“The ship's power grid has been damaged,” Melissa said, checking the readout on her multi-tool. “Emergency force-fields are offline. We should have a clear path right to the cargo bay.”
Keli shut her eyes, tilting her head back as she focused. “Trouble,” she said, jerking her head to the right. “Around the next corner.”
The corner she had mentioned led to an adjoining corridor that was both shorter and somewhat more narrow, ending in a T-shaped intersection. Red lights in the ceiling were flashing to indicate a state of heightened alert.
At the end of that hallway, two men in tactical gear – heavy armour and helmets – came around the corner and stumbled to a halt. One set his jaw and then lifted his assault rifle. “Freeze!” he screamed in Raen.
Anna ducked around the corner.
“What can you do?” she asked Keli.
The telepath was squinting, concentrating so hard you might have thought she was in the middle of a very hard math test. “There are five,” she explained. “Three more out of sight, and they're advancing.”
Anna drew her pistol, setting it for stun-rounds. At a nod from her, Melissa did the same. “Can you slow them?”
“I can try.”
High-pitched yelps echoed through the adjoining corridor, and when Anna peeked around the corner, she saw the two lead men on their knees with their hands pressed to the sides of their helmets. Three others behind them were backing off, visibly shaken by whatever Keli was doing.
“Now!” Anna shouted.
As one, she and Melissa spun to stand side by side in the intersection, raising their pistols in both hands. They fired, and charged bullets struck the first two men in the neck, in the soft spot where their armour would not provide protection from stun-rounds. The two tactical officers spasmed and fell backwards.
At the end of the corridor, one of the three remaining officers was aiming around the corner, trying to fix her with his rifle. Anna reacted without thinking.
Her hand came up, and the light was distorted so that everything seemed to stretch into long streaks of black and gray. Bullets veered off to her right, burying themselves in the wall.
Anna moved sideways, grabbing the back of Melissa's vest and pulling her out of the intersection to the safety of their corridor. “Careful,” she barked, letting her Bending wink out. “You let your guard down for a moment-”
Red-faced, Melissa glared at her. “I saw him!” she insisted. “I was gonna take him out while he was aiming at you!”
“We don't have time for this!” Keli shouted.
“Distract them for me,” Anna ordered.
The other woman scrunched up her face and shook her head in firm disagreement. “I can't,” she panted. “Something is blocking my talent. They must have telepaths of their own. It's all I can do to prevent them from incapacitating the two of you.”
Anna bit her lip, her eyes widening as she considered that. “Isn't that just grand?” she murmured. “Ideas?”
“I'll go high,” Melissa said. “You go low.”
With her mouth open, Anna looked up to blink at the ceiling. “Why do they do it?” she asked, shaking her head. “Why does everybody assume that just because I'm short, I want to stay close to the ground?”
Once again, she and Melissa jumped into the intersection, crafting Bendings to protect themselves.
Thrusting her hand out, Anna watched the light refract and the bullets that came at her go into the wall instead. The blurry images of two men were standing side by side at the far end of the corridor.
She ran at full speed, ignoring the strain of pushing a Bending forward. Her skin was tingling, but she could deal with that.
Melissa was at her side, using a Bending of her own to redirect incoming fire into the opposite wall. By the time they were finished, this entire hallway would be nothing but bullet holes and shattered light fixtures.
Anna jumped over the fallen men.
She landed and then dropped to her knees, bending over backwards until she was almost flat against the floor. Her Bending vanished as she slid over the tiles, revealing a man who stood with his assault rifle pointed up the corridor, firing a stream of slugs into the distance.
Anna slid to a stop in front of him.
Slapping her hands against the floor tiles – her pistol beneath one palm – she lifted herself and brought her feet up to strike the underside of his rifle. The weapon tumbled over the shocked officer's head, and he backed away.
Anna rose into a handstand, then flipped upright and raised one arm to point her gun at the retreating man. He stumbled, reaching for his sidearm, but a stun-round hit the soft skin of his neck before he could draw it.
The man began to spasm.
Melissa flew with her arms spread wide and her legs curled up, propelled by Bent Gravity as bullets zipped past beneath her. She kicked the other security officer square in his face, and he fell backward.
That left only the fifth man.
He was a few feet away, readjusting his aim to point his weapon at Melissa.
Anna seized the trembling man in front of her before he could fall to his knees. She flung the stunned guard at his companion, Keeper strength making it feel almost as easy as hurling a rag-doll across a room.
The two men collided, and they both fell to the corridor floor, landing one atop the other. The one who was still awake let out a wheeze of pain, but he was trapped beneath the weight of his companion.
“There are more!” Keli shouted from behind.
Anna tossed aside her pistol.
She dove, her hands coming down on the fallen rifle before she somersaulted over the floor tiles. Anna came up on one knee, and when she stood up, she had a much more powerful weapon at her disposal.
A woman in black tactical gear came around the corner, her eyes widening behind the visor of her helmet as she caught a glimpse of the scene.
Bullets hit the female officer's belly – deflected by her heavy body armour – and she stumbled backward into the adjoining corridor. No time to waste. If she gave them a moment to regroup, they would swarm her.
Anna ran right into the fray. She jumped and flew across the intersection, kicking out to strike the corridor wall with her foot.
Turning in midair, Anna found the dazed woman standing near the corner of the intersection, trying to raise her weapon while several more officers trotted up behind her. Anna flung her rifle.
The stock hit the female officer's helmet, knocking her sideways into the corridor wall. It wouldn't kill her. Not with a helmet to protect her.
A Time Bubble formed around her in the instant when two men who stood further up the corridor lifted their rifles and fired. Bullets spiraled slowly through the air, inching their way toward her.
Anna stepped out of their path, positioning herself in front of the female officer who was leaning against the corridor wall, just beyond the surface of her bubble. The woman looked as if she might fall over.
The bubble vanished.
Anna grabbed the stumbling woman's vest and turned her slightly, using her as a human shield. Bullets hit the woman's back, but unless her fellow officers switched to high-impact rounds, she would be fine. Bruised but fine.
Anna pushed her captive backward up the corridor, using the other woman's armour to deflect the incoming gunfire. In mere moments, the other security guards clued in and stopped shooting.
Anna gave a shove.
The female officer staggered backward until she slammed into the pair of men and threw them both off-balance. One recovered quickly, pushing his companion aside with obvious disdain and then trying to take aim with his rifle.
It was then that Melissa came around the corner.
The girl was a blur, becoming a streak of colour for less than half a second before solidifying to stand with her arm outstretched, the pistol pointed at her enemies. She fired and then blurred again.
A stun-round hit the officer who was lifting his rifle. He spasmed before he could get the weapon pointed at Anna and sank to his knees. The other two were still out of it, still trying to get their bearings.
The streak that was Melissa resolved into a woman who stood with her pistol in both hands, taking aim. She fired once, adjusted her aim and fired again. One bullet hit the female officer's neck, and before she even lost her balance, another one hit her male companion. They both fell flat on their faces.
Melissa hunched over, touching three fingers to her forehead. “Oh…” she groaned. “I wasn't expecting it to hit me that hard.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, Anna tilted her head back. “Easy there, Melissa,” she said. “What did we tell you about pushing your symbiont too hard?”
Her own skin was tingling, and some of those little pinpricks stung with fiery heat. For the moment, she was all right, but if she pushed Seth much further she would hit her limit. They had to find the cargo bay. Now.
“I'm all right,” Melissa mumbled.
“You need rest.”
“I can rest after we-”
Maybe thirty paces up the corridor, another hallway branched off from this one, and from that intersection, a woman in flowing blue robes with a diamond pattern on the hem and the cuff of each sleeve stepped into the open. She was gorgeous with a round face of pale skin framed by ringlets of red hair. “Impressive,” she said, nodding to them.
A man in crimson robes came out behind her, moving gracefully with each hand hidden up the opposite sleeve. He was quite handsome with a strong chin and a coiffure of blonde hair.
A second man emerged, this one in robes identical to those of his male companion. His square-jawed face olive skin was marked by a small mole on his cheek, and he wore his black hair slicked back.
“I have always wanted to see Justice Keepers in action,” the woman said. “Sadly, I had to experience it vicariously through the eyes of our fallen comrades there, but it was no less exhilarating.”
Anna looked up to study her opponent, then narrowed her eyes. “There are three of you?” she asked, shaking her head. “Since when did your people start putting more than one telepath on your war ships?”
“Since Leyrians started attacking us with Justice Keepers.”
The official reason for Antaur's “one mind-reader per ship” policy was the rarity of telepaths among the general population. Less than one percent of one percent of humans born on that world would develop telepathic abilities. Among the Antaurans, telepaths were considered to be the pinnacle of human evolution, and starships were always going into dangerous situations. There simply weren't enough telepaths to justify losing several when a single ship went down.
That was the official story; Anna suspected that military commanders feared losing control of a ship with too many telepaths on board. You never knew exactly what those clever mind-readers might do.
“Attacking you with Justice Keepers?” Melissa said. The girl put one fist on her hip and glared at the lot of them. “That's ludicrous. Justice Keepers would only attack one of your ships if we had reason to believe you were planning something heinous.”
The lead telepath pursed her lips and shook her head, ringlets of red hair swaying as she did so. “Tell me, how many of our kind did you capture?” She started up the corridor at an even pace. “How many have you enslaved?”
“What are you talking about?”
The woman's eyes blazed as she fixed her gaze first on Anna and then on Melissa. “To block all three of us?” she went on. “You must have at least four or five with you. We are some of the best.”