A Heart As Cold As Stone
Every member of the Resistance threw themselves wholeheartedly into the preparations. Their trap had to be perfect, each one of them carrying out their tasks flawlessly, or it would fail. The opposition was too strong to take chances with, and the reactions each step of the plan were designed to provoke too precise to allow for any mistakes. Each part had to go off like clockwork, or it would all come crashing down. What might happen then was something no one wanted to talk about.
They didn't have time to waste, either. One of the Resistance's prize possessions was a military-grade radio scanner, one "liberated" by Rogan when he decided that he couldn't stand serving in Lassic's army any longer. Keel hadn't had to work on its power source; it had integral solar panels so that it could be recharged in the field. Over that scanner they'd heard that Medusa's latest tour had already begun. If the resistance couldn't pull it off this time, there might not be enough of them left to try when they got another chance.
Dean and Kyla, of course, had the hardest job. Bomb-making in and of itself wasn't as difficult as most people thought. With a knowledge of chemistry, a frightening number of common products became ingredients for explosives, which in turn could be triggered by radio detonators rigged by someone with a basic education in electronics. Skilled demolitions work, on the other hand, was much trickier, building not merely the biggest boomer possible but one that could do the precise job it was called upon to do.
"Okay," Kyla finally reported to Rogan once the job was done, "we've got three detonators for you; Keel color-coded them so someone doesn't set off the wrong bomb at the wrong time. Red, that's for the road." She set down the small plastic casing on the leader's table. "Blue is to seal the cave. Press this one and the entrance passage gets filled with several tons of rock. It's a series of charges instead of just one, each designed to rip out the ceiling above it, take out the supports, and bring down the hillside."
"And the escape passage?"
"Green. We've already gotten those in place and fixed with the detonators, so be careful with that button. The bombs are shaped charges, and believe me, that was difficult without plastic explosives. With luck, each will destroy a strategically placed chunk of the air shaft's walls, opening it up just enough that a person can squeeze through, even Merrick. The problem is, we obviously haven't been able to test it. If we've miscalculated, or for that matter if we didn't but if some of the supplies we used aren't up to the level of quality we need, the explosives will seal the shaft instead of opening it, and this base will become a tomb."
"There's one more thing," Dean added. "We've done the best we can, but these are still pretty crude devices. Basically, they're not stable. There's a chemical breakdown constantly going on, so that first they'll get touchy, able to go off if exposed to too much heat or an electrical surge. Then, they'll go inert if they last that long."
"How long?" Rogan asked immediately.
"We can't be a hundred percent sure, but...maybe three days from now before they become dangerously unstable and another week until they won't work at all."
"That should be fine...considering that by what we've been able to pick up over radio channels, we've got about eighteen hours to have everything in place. Take a team and get the rest of the bombs planted."
The chemists nodded in unison, then left the leader's room, nearly colliding with Odin on the way past.
"You wanted to see me?" the big warrior asked.
"That's right. You know that I've picked you to lead the cave team, the one that will fight against Medusa."
"I know, and with all respect, Rogan, I think you should get someone else. You want me to fight Medusa, I'll fight her, but I'm no leader. I've learned that in the past."
Rogan looked intently at the tall blond man in the utilitarian red battlesuit, then shook his head.
"I can't do that. You're the one the others look up to. I have to lead the engagement team myself to make sure they do the job right. That leaves you as the one man everyone can count on to lead them into a victory-or-death battle."
"Rogan, I don't know how to lead. I sure as heck don't know enough about small-unit tactics—"
The leader cut him off, shaking his head.
"This operation is already overplanned as it is. Your job is to fight and to give the others the courage to fight alongside you."
Odin sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
"All right, Rogan, but I don't like it."
"I'm not asking you to like it, just to do what you can to free Algo. That isn't why I asked you here, though."
"Oh?" Odin was curious.
The leader rose from his chair.
"Myau was right, of course. In many ways, he's the most perceptive of us all."
"Don't let him hear you say that; he's already come to that same conclusion all on his own without us confirming it. What was he right about this time?"
"About Medusa being the legendary monster."
The humor in Odin's mood was chilled in an instant.
"You believe that, Rogan?"
Shrugging, the ex-major replied, "I couldn't say. I'm a soldier, not an Esper. Legends aren't part of my experience. Contingencies, though, are something I'm used to facing—being ready for things that could go wrong even if they aren't likely."
There was a tension in Rogan's face and voice that Odin hadn't expected to see in the Resistance leader. Was it because of the thought of facing Medusa? Or was it something more mundane, the knowledge that this was his plan and that the entire movement was depending on it to work? Either way it worried him. They needed Rogan; having the right leader was vital. Like he had just said, Odin knew he wasn't a leader. He was the kind who aspired to be a knight, not a king, to stand at the commander's right hand and fight to make sure that commander got the chance to do what had to be done.
"I suppose in monster-hunting, you have to be prepared with medicines to counter various abilities the creatures may have? Antidotes, paralysis cures, that sort of thing?"
"Yeah...Is that what you mean by contingencies?"
"In this case, almost exactly. Odin, what would you consider the most frightening part of the Medusa legend?"
"The stone gaze. Turning a man into stone by just looking at him...that's something you can't prepare for."
Rogan went over to a locked chest, set the entry code, and lifted the lid once the bolt had snapped back. The first item he lifted out was a military laser gun, an officer's weapon capable of spraying multiple targets with devastating beams of light. Odin hadn't even known the leader had it, though it stood to reason he'd have kept any useful army gear. The next item he removed was a small plastic bottle shaped like faceted glass. Inside was a brilliant fuschia-pink liquid.
"This," Rogan said, "is Alsulin." He gave the vial to Odin, put the laser back, and relocked the chest.
"What does it do?"
"It's a Motavian medicine. The name is actually a corruption of the Motavian word Alshline, but that's incidental. The important part is that Alsulin cures petrifaction. It returns things that have been turned to stone to their natural state, none the worse for wear."
Odin stared, wide-eyed, at the little vial in his hand.
"Where'd you get this?"
"Black market. A trader had it smuggled aboard with a cargo shipment from Paseo on Motavia."
The warrior's eyes narrowed.
"You've been planning this for even longer than you'd admitted."
"Of course," Rogan agreed. "I've been considering an attack on Medusa for some months now. It was one of those contingency plans, one to use if we were making little headway. The specific details didn't jell until recently, but the plan's been in development for some time."
Odin grinned and clapped the former soldier on the back.
"You old fox! We've all wondered how you keep pulling plans out of your hat. We all thought you were this tactical genius who could put together a scheme out of thin air."
"It's the soldier's motto: plan ahead, and you'll keep your head."
Odin tucked the Alsulin bottle away in a belt pouch.
"Go get some rest. We've got less than eighteen hours, by my figures."
It was a good idea, but Odin found himself unable to follow through on it. He ended up lying on his back, arms folded behind his head, staring up at the bare stone ceiling. A knot of tension had his stomach in a tight grip as he tried to think like Rogan. Plan ahead...how would he fight Medusa? Could she be lured into a trap? Would straight hand-to-hand combat work better, or ranged attacks? What if some of her escort made it in with her? How powerful were those androcops, anyway? Was she really Medusa, or just someone using the name?
He didn't hear the soft padding feet until Myau peeked over the edge of the bunk.
"You're thinking; I can tell."
"It's something we Palmans do, fuzzball."
"Only now and again, meow."
Myau twitched an ear.
"Usually you don't worry like this, even when facing danger. What's so special this time?"
Odin turned his head.
"Being in charge. I'm trying to plan our team's strategy."
"Don't be silly, meow."
"Huh?" was Odin's brilliant response.
"We don't know what's going to happen by the time things get to us tomorrow. Medusa may be alone, or she may have half her force with her. She may enter the cave freely or need to be forced in. She may be a shrewd politician or an immortal monster. There's no real way to know, and too many variables to plan for. All we can do is be as ready as we can, and do our best when the time comes."
"No 'buts,' meow! You're our best fighter; after that incident with the two were-bats you're the one people have heard of, the hero with the courage and strength to stand up to the tyrant. Be yourself, do your best, and let the rest of us take care of ourselves. That's the best way you can lead."
Odin sighed heavily. Myau was right, of course. He scratched the Musk Cat behind the ears.
"Nothing to it. Try and get some sleep, meow. You don't want to be taking a catnap when Medusa comes calling tomorrow. It's very bad manners."
"All right, everyone," Rogan declared the next morning to the assembled Resistance, "this is it. There's no turning back." With the laser gun holstered on his right hip, he looked even more like a soldier than he usually did. "The bombs have been planted and the road has been blocked. Lania," he addressed a tall, dark-skinned woman, "you're in charge of the ambush team. Remember, you're there to provide a diversion, so don't wait too long before fleeing. I'll be in overall command of the engagement team and lead the left wing. Jander is in charge of the right wing. Odin, the cave team is yours. We'll try to get her there for you; it's up to you to do the rest."
He took a deep breath. Emotional speeches weren't his forte.
"Before we go, I'd just like to say one thing. I served for eighteen years in the Army of Algo, before and after Lassic turned it into a tool of oppression. I've worked with a lot of good people, from cool-headed professionals to idealistic dreamers. Never, though, have I had the privilege of standing side by side with a better group of people than I am now. I'm honored that you chose to make me your leader."
Rogan cleared his throat, a bit choked up. "Now, let's move out! We rendez-vous at Eppi when it's all finished!"
Less than two hours later, Tomas found himself nestled into a spot on the hillside overlooking the winding road, cradling a bow gun in his hands. This would be the first time he'd ever fired it at anything other than a target, and he hoped he'd be able to. The thought bothered him. Could he really take a life with his own hands, even a soldier's? He glanced to his left, where Lania lay, the needlegun at the ready. She looked quiet and composed, focused on the job at hand.
The whirring of engines caught Tomas' attention; he looked up and saw the sleek midnight-blue hovercraft emblazoned with Lassic's symbol round the corner exactly as anticipated. It was long and aerodynamic, held aloft by a cushion of air and propelled by two turbofan engines mounted on winglike struts. The open-canopied top deck was just as Rogan had described it. The hovercraft slowed as it approached the barrier, and Tomas raised his weapon, sighting along the shaft. There was no more time to worry.
"What is wrong?" Medusa inquired as the hovercraft slowed.
"The road is blocked, my lady; it looks like some kind of rockslide."
Medusa frowned, glancing at the hills around her. The terrain was wrong for a natural rockslide.
"Can we clear a path through it with the craft's guns?" she asked the soldier who acted as the captain.
"We should be able to. It's worth trying, at least, my lady."
"Then do it. I have a feeling that this is not what it appears."
"Very well, Lady Medusa. Pilot, target that rock pile with the main battery and get this road cleared."
The pilot never got the chance to comply. A shower of barbed flechettes from a needlegun punctured his upper body at high velocity, catapulting him away from the command console. The needler fire was joined by arrows, one of which took the captain in the shoulder. The robotcops stationed on deck took several arrow hits each, but the sharp points bounced harmlessly off their metal bodies. The needler was more effective, putting a steady stream of fire into a police-model robotcop that left it smoking and sparking.
"Dispatch four robotcops to deal with the snipers," Medusa instructed the androcop to her right. "Capture them if feasible; kill them otherwise." She turned to the other androcop and said, "Activate the weapons and destroy the obstruction so we can escape this killing zone."
Idly, she raised her hand, gestured towards the slope, and called forth a fire spell.
A tree detonated on the slope, and a young man's corpse tumbled about fifteen feet down the hillside before coming to rest against a rock.
Rogan hated magic. Espers might die like anyone else, but they could kill very unlike normal people. It gave him a sick feeling when he watched Medusa destroy a life with no more than a word and a gesture. His thumb itched to detonate the bomb at once in revenge, but he waited, keeping to the plan. Sure enough, four robotcops disembarked and started running up the hill. Hopefully, the surviving two snipers were already fleeing.
Then things began to go wrong. Two streaks of fire burst from the hovercraft's bow and detonated against the rockfall, spraying up a cloud of stones and dirt. A second shot opened up enough space to clear the road. That made it now or never.
Rogan pushed the button.