Static (or, In the Shit)
Pain flared in Aral's shoulder. Behind his eyes, too, as his head bounced against the floor plating. White flooded his vision, and his ears filled with a dull buzz. Brock shouted, Ardess cried out, and a girl screamed. And-
Fuck. Someone was firing-!
Aral heard the word swim through the interference, and he tried to get his chest to work to speak as he pushed himself up from the floor: "Stop...!" His shoulder wrenched with the weight, and he cursed and gasped in the same breath.
"Cap!" Brock said, grabbing his good arm. "You all right-"
"I gave an order!" Aral managed, at last. He forced his eyes open, darting his gaze from Brock to Ein, who looked blanched.
"He-He fired," the younger soldier stammered, his focus wavering with a kind of erratic panic. "He shot you-"
"I'm fine," Aral barked, as he pulled his hand away from his shoulder with a wicked-tasting swallow. His own blood always looked too red, but there wasn't a lot of it. He blinked away the pain in the back of his head and gripped Brock's arm, as the other man pulled him to his feet. He nodded up the corridor. "Don't just stand there. Get after them!"
Ein ran off, boots clacking. Brock held onto Aral's arm, earning him a glare.
"That means you, too!" Aral told him, just as he broke into a trot, himself.
Each step set new fire to the burn in his shoulder, but he pushed it down with a grimace, spitting, "Cora!"
"I heard gunfire-" the pilot began, but Aral cut her off with another bark:
"They're on the move! I need you to flank them."
"On my way," Cora said over the link, and Aral gave silent thanks for leaving her with the Justiciar.
He caught up to Ein in less than a dozen strides, to where he'd stopped, carbine raised again.
Aral lifted his pistol, despite the pain still screaming in his shoulder. He glared hard at the one holding Ardess, a big boy who was recognizable as a soldier-in-training if he was anything, and growled, "If you did not think you were in the shit before, son, believe me: you are, now. The Institute needs you back alive and in one piece...but I think that's open to some poetic interpretation on my end."
The boy just stared, his own pistol – more likely, Ardess's personal sidearm, but Aral wasn't about to argue with the eye of that dark barrel – still trained on them. Even though the boy's face was mostly an impassive mask, though, it wasn't without its cracks: between his eyes, at the top of his jaw, around the flare of his nostrils.
This rabbit was scared.
"Fucking hell, Aral!" Ardess seethed, her arm hanging limp from her own bloody shoulder. "What are you waiting for? Someone to shoot me again?"
"Shut up," Aral told her, holding steady on the boy. "I'm giving you one more chance to come clean," he said to the young soldier. "Hand over Ardess and your weapons, and we can settle this like real people. What do you say?"
A second girl stepped forward, close to Ardess' grappled neck. Like her mates, she was young, barely more than a girl. Pretty, too, if noticeably frightened; she barely lifted her feet above a scuff as she moved, with both hands raised before her. At first, Aral took her slow caution as a sign to show she was unarmed. But then, he looked into her eyes, only to meet a blank, blind stare.
His gun wavered. Why the hell was the Institute so interested in these nobodies? What could they possibly mean-?
"We never wanted anyone to get hurt," the girl said, just as her partner hissed:
"Please," the blind girl went on, taking another tentative step.
"Imien!" the big boy said, now, looking frantically between her and the other girl still beside him.
Aral took the chance of her offer.
Easing forward on one foot, he reached out with his good hand. "It's all right," he muttered. "We don't want anyone to get hurt, either. Just take my hand," he said, his fingers almost grazing hers, "and we'll take you home-"
The blind girl's smooth brow twisted of a sudden.
"Back to the Institute?" she guessed with a subtle snarl. Then: "No. We can't. You can't!" she said. Though instead of turning on her heel, she grabbed Aral's wrist with one hand and slapped her other to his ear, right over his link.
Static exploded in his head. He couldn't even hear himself screaming, just felt his throat shriek itself raw as he dropped to his knees first, then to his side.
Ein howled, too, and Brock collapsed to the floor beside him, a splatter of blood burst from his nose.
The metal floor seemed to shudder under his head. Through the keening tinnitus, Aral could only watch the feet of the fugitives race away down the corridor for a screeching moment that felt like forever.
At last, the wailing became just a dull whirr, like the rumble of a tumbling engine in cycle, and Aral forced himself up from the floor, again.
This was starting to become a habit he didn't favor.
"Cora," he croaked, holding one hand to his still-tender ear. "Cora, report!"
Ein groaned, and Aral crawled to him, muttering, "Get up. You all right?"
The younger man nodded, eyes tearing. He gave a little gasp. "Brock-!"
Aral looked, too, frowning at the sight of his comtech lying there motionless. A quick check of his vitals gave Aral a pulse, which was some relief. He left Ein to watch over him and rouse him if he could, and pushed himself to his feet.
The corridor was empty, but there was only one place the kids could have gone. With each new step, Aral felt his strength return, along with a mounting fury kept in check only by his dedication to the job. He had one man down, maybe two. He had a hostage situation to deal with. His own shoulder was torn to shit.
And those rabbits were still running.
Teeth grinding against each other, he clenched his fist around the his pistol. Kids or no, he wouldn't again make the mistake of underestimating them.
He turned the corner that led to the docking umbilical and swore. The hatch was sealed shut, airlock lights clear. But that wasn't all. Cora was lying face-down on the deck, blood pooling beneath her cheek.
Aral dropped to his haunches, being careful to turn her over, scanning her for injuries. With the exception of a bloody nose, though (probably just an impact injury from their links going berserk), she seemed okay, especially when she blinked her eyes open at him and groaned:
"I'm here, girl," Aral murmured back to her, lifting her to a half-sitting position. "You okay?"
Cora lifted one hand to her head, pulled it away again and sissed at the sight of her blood. "Yeah," she said. "I think so. But-" Her eyes snapped wide then, and she spun her head about. "Shit! Cap, the Justiciar-"
"I know," Aral rumbled, as he looked over to the locked hatch. "They've got her."