“So it is true.”
The words weren’t Behraanese, yet she understood them ever so clearly. It was as if they were spoken in a tongue she had never spoken, yet always known.
But they were the words the caped man in the dream spoke.
Finally, she remembered.
She remembered only a silhouette of a man, still, on the rooftop with her on that fateful day.
But she finally understood what he had said.
Or were the words simply renditions her mind created to satisfy her need to know? Was it simply her subconscious, filling in the blanks?
It didn’t matter.
So what was true?
Why would he say that?
Another fitful sleep of tossing and turning. Another abrupt shooting out of bed. Another deep slumber thereafter.
Laura’s first thoughts upon awakening, as she forgot all about the dream, had been how bright the sun shone through the slits of windows her cabin was illuminated by.
The next ones were about how late in the day it had to have been, for the sun to have been so bright. Bright and early had turned to brighter and later. One thing she could never bring herself to do, in all of her academy and field training, was sleep in.
She checked her PTC--a planetary-tuning chronometer on her wrist designed to tune with the rotation of planets by the rate of angular velocity change. It was simple, really. It told her it was well into the afternoon, which came as no surprise. The alarm must have gone off numerous times, but either it failed to sound or failed to awaken her.
Had she been that fatigued?
This also came as no surprise, seeing as she had been in a constant state of fatigue since she landed upon this strange, arid world.
She remembered shards and fragments of what was once a complete window, a window into a whole other dream that seemed so real that she couldn’t discern dream from reality. Yet then, as she gained more and more awareness, still lying on the couch, those fragments continued to shatter into smaller particles, until only one shard, one undeniable impression, lasted.
She remembered a silhouette of a gentleman in a long coat, with the sheen of round sunglasses glinting in some unseen light. His head was lowered, as if in thought. Long, broad blades extended from where his hands should have been. A grin could barely be made out, with teeth as sharp as daggers.
She looked deeper into those glasses, until she could make out a reflection, but not a reflection of herself. A reflection of another woman. A woman she must have known, she was so familiar. Her mother? No. None of her friends. None of her peers, or her trainers.
The strange thing to her was the dream was silent. No words, no breathing, not even the rustling of clothes, or the whistling of the wind.
It didn’t make sense to her. Who was he? And who was she? The one whose eyes she saw through? The one with a face of age and no age, hair of silver as pure as the smelted metal it resembled, thick and straight, long and flowing down her shoulders and back like a silvery waterfall. She could swear in the reflection, her eyes glowed a lulling cerulean.
Slowly sitting up, she pondered more on the matter.
It seemed as if that dream didn’t fit in with her other ones at all.
Finally, something new.
Moments later, the thought dissipated, as she noticed the subtle rumbling of the ship as it hovered precariously across the rocky terrain this world continuously supplied.
She stood, grabbing and donning a pair of pants that resembled black denims, and a beige short-sleeved top. She tied her hair back in a tight pony tail, stopping to see that but one strand of her hair from her bangs still hung in front of her eye.
One, single, silvery hair.
She plucked it, watching it fall particularly quickly to the ground, as if it were heavier than usual.
The belt and holster came standard on everything she wore. Even if she wouldn’t adorn the Behraanese uniform anymore, rebellion should not have to come at the sacrifice of functionality. A plasmar was still a plasmar, even if the Behraanese Navy pistols were sub-par.
Sliding the door open made the outside light seem even harsher to her waking eyes, though it didn’t bother her as much as the blurring speeds the Skyreign seemed to be going. No doubt, thanks to some ingenuity of the ship’s two mechanics and pilot, things were a bit better off than just the day before, when she stared an avatar of death in the eye.
Rose looked back from the turret she was sitting in, nodding and smiling as she said, “Well rested, Captain?”
Slowly, Laura nodded back, “yes. Sort of. Where are we headed?”
“Well,” Darrick was still steering with his feet, but kept his eyes forward, “we’re headed west, towards the continental shelf, at a speed of just under mach, roughly twenty meters off the ground. The train is right behind us.”
“I recognize the lay of the land,” Haren stated as he stood to face Laura, “the stones and the relief and—“
“Get to the point, please,” Laura put her hand in front of his face, still clearly groggy.
A mild frown later, Haren continued, “I expect another hour before we reach the shelf. There is a beaten path used by locals and nomads alike, that I believe we will find some safety on. Scaling the shelf may otherwise be difficult, if impossible for certain for the train.”
"And this--Nywan--is beyond the shelf?"
Haren nodded, "indeed."
“Fine,” Laura nodded dismissively, as Ejjar came up the stairs, the effects of fatigue setting in enough to tell her profiling eyes that he didn’t actually turn in the night before, “Edge, you look like you’ve been up all night.”
“Took the time to get some more of the lifters going, actually,” Edge rubbed his eyes, “kind of figured after the autopsy on the poor lady’s engines, might as well move some conduits around and dump the crap. Yeah, big empty spots where the engines used to be.”
“Wouldn’t that leave gaping holes in the stern?” Laura asked weakly.
“Funny thing, Noregite,” Edge smirked faintly, “easy to spread around. I worked it to cover the holes, no problem. When and if we get new or used drives, I could almost sheathe the stuff back. I’d really like to know where all the resources were pulled from to make this ship.”
“Maybe a vault or something,” Darrick said nonchalantly.
“Yeah,” Edge leaned on the guard rails, “anyhow, as long as we don’t try to pull her too far off the ground, I think we’ll hold up for a little while.”
“Good,” Laura looked past the bow, beginning to make out some ever-increasing relief, “I need a drink.”
“Store’s good below decks,” Rose stated, “The Dexa family gave us another gift this morning: sealed water bottles. A whole crate of them. Didn’t even ask for anything.”
“Is it clean?” she asked.
“See for yourself,” Rose turned back to the sights of her turret, just pivoting around ever so slightly.
Surely enough, as she descended to the cargo floor, a single cubic crate of beaten yet rugged steels sat in the middle of the room, its lid leaning on the side. Numerous decent-sized silvery bottles with nozzles laid within. Grabbing one, she let but one drop of the precious substance fall upon her tongue. It was the coolest, most refreshing water she had had in years, far more quenching than the waters she consumed from constructors either on-ship or on Behraan.
Heading back to the bridge, bottle in tow, she sat in her chair and surveyed the scene. She took another sip, accidentally drawing too much at a time, and it slipped out the sides of her mouth. Gulping quickly, she wiped her face dry--realizing, that strangely, she didn’t need to. She felt something on her face fizzing, then looked to the floor where the water had dropped. She could only watch it vanish subtly into thin air.
Intrigued by the phenomenon, she poured just a little more purposely onto the deck and watched it also slowly dissipate.
Olsein stood up as he witnessed the act, muttering something obscure under his breath. Sam did something similar, though better-contained by his general self-discipline.
Edge simply raised his brows for a second and stretched out, “could be a global scale of electrolysis. Splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Could be the condensation nuclei are either not taking moisture or aren’t even there. Neat, sure, but why all the long faces?”
“When have you seen a whole region under the effect of electrolysis?” Laura said as she licked her lips and found them as dry as they were before.
“Laura,” Olsein shook his head, “this whole planet is desert or badlands. There are defined continents. All the sand and the layered rocks are consistent with other worlds with oceans that have disappeared. Do the math, girl.”
Silence passed the crew.
“Something to do with the sensors scrambling?” Laura asked, knowing the answer and knowing she would not receive one, “as in, someone did this?”
Surely enough, none would answer.
“Why?” Laura asked at last, “why would anyone do something so—horrendous?”
“I know not,” Haren began, “but it has been this way since time immemorial. In the progenitor times, water was plentiful, and covered most of this world. But when it began to simply disappear, the land could no longer sustain its inhabitants. Those who survive, cling to the caverns and cities and mountains of the world, where water may continue its once plentiful existence.”
“So—“Laura shook her head, closing the cap on her bottle, “why would Dexa give us so much water, when it’s probably the rarest thing on this rock?”
“Because his life is in your hands,” Haren replied, “life still holds value. Even above water.”
More silence passed the crew.
"Must be a hull breach somewhere though," Edge added, "shouldn't be happening on deck. I'll look into that."
“Keep your caps closed,” Laura said aloud, staring deeply off into nothing, as if not having heard Edge's words at all.
“Why would someone do that....”
And why was it that, after all that time, the desert persisted?
If not for the one-night revolution of Laura’s ideals, Olsein had thought, she might have certainly been usurped by then. Before that night, he hated all that the self-proclaimed ruler of the local hill stood for. She was wrong, but wrong as she was to be so arrogant and so self-absorbed, she was but a young, impressionable woman. Could the words and actions he grew to hate her and her like for, be her own? Perhaps, as he began to reason to himself, as he shaved in the mirror within his quarters, she was simply trying to eke out her own existence. Live what she knew to be the good path. The Behraanese Destiny.
The poor fool.
Yet he also knew that there was something terribly odd about her, just in her thinking patterns from before, to after the incident with Miya. When they first met, in Graldica in that park, she had the mindset of a typical youth given the opportunity to exercise power over others. The Behraanese Navy constantly encouraged an iron-grip methodology when it came to controlling subordinates.
Laura, that night, realized that she never truly wished to subscribe to that. It would take time for her to adjust, yes. But adjust, she would.
The other, abnormal change in her mindset, was that she was aware of the fact that someone was probing her mind telepathically. She didn’t know enough to identify it, but she did know to shut her mind from future attempts, and he could gleam no more from her that way.
The lapse in attention cost him, as his razor sliced at his chin, causing a slow dribble of blood to fall into the basin below him.
The blood, like the water on the deck, dried before it could reach the drain, and the blood on his chin caked onto the stubble. He hoped that breach would be found and sealed soon.
Two knocks on his door turned his attention away, and he said simply, “enter.”
The door slid open, and there stood Sam. As stout and formal as ever, his outfit, while not the Behraanese one, still underscored his life as a soldier, with all the pockets, belts, padding and harnessing. The forest green camouflage that patterned the attire reminded the older fighter that his home was, and always would be, Francesca.
In his hands was the weapon he borrowed, the Noregaan Thesium pistol.
“Well I’ll be,” Olsein crossed his arms.
Sam handed it back on its side in his palms, “I only needed three shots.”
Smirking, Olsein shook his head, “keep it. It’s bound to you now, anyway. Won’t fire for anyone else.”
Pausing, he withdrew his hands, “and you knew that when you gave it to me.”
Olsein nodded, “just like I knew you never lost your gun.”
Sam slowly nodded, “Behraanese weapons have chips in them that trigger the safety when they’re aimed at friendly targets. I needed something more—indiscriminate.”
Olsein just nodded again, “you’re alright by me, Sam. How did you know--”
Before more dialogue could go on, the vessel began to shudder as the Skyreign slowed to a halt.
“Better see what’s going on,” Olsein grabbed one of the carbines off the rack. Sam was already flying up the stairwell to the bridge.
“Rose,” Laura said in a somewhat urgent matter as she peered over the deck, “go over to the train and ask them what’s going on.”
“What is going on?” Olsein asked as Rose descended the stairwell. He wiped his chin, blood still caked on, and it largely flaked off.
“The train just put the brakes on,” Darrick was also standing, this time with his own sunglasses on and a dull grey carbonmail t-shirt, “so we stopped too.”
<Uh, Captain,> Ejjar came through the intercom, <nothing’s wrong with the lifters, right?>
“No, we’ve stopped, because the train stopped,” Laura sighed, pacing around, “really missing that comm array.”
“Yeah, well,” Darrick crossed his arms, “the old fashioned way isn’t so bad. Just have to use your eyes and ears and all that.”
“Don’t have to use your mouth though,” Laura looked back at him the once and then turned back to the halted train, as Rose covered ground between the two ships.
“On Francesca,” Sam stated, “we used sign flags, either on a screen or with a real flag, to communicate over a distance when comms were down or we were being scrambled.
“Of course, it wouldn’t work here, because both parties would have to know the flag language.”
Laura would have silenced him as well, if she didn’t owe him the respect of saving her life. She simply nodded.
Olsein hummed, though not to himself. He put his hand above his eyes to shield them from the sun, as he scanned the distant dunes. There was a steady uphill slant that allowed him to see back a greater distance, though the rocks and boulders that ever increased in size with the climb, mitigated some of that field of view.
But no amount of mitigation could hide what his eyes locked onto.
“I see them as well,” Haren stated as he stood by Olsein.
“The Ma’guul?” Laura asked, sitting in her chair, eyes forward, “Darrick, get us over to the train. We’ve got to let them know.”
“Yeah, but--” Olsein raised a brow.
“How did she know?” Haren asked quietly.
Olsein could only shrug, speaking just as quietly, “I have a hunch.”
“Yes?” Haren beckoned for more.
“She gets hunches,” Olsein shrugged.
“Buckle up,” Darrick said to the two, then hopped in the chair, rapidly flicking switches and swinging the ship around on a pivot. Then, he leaned her forward and pulled up next to the train, swinging about so the stern end faced the train’s open doors.
Rose was already coming out with the Dexa family, when Laura leaned over the rail and pointed out the coming sandstorm. She looked, barely giving it a second to truly observe it, as she began to rush them toward the rear of the ship. Clearly, they shook their heads, at first resisting Rose’s tugging and repeating the same native words, likely that they had to come aboard, then and there, for their own goods.
Finally, they listened and followed Rose into the Skyreign. The storm picked up speed as it traveled up the hill.
Of course, they all knew it was no storm.
<We’re on!> Rose shouted through the intercom, <get us out of here!>
“You heard her,” Laura leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair, “full throttle!”
Darrick responded with just that, and the Skyreign kicked forward, nose down and shaking as it accelerated.
<If you need weapons,> Edge sighed, <we’ve got them. Barely. The cores are good but the distributor’s a bit touchy, so try not to unload the capacitors when you don’t need to, okay guys?>
“Right,” Laura said, “Rose, put the Dexa family in the rec room and tell them to stay there. Then come on up and man a gun.”
<Sure,> Rose replied.
<I will stay with them to keep them calm,> Grace added.
Before long, the train was a kilometer away. Shortly after that, from out of the storm came several bolts of lightning, incinerating it in a brilliant, expanding ball of fire.
“I doubt the shield could hold a shot like that off,” Olsein exclaimed, jumping into a rear gun.
Rose ascended quietly, looking left and right, completely unphased by the blurring speeds and constantly shifting g-forces.
“The shelf will be treacherous and steep and unrelenting,” Haren stated loudly, “but there is a winding path that scales it. We will need to follow the red banners when we see them, for they will lead us to this path. It is our only salvation, and will lead us to Nywan.”
“Like that one over there!” Rose pointed off to the distance, while the others could not make anything out where she was pointing.
“Where?” Darrick pushed the Skyreign a little harder. And then a lot harder, making minute adjustments to avoid the boulders, as if his path were a slalom.
“About five degrees left of the nose,” Rose stepped in next to him to point it out, subtly looking up and down his back, the deep contours of his muscles showing through his grey carbonmail shirt.
“Oh,” Darrick noted her scanning him, but kept her eyes fixed on the first visible red banner, “I see it now.”
“Man a gun, Rose,” Laura ordered, “Darrick, follow Haren’s directions.”
“Take a seat, Haren,” Darrick said as his eyes remained glued to the front, his hand twitching enough left and right to dodge the natural hazards as he approached the first banner. Then, he saw the second one in the distance beyond it.
“Can’t we get some altitude?” Laura suggested.
“The atmosphere’s thinner up here,” Darrick declined, “we’re already over the red line, so we’ll be lucky to keep a meter or two off the ground.”
“They’re gaining!” Rose shouted from the aft starboard turret.
Definite objects came into Rose’s view, being vehicles as small as hoverbikes, to gunships, to artillery pieces and hovering destroyers.
“Pretty well equipped, for raiders!” Rose added, as the bikes and the slower gunships advanced in front of the rest of the battalion.
The flags were a hundred meters apart or so, making a bread crumb trail almost directly to the shelf, a near-vertical climb.
“We’d never make that,” Darrick shook his head, then leaned forward to give himself the illusion that he could thus get a better view of things. His eyes squinted, then widened as he exclaimed, “wait. I see it! Big zig-zag etched into the shelf. Still a hell of a climb, but that, I can handle.”
The path had to be well-beaten, spanning perhaps fifty meters in width, and a few hundred meters at most before it would turn almost completely on itself. It was still mostly rock and sand, but far more even than the rest of the environment. The major boulders and rocks were either pushed into the ground or swept aside, intentionally or incidentally.
“Anyone here raced a hill climb before?” Darrick veered further left to set up an angle of attack on the path.
“Nothing this heavy!” Rose replied. It continued to amaze Darrick that even from almost around the corner at the opposite end of the vessel, she could still hear him.
“She’s not that heavy!” Darrick defended, looking back to send such defense to the skeptic, then looking forward again, “She’s only eighty-five tonnes. Pretty light for a frigate!”
With that, he pulled the stick back to brake hard. In response, the ship lurched nose-up, slowing quickly and lurching forward again. Knowing he’d need to corner, he extended out all three solar arrays, springing open like switchblades, to try to use them as ailerons and rudders and corner harder.
“How many can you swat on me, old man!?” Rose still carried all the optimism she normally did, switching through her targeting displays to get a magnified image of the approaching Ma’guul raiders.
“I’ll beat you by one,” Olsein shouted back, going through the same routines, “just to spite you!”
“Bet your Marioch carbine,” Rose replied.
“You have nothing I want!” he laughed.
“I’ll buy you a drink when we get out of this mess!” she said.
Olsein swiveled his turret about and shot down a small hovercraft, then shouted back, “only if the drink is by the liter!”
“Liquid Sun,” Rose replied, doing the same thing with her own turret yet twice as quickly with half of the ammunition spent, “drink it all in one night and you’ll black out for a week!”
After a pause, he finally muttered, “This is a week I’d love to forget. Damn you. Fine.”
“Cut the chatter!” Laura barked.
Darrick then lowered the speed and made a hard turn so that he could stay over the ramping trail without either smashing into the cliff side or veering off and falling. One fall might be mitigated by the lifters, but the ship would definitely hit the ground and grind all the undercarriage into nothing. One collision into the cliff was self-explanatory.
The slowing gave the crew’s pursuers well enough a chance to pull up alongside, as they dared not draft the ship and catch all the sand blowing behind them at near-sonic speeds.
The first of these pursuers rode on hovering bikes barely larger than themselves. An engine, some lifters, a saddle and handle bars were practically all these manned rockets were. Even with all the the padding and the goggles and mask and every form of precaution taken to make such a vehicle perceptibly safer, Rose surmised that even throwing a small stone at the bike would be enough to set it off course and into a boulder, and no amount of padding would save someone from a fate like that.
One of the masked riders pulled out a pistol and fired a dozen rounds at the crew at random. The bolts of invisible energy, likely laser beams, were absorbed harmlessly by the ship’s barely-functioning shields, and others glanced off the shell. Darrick responded simply by running over the biker.
Laura, in response to one of the other bikers, manned and fired the port side plasmar turret directly at him, or her –she wasn’t sure and didn’t care—and punctured the rider’s leg, blood splashing out and tailing back behind them. The rider, clearly in immense pain, spun off and smashed his—or her--vehicle into a boulder many times its size, bursting into a brilliant ball of flame and smoke, sand melting to glass and bouncing all over the immediate area.
“Nice shooting!” Darrick peeked back, checking his left to keep from nicking the wall, pulling back to brake and corner.
“They’re not pursuing!” Rose announced.
Laura found relief in the rather short attempt of the faster vehicles to stop them.
Olsein knew that most times, when the area around a vessel was cleared, it was to avoid friendly fire. That usually meant either air or long-range, area-of-effect attacks, by his experience.
“Check high!” Olsein swiveled around in his turret at the aft quarter. He quickly spotted a flying, fan-driven gunship and shouted, “some sort of gunship, right on top of us!”
Laura looked up and heard the gears scream in the turrets as the gunners aimed up as best as they could. She swung about as well, but her cannons couldn’t quite aim high enough.
The slender yet clearly archaic vessel was lifted by a pair of vectored turbofans and stabilized by a rear, smaller one. It turned its mean head towards the fleeing Skyreign, letting fly a barrage of, likely, more lasers. One such beam punctured the fields, then the shell. It burned a hole two centimeters or so in diameter into the planked floor, just a meter away from Laura. The thermal tradeoff pushed her to the far side of her chair before she had to crawl away, covering her face with her bare arm. The intense heat still singed her arm, even from behind the chair.
<Uh, Captain!> Edge exclaimed, <reality check! The field was made for stopping stray particles and atmospheric loss, not vehicular arms fire! That shot went clear through the ship! It barely missed my foot!>
“Can you get the deflectors back up!?” Laura backed behind a chair, firing shots at the gunship.
<Deflector was pretty fried in the landfall!> Edge exclaimed, <you should probably just stop whatever’s shooting us!>
“Yep,” Olsein grunted, clenching on the triggers and letting out raw, unyielding bolts of plasma upon the undercarriage of the gunship. Rose assisted him in bringing it down, if just in a glide the enemy could still control and save themselves from. The atmosphere was indeed thicker on this world than that of others, in that it could support vehicles with minimal lift area and not have lifters keep it airborne. The gravity was lighter, more forgiving.
“Speed it up, Walson,” Laura ordered from her cover, climbing back into her chair, “don’t let them shoot at us!”
“You try to steer this thing on just lifters!” Darrick leaned the nose in more forward, making a notable difference in acceleration. The lifters, in their attempts to keep the ship stable at those speeds, began to whine and crackle, as the overabundance of energy started to heat the lifters up more and more.
Darrick knew that he couldn’t keep this up forever. Perhaps not even more than a few minutes. His internal systems display blinked red each time one of the hundreds of independent lifters blew out. Sometimes he didn’t feel it, whereas other times it would physically roll or spin the ship and he would have to countersteer.
“I’ve got more!” Laura exclaimed, turning to meet them with scorching plasma.
“Incoming gunships, starboard side!” Sam announced from the starboard, turret, swiveling to meet them with superheated plasma.
The only response from any of the crew, were the the swivel motors and responsive ringing metal from the recoil of the plasmars rapidly kicking the barrel casings against the maglev pistons. The sound of a loud, high-pitched bird chirp followed every shot as the bolts carried on in their destructive path, followed by the concussive sound of rolling thunder and crackling.
The bolts tore through the limited protective field of another gunship, then tore through the armor, then the varied systems that ensured a gunship’s functions. Munitions, batteries, the very air exploded from within, sending a rain of metal and fire and organic matter in all directions. Very little enough remained of the burning husk to hit the ground.
Darrick leaned the ship back, skinning the rock face with the left blade, cutting a perfect scar into the stone as he cornered, nearly oversteering, but using it to start a slide around to the next pass. He noted that every pass was getting shorter and shorter, and eventually, he would not be able to keep the gunships behind him. He could only make sure to lose as little time as possible in this race, for the shorter the time on this hillclimb, the more likely his survival. Never mind, their survival.
Then, he was quickly reminded, that even though he could increase those odds, they were still slim to none. One lone gunship got the better of the Skyreign, flying overhead and yawing around to bring its laser barrage to bear on the bow, cutting a fine line from the bow to the cabin, slicing through part of the console and screens just to the right of Haren. In reaction, he stumbled out of his chair and backed away to evade the invisible blade of light.
Darrick barely stayed in his chair, despite the blistering heat singing his face and arm. In response, he cut his corner short, scuffing the right blade on the stony path to save some speed and time. The screeching of metal was almost worse than the blaring heat from the sliced console. Steam billowed out the incision in she shell, but thankfully, that did not last.
Olsein and Rose then group-fired on the gunship, unaware of the damage up front. Sam also brought his turret to bear, exacting the final blow.
“I will take arms!” Haren shouted as he made his way to the bow gun, immediately joining the fire exchange.
<That was the life support!> Ejjar spoke over several warning sirens on the intercom, <nothing important!>
“Edge, do you know the Bensen backfeed?” Darrick asked from the side of his mouth, eyes narrowed in through the steam and smoke caused by the laser incision.
<Sure thing, but—no...> Edge trailed off, <no, no, no. We just got these things!>
“No good to us if we were dead!”
A long pause, the intercom still left on to remind Darrick of the ship’s general level of fitness.
<Fine, Darrick, but if I get radiation poisoning, it’s your ass!>
“Just do it!” he pulled another brake and corner, checking the desert plains below them for a half a second. Then the other half, to confirm he wasn’t seeing a mirage.
“Drive faster, Darrick!” Olsein shouted across the ship.
“Yeah, drive faster!” said Laura.
Darrick waited on his power readings to change before he could make such a push, crossing his fingers that those nasty gunships didn’t make another pass. They were ribboning the ship and he knew it was only a matter of time before those ribbons came apart like a Khrynthoss dragonfruit sliced asunder by a nanoblade.
Finally, not only did the power spike: it went beyond the reader’s capacity. Quickly, he transmitted all of that to lifters, knowing that some would blow out, but most would hold long enough to rocket them to safety...wherever that was.
“They’re coming back for another pass!!” Rose exclaimed.
“Now, Darrick, now!” Laura never sounded more urgent. She strapped herself back into her chair and turned her shield belt on, while Darrick finished the last little bit of tweaking.
As he predicted, the ship rattled as the weaker lifters shorted out, leaving only the strongest ones to do all the work.
And work, they did. The lean forward boosted them well off the path, and he steered the ship straight up the cliffside, climbing faster and faster. A lifter would explode every few moments under the incredible strain, rocking the crew just a little. Yet still, the ship would rise and rise.
“This is sickening!” Laura felt her heart slowly travel up to her throat as the Skyreign rolled unsteadily left and right.
“The gunships are backing off!” Olsein barely could be heard over the crackling and buzzing of the overdriven lifters.
Darrick paid all of his attention to steadying the ship and keeping the overheating lifters from deteriorating too quickly, by rotating which ones were overworking and giving the hot ones a break. His free hand couldn’t move fast enough to keep up with damage control. His stick hand could barely move fast enough and also precisely enough to maneuver the jagged rock face of the shelf.
“Almost there,” he whispered to himself.
Within just seconds, the shelf turned into a plateau; the Skyreign shot well over it, keeping airborne from the lift generated by the solar wings, and climbing several hundred meters.
Little could Darrick have known just what was on that plateau, until he evened out the ship, lowered the nose--and barely noticed a stray missile soon enough to barrel-roll out of its way, then again when a fightercraft just barely dodged out of the way.
“By Kabaiila,” Darrick shook his head, sweat dripping from his forehead, “we’ve just waltzed into a warzone!”
Laura didn’t need the obvious statement, nor did she need to tell Darrick to stay out of it.
“Nywan is under attack!” Haren shouted aloud, “I advise we hold our fire, lest we present ourselves as a target for either side!”
“Yeah, I like that idea!” Darrick barely dodged an artillery shell from an unidentified flying object, some grand fan-propelled airship he didn’t care to get in the way of.
War was everywhere. Soldiers could be seen in melee and at a range, exchanging their opinions of each other via weapons fire. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes could be seen spraying the area like a farmer sprayed their plants with insecticides. Airships and fighters blackened the sky with black, billowing smoke fires, orange and blue.
It became completely clear to Laura at that very point, that if the people of Suragaa were technologically impaired, it wasn’t by very much at all.
“Can you identify the enemy!?” Laura shouted to Haren.
“Ma’guul, with certainty, only...”
“Their vehicles and their vessels and their technologies, are not their own!”
“I am uncertain!”
“Cut the backfeed!” Darrick shouted into the intercom, “We’re clear of the shelf! Do it before we drop like a stone!”
<Pulling the plug!> the ship quickly smoothed into a glide, only sustaining its altitude with its speed, but unable to keep it up forever—or even for very long.
It was still enough to evade most of the indirect crossfire by being well above it.
But not enough for direct fire. One solid shot from an ion artillery piece some distance away did little real damage; instead, the concussive force of the pulse blast was absorbed cleanly into the noregite hull, and sent the ship on a mild list.
“That should have killed us!” Darrick stated aloud, ducking and weaving while trying to retain as much forward speed as possible.
“I am agreed!” Haren shouted.
<The hull just fed that energy into the buffer!> Ejjar said with a faint hint of joy, <now, if the damn thing would fix itself!>
“No,” Laura stood up, “no, don’t let another shot like that hit us!”
“I can’t see it causing—“ Darrick then caught the underlying catastrophe in the making, “we have to get low, or the next shot will fry everything, won’t it.”
“The distributor’s still struggling,” Laura reminded, sitting next to him in front of what remained of the right-hand console, “but that energy should help us push the lifters a little harder. If we angle them almost completely astern and let the wings do the lifting, we should manage.”
“But the field will—“
“Collapse?” Laura finished, “the field’s not doing its job anyway. Just keep the forward field up and that should cut enough drag.”
A few moments later, Darrick nodded, made the subtle adjustments and dove the ship towards the blackened, cauterized battlefield.
Just in the distance, past the smoking carcasses of fallen ships and the rays of death reaching out each and every way, a landscape of grand metallic pillars of could be made out, pillars that could reach several kilometers into the air. They shone in the sun of silvers and golds, incomplete and weathered though they were. Mighty skyways encompassed and weaved within the forest of skyscrapers, and the remnants of a wall of stone-like material, clearly ancient in its architecture, surrounded the city.
It reminded Laura somewhat of Graldica, only more—shapely.
“Magnificent,” Haren stated.
Darrick kept bobbing and weaving, just tens of meters off the ground. The ship rattled as it struggled to make rolls and banks at the blurring speeds he bled out of the failing lifters. It groaned as the frame itself contorted and warped, planks of wood splintered, and even the blades providing lift rattled back and forth in their apertures.
Suddenly, the ship shook violently and a loud explosion could be heard from virtually all directions.
“What was that!?” Laura instinctively ducked.
“The sound barrier!” Darrick grinned, “We’ve just gone supersonic!”
Visibly from behind them, an unfathomable cloud of dust blasted up in their wake. None dared venture before or behind the hurdling Skyreign.
Visibly ahead of them, the forces at war became less and less mixed, and more uniform in composition. The city walls were what felt like inches away, when really, many kilometers were yet to be covered.
Another violent shake.
“Mach two!?” Laura grinned gleefully.
“No,” Darrick sighed, “that was the distributor. The lifters all just died.”
The effect became clear as the ship slowed hurriedly, the fields crackled and fizzled out, and the winds of the high speeds whistled through the holes in the shell, deafening all aboard, adding to the deceleration.
“Get below decks and hold onto something!” Darrick darted for the stairwell. Laura followed suit, and the other gunners already knew what was happening when the two of them cleared the deck, and fled their disabled guns.
All but Olsein.
The Dexa family--father, mother and son--held on tightly to their seats in the rec room, locked down with harnesses and protected by loosely fashioned shield belts that Rose could provide. Rose locked herself down to the same bench she always enjoyed her bergamot tea in. Grace was doing the same as she nodded to the rest of the crew pouring in. The table’s grounding bolts barely held the chairs and tables down, but hold they did.
“Where’s Olsein!?” Laura barked to Rose—or anyone, really.
“He was right behind me a second ago!” Rose replied.
Haren and his sheer size made bracing easy for such a constrictive room, but he still took to the same bench as Rose, just in case. He couldn’t help but look at her, seeing the level of confidence in her face.
She was just as confident, there, in the crippled ship doomed to crash, as she was in combat with himself just days before. She looked forward, and while she didn’t speak, Haren could almost her her think, “we’ll make it.”
That was enough for him. He straightened his back and braced himself as best as he could.
Sam strapped himself into a bench opposite Rose and Haren.
Darrick couldn’t make it to a seat before the ship shook under a nearby explosion’s concussive wave, and he tumbled to the floor. Laura was forced into a chair, herself.
Still no sign of Olsein.
Another explosion, closer, sent Ejjar to the floor as he came out of the engine room.
“Hi, Edge!” Darrick smirked slyly and patted him on the back.
“We’re probably dead, huh?” Edge rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling.
“We’ve got a whole floor below us to land on,” Darrick replied with a grin, the grin of a man who knew his own fate, “we’ll be fine!”
“I said, ‘take it easy on the distributor,’ some ten minutes ago,” Edge sighed, throwing his hands to the sides, “but did anyone listen?”
“Not a soul,” Haren replied with a grin, again the grin of a man who knew the hour of his death.
“Well,” Darrick climbed to his feet, reaching out for Ejjar’s hand, “you can’t die today. You have a date with radiation poisoning!”
“I hate you so much,” Edge muttered. As he reached out and pulled himself up with Darrick’s extended hand, it became only so subtly apparent that the rattling had all but dissipated, the sounds of war farther away than perhaps the war itself truly was.
No further explosions; no more alarms. All was silent aboard the Skyreign.
Laura, wasting no time to wait and see what would happen next, sprung out of her chair. As the first to peek up onto the deck, she noticed first that the ship was completely halted and nestled cozily in the sand--and second, that Olsein was at the console.
“What in—“ Laura could not complete the sentence.
“Oh,” Olsein turned to his young Captain, “I rebooted the control array. There’s a button just under the dash. It says, ‘reset’ on it. I pushed it. The ship did the rest. And you idiots walked away.”
Darrick then slowly followed, brushing the fresh scrapes and bruises from the tumble, “way to work a minor miracle, old man.”
“Being alive after all that is the miracle,” Olsein said lowly, “standard redundancy systems and a big button that makes all the problems go away, is common sense.”
“Uh, Captain,” Edge sighed as he limped up the stairwell, “no, the problems haven’t all ‘gone away.’ We’re beached, for one.”
“Ever the pessimist,” Laura retorted.
“And, surrounded, for two,” he added.
Surely enough, troops rushed the downed vessel, armed with hefty rifles and armoured with lightweight nanomail, equipped with belts which included the grappling magnets they used to hoist themselves swiftly up to the deck, cut through the shell and overtake the crew before a single weapon could be unsheathed.
“They must be Nywanese,” Haren stated lowly.
“Why’s that?” Laura eyed the snout of one of the sand-blasted rifles being brandished by a larger, more imposing soldier.
“Because we are still alive,” was Haren’s only response as he slowly raised his hands.