The engine hummed and sent strong vibrations of excitement into all of its passengers. Keely, her hands trembling as much from anticipation as the movement of the ship, buckled in carefully. The smooth click of the old-fashioned seatbelt was echoed by the three other people in the ship. It was Slick, a boy named Witness, and an older girl with a square jaw called Mops. Witness, a shrimpy-looking kid with a squeaky voice and a mean uppercut, was from the Tamales; homely and tough, Mops was in Pinky's gang, the Steels. Slick was the Pilot.
Static crackled from Slick's walkie-talkie. "You ready?" It was an unfamiliar voice, but Slick answered assertively in the positive. He turned around and winked at Keely. "Y'all ready for this?"
Mops, who wasn't given much to talking, just grunted. Witness rubbed his hands together. "Boy, am I," he piped.
Keely caught Slick's eye; they silently giggled at his voice, and then Slick turned around and grasped the joystick.
The factory ceiling was hundreds of feet high and completely covered with huge silver tubes and yellow wires. The group of children stayed close together, instinctively, completely silent but for the rustle of their clothes.
Miguel walked so close to Corinne that their elbows kept knocking, but he didn't intend to move away. She didn't really look at him, but he saw that she was pale; their elbows were a source of comfort. It meant they were in it together.
They picked their way around the endless assembly lines, following that black-suited man, and he was frightened out of his wits. Miguel was a tough guy; he could face a whole gang of fifteen by himself and not be afraid about fighting them. He was the fastest with his fists – he could even beat Cam, sometimes. He was known as the laid-back one, the fearless one – and he knew this was his reputation. But he was scared.
The assembly-line workers didn't even look back. Miguel watched them; they all did the same thing, over and over again. It was an endless job of picking up one part of a gun and screwing it into the next, as fast as possible, and putting it down for the next person. Poor blokes, he thought – they've got no lives –
The man stopped; he collided into the person in front of him.
"Into this room, please," the man said coldly.
Miguel briefly wondered what he would do if all the children refused. Perhaps he would take one of those guns and shoot them, or something. But surely if they all united and fought – they would be able to take the man on. They could escape. None of these assembly workers would do a thing.
He sighed and followed Corinne inside.
Flight. The wind whistled past the wings of this old ship louder than Keely had ever heard it. While the seats were infinitely more comfortable in the Grieger 480 – the ship Slick was obsessed with – the hairpin turns made her want to throw up like their modern ships never did. Mops, to her amusement, looked green herself, while Witness was bouncing on his seat excitedly. The kid had too much juice, but hopefully a nice fight would use that energy nicely.
They were heading for the Devil hideout.
Slick was in his element, pulling on random handles and pressing buttons and using different gears like he had flown this baby all his life. "Keely, we're passing our cubhole," he murmured as they careened past the familiar exit towards the Chalker hideout.
"You live there? Hell, we're only bout ten seconds from the Dev hideout, you dig? Man." Witness sighed. "You dig?"
"I dig," Keely said, convulsed with giggles.
"He's right, though," Slick said grimly. "We're two seconds away."
The walkie-talkie crackled. "V-formation, Slick. I'm on your right."
Keely peered out the window and saw a rust-colored ship – an odd one known as the Delta, shaped almost like a triangle – flying alongside them. Someone waved from inside; she waved back, feeling the thrill of impending battle.
"There's one formation ahead of us, Slick," someone announced from the instrument, his voice muffled. "Wait till I give the signal."
Slick yanked on a handle to bring the flamecannons into position. "Ready?" They didn't have time to answer, for a voice blared through. "NOW!"
They went into a nosedive. Mops was dictating the position of the ship on their right while Keely rattled off what the one on the left was doing; it was important to stay in position when attacking.
"Let off flamecannons in T minus 3 seconds. 2 – 1 –"
Slick pushed the button. The whole ship shook as the huge cannon detached itself from the ship and went careening forward –
Something exploded. There was noise, now, more noise than just the wind rushing by. The entire front window of the ship seemed to be filled with violent orange fire.
"The Devils are taken by surprise," another voice came through. "They're gettin' guns now – be prepared for some hits, y'all."
"What can a little gun do against a big ol' ship like ours?" Witness crowed. "Shoot off another one, Slick!"
The Pilot waited for the signal before following Witness's instructions, and then the ship shook again. The tunnel was getting narrower as they continued to peg away at the Dev hideout beneath them, so Slick gave out some instructions via the walkie-talkie – "I'm gonna dip down and graze 'em with our flamers. I need to be backed up by the one on the right. The rest of you can just turn around and renew the attack."
"People, get your flamers," Slick ordered, but it was unnecessary – Keely, Mops, and Witness were already positioned at the little open windows.
The ship dropped, making Keely's stomach lurch. "Shoot now!" Slick shouted, and Keely pulled the trigger.
Flamers weren't exactly like guns – they just shot out little balls of fire and charcoal out. They hurt like hell if you were hit by one, but they weren't fatal like flamecannons might be. They shot off fireballs like crazy, and she heard some shouts and smelled rubber burning –
Suddenly glass was breaking. The sound was deafening; Witness yelped as some glass rained on him, cutting into his skin. Someone had shot a bullet into their side window; it had just missed Witness.
"Shit," Slick swore, and pulled up the ship a little. "Hey, I can't aim flamecannons down – there are only holsters for the weapons on the sides. We need to get up –"
A bullet zinged through the ship, via the broken window; it tore out through the opposite glass. It was only the beginning of the barrage, though – gunshots cracked like whips.
"Get down!" Keely screamed, and they dove for cover as glass shattered around them. "Slick!"
"I have to drive!" he shouted, and yanked on the joystick. The Grieger ship slowly but surely began its incline.
"Slick!" crackled a voice from his walkie talkie. "You're gonna collide with a Dev ship! They just lifted off – they're underneath you, you can't see – swerve right –,"
Slick blindly followed the instructions – but the ship was too slow.
Keely heard a sickening crack.
Miguel's breath caught in his throat. The man walked around and placed a weapon in each of their hands.
"You shoot the targets over there. These are undeveloped weapons, as yet. I must warn you – they've been known to, er – backfire."
The gun he placed in Miguel's hand was cold metal and wood. It gleamed innocuously, but he eyed it as though it were poison.
"We try to give you models that won't backfire – after all, we wish to reuse you – but now we have an unlimited supply of bodies, we have more leave to experiment like this. So be careful. All you do is pull the switch down and then yank on the trigger. If I were you I'd stay far away from each other. If one of you goes down, ignore it. Keep testing. There's a whole shipment to go through. If it works, toss it in that crate."
The man looked at them and smirked. "Good luck."