Gwen crept along the roof of the warehouse. She whimpered from fear and pain.
If she could just reach the other building, or find a way off the roof without breaking a leg or worse, there was a chance she might escape and thus keep the notebook out of their hands. Gwen's side hurt where the neat hole went through it. There was no blood - the plasma ducting created by an electomechanical rifle almost always cauterizes the wound. Gwen had read about the weapon once in a book about life in the old Midasiazone, back when it was still called 'China' and 'Russia'. The electomechanical rifle that had shot her, had likely been invented in Russia around 2010, and perfected in the ensuing decade. It used a coil to silently accelerate a charged dart at such a speed that the air itself became plasma along the trajectory. Knowing this helped. She wouldn't bleed to death.
She was in shock, she knew that much, because she still hadn't felt anything more than mere pain. Massive floods of endorphins were keeping true agony at bay. She knew she had to use this time well, because it wouldn't last. For the first time in her life, Gwen felt like the animal she really was. She was wounded, but evolution had provided her a window to save herself, a period of time where adrenaline filled her, and pain was blocked. She was entirely consumed by the 'flee' portion of bestial 'fight or flee' instinct. She certainly couldn't fight them.
They had come just after she had gotten lost once more in the saga of the redheaded nanobiologist struggling to understand her place in project Bucephalus. She had just read a passage concerning Lab 012's first attempt to put nanobots into a single drop of the dark purple thaumatic fluid. The result had not been encouraging, and one of the scientists had discovered a tiny black spot on a fingertip from manipulating the tiny scanning stage containing the droplet. It was a patch of necrosis, caused by thaumatic radiation. That such a thing could happen so quickly had made the entire team realize the seriousness of what they were dealing with.
It had started with a rattle, and the sound of the lock on the loading bay door being cut. The sudden, brief, loud 'chank' was immediately followed by multiple hushed voices and the sounds of the effort to slide the door up.
Gwen had understood that the warehouse was being broken into instantly. At first she couldn't accept what her brain was telling her. The warehouse was guarded. By Blackmesh Security, the world's most trusted and ubiquitous armed force. They were the dogs of the Worldgovernment, and only a fool messed with them. So the Blackmesh must be the ones breaking in - but why? They knew this was an authorized WorldGov project, and there was only books and romball drives in here, neither of which was particularly valuable. Especially the books. Why would the Blackmesh be breaking in?
Unless the Blackmesh had somehow discovered the secret Underground Bookmobile project.
That made too much sense. Somebody in the Underground had sold everyone out. Princess Luna had claimed that she could handle whatever heat her sister threw at her for saving disallowed books, and maybe she could. But the WorldGov would just see a conspiracy, or maybe an insurrection, and they did not like anything of the kind, and tended to deal with anyone involved very harshly.
It was a risk Gwenhwyfar had been willing to take, because books were her life, and books were the soul of all Mankind.
The door banged. Someone outside had gotten frustrated at the fact the loading bay doors always stuck. They didn't know the trick with the crowbar in the hole by the lock. In an instant, Gwen was on her feet, her heart and mind no longer in conflict. They completely agreed on everything now, for everything in the world had suddenly become simple. Escape. It didn't matter who was breaking in, or why, the only thing that mattered was not being in the warehouse any longer.
Gwen headed for the front, but as soon as she passed the stairs, she heard a crash from there - of course there would be a crash from the front, the Blackmesh were many, and they would attack every door at the same time. Upstairs. It was all that was left, and Gwen's fear only knew that up was the last remaining direction available. She quickly returned to the stairs.
Gwen became aware of the notebook, which she had become used to stuffing down her front, past her belly, into her underwear, where it couldn't fall. She began to climb the dark stairs up to Old Milner's office, all the while adjusting herself so that the notebook was safe, and well tucked against her belly, strapped down by her clothing. She zipped her jumpsuit higher to make sure the notebook couldn't fall out from the top, and began to crawl-climb the stairs with both hands and feet. It was more sure in such pitch darkness.
Below and near one of the few lighting fixtures that had been left on when everybody had gone home, the loading bay doors slid noisily up and open. Gwen froze, like a mutie-rat caught in the open and stared. The figures clambering up onto the floor of the warehouse from the loading zone outside were not dressed in carbon net armor, or equipped with the standard assault weapons. The men looked like a militia of some kind. They were dressed in pre-collapse national military garb, several vanished nations being represented. Their weapons were not uniform and issued, but were very diverse and almost certainly personal. This was insane - what about the Blackmesh? Nobody messes with the Blackmesh. Nobody...
Except the Human Liberation Front.
Gwen's heart was trying to run up the stairs without her. She pulled herself out of frozen terror, and began to climb again, hands as well as feet, but now as quietly as she could. The men hadn't noticed her. 'Sweet mother of Jesus', Gwen thought 'They must have taken on the Blackmesh out there, and they won.' The danger that represented was hard to fathom. Some people thought the HLF was a bunch of neckless gun nuts, polishing their antique firearms in the dark, and true enough, some of the bastards were.
But the core of the HLF, the higher-ups, they were professionals, and some of them were the best of the best. They had no love of the ponies, or of the Bureaus, and they had the skills to back up that dislike even against... the Blackmesh. Oh, god - she knew some of those guys. Geddes, he'd share his coffee with her some nights when she worked late. She was half expecting him tonight. Coffee was rare, and it was a treat. Jesus... John Geddes was one of the 'Mesh out there. Had been... one of the 'Mesh.
No time for tears. She was at Milner's office door. What now? It was still unlocked - well, freshly broken into - so it was easy to slip inside. But it was no refuge. It was likely these men would sweep the warehouse, it would be folly not to. These men were not the usual HLF rabble, shooting pegasai out of the air for sport, or tossing the odd homebuilt grenade at a Bureau. These were core HLF, and they would be professional, smart, and deadly. The office was not safety, and there really wasn't any place to hide within its cramped quarters.
The key to the roof. It hung on the wall, suddenly illuminated by a flash of light. They had torches, they were scanning everything with them. Of course they were. They would be up here soon. The beam having moved on, Gwen grabbed for the roof key and scrambled low to the office door.
She peeked out, barely moving the door and and listened. No sound of stomping boots on the stairs yet. Voices below argued about something. They didn't seem happy.
"This is it, it's right here. Fucker can't read a map. But this is it."
There was a beep and a click. "Package is confirmed. We are in possession."
A hissing sound and a distorted voice. "Issss itemmm pressssennnttt?"
"It's not here."
"Don't fuck with me."
"I am not fucking with you, it is not here. Look for yourself. LOOK!"
"ssssRepeaaaat - Issss itemmm pressssennnttt?"
"Item is missing. Instigating search." A shuffling, scuffling noise. "Full search, eyes open - the package has been disturbed, beware of the dog, repeat, beware of the..."
Gwen made her move. There would not be a better moment. She slowly, as quietly as possible, opened the office door all the way. She began to crawl, on her hands and knees to stay low, to the stairs that led to the roof. They were just to the side of the office itself, on the suspended platform in the middle of the warehouse. The office had been built into the beams, with the staircase running to the top of the building beyond the office itself.
"Dog dish confirmed. There is a dog in the yard, repeat, dogs in the yard." Something whaffled below, the sound of nanoweave and straps. Her backpack! They had found her backpack and water bottle! She was the 'dog in the yard', and they knew she was here. They might be creeping up the stairs even now. The office was an obvious hiding spot, especially since they had come in, collectively, from every side of the warehouse.
Gwen felt fear grip her heart and squeeze her stomach. She felt like she couldn't breath, she felt like she couldn't move, like her body wouldn't obey her. If she didn't take action, right now, she was sure she would just lay down and go fetal, and they would find her like that, crying and shaking. NO! The face of her grandfather, her old Eachann looked down on her from the great beyond, shaking his head at her uselessness. NO! She would not freeze up!
It took every bit of her will to break the lock on her body caused by her fear, but she wrenched herself up and ran for the roof. She tried to be quiet with her feet, but she was too afraid, and the stomps of her running up the stairs sounded like drums to her. Dammit! As she pried open the hatch on the roof, she smelled bacon - it was the damnedest thing in all the world. Cottage bacon, bright as you please, filling her nose. And then she was out onto the roof and into the night.
The perpetual smog layer that covered the world reflected the lights of the city, a dim yellow wall above. Around her, other buildings reflected the odd beacon of light, towers of chryslex and steel, polycrete and the occasional brightly lit sign. Some were ancient neon, others holo. But most of the city was dark, large towering bulks interrupting the mustard smog layer.
Gwen was beyond feeling, beyond her previous fear. With some impossible, momentary strength, she somehow managed to tear loose a nearby air conditioner. She half rolled, half lifted the bulky, rusted, useless machine over to the access hatch and left it weighing the metal cover down just as someone tried to lift it from below.
Gwen ran, away, just away, darting around other machines and vents on the roof, until she came to the shed. Milner had some kind of shed set on the roof of his warehouse, he had once had the notion of creating a farm up top, but the fact that farming had turned out to be work had scuppered the notion. As far as she knew, the roof shed still had the unopened bags of viable soil the warehouseman had bought, years ago. He'd told her the story early on, when the project had started.
For just a second, Gwen almost felt safe. The hatch was blocked, she was behind a shed and in the dark, out in the night. She breathed out a great sigh of relief, and as her muscles relaxed, just a bit, as the air left her lungs, she suddenly found herself on her knees, which only hurt worse still.
The initial stab of pain was a searing awfulness in her lower right side. Again, she smelled a whiff of her grandmother's cottage bacon - it wasn't real bacon, of course, but the smell was unforgettable - and suddenly everything went slow.
The horrific, mind destroying pain was simply gone, just like that, nice as you please, but also vanished was any sense of reality. The world was slow. Gwen felt... slow. With fumbling hands, Gwen bent and checked her belly. It was a hole, neat and tidy, about the diameter of her finger, her jumpsuit seared and melted around it. Horror gripped her. She had been shot, actually shot, but she wasn't bleeding. Countless books and articles flashed through her mind, spinning like the wheels of an old slot machine, back when there had been coins, the wheels locking into place as facts added up.
In the strange, slow moment, she was suddenly dispassionate - no bleeding, the wound was cauterized. Bacon. Not an ordinary weapon. Plasma sears flesh. Electric gun. An article on the inventor, a boy in Russia. Exit wound.
With trembling fingers, Gwen felt her back. She couldn't find anything at first. Oh. There! A much tinier hole, barely a pinhole, but it was there all right. Of course. The front was the exit, she had been shot from behind, and below. From down the stairs. A needle, a dart. It had passed clean through. It was probably buried in the hatch frame now.
Gwen was on her hands and knees, and both were crumpling. It was everything she could do to keep crawling. The grace of shock was lifting again, and she felt herself whimper from fear and pain. She crept away from the shed, to the edge of the warehouse. If she could only get to the other building, or down to the ground without breaking a leg... or worse... she might yet survive the night.
There were thumps sounding from behind her, the very sort of thumps angry men might make trying to force a heavy air conditioner off of a rusty hatch. She didn't have a great deal of time, she realized. Gwen checked the front of her sealed jumpsuit, yes, the notebook was still there. It must be the 'item'. Sweet Mary, the anonymous donation had been anonymous because it was delivered to the wrong warehouse. No wonder it was all WorldGov secret documents - it was the bloody H-L-F behind it, perhaps they had made a raid, or had a mole in the works, but they clearly had a driver who had gotten lost. And truth be told, all the warehouses looked alike. Anyone could have made such a mistake.
The thought came to her that somewhere, probably nearby, the Human Liberation Front had a terrorist base, likely for years, and she had never known. That close, in some other warehouse, all the past four months of her involvement with LAASTT and the Underground Bookmobile. Year three of the seven years to the end of the earth, and she had spent the last four months within spitting distance of the god-cursed HLF.
There was no way to jump the gap. The building was across the street. What was she thinking? She hadn't been thinking, just escaping. It had seemed nearer for some reason, back when she had started across the roof. She was four stories above the cracked concrete below. Not even plascrete, this part of town was so old. There was no jumping. Gwen looked for cables - many of the buildings had thick masses of intertwined electrical and service cables, pipes and conduits that branched from place to place. All had been gradually built up by countless hands long after the utilities companies had vanished during the Collapse. Favela tech had brought power and water back, however it could.
But there were no trunks of cable to crawl along on this side of the vast warehouse, and there was no way she was going to be able to crawl far enough before the bastards got through that hatch. Gwen began to cry. She could picture angry faces demanding the notebook, a gun to her head, and they would get it, and they would still put a bullet into her skull and that would be the last thing she ever knew. She should have gotten converted, she had the chance so many times but there had always been some thing she could do better as a human, some job that only a human could do in a human world. Ponies couldn't work most computers, not even the unicorns with their horns. Magic killed quantum chips, and made holographic screens go up in a mass of pretty sparks. She hadn't wanted to be relegated to sorting romball cartridges with her mouth.
Now she regretted it all. She would never see Equestria, she would never see life as one of the gentle fairy folk. That's what her grandfather would have thought of the ponies. For all the world, they were the fairies coming to call, the ancient fairy folk done up as horses and come to take us all home to fairyland just like True Thomas the Rhymer. That was what Equestria really was, Gwen had decided long ago. It was fairyland, and the ponies were the fairies come back again.
"I would'a made a grand fairy pony. I would'a. I just know I would'a made such a grand fairy..." Gwen was weeping now, because there was no escape, and no hope, and this was the end and she knew it. She shouldn't have gone to the roof... but then, where else was there to go? It wasn't a bit fair, and now she had a hole in her side that burned like fire and in a moment, she'd have one in her head that wouldn't hurt at all.
"What's the matter? Please let me help!" The voice was high and lilting, and not entirely human.
Gwenhwyfar Boik looked up, away from the rough surface of the warehouse roof. Her eyes met shiny brown hooves, and a warm brown pair of forelegs in the dark. She spied a glimmer of rear hoof before her view had climbed up a soft brown neck and past two brown wings refolding themselves. The expression on the muzzle was concerned, and partially covered by a blond mane that dripped like a golden waterfall down one side of the Equestrian mare's head.
"I was flying home, when I saw you crawling on the roof. I thought that was weird, so I came closer and heard you crying and..."
Gwen reached her hand out and grabbed the pegasus' hoof. "I need help! The HLF is after me, they will be on this roof in seconds! I need to escape, please! Help me!"
It took a couple of seconds for the pony to parse her words. It was clear that 'HLF' had an impact, though. "You're hurt!"
"I've been shot! We have to get away from here! Do you know a way?" A sick feeling overcame Gwen - what could one little pegasus even do? "No. Forget it. Flee! Just get away from here as fast as you can! Fly! It's pointless, just... go... go." It was pointless. One pegasus couldn't hope to carry her, ponies were barely four feet at the tallest. Those tiny wings. Better the poor fairy should flee. She wouldn't go out knowing that she had caused the death of such a beautiful creature. "FLY! DAMMIT!"
But the pegasus was gone. Good. Smart girl, Gwen thought. Unlike me. The sound of angry male voices could be heard now, the hatch was partly open. It would all be over shortly now.
The NOTEBOOK! Oh, Christ in heaven, she still had the notebook on her! She could have given it to the pegasus and sent her away, the stinking terrorists would be up the creek then, sure as you please! Stupid... stupid. What a lost opportunity!
"Get on! Hurry!" The pegasus was back, with an Arbofiber pallet. The standard kind used for shipments. When they ran out of wood to make pallets, Arbofiber had replaced the material. Twice as strong, and it almost even felt like wood. Supposedly, anyway.
"Get on! I'll save you!" The pegasus was nothing but earnest, but... it was amazing she had even managed to carry a pallet up to the roof, especially so quickly. She must have zipped back to where they were piled, near the loading dock, and then flown the pallet to the roof. This was a strong pegasus, to be sure, but... what could she hope to achieve with this? It was just a pallet. There wasn't even a forklift up here!
"I don't..." The men were through. They were through and angry and dashing about on the wide, dark roof. The few - but bright - lights made actually seeing her pursuers impossible, but then again, maybe that was true with regard to her as well.
"GET ON!" Apparently fairy pegasai could be quite strident when they had a mind to. Gwen moved onto the pallet, uncomprehending but obedient. She'd never been yelled at by a pegasus before.
The men had certainly heard. The sound of running boots was drawing near.
Just like that, there was air threatening to blow Gwen from the pallet. "HOLD ON! PLEASE!" That was two times being yelled at by a pegasus now, though the latest was more a proper scream. Gwen grabbed the planks of the pallet with all the strength she had left in her hands. She looked around. Her benefactor was... pushing... the pallet with her forehooves, wings beating furiously. Somehow the pallet was remaining airborne, and somehow the pegasus had some kind of a grip on it, though Gwen could not for the life of her figure out how.
Something from the notebook came back to her. 'We believe that thaumatic energy is being imparted in some manner to the vapor, and binding it within a circumscribed field or region.' That was what the technician had told the author. Perhaps pegasai could communicate magic into any object with their hooves. They did pull carriages, that just hung in the air behind them, after all. Somehow, pegasai could extend their magical ability to fly - those tiny wings were aerodynamically impossible - into objects they touched. Or at least nonliving artifacts. Maybe that is why the pegasus used a pallet, instead of just pushing her directly? Or maybe it was because she was wounded... or that the magic would burn her if it flowed into her body. That was a thought.
The ground, far below, was rushing past, the night air blew Gwen's long, dark hair into the face of her savior. "Sorry!" Gwen dipped her head and caught her tresses with a finger, to keep them out of the Pegasus' eyes.
She heard shots, but nothing hit, as far as she could tell. She hadn't felt the first time she'd ever been shot, at least immediately. She noted she wasn't in pain at the moment. That was one good thing about clinging to a cargo pallet being magically pushed by a pegasus ten stories above the street - it was so terrifying and overwhelming that the brain just forgot to add 'pain' to the mixture of sensations. 'Need fast pain relief?' Gwen imagined a commercial playing at a favela kiosk 'try new Get Flown By A Pegasus! Works instantly to..."
Oh... sweet lord... it wasn't pain, it was cold. Air, streaming, blowing through the hole in her side.
When the angle was just right, it whistled.