Baen books by mercedes lackey



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Oh hell no—

Those cannons were swiveling to point at the station!

Just as that fact registered on her brain, she felt someone grab her shoulder and fling her backwards, just out of the path of the first swath of energy pulses. She scrambled the rest of the way out under her own power as the blue-white light engulfed the front of the engines. She followed the others out the back and down into the dry wash behind the station, just as the station itself went up in a fireball. She ducked her head and the wash of superheated air scorched over her.

Instinctively she looked up as soon as it had passed and did a headcount.



Shit. Three short. Gadgets, LongJohn and the other rookie. Shitshitshit—

Incoming!” screamed the captain before she could more than register the fact that there were probably three men down in what was left of the station, and she ducked her head in automatic response to the roar from behind—

The sonic boom was enough to flatten her into the desert sand, yet somehow she looked up, dazed, just in time to see the entire line of armored monstrosities swept off their feet and engulfed in rocket-fueled explosions so white-hot it was like looking into the sun—

—as the Air Force Thunderbird team pulled up and out and rolled over and came back for a second sweep, traveling at mach one at the very least.

She and the others were on their feet, cheering, even though they couldn’t hear themselves cheer, pumping their fists in the air, as the aerobatic team came back on their second pass and raked the war machines with another set of wing-fired rockets. Despite the similar paint job, these weren’t their display planes, oh no. These were specialized warbirds. The Thunderbird pilots were the elite of the Air Force elite, and like anyone else really in the know, Bella knew that part of what went on at Groom Lake was that once a week, the show team made the hour flight out and practiced live-fire exercises, exercises with weapons and skills designed to take out rogue metahumans. Just to keep their hands in. Because the Boy Scouts weren’t the only group whose motto was “Be prepared.”

Whatever those powered suits had been built to withstand, it wasn’t what was in the rockets fired by these fighter jets. They were down. And they weren’t moving.

The Thunderbirds pulled around for a third pass, but it wasn’t needed. The suits were down, and stayed down. The Thunderbird team didn’t slow down; they peeled off and headed east, where more smoke and fire and the flash of an energy cannon betrayed another point of attack.

Bella staggered up out of the wash before the jets had cleared the area. Three men missing…Screaming told her there were civvies hurt. If there was anything left of her kit in the station—people needed her. Even without the kit, she had her touch-healing, she could hold them stable until—

Incoming!” the captain screamed again, and she hit the ground as something roared in overhead, and she heard—

Her comm unit made a noise she’d never heard it make before, a kind of warble, just as the thing overhead, too small to be a jet but moving at least that fast, did a kind of wingover and plunged straight down towards her and blasted to a landing, backpack jet unit whining as it ramped down.

A meta—

A hand in powered armor reached down and hauled her effortlessly to her feet.

The other hand pulled up the visor of a red, white and blue helmet, and a pair of absurdly young eyes stared at her.

A meta—one on our side—

“Bella Dawn Parker?” asked a voice amplified into a hollow audibility that cut through the ringing of her ears.

She nodded numbly, half of her mind still on the remains of the station, the injured civvies, the missing members of her own crew.

“You’re activated. This is a full Code Red emergency. I am directed to take you—”

That part registered, and she stared at him in outrage. “Take me? You’re taking me nowhere, mister! My job is here! I don—”

“Parker!” the young man barked with surprising authority. “You’re activated. Groom Lake’s being hit this second and we’re assembling a meta team to go in—”

That was when it hit her with the force of a blow to the gut.

Groom Lake.

Mom and Dad—

New York, New York, USA: Callsign John Murdock

John had what he wanted, though probably not enough of it to make much difference. He was nursing the bottle to make it last, to justify his occupation of a bar stool. The stuff smelled like diesel, but it didn’t matter. To the past, he thought, upending the shot glass—

—and about the same time that the booze hit his stomach, the front of the pub exploded inwards.

It felt, and it sounded, like the end of the world. The pressure wave from the blast hit him about the same time as what felt like half the contents of the front of the place and he somersaulted over the bar. He slammed into the backbar and the entire contents of that came down on top of him. Glass, wood, and concrete blasted into the bar patrons like grapeshot, shrapnel tearing into flesh and ancient tabletops with equal indifference. Pain lanced through John’s back as the world went white.

A final impact meant he’d landed. He knew he was on the floor, so he tried to stand up, and with a surge of panic, discovered he couldn’t. His vision cleared a moment later, and he found himself behind the counter, wedged between the aged marble slab of the top of the backbar, which was now tilting crazily against the wall, and a busted cabinet; and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was upside down on broken glass.

Incongruously, he was peripherally aware that he was cold—the alcohol he’d been drenched with evaporating away—and that he smelled like an alkie’s idea of heaven.

John toppled over, coming down on his right side on more debris and glass. His head was swimming, his sensitive ears ringing, and he could barely make out the shrieks and crying of the other people trapped in here with him. Terrorist bomb? Gas line exploding? His head cleared as he pushed himself upright, resting his back against the shattered cabinet he’d been thrown into by the blast. What was left of the barkeep was embedded in the wall where a bar-length mirror had been. What the hell—What kind of an explosion did that?

Swaying slightly, he stood up. As soon as his frame cleared the top of the ruined counter, he felt the immense heat of the fire engulfing the front of the building, which was starting to spread into the main room. Through eyes that were still trying to focus, he frantically surveyed the rest of the pub. He was the only one standing. People had been tossed around the interior, still lying where they’d landed, broken and bleeding, most of them thrown against the back wall. A lot of them were tangled with furniture and—his stomach churned—body parts. A shocking number of the victims that appeared mostly intact were moving. If they didn’t get out of there soon, they wouldn’t be moving for long.

The sprinkler system went off, misting down the room and dropping the temperature. It wasn’t doing much about the fire, but it was going to buy him some time. He coughed through the smoke, which was starting to get thicker near the ceiling. Flashover was a real possibility here, especially with so much alcohol vapor.

Once again, training warred with survival, but this time the training won.

“Everyone still able to move, we need to get everybody out of here!” he shouted, using his “command” voice. A few folks were trying to stand up, looking about dazedly or staring in shock at their own wounds. Through a gap in the smoke, John spotted the hallway that led to the bathrooms, with an exit sign at the very end of it. Stumbling, he started hustling people into the hallway, even carrying a few until they moved on their own. Those that were ambulatory, whether they wanted it or not, found themselves with a victim draped over their shoulders. John was the first through the rear entrance, kicking it open as more alarms wailed from buildings all around, burdened by an elderly man with a huge gash on his forehead. Another fire alarm went off as soon as the door bar was shoved down. John had done a good bit more than just shove—it was bowed in the middle.

It took a few minutes, and a hell of a lot of shouting and acting like a drill sergeant on steroids, but after two more trips into a room that was looking more and more like a blast furnace, he was satisfied that the pub was cleared of anyone still living.

Hunched over in the alleyway, he took inventory of his own wounds. Blood trickled down his arms from his back. He had plenty of lacerations, puncture wounds, and scrapes. His shirt was sopping wet, torn in several places, and was more red than white now.

“What the hell happened? Was it a bomb?” shouted someone. John looked to his right; it was the man from the couple that the late barkeep had been talking with. He was holding his right arm; the wrist was bent at an odd angle, in addition to minor cuts and bruises.

“Stay here; wait for the cops or the paramedics to get here. Don’t move unless the fire spreads out here.” John stood up gingerly, not wanting to hurt his back more than it was already.

Not a chance They could have found him, was there? Dammit, would They take out a whole pub full of innocent bystanders to get him?

He already knew the answer, of course. It was “yes.” Either way, he wasn’t ready to stick around for the police or anyone else to show up; he’d done more than his fair share already.

Smoke billowed out of the emergency exit, bringing with it a rank taste of burning plastic, so that way was out. He sprinted for the end of the alley, dodging and vaulting dumpsters, aiming for the patch of light shining off a bright red car parked across the street from the end.

That is, he was aiming for that bright red car…until it vanished in a wash of actinic energy.






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