Chapter 23: Freedom!

By the time Smith met up with T'pat near the hover bikes, his energy was seriously flagging.

"I see you managed to lose your pursuer rather expeditiously. You hardly look winded," Smith stated.

"I had some help," T'pat replied, as he unplugged two hover bikes from their charging stations.

The look on Smith's face urged him to continue. "My path to escape took me past one of the monitoring stations. It had been completely demolished. There was a low hanging beam I just barely managed to see in time and I ducked. My pursuer didn't. I imagine you had something to do with all that."

"Long story," Smith smirked. "I suggest we get the hell out of Dodge."

"Dodge?"

"Another long story."

"Ah," T'pat nodded.

"And if you want to live long enough to hear it..."

The sight of two dozen guards entering the motor pool was enough to quiet their friendly banter. The two hopped on to their hover bikes and sped off toward the northern gate, their new pursuers not far behind.

...

Meanwhile, the Professor and Will had reached the Chariot. The Professor lifted his son and placed him in the vehicle. He quickly hopped in and took up position in the rear with one of the laser rifles Smith had given them at the armory. Will took up position next to his father as the Major got them moving as fast as the Chariot would travel.

Everyone was glad to be putting distance between them and the base, but as they looked down upon the imposing fortress from the relative safety of the hill, each of them spared a thought for the friend they had left behind. There was a noticeably empty spot in the Chariot without him.

The Major glanced back at the base to apprise himself of the situation. His heart skipped a beat as he saw guards streaming out, firing upon prisoners. Some prisoners fired back, but many were unarmed. The Professor took aim and, like a practiced sniper, took down some of the guards from a distance, concealed by the thick foliage atop the hill. Unfortunately, his actions didn't go unnoticed for long and a few guards on hover bikes broke off their attack on the prisoners and headed for the Chariot. The Professor egged them on, taking shots at them, preferring to face them in a fair fight than continue to let them harm unarmed innocents.

...

As Smith and T'pat neared the northern gate, they saw the massive doors swinging shut. Smith glanced quickly behind him and ducked to avoid laser fire from his pursuers. T'pat suppressed some of the fire with a few shots of his own. Smith aimed his pistol intently at the control panel next to the gate and fired. A shower of sparks signaled he'd hit his mark and the massive doors swung open again. The two throttled up and sped single file through the gate at full speed.

"T'pat! Close the gate!" Smith ordered.

T'pat took aim, as Smith had, at the control panel on the other side of the door. Try as he might, he couldn't hit the target.

"Sorry," he said sheepishly. "It's not as easy as you made it look," T'pat admitted.

Smith smiled, mostly from T'pat's admission, but also from the plan forming in his mind. "Never fear! Smith is here!" he crowed. "Follow me!" he ordered as he veered sharply left. He tapped his comm device. "M'jek! We're headed in your direction and we have a few unwelcome guests. Please stand ready."

M'jek confirmed receipt of the orders and relayed them to the armed Asmani in his company. Both he and the Grand Master took up their own arms and readied themselves as they watched Smith and T'pat approach from a distance.

The Grand Master shook his head. "That sounded like... but it couldn't be. He's dead. I must be hearing things. I swear that sounded like Doctor Smith."

M'jek nodded his head. "Yes, your excellency. That was Smith."

The look of relief and excitement on the Grand Master's face didn't go unnoticed. "How?" he inquired.

M'jek smiled. "I couldn't let him die, your excellency. He was in the military on the world he came from. He was too skilled, too important to our cause, to let Mal J'hat have his way. I carried out Mal J'hat's orders, but as soon as Mal J'hat left the execution chamber, I resuscitated him. Doctor Smith planned and executed all of this."

A wide grin washed across the Grand Master's face. "I knew there was a reason I liked him."

"Here they come. Stand ready, men!" M'jek yelled.

Smith and T'pat sped through a narrow gap in the crowd of Asmani. As their pursuers approached, the Asmani opened fire. Several guards were thrown from their bikes as they were hit by multiple laser blasts. Others leaped from their bikes to avoid the fire. The guards near the back of the pack realized what was happening and veered off, navigating around the crowd, just out of range. M'jek and his men had bought Smith and T'pat some time and distance, but their pursuers continued the chase.

M'jek's comm device squawked with another incoming message from Smith.

"Thank you for the cover, my friend. I suggest you and your countrymen put as much distance between you and the base as possible."

M'jek replied and then quickly mobilized the crowd. Some commandeered the guard's hover bikes. M'jek stayed behind long enough to secure transport for the injured guards that had survived the attack. He traveled with them in the transport and tended to their wounds, while the Grand Master led the others into the hills.

...

"Can't this thing go any faster?" the Professor yelled. He and Will ducked as sparks flew from the laser blasts hitting the Chariot's canopy.

"This is as fast as she'll go," the Major yelled back. "Need some help back there?"

"Yes!" the Professor and Will yelled in unison.

"Judy, can you take the wheel? Just keep it floored and pointed that way." The Major pointed in the general direction of the Jupiter 2. "At some point, you'll have to take us down off of the ridge. Take a gradual line to keep from tipping over."

Judy quickly took over driving, while the Major grabbed a rifle and headed towards the back. Mrs. Robinson and Penny each held a rifle and covered their flanks, should anyone get past the fire the men were laying down.

...

"We'd best split up!" Smith yelled, as he motioned T'pat to veer to the right.

T'pat quickly did as he was told, having come to trust Smith's instincts. Then again, he usually got the better end of the deal when he listened to Smith. This time was no exception. While a few guards peeled off to pursue him, the main pack nipped at Smith's heels.

Smith glanced back and shook his head at his predicament. He turned and fired off a few shots, knocking one guard off his bike. The others scattered to avoid wreckage and quickly regrouped, falling in behind Smith again.

T'pat had seen the main pack pursue Smith and realized he had to lose the guards chasing him and get back to the doctor. As confident as he had grown in Smith's abilities, he knew he was in serious danger and needed help.

Smith recklessly wove around trees and through brush, hoping to gain some distance. As he crested the tree-covered ridge, he spied the Chariot leaving the slope and heading onto the dirt road he'd traveled months ago to get to the base.

The Chariot had its own problems, a pack of guards doggedly pursuing them as well. However, realizing they had superior firepower than he, Smith made a run down the slope towards them in hopes of reuniting with them in the much safer confines of the Chariot.

Unfortunately, Smith's pursuers anticipated his plan and radioed their comrades below. They focused a steady stream of fire up the hill, causing Smith to swing to the north side of the ridge in a desperate attempt to double back.

He glanced back again to gauge his pursuers' positions and fire a few shots. Before he could squeeze the trigger, he howled in pain as laser fire grazed his left leg. His pistol fell from his hand and he clutched at the bike's controls, trying desperately to maintain balance despite the shock.

Fumbling with his comm device, he managed a frantic plea. "T'pat, help! I'm heading north of the ridge. Robinsons on the road, south. We're outnumbered and outgunned. Relay to M'jek. Tell him to send reinforcements... anything he has. NOW!"

Smith ducked a volley of laser fire as his pursuers gained on him. One blast ripped into the comm device on his left arm. He was spared from injury, but the realization that his link to help had been severed made his blood run cold. He swallowed hard and kept low, searching the landscape for options.

He spotted a rock wall, some forty feet high, looming in the distance and headed directly towards it. Smith gripped the steering controls tightly and wrapped his legs around the bike even tighter, pushing the bike for all it was worth.

T'pat sped toward the area Smith had mentioned. He tried desperately to radio that he was on the way, but received no answer.

"M'jek! Smith doesn't answer. Where are your reinforcements? We need them now!"

M'jek's heart fell at the news. "They're on their way. They should arrive in approximately five minutes." He looked toward the Grand Master, who looked every bit as sorrowful as he was. "I... I hope they're not too late."

Their sorrow was short lived, as T'pat radioed he'd found Smith leading a harrowing chase towards the canyon to the north. M'jek and the Grand Master breathed a sigh of relief, but knew things weren't over yet.

Smith's pursuers were suddenly thrown into confusion by laser fire from the rear. T'pat charged heedlessly into the pack, taking down a few guards before they realized what was happening. T'pat watched in horror as Smith headed straight for a rock wall. Surely, he has to see it, T'pat thought.

At the very last moment, Smith applied the brakes, threw himself nearly sideways, and slammed the steering controls hard to the right. Jolts of pain screamed up his left leg, but he managed to keep his grip. The bottom of the bike lightly scraped the rock as it shuddered through the hard turn. As soon as his bike was clear of the rock, Smith managed to get the vehicle upright and gave it full throttle again. He felt himself grow faint and quickly realized he was holding his breath. He took a deep breath to steady himself and tried to resume breathing normally. In the midst of the chase, with his heart pounding so hard he could feel it, that was anything but easy.

T'pat watched the maneuver in awe and was not surprised that two guards failed in the attempt to duplicate it. The guards behind those unfortunate victims slammed on their brakes, while the guards at the back slowed to make the turn and continued their pursuit.

Smith looked back and realized that although the maneuver had worked, it hadn't taken out nearly as many guards as he had hoped. Nearly a dozen still dogged him. He sped towards the canyon below and hoped he'd have better luck there. He didn't yet realize that help was close at hand.

Four of M'jek's men came in from the east and managed to join up with T'pat near the rear of the pack. Smith's odds were getting better, but they still weren't quite even. He led the chase through the narrow canyon, weaving back and forth to avoid laser fire. T'pat held his men back far enough to not attract attention or laser fire, but close enough to render assistance when needed.

Smith saw what he thought was a break in the sheer cliff on his left and prayed it was a passageway. He waited until the last second and cut sharply down the narrow corridor. His heart jumped to his throat when he realized it was a dead end, perhaps quite literally. The laser fire behind him stopped as the pack knew their quarry was trapped. Smith took his bike to the very end of the corridor and turned to face his pursuers.

The guards advanced on him cautiously and raised their weapons to fire. Smith shut his eyes tightly and awaited the end. He winced when he heard laser fire erupt, but he felt no pain or impact. He opened his eyes in time to see the last of his dozen pursuers fall to laser fire from T'pat and his reinforcements who had come up quietly from behind.

T'pat came running to Smith's side as he sat, in shock, still on his bike. "Are you ok?"

Smith raised his visor and smiled weakly. He borrowed a phrase from his friend. "T'pat, if you weren't so repulsive looking, I'd kiss you." Smith smirked and added, "Oh, what the hell..." He grabbed T'pat's helmet in both hands and planted a kiss on the right side of the visor. He then patted the side of the helmet a few times and asked "What took you so long?"

"I had to follow a trail of destruction to find you," T'pat joked, as he attempted to remove the smudge Smith had left on his visor. "And once I saw that maneuver by the rock wall, well, I figured you had it all under control." He grimaced as he saw his attempts had only made the smudge worse.

Smith smiled briefly, but then turned serious. "It's not under control by any means. The Robinsons still need help. We'd best attend to unfinished business."

"You might need this," T'pat said, handing him a spare laser pistol. "I noticed you weren't returning fire when I caught up with you."

"Yes, I could use one of those," Smith said as he gratefully accepted the weapon. "I lost mine," he said sheepishly. He flipped down his visor, maneuvered his bike to the mouth of the dead end, and waited there for the others.

T'pat jogged back to his bike, as the reinforcements mounted theirs. As soon as they joined him, Smith led the party out of the canyon and back up onto the ridge to locate the Robinsons.

From their vantage point atop the ridge, it didn't take long to find the fleeing Robinsons. Smith's small band was joined by a dozen more of M'jek's men who happened to spot them as they crested the ridge. Smith ordered T'pat and the reinforcements to approach the enemy from behind, while he intended to rendezvous with the Robinsons and join them in the Chariot.

...

The Professor, the Major, and Will all held their own, fighting off attacks, but their pursuers were relentless. Wave after wave came at them, some getting as close as a few feet to the Chariot before they were foiled in their attempts to board.

Another guard pulled parallel to the Chariot and approached cautiously.

Major West took aim at the uniformed figure on the hover bike and prepared to fire.

"No!" Will exclaimed, knocking the barrel of the laser rifle upwards.

West's shot went high, but still managed to connect with the black reflective helmet of the guard. The guard's head whipped sharply sideways in surprise as the beam deflected upward off the helmet. The hover bike veered away and skittered against the rocky hillside, pounding metal and flesh, until the rider managed to gain control of the vehicle again.

"What are you doing, Will?" West demanded an explanation.

"Look! They're shooting at him, too," Will explained.

A look of understanding dawned on the Major's face. "Then he must be on our side!"

"I think it might be T'pat," Will said.

"No," the Major corrected. "I think it's K'val!"

The guard, clearly dazed, had trouble steadying the bike. He looked toward the Chariot to see if any more bolts were headed his way. None were forthcoming from that direction, but the bike took a direct hit from behind. The engine sputtered and the bike began to wobble violently. The rider directed the bike toward the Chariot, intending to make a hasty exit to the more substantial and still mechanically sound vehicle, if they would have him.

West and Will waved the rider over. As the bike neared them, it began to lose speed. Sensing immediate danger, the guard jumped from the damaged craft and onto the side of the Chariot. Major West was waiting to haul their new passenger in. The guard landed on his back with a thud on the floor. The bike disintegrated in a violent explosion twenty yards behind them, taking out several of their pursuers.

Their new passenger struggled to sit up and they aided him, propping him up against the side of the vehicle.

"Will, help me get his helmet off him," West requested.

The two worked the severely damaged helmet off with some difficulty. Underneath it, they found a familiar face.

"Doctor Smith!" West and Will cried in unison.

All heads in the vehicle turned toward them in shock and surprise. Once each had confirmed he was really there with them, smiles broke out on their faces, along with a tear or two.

"Really...Major. Is that how you greet... an old friend? Laser fire? Somehow... I imagined you'd be... happier to see me." Smith struggled to catch his breath and slow his racing heart. He also tried desperately to ignore the pain in his bloodied side and throbbing head.

Will made a move to hug the doctor, but Smith waved him off. As much as he wanted to embrace the lad, he knew it would be physically painful to do so. The boy, thankfully, understood and smiled widely in relief at the sight of his friend.

Confusion clouded the Major's face. "How?... Why?... You're still alive!"

"Your powers of observation... astound me, Major. Yes, I'm still alive," Smith confirmed. "Barely," he added as he groaned in pain.

"We saw your execution," Judy stated, as she turned in the driver's seat to get a good look. "We thought you were dead!"

"My dear Judith... it's a very long story... and one I'd prefer not to recount... while under fire. Suffice it to say... it pays to have friends... in the right places," Smith explained.

"M'jek!" West exclaimed.

"Precisely," the doctor confirmed. He brought a hand to his left temple and massaged the spot where he'd slammed into the hillside. "I'll tell you all about it later," he lied.

Maureen settled next to the doctor with a first aid kit. Smith welcomed her ministrations, despite the added pain it was causing at the moment. "Bless you, my dear lady," he thanked. She simply smiled and nodded. There would be time for an emotional reunion full of sentiment later, once they were out of danger.

West took a few shots at pursuers behind them and voiced his frustration. "Even if we make good our escape, Mal J'hat will just regroup his forces and be back in business soon, making lives miserable again."

"He can hardly do that... from the grave, Major," Smith replied. "Mal J'hat is dead. T'pat had the honor... of dispatching the fiend himself."

At that moment, a large explosion rocked the complex behind them. Several of their pursuers stopped and looked back at their base.

"What was that?" Will exclaimed.

"My sensors indicate that there appears to have been an explosion in the communications substation," the Robot replied.

Another larger blast sent a gigantic fireball skyward as secondary and tertiary explosions ripped through the complex.

"And that was the armory," the Robot confirmed.

West turned to Smith. He eyed the doctor's alien guard uniform suspiciously and asked, "Did you have anything to do with those explosions?"

"What explosions?" Smith countered, struggling to suppress a grin.

"Oh, don't give me that. You couldn't have missed 'em!" West barked.

"Between this splitting headache... the pain in my side... and the ringing in my ears... I must have missed them, Major. You see... somebody shot me in the head with a laser rifle!" The outburst exhausted the already weak doctor. He tilted his head back and closed his weary eyes.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" West sighed.

"Not in this lifetime, Major," Smith vowed.

The largest explosion of all shook the ground. The shockwave from it thundered through the atmosphere and a mushroom cloud rose high above the complex.

"And that was Mal J'hat's quarters," the Robot confirmed.

All eyes in the Chariot turned towards Smith.

"Ok, you couldn't have missed that one, Smith," West insisted.

Smith's eyes were glued to the gigantic mushroom cloud growing behind them. "No, Major. That one... was kind of hard to miss."

"Gosh! It just about blew the whole base to smithereens!" Will exclaimed.

"Smith-ereens. That sounds about right," the Major quipped. "Weren't you the one who said there'd be nothing left of Mal J'hat if you got his hands on him?" West wondered aloud.

"I don't recall ever saying that," Smith lied. "And if I did, I must not... have been in my right mind."

The Major eyed Smith suspiciously. Smith maintained the most innocent look he could muster and hoped everyone would believe his denials. He also moaned in pain piteously, not that he had to fake it, hoping the Major would have sympathy and cease his interrogation. Smith silently wondered, however, how that single charge could have caused such a catastrophic explosion. It was no different than the other charges he set, or so he thought.

"Look!" the Professor shouted.

All eyes turned towards the back of the Chariot. Most of their pursuers had turned back towards the base.

The Professor took aim at the two dozen or so left behind them, hanging back a short distance.

"No!" Smith shouted. When the Professor looked at him in surprise, Smith explained it was most likely T'pat and his reinforcements.

"T'pat?" the Professor yelled.

At the call of his name, T'pat ordered the others to maintain their distance while he rode ahead.

"Professor, I'm glad to see you all well," he said as he looked into the vehicle. "I see Doctor Smith looks a little worse for wear, but I think he'll live."

The Professor invited the Asmani guard inside the vehicle and he quickly obliged, tethering his bike alongside.

T'pat knelt next to Smith. He raised his visor and winked surreptitiously, a behavior he'd learned from the doctor. He was well aware of Smith's desire not to be connected with any of the escape and he wanted to be sure Smith knew he'd play along. "You're a mess, doctor. After all the trouble M'jek and I went through to save your sorry hide, you go and nearly get yourself killed just trying to ride a hover bike any Asmani child can handle."

"If you had just hailed me a taxi like I had asked, none of this would have happened," Smith quipped.

Everyone laughed at the banter, but mostly from sincere relief at finally being free from the nightmare of the past few months. Their family was now whole again.

Turning serious for a moment, Smith asked, "How is M'jek?"

"Fine. He and the Grand Master managed to get their group far enough away from the base before the explosions. He reported most of the prisoners managed to, as well," T'pat replied.

Smith sighed in relief, though he wouldn't rest well until they could account for all the prisoners, especially the ones he'd grown fond of over the last few months.

"And K'val?" Major West asked, suspicious smirk on his face. He was sure T'pat would inadvertently out Smith as K'val, the one the Professor told him was responsible for sabotaging the backup generator, allowing him to join the escape.

Without missing a beat, T'pat answered the question with a serious face. "Sadly, he was killed... by Mal J'hat himself." He looked upon each of them, one by one as he told the story. "K'val saved my life today. Mal J'hat had me at gun point. He knew when I arrived at his quarters during the blackout that M'jek and I had betrayed him and had planned his destruction. He was about to kill me when K'val arrived just in time to distract him, unfortunately taking laser fire that was meant for me. I quickly avenged his death with my own weapon," he said as he patted his sidearm. "Mal J'hat is no more. Unfortunately, neither is a dear, dear friend who was like a brother to me. K'val was willing to give his life for this day, for your freedom as well as ours." He locked eyes with Smith as he finished. "I can never repay him for his sacrifice."

The story seemed so genuine and so heartfelt that even Smith wanted to believe it. There was also a touch of truth to it that made it all the more believable. Smith glanced around the Chariot and saw T'pat had everyone's full attention. Mrs. Robinson seemed most crestfallen at the news of K'val's death. Even Major West was not unaffected by the story and sat quietly trying to process it in his own way. Clearly, this was not the story the Major was hoping to hear, for he too owed a debt to K'val which he could now never repay. Smith was touched, for he knew the truth that K'val was sitting right there with them and that emotion was for him.

T'pat turned back to Major West. "But today is not a day for sorrow. You are free and Asmani are free. Once we have had a chance to get organized, we will celebrate properly. As is Asmani custom, we will also set aside a day to remember those, like K'val, who are not here to share our jubilation. M'jek and I wish you all to attend. This day would not have been a success without you."

Continue to Chapter 24: Family Reunion

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