Tapping her foot impatiently, and feeling anxious for the first time in a while, Henrietta waited outside of the safe room with Arthur and their marine escort. She had refused to enter until the other prisoners had joined them, but they were past due now. Listening to the battle still going on above them, she thought this through, feeling something coming to her.
Then it hit her.
“Take me to the cafeteria,” Henrietta ordered the sergeant. “Something’s not right.”
The sergeant straightened up, saying almost mechanically, “Ma’am, protocol dictates that we get you to a secure—”
“To hell with that protocol,” she replied sharply. “There’s something grievously wrong with this picture. The prisoners and their escort should have been here long before now. I intend to see for myself what’s going on.”
Though the sergeant had his reservations, he agreed with her. The men he sent for the pickup should have shown up long before now.
“You, too, Arthur,” Henrietta said as the marines led the way. “I can’t risk losing track of you as well.”
“R-right,” Arthur replied as they sprinted the short distance to the cafeteria. “Do you think this is Arras’ doing?”
“I can’t imagine who else it would be,” said Henrietta. “If she’s really awake, that might mean her nanomolecular network is back up and running, which spells all kinds of trouble for us.”
“With all due respect, Madam President,” Arthur said, trying to keep up, “I don’t think her network is operating at full capacity right now. She may be dead in the water, so to speak.”
“Still… I still have to be sure.”
They arrived at the cafeteria, finding no one outside and the door ajar. The marines opened the door the rest of the way quickly, entering the empty room.
Henrietta took this confirmation in stride, planning their next step.
“Sergeant,” she said, “radio your men in the underground. I want to know their positions. Be subtle about it, though. Make it routine.”
Following more willingly now, the sergeant called for a check-in through his radio to all units in the black site. Together, he and Henrietta listened to each reply, keeping track of the reported positions. The moment the list of locations ended, Henrietta came to her next realization.
“I don’t understand,” the sergeant grunted. “None of these positions are correct. Half of these people are at the wrong post. They must have moved on their own.”
“We’ve been had,” Henrietta concluded. “I don’t know how, but they’ve managed to tamper with our communications. Obviously Arras has Vale and the Eicks. They’ll be heading for the gamma lift, it’s the only one not guarded right now.”
Furrowing her brow, studying the marines around her, she felt like a fool. Regardless of what special means Arras might be using, she still couldn’t believe she had missed the warning signs until then.
“This ends now,” she finally said. “Consider your radios untrustworthy. I want you to cut these people off. We cannot allow Arras Enqelin to leave this facility alive. Find her, and shoot to kill.”
“Madam President,” Arthur interjected, trying to hold back the sergeant and his men for a moment. “If this really is Arras, then she has civilians with her. If we bring lethal force to bear, we could risk killing noncombatants.”
“I’m sympathetic, Arthur, I really am,” Henrietta confessed, “but we’re past such luxuries. It’s regrettable, but those civilians must now be considered necessary losses.”
“If we lose Arras and her weapon today,” Henrietta replied, raising her voice, “then they will disappear forever and continue their mission, putting this planet at risk of alien invasion. I cannot allow that, Arthur. I will not.”
Arthur wanted to protest still, but he held his tongue. If she was right, then this really was their last chance to keep Earth safe. Even so, he found this move as unconscionable as it was unavoidable.
“Beta lift is closest,” the sergeant told his men. “We’ll get to the surface from there, cut them off at gamma, end this quickly. Let’s go; on me!”
The sergeant and his men sprinted from the cafeteria, not bothering to radio their plans.; anyone they encountered along the way would get the plan by word of mouth only.
Meanwhile, the gamma lift was already carrying six escapees up to the surface.
As they began the long trip up, Damon radioed Val.
“We are on our way to the extraction point,” he told her. “ETA, ninety seconds.”
“Got it,” Val replied. “I’ll begin reentry in sixty. See you soon.”
“Listen up, boys and girls,” Aurin suddenly announced through all radios in the lift. “We’ve got armed hostiles trying to cut you off at the LZ, just outside this lift. I’ve tried turning them away, but they’re not listening to their radios. I think they’ve discovered our little ploy.”
Responding immediately, everyone in the group with a weapon prepared for a firefight as the unarmed members huddled to the center for cover. Eli and Laura held Milo between them as Virgil and Damon checked their mags.
Virgil then offered Arras his pistol, which she took gratefully. Checking the magazine, finding it fully loaded with 9mm Parabellum rounds, she held it in her left hand, the M9 in her right; this would not be the first time she had to fire two weapons at once. Memories of learning to fire a weapon with both hands flashed through her mind, but she shook them off. She didn’t want to think of the Coalition, or the training they had put her through—right now, it didn’t matter where the training had come from, or how it had come to her. She would use it to get these people out safely.
The lift approached the blast doors overhead; sensing the rising lift, the doors moved aside and the lift raised them into a much like the one through which Damon and Virgil had entered the black site.
Ramming the door open, they stepped out onto an open, concrete plane. Keeping Laura, Milo, and Eli between the three of them, Damon led the way with Arras and Virgil bringing up the rear. There was a runway a couple dozen yards ahead, which had been abandoned once the attack on Nellis’ surface began—that would be their LZ.
As they moved out into the open, they heard the sound of several pairs of boots, growing louder. Not waiting to see for themselves, Damon led everyone behind an armored vehicle sitting at the runway’s shoulder. They ducked down for cover just in time for a few bursts of bullets to bounce off the other side of the vehicle.
“They’re already shooting at us?” Virgil asked Damon, crouching down near the back of the vehicle, keeping the civilians behind the best cover. “It’s no surprise they would shoot at you and me, but we have unarmed people with us.”
“Put your weapons on the ground,” called a marine from the distance, “and come out with your hands above your heads. If you attempt to resist, we will kill you.”
Another barrage of bullets reflected off the other side of their bulky cover, but the tinkling of metal against metal was drowned out by an intimidating roar in the sky.
Looking upward, everyone in that skirmish could see a small ship, covered in flames from the belly up, plummeting down from the clouds. Before hitting the ground, the ship’s wings extended with a proud snap and its vertical-thrust engines flared. A loud crash boomed through the air as a formidable shockwave spread from beneath the ship, despite its high altitude above the runway.
Keeping tight control of the vessel, Val strafed over the surface, taking in the situation for herself. Bullets pinged off of the hull and canopy, coming from the group keeping her friends pinned down. Though the bullets couldn’t do any real damage—the ship had been built for much more ferocious impacts with debris in space—Val still hesitated to touch down.
“Hang on a second,” she told Damon through her radio, “let me find a spot to land where they won’t get to me before you do.”
Watching the ship bob and weave at such a shallow altitude, taking some of the gunfire off of them, Damon radioed Danny for one last attempt at escape.
“We need some help over here,” he yelled through the channel. “We’re under fire, and we can’t get to the ship.”
That was all Danny needed to hear. Accelerating far faster than a normal human being, he ran across the base, heading straight for their position.
“Just hang in there,” he radioed back. “I’m on my way.”