SLOW TRAIN FROM ARCTURUS – snippet 51:
Outside was dim. A number of the light-emitters were missing and the place was full of shadows and… people. Mostly short men—but there was a surprise too. A strange woman and Kretz in a car, with a woman beside it, swinging her nightstick in a defensive arc.
"Howard!" she yelled. There was no mistaking the relief in her voice, even though, until he heard it, he hadn't recognized the blond-braided woman.
He waded through the armed men to them, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture. "Peace be with you," he said. Lani dropped her nightstick and hugged him, fiercely. One of the men decided this was a good opportunity to grab her. Howard caught him by the hair. "Now. There is no need to fight," he said, trying to calm the men and cope with being hugged at the same time. Holding off the small attacker was easier. "No-one needs to do anyone any harm."
"She's a cop! We kill them if we catch them on their own," said gap-tooth, "after we've had our fun with them."
"Yeah. You want to try your luck?" said Lani, snatching up her nightstick again, trying to push Howard aside.
"Calm down," said the woman from the car. "Or I'll have to shoot some of you." Her voice quivered. She sounded far from calm herself. She had some device in her hand that Howard failed to recognize, but several of the men obviously did. A frightened keening echoed around them.
"We're runaways too. And Lani is a wanted woman, I believe. Not a 'cop'."
"What?" The shocked exclamation came from Lani.
"I don't think that you can still be part of the force, Lani. Not after beating up several officers in your attempt to find Howard."
"Uh. I suppose not," said Lani, looking shame-faced. "Look, we just came to fetch Howard. We're out of here."
"No," said gap-tooth firmly. "You—and him especially, know too much. And also, this stinks. How did you get here at the same time as him? How did you know where to come to, to find him?"
"A computer system I have never bothered to show the police," the other woman said. "It is possible…"
She never got any further because someone snatched the weapon out of her hands and the little men swarmed over them.
Howard was totally unprepared for the ferocity of it, or the suddenness. They were trussed up before he could even start to struggle. Howard had to admit that he'd done more to get in Lani's way than anything else.
"What are you doing this for?" he demanded.
"They're women and you're a traitor," snarled gap-tooth.
"I'm not," protested Howard. "I hardly know who you are. All we want is go to where we need to. We're not intending any harm to you."
"Yeah?" said gap-tooth sardonically. "Well you're not going to have a chance. Spread their legs, boys. Captains get first share. Those of you who like a bit of bum can have him."
They'd tied Howard up well, by their standards, but not by the standards of the furious disgust and rage that went through his thews right then. As Lani screamed furiously, the cord they'd used snapped at the same time as his temper did.
"Have you no decency!" he roared, snatching up the fallen nightstick and laying about him as if he were threshing corn.
They were small, and he was in such a rage that he had forgotten that he was a man of peace. But there were still too many of them.
Then there were a sharp series of bangs.
"Stand still or I will shoot all of you!" said Kretz. He emerged from behind the car with a smoking metal pipe in his hands. Thinking back now, Howard realized that he must have fled in the first attack. At least he'd come back!
Gap-tooth had the device that someone had struck from Amber's hand. He pointed it at Howard. "I'll shoot him first." Howard stalked towards him.
Gap-tooth was standing just above Lani, where he'd been about to exercise his “rights” as a captain of this filth.
The device went flying. Lani's second kick sent him sprawling.
Howard helped her to her feet. "Get the gun," she said urgently. "And then untie us."
"Gun?" Sister Thirsdaughter had said that a “gun” was what had inflicted those wounds on Kretz. That metal device was a gun? He picked it up, and a fallen knife.
"Don't get between me and them, Howard," said Kretz. Too late—several darted away up the passage.
"They'll call the others," said gap-tooth savagely, as Howard cut Lani free.
Her first act with her hands free was to snatch the gun-thing from his hand. Click something. "Damn safety was still on." She pointed it at gap-tooth. "It won't help you if they call anyone. I'm gonna blow your stupid balls off first." She took a stance, both legs apart, and the gun-thing held in both hands.
Howard paused in cutting free the other woman, suddenly realizing what was going to happen here. He stepped in front of her.
"Get out of the way, Howard." Lani's eyes had a dangerous glint to them.
His temper had cooled now, and with the cooling his conscience had returned. He'd hit… and hurt those men. Some of them were still lying on the ground. "No," he said calmly. "I cannot let you do this. It is a sin."
"That's what they were going to do us, you idiot!" she snapped.
The defiance was not all out of gap-tooth either. "You treat us like that, why shouldn't we do the same or worse to you, bitch?"
It was an awkward question, but for once Howard had an easy answer. "Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you."
"Yeah? And if they turn around and kick you in the teeth?" said the gap-toothed one. "What you do then? Give them the rest of your teeth?"
That was less easy to answer. "Rape is not right. Neither is violence."
"We were just doing what they do to us. A woman's got to know her place up here," said gap-tooth sullenly. "And we share and share alike here when we get one. Not fair that you keep her to yourself, big one. Two is greedy, anyway!"
Howard hadn't thought of it quite like that. "She's not mine. None of them are."
"Correctly speaking, he's mine," said Lani crossly. "Although it doesn't seem to have gotten through to him."
"Can we get out of here, and you can argue about who belongs to whom somewhere less dangerous?" said the other woman.
Lani nodded. "You've got a point. And now we've got these jerks to avoid as well as the Force."
"I've thought about it. I can get the computer to simply give me all warm bodies, not just those over a certain weight. We should be able to avoid any more charming incidents. I do begin to understand why Diana came into being."
Lani had picked up her scoot, with one hand, and kicked the stand down. She moved towards the remaining men. "Don't worry, I won't shoot anyone—as long as they co-operate. We'll keep this one as a hostage." She grabbed gap-tooth, twisting his arm up behind him. He squealed. "I'm not hurting you, yet. But I will if you don't shut up. I'll let you go as soon as we're in the clear, idiot. All right, the rest of you lot. Move out and we'll move out too… In opposite directions. Those of you who can walk take those who can't. And don't try anything stupid. I was top of my marksmanship class."
They backed off. Lani slipped the weapon into her belt, took a pair of cuffs off it, and handcuffed the gap-toothed man. "Open the back. I'll put him in there," she said to the woman in the car.
A minute later and Howard was again holding onto her waist as they followed the little car down the passages, and into a cross-passage. They stopped in a wide chamber, where a mechanical-shredder asthmatically chewed plant-matter.
Lani pulled up next to the car-window. "What are we stopping for?" she asked.
For an answer the woman pointed to the screen of the little black box next to her. "A group of people in our way. A force patrol by the looks of it, judging by the individual weights."
Howard got off the scoot and looked at them. "It's me they're looking for, isn't it?" he asked. "If they catch me they'll leave you alone. I'll go."