Lilith took two slow and conscious breaths, centering herself. Charlie's Archons watched her, and still did not advance. Keeping her feet on the ground, she carefully pivoted and stepped to the side of the corridor. The weapons which were slung over her back made a slight clatter as she pressed them to the enameled steel wall.
They seemed unimpressed.
"You got orders to take me alive?" she asked aloud, glancing back and forth to either end of the hall. She held the gun's barrel up near her cheek. "You're gonna let him down."
"That's not for you to say," said a brassy-voiced outline from the eastern end of the hall. "Unless they recently made you Chief Warlord of Gobwin Knob." There was a stray laugh somewhere. "If Charlie wants you back, he'll make a deal with somebody with a higher upkeep than you. They'll order you to turn."
"Don't know why he'd want that one back," a different Archon commented, which drew chuckles from both ends of the hallway.
Lilith was seized by a moment of panic at being this thoroughly trapped. She almost turned around and tried to blast right through the wall. Comm Tower wasn't solid steel, right? She could get through into the interstitial spaces behind this plate!
But she clamped down hard on it. She was out of juice, and wouldn't be able to cut this much steel even if she was full. She fell back on the basics, running down the tactical situation:
The enemy was in blockade formations. These Archons had trailed her for some time, without revealing themselves. Obviously their current orders were to keep an eye on her, to keep her contained. They couldn't engage her for damage or capture, or Charlescomm would pay the penalty. And she couldn't shoot them for the same reason. It was a pure stand-off.
So how was it going to resolve? They almost certainly had a plan, and if she gave them time to execute, it wouldn't go in her favor. Rule 1 applied here, as ever.
Charlie's Rule #1: Always have the best plan in the game.
Corollary: If they have a better plan than we do, then our plan is to disrupt their plan.'
To this, she now added Lilith's Corollary: Because of Rule 1, the plan against Charlie is always to disrupt his plan.
If they wanted to hold her here, then she should move. Keeping the pistol ready, she turned and began to march toward the western end of the hall, tugging the net full of bodies and guns along behind her.
"That's a good way to lose a city," warned one of the Archons in her path. "You can't get past us without engaging."
"Shoot me," she muttered, stomping her way forward.
"Hold," ordered the voice of the leader, to the others. "Make her do the contact. Try and take some damage. Don't let her through."
Lilith slammed each step onto the floor, not slowing at all.
Yet… she knew they were right.
She stomped right up to them, planted her shoes, and stood there defiantly. The one she was looking at was one of the three that weren't flying. Her glassy, blurry outline resolved to true form as Lilith got this near.
"Uh huh," said the fully-visible Archon next to this one. Their arms were now locked together at the elbows. "Now what?"
"Good news," Lilith said, cracking a big, fake, Charlescomm smile. "There's a way out of here! For all of you. Just take me to the portal, and shoot yourselves!"
Lilith laughed too, as if she were one of the sisters again, sharing the joke. She was winging it, and it felt weirdly good. "No, look. After you croak, I'll push your bodies through the portal, and you can get popped again. See? You'll finally be free of him!"
The laughter stopped.
The one visible, grounded Archon looked inclined to break out of her armlock and shoot Lilith in the face… which would not be the worst possible outcome here. Maybe this was even a way she could draw their fire."I can give you a better way," Lilith went on. Her smile turned sad and pitying. "I know what he really is now, sisters. He's a monster. I mean, have you ever seen him? Let me tell you about him. He looks l—"
A flood of something almost incomprehensible struck her. She reeled back, waving her hands through the air, uselessly.
For a second or two, she did not even understand what was hitting her. Bullets? Is this what bullets felt like? Had she lost? Had she won?
And then she understood the nature of the attack She identified some little raindrop in the flood as an idea, as words:
[CHARLESCOMM REQUESTS PARLEY. PLEASE RESPOND.]
This was the sensation of a Thinkamancy hail, but multiplied hundreds of times. Requests to establish a call came to her mind in an unceasing flood, blocking her vision with boxes upon boxes of inquiries. She tried rejecting them. It was a trivial thing to ignore one unwanted request. But they came to her faster than she could banish them.
She physically staggered away, lowering her head and instinctively shielding her eyes against the onslaught with her pistol arm. It did no good; they kept coming, they…
The Archons closed around her. They yanked the Either-net out of her hand.
She looked up, half blind with rage and dazzled with Thinkamancy noise. Her prizes… Someone took the net and passed it to one of the Archons with an intact veil. It melted away, turning into boxes of "[CHAR[CHAR[CHARLESC[CHARLESCOMM REQUESTS PARLEY. PLEASE RESPOND.]OND]OND]" and vanishing.
Her mission [CHARLESC had failed. She could [CHARLESC not do as Chief [CHARLESC Parson had [CHARLESC ordered. But she [CHARLESC could still [CHARLESC do one [CHARLESC thing for [CHARLESC the side. The [CHARLESC formation had broken. [CHARLESC she staggered past [CHARLESC them, dashed forward [CHARLESC and fled around [CHARLESC the corner.
The requests kept coming, kept blinding her, and she bumped into the walls as she ran. She didn't dare take to the air, but she knew where she was, and where she had to go. It wasn't far. Two halls and two turns. That's all she had to do to get back.
A turn, a stumbling dash at full speed down the hallway. The second turn ahead. [CHARLESC[CHARLESC[CHARLESC[CHARLESC shut up, Charlie! Not far. Turn the corner.
Something brushed past her.
"No…" she pleaded, and stumbled forward. But she slammed herself awkwardly into an open hatchway door and fell down again. Was the hatchway here before? Was this the right hall?
She looked up, frantically clearing boxes from her mind's eye, and tried to see to the other end of the hall.
And then, light. Pressure. A bump that was nothing worse than another stumble. She even stayed on her feet. Her ears rang.
Somebody had beaten her to the bomb, and tripped it. Lilith hadn't taken a single point of damage from here.Titans disband.
All at once now, the requests stopped coming. Lilith waved away enough of them to see that much of the hallway was missing. Strips of steel and wires hung from a gaping chasm at the far end of the corridor. Sparks danced at the torn edges of the walls and ceiling. She could now see past the missing hatch door, and into the far hallway. And into floor 35 above.
And… into 37 below!
For the first time since the Battle for Spacerock, Lilith flew. She lifted herself lightly into the air and rocketed down the corridor, diving through the hole in the floor headfirst.
No, Comm Tower was not solid steel. Oh, look at this all! Girders spanned a vast, gloomy space, like a maze in three dimensions. Wires, some of them glowing in blue or white, hung in bundles everywhere. The space between the walls was indeed a way out. Or a way in.
Above and behind her, orders were being shouted. She slipped into the mess of metal and lost herself among the tangles and plates, gliding carefully, silently downward. Downward to 40, down to the portal room. She still had a mission here. She still had three rifles on her back and a pistol in her hand, to deliver to Chief Parson.
And at level 39, hanging in the wiring, Lilith found the body of the Archon who had flown past her to trip the bomb.At least, she hoped there was enough here for Mistress Wanda to work with.