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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 74 - By the Horns[]

University of Taurus
Samantha City, Taurus
Taurian Concordat
November 27th, 3025

Angelina Devereaux—known as Angel to her few friends—climbed into the back of the armored transport van and sat down beside Sandra. Two Taurian soldiers, both wearing back-and-breast armor plating, along with combat helmets, sat opposite them, cradling assault rifles in their arms. Between the soldiers and the two women the old Taurian data Core sat on the floor of the cargo bay.

A third soldier closed the bay door and slapped the vehicle on the side and it began to move off and away, bound for the Taurian Naval War Museum. Angel smiled and she looked at Sandra, who nodded back at her.

"Twenty seconds," the voice of Control whispered through the tiny ear-bud nestled inside her right ear and Angel drew a deep breath and waited.

She waited until both the soldiers sat up straight, one of them putting his own hand up near his ear and then she heard the BOOM of an explosion behind them, just as the transport left behind the campus for the busy streets of the Taurian capital.

"What was that?" yelled Sandra, right on cue, her face a reflection of pure fear. She plays these roles well, Angel thought, as she bit her own lip and just tried to look worried.

One of the soldiers, the one with his hand near his ear, nodded and then spoke. "Trouble back on the campus, but we have orders to get you and the empty core back to the museum. Nothing for either of you to wor . . .," his voice stopped mid-word as the second soldier pulled the trigger on a dart gun that he had drawn and pressed against the first soldier's side.

Angel blinked. Sandra froze. Because that was not what was supposed to happen next.

The soldier who had just been shot collapsed and the second one trained the dart pistol on the two women.

"Really, ladies," the ear-bug whispered. "Trying to make off with the data from the first Core . . . and leaving that Core booby-trapped for Phil and Max? Tsk, tsk, tsk."

Angel cursed and the second soldier shook his head. "Nein, fraulein, I would not try it," Gerhardt Manstein with a chuckle.

"So, you are going to take our Core?" Angel snarled. "After what we did to get it?"

The Lyran shook his head. "We had a deal, fraulein. Which Slut—and you two—agreed to. And then broke. Teams One and Two are in the building and we should have both Cores in a few . . .," and Manstein's voice trailed off. "Control, are you hearing this?" he asked.

"Yes, damn it!"

Angel and Sandra exchanged a glance. "Hear what?" Sandra asked, holding up her hands to placate the Lyran.

Manstein shook his head and reached up, toggling the van's intercom and a voice emerged from the speakers in the cargo bay.

". . ., to repeat. Hostile forces are attacking the University of Taurus. Suspects are fleeing the area in a TDF transport van, vehicle ID number KCL-4017. Consider armed and extremely dangerous. Use of lethal force is authorized for all Security and Defense Force personnel."

"What the hell?" Angel sputtered.

"Control, what is going on? This wasn't the plan," Manstein snarled.

"I don't know, Templar," the harried voice answered. "Get off the main throughfare ASAP and ditch the vehicle until we figure out what is going on here." There was a pause. "Teams One and Two have secured the prize . . . but the bad boys put their bomb on a timer; they are attempting to disarm the device now."

"More bad news," a third voice added, that of the driver up front in the cab. "Seems like a couple of the Taurian 'Mechs heading to campus have noticed us; they are coming this way!"

The van swerved as the driver hit the brakes and fishtailed into a tight turn, which was followed by an explosion that rocked the van . . . almost flipping it over.

"And now, they are shooting at us!" the driver shouted.

"Phil, what is the hold-up?" Victor asked.

"You want to disarm this nuclear demo charge, Victor?" a sweating Phil answered with a snarl. He wiped his forearm with one sleeve and shook beads of sweat from his eyes as his fingers probed into the depths of the bomb. "Standard nuclear demo pack . . . why did it register as fissile materials . . . ah, okay. That's why. The Commandoes used their basic low-yield demo charge—laser-ignited, just like ours—but they put the plutonium around the hydrogen reservoir." He snorted. "Smart. The plutonium isn't needed for the detonation, but it will be scattered to hell and back and give off the right radioactive signature . . . and I'd bet they got the plutonium from a Federated Suns facility somewhere in the Capellan March. Just so the Bulls think that we Davions did it."

"Discuss their brilliance later, Phil. Just stop the timer," Victor growled.

The Davion agent snorted as the digital display slowly counted down. 42. 41. 40. "Ye of little faith, Victor," he whispered. "No conventional explosives, so . . .," he paused and shook his head. "If I'm right, and I hope I'm right, yanking the power supply will stop the laser ignition."

"And if you are wrong?" Victor asked just as quietly.

"We will never know it," Phil muttered.

"Great. Just great. What if they have two power supplies?"

36. 35. 34.

"Then yanking one will cause the other to discharge . . . but these demo charges don't have a lot of room for an extra power source able to discharge enough energy to ignite the hydrogen reserve. It shouldn't."

27. 26. 25.

"Shouldn't. Makes me feel oh-so-much better, Phil," Victor scowled.

"You want to do this?"

And Max sighed. "Later, gentlemen," he said, Koga nodded his agreement.

21. 20. 19.

"Okay. Here goes nothing," Phil whispered and he pulled a heavy capacitor cell from the base of the demo charge through the access port he had already opened. A single power cable connected the cell to the demolition pack and he nodded. "Stand by."

14. 13. 12.

He grabbed the capacitor in one hand and the cable in the other, and mouthing a silent prayer, he yanked the cable free.

And the display stopped, then the numbers faded as the demo charge powered down.

Phil looked down at the capacitor cell, then he dropped it on the floor, his hand shaking. "Can we please go now?" he asked. "Before something else goes wrong."

But Max was holding one hand up to his ear. "Say again, Control? What do you mean the transport is under fire?"

And far above the four men, a faint BOOM sounded.

"Tell me that is not the Taurian infantry swarming in to kill us all," Phil said quietly.

Max shook his head. "I really wish I could, Phil," he answered.

"Time to go," Victor snapped as he and Koga lifted the Core and headed for the escape tunnel.

"Past time to go," Phil added.

"What about him," Max asked, pointing at the still paralyzed Taurian scientist.

"He's one of their own . . . they shouldn't kill him," Victor declared.

"Shouldn't. Such a lovely word . . . but he still has those VXM cylinders stuffed down his trousers, and I really don't want that stuff following us into the tunnel!" Phil snarled.

"Get the Core down into the tunnels," Max said as he grabbed some paper and a marker. "I've got this."

A few moments later, the four men—and the Taurian Data Core—were down in the tunnels beneath the laboratory. And when the Taurian infantry descended through the elevator shaft, and pounded into the shattered lab, they held their fire . . . because Dr. Mosley had three pages of paper taped to the back of his lab coat.

DO NOT SHOOT, said the first. LIVE VXM GAS, said the second. A THANK YOU WOULD BE NICE, said the third.

"A lance has peeled off from the column and they are chasing us!" the driver shouted over the intercom. There was another explosion and the van took a sharp right. "And shooting at us!"

"Schiesse," muttered Manstein. "Control, we are abandoning the vehicle. Ladies," he said as he stood and holstered the dart pistol. "I hope you know how to drop and roll when jumping from a speeding vehicle." He put his hand on the handle for the rear hatch.

"What about the Core?" Sandra asked.

Another explosion rocked the van as a salvo of SRMs narrowly missed and the transport man another sharp turn.

"We have the other one! Leave it!"

"Broke contact down an alley," the driver snapped. "Now or never, people!"

Manstein jerked the hatch open and he jumped out into the alley hitting the concrete hard; Angel and Sandra looked at each other, then they too jumped from the speeding van, almost hitting the driver as he dove out of the cab.

The van sped out of the alley—the driver must have wedged the gas pedal down, Angel thought . . . and then it exploded as four Taurian 'Mechs on the next throughfare unleashed their full weapons load on it.

Angel shook her head and gingerly got to her feet, helping Sandra up as Manstein and the driver came running up to them. "Time to go," the Lyran said softly. "This way; we'll take the back streets until we are at the rendezvous."

"Infantry coming to search the area," Control spoke over the radio. "Get clear, Templar."

"Acknowledged, Control."

Phil reached the sewers to find Koga and Max putting demo-charges—conventional demolition charges—against the sides of the tunnel, while Victor stood watch over the Core.

"Thomas is going to blow a gasket over this," he whispered.

"Rather have Taurian infantry and special forces coming at us from the rear?" the Capellan asked.

"With our luck they are going to come at us from all sides," Phil answered quietly. "How the hell did they identify the van that quickly?"

Max looked up as he armed the charges and he shook his head. "Someone else is playing the game . . . perhaps that Adept West you encountered earlier."

"ROM has no honor," Koga snarled.

"And it is just the sort of thing that bastard would do," agreed Phil. "He likes it when other folks get blindsided, battered, and bruised."

"Yeah, had no qualms about shooting down those Taurian security officers the other day," Victor chimed in as he lifted the Core and began to trot through the tunnels.

"Probably the only way he can get it up without using a pharmacological," Phil snapped in frustration.

Max snorted. "But he isn't dumb. And if—IF—he ratted out the van and the duplicate Core, what does he have planned for us?"

"Lots of exits down here," Victor mused. "He can't possibly cover them all."

"With our luck, he's sitting on the one we are going to use. Probably with an auto-blazer or a flamer," Phil muttered.

"Which is why we are not using any of the exits that exist at the moment," Max interjected.

"Not use an exit?" Phil asked. "You don't mean . . .," and he sighed. "You do. Thomas is gonna have a bloody cow with the damage we are doing to the Samantha City infrastructure, not to mention stealing the damn Core out from under his nose!"

"All part of the game, Phil. All part of the game," Max answered with a smile. "Fire in the hole," he added as he triggered the remote and the demo-packs left behind sealed the sewer tunnel behind them.

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