The Volcanic Rift
The night once again showed the true colours of the battle taking place in space, with a brilliant shower of shooting stars scorching across the sky in virtually all directions.
Between that battle and the moon, Darrick had plenty of light to fly visually, keeping his altitude relatively low so as to not strain the lifters more than necessary. Perhaps a few hundred metres above the ground at all times, he allowed the ship to gradually oscillate with the terrain’s rises and falls. Yet as he began to see the billowing volcanoes in the farthest distances, only notable by the smoke they emitted, the once smooth terrain became rockier, more jagged and more mountainous.
Janeth remained awake throughout the hours of travel, occasionally pointing out minor adjustments he needed to make in his course to stay on track. It seemed to make little sense to him, and he constantly wondered how she knew this path by heart, yet he didn’t question it.
An Aeonian thing, perhaps.
The rest of the crew, Laura included, were below decks and asleep. For the first time in forever, the ship was running at its smoothest, breathing along in its course. Darrick kept the sails out, which assisted in the lifting and further reduced the stress on the lifters.
“After that last checkpoint, I believe there are five more before we come upon an entrance to an underground passage,” Janeth stated, “Another thousand kilometres or so from here. We should make it there by dawn, but take your time in the upcoming canyons.”
“This scramble the whole planet’s under really gets on my nerves,” Darrick sighed, “I hate not being able to see the next step ahead.”
“We on Nywan learned that it’s more important to focus on the here, the now,” Janeth stated simply, “circumstances on Suragaa are far from ideal for life. We learned to adapt and improvise.”
“So did we,” Darrick replied, feeling the need to prove himself, “we made things work. We didn’t speak the language—except Rose—and we didn’t understand the culture, but now we do. We learned to get used to the sun and the rainbows and all the sand. We learned.”
“That you have,” Janeth nodded in acknowledgement, “that you have.”
Darrick then spotted something on the scanners. At first he thought it was simply his peripheral vision playing tricks on him, after hours of sitting in front of the console and paying attention to so many little details.
“I saw that too,” said Janeth quietly, “look again.”
Darrick kept one eye on the horizon and another on the sensors screen. At first, only the symbol in the centre of the screen, representing the Skyreign, remained. Occasionally, a flickering red dot would blip in and out of the farthest extremities of the screen.
“Take the controls,” Darrick asked aloud, “I’m gonna fine tune the sensors. Those signatures are too weak to be so close. The sensors run off an old omnidirectional radio wave system that reads subjects based on what bounces back.”
“Radar, still used everywhere,” Janeth shook her head, hopping over to the controls, “so?”
“It doesn’t work as well on non-reflective targets. But weak gravitic pulses should be able to at least give me definable shapes on whatever’s out there,” Darrick explained as he slid under the console and popped open a plate underneath it, accessing the internal organs of the computer, “it’s part of the avionics needed to leap.”
Janeth looked under the console, “this ship can leap? It cannot as much as break out of the atmosphere!”
“Yeah, well,” Darrick said as he worked away, “You already know my story. I should know. The ship can leap. I built the drive.”
“I see,” Janeth said idly, “so that story you told me the other night is true then, is it?”
As Darrick opened his mouth to answer, he simply let it go, making the last tweak and closing the hatch, “that should do it.”
“It did,” Janeth said more urgently, “Darrick, look.”
Quickly he scrambled to his feet and took a quick glance at the sensors. It then showed numerous steady red shapes, most the same size. Only one very small, near-invisible dot streaked along from one larger shape towards the Skyreign from what appeared to be the represented stern.
“Move over!” Darrick yelled, half-pushing Janeth out of the seat, “better yet, grab a turret!”
“You’ll need me to guide you down the canyon!” Janeth argued as she stood.
Darrick’s only answer was to overcharge the core intake and add extra power to the protective deflectors and the lifters.
“Turret it is,” she scoffed and made for the stern.
Those red shapes slowly crept in on the centre, despite the clear increase of speed.
No more time could be wasted. Darrick activated the intercom and shouted, “Wake the plug up! We’ve got company, and not the kind to have coffee with!” Next, he sounded the ship-wide alarm, a middle-pitched droning sound.
Moments later the intercom fed back, <Rose here. I’m in the engine room.>
“Not where I need you, sweetheart,” Darrick shouted, eyeing that little dot as it quickly closed distance, “No transponders, look like small fighters. They’re hanging back and firing missiles! I barely saw them on the sensors! Get up here! Everyone get up here now!”
Just moments later, the blip disappeared. Then, the ship shuddered and a bright yellow light blinked in and out of existence behind them. He watched the diagnostics for the rear deflectors come back as nearly full-strength after the impact. It was almost harmless, but he knew more like that would eventually press through, and then the real damage would happen all too quickly.
He knew he could not remain above the canyon if the Skyreign was to survive the night.
At that time, the half-awake, adrenaline driven crew poured out of the stairwell. Olsein, Rose, Elsie and Savath all manned turrets. Grace followed Laura to the main chairs in front of the cabin.
“Don’t wait for me!” Laura shouted aloud before sitting, “Target those fighters and fire. Fire!”
“What fighters?” Savath retorted.
“I can barely make them out!” Janeth added.
“I swapped the sensors from the old radar to the gravitic array,” Darrick replied, “it’s up on secondary targeting display. Use that!”
“No help there,” Rose said hastily, “the turrets are manual! We can see the dots on the map but we can’t point the gun where they are unless we actually see them!”
“Then fire with extreme paranoia!” Laura shouted, “The ship has the energy. If you think you see one, shoot!”
The rapid pulsation of screaming bolts of plasma quickly replied to her command from all five turrets. When a gunner realized there was nothing there, they stopped, swivelled elsewhere and fired again.
“Three more missiles incoming!” Darrick announced, “Get them off us!”
“On it!” Rose replied, and the weapons fire in her direction intensified.
One blip disappeared on sensors. Two remained, closing in faster.
“I’m on it!” Rose shouted louder, a longer period of fire ensuing.
Another one disappeared.
“One left—too late!”
The ship shuddered again, more so than before, forcing the ship to lurch forward and threatening Darrick’s control over it.
“Sorry!” Rose shouted, “Even I can’t see them all!”
"They've got the upper hand on us," Darrick stated, then added under his breath, "not that that's hard to do against a yacht."
“Darrick, can you fly that canyon below us?” Laura asked, “We can’t stay in the open if we want to stay alive!”
“Guess it’s missiles from everywhere or one giant cliff face!” Darrick sighed, “Everyone fasten your shieldbelts. Pray to the appropriate gods. All that. We’re going down!”
With that, he switched sensors to ultraviolet, fearing all the black smoke, volcanoes and lava would confuse his infrared. In the middle of the night, ultraviolet sources would be non-existent. The ship would then emit a blacklight ahead of itself so that even if they couldn't see their way with the naked eye, Darrick would still know where the canyon walls were and be able to stay between them instead of in one.
The crew was silent, for a time, unable to see or do anything.
Fortunately, the smoke only obscured their forward and rearward vision once in a while, largely staying up and above the canyon. The only way the unidentified fighters could continue to assail them, at least directly, was to follow them in.
One such fighter braved the canyon behind them, and Elsie was ready for it.
“That’s a clean kill!” shouted Elsie.
"Can't miss down here, it's so tight!" Rose added.
Darrick then noticed that the missiles kept coming. Most of them were way off, occasionally visible to them as they exploded a kilometre away or more. But the shots were getting closer and closer.
The canyon was narrow, at points creeping up on the sails, but still gave some room for Darrick to work with, and far less so for the assailants. The cover of the black smoke from nearby volcanoes made it nearly impossible for a direct, from-above attack, although it made shooting the fighters back nearly impossible as well.
At that time, the Skyreign had been hit three more times, and Darrick knew the rear deflectors had a limit and was fast coming up on it. Without an engineer to manage things internally, only so much could be done about that.
Darrick then began to notice the lack of missiles. He had gotten so used to the barrage that he didn’t think it could stop.
“I think they gave up,” Laura stated, “ease off, Darrick.”
“I think not!” Janeth warned as she sat next to Darrick again, “they are likely regrouping on the other side of the canyon!"
“And why aren’t the Giith attacking them?” Laura added, "this area is littered with--"
Janeth sighed and looked back to the Captain, “I'll speculate later!"
“Let them wait,” Darrick shrugged his typical nonchalant shrug, as he armed the torpedo banks, “just let them.”
The ship fell painfully silent again as, according to Janeth’s waypoints, the ship neared the opening of the canyon—and the tunnel entrance. Quite a bit sooner than dawn, no less.
Darrick squinted to try in vain to see through the soot, as it became so thick that even the blacklight had difficulty penetrating it.
Then, the soot and smoke cleared almost instantly.
As the Skyreign burst out of the canyon, ahead laid open desert, open night skies—and open fire, not from ahead, but from port and starboard sides, just above them.
Darrick’s heart skipped beat after beat as he shouted in panic, “multiple missiles incoming port and starboard!!!”
Laura’s heart then took a turn at skipping beats, "Brace! Brace! Brace!!!"
The five gunners fired without end in every direction they saw a missile, and every direction they thought they saw one.
Some missiles did get hit by a stray bold of plasma, and exploded before reaching the ship.
Most had reached their target, creating a cascade of rippling explosions across the shield, buffeting the ship around.
Just a few had slipped past and planted themselves into the sides of the ship. As they, too, exploded, Laura, Grace and Janeth were tossed from their seats and onto the deck. Darrick instinctively covered his head with his hands and screamed instead of flying.
Moments later, after the ship settled, Darrick lifted his head from his hands, and the gunners did the same, firing back in retaliation at--anything.
Janeth climbed back into the seat, as Laura and Grace did so far more slowly.
“Are you hurt?” Grace asked Laura, who clearly had a gash in her forehead.
“Worry about it later, Grace,” the Captain replied, "what's the damage?"
"A couple of panels on port and starboard sides have some bad scoring," Darrick replied quickly, "not too bad!"
“There’s the tunnel entrance!” Janeth pointed ahead to a large gaping hole in the side of the canyon, “take the ship in slowly.”
“Damn it,” Savath said aloud, “I just about shit myself!”
“That’s what I smell!” Rose said from her gun.
“Hurry before they fire again!” Laura commanded.
“Captain,” Darrick looked to the empty sensors, and then back to Laura, “they’re gone.”
“Oh,” Laura then sighed and rubbed her throbbing head, “well, good. Take us in like Janeth said, then. We should then land to inspect the ship before carrying on, just in case."
"Got it," Darrick replied.
“You did shit yourself,” Olsein said to Savath with a sour face, “tell you what, big guy. You can have that turret for the rest of the trip.”