It had all been going so well.

They’d got in with nobody the wiser. With physical access, Jessen had been able to break into their network without breaking a sweat, and she’d made a few careful gaps in security that let them all move to the deeper levels of the complex, down to the laboratory area. Then she’d cracked that network and pulled the research and development data. It had taken Navik several anxious minutes to sort through it all and narrow it down to what they wanted – testing data and plans for the ten-kilo package that now rested in his pack. It should have had an explosion-resistant crate and full NBC hazard sealing, but so long as it didn’t go off, all that wouldn’t be an issue; so for now, the shock-proof case the device now rested in would have to do.

These people hadn’t been setting out to make a weapon, but that was hardly reassuring; once they’d seen the potential of this little thing, they’d turned it into a terrifyingly effective weapon indeed. And knowing what they had planned for it, it was all the more important that Navik’s team get the prototype out of their hands and the plans back to Central Command.

Actually getting their hands on the prototype had been the first tangle – with so many people around the thing, it had been hard to knock them all out before someone set off an alarm, and even if none of the team had seen how, apparently someone set off some kind of signal, because suddenly there were guards all over. Still, those guards hadn’t quite known how to deal with a small, elite team this deep in the facility; it had looked like they’d be able to slip out of the secure area and vanish into the interstices of the much-more-porous facility above.

Then one of the guards had had the brilliant idea of spraying the Physical Plant corridor on full auto – and while Navik’s team were using low-power, non-lethal sleeper darts, the guards’ guns were throwing around perfectly straightforward bits of high-energy lead. Something hadn’t appreciated it, and shortly after that barrage, a klaxon had started blaring in strident, don’t-ignore-me tones.

When it didn’t get promptly dealt with and silenced, Navik cursed. What were their technicians doing? No single incident outside of the reactor chamber itself ought to cause so much of a fuss that someone couldn’t at least shut things down. Had everyone been in the test lab? And what the hell was going wrong, exactly?

The last one had an explanation close at hand, at least, but it wasn’t a reassuring one.

“That’s the reactor coolant system,” Navik hissed to Georg, the team lead, pointing to a very clearly-labelled warning panel with a very prominent alarm light. “And we just left their scientific staff out cold! If we let the reactor overheat, we won’t have time to get out of here!”

“Nobody in their right minds would use something that fails that fast, that easy!” Georg shot back, leaning around the corner and squeezing off a quick snapshot before ducking back in.

“Even if it goes into shutdown with no problems, that’ll mean the local trams are down!” Navik replied. “And nobody in their right minds would use live ammo around a fusion reactor!”

“I’ll give you that.” Georg turned his head to look across the intersection. “How’s it looking over there, Dak?”

Dakra, the infiltration specialist, flicked a tactical mirror out into the hallway, scanning quickly. “Clear. You got the last of ’em,” she reported. Not that she relaxed in any way; she just took the time to get a clip from her belt and start loading replacement darts into her pistol’s magazine.

“For now, at least.” Georg drew in a breath. “All right, Navik, we brought you along for your brains and I’m not going to start ignoring them now. Think you can salvage the reactor yourself, keep our getaway online?”

“Depends what exactly got hit, but I can try.”

“Good. Which way?”

It wasn’t hard to find the reactor control room, though it meant a bit of backtracking. There should have been technicians on duty, but judging by the conspicuous work coveralls some of the armed guards had worn, those technicians had been pressed into service to deal with the infiltration team, or evacuated if they couldn’t fight, or in the test lab when the team put everyone there to sleep; the place was deserted.

It took only a few moments for Navik to find the problem, and it wasn’t good.

“Of all the irresponsible… The core’s already gone into critical heat,” he reported, working controls in a hurry. “That gunfire must have drained one of the coolant loops or something. Whatever. It messed up one of the coolant pumps in a way that’s got it making the reactor hotter, and either the system didn’t know enough to shut that branch down or someone actually disabled the failsafe on it.”

“Were they trying to make this place New Chernobyl?” Jess asked.

“They must have been doing something similar, because by the logs this thing was already running hot.” Navik scowled. Gauges were creeping down, but all too slowly. And then they stopped, hovering around the red mark, and started turning back upwards; he cursed, shutting down some systems, bringing others into play as fast as he could. “This thing just became really finicky. It’s going to need adjustments every minute or two to stay online without something melting.”

“Which means, what, for us?”

Navik swallowed. What it meant was all too obvious for him, but actually saying it…

There had to be some way to salvage this mess. Fixing problems was what their team did.

But not always with everyone coming back in one piece. That was the risk they all took, and they’d all gone in knowing that.

He took a breath. “What it means,” he said, loosening his pack, “is that Jess needs to take the package. Whatever happens,” he said to the suddenly-tense computer specialist, “you need to get the data and the prototype out of here and back home.”

“Hold on, Navik,” Georg cut in. “You can’t be saying…”

Someone needs to babysit this thing and keep it from melting a containment coil,” Navik snapped. “I’m the only one here who knows enough to do it.”

“Nav,” Dak protested, “there are only six people on the roster with your skills…”

“And three of them are better than me, no contest,” Navik replied. “I wouldn’t have been sent here if I was irreplaceable, and you know it. Right now, getting that package back to Project Central is more important than one physicist.”

“There’s got to be some other way to keep the trams running,” Georg growled.

“Not with one of the cooling lines offline and the reactor at redline already.” Navik tapped a gauge. “Secondary reactor’s offline, I can’t tell why from here but I’m not taking a risk on trying to fire it up without knowing. Backup power is already drained, and doesn’t produce enough to run the trams. I can’t get this thing to fill enough capacitors to get us out of here, definitely not in the time we have. You three need to get out of here.”

“You can make your own way out of here,” Jess said, adjusting her pack and easing the shock-case into it. “…Right?”

“I’ll try, but it doesn’t look good,” Navik sighed. “As far as I can figure, I’ll need to keep things running for a half hour to give you three time to get out. There will be more guards here by then. If I’m lucky, the local people will have enough sense to work with me to bring secondary power online. If I’m not…” He shrugged. “You might wind up needing to hike along the tramway to get to the trunk lines.” He left unsaid that unless they were really slow getting out, at least they’d be past minimum safe distance if the power loss was because the reactor overheated and blew, rather than shutting down.

Dak, unfortunately, saw through it. She squeezed his black-clad shoulder. “Navik… you stay alive, okay? There’s always rescues, or prisoner exchanges, or something.

He sighed, returning the gesture in kind. “Believe me, I don’t want to get myself killed.” That, at least, she accepted.

The truth was, though, that Navik knew too much about the Project’s goals. If it looked like he was going to be captured, and he had any opportunity to avoid it…

Well, none of them needed to know that his kit had included a suicide pill.

“Give us that half hour, then try to get out,” Georg instructed.

“Difficult. You’ll probably want to weld the door behind you,” Navik said, turning a knob ever so slightly, enough to make one particular needle stop its worrying upwards motion. “Maybe even collapse the tunnel. But I’ll try.”

“Right. That’s enough time spent dithering. Let’s move, people!”

The team burst into motion, leaving Navik alone with the ailing reactor. A minute of noise followed as they did their best to seal him in; then there was only the hum of the machines.

“Godspeed,” he whispered over them; and then he settled in for his vigil.