Leya shuddered in the tuggings cycling from Farside's gravity guns, as this Captain Amundsen persisted in calling them, the landing tractor array intended, before rebel modifications, for the assist in holding lunar-bound ships in the slot for landing-final. The old man, in speaking of his beloved antique Leya, freely called it that quaint She. So it surprised Ali Shansee hardly at all that it required diplomatic coddling to acquire one of Her unipods for the tactical incursion the captain quickly declined to hear more than the bones about. It was surprising that the great Gunnar Skjold should submit so to a tactic better suited to the council chamber than to the bridge of this antique currently under attack, and hoping to flee lunar interests.
A dozen crew in blue busied themselves shouldering cargo cans about the floor rollers in Hold 21. Overhead on its rail, the hoist whirred across to where the hands waited, dropped in the ninth empty, a can the same as the others, burnished rounded blocks the dimensions of a standard ship's lifeboat. Gunnar would have dispatched her immediately down to deal with those Farside miscreants, Ali mused. She would not be sitting on a step, watching crew in blue hastily setting empty cargo cans like a giant child's toy blocks against the hold's massive outer door.
Captain Amundsen had made the suggestion, Ali deduced, because the ploy should better the chances for intact return of his unipod. Gunnar agreed, because though the chance of failure was practically nil, considering Ali's capabilities, those gravity guns had to be shut down, and Leya must escape. The hero was taking no chances.
The borrowed pod appeared overhead, a utilitarian loader, gleaming in the yellow lights, swinging across on the hoist.
"ATTENTION. HOLD 21. STAGING CREW EVACUATE."
Two of the crew in blue waited to take the lowering loader-pod in hand. The others sprinted up the staircase, left the hold, as Ali, ready and light on her feet, swung the helmet over her head and crossed the floor rollers to meet her ride to Luna as it touched down mid-floor.
The woman's hair, gathered in back out of her way, blazed like fire under those hold lamps. Bearing a small smile, she gestured at Ali, pointing at the hatch, rearside of the pod.
"Test your neural link."
Ali eyed the hatch and wanted it opened. It KLUNK'd, lifted from its seals, then, whirring, slid aside into the pod's burnished hull.
The other, the man, younger than Ali, she reckoned, he tapped her shoulder. His pouting mouth momentarily held her attention. While she tested the link and opened the hatch, he had slipped off the hoist tackle and shackled the pod's aft tow-ring to a floor tie-down.
"Release shackle. Explosive." he said, those plump lips of his playing with the words. "You have control."
Leya shuddered. KREEEAKING crossed Hold 21's massive outer door behind ten cargo cans stacked in front of it.
Ali nodded, grasped the hatchway handholds, put herself legs first into the padded rack inside the pod. Hands reached inside around her, fitting the harness, tugging it tight on her shoulders and hips.
The pod was as quaint as the ship and its captain. Spartan inside: unfinished plating and just the console necessaries. A joystick under each hand, should the pilot require manual control. Ali made out a pair of external manipulators, tucked in like a surgeon's arms upright, waiting, by her left and right, outside the enormous eye of bubble nearly pressed to the visor before her face.
The woman swung her gentle face in front. She had been fiddling with Ali's helmet. Ali guessed correctly she would say the obvious.
"Helmet sealed — Okay. HUD checks out okay?"
Range-finding. Full spectrum scanning. Environmentals. Her helmet HUD functioned perfectly. Ali ensured it always did.
She realized she might have slipped a little nod, in spite of how busy she was, about to leave a transport ship in a cargo loader, and bring war to Farside. She might have caught that little, silly nod, this crew'woman. She remained just that unnecessary moment longer, smiling in through her visor. Then the other, the young man, unseen behind her and done tightening the rack harness, patted Ali — patted the top of her helmet — and she heard him out there, jolly:
"Have fun takin' out the trash!"
She was not part of this crew. Did not need to be. Ali was secondary operative to Gunnar Skjold, and they both here, using the means available to successfully complete this mission. And this borrowed antique loader pod and its borrowed antique mothership, and its crew, by necessity were that means. When the mission here was done, she would move on to the next, wherever they had need of Ali Shansee.
The crew'woman also patted her helmet, Ali registered, as the pair of them clambered out the hatch, and sealed her in.
"Twenty seconds, Ali." said Gunnar, suddenly there in her ear.
The captain there, too, burbling attitude adjustments and fussy compensations with his helm. His tone steepening, like a man about to run out of air, Ali heard there a captain who wanted his ship precisely where he wanted it.
Captain Amundsen had suggested disguising the pod's launch as only one more bit of debris within the ploy of Leya's jettison of available debris — the supposed ship damage caused by Farside's gravity gun barrage. The plan quickly enough set into motion, after the Captain and Gunnar settled on a mutually acceptable definition of debris.
"Ten seconds. Minimal casualties, Ali. We will be back this way. We can only benefit making one less enemy."
"...Of course, Gunnar."
"Radio silent until you're on ascension."
The Captain broke in — "Tell your girl outer door actuators free in five..."
That odd, unutterable feeling shivered again over Ali, the same as when the geomass lay almost catastrophically exposed. Reflexively, both her gloved hands clutched the pod's locked joysticks. The pod's bubble seemed dangerously close.
The girl in the machine seemed almost to sense she was being watched.
Then the great door in one thunderclap of air fell away, flushing out those cargo cans, and the tops and sides torn from some. As suddenly soundless, that cloud of tumbling things already were falling like stones toward the brown world drawing all. Last, ready, she in the machine fell too, and the watcher riding with her.
She flew her falling rock most impressively, veering it away from the others, and the spinning bits of them. And in firing her little machine's puff'puffing jets she defied the world pulling her, and the mountains stark below. Turning her eye in time, she saw those other stones spattering calamity all the breadth of a bright sand sea.
The ship above called her then.
"Ali. Gunnar. Abort. Seems it is done."
Again, that one called for her. And again.
But the girl, splendidly determined, stayed silent. She puff'puffed her machine onto the chalky world. Leaving it, tilting, like it might tip over, she bounded away, easily across crater and rill, to her target, the sand sea below the hills, and the forest of solar trees, here and there smashed, beneath the glaring yellow sun and black sky.
Only then replying, "Gunnar. I'm at Mendeleev solar farm —"
"Ali, there's no need —"
"A hunch, Gunnar. If ever we need Quadrant Two...or Farside, we'll need to know who we can trust."
"Make it fast, Ali. Leya's about clear of the neighbourhood. The Captain wants to set sails."
"Only the relay station. Tractor control. And Gunnar...Tell your Captain Excellent shooting."
The watcher followed. Swifter now, the girl bounded across the solar forest, leaping, as never her ancient monkeykind could. She found the station, smashed, in a smashed crumbling hillside. And bodies inside, scattered in the dark. Bodies clothed green. And bodies clothed grey. She regarded these greys particularly.
"Gunnar. Not the rebels. As I guessed."
Dust swirled in her helmet lights. She waited for him to respond, the girl not alone with the dead.
I'm here, Ali, said the watcher.
"Station personnel snd Colonial Greys, Gunnar — not the rebels. Maldoran's playing something political here."
You have done very well, Ali. I have waited a long time for one as impressive as you. You understand I am pleased with you?
You have run so very far, Ali. You must feel tired. You do feel tired. I am right. You should allow yourself a very short rest, don't you agree? Only allow yourself to sleep a very short sleep. You remember how to sleep standing up, don't you? You might do that even here. Only close your eyes. No longer see this all around you. Only forget, for a very short sleep."
"I...no time — Leya's leaving — I have to run back."
You don't have to run all that distance, Ali. I'm here, with you, you know that."
"Yes, I know...but how, Gunnar? — You're on Leya — How can you be here?"
It isn't important, Ali. You know I'm here. And you know you can trust me. You do trust me, don't you?
You don't have to run. I can run, for you. I'll carry you far, far away. Only close your eyes, Ali. Forget a while. There...There, Child. That was not so terrible.