‘Zero’ Continued

As I mentioned in a previous post, it is very hard to resist the pull of a new idea, even when hip-deep in something you’re already enjoying. This happened recently when the idea for Zero, a science fiction novel, occurred to me. Almost before I knew it I had an opening and then some follow-up chapters mapped out in detail in my head. I wanted to get them down and edited to such a stage that I could happily then shelve them and return my attention to The Road Elsewhere.

And so here is the last of what I’ve planned up until this stage. The prologue and an earlier chapter are located here. The chapters in this post are more action-packed and take place a little further down the timeline. They are still rough and subject to change depending on how the over-arching story comes together but I’ve really enjoyed writing them and hope you do to.

It was fun to write some action 🙂

Zero – Continued

The wind roared in his ears over the thunder of his blood. The road wove ahead of him and he let Sin take the corners as tight as he dared, pushing down the waves of pain that swept up him from pretty much everywhere. The biked howled but he didn’t let up, pushing harder, expecting to hear tyres screaming after him or flyers whining overhead at any minute. He counted out his luck second by second as the bike tore down the mountain road and still no one caught up with him.

Even so, he waited until there was a few more miles behind him before he dared to take his eyes off the road long enough to glance at his wrist panel. The emergency meet point was coming up ahead. Swallowing hard against a dizzying wave that was partly pain, partly fear, he deliberately did not let himself wonder what he would do if Captain Hugo wasn’t already there.

A glance behind him showed the pursuit still wasn’t in sight but he knew that wouldn’t last. It has taken an explosion to get him out of that base and even then it was only Sin that had got him out in almost one piece.

His wrist panel blinked as he approached the coordinates of the meet point. Taking a painful breath, he wrenched the handlebars over and heaved the bike off-road in the opposite direction to the little blinking cross on the display. Sin took the change in terrain easily. Webb was relieved his screaming retreat seemed to have yet to take toll on the bike’s suspension. He kept one eye on the display of his wrist panel, judging the distance and spared a couple of glances back over his shoulder as best he could to be sure he left a clear trail through the undergrowth between the trees.

Finally he decided he couldn’t go any further without risking not getting back to the meet point in time and eased off the acceleration, allowing the incline to slow Sin down. As he came to a small clearing he braked and spun the bike in a tight arc to look back the way he’d come. The trees were too dense to see the road but he was pleased to see the deep furrows in the leaf mould that marked his way he’d come. He cut Sin’s engine and listened hard.

For some time all he could hear was his own laboured breathing. The stabbing pain down his ribs every time he inhaled shoved itself into back into his awareness. He hung his head, forcing his breathing to steady and pushed past the pain, clearing his concentration to listen. A long way off, deadened by the intervening trees, were the unmistakable sounds of vehicles moving at speed back along the road. Another harried glance at the readings on his wrist panel confirmed the base’s security had got themselves in gear and were catching up.

With a wince and a curse he pushed down Sin’s kickstand and heaved himself off her. He staggered on a protesting ankle but pulled himself up before he fell, gritting his teeth. When he had gained control over the pulsing pain, he reached out and ran a hand over Sin’s handlebar, a pang sweeping through him. “Sorry, baby,” he muttered, scrabbling about in his pack for charges. When it came to actually attaching the charges to the midnight-black of her chassis he cringed again and almost, almost, considered abandoning the whole plan and re-thinking. But sense told him they would take longer examining wreckage than they would an otherwise empty blast-site. The proximity of the blinking lights on his display told him he had little choice.

Clenching his jaw, he set the charges along the body of the bike before shouldering his pack and turning away. He didn’t look back as he made his way back down the incline. He muttered a little prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening that at least the trees would keep him relatively concealed if they deployed flyers.

Pain lanced up his leg with every step. He pushed on, cursing, wanting to sprint but not managing more than an ungainly stagger. When he reached the openness of the road he risked the time to peer back the way he had come. There was still nothing in sight. “Thanks, Sin,” he sighed, knowing it was the bike that had bought him this time.

Gritting his teeth, he stepped out onto the road, shivering at the feeling of exposure. He was over and in the trees on the other side before he dared to breathe again, body protesting the whole way. But he didn’t slow his pace and kept heading vaguely south, casting about for anything that might look like the meet-point.

The trees span and the blood pounded in his ears and he had to take a precious moment to lean against a tree and attempt to slow his breathing. When he opened his eyes the world was stationary around him once more. The display on his wrist told him he was where he was supposed to be. Looking around he was swamped with relief when he caught the glint of metal further down the incline. As he limped closer he could make out the shape of the captain’s own bike hurriedly stashed in some undergrowth. The relief was quickly dampened however as the silence filled his ears. Nothing living moved around him.

“Captain?” he called, loud as he dared. “Captain Hugo?”

“Quiet!”

Webb had never been so pleased to be reprimanded. Turning in the direction of the noise he saw a dark space sunk into the hillside, partially obscured by a fallen log. The captain’s blood-smeared and scowling face was pale against the dark entrance and he was gesturing with one arm. Kicking himself into gear, Webb scrambled over toward him. The captain’s face disappeared back into the shadows. Webb heaved his pack over the log, dumping it into the darkness beyond and then scrambled in after it. He hit solid concrete with a bump and a stifled cry. The captain’s hand fastened onto his collar and hauled him further back out of the light, deeper into the recess. It was dark and dirty. Webb guessed it was some sort of abandoned bunker left from the wars, just big enough for the two men to sit side by side. The amount of soil and leaf litter on the floor, whilst not particularly comfortable, nonetheless reassured Webb that the place had been unused for many years.

It seemed like no sooner had he been dragged out of sight than the sound of vehicles thundering past on the road above made him freeze. He felt the captain tense in the darkness beside him. The roaring was loud and fast but he estimated at least three vehicles, big ones from the sound, maybe even a couple of bikes too. He felt the captain ease as the sounds passed on. He moved to leave again but Webb grabbed him, pressing a hand to his mouth for quiet. A couple more blinks and Webb’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom enough that he could see Hugo had understood and had moved back against the concrete wall, eyes sharp in the dark.

Sure enough it wasn’t long before noise returned to the road above. Either they had scanning equipment or they realised they had lost the trail somewhere and were backtracking. It wasn’t long before there was the screeching of brakes followed by shouts and curses and orders being bellowed and the sickening sound of men marching down off the road into the trees. It wouldn’t be long before they found the captain’s bike.

“Don’t worry, captain,” Webb muttered, seeing the same conclusions pass over Hugo’s face. “Still got a few tricks up my sleeve.” The captain raised an eyebrow as Webb produced the detonator form his pack. “Bye bye, baby,” he whispered, clenching his eyes shut and pressing the button.

The explosion was enough to rumble the floor underneath them and rattle dust from the ceiling. There were shouts and the sounds of retreating feet and men being ordered back up to the road.

Webb leant back against the wall and rubbed a hand over his face, letting out a shuddering breath. “Not bad for your second mission, huh, Captain?”

Hugo just shot him a glare and attempted to sit up straight. For the first time Webb noticed the stiffness in him and now his eyes were accustomed he saw the captain’s skin was pale and clammy and the blood on his face was from a nasty gash in his forehead. He also cradled his left arm close to his chest.

“Captain?” Webb shifted closer.

“I’m fine,” Hugo grunted, attempting to shift back toward the entrance.

Webb put a hand on his shoulder and dared to push the captain back. “No you’re not. What happened?”

Hugo scowled for a second then looked away. “I jumped out of a window.”

“No disrespect sir, but that was pretty stupid,” Webb said, trying for humour, but the captain didn’t look to be in the mood. Webb cleared his throat and changed tack. “Seriously though sir, we are relying on each other to get out of here. I need to know what’s wrong.”

Hugo’s scowl deepened and Webb could tell it was because he couldn’t deny the logic in this. “Crack to the head,” he muttered. “Broken forearm. Everything else pretty much hurts like hell.”

“Let me look,” Webb ordered, but as he reached out his hand the captain recoiled. “Captain, trust me. I need to see if you have concussion.” He cast Webb an unreadable look up and down but suffered him to shine a lenslight in both his eyes. “Maybe slight concussion,” Webb muttered, not happy, before turning his attention to the arm. Hugo held it protectively curled against his chest and it hurt too much for Webb to even touch it, confirming the captain’s suspicion of a break. By some miracle Hugo had managed to salvage his pack also and Webb dug through it, aware that time was ticking by, until he found the med kit. “We can’t do much except bind it to your chest Captain, for support,” Webb said, pulling out a length of bandage. Hugo’s face darkened further. “Come on, sir. It’s not like you’re going to be able to use it.”

So Hugo suffered his commander to help him shoulder out of his coat and shift his wrist display from his bad to his good arm before binding the left one across his chest, wincing as the bindings tightened over the break but not making a noise. Webb took the opportunity to cast a glance over the rest of him as he awkwardly helped him get the coat back on over the bindings. The captain’s skin was drawn and clammy and his breathing was shallow and pained. He knew better than to try and feel for further damage though. Neither one of them said internal bleeding out loud, but he could see in the captain’s eyes that he was determinedly not saying the words just as much as Webb.

“Right,” Webb said instead. “You hold fast. Your bike won’t take us both but I think I know where I can get some transport.”

“No,” Hugo growled. “We go together.”

“With all due respect, sir, I would be faster alone. They won’t hang about when they realise we’re not scattered amongst the wreckage of Sin.”

“No, commander. This whole mess is because we got split up. We can’t let it happen again.”

Webb bit his tongue on the automatic response, took a breath. “It wasn’t your fault, captain.” The captain stiffened and he opened his mouth but Webb cut in. “It wasn’t. Did you not think that all seemed a little too easy?”

All the captain did in response to this was raise one bloody eyebrow.

“Well, not the getting out,” Webb conceded. “But the getting in?”

The captain raised both eyebrows this time.

“Come on, captain, think about it. Next no resistance right up until the point we got to the lab. And then they somehow managed to split us up, still damned if I can figure out how. And suddenly half the base’s security force was up my ass. Your idea to hide the bikes on the base was the only thing that got us out.”

The captain grimaced and his glance slid away.

“Smelt like a trap to me,” Webb next to whispered. “They wanted us for something. So they’ll be back.” Webb was already clicking commands on his wrist panel, coming up with a map of the immediate area and shifting back to the bunker entrance before the captain grunted another order to wait. Webb ground his teeth but bit off the retort before it made it out his mouth.

“Commander,” Hugo repeated, voice stronger. “What’s your status?”

Web blinked. “Sir?”

“You heard me. I’m relying on you too and you don’t look so hot, either. What happened?”

Webb glanced away awkwardly. “Urm…I blew myself up.” It might have been the dark but Webb almost swore he saw a twist of humour in the captain’s face when he looked back.

“That’s even stupider than jumping out a window.”

“Debatable,” Webb countered and moved again to leave.

“Status, commander,” the captain barked.

Webb exhaled loudly and clenched his eyes shut, lowering his walls to allow the pain he had pushed away to seep back into his awareness. “Burns and scrapes. Superficial. Sprained ankle. Bruised ribs…probably cracked,” he relented as another shoot of red pain rode up through him. “Oh, and dislocated shoulder,” he flashed the captain a quick grin. “But I fixed that. Sit tight, captain. I’ll be right back.”

“Commander, I won’t let you go alone – ”

Webb hauled together his remaining patience with a gargantuan effort and hunkered back down next to Hugo. “Here, look,” he punched a couple of commands into the captain’s and then his own wrist panel. A little green light started blinking in the corner of each. “You have my heartbeat and I have yours. You can monitor me from here. Trust me. I promise I’ll be back.” And he managed to slink out, clambering back over the log before the captain could protest further. He only hoped the new captain had the sense to do as he was told.

Webb moved west, parallel to but out of sight of the road. He clung to the hope that the security forces were too busy sifting through Sin’s blast site to worry about extending the search but he also knew what he told the captain was the truth. Breaking in had been too easy, the escape too hard and the pursuit too desperate for Webb to believe that they would just count their losses and let them slip away without hard proof that they were gone or dead.

Pushing all thoughts aside, he concentrated on moving west as fast as his ankle allowed. It had clouded over which seemed to be making night draw in quickly, making him feel a little easier about the impact his twisted ankle was having on his ability to move stealthily. It wasn’t long before the wrist panel told him he was level with the place he wanted to be but he still paused out of sight of the road to allow his pained breathing to calm before he dared to approach the break in the trees.

There was no traffic, no sounds and nothing moving. The tourist car park across the road had four vehicles pulled up in it. “Thank god for hikers,” he muttered and hurried over the road.

It took even less time than he expected to break into one of the little civilian cars and hotwire the controls. The engine coughed to life and he offered up silent thanks to the unfortunate tourist whose car he was hijacking and hoped they had comm units or phones that worked out in these hills.

He ignored the panic that rose in him at the sound the engine made as he roared it back east down the road, concentrating only on the plan. A glance at his wrist panel showed the captain’s heartbeat blinking away in the corner but Webb wasn’t happy with how sluggish it seemed and dared a bit more speed. His own pain rose in waves of white and red behind his eyes as the car went over uneven surfaces until he felt like it was jolting his bones through his skin.

It wasn’t long before he had to slow down, turning a corner into the stretch of road that was familiar. He swallowed as he saw the company four-by-fours and a couple of motorbikes pulled up on the north side of the road a little further down. But there was no one around. They must still be investigating up the hill. He wasted no time on pulling up on the other side and hurrying back down the slope to the bunker.

The captain was where he’d left him. Webb swallowed a stab of worry seeing how he’d barely moved but was relieved when the captain’s eyes snapped open and focused on him as he scrambled back into the narrow space. “Come on, sir. Your ride awaits.”

It took more effort than he cared to admit to shoulder both the packs and help the captain back out of the bunker and up the slope to the waiting car. He outweighed Webb and, though he obviously tried hard to hide it, he was struggling to hold himself upright. They paused at the tree line but it looked like none of the enemy had returned. Satisfied their luck was holding for now, Webb bundled Hugo as gently as he could into the passenger seat, threw their packs in the back with the jumble of civilian clothing and limped back round to the driving seat. He coaxed the engine to life once more but didn’t dare accelerate too hard until they were further down the road and the enemy vehivles had disappeared from the rear view. Then he ignored the protests of his ankle and floored it.

“Commander,” Hugo’s warning lost some of its power with the pain that cracked his voice.

“Don’t worry Captain,” Webb grinned, flinging the car around a corner. “This I can do. There’s a town this way, all I need is a system on the solarnet to get a secure message to the Zero. Think you can hang on?”

Hugo just grunted and shifted uncomfortably, probably knowing he had little choice. Webb resisted glancing at him and focussed on the road. He sped the little old motor as fast as he dared, knowing interference from local law enforcement for speeding was the last thing they needed, but also not trusting the luck that had got them this far to last much longer.

Dark drew in quickly and he turned on the car’s lights, taking the bends fast enough for his stomach to protest. Hugo’s continued silence, punctuated only with the hitches of pain and laboured breathing only served to make it harder to force down the desire to slam on the accelerator. He dared to reach out his hand once after the captain had gone particularly still and touch the back of his hand to the captain’s forehead. Hugo flinched and a scowl darkened his features but Webb ignored him, touching the back of his hand to the flesh of the captain’s arm to where he could reach, confirming he was indeed burning up. “You have to try and stay awake, Captain,” Webb said, trying to keep his voice steady.

“I am,” Hugo grumbled. “Focus, Commander.”

Webb bit back a retort but did as he was told. Soon the road straightened out, the trees gave way to buildings and the road was lit with street lights. Relief washed through him but he made himself slow down, aware of the increasing traffic and the street cameras. It was rush hour and the queues made him swear. He kept hopefully peering out the windows looking for quieter side-streets that wouldn’t take them too far off course.

It felt like a long time before he spotted something suitable and pulled the car round with a jerk that had the captain grousing. Ignoring him, he crept the car along and scanned the closed up shops and businesses, ignoring the questioning stare he could feel coming from Hugo. The occasional civilian flyer zoomed overhead but nothing with flashing lights or sirens and he let himself breathe normally. Turning another corner he found another street of shut up shops that was even more deserted than the last and decided there wasn’t much else for it but to chance it. He pulled over and cut the engine, trying to avoid the clearest angle on the nearest street camera.

“Where are we?” Hugo asked and Webb winced at the strain in his voice.

“No idea, captain. But I think I’ve found what we need. Sit tight.”

“Wait,” Hugo snapped as Webb opened the door.

“Trust me, captain,” Webb implored.

“Wait, Webb. That’s an order,”

Webb had little choice other than to obey since the captain had used his good hand to lock a death-grip on his sleeve. He bit off a retort, painfully aware of the seconds ticking by and turned back.

“You look like shit,” Hugo muttered, scowling at him.

“Yes, I am aware, Captain, now let me go, we don’t have time…”

“No,” Hugo snapped. “I mean, just look.”

Webb followed the captain’s look and took a proper look at himself in the rear view mirror. He grimaced. What little of his face that was not mired with dirt was covered in blood. His hair was stiff with more of the same and his clothes were a scorched and bloody mess. Anyone even catching half a glance of him would call the emergency services, either before or after screaming bloody murder.

“Ok. I take your point,” Webb muttered.

Hugo was already trying to work his way out of his coat which, whilst dusty and dirty, was long and more or less in one piece.

“Here,” Webb said and leant in to help. He got a look but Hugo didn’t argue and Webb managed to help untangle him from it with only the minimum of muttered curses. Webb pulled the coat on over his ripped flight suit and then rifled through the civilian gear piled on the back seat, almost laughing with relief when he found a battered old baseball cap. He pulled it down low on his face and hoped it would hide most of the blood and scrambled out of the car.

The night air had a bite of chill and he shivered as he straightened carefully, clenching his teeth against the stabbing pains from his ankle and ribs. His shoulder throbbed too but he just pulled the coat around him as best he could and ducked his head and moved up the street as sedately as he could manage, forcing himself not to limp.

The drug store he had spotted was not far and also at a bad angle for the street camera. Taking a deep breath, he set to work on the door keypad. It took him longer than it would have done normally to crack the code. The waves of nausea and dizziness washing through him were getting harder to push aside. He cursed as he struggled to focus but eventually the doors hissed open and he let out a shuddering breath, slipping inside.

Thankfully the place was not big enough to have an automatic lighting system though he guessed there was probably motion detectors and cameras at least. He found the control box to the alarm system near the door and disabled it with less trouble than door panel and then moved out of sight of the windows, down the small rows of shelves to the shop counter.

He muttered yet another prayer of thanks to whoever had been listening to them so far when he saw that the store’s till system was advanced enough to be connected to the solarnet. It was old though and took its time booting up. He resisted the urge to kick it, slumping in a chair and rubbing his temples. Finally, it was all online and he hacked in with little difficulty. The connection and comm system were jittery and slow but working and he started typing in the codes that would get him a secure visual link to the Zero.

There was a bit of stalling and static, partially the code talking its way around the Zero’s system failpoints and partly the drug store’s ancient connection and then finally Rami’s face flickered into focus.

“Commander?” Webb saw her trying to fight a a smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise,” Webb replied, feeling a grin spread across his own face.

“I know how you like to keep us on our toes, Zeek but…” she paused and her brow furrowed as her eyes looked him up and down. “Jesus, what happened this time?”

“No time to explain, Rami,” he sighed, pulling the baseball cap lower on his brow, “but please, God, tell me you observed protocol?”

She gave a stiff nod. “When you weren’t at the pick up point we retreated back to orbit.”

“Thank fuck,” Webb sighed.

“What’s going on?”

Webb shook his head. “One of my bad feelings.”

Her face hardened.

“Maintain comm silence until further notice,” he said and she nodded. “Listen, Lieutenant,” he continued. “The captain’s in pretty bad shape. We need to get him back to the Zero. Where’s the nearest place you could come get us?”

Webb saw her studying a monitor out of sight, heard the sounds of keys clicking. He felt his heart sink as her face darkened. “You’re in a pretty sticky location there, Webb. That company have bases and monitoring stations everywhere.”

“There must be something.”

He saw her jaw tighten. “There’s an abandoned air field to the north, about sixty miles. Should be able to slip through the local monitoring in that area, it’s not that heavy.”

Webb swore. “Nothing closer?”

Rami shook her head. “Only if we risk getting picked up on the city monitoring and dodging what they send at us.”

“No,” Webb said, rubbing his eyes. “They’d fling everything at us…” He clenched his eyes shut, thinking of the captain. “We’ll be at the airfield in an hour….. have the sick bay ready.”

“How bad is he?”

“Not good…this whole thing stinks, Rami. I think they were after him. Captain Hugo. Alive. He did his damnedest to beat them by nearly killing himself but as that hasn’t worked we need to get him away. But get the prof digging. I want answers.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh and, Rami…”

“Don’t worry, Commander,” she gave a tight smile. “Already wiping the store’s camera banks.”

“And the street cameras too,” he replied, smiling himself. “Just in case. Oh, and Rami? Put some credits in this store’s account. I’m going to take some supplies.”

“Bleeding heart Webb,” she mumbled, keys tapping and eyes elsewhere.

“See you in an hour, Rami,” he said, firmly.

“Better had, Commander. Out.”

And the screen went blank. Webb glanced at his wrist panel. The captain’s heartbeat was still steadily flashing in the corner. They had an hour. That would be more than enough usually with Webb’s driving but he knew he’d have to avoid the highway. He pulled up the local area map on the display, worked out a route that would avoid the main drags but hopefully wouldn’t add too much time to the journey, then hauled himself upright.

The store was better stocked than he had initially hoped for such a small business and he wasted no time loading the pockets of the coat and flight suit with pain killers, a bottle of water and some energy drinks. He opened and downed one of the bitter energy drinks as he hobbled back to the doors. The waves of pain coupled with exhaustion from thirty six hours without rest were threatening to pull him under. He blinked back the grey tickling at the corners of his vision. All they would need right now would be for him to fall asleep at the wheel.

The dark street was still deserted when he eased himself back out the automatic doors, keying in the code to reset the alarm. A leap of panic jolted him when he got back tot he car and it appeared to be empty, but then saw the captain had laid himself awkwardly across the front seats, out of sight. He started as Webb pulled the door open, pulling himself upright with difficulty. In the thin street light his skin looked even greyer and he even forgot to scowl.

“Here,” Webb said, dumping his supplies in the driver’s seat and shouldering himself out of the coat. The captain’s lack of protest as he wrapped the coat around his shoulders unnerved him more than he liked to admit. He opened a bottle of water and handed it over. Hugo took it without word and dutifully sipped, eyes closed.

“Report,” he croaked as Webb cleared and then eased himself back into the driver’s seat.

“I’ve got a pick up point. An hour to the north.”

Hugo didn’t reply and but his gaze slid sideways as Webb swallowed some pain pills with another energy drink. “Status?”

“Damn site better than you, Captain,” Webb muttered, blinking at the dizziness again and willing the caffeine to kick in. The car growled to life and they pulled out, the captain once more lapsing into silence. Webb concentrated on not going too fast though his pulse was pounding in his ears and his skin with itching with the sensation of being watched. Even when they pulled out onto better lit roads with more traffic and no one paid them any mind, he couldn’t entirely shake the feeling.

“I think you were right,” Hugo said suddenly. “There was something not right with that mission.”

“You can say that again,” Webb muttered.

“We’ll have to be…careful.”

Webb slid him a glance of his own. “I’ve told the prof to do some digging.”

The captain gave a tight nod. His good arm was clutched across his bad and his eyes looked heavy. Webb winced and leaned forward and switched on the radio. Something local music station clanged to life and he saw the captain start and then wince in turn.

“Sorry sir, but you need to try and stay awake.” Webb saw him grit his teeth but he didn’t reply. Webb let the music fill him and anchor him, wove in and out of the traffic bearing always north. He didn’t breathe easily again until they pulled off onto another side street and the traffic diminished. He was just daring to think that maybe they were going to get out of the town unseen when sirens started blaring somewhere behind them and lights began flashing in the rear view. His hands tightened convulsively on the wheel and he threw a glance over his shoulder. “Shit. Guess that’s our luck all up. Buckle up, Captain.”

The captain swore as the car leaped forward. Webb gritted his teeth and swung round another car and gunned the little vehicle as hard as it would go. The radio was lost in the roaring of the engine. Webb overtook the little traffic their was at a speed that jerked them about in their seats. The lights and sirens fell behind but Webb wasn’t fooled. He spared a quick glance at his wrist panel. Another fifty miles to go.

“Jeeps,” the captain said. Webb spared a glance from the road to see the captain had produced some binos from somewhere and was craning to look out the rear windscreen.

“Not locals, then,” Webb gritted. He flung them around a bend in the road just as there was a roaring whine and blinding light as two flyers sped overhead. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Don’t worry,” the captain grunted. “They won’t shoot us.”

Webb ground his teeth. The fact that they hadn’t already been reduced to a twisted pile of flaming wreckage from the flyers’ guns confirmed this and if they weren’t out to gun them down, there was not much they could do besides keeping an eye on where they were going, but their presence far from reassured him. He muttered darkly as he sent them hurtling around another bend. The road inclined steadily and, heading further up the mountain. It was worse than he’d thought from what he’d seen on the maps, twisting and dark. He tightened his hands again on the wheel, letting his instincts work the car, using the increasing pain as an anchor to push back the blackness that kept threatening to sweep over his vision.

The little car hugged every curve and straight in the road Webb couldn’t quite believe it every time he checked his wrist panel and saw he was managing to keep distance between them and their pursuers. He made a mental note of the make of the car, vowing to get one for the Zero. The captain used his binos to keep an eye out the back to start with but Webb soon noticed the knuckles of his good hand were white around them and his soon kept still, eyes locked ahead.

Eventually, even though Webb was the more reckless driver, the fact that the company men knew the roads better and were in more powerful vehicles begin to show. Their four-by-fours ate the road hungrily and it wasn’t long before the headlights were flashing in his rear view again.

“How much further?”

“Not far. Hang on, captain,” Webb warned, a little too late as he flung them off the main road and onto a dirt track that had been almost hidden in the trees. The little car jerked and bucked beneath them. The captain grunted and Webb felt a hiss of his own escape his teeth. But he blinked past the pain and the tyres bit into the dirt and they sped off in a wash of dust and grinding wheels. The flyers did another pass overhead, their lights washing the gaps between the trees in blinding white. Webb cursed again but managed to keep on track. When the Jeeps’ lights didn’t immediately reappear behind them Webb dared to hope they hadn’t noticed his change in direction. The flyers would have scanners though and it wouldn’t be long before they figured out where they’d gone. But it might just be enough time.

All his hopes died when he glanced at the time on his wrist panel. “Fuck.”

“What?”

Webb drew a deep breath and forced his eyes to stick to the track, bouncing in and out of view in the car’s headlights. “We’re early.”

“How early?”

“The Zero’s not due for another twenty minutes.”

The captain might have said something but the car pitched through a rough bit of the track, that made Webb’s teeth clatter his head. When the headlight beams levelled out again he slammed on the brakes before ploughing straight into a pair of iron gates. The dust cleared and he leaned forward, seeing the solid iron loomed up out of sight into the dark above them. There was wire fencing and some signs so old and rusted it was impossible to tell what they had once said. “This is it.”

What is it?”

“An abandoned airfield. Sit tight, sir.” Webb didn’t wait for the captain to answer but flung himself out of the car. The quiet was unnerving, hammering in his ears. Above the rasping, wet sound of his breathing there was nothing beside the low hum of the resting car engine. He strained his ears and picked up the distant whine of flyer engines, very faint. He shook himself, limping quickly over to the control panel for the gates. He shed the baseball cap, scraping his stiff hair back from his face and pulled the front off the rusted control box. His heart sank when he saw the state of the wiring underneath, all mildewed and cracking. He wiped his hands on his trousers to try and get rid of the worst of the sweat.

It was just as he was reaching in to try and start rewiring that he heard the sound of tyres gritting on dirt and engines growling in the distance. “Shit.” His heart hammered in his ears and his fingers shook as he pulled and rearranged the wires. “Come on, for fuck’s sake. Come on.” The wires sparked but the gate didn’t open. He was spitting more curses when he felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped.

“You’re shaking too much. Get ready to drive.”

Webb let out a shuddering breath and obeyed without argument for once. The captain bent to the control panel as Webb scrambled back to the car. He was just shutting the car door and checking it was ready to go when, with a grinding of protesting metal, the ancient gates began to swing inwards. “Yes,” Webb crowed, impressed despite himself. He hadn’t suspected hotwiring was on the Service Academy’s curriculum. “Nice one, Captain. Now get your ass back here.”

The captain dropped himself back into the passenger seat and Webb was motoring forward before he’d even shut the door. He could see glimpses of headlights in the trees behind them. The gates had opened about half way and lumbered to a stop but the gap was just big enough for the little civilian vehicle to squeeze through. “Fingers crossed it’s too narrow for the Jeeps,” he mumbled. The captain grunted and one glance at his wrist panel told him there was no way it would delay them long enough.

The car sped through the maze of track on the other side of the gates and it wasn’t long before they were out on the old runway. There seemed to be just nothingness spread in front of them. All they could see in the glow of the headlights was the ancient stretch of tarmac with grass growing high in clumps in the cracks and darkness looming up beyond.

“How much longer?” the captain gritted.

Webb glanced at his display. “Too damn long.”

A tall structure, possible a control tower, appeared out of the night ahead and Webb made for it, an idea forming in his mind. He pulled outside the entrance and killed the car’s engine before flinging himself from the car and moving round to the captain’s door. Hugo was already struggling out of the seat but without much success, seemingly having used up too much energy hotwiring the gate. Ignoring the captain’s protests and grunts of pain Webb grabbed his good arm and heaved it up over his shoulders. Once they were upright they staggered together towards the entrance to the control tower. Webb tried to take the captain’s weight for him, ignoring the waves of red that lapped at his vision as the heavier man leaned into the support.

Webb didn’t know how they made the door but they did. He kicked it open and they stumbled inside. He attempted to lower the captain to the floor carefully but ended up half falling over himself and just dumping him onto the concrete. He rested on his knees a minute, head hanging, arms clenched over his chest. The sweat dripped from the ends of his hair and he spent a minute fighting down the urge to vomit. When he blinked himself back into a state where he could focus, he saw the captain had propped himself against the wall, good arm clutched over his abdomen and face screwed up in agony. It wasn’t long before the sounds of tyres in the distance filtered through to them and the flashing of approaching headlights appeared on the walls around them.

His wrist panel told him there was still twelve minutes to go before the Zero showed up. “Captain. Captain Hugo?” He had to say it twice before the captain blinked his eyes open. “They’re coming. They’ll be here any second. I…we can’t let them get you.”

The captain made an inarticulate noise of protest.

“We don’t have a choice, sir,” Webb replied, gathering together the remnants of his strength to haul himself to his feet. “The enemy want you. I can’t let them get you. The Zero will be here in eleven minutes, if I can just draw them off that long.”

“No, Webb,” the captain croaked. “That’s an order.”

“Sorry sir,” he said and attempted a grin. “You’ll have to throw me in the brig when I come back.”

“Commander,” the captain almost screamed as Webb half staggered, half fell back towards the door.

“I’ll be back, sir. Trust me.”

“Webb! You come back, come back now that’s an order! Damn it, Webb!”

And the door swung shut behind him, muffling the furious shouts. Webb swayed but then managed to straighten and pull his focus back into the wavering present. There were lights and sounds and he could see the Jeeps speeding over the airfield in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before they saw the command tower and the car.

Webb took one big breath through the pain and flung himself back behind the wheel. The engine screamed in agony as he tore it back to life and he flung the wheel round, powering back the direction they’d come. He turned the headlights on full beam so there was no missing him and was gratified to see the bobbing lights of the company Jeeps turn his way. He actually laughed as he sped across the open space, the enemy gaining all the time but leaving the control tower behind. The captain would be safe. Whatever they wanted Hugo for, they weren’t going to get him. He’d drive them into hell first.

He pulled himself together enough to look at the layout of the airfield on his wrist panel. It only took a glance find a closer exit and he floored the accelerator again. He managed to open another of the caffeine drinks and downed it, fighting back the roiling in his stomach and just willing it to kick in. The lights of pursuit flashed in the rear view and the flyers zoomed in low again, almost blinding him. Webb swallowed again as they passed over, still without firing. “Thank fuck,” he whispered, satisfied they must think he still had the captain with him.

The way out he had found wasn’t exactly a proper exit, more a bit of the wire fencing surround that was single layered rather than double. He went at it head on, shutting his eyes at the last minute but not letting up off the accelerator. There was a sickening lurch and a crunch and blackness threatened to take him under once more but when he blinked his vision back he saw he was through the fence and powering down a dirt road. Heart in his mouth, he kept moving and felt the road smooth out under him as he hauled the car back out onto the main road and turned it uphill. He craned back and saw the Jeeps still in pursuit and laughed out loud again. Five minutes, just five more minutes and the captain would be safe.

He twisted the car around a corner, the one working headlight revealing the incline of the road getting steeper as he headed further up the mountain. On his right, sheer cliff face arched up into darkness. On his left, a low iron barrier and then nothingness. Even better, he thought. The company men were bound to take these corners more carefully than he would, especially now he didn’t have the captain to worry about. And sure enough, forcing his awareness above the hammering of his pulse that scoured pain through his limbs, he realised the pursuit were falling back. He knew better than to think he would outstrip them completely and those flyers still made their passes overhead, trying to blind and confuse him with their sweeping lights. But even if he could just pull a little further ahead he may be able to keep his promise to the captain and get out of this after all.

The thought made him grin and he turned the radio up and took the next corner so fast that two wheels left the road entirely. He would have liked to build up a bit more of a lead before executing his plan but the options were stripped from him when a bend in the road brought him in sight of the stretch of road ahead and the road block was beyond the next bend. It was a confused muddle of steady and and flashing lights, illuminating the bank of vehicles and men with guns. Big guns.

“Here we go then, baby,” Webb muttered to the car. “Thanks for everything. See you on the other side.”

His sensible side made him slow fractionally before opening the driver’s door and flinging himself out. There was a sickening moment of nothingness before everything became a wretched mess of bones crunching, skin ripping and a blast of heat and thunder as the car exploded on impact with the barrier. The world for one moment was nothing but agony, blood, fire and spinning. He let everything go and rode the wave of red, forcing it to take him back up to consciousness.

With an effort that made him bite back a cry he opened his eyes. There was dirt and blood in his mouth and a fire burning close enough to sear what skin the was left on his right hand side. The roaring of the perusers was getting louder and his head whirled dangerously. Every pulse of his heart threatened to shatter what was left of the tangled wreck that was his body.

“I have to go back. I have to go back.” He made himself say it over and over, though his mouth didn’t really work. The Jeeps were about to come haring round the corner. One arm obeyed his commands and he pulled himself up onto his elbow, unable to deny the blackness washing through him, but forcing himself to keep moving. He sunk himself into the steady crushing of the blood through his head and clung onto it. He was able to drag himself into he scrub between the road and cliff face. His lifeless legs rolled after him and he collapsed, hoping the filth and blood he was caked in would be enough to hide him amongst the rocks and grass. He was vaguely aware of cars screeching to a halt just feet from his face. People were clambering out, shouting. They all moved toward the fire dancing beyond the twisted remains of the barrier at the other side of the road and then the blackness closed over his head and he fought it no more.

Hugo cursed Webb in every way he could think of and then made up some more on the spot for good measure. He had tried to fling himself after the commander as he’d staggered out the doors but his good hand had closed on nothing and the momentum tipped him forward onto his face. He landed on his broken arm and for a minute knew only white light. He came to a couple of seconds later, just in time to hear the thunder of the little car racing away and see the lights that had been flashing on the walls turn in another direction and fade away along with all the noise.

“Damn him, damn him to hell,” Hugo clung to his anger, fired it and fed it, not wanting to face up to what was underneath; an unpleasant mix of shame, guilt and humility. When he stopped his cursing he realised how quiet it had become. The air was dark and tasted like dust. He bit back on the whiteness that was threatening to drag him under again. There was still five minutes until the Zero would arrive and he had to stay awake, had to get his crew scrambled and send them after Webb. Procedure be damned. He had to get him back safe so he could kick his insubordinate ass.

Everything swirled in and out and he tried desperately to gather enough energy to focus on the little green light still flashing away in the corner of his wrist panel. He clung to that light, breathing in and out, feeling his own pulse racing along with the light’s fevered blinking. Then it was gone. Hugo shook the panel, tapped it with his finger. Still nothing.

“No,” he ground out. “No, Webb, you bastard! No!” Then there was the familiar drone of ship engines and the control tower lobby was flooded with landing light. The ground shuddered below him and more dust rained down from above. The door flung open and he didn’t even try to deny the relief that flooded him when Sub and Bolt’s hulking figures filled the doorway. He saw them cast a glance round, note that he was alone and move forward to help him out without a word.

“Webb,” Hugo croaked, though the whiteness was rearing itself again. “The commander…we have to go after him.” But then he was being hauled up into someone’s arms like he was no more than a rag doll and the white washed over and swamped him.

Time didn’t exist and awareness ebbed and flowed like a leaf on a stream. There was a tangle of white and black, of nasty tastes on his tongue and something bitter ripping through his lungs. He blinked his eyes, could feel them moving, but saw nothing. Every nerve pounded with pain.

There were voices around him. He recognised Rami’s and Rolo’s but couldn’t make his brain understand the words. There was pressure on his face and he was breathing in something cool, something nice, something that made the pain ebb away. Forcing control onto his thoughts, he tried to issue orders. One thought wouldn’t get washed away with the white and that was the image of the green light blinking out and going black on his wrist panel.

Struggling back to the surface on the wings of the thought he tried to make his brain and mouth work even if his eyes could not. But firm hands were holding him down and every breath made him sink further away until there was nothing.

Nothing existed except the whiteness. Time didn’t matter, neither did pain. But there was something there, something just teasing at the edges of thought. It felt like swimming. He’d been under anaesthetic before, knew what it was like coming back. But this was different. His body wanted to stay under. It wasn’t ready to wake. He should just let the flow of it take him back to the white place where it was peaceful and quiet, but he swam against it. He knew he had to come round, he knew he had something to do, someone that needed him.

Pulling himself back took almost more than he had but he finally started to become aware of his limbs. Everything ached. He could measure the length and breadth of his body with the aching. He felt the rise and fall of his breaths and there was a cool, minty taste in his mouth and in his lungs. One arm moved but one arm didn’t. The one that didn’t was just a mass of throbbing. He took three deep breaths, making himself come back to his body, made himself feel the aching of his strained muscles and broken bones, using the pain to rope himself back into his flesh. At last, with an effort of will that almost had him sliding back under, he blinked his eyes open.

He grunted as the lights of sickbay flooded his brain. He felt his heart rate rise and heard a beeping close by increase at the same rate. He forced himself to stay calm. He needed to wake up and get moving and he’d only sink back into the wash of the drugs if he pushed it too far too quickly.

He opened his eyes more slowly and was gratified when they focussed on the bulkhead above him. The sounds of the ship started filtering through, the beep and whirr of equipment thrumming in the background as well as the steady bleeping of his heart monitor. His breaths had an odd, echoing quality and he became aware of the mask covering his mouth and nose. Carefully, he raised his good arm and pulled it off. He took a deep breath of the metallic-tanged air of the Zero and felt his mind clear.

Doctor Spinn’s voice filtered through to him from somewhere close by. “…they’re too good to leave anything that obvious.”

“Well keep digging. Webb’s never been wrong before.”

There was a pause. “Any news?” the doctor asked, almost in a whisper.

Hugo turned his head to the side and could make out Moore’s sombre face on the screen of the doctor’s workstation.

“Nothing yet, Prof. We’ll let you know when there is.” And the screen went blank.

Hugo dragged another breath in, held it and and pulled himself up. The wires and tubes attached to him tightened and he grunted, shutting his eyes against the flashing lights in his head. His left arm throbbed harder.

“Captain!” When Hugo opened his eyes, Spinn was at his bedside, hands hovering as if he were thinking about pushing him him back down. “Captain, you shouldn’t be awake. You need to lie down.”

“Webb,” Hugo croaked, his dry throat cracking. “He’s in trouble, we have to help…”

“Sir, Rami left strict orders – ”

Hugo growled. He used his good hand to pull off the lead for the heart monitor and detach the IV line from his hand. “We have a man in trouble,” he grated out. “I won’t lie around whilst…” He blinked against a wave of dizziness. When he came back to himself he screwed his eyes up, trying to bring the chrono display on the wall into focus with a sinking feeling. “How long have I been out?”

Spinn was hovering, twisting his fingers. “Close to twelve hours now, sir.”

“Twelve hours?” Hugo barked. “What’s happened? Any word from Webb? Have we found him?”

“Sir…” Spinn managed, before just standing and opening and closing his mouth.

Hugo flung off the thin blanket and hauled himself to his feet. Spinn looked like he might object again but Hugo silenced him with a look. He took a second to lean against the bulkhead and wait for his head to stop spinning and the gnawing pain in his abdomen to calm, then left, hurrying toward the bridge. He shivered in the corridor, clad only in a pair of thin sickbay-issue bottoms, but kept moving, left arm in its heavy brace clutched against his abdomen, right arm out extended to steady himself against the bulkhead. The drugs were wearing off and the pain flashed stronger with every step. He pushed it down and kept moving, heaving himself up the stairway to the bridge.

“Report,” he barked as set foot on the bridge, causing Rolo and Moore to jump and look up from where they were bent over the command panel. The viewscreen showed a wide stretch of stars and a spread of the cloudy curve of the earth far below.

“Captain,” Rolo exclaimed in horror. “You shouldn’t be up. Rami said…”

“Report, now. Where the hell are we?”

“In orbit, sir,” Moore responded, more calmly.

“Get back down to that airfield immediately, Sub Lieutenant.”

“Sir, procedure dictates…”

“Fuck procedure. We have a man down there.” He deliberately refused to think about the green light of the commander’s heartbeat blinking to nothing as he lay cursing in the darkness of that abandoned control tower. “Get moving, that’s an order. Or I’m taking a fighter down myself.”

“Sir,” Moore repeated, infuriatingly calm, raising a hand. “Just wait a second. A few hours ago the Zero received a coded transmission.”

“What sort of transmission?” Hugo glowered, surreptitiously leaning against the co-pilot’s seat. Rolo pursed her lips but didn’t say anything.

“It was pretty scrambled,” Moore said, turning and punching commands into the control panel. “But it looks like it was sent from a public comm, not far from the airfield where we found you.”

“What did it say?”

“Not much,” Moore said. “Took some decoding but it looks to be a set of coordinates.”

Hugo blinked up at the display at the bottom of the view screen and saw Moore had pulled up a map of that twice-damned mountain range. “It’s Webb. It’s got to be,” he whispered. “What’s at the coordinates?”

Moore shook his head. “Nothing, sir.” A green cross flashed on the map. “There’s nothing there. Older reports indicate there’s a derelict church on the spot, but nothing else. Miles from the main road.”

“And miles from the local monitoring systems,” Hugo mumbled. He straightened. “Scramble the fighters…”

Moore raised his hand again. “Rami and Bolt are already there, Captain. We apologise that we acted without your knowledge but you were…incapacitated.”

“When did they leave?” Hugo asked, keeping his voice steady despite the coldness he felt welling up inside him.

“They’ve been planet-side a couple of hours now sir,” Moore said quietly. Hugo saw Rolo look at the floor.

“And?” Hugo demanded, though he felt he already knew the answer.

“There was no one there. They decided to wait, but nothing so far.” Moore said.

“Well I bloody hope they’ve taken rations with them because they’re staying there until he comes,” Hugo said, clenching his good fist. “He will come.”

Moore just nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Hugo clutched the co pilot chair as another wave of dizziness caused him to sway. He jumped when he felt warm hands steady him. “Now sir, please. You must return to sickbay.”

Hugo attempted to to drag a glower up for Rolo as she tried to lead him away. She frowned and put her hands on her hips, determination in every inch of her small frame. “Now, sir, with all due respect, it seems Webb went through a hell of a lot to get you back to the ship in one piece. I’m not sure what he’d think if you killed yourself now, flinging yourself around the bridge and rupturing all Rami’s suturing.”

Hugo glowered a second more but then sagged against the co-pilot chair. He blinked down at himself for the first time and realised how heavily bandaged he was and how blackened and bruised the skin around the bandages was. Every beat of his heart brought a dull thud of pain from his innards, arm and head and he closed his eyes and nodded. He felt Rolo’s warm hands on him again, marvelled a moment at the strength in them, and let her lead him back towards the corridor. “Don’t worry sir,” she said in a softer voice, though Hugo could hear the tightness in it. “Moore’s got it under control. It’s not the first time the commander’s disappeared on us.”

She lead him back to sickbay and by the time he was there everything was throbbing so badly he was grateful to clamber back onto the bunk. Spinn was nowhere in sight. Hugo guessed he must have frightened him off. He let Rolo re-attach his heart monitor but held up a hand when she brought the IV drug line back round. “No,” he mumbled and saw her face grow stern. “Please. I need to be able to wake up…”

He saw her lips purse for a moment but then soften. “Very well, Captain,” she said, turning away. “On one condition.” She rifled in a nearby cupboard and produced a protein drink and a bottle of tablets. She shook two onto her hand and held them out to him along with the drink.

Hugo eyed them suspiciously.

“They’re just painkillers, sir,” Rolo insisted. “We have to do something for the pain or you’ll be too tense to heal.”

Hugo looked up at her determined face and despite everything had to fight back a smile. She was so young but he couldn’t argue with her. He took the pills and swallowed them with the protein drink. She stood with her arms folded until he’d finished the drink, then nodded, though her frown didn’t ease. “Rami’s so gonna kill me,” she muttered as she took away the empty bottle.

“Don’t worry about Rami, Midshipman,” Hugo mumbled, ignoring the roiling in his stomach as it attempted to hold in the protein drink. “I will talk to her.”

Rolo sighed though some of the tension fled from her face. She leaned over him to try and pull the mask back over his mouth. “It’s just oxygen sir,” she said, cutting off his protest before he could form it. “And something to encourage healing. Your body needs both right now.”

So he let her settle the mask back over his mouth and nose and the minty coolness sweetened his mouth and filled his lungs again. Against all his intentions he felt himself relax and the pain ebbed back to a dull thing at the back of his awareness. He was vaguely aware of Rolo settling herself at the workstation across from the bunk that Dr. Spinn had recently vacated and didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed about her staying where she could keep an eye on him.

“He will be back,” Hugo heard his own voice from far away. “He promised.” But he drifted off before he heard whether Rolo replied.

The part of Webb that was still capable of cognitive thought was glad that he could only measure time in the pulses of his blood that pushed the agony around his body. He thought that if he knew the amount of time it had actually taken him to pull himself back to consciousness, blink open the one working eye and haul himself to his feet, he would have probably given up on the whole thing and lain back down at the side of the road and died right there. As it was though he took it one heartbeat at a time and concentrated on on memory of the captain’s last order.

“Webb! You come back, come back now, that’s an order! Damn it, Webb!”

He had to get back, had to survive. He had to prove to the captain he knew what he was doing. He had survived worse. The other thought that kept him pulling his breath in and out was knowing that if he died, Rami would kill him.

The quirk of the grin that this thought brought him caused new pain to lance through his face and he gave up on the idea of facial expressions and cognitive thought for a moment just to lean against the rock and concentrate on not passing out or throwing up. He was upright at least, that was a good thing and frankly more than he expected of himself. Only one leg was happy to take his weight, however. He didn’t look down to see the state of the other one. It seemed every inch of skin was raw and sticky with blood. He quickly found out deep breaths were impossible but upon consideration he was relieved to discover that the blood in his mouth had come from his split lip and a lost tooth and not from his lungs.

One bit of good news, at least.

He took another shot at pulling himself together and blinked open the one eye that would. The air was grey and chill but whether it was early morning or late evening he couldn’t tell. The bastard-familiar stretch of road was deserted. He could see scattered glass and scorch marks on the tarmac where his car had exploded when it impacted with the barrier. Fluttering yellow tape roped off the gap. He marvelled for a moment that the elite company security had failed to find him lying in the two-foot stretch of scrub and dirt between the other side of the road and cliff, but then it probably never occurred to them that anyone would be stupid enough to fling themselves out of a vehicle going at that speed on a mountain road.

He was reminded again then that he couldn’t grin and instead attempted putting one foot in front of the other. He found if he was slow and careful, he could in fact move. He made it over to the other side of the road and peered down the mountain. As he suspected the wreckage of the car was gone. Not even a tyre or twist of metal left behind.

Fuck, he thought. Someone wanted to make damn sure I was dead.

He turned away, not having the energy to follow the thoughts to any sort of conclusion, to be faced with the ugly reality that he was going to have to decide what to do next. His wrist panel was a shattered, unresponsive mess. Guilt nagged at him as he realised the captain would have seen his heart beat wink out on his own display.

Was that why no one had come for him? It had become perceptively darker since he’d first opened his eye. It was evening which meant he must have been lying by the road for a full day. It was one of the few Service policies he agreed with: no crew member or vessel is to be risked in the retrieval of the dead. Another darker part of him wondered whether the captain would care. But he shook the maudlin thoughts away and forced himself to focus on the more likely procedure they were following: if a mission is compromised, retreat out of tracking range, maintain comm silence and await instruction.

So in order to prove he knew what he was doing and had in fact survived, he needed to get another secure message to the Zero. Somehow.

Closing his eyes and drifting away from the the pulsing mass of pain that was his body, he tried to bring the maps of the area into his mind’s eye. They were stubborn and refused to complete themselves in any detail. All he could remember was that down the mountain lead towards the airfield, the town and the enemy base. So up the mountain he had to go.

It was easy when he looked at it that way. He shuffled back to the other side of the road and began following it uphill. Slowly. He stared straight ahead, concentrated on each breath, each step, each foot of progress gained. There was little traffic but he was glad that night was drawing in again, letting him see headlights of any vehicle long before they came in sight. The sheer rocks had given was once again to scrubby woodland and he was able to stumble into the shadows of the trees whenever anything passed.

He moved on, not knowing how long he moved for, just occasionally noticing that the view around him had changed and that night was setting in. The clouds hid the stars and he was grateful in one way as it made it easier for him to hide but couldn’t ignore the pang of isolation he felt without them. He’d also rather hoped he might have been able to see one bright speck creeping across the sky and fancy it the Zero, hovering dutifully, waiting for his call.

He finally had to stop and lean against a tree, close his eyes and will his lungs to keep breathing and his heart to keep beating. He didn’t let himself sit down because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get himself back up again. It would be so easy to just lie down here in the soft leaf litter and let it all go. The world would carry on. The Zero would carry on. She had a good captain now.

They could get another commander. It wouldn’t be hard to find some other nameless colony orphan the knew how to sneak and steal and lie. Any one of them would put their necks on the line in exchange for regular meals. I doesn’t take long to go through the underground training on the backwater bases the Service didn’t officially own and then they could be shoved onto the Zero to pick up where Webb had left off. It would be like he’d never been.

But if he lay down and gave up, that would prove Hugo right.

“Well, we can’t have that.” He wasn’t sure if he said it out loud but the thought plus the lance of pain in his face as he grinned again brought him swimming back to the surface and he pulled himself back up off the tree and kept moving.

As if to reward him for his tenacity he soon saw light up ahead. Stationary light, not headlights. He moved off the road and approached from the shelter of the trees. His working eye screwed up as the light grew stronger and he felt his head begin to pound but he ignored it and forced himself to focus.

It was a fuelling station. An honest-to-god, open and working civilian fuelling station. He could have wept for joy when he saw a public comm booth in the forecourt. A single car was just pulling away and he stumbled back into the shadows until it was out of sight. Peering back round as best he could he saw the clerk in the store had his back to the window and was watching sport on the vidscreen.

He dared to believe the luck that had got him this far was still with him. He waited ten heartbeats to make sure the clerk was thoroughly engrossed and then stepped out onto the tarmac and dragged himself into the comm booth, pulling the sliding door shut behind him.

The blue flashing screen informed him cheerfully that the minimum fee was five credits. He blinked a few times to try and stop his vision swimming and started typing in commands. Normally he could hack a civilian comm station blindfold and it alarmed him more than he liked to admit how long it took him to get past its protocols. He was aware of the time with every beat of blood in his head and the fact that the comm booth was in full view of the public highway.

Finally the machine let him in but he didn’t let himself pause, willing his focus not to waver and pulled up a map of the area. The civilian net maps didn’t quite have the same amount of detail as his wrist panel would have provided, but he saw enough to satisfy him that he had made the right decision. There was nothing this far up apart from a few more adventurous hiking tracks and a camp-site. No more enemy bases. It bugged him that he couldn’t be sure, but from the looks of things it was safe to assume that he’d left most of the heavy-duty monitoring and scanning ranges behind. He cast about for somewhere suitable to select for a meet-point that was within staggering distance of the fuelling station.

He had to make himself only consider the area he thought he could realistically walk to. His heart sank when he saw there was nowhere near that had the space to let the Zero come herself and none of it was remote as he would have liked. But he had little choice. His energy was only going wane from here on.

He settled for a spot further up the mountain and off the main road that would let a fighter land if not the Zero, took a note of the coordinates and then set about attempting to get them coded and sent securely. It wasn’t his best encryption. Rami would have tutted and shook her head. But it was all he could manage. Even if he was capable of coding a secure video link to the Zero, he was afraid how whoever answered might react when the saw the state of him. Moore or Rolo he could probably trust to be sensible, but the others he wasn’t so sure. And it was vital that he get to a spot suitable for a flyer to land unnoticed before they even thought about coming to get him.

With one last push he wiped the memory on the comm unit and pushed the doors back open, wincing as he saw the smears of blood his hands left on the glass. It couldn’t be helped though and he dragged himself over the forecourt as quickly as he could. The sight of the goods in the fuelling station store windows were enough to make him realise how horrifically thirsty he was and made his stomach clench in hunger. It was almost two days since he’d eaten and he’d let Hugo have the water yesterday. But there was no way he could let anyone see him and he knew he was beyond stealth or slight of hand.

So he got himself back into the trees level with the highway and kept moving, putting his hunger and thirst back in his mental box with the pain.

It could have been an hour later or it could have been ten minutes when it started to rain. He paused in his stumbling shuffle uphill and actually laughed out loud, tilting his head back and letting the rain splash into his face and mouth. It was the most delicious moment he could remember experiencing. He revelled in the feel of the cool water rinsing the dried blood and muck from his face, revelled in the stinging feel of it getting into his wounds. Despite everything he heaved a great sigh and took a moment just to feel it soak into his hair and the tatters of his flight suit. The colony’s artificial weather never came close to that of the earth and he knew as long as he lived he would never tire of the feel of being in amongst something so real and wild.

When he made himself move on the first thing he did was find a puddle and drop down onto his knees, ignoring the dirt pressing into the open cuts and scoop up handfuls of water and swallow over and over, dirt and all. He almost imagined the water seeping through his veins and washing away the damage. He certainly felt more alert and some of the fog of exhaustion was lifted. Even so, he didn’t know how he got back to his feet again but he did and he made himself move on.

It wasn’t long before the pleasantness of the rain wore off and he began to shiver. The remains of his clothes were soaked and clung like dead skin. His legs seemed to be getting heavier. For a while he knew nothing except the cold making everything shudder and sting and ache and the drag of his shambling feet through the mud.

It took a long time to pull himself back together and when he did he started when he realised he was no longer on the main road but shambling up an overgrown dirt track. The rain had stopped at some point and the sky above him was was pinpricked with stars. The sight of them made his heart lift despite everything and he kept moving forward, hoping that his autopilot had taken him down the right track but knowing there wasn’t much he could do if it hadn’t.

Some indefinable time later he saw a tall, dark shape blotting out some of the stars ahead. He ignored the pain in his jaw and lips and let himself grin when he saw it was a church spire. He had made it. Even if there was no one there, even if no one came, he had made it. He had fulfilled his orders. He had succeeded. Take that, Hugo.

The concrete steps that led up to the front door seemed like a cruel and unnecessary obstacle but he was so close that he delved down deep and found the last shreds of his strength. It took him a moment to realise that the door stood ajar and there was the sound of familiar voices arguing within. Even if he’d wanted to stop his tattered smile he couldn’t. He shouldered the door open and staggered in. Two figures were hunched in the shadowy pews and they fell silent when he entered.

“Hey guys,” he croaked in a voice he didn’t recognise. “Told you I’d be back.” And he let go the death-grip he had on his last threads of awareness and slipped into darkness.

Rolo? Come in, Rolo!”

Hugo jerked, horrified he’d fallen asleep. Rami’s voice was tinny and distant and sounded strained.

“Here, Liutenant,” Rolo replied and Hugo heaved himself up onto his elbow, pulling off the oxygen mask and taking great gulps of real air in an attempt to heave himself back to reality. Rami’s face on the monitor screen in front of Rolo was deadly pale and he felt his blood run cold.

“Get the surgical bay ready, now,” she barked. “I need all x-rays and scanners online. And get scrubbed up, I’m going to need you.”

“Is he…?”

“Now, Rolo. We’re almost with you. Out.” And the screen went black.

Rolo cast one pained look over her shoulder at Hugo before rushing through the double glass doors into the tiny surgical bay. He pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the bunk and saw her quickly and precisely booting up all the machines and getting all the monitors online. The next thing he was aware of was the ship shuddering under him as the cargo bay doors closed and pressurised.

He barely had time to gather his thoughts when Rami burst through the sickbay doors, dishevelled and grimy, followed closely by Bolt who appeared to be carrying a vaguely human-shaped bundle of rags. Hugo only just had time to make out that it was Webb before Bolt was following Rami through the glass doors into the surgical bay.

He got to his feet and padded over like he was in a dream. Bolt laid the limp figure down on the surgical table and retreated. If it hadn’t been for the recognisable height of the frame and the boots, about the only bit of his clothing left in tact, Hugo wouldn’t have recognised his commander. Every bit of exposed skin was a ripped and bloody mess. Something particularly nasty had happened to his face. One eye was completely obscured by blood and swelling, his hair tangled across the mess and all down that side his face was a blood, cuts and burns. His mouth hung open in an alarming way, the jaw at an odd angle and he saw that there were teeth missing. None of his limbs seemed to be lying at normal angles and he couldn’t see that he was breathing.

The sudden feel of a calloused but gentle hand on his bare shoulder made him jump. “If he can be saved, sir,” Bolt’s voice was low. Respectful. Like he was at a memorial service. “Rami will save him.” Then he was gone.

Hugo leant against the cool bulkhead as Rami took a pair of shears to the remains of Webb’s flight suit. Rolo was already getting the scanners started and part of Hugo felt pride spark in his heart as he watched the women work. He stayed just long enough to see Rami peel away some of the flight suit to reveal bone protruding from Webb’s torso and then turned away.

He grabbed a white t-shirt form the stack of sickbay clothes in the cupboard and left. He was relieved to realise that he didn’t feel like was going pass out with every step any more, though the aches of healing tissue were now setting in. He paused as he pulled the shirt on, and took a minute to breathe in the quiet of the corridor, fighting back the urge to vomit. He’d seen bodies in every stage of injury and death before now and carried on unperturbed. But this was different. This was his fault.

He took himself back up onto the bridge. Moore was at the controls and Dr. Spinn was at one of the workstations. Moore glanced up but nothing more. After a closer look Hugo saw that Dr. Spinn was bent over the shattered remains of Webb’s wrist panel. He felt a stab of anger that the man could sit there and work when his commander lay below barely clinging to life, but it was mitigated by the wash of jealousy he felt at not having any task of his own to distract him. He knew that if the doctor could retrieve any data at all from what the wrist panel had recorded during this whole débâcle, Webb would think it all worth it.

He lowered himself into the copilot seat and glanced over the controls. There was no destination set but they were moving away from Earth.

“Any particular heading, Captain?” Moore asked quietly.

Hugo blinked out at the vastness beyond the screen without really seeing anything. “Where’s the nearest Service Base?” he found himself asking.

Moore tapped a few commands into the control panel. “Lunar Five, Captain.”

“Does it have medical facilities?”

“It does. But, sir, I believe…”

“I know,” the Captain cut him off. “He stands a better chance with Rami than with any overrun Service Medic. But we must keep up appearances. Set a course, but keep the engines in economy mode. That’ll buy us some time. Request docking but don’t tell them anything and don’t let anyone leave or enter the ship when we arrive.” Moore looked at him. His dark eyes were clear and Hugo thought he could read understanding in them. “Doctor,” Hugo called without turning round. “When will your reports be ready?”

“I can have them done in a couple of hours, Captain.”

“Good. Do so. But don’t sent them to Command.”

“Yes sir.”

Hugo thought he heard understanding in the doctor’s voice too. Command had set them this mission. Officially, they would be expecting a report but the Zero had more leniency than most vessels. Not reporting in straight away would not be noticed. Unofficially, he wondered whether Command expected him to return to report at all. “How long until Lunar Five?”

“Eight hours at present speed, Captain.”

“Good.” He scrubbed his good hand over his face, knew he was going to have to think long and hard about what to do next. His head, arm and muscles all pounded dully, making it impossible to focus. He suddenly painfully wished he could ask Webb’s opinion.

Rami to bridge. Come in, bridge.”

Hugo jerked awake, disgusted with himself that he had once again nodded off. His back and neck were stiff from sleeping in the copilot chair and he was shivering in his thin clothing. “Hugo here, Rami,” he said, attempting to keep his voice steady. The chrono on the screen told him it had been several hours. Rami’s face appeared on the view screen display. She was just pulling off her surgical mask. The lines in her face appeared deepened and there was grey under her eyes. Her jaw muscles were tight and her hair was plastered to her forehead. Hugo felt his heart start thudding in his chest.

“How is he?” He managed not to let his voice catch.

Rami let out a great shuddering breath. “Stable, captain. I’ve set all the bones, cleaned and stitched everything else up. He seems to have somehow managed to avoid any serious internal injury but the external trauma is extensive. We’ve done all we can. It’s up to him now.”

Hugo nodded tightly, swallowing against a nasty taste in his mouth. “What happened to him, can you tell?”

Rami shrugged and shook her head. “Jumped off a cliff? Run over by a transport? It’s impossible to tell captain. Something hit back hard, I’d say. But Webb never does anything half-assed.” Hugo felt a tight smile spread over his face. “We’ll know more in the next twenty-four hours,” she continued, not having to explain further.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. You and Rolo…” he found his voice tight suddenly. “Thank you.,” was all he managed, but he saw something in her eyes that said she understood all he couldn’t say. “You need to both get some rest now.”

Rami nodded, not needing any further persuasion and the display went blank.

“You should rest too, captain,” Moore suggested. “The Zero knows where she’s going.”

Hugo rubbed his tired eyes with his good hand again. Everything felt very heavy. “I will be in my cabin,” he said eventually, not able to face the idea of going back to sickbay. “Wake me if…”

“Any change in anything, Captain, I’ll send for you.”

Hugo threw a grateful look at Moore but he wasn’t looking at him. His gaze was locked forward, out the viewscreen and Hugo saw the tension in the way the man held the controls. Guilt washed through him. Webb was their crew mate too. They had been nothing but calm and efficient through this whole episode whilst Hugo had shouted and snarled and thrown his weight about. As painful as it had been for him, he knew it must be ten-fold so for each one of them. And not once had their focus wavered.

He padded from the bridge with defeat sweeping through him. He that had been so high and mighty, so disparaging and so quick to judge and yet here was now, grateful that his crew knew when to ignore him. He could almost taste the shame on his tongue and commanded his cabin door to lock behind him. He didn’t turn on the light in his cabin, just made sure his comm station was open and ready before collapsing on his bunk and turning his face to the wall.

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5 Responses to ‘Zero’ Continued

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