Keelin forced her adrenaline down, breathing deep. She felt the craft, her Proteus, around her. Her lattice picked up data from the sensors, and she felt the air rush against its hull like wind brushing her skin.
She smiled. She shut her eyes, her lenses filling with images from more sensors and data from the systems. She was at one with the craft as it tore through the gully, low enough to stay out of sight.
She guided the Proteus like that—eyes closed, using her mind to steer the craft—for a few minutes, then looked across to her tech, Marilla. The girl had her eyes open, but they were glassy as she read data on her own lenses.
“Any signs of the runners?” Keelin asked.
“Getting something. Bearing two sixteen. Think they’re using a parallel gully.”
Keelin frowned. That didn’t seem right.
“We hidden, Keelin?” Marilla asked.
“Should be. Unless they’ve got tech they shouldn’t have.” Which was always possible. Runners picked up all kinds of stuff. “I’ll pull right back, see if they pass.”
She kind of knew they wouldn’t. And she was right.
“Staying steady,” Marilla said. “Hang on. Two signals now. They normally fly that close together?”
Keelin picked up on the data. They must be connected, surely. And there was something else, something…
“Third runner,” Marilla said, surprise in her voice. “Just below the other two. Hugging the ground.”
If it had been going slower, Keelin would have assumed it was a ground vehicle. How did it manage to ride the contours like that?
“They’re hailing. They want to board.”
“Not having any runners on my baby,” Keelin said.
“Data shows weapons, Kee.”
“They can’t shoot through rock.”
“They’re rising. At least, two of them are.”
Keelin checked the data. The third still hugged the gully floor, flitting round boulders like a rock-hound. That pilot was good!
“Two runners clear from the gully, and heading over to us. Weapons primed.” Marilla shuddered. “Couple of fourteens and an eighty-seven series each.”
“Seriously? All that, just to take out a Proteus?”
“Bearing down on us. Kee, you might want to do something.”
Keelin rolled through the craft’s systems, massaging controls. The engine gave a burst of power, and the Proteus dipped to port. The first runner peeled off, anticipating Keelin’s manoeuvre. But she jerked the craft round to starboard, pulled up hard and shot into the sky.
For a moment, the forward sensors stared straight into the sun, blinding her. But she didn’t need to see to know what was going on. She flipped her baby over, bringing it down hard. It screamed past the runners, and Keelin engaged her own weapons. Only a couple of beta-cannons, but they were better than nothing. A single hit in the right place could even bring a Hermes down.
Sights glowed green in Keelin’s lenses, and she locked on, aiming for the fuel intake, just below the engine. The Proteus strained, the body juddering violently, but the sight clicked, glowing red.
Keelin fired. She followed the trace of energy as it tore through the sky, her aim perfect.
But at the very last nano-second the runner stalled, and dropped. The bolt of energy flew past.
Keelin gasped. A stall, at this low altitude, was practically suicide. There was no way the pilot would be able to…
The craft’s engines coughed, then fired loudly. It pushed forwards, brushing the ground, then rose, rocketing into the sky.
“Wow.” It was all Keelin could say.
“Other one’s on us.”
“On it.” Keelin refocused. The other runner tore in from their starboard. Keelin banked sharply, pulling their nose up a fraction. Rock flew by too close. Turbulence buffeted the Proteus, and Keelin fought to keep it steady.
And in the parallel gully, the third runner still hugged the ground. On a hunch Keelin tapped virtual controls, scanning for signals.
And she found them.
“Incoming,” Marilla said. “Bearing one-nineteen.”
Two more chasers. They hugged the rock and dove into the gully. Stats said they’d engage in ten seconds.
“Hold on.” Keelin nudged the controls, and the Proteus shot out of the gully, arcing to port. She heard a grunt from Marilla as the Gs hit her.
Then they were in the other gully, the runner ahead, rippling over the rocky ground.
“Got one behind,” said Marilla. “Pinning us down!”
Keelin pulled up data, and saw the pincer movement. Her lens glowed red as the runners locked on.
But the one ahead was in her sights. It shot across the green crosshairs. Keelin steadied the Proteus.
“Goddamn, Kee! We’re a sitting duck!”
She breathed, and focused on the target craft. The crosshairs glowed red, and Keelin fired.
The bolt of energy sent it spinning into the rock wall in a burst of flame. Instantly, the runners behind stuttered, and dropped from the sky. Four explosions billowed out as Keelin pushed the Proteus forwards. Ahead, the gully widened.
A voice cut into her lattice, reaching directly into her ear.
<Care to explain that move, Keelin?>
Keelin smiled, and sussed back, talking through her lattice. <Analysed the data, sir. The runner in the gully was the only active craft. The others were drones.>
She looked over to Marilla, who nodded in appreciation, no doubt running through the data herself.
<But what were the rules of engagement in this mission?>
<To reach the end of the gully with minimal engagement.>
<Yet you took out six runners. Hardly counts as minimal.>
Keelin eased the Proteus between the rock walls as she grinned before responding to her instructor.
<But I only took out two. It’s not my fault if one of those resulted in the others being destroyed.>
Her instructor was silent for a moment.
<Very good,> he eventually said, and Keelin smiled.
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