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If you want to flood the city, we can handle it. The evacuation's already under way by road, we've got ships on standby, and this is a population that's used to emergency drills. They move when we say move. But that's the easy part. It's winter, and somehow we've got to carry enough equipment and supplies to create a giant refugee camp from scratch in the middle of nowhere, then sustain it for maybe a year. We're going to lose a lot of people, whatever happens. So let's start by accepting that.
(royston sharle, head of emergency management, jacinto.)
jacinto, one hour into the flood.
Dying really did bring its own moments of clarity, just like they said.
Bernie Mataki didn't see her life flash before her. Instead, she found herself weirdly detached, reflecting on the shitty irony of sailing halfway around the world only to drown in Jacinto.
Water. I bloody hate it. No bastard should have to drown in the middle of a city.
She could see a patch of whirling sea ten meters away, like a sink emptying down a plughole. Debris rushed toward it. Chunks of wood, vegetation, plastic, and even a dead dog-a little brown terrier thing with a red collar-raced past her on the surface to vanish into the maelstrom. A chunk of metal pipe bobbed along in its wake, clanging against her shoulder-plate and nearly taking her eye out before it spun away with the rest of the flotsam.
I'm next. Sink. Get it over with. Nowhere to swim to. Drown here now or there later . . . no, screw that, I'm a survival specialist, aren't I? Get a grip. Do something. I'm not dead yet.
"Sorrens? Sorrens?" All she could see was columns of black smoke and the occasional flash of sunlight on a distant rotor blade. The last Ravens were heading away from the stricken city. Saltwater slopped into her mouth. "Sorrens, you still there?"
There was no answer. He was the last man left of her squad; they'd fought their way to the surface, radios dead, staying a few desperate meters ahead of the flood. But the Ravens had already gone, and the sea engulfed the city. It pissed her off that Sorrens had survived the battle but that she'd lost him because the frigging COG itself pulled the plug. That felt worse than losing him to the grubs somehow.
But they thought we were dead. We can't have been the only ones who missed the RV point. How many got out alive?
Jacinto, which had always seemed so ancient and eternal, was vanishing a landmark at a time. The sea didn't give a shit about humanity's little nest-building efforts. Buildings were subsiding into the caverns beneath the city, creating whirlpools that dragged in everything on the surface. She'd be next. Her hands were aching with cold as she struggled to hang on to a roof gutter that was now at sea level. The roof itself was gone, and only the end gable jutted at a sharp angle above the water. She looked for some refuge, but there were no surfaces she could balance on, just a finial, a twin- headed heraldic eagle that loomed over her and offered nothing to settle on.
Two minutes, they said. Two minutes in icy water before hypothermia killed you. She'd been here longer than that, she was sure. And then there was the fuel floating everywhere. That wasn't going to do her a lot of good, either.
Can't let go. Bloody radio . . .
Bernie steadied herself, timing the moment to take one hand off the gutter and try her radio again. The current tugged impatiently. Once she lost her grip on her last fragile link to solid ground, the weight of her armor would drag her under. It was the modern stuff, heavier, a two-handed job to remove, not designed for long immersion. She needed both hands free to jettison any plates, and once she let go she was dead. She couldn't tread water: too exhausted, too heavy, too far from dry land.
All she could hear was the roar and crash of the sea filling the sunken city, creaks of buckling metal that sounded like screams, and a fading chakka-chakka-chakka as the last Ravens shrank to dots on the amber horizon. There was a stench of unidentifiable chemicals and sulfur, as if some kind of gas was pooling on the surface.
Shit, don't let that catch fire. I can't handle burning to death in water as well. That's one fucking irony too many.
She had to get on with it.
One . . . two . . . three.
Bernie took one hand off the gutter and waved her arm. But it was a waste of time, and she knew it; the choppers were too far away. Even the ships and small vessels were out of range. She was just one more tiny speck in a chaotic soup of debris. But now that her hand was free and she hadn't been snatched from her refuge by the force of the water, she risked turning around, trying to scan the choppy surface for signs of other survivors.
There were bodies. She could see how fast the current was running by the speed at which they shot past her.
Did they get left behind? Or did they decide to die here rather than keep running?
People did the damnedest things in disasters. Wanting to stay put was common. Bernie always prided herself on getting the hell out.
She pressed her finger hard against her earpiece, rocking it slightly to make sure the switch made contact. There was an encouraging hiss of static. It was still working despite being soaked.
"Sierra One to Control, this is Mataki . . ." Time. She just didn't have time. Even if anyone heard her, could they loop back and find her before she went under? There were no bloody miracles on the way, that she knew. If she was going to survive, she'd have to perform her own. "Sierra One to Control, this is Mataki, are you receiving?"
There was just the empty random hiss of background interference. Maybe they could hear her, though. Maybe they couldn't respond. She needed to give them a location, just in case, and tried to work out where she was in this suddenly unfamiliar landscape, but it was hard to orient herself when only her head was above water. She racked her brain for where she'd seen the eagle finial before, trying to visualize Jacinto as it had been only hours before.
"Sierra One, this is Sergeant Bernadette Mataki . . . I need extraction urgently, repeat, urgent extraction . . . my position is . . .
wait one . . ." Shit. Where the hell am I? What's that dome over there? Suddenly it came to her. "Allfathers Library, south side of the roof. I'm facing the Ginnet Mausoleum. Request immediate extraction, over."
This was the point where it suddenly got harder and demanded decisions. How long did she wait before she decided they were never coming?
Bernie found herself scanning the horizon to the east, looking to see if any of the small islands around the harbor had survived the seismic activity. If she could shed at least some of her plates-maybe grab the next chunk of debris that passed as a flotation device-then she might make it to dry ground. She could see only the outer harbor wall now, a stump of granite that had once held a lighthouse. It was a very long swim, even under the best circumstances.
"Control, I'll hang on as long as I can," she said at last. "Request immediate extraction, repeat, immediate extraction."
Bernie decided that if anyone had heard, then she'd given them long enough to triangulate on her signal. She shut down the radio to conserve power. All she could do now was stay put and try to avoid being hit by the flood of rushing debris.
How long before it gets dark?
She had two or three hours' light left. Maybe getting up on that gable end was feasible after all-if it didn't crash down on her or sink with everything else. If she moved around to the other side, a little farther along the gutter, the sloping gable would be facing away from her. She could edge her way up it.
For a moment, she felt inexplicably pleased with herself, and realized that it was because of the water-her worst nightmare, the thing she dreaded, and yet she was in control. It hadn't beaten her. If she could deal with this, anything was possible.
"Screw you," she said aloud to nobody in particular, and felt carefully beneath the water for her belt. If she took it slowly, she could find a length of line even with fingers so cold they felt like they were being crushed between rollers.
Don't drop it. No, don't open the pouch, lift it so the stuff doesn't float out.
Bernie shook out the line and almost lost it. Now the challenge was to form a loop to anchor it to something solid. Tying a bowline one- handed when someone threw you a line was a basic survival skill, but with nothing to secure it to, she had to slide the line under her other hand, the one gripping the gutter. It seemed to take ages. Eventually, gathering the line with slow care, she managed to form a noose, and clamped the end between her teeth to avoid losing the thing if she dropped it.
Pirate time. Shit, I must look like a complete dickhead.
Then she made her way hand over hand along the gutter until she was looking at the inside of the gable end. It took every scrap of strength she had left, but she dragged herself over the gutter, taking her weight on her chest, then swung one leg as if mounting a horse. The sea had now overtopped the wall. She straddled the brickwork for a moment, struggling to balance properly because her thigh plate had caught on something she couldn't see, and slowly lifted the line in both hands to try to lasso the finial.
She missed twice. She missed a third time. Either the polymer rope was too light or she didn't have the strength now to heave it.
Again . . .
As long as she was trying, she was alive. And the effort was warming her up.
And again . . .
The loop of rope caught around the neck of the eagle with a wet slap, and she pulled the line tight. It held. The gable leaned at around fifty degrees; all she had to do was walk up that slope, even crawl, and the rope wouldn't have to take her whole weight.
It was weird how the brain compensated, she thought. Something that was plainly as dangerous as staying put had now become a sensible option. She found out just how dangerous when she tried to work out how to stand up.
The wall, of course, wasn't level. It was at the same canted angle as the gable, because the whole building had tilted. It was just the fact that it was broken-split vertically-that gave her hands and backside the illusion of its being level. When she pulled one leg out of the water and jammed the heel of her boot into a gap in the brickwork, she found herself slipping toward the gable. Standing up took a massive effort that was more like an explosive squat. Her face smacked into the bricks, and she found herself spread-eagled on the inner surface of the gable, one boot on the wall and the other dangling in the sea that had filled the building.
But she had the rope in one fist, and she was mostly out of the water. It left her feeling heavy and oddly warm. Now all she had to do was climb.
Easy. Really, it is.
Bernie had to believe that. And she had to think no further than the next step. That was how you kept going, one hurdle at a time, then the next, and the next, until the huge task had been chipped away.
Now she was halfway up the slope. When she got close to the top, she'd work out how to secure herself with the rope, free both hands so she could assess any injuries, check that her Lancer still worked, and see what kit she still had in her belt pouches.
And time to call in again. Shit, they can't have lost all comms, can they?
She lay flat and listened for a moment. The city still groaned and screamed as the weight of water crushed it. But that was a little further away; closer to her, she could hear rhythmic slaps on the water, as if someone was swimming.
I'm not alone. God, I'm not alone. It's Sorrens. He made it.
Bernie took a few breaths and gathered her strength to sit up as best she could and take a look. Before she did, she tried calling Control again.
"Control, this is Mataki, requesting immediate extraction. My position is the Allfathers Library roof." She could still hear the splashing. It was getting closer. "Control, come in . . ."
The splashing stopped.
Bernie raised her head and looked down at the sea. Now that she was facing away from Jacinto's death throes, the seascape simply looked stormy, the drifting smoke more like dark clouds than the end of urban society. She couldn't see anyone in the water-nobody alive, anyway.
She couldn't ignore what she'd heard. She tugged on the line to make sure it was secure, then tied the other end around her waist like a safety line. She was losing body heat, she reminded herself, and there was a cold night ahead, so any survivors would stand a better chance if they huddled together.
Braking her slide with her heels, she edged down to the top of the wall again, wondering how she'd haul him inboard. The sea looked almost solid, like churning, oily lumps rather than water. She strained to see a head bobbing between waves. Nothing.
Then the water erupted.
A body burst through the surface like a porpoise breaching. She sucked in a breath, jerking back, because it wasn't Sorrens, and it took her a second in her exhausted state to register that fact.
She was face-to-face with a Locust drone, a big gray bastard of a grub. It could swim. It should have been dead. It wasn't. It scrambled for the wall, her wall, her safe haven.
"Shit," she said, and reached for the knife in her boot.
king raven kr-239,
en route to port farrall.
The comms link crackled in Dominic Santiago's earpiece. "KR-Two-Three- Nine to Control. Are you receiving that signal?"
Oh shit oh shit oh shit, did I do it? Oh God, I did it, I killed her. I killed her.
Dom could hear the chatter between the two Raven pilots, but it was just noise, words, sounds without meaning. His body was carrying on without him; he felt like he was coming around from an anesthetic. Whatever instinct had held him together during the mission was now wearing off, leaving behind it a paralyzing horror that drove out everything else except the sheer choking pain from that last look into her eyes.