Devereaux slipped the malfunctioning rebreather over his face. “Have I mentioned how much I dislike your plan?”
“Multiple times.” Pastoric craned his neck. “I love this city. See those towers over there? Over three hundred years old, and still in great repair. The Praetoriat’s corrupt, but they knew what they were doing when they chose their capitol.”
Their stolen ship slid through the sky. It was a small, sleek vessel, holding one seat for the pilot, one for the prisoner. It had some of the best engines Devereaux had ever seen. And, more important, it had all the clearances needed to land in Delos, the capitol of the Empire. Now, perhaps, they could save the Imprisoned Empress and have some hope to topple the despots.
Devereaux activated the transmit. “Sagahl to control. Engines overheating. Need immediate emergency landing location.”
The transmit sputtered. “Control to Sagahl. Proceed to landing pad two-two-dash-seven-dash-ten. Transmitting coordinates to your navi. Security will be present.”
“Acknowledged.” Devereaux was thankful that the Hunter’s ship had an audio-only transmit. He altered the ship’s trajectory and double-checked their sabotage to the engines. Yes, still sending off frightening levels of heat but not effecting performance. Good. For once Pastoric’s engineering skills seemed to be working.
Devereaux could see the massive prison they had been shunted to at the top of a pinnacle. If anyone made it out, there would be nowhere for them to go.
He approached the landing pad and set the ship down with a jerk.
Pastoric grunted. “Have I mentioned how much I dislike your landings?”
“Multiple times. I need to make it look like the engines’re in trouble. Relax.” He started the cool-down process with a few flicks of switches and slid the canopy open. He stood with his hands in full view and away from his assorted holstered weapons.
The guards were present in force. They stood in bright white armor and blue surcoats. Blast shields on gleaming helmets guarded their faces. They aimed blaster rifles at the figure now standing in the ship.
Devereaux hoped this ruse worked. The ship they had stolen belonged to Nerra, a Hvit. They were a feline race known for, among many other things, getting infections from what most other races considered standard atmosphere. The Hvit typically wore rebreathers that covered their entire heads, allowing Devereaux, a standard human, to pose as one as long as he wore the rebreather. They had disabled it from siphoning out oxygen. Although he was not as lithe as a Hvit, he was tall and thin enough he might be able to pass as one.
A tall guard with an insignia of a rising sun pinned to his shoulder stepped forward. “Step down. Keep your claws in view at all times and away from your weapons. Present your soul.”
Devereaux leapt from the canopy, doing his best to mimic the cat’s grace of the Hvit. Apparently he was doing a fine job. No one laughed.
He turned so that the guard could run a scanner over the stolen armband he wore. It was made of a coarse black fabric and sported a white tribal pattern. Every Hunter had one. It was all they were; if someone could take it from the Hunter, they may as well not live.
The scanner pinged, and the guard raised his blast shield so Devereaux could see his young face. “Welcome to Delos, Nerra. We’ll escort the prisoner to a cell. You may accompany. Stay within the circle of guards and make no sudden moves. You may release your prisoner. We will inspect him to ensure your precautions are sufficient.”
Two guards, blast shields still down, came to flank Devereaux as he reached to the armband and tapped a downward slash twice. The canopy over the prisoner’s seat slid open, releasing Pastoric. He stood, his wrists bound by a thick mesh. He looked at the guards standing around the ship.
The wind sang through the gleaming canyons of the city. Several ships passed by. Pastoric’s long brown coat billowed around him.
Finally he grunted, “I’m old. I’m fat. I’m not getting down from here without help.”
The guards glanced at each other, conversing using the closed-band transmits in their helmets. Finally two reached up to aid the larger man. He reached over and put his full weight on them. All three fell into a pile.
Devereaux was glad his mask hid his smile.
Pastoric was the first to stand. “Thank you kindly, boys. Your extra cushioning saved me from hurting myself.”
The other two stood with some stiffness. They searched Pastoric for weapons. The prisoner grunted as they worked him over. They tugged on the mesh restraints, confirming they were secure.
The lead guard, content, turned to Devereaux. “Lady Nerra, I congratulate you. This one’s made six attempts to free the Insane Empress, and he’s never been caught before. If you’ll accompany us, we’ll deposit Tenhew Pastoric in a cell, and you will receive your reward. We’ll tow your ship to your guildhouse.”
Devereaux fell into step within the circle the guards.
Pastoric walked next to him with a slight limp. “I guess I hurt my ankle in the fall. You guards really don’t know how to help an old man, do you? Never help any old ladies across streets, either, I’d bet.”
The younger man hoped his partner was faking that limp.
They entered the massive structure. The building’s title was etched in granite facing: “Speaker of the Truth.” The Praetoriat’s redoctrination center.
The immediate interior was awash in security equipment. They passed through several more searches. At every checkpoint Pastoric suffered more beatings. Every guard wanted to leave at least one bruise.
No one questioned Devereaux on his holstered weapons. The Hunters’ Guild was contracted to the Praetoriat. If they had business with a contract, no one questioned them. No one dared.
They left the tight security of the perimeter and slipped deeper into the prison. Finally they came to a quiet corridor. No one strode this hall but the little circle.
Pastoric twisted the mesh that bound his wrists. The compressed gas capsule held within the mesh broke. Devereaux caught the motion and held his breath. He counted to thirty. The guards around them collapsed in heaps.
Devereaux spun to his prisoner and broke a vial of relaxing hormone over the restraining mesh. It uncoiled from Pastoric’s wrists.
They both moved with practiced efficiency. Pastoric stripped the lead guard. Devereaux removed his Hunter’s garb and redressed the guard, while Pastoric flung his coat over the heaviest one. It might buy a few more seconds. Devereaux kept the Hunter’s armband.
Devereaux dressed in the guard’s armor and slid the blast shield down over his face. He was glad it was opaque only from the exterior. The clearances in the stolen pin on his shoulder should get them where they were going.
As they worked, he asked, “Insane Empress? I thought she was the Imprisoned Empress.”
“It’s easier to usurp and keep control if your public thinks the rightful ruler is fruitier than marmalade. Thankfully the term never made it off-planet.”
The new guard slapped the mesh back onto Pastoric, but did not release the tightening hormone. He handed his prisoner two miniature blasters which he secreted in the palm of either hand. Each held charges for only three shots, but no one would see them until it was too late. “Let’s go rescue the Empress.”
If all went well, they should be able to break the Empress out, and Pastoric and she would race to the ship again while Devereaux walked right out the front door in his disguise. That was if all went well. Devereaux was not optimistic, but Pastoric had proven him wrong before.
Hefting the blaster rifle, Devereaux motioned for Pastoric to lead. The older man had been here numerous times and knew by heart the way to the Empress’s cell block.
The halls were nearly deserted this far into the complex. Travel was regulated at every intersection by sensors that read the security passes in the guard’s pins. The few passing workers did not even blink at a guard escorting a prisoner.
They came to the security desk outside the cell block. Devereaux stopped to face the receptionist, a woman in a tight azure dress. “Prisoner transfer. Tenhew Pastoric.”
The woman wrinkled her nose. “I keep telling them at central we’re full up here. We can’t take any more residents.”
“I got my transfer order right here.” Devereaux reached for a screen hanging from his belt.
“Don’t bother.” She waved her hand. “Go on in.”
The armored door clanked and slid open as she pressed a button. “Put him in Cell Beta. It’s the waiting room.”
Devereaux shoved Pastoric through the door and followed. A loud clang announced the door shutting. Before them lay an extended hallway with a series of doors on either side. Monitors beside each door revealed the occupant of its room. No one stood in the hallway. Devereaux knew that cameras watched from both sides of the hall, but unless someone thought something suspicious was happening, no audio would be fed. By Pastoric’s calculations, they had a few minutes before their guards were discovered.
“I can’t believe how easy it is to get in.” Devereaux’s eyes scanned the doors as he muttered to Pastoric. They passed Beta. Cell Epsilon held the Empress.
“Getting in is always the easy part. The Praetoriat might be monstrous, but they aren’t dumb. You screw up on the inside, it’s almost impossible to get out.”
“You’ve done it before.”
“I know this building very well, from before the Praetoriat imprisoned my fair Empress. I probably know its ins and outs better than the head of security.” He stopped before a door. “Cell Epsilon. Finally.” He took a shaky breath. “Once we open the door, alerts will sound. You ready?”
“I told you I didn’t like the plan, but I do know it.” Devereaux reached out his hand and punched the release button. Sensors read the insignia on his shoulder and released the lock. The door slid open.
The room inside held an array of blasters aimed at the door.
Devereaux leapt out of the way. A series of blasts thundered out of the room, destroying the opposite wall. Electrical arcs shot everywhere. He was glad he wore the armor.
Pastoric saw Devereaux flatten himself against the wall clear of the explosions. The bevy of blasts halted. “No Empress. Well, I guess it’s time to escape.” He unwrapped his hands from the mesh and held the two blasters at the ready. “You know what to do.”
Devereaux pushed himself to his feet and took aim with the blaster rifle. He fired it several times at the door that had let them into the cell block, fusing it to the frame. At least for the moment they were safe. The last time he depressed the trigger he heard a resonant click. “They’ve deactivated the gun.”
“I hate those safety features.” Pastoric slapped an electronic device onto the door console for Cell Beta. A few sparks later the door slid open. Pastoric glanced inside. “Bad news. No one’s here.”
“So much for our distraction.”
“It’s worse than that.” Pastoric opened a few more doors. Each cell was empty. “If there’s no one here at all but the screens show prisoners, the entire cell block must be an elaborate trap for people trying to free the Empress. She was probably never here.” His voice was bitter.
Devereaux prepared two more miniature blasters. “Will your escape route work without a release of all the political prisoners?”
“Probably.” He bent to pry up a particular metal plate on the floor. It lifted easily. “Hey!”
“Yeah, yeah.” The younger man fired on both cameras, disabling them.
“If this is a trap, there’ll be more cameras in place.” Pastoric lowered himself into the ductwork below.
Observation panels around the hall exploded as Devereaux fired on them. “Got them all.”
Sudden pounding at the cell block door shifted their attention. The door was too thick for the pounding to be only fists.
Pastoric struggled out from the ductwork. “All right. Help me up to the ceiling.” He received a boost, raised a ceiling panel, and soon both were in a tight airspace above the cell block. “At least you don’t have to worry about trying to fake being a guard long enough to go out the front door.”
“I never liked that part of the plan.”
“You didn’t like any of the plan.”
“You’re right.” Devereaux lowered the panel back into place as sparks flew from the door and guards rushed in.
The airspace was sealed. There would be no getting out of the cellblock from here.
A guard with a rising sun pin pointed to the deck plating. “You saw where they went. Go!”
Six men dropped into the space below and disappeared. Two men remained checking each cell. One spoke to the other. “I can’t believe Pastoric tried it again. He won’t get out this time. They redid the ductwork after last time.”
Two blaster shots from above and both guards were down. The men dropped from the ceiling and grabbed up the rifles. Devereaux threw down the sun pin from his shoulder and grabbed a new one off the guard. “This should help. By the way, does everyone know who you are?”
“Only the important people.”
They turned and ran out of the cell block. The receptionist was no longer there, but a guard watched the door. Devereaux fired on him before he had the chance to move. They ran past without a second look and dashed into the labyrinth of corridors.
Thunder sounded from behind. Devereaux was thankful the armor was designed to deflect the bulk of the harmful blasts. He was also glad he ran behind, shielding Pastoric. The overweight man either had not been seriously hurt from all the beatings or was ignoring the pain. He moved quickly.
The younger man turned and attempted to fire back with the rifle, but it had been disabled. He threw it to the ground and retrieved his miniature blasters. There was only one shot left in each.
They tried turning down an intersection to get out of the line of fire. A contingent of blasters told them it was bad idea. They were forced to keep moving, and now away from where they left the ship.
It was not a running firefight. That would indicate that those fleeing fired back. They knew there was no point. The guards were herding them away from the ship.
Devereaux turned a corner to find another squad of guards waiting for them. Time to find out how good the armor was. He fired ahead of himself once, taking his charges down to one. Rushing past Pastoric, he tackled the center guard. They had not expected a frontal assault and fell into disarray. He snatched a rifle from surprised hands and used it as a club. Pastoric leapt into the melee. They were out quickly, both firing into the mob with stolen rifles before turning to flee around another corner and relative safety.
That safety did not last. The corridor dead-ended in a window overlooking an impressive canyon between glass pinnacles. The guards did not even bother shooting. A dozen marched to within ten feet, their blasters ready.
The two rescuers knew their rifles were useless and dropped them. Only the miniature blasters remained.
A guard who had a sun woven into his surcoat stepped forward. “Tenhew Pastoric, and a new friend! We finally have you. One more vestige of the old order wiped out. Just like we wiped out your precious Empress so long ago.”
Pastoric was not surprised. “When there was only a blaster array in her room, I figured as much. Just keep the rumors of her alive so you can capture anyone foolish enough to try to rescue her?”
“Indeed. And now we have you. I imagine a few of the rebel groups might try to grab you, as well. Come along. You’re worth quite a bit.” The guard smiled. “Sensors indicate you only have one blast left. Surrender gracefully.”
Devereaux smiled back. “One is enough.” He fired his blaster behind him at the window and leapt backwards through shattered glass.
Pastoric was at his side.
Thunder rolled behind them as they plummeted into the abyss.
He reached for Nerra’s armband and tapped it three times. Both widened their bodies as much as possible to increase drag. They would need every second if this was going to work. A red blast slashed past them. The guards were firing out the window now.
Pastoric shouted something, but Devereaux could not hear over the wind. He understood, though. They had to minimize themselves as targets. No more maximizing drag.
Both narrowed their bodies and fell headfirst. The ground reached up to embrace them. Devereaux knew the end was coming.
And then the ship was there beside them, matching speed. The homing device on the armband had worked. The canopy opened. He kicked himself inside as Pastoric did the same. Devereaux’s fingers danced over the controls, firing thrusters. He leveled them out and shot back into the sky, away from Delos. Time to elude capture again.
Pastoric did not mock Devereaux at all as he dodged blasts from the fighters that started hunting them. They were not well-trained pilots, and soon their ship pulled away into space.
Devereaux set coordinates, and the ship entered foldspace. “Cheer up, Pastoric.”
“Why? It’s pointless now. The Empress really is dead. I’d been fighting that possibility for years. Without her, there’s no chance to unite the rebel groups against the Praetoriat.” He gazed out at the stars.
“How long has it been since anyone’s seen her alive?”
“At least seven years. Maybe eight.”
Devereaux smiled. “And no one knows she’s dead but the Praetoriat, right?”
Pastoric started putting the pieces together. “You can’t be suggesting what I think you are.”
“You’re well known to have attempted rescuing the Empress before. We just need for find a good look-alike. Say you did rescue her, and you have your unifying force.”
Pastoric blinked. “Well. How would we hold auditions?”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
The ship flew into space, away from Delos and what would now be a successful rescue mission. No one had to know that the woman they rescued no longer existed.