Chapter 64

“Duck and cover!” Alan shouted.

As if in response, the Juggernaut Suit opened fire on the employees and customers, who shouted in dismay and alarm. The half-size barriers shuddered as automatic rifle bullets pounded them, barely able to shield the defenders behind them.

Taking advantage of the break in defenses, Mayfield soldiers poured in behind the suit.

“Suppression fire!” Alan barked. “Hold them back! Zap, do something to this monster!”

“It’s ‘slippery’,” Matt replied over the radio. “Looks like they painted it with all the nicest shielding.”

Alan subvocalized all of the German curse words that he had learned from his grandfather as he lay down suppression fire, forcing some of the soldiers to take cover behind the entrance hole. After a moment of thought, he spoke over the radio.

“Okay, everybody, focus fire on the soldiers. Anybody with HE rounds, explosives or other high-level ordinances, switch to them and target the Suit. Nalley, I want—”

“Specs,” Nalley interrupted. “Got it.”

“Please don’t interrupt me, love, but yes.”

“No, I mean I have them already,” Nalley said.

“Awesome,” Alan replied. “Upload, please. Everyone else, defend the store and protect yourselves. Personal safety comes first.”

The employees and customers renewed their defense of the store. Guns blazed, both to hold back the tide of soldiers that were slowly making headway into the store and to attempt to damage the nigh-invulnerable Juggernaut Suit.

“The Juggernaut Suit is literally the finest technology available in corporate warfare,” Nalley read. “Outfitted with the finest magic-resistant bulletproof armor, with explosive-resistant defense mechanisms and carrying a heavy arsenal of deadly weapons, the Juggernaut is the smallest, most potent vehicle in its defense class. Its design was a compromise of the previous Dreadnought class street tank, whose—”

“Weaknesses!” Alan shouted. “Skip to weaknesses!”

The Suit seemed to be a one-unit turning point in the battle; a single pass of its automatic rifle forced all of the defenders in range into hiding. Zap rose from behind his barrier and unleashed several strong spells, most of which glanced off the plastic hide of the tank. Zap cursed and took cover behind a break in the shelves. He was covered in sweat and panting heavily.

“You need a break,” a nearby customer said. He was a nondescript man in his early twenties, dressed in drab, unassuming clothes.

“Can’t,” Zap panted. “I’m the only dedicated mage here.”

“You have a point,” the man said. “Here, take this.” He handed Zap a vial that contained a thick yellow liquid and a small ginseng root.

“Oh, ’yesu, thank you,” Zap said, taking the vial. He nearly dropped it as an explosion rocked the store. Some of the defenders cried out.

“It’s throwing grenades at us!” Steve shouted. “Nalley!”

“Here it is!” Nalley said over the radio. “The Juggernaut Suit’s defensive capabilities, while formidable, are by necessity somewhat reduced from those of a larger-sized street tank. The Suit’s armor is treated to be extremely resistant to magic and is—”

The defenders threw themselves to the ground as another grenade exploded in their midst. “Medic!” Click yelled.

“You know,” the customer said to Zap, “you really should ask her. Don’t let yourself get interrupted.”

“What?” Zap said.

“That girl you like,” the customer said. “You should ask her whatever you were going to ask her.”

Nearby, Alan shouted. “Can we get to the good part, please, Nalley?”

“…is able to shrug off most gunfire under fifty caliber,” Nalley continued, “But its magic and energy shielding is all focused in the top armor layer, which is susceptible to concussive force. While the Juggernaut’s ambient field will divert most explosions, high explosives or low-speed rams will bend its armor easily, exposing the sensitive circuitry within. The area near the cockpit is particularly susceptible.” Nalley read.

“We don’t have any explosives better than grenades,” To’mas said over the radio.

“You shouldn’t listen in on people’s conversations,” Zap said, a little flustered. “And anyway, I didn’t say that I liked her.”

“Well,” the man said. “You should ask her anyway.”

Zap knit his brow at the stranger. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Marc,” the man said.

“Thanks, Marc,” Zap said and held up the vial of liquid. “If we make it out of here, I owe you a burrito.” He drank the contents of the vial and made a face.

“Click, how’re you doing?” Alan asked over the radio.

“Been better,” Click said, “But it’s nothing critical. I can still fire a stolen gun.”

“Please do so,” Alan said.

“I think we need to find something physical to throw at it to dent the armor,” Nalley said. “The manual mentions ballistas and rams, but also sledgehammers.”

There was a pause.

“On it,” Michelle-Bear said over the radio, her voice a deadly monotone. “Cover me.”

Before anyone could react, Michelle-Bear leapt from her cover. She held one of the Mayfield riot shields in front of her and held her maul in the other hand. With a deafening battle cry she charged at the Juggernaut Suit. The suit could not turn in time, but other soldiers noted her charge and turned their fire on her. Soon Michelle-Bear was running through a fusillade of bullets. The other employees saw several bullets strike her in the arm and shoulder, but her pace was not slowed.

Alan found his voice. “Zap!” he shouted. “Buff her! NOW!”

Zap had already stood and was chanting the arcane language as fast as he could. His eyes were rolled back into his head, his wand pointed directly at Michelle-Bear. Steve rushed to stand behind him, gunning down any of the soldiers she saw take aim at the young wizard.

Michelle-Bear bore down on the Juggernaut Suit quickly, ignoring the rounds that pummeled her and keeping her head behind the shield. She was only a few meters away when Zap’s spell took hold. Michelle-Bear’s muscles bulged as supernatural strength coursed through her body; she roared, threw the shield aside and drew back her hammer with both hands.

The force of her impossibly strong blow not only buckled the armor plate it struck but also the joint of the suit’s grenade-arm. The weapon was effectively useless from a single maul-blow.

The machine rifle, however, was still free to move.

A full round of automatic fire struck Michelle-Bear full in the body, throwing her meters away from the suit like an oversized rag doll. She hit the ground and slid, leaving a large smear of blood on the tile floor behind. She was not moving.

“NO!” Nalley screamed.

His leg injury forgotten, Click clambered over his barrier with several customers. All held the Mayfield riot shields in place to protect them, and the customers formed a wall around Michelle-Bear’s body. As Click and a customer moved in place to drag the body, the Juggernaut suit turned toward them and primed its gun.

“Not on your fuckin’ life!” Steve shouted, standing on one of the shelves. She hefted Polaris, which had the spur-shaped accessory mounted to its top. The Spur was spinning rapidly and the red battery glowed with activity.

Steve quickly took aim and fired. With a strange whine, a beam of light fired from Polaris and struck the Juggernaut Suit’s exposed circuitry with deadly accuracy. Sparks and smoke poured from the gap as the cables inside fused together, causing numerous short circuits and burning even more of the suit’s delicate electrics system. The entire suit seemed to shudder; then, with a loud groan, it stopped moving. A thumping could be heard from inside the suit as the pilot tried to force his way out of the powered cockpit, but the shell of the suit had already begun to fuse together as white-hot internal fires melted the armor plating.

Michelle-Bear’s defenders dragged her body away, trying to ignore the screams of the Juggernaut’s pilot as he burned to death.

Steve turned away in disgust just in time to see Zap waver on his feet. “Zap?”

“Too much,” Zap said. His eyes rolled backward and he collapsed heavily on the floor.

“Zap!” Steve shouted.

“Michelle-Bear, Michelle-Bear,” Nalley cried as her friend’s prone form was dragged back into cover. The unoccupied employees and customers renewed their defense of the store, firing on the soldiers who continued to press inward. Mayfield was gaining ground.

Alan rushed to Michelle-Bear, a small medical kit clutched under his arm. “How is she?”

“Armor,” Click said, awed. “She was wearing an armored dress. That’s the only reason that she’s not torn to pieces.”

“But how is she?” Alan asked again, kneeling down.

Click gave Alan room. “Not good,” he said.

“No, no, no,” Nalley cried.

Alan checked Michelle-Bear’s pulse and found it, but it was faint. He pulled away her armored apron, which had been torn completely to shreds. The Dura-Kev dress underneath had saved Michelle-Bear’s life, but not protected her completely; many holes had been punched in it and Michelle-Bear was bleeding heavily underneath.

“Okay,” Alan said and took a deep breath. “Okay.”

Steve helped a groggy Zap to his feet. She slung an arm around his waist, propping him against the shelf. She could feel his breath on her cheek. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Muh…” Zap said. “Michelle-Bear?”

“She’s … ok,” Steve said. “She’s alive.”

“I should have cast protect,” Zap said, delirious. “Not strength.”

“We might still be dealing with the Juggernaut if you hadn’t cast strength,” Steve said. “You made the right choice. Don’t get yourself worked up; you overtaxed yourself with that spell.”

“Are…” Zap said, breathing heavily. “…we going to die?”

Steve leaned her head out to look at the pitched battle. With several key employees out of action, the defenders were losing ground.

“I don’t know,” Steve said.

“Ok,” Zap said.

“I need to grab an SMG and fight some more, ok?” Steve said. “You should rest.”

“Steve, I’m sorry,” Zap said, trying to slow his breathing a little.

“Why?” Steve asked.

“Because I didn’t give you the chance I should have, you know?” he said. “The timing was so bad.”

“Sit down, Zap,” Steve said.

“It’s just,” Zap said. “I think I’m in love with y—”

“Stop!” Steve said. There were tears in her eyes. “Stop! Stop. You are not doing this to me now. I am not having any fucking final confessions, because that is not fair.”

Zap looked at her, surprised.

“No, Zap,” Steve snapped. “We are not going to die. And this is a bad time so you don’t get to tell me you’re in … you’re in anything with me. Okay?”

Zap nodded dumbly.

“When we get out of this—” Steve said adamantly. Her tearful eyes burned. “Which we will—I might c-consider letting you t-take me on a date.”

“Okay,” Zap said.

“To dinner,” Steve added. “Somewhere nice, yuh-your treat. Maybe.” She sniffled. “So you sit right fucking there and don’t die.”

“Um,” Zap said. “Okay.”

Steve glared at him, and then snatched one of the Mayfield submachine guns from the ground. “I—I can’t fucking believe you!”

She ran to the barrier and gunned down three soldiers in quick succession.

“Hot damn,” said Marc, who had been eavesdropping.

“I don’t know what just happened,” Zap said.

“Shit!” Click said. “What’s—that means stabilize her. Stabilize her.” He was fervently trying to cross-reference the medical diagnosis software on Alan’s tabletshell and its manual on his own workshell.

Alan reacted swiftly, jamming a hypo of stabilizer against Michelle-Bear’s neck. He then returned to his work, trying to staunch her bleeding while removing numerous high-caliber shells from her body.

“Ok—it looks like she’s lost a lot of blood,” Click said.

“No fucking shit!” Alan barked, then wiped his forehead. “Sorry. Sorry.” He turned the valve on the tube of replacement plasma snaking from the first-aid kit.

“We’re running out of the plasma too,” Click said. “I think that’s what that icon means. I wish we could have Nalley on this.”

“Nalley’s…” Alan said shakily. “Nalley’s out.”

Nearby, Nalley was shuddering, curled into a ball.

“Her stomach’s ready to self-repair,” Click said, “but the battery’s almost out on the cure crystal and Zap … Zap can’t cast any more magic.”

“Find a red battery!” Alan said. “Use some of your own magic! You’re a fucking faerie!”

“I don’t know how to jury-rig a glamour-to-mana converter, Alan!” Click replied. “Nobody here does!”

“We’ve got a multimag-converter in the back,” Alan said, then pointed at a frightened-looking customer on the front line. “You! Go get the converter kit from the back room. It’s in the closet.”

The customer ran.

“Oh, oh fuck,” Click said, trying to hold back tears. “Alan, we’re losing her. The kit’s almost out of everything we need.”

“We need a doctor!” Alan said, pulling back. His hands were covered in Michelle-Bear’s blood. “This—this isn’t enough.”

He shook his head.

“I—we can’t do this,” Alan said. His voice rang with a horrible finality. “She’s going to die.”