The incandescent flash plucked Karami from her seat and smashed her against the starboard wall. She bounced off the transparent ceramic just in time to be slammed against it again by the ram of unlivably hot external air roaring in through the gap where the portside hatch had been. Four atmospheres at a hundred meters a second felt like an ocean wave, shoving her in and then pulling her out as the pressure equalized and the slipstream outside tried to suck everything out of the truck.
The angel had been caught standing at the front of the cabin, with nothing to hold onto but the carpeted floor. Her armored black robe flapped like thin gauze in the hurricane wind dragging at her, and the carpeting clutched in her black-gloved fingers tore like gauze as she slid toward the hatchway.
Karami dived to grab her, unimpeded by rational thought but too late nevertheless: fingertips caught and held for an instant, then an eddy shoved the truck violently sideways and jarred loose that fragile grip. The angel plummeted into the storm.
"Tirea!" Karami's unheard, despairing cry turned into an equally inaudiable shriek as she found herself without any more secure handhold and likewise was swept out into the rushing darkness.
Without the wounded truck to introduce turbulence, the airflow was remarkably smooth, and it took only a moment to stabilize herself. Automatically, her hands pulled her breath mask into position and she let go of the reflexive breath-holding that had kept her lungs from cooking.
Not that it mattered. Two kilometers, four atmospheres, 1.4 gravities -- less than a minute to live. Her mask had automatically compensated for the lack of visible light, and she could see the pale synthetic image of the ground sweeping up towards her, details swellling hypnotically.
"Arms out and back, arch your body! Maximize your drag!" She flinched convulsively as the message broke her trance, and the wind tumbled her heels over head until she obeyed.
A phantom dropped out of the storm at her left hand, barely visible even to the mask's sensors: the angel, robe fluttering above her like wings. "When you get inside, grab onto something sturdy. This is going to be rough."
"Inside? Wha--" A brilliant light stooped past her right hand, with a howl audible even over the wind: the truck, upside down and boosting hard for the oncoming ground. Twenty meters below it flipped almost completely back over, hanging canted in the air as they plummeted toward the luminous rectilinear salvation of the open hatchway.
For a terrifying instant, Karami thought she would fall right through the truck and out the other side; then the starboard window violently reassured her. The vehicle leaped about her, but she caught hold of a seatback, and though the expensive cloth parted beneath her fingers as flimsily as the carpet had, the frame was solid.
She dangled toward the aft wall of the cab under about three gravities as the truck tilted its nose skywards, using the main jets to brake its fall. By rights it should have flipped completely over and disintegrated from trying to fly in that attitude, but though it swayed alarmingly, bashing her legs against the floor, the angel somehow kept it together.
Through the hatchway she could see the ground simultaneously sliding backwards and upwards, seeming to drift slowly until it pounced upwards and grabbed the truck's tail. The floor swatted her away, and the ceiling caught her by the head.
"Platoon leader Naronne! Prepare for inspection!" her regiment leader bellowed, sending a shock of adrenalin through her that no mere threat to bodily integrity could match. She found herself crouched, legs gathered to rocket her to attention, for a brief instant before the pain in her head knocked her down again. Fortunately for her dignity, agonized whimpering didn't transmit well over an internal channel.
Hands propped her upright with casual strength but surprising care. "Sorry about that, but I don't have anything to treat a concussion, so you're going to have to stay awake." In the background, an emergency beacon mindlessly chanted, "ASSISTANCE IS REQUIRED AT THIS LOCATION ASSISTANCE IS REQUIRED AT THIS LOCATION"
Did she have a concussion? Field medicine training helpfully replayed itself. Dizziness, check. Lethargy, check. Double vision -- she waved one hand in front of her face, a pale blur in the gloom -- not at the moment. Nausea -- her innards heaved violently, but she fought them down. Vomiting in a breath mask wouldn't be fatal, but it would be humiliatingly unpleasant and, in Kitosfe's atmosphere, extremely painful. The concentration required to not do so cleared her mind a little, at least enough to worry about events outside her own skin.
"How'd you get the voice, Angel? That sounded just like Regimental Hassidy."
The angel waved a hand-sized slab of ceramic at her. "You'll be glad to know that the investigation files are perfectly intact. Although at the moment I'd trade all of them and the entire judicial board for a working comm relay."
"Sounds like a bargain to me." Oops. Could that be taken as an admission of guilt? Probably not; lack of faith in the perfection of Imperial justice wasn't a crime. She looked up at the angel, but the darkness made the habitual unreadability of those royal blue eyes redundant.
She quickly changed the subject. "If we don't have a comm relay, what do we have, Angel?"
"I haven't checked yet. You looked pretty bad; twitching and transmitting... gibberish. I was afraid your mods had been damaged."
Karami practiced blankness of her own. What word had the angel discarded in favor of "gibberish"? If she'd sent something that counted as evidence, why not either say so, or stay completely quiet? Too bad she hadn't set her comm channel to log.
"Diagnostics show clean, Angel." She wobbled to her feet and looked around. What little illumination there was came from the emergency lights of the truck, which was sprawled eviscerated on the same blade of rock that kept the wind off them. The stern of the truck emitted sporadic flashes of orange and infrared which scarred the sand with streaks and fans of glass, as the ruined power system slowly discharged itself. Outside the lee of the rock, all was rushing sand and scorching darkness; her mask sensors were dead. Her ears had muffled the howl of the storm to an ignorable level, and no other sound could possibly compete.
The angel rose too, with a fraction less than her usual grace. Her robe had vanished somewhere, and her skinsuited form was a captivating silhouette against the dim emergency lighting, marked with the vivid orange and yellow of emergency patch tape along the curve of one hip and thigh.
"Tir- Angel, are you all right?"
"I'll live." Her tone was sharp, justly offended at familiarity from a prisoner, and Karami winced. Maybe she'd better just shut up.
"Rest for a minute while I see if there's anything to be salvaged. But don't fall asleep." The angel vanished into the remains of the truck, intermittently visible through holes in the wreckage.
Karami turned the question of "gibberish" over in her mind a few times, but as the adrenalin faded, the hypnotic chant of the beacon overwhelmed her concentration. The semiconscious state that resulted wasn't too unpleasant, but random flashes of pain and incoherently fretful thought kept jolting her into a panicked, hyperalert state from which she slipped as soon as her heart slowed. The third or fourth time it happened, she gave up on resting. Walking was every bit as bad she had expected, but the regular, agonizing throb of pacing kept her awake.
After what Karami's clock insisted was only eight minutes, the angel returned, empty-handed and limping much more perceptibly. A fresh stripe of orange tape reinforced the patching on her leg, which had bleached white against optical overload. Karami winced, but resisted the urge to do anything embarrassing. Still, it was a reasonable question to ask. "Angel, are you all right?" She was quite proud of how matter-of-fact her tone was.
"Better than the truck. The designers put everything vital in the tail, to protect it in a crash."
A giggle escaped before she clamped down on what obviously wanted to become full-fledged hysteria. Not a tendency she normally exhibited; just how hard had she gotten hit? Not too hard to concentrate on the essentials."What about your gear, Angel?"
The angel waved toward the streaming sand beyond the wreck."Out there somewhere, and not much use after being bombed and then dropped a couple of kilometers. Nothing's responding."
"We should try to salvage the power supplies, at least, or we're going to get awfully hot and sweaty." For the brief period between suit power running out and death from hyperthermia, at least.
"And any comm gear; we might be able to bounce a signal off the ionosphere or even one of the moons. But we'll have to wait for the dust to blow over, which it's supposed to do by mid-morning."
Right, no satellites. "The beacon's not doing much good then, is it? Can we salvage the power supply?"
"It won't reach our allies at the station, no, but hopefully it'll fetch our enemies to finish us off."
For a very brief instant, that seemed reasonable. "WHAT?!"
"Right now, we have nothing. Anyone else out here has to have more than that, by definition, so all we need is a way to take it away from them.
"Which one of us is the pirate, again?
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