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An Habitual Offender, Chapter 5

Day By Day

Monday morning, eleven-ish ante meridian. Barney banked the jet to port, looking down on the bayou and the boulevard. A short distance to the south along the wide way was the Manse. The world headquarters, former home of the Big O and the Offenders. He could see the roof of the detached garage cum hangar on the grounds now. The trees were still properly trimmed back, leaving plenty of room for landing.

“John, open the doors, would you?”

John started from his half slumber. “Yeah... right, open the hangar doors...” He looked around his part of the instrument panel. Finally he remembered. “Got it.” He pressed the button.

Barney throttled back and rotated engines one and two to vertical. He set the controls to automatic and the jet began aligning herself with the hangar. The garage wasn’t very visible from the road, which was just as well. Nobody outside the fence really needed to see the roof split at the peak, then the two halves of the roof tilting up to open the hangar on the upper floor. The jet was noisy and flashy enough to entertain any chance spectators.

Barney felt the jet cease yawing to port. She began to drop down. He checked his display and saw that everything was lined up. He closed his eyes and yawned. Long weekend... long weekend inside a can. I need fresh air and fresh food. “How you doing, John?

“Okay... the rock ‘n roll lifestyle keeps similar hours.”

The light changed as they dropped down past the edges of the roof. Barney and John looked at each other. John smiled. “Haven’t been here in a very long time.”

“Me neither. I’ve only been in the Manse since.”

“Mm.”

The jet touched down and the engines grew quiet. Several green lamps lit on the consoles. They began the shutdown procedures.

The radio came up. “That you, boys?”

“Hi, Hanna.” Barney began unbuckling his harness. “We miss anything?”

“No. Quiet here all weekend. Did you get anything?”

“Yeah. I think we got the pictures that I wanted. I’ll need the Big Computer to analyze the data.”

“You’re hooked up. It’ll take... about an hour download and synchronize. Come on inside, I’ve got coffee.”

John opened the hatches. “Thanks, gorgeous. Here we come.”

A few minutes later the three of them (plus Satin Peter) were in the kitchen. Barney and John both felt a bit disoriented. Too many memories in the way.

John hadn’t seen Hanna for nearly three years before last week. He’d forgotten how beautiful she was. Not quite ageless, he could see that time had matured her features. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, highlighting her widow’s peak. He thought he saw a hint of a white streak in her hair, running back from her forehead.

“John?” She was staring at him.

He shook his head. “Sorry. You’re looking good, Hanna. I apologize for not saying something the other day.”

She was a bit taken aback. “Thank you.” She smiled and her complexion darkened a bit. She was blushing. “It’s good to have you boys here again.” She looked at Barney. “Where is Kevin?”

“Umm... I’ve got to call Fiona.” He pulled out his phone and pressed a button. He listened for the rings. “Fiona! Yes, we’re fine... Yes... I hope so. Would you bring yourself and Kevin to the Manse, please? He knows the way. Yes, be ready for anything... Bye.” He closed the phone and reached for a cup of coffee.

Fiona hit the ‘End’ button on her phone and looked at Kevin. “They’re back.” She looked down, then back up at him. “I think this is it.”

He nodded. “Yeah... this could – no, will get ugly.” He reached for her hand. “This is probably your last chance to get off the bus.”

Fiona placed her other hand over his. “I would not miss this for anything in the world.” Then she raised that eyebrow again. “I’m not letting you off that easily either.” Then her stern look weakened a bit. “Not now.”

Kevin said nothing. He leaned forward and kissed her hand.

Hanna, John, and Barney were still sitting in the kitchen when the intercom buzzed. Hanna glanced at the screen and saw the car on the gate camera. The confirmed identification information was overlaid on the image. “Admit.” She looked at the other two. “Do we wait for them here, or in the war room?”

John laughed. “Here, of course. We’ll get more done faster if Kevin’s stuffing his face.”

Barney shrugged. “He’s got a point.”

Hanna was smiling now. “Well, I did restock the place this weekend...”

The intercom screen reported Angry Man’s hand scan on the front door plate. One guest, recently registered via data link with the jet. Hanna waved a hand in acknowledgment and the display blanked.

A minute later Kevin burst into the kitchen. “Hey, gang! Who wants breakfast?” He began pulling pans out of cabinets. “Fiona, would you get the bacon, please?” He turned to look at John. “Toast?”

John shook his head and laughed, then looked at Barney and Hanna. “Told you.”

Barney was smiling as well. “Fine. We can look at stuff on the big screen here.” He took a sip of coffee. “Computer, show us the pictures from the Ukraine.”

The screen came down in front of one of the windows. A series of images flashed by, starting at high altitude then descending. Buildings, pipes, and wires went everywhere. And... things were on the ground.

Barney scratched his chin and looked at the looping images. He nodded to himself. “Ah, the old abandoned military-industrial complex inside the radioactive exclusion zone.”

Kevin leaned towards the screen. “What are those small things?” He looked a bit more closely. “They’re moving!”

Barney froze the image. “They’re bots of some sort.”

Hanna had a sneer on her face now. “Bots. Qui-Gon taught me what to do with bots.”

John looked at her. “Good, ‘cuz there’s lots of them.”

She produced a sword with one hand and ran a thumb along one edge. “Excellent.” Then the sword was gone again.

Barney looked at Fiona. “Because of the radiation, I think that you should stay here.”

She shook her head. “Never.”

Barney was taken aback by her vehemence. “Well... okay, but you’ll have to wear a radiation suit.”

Fiona nodded. “Of course. I also want a gun.”

The gun in question was a short barreled shotgun, a variation on a riot gun. Fiona had raced back to Building Two and cranked out shells loaded with something she called bot shot, consisting primarily of steel pellets mixed with powdered silver solder.

Barney spent some time on the phone with Fiona while she was over there. They were making preparations for Serenity’s return to Building Seven. Kevin overheard something about an anti radiation additive for the fuel.

Kevin spent most of his time in the kitchen talking with Hanna and John. They looked at some more of the images and discusses possible approaches. Kevin ate of course, but he was mainly enjoying the company. He missed Fiona, though.

The prospect of battle was exciting and terrifying at the same time. All the activity seemed to be helping his memory. He was feeling less... incomplete. It made him feel stronger somehow.

They finally piled into the jet sometime in the late afternoon. Angry Man was the last to board. He had been standing there, watching the tunnel door close and wondering if he’d ever see this place again.

He did a walk around for old time’s sake, then put his hand on the ladder. “Serenity, preflight checklist, start.” Her strobes flashed once, taking him by surprise, then he heard the systems begin to activate. He took one last look around the hangar, then climbed inside and shut the hatch.

Building Seven’s hangar doors were open and the cradle had brought itself outside on long, extensible rails. Kevin floated Serenity lightly into the cradle and shut her down. The ship lurched a bit as the rails began to retract inside the building. The cradle also rotated to put Serenity back into launch position.

Kevin was looking out the cockpit window, straining to catch a glimpse of Fiona. She wasn’t anywhere that he could see. How depressing.

Then he heard his earpieces activate. “Welcome back, dear. Don’t worry, nobody else can hear me just now. I missed you.” Then she was gone. Kevin smiled and released his harness and thumbed the hatch button.

He was the last one out. First he saw a modest stack of gear cases. Then he saw Fiona in her yellow and red radiation suit. She’d found time to alter the suit so that she didn’t look so much like an overindulgent robot. Her helmet was on the table nearby.

Fiona gave him her million watt smile, then pouted just a wee. “Your suit looks better than mine.”

Kevin hung his head. “I promise I won’t call you my sidekick.”

She gave him a very stern look in response. “You’d no be getting away with that! Now load those cases inside.”

They finished their preparations around 6 PM. Barney looked at the group. “This is it, folks. Time to go.”

Hanna bared her teeth. “Lets do it.”

John hefted Satin Peter onto his back. “Ar.”

Barney put a hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “Up to some flying, Angry Man?”

Kevin grinned. “All night long.” Then he looked at Hanna and his smile softened. “Sleep tight, let Angry Man watch over you tonight.”

Hanna turned dark gray and laughed.

A phone rang and Fiona picked it up. “Yes, excellent. We need that stat.”

Kevin was looking at her. “Who was that?”

She smiled. “Supper. We’ve a long way to go.”

Kevin bowed low. “And we’ll be thankin’ you.”

04:00 hours, Mission Elapsed Time. Altitude Angels Fifty, airspeed Mach One point five… the wee hours of the morning. Approaching the Straits of Gibraltar. The moon was nearly full, about two o’clock high, flooding the cockpit with light. Kevin was leaning back in his seat, listening to music through his earpieces. Before she’d gone to sleep, Fiona had plugged in her iPod and shown him how to use it. What fun. Whatever this music was, it was great.

He looked over his shoulder into the cabin. Everyone was asleep, their chairs fully reclined. He’d turned off as many lights as possible. There was still enough moonlight to read by. He checked the fuel supply. Good. Instruments… good. He really enjoyed flying at night. He had always enjoyed flying the team around. He felt very protective just now. Probably the last time I do something like this.

He looked over at Fiona. She’d taken off her glasses and let her hair down before she went to sleep. That look of intense concentration was gone from her face, making her look softer, even more beautiful… if such a thing were possible. What have I dragged this woman into?

He scanned the instrument console again. Everything good. Next he checked the ‘now playing’ window. Right, this was that bhangra compilation that Fiona had mentioned. This stuff rocks! He leaned back and closed his eyes. Something beeped and he reluctantly opened them again. Some military aircraft had come within fifty miles. He shut off the strobes as a precaution.

He closed his eyes again. I’m tired. Maybe I’m sleepy… I… can’t remember what that feels like. Got to keep going.

He blinked a couple of times and then scanned the instrument panel. He looked at the main screen. To his surprise it had blanked, and only one sentence was displayed.

How do you feel?

Without thinking, he responded, speaking quietly into the darkness. “I’m basically okay, kind of tired, though.” Then he realized how weird the situation actually was. He looked over at Fiona, expecting to see her grinning for having put on over on him. She was sound asleep. Must have been something that she programmed to pop up late at night just to mess with his head.

What he didn’t see was the screen displaying ‘I missed you.’ Only for a moment, then the screen reset itself.

He looked out the window. A few more clouds. Maybe if I just slept a little bit. Do I have any control over this? Okay, that was a stupid question.

He stretched and looked around. The crashing of the surf was louder now. He saw nothing, just as it should be. He’d paid a lot for this island. He started walking along the shore, following his footprints back to… where? Didn’t matter, it was his.

He enjoyed the sea breeze and the warm sunshine. After a time he saw a lanai in the distance. Ah, yes, that marked home. Time to get out of the sun and take a nap.

He slept a great deal these days. And why not? He could do whatever he wanted now. His thoughts wandered to the supply boat, he couldn’t remember when it was due. No worries, he had everything he needed.

He got himself under the shade and stretched out on the futon. He thought he smelled a memory of perfume. He smiled and closed his eyes. The sound of the surf grew louder… the wind began to blow harder… it was becoming rather noisy. Why was the futon vibrating?

05:12 Mission Elapsed Time. When he opened his eyes, it was much brighter inside the cabin. He listened to the sounds of the jet. Flying straight and level, maintaining course and speed. Good. “Now what the hell happened to me?”

“Hmm?” Fiona turned over in his general direction. She was still mostly asleep, and he watched her settle back down again.

He didn’t want to wake her up, so he whispered. “Nothing, dear.”

Fiona shifted about some more. Then she opened her eyes, blinking them in the way that those who need glasses are wont to do. “Where are we?”

“Over the eastern Mediterranean. The sun should be up very soon.”

She pulled her glasses out of a pocket and put them on. She made no move to sit up or adjust her chair. “ETA?”

“About three hours. When we reach Odesa it will be about ten-ish local time.” The eastern horizon was pink now, the Belt of Venus already high in the sky. Sunrise came quickly at this speed and altitude. It was a sight he never tired of.

Fiona lifted her head. “Is that Crete?”

Kevin checked the large island running east to west. “Yes. Almost time to turn.” He reached for her hand. “You okay?”

“My locus cereleus remains serene.”

He didn’t know what that was, but ‘serene’ sounded good. He wasn’t so calm though. Something bad is going to happen today. He tried to sound relaxed. “I take it that’s a good thing?”

“Yes, I’ll be saving my epinephrine for later.”

“I do know what that is.”

“You’re a bright laddie.” She leaned towards him a bit. “We’ll be getting those gaps in your knowledge filled in later.”

He looked out the windshield. It was some time before he spoke. “I swore to protect you.”

“You will.”

They were over the western edge of Crete now. Kevin turned and banked the plane to port. A more northeasterly heading towards Istanbul.

Fiona brought her seat up. “Have you ever been to Istanbul?”

“No.”

“I’d like to take you there sometime. It’s a bit mad, but very beautiful.”

“I’d — love to go there with you.” The word caught in his throat and he felt stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Could it already have happened? He looked back at her. She was looking at him. They did not speak, communicating only by gazing into each other’s eyes.

Some unknown time later John yawned, stretched, and sat up. “Morning then, is it?”

Kevin turned around. “Yeah. It’ll be time to raise some hell soon.”

John yawned. “Demon like raising hell.”

Hanna woke up next. She had a way of instantly regaining consciousness when necessary, no yawning or stretching required. “Where are we?”

“Almost over Istanbul.” Kevin gave her a thumbs up. “Not much longer now.”

“Mmm.” Hanna unstrapped herself, stood up, and touched Barney on the shoulder. “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

Barney was a heavy sleeper so it took a bit of nudging to get through to him. Still, he wasn’t as bad as Jim, who had always made a habit of going full blast, non-stop until he collapsed. Sometimes he’d sleep sixteen, maybe twenty hours, pull a couple of all nighters, then repeat. Kevin always thought he was nuts.

“I see you got good milage last night.” Barney was squinting at his screen.

Kevin nodded. “Favorable winds. The forecast for Kiev looks pretty good.”

“Nice day for it.” John pulled out Satin Peter and began checking his tunings. “I’ll be glad to get out and stretch the legs. These amp pants were always a bit bulky for sleeping.”

Kevin rubbed his eyes. “Seems like I’ve heard you say that before.”

“Entirely possible.” John reached over and opened a locker. “Energy bars? Last chance before Chaos.” Satin Peter hummed in response. Chaos was its’ way of life.

Kevin finished his fourth bar and stuffed the wrapper into a receptacle behind his seat. They were over the Black Sea, Odesa was in sight now. The taste of the bars had not improved over the years, and he wondered if he’d missed some old ones. The jet had only burned about a quarter of her fuel. Good There would probably be a lot of maneuvering over the next couple of hours.

Hannah startled him by grabbing his arm. “Hey. You okay?”

Kevin took a deep breath and tried to smile. “Nervous, I guess.” Hanna did not question him any further. He leaned towards Fiona. “You’d better put your helmet on. We’ll be there entirely too soon.”

Fiona shook her head. “I’ll need a trip to the head first.” She unbuckled herself and got up. Kevin heard her unseal the suit as she walked down the aisle.

His navigation screen changed. He looked over at Barney for instructions.

“When you turn north, start your descent.” Barney pulled a glove on tighter. “Follow the highway to Kiev. We’ll come down over a body of water called…” He looked at his screen. “Kyyiv’ske Vodoskhovyshche.”

“Then what?”

“It gets interesting, of course. You’ll need to cross the shorline at an altitude of ten meters. There’s another highway that should be wide enough for us to fit.” Barney saw Kevin’s eyes widen and he shrugged his shoulders in response. “We’ve got to get down to treetop level to beat the sensors. What ever is there is well protected.”

Kevin was confused. “You don’t know what’s there?”

“Not exactly.” Suddenly Barney looked very tired. “Would ‘The Gates Of Hell’ be descriptive enough, John?” Barney raised his eyebrows and John nodded in agreement, a very dark expression on his face.

A moment later Fiona emerged from the head and made her way to the copilot’s seat. Kevin felt her hand on his shoulder, lingering a bit longer than was absolutely necessary to steady herself. He tried to stay calm but he couldn’t do it around her. What a woman.

Hanna got up and went towards the stern. “Time to gird up.” She grabbed a bag with a trailing hand and disappeared into the head. When Kevin heard the door open he looked around. He hadn’t really had a good look at her armor the other night. He only remembered that it was different. Her gear was some sort of kevlar and carbon fiber meets Ken Do armor sort of look.

Dark blue breastplate and back plate, a belt with several large armored panels forming a kind of skirt reaching almost to the knees. Black boots to just below the knee, not too much of a heel — but what a heel! Shiny blue metal shot through with vibrant metallic colors.

Hanna saw him looking and smiled. “Like ‘em? The shank, heel, and toe are high carbon steel. The niobium skin is just for style.” She grinned and made a quick twirl in the space behind the seats. “I had Barney make this for me a few years ago for a martial arts class I was taking.” She came forward and sat down. “I made second dan.” Then the playfulness left her face. “Let’s get this job done.”

The nav computer beeped, announcing the fact that they were now over Odesa. Kevin chopped the throttles and they began their descent. Fiona put her helmet on and activated her life support systems. She was staring straight out the windshield the entire time. He saw that her brow was furrowed in a way that he’d never seen before.

He could see the lake up ahead, a bit to port. Everybody was quiet, he could hear straps being buckled. They were dropping fast now. He could feel the jet making some course corrections. He was beginning to feel hot inside his suit. He cracked his knuckles and then wiggled his fingers before taking hold of the stick. Without telling anybody he set the terrain following radar for a height of three meters. He shut off the autopilot and pushed the nose down. Their airspeed began to increase.

Kevin punched the intercom button. “Fiona, would you heat up the lasers, please?”

Fiona smiled at him. “Aye, Captain.” She flipped a couple of switches. “Lasers armed. Targeting computer online. Heads up display…” She pressed a button on her screen. “Active.”

Barney voice came through the intercom. “I want us to come down about eighty kilometers from the target. We've got to run very fast down the highway.” He frowned. “The Ukrainians aren’t going to be happy to see us.”

They were passing through five thousand meters now, airspeed back up to four hundred and fifty knots. Kevin nudged the throttles forward slightly. He was thinking about when to pull out of the dive. He brought the nose up a degree. He stole a glance back at Hanna. She was checking the edge of a boot knife, or throwing knife, or dragon skinning knife for all he knew. She looked up at him, and gave him her warrior’s smile. She was ready.

Two thousand meters. He brought the nose up some more. He could feel the wings change their curve, holding a bit more air beneath them. He was a little nervous, knowing what a good pilot was sitting beside him. The steep angle of descent make Kevin think of a carrier landing.

Three hundred meters. The air was thicker, he could feel it pressing against the control surfaces. He glanced at Fiona. She was studying her display very intently. It looked different from his somehow, but he didn’t have time to think about it.

He could see the highway now. The plane was perfectly aligned with the road. It looked very narrow. There were lamp posts along the side of the road. The port wing tip would be very close to those posts. Like dangerously close. He reset the terrain following radar for two meters.

“Okay, that’s ten meters, Kevin.” Barney looked over at him. “Kevin? That’s — seven meters? That’s enough!”

Kevin leaned forward for a bit. He needed to settle more into his seat for the run. “Got it. No problem. Hold on.”

Two meters. The radar beeped a proximity alert. Kevin felt his lips pulling back into one of Hanna’s feral warrior smiles. He lit the afterburners. Everyone was shoved back into their seats. Kevin clenched his teeth, left hand holding tight on the stick, right hand gripping the throttle levers. “Five minutes to target.”

They were back up to five hundred knots in a matter of seconds. The world went flashing by. After about a minute signs of habitation abruptly disappeared. Vacant buildings with windows and doors gone, roofs sagging, gardens overgrown…

“Welcome to the Chornobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone.” Barney hit a couple of keys on his console. “The name ‘Land Of The Wolves’ is a more recent local appellation.”

On they flew into the empty land. The jet felt unwieldy this low to the ground. Kevin checked the readouts for the reaction control system. They’d need it. Empty farms, petrol stations, and tower blocks hurtled by to starboard and port. He felt a bead of sweat make its’ way down his left temple.

Serenity screamed down the highway. Kevin’s left arm was rigid, moving only the smallest fractions of a millimeter to keep the plane on course. The stern scanners showed the results of the turbulence they were leaving behind them.

Barney was watching too. “Fiona, we’re going to have to put our minds to cleaning this place up one day very soon.”

“Aye.”

The radar shrieked. Kevin looked up. An abandoned truck on the road ahead. “Truck —” But before he could finish the word, the obstruction exploded in a red haze of fire. He wasn’t sure what had happened. He stole a glance at Fiona.

She looked rather pleased with herself. “You fly, I frag, remember?”

Kevin turned his attention back to the road. They were about two minutes to target. He thought maybe he saw an overpass in the distance. It was getting loud inside the cabin as they approached six hundred knots.

“Prepare to turn to port!” Barney had to shout over the noise. “The road goes over some train tracks! Follow them!”

“Got it.” Kevin saw the road rising up. Just a few more seconds…

Barney was getting impatient. “Turn! Turn!”

“Kevin…” Fiona didn’t sound too pleased either.

They did not matter. He could see the line, he could feel the line. Pilot and plane were one, for the first time in a very long time. He pulled the stick back and over to port. The nose rose up and the jet began to bank. He gave her a little rudder. The proximity alert shrieked as the plane roared between two lamp posts, the port wingtip just centimeters from the guardrail.

A second later they were level at five meters over the railway. Kevin counted five separate tracks. Could be heading to a freight yard.

Barney shouted at him. “Keep it up higher! Might be cars on the track! And the shooting could start at any time!"

“Right!” Kevin could see lots of steel rising up in the distance. Towers, tanks, cranes, buildings, all of them on a grandiose scale. There was one really big building that looked to be the center of gravity for the complex. Behind it stood an unusually dense concentration of cranes and gantries.

Barney tapped his shoulder and pointed towards the big building. “There’s a reactor in there, graphite moderated, plundered from who knows where. That’s our objective — but there’s a lot to get through first! Fiona! Blast the gate!”

The lasers fired and the mountings of the great iron gates vaporized. A second shot and the gates shattered, pieces flying all about. The jet streaked inside.

“Put ‘er down! The bots will be here soon!” Barney was checking his gear, looking down, not up.

Kevin chopped the throttles on three through six. Then he pressed the buttons on the throttle levers to activate the vectored thrust system. The thrust doors opened and engines one and two rotated into landing position. He hit the thrust reversers and ran up the other engines. Everyone slammed forward in their seats. The plane dropped to the tarmac, crabbing a bit to starboard as she slid on her skids.

John jumped up and grabbed Satin Peter. “Let’s go!” He charged for the airlock, Hanna close behind him. Barney waved Kevin on. Kevin gave Fiona a weak smile before he got up. John rode out on a shrieking high note, gaining altitude rapidly. He was preparing to take the right flank. Angry Man would take the left, Hanna and Barney up the middle. Kevin launched himself out the door.

Hanna vaulted out and down, all six swords at the ready before her feet touched the ground. Barney dove out after her, plummeting head first towards the ground. He landed on his ‘fro and rebounded high onto a nearby rooftop. He pulled something out of a pocket and started scanning the area.

Barney’s voice came over the comm channel. “Lot’s of ‘em, and they’re almost here. Angry Man, stay close to Hanna. John’s a bit faster, I’d like him to make the first assault.”

The bots were everywhere, coming down the road and surging out of every doorway. A shot rang out. From his vantage point Barney could see Fiona standing in the airlock, gun still on her shoulder. She’d blasted something that had popped out of a manhole. Her botshot had performed well.

“Go on with ye, then! I can no keep her on the ground with all these about!”

“Right. Just stay close by, okay?”

She didn’t answer, and he really wasn’t expecting one. Barney saw the airlock door close and he knew that she was already on her way. He scanned the air for John and he heard Serenity’s engines throttle up.

John had circled around and was coming up behind the main phalanx of bots. He played a series of high/low note combinations that sent discrete blasts of destructive sound towards his chosen target. Bots began to shatter beneath him.

Barney’s voice came through Kevin’s earpieces. “Angry Man! Attack! Blast the ones around the edge on your side!” Kevin dove down and began firing. Left wrist, right wrist, left, right, bam bam bam. He vaporized a few and made craters in the tarmac. Better ease up on the power. He made a mental adjustment and the next several bots burst in a much more satisfying way. I do like blasting stuff, don’t I?

He finished his pass and began to circle to the right. John would be mirroring his move, preparing for a run down the other side. The Methane Man’s amp pants were loud even at this distance. The Angry Man charged up his left wristband for the next blast. But then he heard a strange sound through his comm. Growling, snarling, groaning kinds of sounds. He was startled and forgot to fire. A few rounds bounced off of his body and he remembered where he was. He fired a couple of blasts and then looked down. He saw Hanna and realized that what he was hearing was her voice. Was she… singing?

“Hanna...?” He dove down to give her some covering fire. “What are you...?”

He could see that she was smiling. “Klingon opera! You should try it some time!”

What the hell was she talking about? Hanna didn’t say anything else as she had to concentrate on a rather dense cluster of bots. Down cut. Rising cut. Cross cut. Cross cut. Forward thrust. Back thrust. Then she pivoted on one foot and sliced through another four bots at once. The rest checked their advance for a moment.

Angry Man came down from above and behind her and spread his arms wide. He plowed into the bots, knocking several over before pulling up again.

“Hey! I was gonna get those!”

“There’s plenty to go around.” Kevin saw Barney on the rooftop. He was putting his scanners away. “Hey Fumble Man, what’s up?”

Barney looked up at Angry Man. “Now let’s get to the reactor building! Once we shut it down maybe we can find out who’s running the place!” Barney began to jog towards the edge of the roof. Before he got there a shrieking sound brought him to his knees.

Kevin heard him cry out, then John, then Hanna. He felt his own insides shaking like gelatin. He wanted to puke. He wanted to remember why this feeling filled him with so much trepidation. The Methane Man managed to release a loud pulse of sound which gave them all a moment of relief. Just enough time to brace themselves a bit better.

“Close ranks!” Barney threw himself off the building, bouncing off of his ‘fro and landing near Hanna. The bots had pulled back. John and Kevin came together above the other two. “I think this means the boss is coming.”

“Yeah, this is all too familiar somehow.” Kevin’s eyes went back up to the gantries behind the reactor building. What was back there? They were going to have to find out very soon.

Somewhere along the way things had grown quiet. He hadn’t been paying attention. He looked over at John, then followed his gaze towards the reactor building. Something was coming towards them. Someone… wearing something with diagonal stripes? Blue and green… blue and green. Hadn’t he seen this somewhere before? He just didn’t have it.

An amplified voice boomed out across the complex. “Come to me, fools! Come and die!”

This brought Kevin’s mind back into focus. He looked up. The person was standing on the edge of a rooftop now, looking down on the team. Kevin saw that the villain was wearing a helmet that covered the entire head. No skin could be seen anywhere… except perhaps a bit around the left eye. Wait…

Kevin’s mind flew back in time, to over twenty five years ago. His first night patrol, where it all started. Same green and blue striped uniform. Same dumb-ass bucket on his head, now with the right side of the window covering the eyes silvered over. Because of what Kevin had done… to Doctor Shockwave.

The most persistent, the most vengeful adversary they had ever encountered. Kevin had disfigured Shockwave’s face at the end of that encounter. Shockwave had been consumed by his hatred, and everything he’d done since then was motivated by the desire to humiliate, and then to destroy the Offenders.

But something… no, a lot of things were wrong. Dr. Shockwave was taller. Dr. Shockwave was stouter. Dr. Shockwave did not have… breasts?

Kevin eventually realized that he had been shouting. “You’re dead! You’re dead! I KILLED YOU!” He’d used up all his air and his throat was sore now. He forgot to concentrate on remaining airborne and sort of staggered down to the ground. He felt the flat of one of Hanna’s blades against his back, steadying him.

The villain threw her head back and laughed. “You? Kill Me!? I — AM — IMMORTAL!” With that, all the remaining bots extended an appendage and began beating in unison on their shells. Every loudspeaker they carried, and every loudspeaker in the complex crackled to life. “SHOCKWAVE SHOCKWAVE SHOCKWAVE SHOCKWAVE…” The word repeating over and over again, with the volume rising, and various frequencies beating against one another, adding a kind of warbling to the overall noise. The vibrations rapidly intensifying, forcing their way inside the Offender’s bodies and minds. The sound was getting painful now…

Kevin tried to clear his head. We’re fucked. I’m standing here like a fucking idiot. I should be doing something. He raised his fist and summoned up a blast.

While they were otherwise occupied, Fiona had floated the jet almost directly above them. She cut the throttles on one and two and the jet sank like a stone, straight down in landing configuration. At the last possible instant she ran the engines up and lit the afterburners. The sound was so loud that at first Kevin thought a bomb had gone off nearby. Serenity slammed down hard on the tarmac, bottoming out her struts. The airlock door was only about ten or fifteen meters from Barney and Hanna.

Kevin took a step towards the villain, then looked over his shoulder and shouted at the team. “BUG OUT!” Hanna grabbed Barney with all three left arms and charged towards the hatch. She all but threw Barney inside and leapt up after him. John streaked in about a second later. “Fiona! Get her off the ground! I’ll catch up!” The engines shrieked in reply. He could see the jet rising up on the struts. Well done, Fiona. He turned to face the villain.

She-He-It was charging down at him now, riding on some sort of mini floater. He fired a shot from his left wristband and took off a chunk of something critical. The floater went nose down and dropped. The machine was close enough to the ground for the baddie to leap off into a forward somersault, landing with two feet and one hand on the ground.

She stood up. “Run! Run while you still can you piece of shit!” She shook her fist at him. She was only ten or fifteen meters away now. Something on her wrist caught the sunlight.

He looked at the flashing thing more closely. A thin band of gold encircled her right wrist. He knew instantly what it was, but his mind couldn’t bear to accept it. Her left arm was down at her side, the hand clutching some sort of conical object. A fraction of a second was all it took to see the silver band that he knew would be there. His insides turned to mush. NO… NO NO NO Goddess help me NO!

Fiona’s voice came through his earpieces. “Where the bloody hell are you?!”

Kevin looked around. His ride was leaving. He launched himself into the air without a second look at… her. But then her voice came through his radio. “You can’t outrun my new masters! The Earth now belongs to the Star Cannibals!” She laughed, and a very sick laugh it was. “And you belong to me!”

Star cannibals? What the fuck? He heard a rapid series of explosions. He looked towards the reactor building. A very large ship was rising out of the mass of cranes. A starship? We’re fucked.
He looked for Serenity and summoned up full thrust. He could see the engine exhaust plumes thickening. Fiona was going for full thrust as well. He was still gaining on the jet, but not as fast as he would have liked. He begged for more speed. He stretched his right arm out. He could still hear her cackling in his earpieces. He managed to hook the first two fingers of his right hand on the lip of the hatch, then he heard the afterburners fire. Fiona must have found out what was chasing them. The increased thrust made his fingers slip. Damn. Sorry, gang, I just won’t be making it today.

Something clamped around his hand with great force. Another hand, blue-gray skin with tendons straining. He looked up through the hatch. Hanna was on the floor of the airlock, her feet braced on opposite sides of opening. Her teeth were clenched and he could see the effort on her face. “Get…” Another hand grasped his wrist. “In…” A third on his forearm now. “Here…” Another. “You…” Another on his biceps. “Great…” A sixth. “OAF!” With a supreme effort she pressed her legs out straight, pulling a hundred and eighty kilos of Angry Man through the outer hatch and into the airlock.

Hanna turned her head and shouted. “Fiona! Shut the door!” The hatch clanged shut and Hanna let go of his arm. Kevin pushed himself off of her and tumbled through the inner hatch into the cabin. Hanna sat up and then pulled herself up to a standing position. She looked very upset. “What the hell is going on? What were you muttering about out there?” She took a step towards him. “Who is she?”

Angry Man held up a hand. “I know who she is.” The words caught in his throat, and he had to look away from her. “It’s Sandy.” The cabin grew quiet as people abruptly stopped speaking. He could tell that everyone was looking at him.

Hanna turned and punched a storage compartment hatch so hard that it dented. When she drew her hand back her sword was in her grip. She whirled around, shouting at no one in particular. “THAT – BITCH – COW!!” Then she was instantly in Kevin’s face. “Get your ass in that chair and get to work! I am not going to have you go to pieces again!”

He was really mixed up now. “But… she… I…”

Hanna silenced him with a growl. “Just like I said! You were worthless to us when she was around!” She yanked him up to his knees. “Not today! Take me to her so that I can kill her!” She shoved Kevin forward and he half stumbled, half crawled to his seat.

Fiona wasn’t looking at him as she was too busy piloting the jet. She spoke through clenched teeth. “Take it, flyboy. We need our best pilot on this now.” She flicked her eyes towards him. “And you’ll be explaining quite a few things to me when we’re done!”

He strapped himself in and grabbed the stick and throttles. “Barney, what can you tell me about this thing?”

Barney sounded puzzled. “I’m not seeing anything that would prove an extraterrestrial origin for the craft…” He made some changes to his screen. “I’m beginning to think that the whole star cannibal thing was a bit of misdirection.”

“Holy shit!”

“Chemical and liquid fueled rockets… kerosene burning turbojets, carbon fiber, stainless steel… the thing’s hacked together from jet and ICBM parts!” Barney looked again. “The delta vee is incredible! Bastard just broke Mach three!”

Kevin had the jet in a steep climb now and they were all but laying on their backs. He usually could count on the jet being able to climb faster than anything else, but that wasn’t happening today. He began to level out, trying to increase their airspeed. He scanned his instrument panel. Five hundred knots, nowhere near enough. They were nearing the boundary of the exclusion zone and Kevin had to make a wide turn back towards the way they’d come. The beast was still on their tail. “Time to intercept?”

“A hundred and eighty seconds.”

“Options?”

“Maybe –” Barney stopped abruptly. “They’re shooting at us.”

A couple of nearby explosions rocked the ship. Fiona perked up and leaned forward in her seat. She began typing. “I’m introducing random fuel flow variations to the engines. Barney, can we vent some reserve hydraulic fluid? Coolant?”

“Yeah.” Barney began hitting keys as well.

Fiona reached over and lightly touched Kevin’s arm. She was startled for a moment because she wasn’t expecting it to feel like hot steel. But she had gotten his attention. “Hold on tight, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” The plane started to shudder as the fuel began to fluctuate. The wing strain gauges began to rise.

Barney checked the radar. “They’re gaining.”

Kevin couldn’t look away from his work just now. “What’s next?”

Fiona was working her keyboard again. “When it’s close enough we’ll dump most of our fuel and ignite it with the afterburners. Use the cover of the explosion to loop around and fire.”

Damn, that’s a gutsy move! Still… “How much fuel?

“I mean taking her down to bingo fuel.”

Kevin smiled. “Scary. Let’s do it.” It wouldn’t be long before they were back over the complex. He looked at the stern camera display. The thing was hideous, built expressly for the purpose of eating little baby planes like Serenity. It was getting really close now. His arms were getting stiff now, he’d been gripping the stick and throttles tightly for some time. The shaking was really rattling his teeth. It was getting noisy in the cabin.

Fiona completed her preparations and leaned back in her seat. “We’ll have to shut off the afterburners to make this work.”

Barney was glued to his screen. “If this doesn’t, it’ll be all over us.”

Kevin felt strangely calm now. “Fiona, you’d better call it.”

The collision alert started hooting. Fiona raised her voice above the din. “Ready… steady… Serenity! Afterburners! Off!” All of them were thrown against their harnesses as the jet decelerated. “Serenity! Fuel! Dump!”

Barney sucked in some breath. “Bingo fuel!”

“Serenity! Afterburners! Ignite!” Something very large exploded behind them. The force propelled the jet forward, giving everyone a fresh moment of vertigo. Fiona struggled to keep her focus on her heads-up display. Kevin heaved back on the stick and things just got worse as the g’s built up, gyros moaning in despair and the strain gauges crying out one after the other. The world turned on its’ head and her head was trying to turn inside out at the same time. She was seeing red at the fringes of her vision now.

She didn’t wait for the targeting computer. She knew when she had the shot and she took it. She’d diverted all the power she could for one good blast. Every lamp and display in the cabin dimmed for a fraction of a second as the lasers drained the flywheels. Then the sky went dark. They were plummeting through the rapidly expanding fireball and towards the ground below.

Kevin righted the plane just above the treetops and determined that they were heading west again. He began climbing back to cruising altitude. “That was fast.”

“Damn it!” Barney started beating on his keyboard in frustration.

Hanna leaned in towards him. “What is it?”

“Another one! Smaller, faster, and radioactive as hell!” When Barney looked at her she could see that he was really scared now. “I think there might be warheads on that thing.”

Kevin glanced over at Fiona. Ah, you lovely woman… I swore to protect you. “Fiona, please prepare the target drone for launch.”

She was obviously puzzled, and raised her eyebrow. “Aye…?”

“We need something that can get behind us and cause that thing some grief.”

“But the drone is unarmed! It can’t do any real damage without a warhead.”

Kevin looked away and sighed, then turned back to face her. “I’m the warhead.”

Fiona tried to make a sound, but failed.

“You see, this is pretty much the part where I bust out of the hatch with fists blazing.”

Fiona had gone so very pale. She bit her lip. “I can envision no scenario that does not result in your capture.”

He smiled wanly. “This may be the point where we have to give them what they want. I need you to take the controls, please.”

She did as she was asked, saying nothing, staring resolutely out the windshield. He watched her gloves stretch as she squeezed her hands tighter and tighter on the controls. Neither of them had noticed that the other three were watching all this very intently.

Kevin began unbuckling his harness. “Barney, I need you to send the drone to me. I’ll put a hole in the side of that thing so the drone can get in there and cause some mayhem, then I’ll bail. Fiona –”

Her reply cut him off. “Go now before I refuse.” She was staring at the instrument panel because she wouldn’t – couldn’t look at him. He thought her left eye might be tearing, and he heard her sniffle a bit. She choked off something like a sob.

He wanted so very much to kiss her, but she couldn’t take off that damnable helmet now. He reached for her shoulder, but she shied away. He hung his head for a moment, then looked at Barney.

Barney hit a couple of keys before he looked up. “Drone ready for intercept. Voice command enabled.”

Kevin nodded and took a step towards the stern. Hanna grabbed his arm. “We’ll come back for you.” Her eyes were moist as well. “I’ll come back for you…” Whispering now. “Fellow warrior.”

She let go of him and he started walking. He called out over his shoulder. “Once I’ve got the drone, run. Run like hell and don’t come back unless it’s safe.” Which it probably won’t ever be…

John looked up at him. “Why do you keep doing this for us?”

“I got a fucked–up death wish and I keep fucking up the acting out part.” He clasped John’s shoulder. “Thanks for giving it one last try.” John nodded, then Kevin let go and entered the airlock.

He stood there for a moment, looking through the tiny porthole at the world whizzing by. “Serenity. Airlock exterior door. Open.”

Ejecting at hypersonic speed was very similar to stepping in front of one of those mile–long freight trains that hurtle across the American West at sixty miles per hour. Slammed hard and shoved along for a couple of miles while the train tries to stop. He saw the drone pop out of the belly of the jet. The engines ignited and the drone started a twisting turning intercept course. It came up beneath him and he grabbed the wings and braced his feet on the elevators. He put his face down on the fuselage.

He sub-vocalized a command. “Drone. Engines full. Engage.” He felt as though he was trying to shove his head through an infinitely thick stone wall. I’ll probably have a headache for weeks… if I’m lucky. He felt the drone change course. He looked up a bit and saw that he was being vectored towards the beast. “My thanks to you all.”

He uses his feet as thrusters to fine tune his aim. There was a big engine mounted on a pylon on the port side, probably for VTOL. He aimed for a point just in front of the pylon. The thing was getting really big. Everything on it was vibrating as the great heat from air friction expanded the joints.

He glanced up again and saw that his heading was still good. He thought he heard someone on the radio, but the rushing air and screaming engines were too loud. Maybe twenty seconds to impact.

Ten seconds… He raised his right fist for a blast.

Five… The thing began to yaw to starboard, perhaps the beginnings of evasive action. He was seeing too much engine and not enough fuselage now. He rolled the drone ninety degrees to starboard. He wanted to be sure that it would clear the engine intake on it’s way in. He fired and made a decent sized hole in the side. He let go of the drone and felt his cape snap straight out from the back of his neck. He turned his head and saw that the bottom of his cape was almost into the engine’s compressor blades. This is going to hurt. He saw the drone strike inside the beast and commence exploding before the engine sucked him in.

They were watching the stern camera display. At maximum zoom they could see the drone and the crimson and yellow figure clinging to it. They saw him release the drone… they saw him enter the engine. Fiona turned away. Then the cascading explosions, smoke, and debris obscured their view. Hanna kept staring at the screen until Barney turned it off.

He had enough time to put his arms over his head. He bent his legs back at the knee, trying to get them behind him, trying to get something, anything into the engine before his head or neck. His feet hit the compressor blades and the blades began to shatter, flinging bits out in an expanding spiral of transonic shrapnel. There was fire all around him. Again and again fragments of the blades tore into his body, again and again the gashes began to heal. Every long bone in his body fractured and fused almost as quickly. He thanked the Goddess for the fire that gave him strength. He felt his spinal cord sever, then regenerate.

He slammed against something hard, perhaps part of the combustion chamber, then the housing disintegrated and he was floating free in the air. The pain was horrendous and he had lost a tremendous amount of blood. Without massive quantities of food and water that blood would be difficult to replace. He was falling.

Barney scanned his console. “Serenity. Autopilot. E.I. Munich. Seek.” The jet altered her course. “Serenity. Autopilot. Emergency maximum fuel economy. Seek.”

The jet began fetching data from weather satellites, terrestrial radar, and other instruments, as well as broadcast and internet data. She plotted a path of least resistance through the atmosphere to Munich. Engines three through six shut down. She extended her wings out straight and flat, attempting to mimic glider wings as best as she could. Engines one and two throttled back, the ship’s airspeed settling down to around three hundred and fifty knots.

“Munich’s got everything we need.” Barney was talking to no one in particular. “Including that nice long runway in case we have to dead stick it in.”

The nav computer chirped. Fiona raised her head slightly. “ETA three hours, forty-five minutes.” That was the last thing anyone said for a very long time.

He looked up, and saw the ground. Seven, maybe six thousand meters. Not much time. He rolled onto his back and grabbed his cape. He found the bottom of the cape and fired a blast from his right boot at the hem, and a long, clear, molten filament rose up. He got his boot through the loop, then the loop contracted and held tight. He repeated the process with his left foot. Then he straightened out and pushed his fingers through hidden holes in the cape’s edge. He rolled over again, face down now, and spread his arms and legs wide. The cape filled with air and began to slow his descent. The jolt was severe, he had barely enough strength left to keep his arms and legs rigid. He saw a river and tried to aim for it.

Three thousand meters. When they find me, they’ll have me. I can’t fight. He looked at his gauge. Mostly black, with a bit of yellow at one end. Not bad, considering what he’d been through. At least I have a chance of being conscious when I’m captured.

One thousand meters. He could already see the bots converging on both banks of the river. He closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them again. Some big things had joined the bots now.

I am so hosed.

An Habitual Offender by
Kevin L. Corridon is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Oh, yes!

Terrific, 'unputdownable' stuff. Who cares about my eyes? And bacon, and 'Klingon opera', too!

Absolutely agree with

Absolutely agree with you.
------
Tom Scott

Thanks!

What a great Christmas present!

I'm currently packing like mad, the clan is relocating from Colorado to Oregon the end of next week. Then I hope to have more time to arrange words in pleasing patterns.

And to Cougary, I have (damn you sir, and thank you sir) done some work on a story to start about six months after the end of this one.

I'll be offline for two to four weeks, depending on how things go...

And to all, a good night!