SPOILER! – An Excerpt from Part Three of Book One

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A final bloody stand at Milestone, a small town on Orca, and Lance Corporal Souza has some difficult decisions to make:

Souza didn’t have any choice but to do as he was told by the skinny little man.  Having Fulsom silently fuming by his side didn’t help him think, but at least his girl had the sense to keep quiet and not struggle.

He had already formulated a plan to get them all out of this alive, but he couldn’t neglect his duty either.  Once Donald Boyle and his oversized friends were loose with the railgun everyone’s life was at risk.  It was a near impossible situation, but he was sure he could make things right.

There wasn’t any chance of disabling the gun now.  When Boyle arrived it was obvious that they had finished working on it.  Fulsom himself had just tightened down the cowling and even a child could see that it was good to go.  And now that Abbie was hostage they would have to make good on the rest of the job, like it or not.

So, a gamble then, to rescue his own people and to make it so Donald Boyle would do as little damage as possible.  He had considered sacrificing their own lives for the sake of everyone else – even Fulsom and his daughter – but there was always the chance that Boyle and his buddies could fix the powertrain themselves, making the sacrifice pointless.  Also, Souza knew the look on their faces well enough and he was sure that the road to passing wouldn’t be an easy one for any of them, especially Abbie.

He couldn’t do that to her, not for every life in Milestone.

They weren’t villains, these angry men, but they had lost their moral bearings and that was dangerous.  The game they played with them now, him and Fulsom, even more so.  Souza pretended to fumble through one of the tool racks, feigning nerves as he dropped a couple of wrenches noisily to the floor.  As he did he palmed the flare gun he had spotted earlier (a common enough object out here in the sticks) and lost it in the folds of his overalls.

That was for later.

Right now they would have to make good on the job at hand and fix that powertrain as quickly as possible.  They needed to resolve all this before the yooks could press their advantage and then hopefully regain control of the packer while it was still of any use to the LT and her forces at the turbine.

Souza’s other concern right now was the way Hinks and Abbie had looked at each other.  Luckily Hinks had kept a lid on it, but there was no doubt about how they felt for each other.  By the looks of it Abbie had fallen hard for the bright, blonde boy and he had fallen even harder for her.  His eyes smouldered with the same protective rage that lit up her father’s face, but so far he had shown the sense to keep it from Boyle and his mountainous friends.

If Hinks lost his sense, though, everything was going to twist in the wind and they would all be dead before the sun came up.

No point in dwelling on that, thought Souza; there was only so much he could do and he needed his head in the job if they were going to stand a chance.  He would just have to keep an eye on Hinks as best he was able.

He slid back under the packer, dragging the toolset he had laid out from before Boyle showed up, and beckoned for Fulsom to follow him.  Boyle’s goon, the older man-mountain stepped forward at that, his face all lit up with suspicion, but Boyle waved him down with a grandiose gesture.

“Let ‘em be, Bill.  Takes two to do a powertrain, you know that.  Least ways, that’s what Fulsom here’d have y’believe when he charges.  Ain’t that right, Fulsom?”  Boyle leaned into those last words, shooting them out with rapid, almost gleeful spite, masked as they were as a light-hearted jab.

Souza, grabbed Fulsom’s arm as he made to turn, still half-in-half-out of the trench.  He didn’t grip too tight, but the warning was plain and after a silent hesitation he relented and slipped into the uplit hollow of the trench under the packer.

If Souza thought things were tight in there before he was in no doubt as to the lack of space now.  Both men struggled with the work, edging around each other in a stilted ballet as they focussed on the job.  With every second that passed and with every element of work completed they stepped closer and closer to the inevitable end.

This was familiar territory for Souza.  He was a soldier and he was used to long periods of waiting, filled with mundane tasks, followed by a rapid transition to violence and destruction, sometimes planned, sometime not.  This was not the case with Fulsom and, tough as he was, the man shook with barely contained nerves.

There was that, and there was the fact that they were holding the man’s daughter hostage.  Souza kept that thought firmly in his mind – he had to keep a lid on all of this and there was so much emotion threatening to run loose that he would have to see every spark and catch it before it lit.

Boyle could run his mouth off all he liked, and likely he would abuse the privilege until the sun came up if he didn’t have such pressing matters elsewhere, Souza just had to make sure no one answered him back.

Difficult to do in the trench, but that just meant he would have to get the job done quick.  He had already shared his plan with Fulsom and it had done nothing to improve the man’s mood, but a seed of hope had taken root and he pressed that idea home as they worked.

“You remember now – I need you at the back of the shop, not by your girl.  I know you’re going to want to get to her, but you need to get to the back.  They’ll be watching me and Hinks, but not you, not if you let them think they’ve broken you.”  Souza looked at him then, in the glare of artificial light, leant that strange intensity that is was by such confined spaces, and he thought that perhaps Fulsom already was broken.  The anger was fading, slowly being replaced by fear and resignation.  “We can do this, Fulsom.  You know it as well as I do.  You just need to do your part.”

Souza fixed him with his eyes until Fulsom nodded, a rapid and grim movement.  He could only imagine what it must be like to have to bow to a wretch like Boyle when you already have a history with him.  Souza gripped Fulsom’s shoulder again and looked into his eyes one more time before they turned to their tasks without another word.

It took them another ten minutes to finish the job and when they emerged they saw that Hinks had been ushered over to the far side of the shop to sit with Banstead, who was starting to come to.  He could only hope that they had the sense between them to figure out he was up to something and keep their heads down until the time came.

Souza walked towards Boyle, rubbing his hands on an oily rag as he did, looking for all the world like a civilian mechanic approaching an expectant customer with the final verdict on their motorcar.  He could only hope that Boyle didn’t register the bulge in his overalls from the flare gun.

The hungry look on the little man’s face told him all he needed to know.  His lust for revenge and destruction meant he only had eyes for the packer and was keen to get whatever he had in mind underway as soon as possible.  What Souza had stuffed into his pants was of no consequence to him now.  All caution had evaporated into a triumphant and expectant grin.

“Well then, let’s get this show on the road, boys!”  Boyle clapped his hands and pushed Souza out the way before jumping into the driving seat.  It was almost comical to see, like one of those propaganda films where the smiling soldier lets a ten year old boy clamber up into the packer to play with all the dials and switches, laughing as he stops the kid from hitting a comically oversized ‘fire’ button.

Nevertheless, Boyle had the engine gunned and revving within seconds, displaying an uncanny affinity for the vehicle.  Just for those few moments Boyle and his giants were distracted and as they readied to leave he cast a cautious glance over to Fulsom who, to his credit, was putting himself exactly where he needed to be.

Souza made to get out of the way by wandering over to the entrance and there was a moment when he thought one of the big fellas was going to stop him, but they were too busy climbing aboard while watching everyone with their guns.  The younger one still had a hold of Abbie and she had started to kick something furious as he climbed into the passenger seat with her.

The older one was in the railgun seat now, but still had his rifle trained on everyone behind the packer.  Boyle’s arm extended out from the cab and signalled for Souza to lower the ramp, which was perfect as the controls were right by the door.  He trotted over to the big, blackened control panel, eager to put himself in position, and lowered the whole thing down with a rapid, tearing groan as the hydraulics all but collapsed under the strain, finally glad to be relieved of their oversized burden.  The packer rocked slightly as it settled on the shocks and then started to roll back as Boyle eased it out of the bay.

This, of course, was the moment when they would all be killed to make sure they didn’t interfere in Boyle’s plans, but Souza had a very different idea about that.

That was, until Hinks took a chance of his own and rushed at the passenger seat and the object of his affections, Abbie.

A scream, from her, and a staccato burst of fire from the big man’s gun pushed everything forward with breathless speed.

The packer lurched back, rushing out into the dark night before screeching to a halt, revealing Hinks on the ground in a pool of his own blood and a now irate Boyle at the wheel of the packer, glaring defiantly at them all, his eyes brimming with judgement.

No time left, thought Souza, so he stepped out into the night from the edge of the shop and pulled the flare gun from the folds of his overalls.  Without a word, but thinking recognise this, you bastard? he aimed it at the sky and fired.  For a fragile moment everyone’s eyes went up, tracing its arc as it filled the sky with a vivid red warning light.

Then Fulsom reappeared and threw the SCF rifles they had placed at the back of the shop earlier to both Souza and Banstead, who was now standing.

“Better get moving, Boyle, they know you’re here now!”  Shouted Souza, his plan being to scare them off before they all died and then report the incident, hopefully in time to put a stop to it before anything happened.

Banstead followed his lead, opening fire on the toughest parts of the packer.  The rounds bounced off harmlessly enough, but the effect was as expected and Boyle gunned the engine.

Then it stalled.

There was a moment then when a world of possibilities opened up in front of them.  Souza didn’t know what to do as he hadn’t expected this to happen.  He had just wanted to get them clear, but then Fulsom chose a path.

The girl’s father stepped forward, his face grim but calm, and dropped to one knee before aiming his gun.  He was too far from Souza for him to be able to reach out and stop him and his shouts fell on deaf ears.

With a single shot, as big Bill Garner settled himself into the controls of the railgun and swung it around and Boyle finally got the engine up and running again, revving it with maniacal energy, Fulsom shot Bill Garner’s son, Thomas, in the head.  A clean shot, it rocked him forward and slackened his body like cutting the strings to a doll.  He slid out of the cab, his inert form dragging the screaming Abbie with him, leaving a spattered pattern of blood and brains on the inside of the windshield.

Abbie screamed and screamed and then the dead man’s father joined her, a primitive howl of rage as he levelled the railgun on the centre of the shop, aiming squarely at the lot of them.

“Fire!”  Shouted Souza.  “For your own goddamn sakes, fire!

The all opened fire at once, peppering the back of the packer with a withering hail of bullets.  There were no spare cartridges to hand and within moments they were going to be out of ammo.

Through his tunnel vision Souza could see the big man clearly now, his face streaked with tears and his eyes red with a bloody flush of hatred.  The only thing that was keeping them alive was the fact that he didn’t know how to operate the gun, but you could rest assured it wouldn’t take him long.  Those things were designed to be fired by grunts under stress.

They had moments.

Finally their volley of gunfire got the better of Boyle, some bullets must have ricocheted just a little too close to his head for comfort, and the packer lurched off into the night.  As it did they hit a bump in the road and the big man’s final roar of anger was drowned out by the railgun as it discharged harmlessly into the night air overhead.

Within seconds the packer was gone around the corner.  Fulsom ran to his daughter, prying her from the grip of the dead man, sobbing tears of open relief and joy as he gathered her up, bloodied and soiled like a new born calf, into his arms.  Banstead ran to Hinks, who gasped short sudden breaths in time with the release of blood from his body and Souza ran to the comm-set.

The LT would have to know what was coming their way.

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