, Airman Darcy. These labels on these drawers are in Klassi. Please help me find six quarts of type O negative blood. That will be about twelve little bags in some kind of medical freezer. I’m also going to need some suture thread. It will probably be yellowish. I’m going to need a variety of needles. They’re supposed to be bent. Then, when you’ve finished that, bring me some surgical sheets–”
“I love it when a plan comes together.” said Death.
“What happened?” asked Willie.
“ You were hit on the head by a man under orders of Mr. Arkivani’s fourth-in-command, who is, even now, attempting to revive him from cryo-preservation.”
“I’m dead, then?”
“So it would seem.”
“Ha! So we did knock out the flagship after all. And we got, what is it, the admiral?”
“You did not kill me. An antique landmine killed me. What is it with you guys anyway?”
“What do you mean, ‘you guys’? We’re not the ones fixated on death.” He glanced at Death. “present company excepted of course.”
“Hey, at least we don’t live in the mountains killing all the merchants who pass through.”
“Guys?” said Death.
“Because they’ve all been trying to sneak one of those occult Machines through here. We did ask them to release it peaceably.”
“You might want to see this.”
“–with a gun pointed at their chest. The Machine helps us live longer, happier lives. Why can’t you just accept that? It’s not like it hurts you.”
“Oh, never mind, too late.”
“–not yet, but it’s wrong, and you’re spreading the disease. And sooner or later they’re going to make diagnosis mandatory, and everyone who has, say, CHILDBIRTH, won’t be allowed to have kids, infringing on the rights of perspective mothers everywhere and preventing the birth of thousands of children.”
“Ow. My head.”
“Jorges Lisbone. Jorges Alexandre Lisbone.”
“Where did he come from?”
“ I tried to tell you, but you were arguing. You missed a really great fight. And you managed to spoil my opener.”
“Oh, that’s all right. There will be more along shortly. Unfortunately, you won’t be here to watch the action. You are about to be unconscious for a while.”
“What! You double-crossing, backstabbing–” Arkivani collapsed.
“I do not make the rules, friend. After all, you were the one who was keen on living.”
Langley poked his head into the surgery where Molde and his tech had the freezer. “How’s it coming?”
“It’s getting near dawn.”
Molde threw his spanner across the room. “Then find us something explosive!”
“ It’s a pity we don’t have the Machine of Death with us. Rumor is it’s fueled the fusion of some unstable new element. Idiom or Ridiculum or something.”
“Which is why we have to plug it in.” Molde commented, dryly. “I’d give money to be looking at the inside of that thing instead of this freezer.”
“You think you could figure out how to cannibalize it? Do you know how it works?”
“Well I know that it works on the basis of a blood test, which almost certainly means DNA testing. Then it could predict death based on genetic conditions and tendencies: strokes, heart attacks, allergic reactions, diabetes.”
“But what about accidents? Drownings and car wrecks?”
“That’s where it gets harder, but the DNA is like a finger print. It’s one of the few things that’s always the same. My thought is that the central component of the Machine, the antedator, somehow taps into an alternate time-line, where the termination of our DNA is happening at the present moment.”
“That’s creepy. But it’s like a time machine?”
“No, it just finds an alternate dimension. A universe where our time-line is in advance of the one happening now.”
“But if it’s alternate, everything’s different there.”
“Some things. Not the death. No matter the universe, Admiral Arkivani will always, always be killed by being BLOWN UP.”
“What about the second time?”
“The Machine is always right. It didn’t name two deaths. The admiral is going to be BLOWN UP again.”
“ Oh, lord .”
“How’s the admiral doing, by the way?”
“ He’s got a pulse. Listen, if you’re desperate, I’ve got some C-4 in my bag.”
“I’m going to need something with a bang to ignite that.”
“Give me a minute to raid the pharmacy.”
Ross ran past “Situation!”
A wild-haired man in glasses stood over Admiral Arkivani. “Don’t shoot him! I just fixed him!” the doctor cried.
“All of you! On the floor or he gets it!”
“You speak English!”
“ Yes. And other things too.” He yelled something in Klassi. Men thundered up the stairs. The doctor lunged at him, syringe in hand. The other flew off balance and fired a shot. They rolled around on the floor. The gun exploded again. The doctor fell limp and the Krashim struggled to his feet. “On the floor!” Langley fell to the floor, and grabbed the man’s ankle. He fell to the floor with an audible crack. There was pounding on the door at the top of the stairs.
“I need something flammable!” Langley shouted.
“Darcy, get him some acetone!” Ross shouted. She turned to the signalman. “Help me get him to a patient room.”
“They should caught on hours ago!” He bundled Arkivani into a sheet.
“ My guess, Vaughn made too much noise and everyone left before we got here. Here.” She pointed through a window to the balcony. The sun’s coming up. Hear that?”
They slid the Admiral onto a bed. “Well, there was smoke too.” Shots sounded nearby. “They’re trying to shoot through the bar on the door. You, open the window, throw a rope down and find transportation. There should be some airfields that way if you can’t find a jeep.” She slid into the surgery. Mr. Darcy and Langley were dumping jugs of acetone into the innards of the freezer as Molde packed C-4 into the sides.
“Not too much.” Molde cautioned, “Mostly, the vapors are explosive, and there needs to be room.”
“Can you rig some kind of delayed detonator?”
“After you’ve doused all the circuits with acetone?”
“C’mon, we’ve got to get out of here; just do your best.” She bundled the rest into the patient’s room and sent the electrician’s assistant and Darcy down the line. Their patrolmen were gone. Ross wrapped Arkani in several layers of sheets and Langley wrapped him in an improvised diaper harness, and they lowered him through the window. Darcy and the assistant picked up Arkivani between them and trotted away. Langley slid down out of the window after Ross. He glanced behind and pushed her forward. “Run!”
“What about Molde?”
He grabbed her arm and jerked her behind him. “Run!”
They were nearly to the treeline when the second story of the building exploded outward in a shower of wood chips and smoke. “How much explosive did you give him ?!”
“Enough!” They peeled themselves from the ground and sprinted into the trees. They stumbled from the trees onto a graveled lot moments later. Mr. Darcy had just slung Arkivani across the back seat of one of the jeeps.
“Are the others left already?”
“ They were heading for the airfield!” the engineering tech shouted.
“Ross and I will take the Admiral. I’ll see you two in Klungton!”
They peeled down the graveled road as another explosion rocked the ground. “You weren’t the only one with explosives, I see.”
“They had a detonator.”
“Oh. Where does this road lead?”
“Um. Toward the pass?”
They spun down the road and onto a much wider dirt road. Fliers whined overhead. Behind them, Ross heard the roar of engines. “Langley?”
“Too far behind to catch us, I hope.”
They zipped past a clearing. “Stop!”
Langley pumped the breaks. “What is it?”
Ross pulled out her pistol. “Vaughn!” He sat atop a pallet of boxes on ATCAT. The ground was littered with bodies.
“Hurry! Get the Machine, they’re sending reinforcements!” Langley none to gently helped Vaughn heaved the boxes into the bed of the to the jeep.
“Drive.” commanded Langley as the first of their pursuers rounded the curve. Shots zinged past. A grenade landed in the back seat of the car, Langley heaved it out, and it exploded in mid-air. He glanced back. One of the jeeps had a rocket launcher mounted in the roll bar. “This is ridiculous.”
“Not as ridiculous as it’s going to get. Look!” A group of jeeps was parked across the road.
“Ah! We’ve reached the second camp, then. Ram them.”
“What?” Ross crashed forward into the left-most jeep.
“Keep your foot on the accelerator! Now!” Langley leaned over the back of the seat and wrenched the stick into reverse. It whined backwards. He threw it into forward gear, grabbed the wheel and gave it a hard left. They crashed off the road and down onto the side of the embankment. Langley pulled the stick into four wheel drive.
“ I’d rather you didn’t.” Ross gunned the engines and plowed back onto the road. She glanced back. The Krashim were in hot pursuit. A bullet skipped off the edge of the windshield, followed on the other side by a rocket.
Langley ripped the packing case open.
“What are you doing?”
Langley shoved Vaughn back against the windshield. “No, you don’t! We came back for you, and at great expense to ourselves, I might add. If we can wire the mysterious antedator to the printer, to samplers in our arms, Molde thought we might make some sort of life-preservation machine.”
“But we don’t have samplers or whatever.”
Langley pulled a mass of tubes from his bag. “I pinched some from the infirmary. Molde theorized the Machine punched a hole through to an alternate dimension containing a later time-line to find the point at which the DNA input terminated. It can then offer a description. A sort of ‘time telescope.’”
“The Machine of Death is a time machine?” Ross asked.
“If it’s easier to think of it that way, then, yes, but only information passes through. If, however, all of us are wired into it at the same time we may be able to trip it into connecting to another time stream in which our combined DNA input is terminated, that is, we are not all wired to it at the same time. And when it gives us the name of the person to die or be disconnected, we can simply steer the car away to keep that from happening.”
“But the Machine of Death is never wrong!”
“Deaths are always the same, no matter the time-line. Injuries and separation may vary. Anyway, this isn’t an actual Machine of Death anymore.”
“ Riiiight …So you think if we’re still hooked up to this thing in the future, it must be a good thing?”
“It means the Krashim don’t have it yet. Ah! I’ve got it! Now to wire it into the car battery!” Langley scrambled over Vaughn with a pair of bolt cutters.
“Ross! Pop the hood!” The hood flew open. Langley bent down with the bold cutters.
“I don’t think think this is such a good–” The hood ripped free and flew above her head.
The Machine coughed out a scrap of paper, Langley leaped up and caught it. “VAUGHN! Take a left now!”
As she swerved, a missile crashed into the soft earth beside them “Agh!” Vaughn cried “The needle came out!”
“ Don’t be such a baby! Jam it in again! ARKIVANI! Swerve right!” A rocket grazed the right side of the car and she swerved.
“I don’t think this is very accurate.”
“ No, his needle’s slipped out. ALL! Fire at will!”
Langley snatched his pistols and fired. The tires of a Krashim jeep pursuing them burst with an audible pop. “I need ammo! Do you mind?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Langley pulled a handful of gears out of the box and sent one spinning with a flick of his wrist. It glanced off the windshield of one of their pursuers. Langley leaped up and grabbed the paper from the air “VAUGHN. Again.”
“Agh.” Ross slumped in the drivers’ seat.
“Vaughn! Drive!” Langley jerked the seat into recline and slid Ross out from under it. A bullet wound in her left shoulder seeped crimson.
“I think they got me.”
“Only a graze.”
Arkivani opened his eyes. “Vaughn, you idiot! What have you been doing? This should have been routine.” He croaked.
“You lie.” Ross replied. “Nice to see you, Admiral.”
“Was this your prediction?”
“I think I’m going into shock.”
“Blast! Ross! What was your prediction!”
She grinned. “I never got one. Let’s see those jerks try to kill me now.”
Langley jerked the needle out of his and Arkivani’s arms “Ok. Let’s try re-inserting yours.”
“ They’re mad we blew that freezer up. ”
“She’s getting incoherent again.” Arkivani commented.
“No, she’s just stating fact. Earth to Ross! You’re going to die from a BROKEN NECK!”
Her eyes snapped open. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone ever said to me. Figures Mom was right.”
“Now don’t go dying!”
“Can’t. Here, root around in the glove compartment and see if you can find me a flare gun.”
“We’re coming through the second mountain range now! Just another half-hour!” Vaughn shouted.
“Ha!” Ross cried, flying backwards as the gun discharged.
“What are you doing? That’s not going to hurt them in the close range.” Arkavani asked.
“ Maybe not, but the brightness might blind them for a minute―like looking at a lightbulb!”
“Ow! What are you doing!”
“Re-inserting the needles.”
“In Ross, who is bleeding profusely and the Admiral who just got a bunch of new blood? I think we can all agree that didn’t work. When it said ALL, nothing happened, and when it said me, she got hit.”
Arkivani held up a hand. “Actually, It just didn’t work the way you thought it would. After all, when she got hit, her’s stayed in, but we did disconnect all the needles.”
“ It shouldn’t have said Vaughn yet unless we had already disconnected and reconnected them. ” Langley protested.
“But you were on course to do so. She didn’t fly out of the jeep when she was hit, which means–”
The driver’s seat was empty.
“Arkivani, take the wheel!”
“You sure I should be doing that? I’m on a lot of medications―“
“Where’d he go?”
“ So what got him? That’s pretty dramatic―” The heavy end of a ladder smashed through the windshield. Ross looked up. Three airships emblazoned with the Klungton sigal hovered overhead.
“The others got through!” Ross cried.
“Or they saw the smoke. Stop accelerating, you fool!” Langley pushed Ross over the ruined windshield, and grabbed the end of the ladder.
“What about the Machine?”
“Argh!” Langley grabbed it by one of its lead sampling cords and yanked it up. The printer dangled from its cord. The power cord came off in a shower of sparks. “C’mon!”
Arkivani grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder and pulled himself up.” The airship whined upwards. “You know, I think when you pulled those cords, some other cords came unstuck too!” he yelled into the air.
Above, Ross and Langley crawled upward.
“ There’s going to be a crash! I hope they’re not firing at–” The jeep hit the others, turned a somersault, spraying Machine of Death parts, and landed with a crash. The battery was still sparking wildly. The jeep burst into flame, then, with a loud pop, exploded in a mushroom cloud.
“So they died of the Machine of Death anyway.” Mrs. Klungton concluded two days later. “My, my.”
“As it turns out, their fear of the Machine was justified after all.” Arkivani replied.
“Yes. Unfortunately, you were only able to bring me a tenth of its mass.”
“ It is, however, fully functional, well, to the degree that it was made to be.”
“And at great physical loss to ourselves, I might add.” Ross asserted.
“Very well, I expected the insurance charges. Let me see, who I should make this check out to?”
“Yes, with my life-insurance money, that may just be enough to buy us a new airship.”
“Admiral, you can’t collect your own life-insurance.”
“That’s what they want you to think, Sargeant.”
“That’s ‘Commander,’ Admiral. I’m still in charge of this thing.” She walked to the door where Langley waited. He took her hand.
“Nice doing business with you, Mrs. Klungton”
“ Well, thank you for doing business with me, Admiral. You’ve just helped hundreds of people live longer, happier lives, prepared for their final rest.”
Arkivani turned. “I don’t believe I have. Death is only temporary, Mrs. Klungton, but sometimes, he’s worth it. Good day.”