The surface roads are already almost deserted. The crawler has to actually slow down to avoid reaching their turn before the storm. They hit the waypoint just as the wall of sand descends, the flying grit choking off all light and sound, nothing past the windshield but a solid red-brown mass.
The crawler bumps and almost rolls as they turn off the road onto the rough, uneven terrain, running on instruments and inertial navigation. There's a jarring thump as they run into the outer fence – and keep right on going.
- - - - - - - -
Mara, Fir, and the prince move swiftly down the darkened hallway, heading for the emergency airlock, Mara in the lead, Fir guarding the rear. Sirens are blaring somewhere, competing with the shriek of the windstorm outside, and she feels a thrill of surprise that the plan is working, it's working, they're almost there – just another thirty meters to the airlock, then onto the crawler and north to the wastes, and she realizes that she had never dared to think they might actually succeed until this point.
Footsteps and voices, somewhere up ahead. Mara raises her hand for silence, then gestures towards a door, and they pile through into a closet holding cleaning supplies and linens, and the body of the man Fir killed on their way in, lying in a corner with his neck at an angle it should not be able to bend at. The MuniPrin swallows and his face goes pale when he sees him.
Mara leans against the door, trying to hear through the thick plastic. Footsteps? No. The door's too thick to hear through, she can't make out anything. She visualizes the corridor outside, and tries to estimate how long it would take to walk down. She settles on ninety seconds, and starts to count. One one thousand, two one thousand, three...
The MuniPrin kneels by the side of the dead body. He reaches out and closes the dead man's eyes.
Fifty one thousand, fifty two one thousand, fifty three one thousand... Mara's stomach is tying itself in knots. They're so close, they can't be caught now. Fifty four one thousand – is that smoke?
It is. She can smell smoke, faint but that's definitely smoke. Nothing to be done about that now. Fifty five one thousand, fifty six one thousand.
The MuniPrin stands. His expression is sad, and perhaps scared.
Ninety one thousand. Mara opens the door two centimeters and peeks out. Two men are standing just a few meters down the hallway, dressed in the uniforms of Palace security. “You get him,” one is saying, “I'll head to the – hey–” and he's seen her and she aims the pistol and pulls the trigger pop pop pop pop –
- - - - - - - -
The crawler is booking now, engine whining as the driver pushes the throttle to the floor. He catches a glimpse of the inner fence an instant before they hit it, and then it's down and they're through. And now he can see the bulk of the Urban Palace just ahead, a darkness in the haze, and the crawler shudders to a stop.
“Go go go go!” someone yells, and the extraction team piles out through the back hatch, wading through the red soup of sand. Someone is shooting at them, the bang-bang-bang of bullets almost lost in the wind's scream, but they haven't a chance in hell of hitting them through the murk. The autogun team replies anyway, laying down suppressing fire from the crawler while the rest of the squad starts cutting through the outer airlock door.
- - - - - - - -
“Move move move!” Mara yells, and they're running down the hallway, two bleeding bodies left in their wake, ears ringing from the gun shots. The MuniPrin looks like he's going to be sick, but for now he's still holding it together.
Down a hall lined with priceless antiques, then through a door disguised as part of the wall, into the servants' halls, dim emergency lights casting a ghostly glow over the concrete floors and tiled walls. Twenty meters, a left turn and then a straight shot – but there's somebody on the other side of the turn, three somebodies with guard uniforms. Mara pulls the trigger and holds it down, spraying the corridor ahead with bullets as she falls back behind the turn of the hall, the guards replying with rifle fire.
And then she hears shots coming from behind them as well, and the pop of Fir returning fire, and her guts turn to ice as she realizes they're pinned down.