The T’pauzi homeworld was the final step to victory for Behraan, and to the submission of the people they invaded.
After decades of nearly constant battles and skirmishes, the back and forth of territorial lines and the ever-growing list of casualties, the Expansion War would finally come to a close.
T’pauzi V was, in stark contrast to Behraan, a very well-kept, beautiful world—and its people took it upon themselves to be its keepers. Never was there fresher water, nor was there a wild species of flora or fauna any more or less endangered due to civilized presence.
The T’pauzi people would never have considered themselves to be nature-oriented, but they respected balance and sustainability.
A sizable percentage of them were psychics. Those psychics often led the attacks. They often took the roles of spies. They often made themselves extremely difficult to detect, until it was too late. A select few were gifted or well-trained enough to attack others with just a thought. Entire platoons would be found dead, but show no signs of the cause.
They knew where the Behraanese would send their dropships, or make orbital strikes, or install blockades. They knew because the Behraanese thought about it, and someone listened to those thoughts.
This made the T’pauzi one of their most difficult challenges, but a challenge they would overcome nonetheless.
Of course, it would come at a great cost. That cost was the sheer number of lives lost in the invasion.
A small price to pay for the Imperator’s prize: another empire, crumbling underneath His boot.
Laura Vinfield was a part of that invasion.
From the first day where she landed, she took her platoon through one of the larger cities and moved them from building to building, establishing vantage points and attempting to make every skirmish a bottleneck scenario, where minimal force could be used to hold off any number of opponents. Her shield-soldiers would hold the line, while Laura and one or two other marksmen climbed to the tallest roofs and picked off the oncoming soldiers from afar.
Laura never missed. Ever.
The other marksmen, the ones that used high-powered ballistic rifles, had to quickly calculate distance, the angle, the wind, the best targets to hit, the types of injuries to inflict or whether to kill, and above all, whether there would be any return fire and when it would happen.
Laura never really thought of any of that. She simply picked her target, and the bullet would always go exactly where she wanted it.
This would be the routine for two years. For two years, she lived on that world. Some days, the streets were serene. Others, the war raged on so loudly that she couldn’t even hear herself think.
She must have killed dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, and injured at least that many more.
She would relive those many battles, as she slept fitfully, night by night.
She would relive that final day, the last day she spent upon that world.
Her platoon had largely made it through the war, with only two casualties—and even they had recovered.
As usual, the routine was to get to a roof, have her platoon draw the T’pauzi down an alleyway or to any such choke point, while she and her marksmen rained death upon them.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she began to hear the clatter of dropped rifles, as both her cohorts began to grab their heads and scream, louder and louder—blood pouring from their eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, and even their fingernails.
Then, with one final shriek, they tossed themselves off the rooftops, ending their agony.
Laura, completely bewildered by what had just happened, watched them in astonishment as they fell—to where the rest of her platoon was.
The rest of the platoon had already suffered a similar fate, all of whom laid crumpled on the ground, dead or dying in pools of their own blood.
Before she could think as to what on Bentor could have inflicted such horrendous suffering, in such short time, on such a wide scale, she would have a visitor.
She never could recollect any more than a silhouette of a tall figure with a long cape that flowed in the wind.
He said something—although she could not make out what. It didn’t sound hateful, commanding or angered as she would have expected. It sounded—surprised. Curious. Sympathetic, even.
But all that ceased to matter, when he shoved her off the rooftop as well, to join the rest of her fallen platoon.
It was a memory, not a dream or nightmare. It was one she would relive again and again.
She could never quite make out the words....
She awoke in a cold sweat with her heart jumping out of her chest. And just like every other time she had had that glimpse of the past, she carried a strange concoction of feelings. Anger, at that she had been conscripted to that awful war. Guilt, that she actually enjoyed the act of killing person after person after person. Nuisance, that she could never figure out what that caped figure said to her.
She always seemed to think the same things. Why did she get so much joy from ending so many lives? Why did her entire platoon die from that supposedly psychic attack, yet she was spared? How did she survive the fall?
Answers that continued to elude her, well after she had left that war-torn world behind.
Once she could calm her mind down again, she would resume her uneasy slumber, just like every other time.
All but Laura woke up at the first toss of the ship. Darrick, groggy but awake, stumbled most of the way to the controls as everything shook around. Alarms blared away, but not from their own vessel. Olsein, Miya and Sam manned guns automatically, only to see the docks.
The docks, in flames.
How they didn’t hear the battle alarms sooner was a mystery to Olsein, the first to awaken. Perhaps they did not sleep as lightly as he.
“What in Kabaiila’s going on!?” Rose shouted, storming up the stairs, looking left and right, “and where’s the Captain?”
“I’m here,” Laura had a hand covering a bump on her forehead as she ascended the stairs to the bridge, “open a channel to the Daunting. I want to know what happened!”
After a few seconds, Darrick shook his head, “nothing. Dead signal.”
“Try all frequencies, and get someone to talk!” she ordered.
The other frigate and the Alpha-wolf fighters were gone already, Rose observed.
“Still nothing,” Darrick shook his head, “I think our communications relay has been scrambled. And-or theirs. If we’re at Suragaa Three, that might be why.”
“Still looks like empty space out there,” Sam noted.
“We can’t stay here!” Rose shouted over the alarms and another part of the dock rupturing. The field that held the atmosphere in the Daunting had buckled, and objects small and large quickly became projectiles, fired out into space.
“You’re right about that,” Laura said quickly, “Walson, get us out of here!”
“And make ourselves open targets to whoever might be out there?” he challenged.
“The back of your head is looking pretty open right about now,” Laura growled, “Lift off. Now.”
After a hesitation, he started punching in the commands, “yes, Captain.”
“Edge, I need you to brace the fields for both particle and energy sources,” Laura commanded to the intercom, “we’re disembarking the Daunting on account of said ship turning into a ball of fire.”
<Fields, Daunting, Fire. Right away, Captain.>
“Rose, get to the second bridge below deck,” Laura commanded.
“On it,” Rose quickly descended from the Bridge.
“We really should link the bridges together,” Darrick muttered, throwing the switch to retract the anchors—which doubly acted as landing gear.
The anchors fully retracted into the wooden hull, and the lifters crackled alive, pushing the vessel off the ground by just a few metres. The gravitic thrusters in the stern came to life and the sail blades sprung out like switchblades, gleaming in the distant sun that shone through the bay doors.
As Darrick pushed the throttle all the way forward, brilliant white light burst out the engines, as the Skyreign hurdled out of the tumbling carrier.
For an instant, he thought the ship was fighting gravity.
An instant later, he found his passing intuition to be more than correct—for they, too, fell into a tumble, hurdling toward a golden desert planet with a pair of rings encompassing it. He didn’t need to look at the altimeter to quickly discern that they were already skimming the very edge of the atmosphere.
“Plane us out, Walson,” Laura demanded as she clenched into the arms of her chair.
“Trying!” he struggled to bring the Skyreign into his control, extending the sail arrays out more to draw more power in.
“This wouldn’t be a problem if you did what you were told sooner!” she shouted as the effects of gravity forced her more and more into her seat.
“Does this vessel have backup sensors?” asked Olsein.
“I hope so,” Darrick said quickly as he began to succumb to the gravity as well, “but I can’t worry about that right now--”
<I can get the backups from down here,> Rose stated, <you just try to plane the ship out.>
“That planet’s getting awful big,” Olsein warned.
“I can extend the anchors to try to straighten the vessel into a controlled dive,” Darrick suggested.
“That’s too dangerous,” Laura said between her teeth.
“So are these gravitic levels!” Darrick argued, “Guess the dampers are knocked out too!”
<We’re reaching seven gravitic units from centrifuge,> Rose added, <either straighten out now or get down to the E-bridge! The new deck shell will collapse!>
Already, the whole of the vessel seemed to creak and groan under the intense stress. And the planet was only getting larger.
“Fine,” Laura tried to lean forward, fighting against her own multiplying weight, “Deploy anchors!”
With no other response, he threw the switch down again. The magnetic spheres uncoiled in all directions and began lagging behind, wavering in the wake of the ship’s coughing gravitic engines.
The vessel fish-tailed left and right, until there was finally enough drag to keep the stern in a position, letting the nose point straight down towards the golden world, which then dominated their field of view.
The crew sighed and stretched in concert, their lungs breathing deeply where moments before they could only draw in short, laborious breaths.
But Darrick knew that only stabilizing the ship wasn’t nearly enough to ensure the survival of ship and crew. He worked the controls to streamline the sailblades more to meet the atmospheric friction and shallowing the glide, with only his own senses and a limited, dysfunctional instrument suite to guide him. He then retracted the anchors again and added more power to the frontal lifters to give the ship an easier descent angle and avoid overspeeding. Even though he had no working metres to feed him information on pressure, altitude, speed, energy levels and so on, he did understand that the gravity of this planet had to be lighter; if that tumble happened over Behraan, they would all have been dead, even just from the intense spin they had only exited moments ago.
He also understood that the atmosphere was much thicker, and warmer, judging by the ferocity of flames forming around the bow and the underbelly, largely due to the ship cutting through the air at hypersonic speeds.
<The atmosphere must be thicker than we thought,> Edge stated loudly through the intercom, <we don’t have a lot of time with those fields. I can try to divert more power to the forward quarter, but only for so long; something’s wrong with the core. It’s becoming unstable!>
“You’re telling me this ship won’t survive one lousy descent!?” Laura growled.
“We’ll survive better than the Daunting,” Olsein pointed to a ball of fire falling in the distance, followed by a trail of many smaller fireballs, pieces of the doomed carrier that broke away in descent.
“Doesn’t wood catch fire!?” Laura added again.
“It does,” Olsein hummed, “so what’s under that wood?”
“Something else, I’d think,” Darrick said from the side of his mouth as he kept the ship’s nose from straying, “ever known a spaceworthy ship with a wooden hull?”
The Skyreign shook and shuddered as the fire intensified, and the sides of the vessel started to brown from friction burns.
“We’re going to lose that core, aren’t we,” Laura muttered.
The ship then started rumbling and groaning as the stern sides caught flame.
<We’re on fire!> Edge could be heard cursing in some foreign language, <we’re going to lose the engines! We need to shut them down!>
“And be powerless!?” Laura argued.
“Better powerless than shipless,” Darrick stated, “I agree with Edge, we should shut them down, and that faulty core, too. We can manage off the solar blades!”
<We don’t have much time--> the ship rocked again as the ship started leaning left, <Engine one is on fire!>
Darrick glanced back once, beyond Laura, beyond the cabin and beyond the stern of the ship—to the trail of fire and smoke billowing out on the port side.
“I’m cutting the engines and powering all nonessential systems down,” Darrick said aloud, as his hands rushed around the console just to make ends meet, “Edge, that core’s about to go critical. Eject it!”
Laura raised a brow and pursed her lips foully, “I’m the one who gives the--”
The ship nearly threw her out of her seat from lurching as the frontal fields began to falter.
“Eject it then!” she finished.
The solar blades spiked up to catch more sun as the one working engine died out. The core was jettisoned behind them through a complex series of hatches leading from the core to the outer hull in the stern.
Though seemingly unlikely, the fields were almost immediately rejuvenated, the fires extinguished, the frictional forces subsided.
Laura slouched into her seat as she calmly asked, looking left and right, “we’re clear?”
“We’re clear,” Darrick leaned back in his seat and resumed a more casual manner of flying, “We’ll get to the ground in about an hour, though I can glide her for about two. Don’t know how it worked out, but it did. I didn’t think the blades were that effective.”
“They won’t be as effective down on the surface though,” Olsein walked away from the turret, looking to Laura, “the thickness of this planet’s atmosphere is putting a great deal of refraction and resistance between that sun and our blades.”
“In Behraanese, Olsein,” Laura looked sternly at him.
“We’ll be lucky if this ship could lift itself ten metres off the ground at full power, and with the gravitic engines toast and the core gone, we’ll have to sink lower than even that to get acceleration.”
“Walson, activate the distress beacon,” Laura peered over to the relaxing pilot, “perhaps there’s another Behraanese vessel nearby that can help us.”
After a few moments and him sitting up again to run his fingers along all the controls, Darrick flicked a number of switches, switched from screen to screen and sometimes pushed the same button over and over. Finally, he shook his head, sighing, “the communications array is badly damaged, by what the ship’s reports are telling me. When we touch down, we’ll have to find somewhere safe and start repairing. We’ll need a full diagnostic from inside and out.”
The young Captain simply shook her head, “Behraanese vessels carry emergency auto-beacons in the event that a ship’s comm array is disabled. They’re separate entities.”
“But this isn’t a Behraanese vessel,” Darrick argued, “and frankly, I’m not sure what nationality this ship belongs to—its parts come from just about everywhere--”
“I was talking about the Daunting,” Laura said snarkily.
“Even if their beacon was working,” Ejjar said as he ascended to the bridge, nursing a couple of bumps and bruises about his arms, “there’s still the issue of us picking it up--”
“But no such issue for any other Behraanese vessel in the system,” Rose noted, also climbing the stairs, “or vessels of any kind, for that matter.”
“Rose,” Laura looked to her friend, “please tell me you have good news. The backup sensors?”
Rose shook her head, “fried through and through. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think someone didn’t want us to talk to anyone.”
“I wonder who would have an interest in that?" Miya remarked, also ascending the stairs.
“Now’s not the time to start pointing fingers,” Laura chided both Miya and Rose.
The vessel made slight, subtle twitches as the Skyreign took to Suragaa’s thick atmosphere, the blades flowing and rattling back and forth. Though Darrick did little to control the ship, the ship made every effort to hold true to the pitch, yaw and roll trims.
“At any rate,” Ejjar leaned on one of the rails on the port side, “with the engines and the core gone, it’s just a matter of time before we fall out of the sky. We need to land her before she does that, or there won’t be a ship to work on.”
“Can we go below decks and shut down the fields to save energy?” Laura suggested.
“Actually,” Ejjar said, “that field is the only thing cutting the air friction down enough that we can make any kind of manoeuvres in our current state. Without it, we’d burn up, or fall down, or both. And these solar blades were meant to pick up solar wind—not actual wind. Not the best for lift.”
“We’re only able to glide, as it is,” Darrick added.
“There is one other thing we’re forgetting,” Olsein said cautiously, “this planet scrambles most sensors and transmissions. I wouldn’t think a substandard Behraanese beacon to be excluded. So unless the planet stops doing what it’s been doing for however long--we’re alone.”
“Alone?” Laura muttered slowly.
“Alone,” he repeated.
“Well,” she stared blankly into the distance, “Walson, let me know when we’re close to ground level. I have some thinking to do.”
“Notion seconded,” Rose said, “Once the Captain and I have debriefed, I’ll see if I can save some of the sensors from down in the emergency bridge.”
“Are there any wounded?” Grace ascended, quickly analyzing Edge’s abrasions and cut-up clothing, “Mister Levee?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he dusted himself off and turned down the stairs again, every step no less stiff than the first out of the Engine room, “Still waking up. Coffee will help there. Or coffee. Either or. Yeah, coffee should help. Want coffee, Grace? It’s gooood.”
“Thank you, but no,” Grace smiled faintly, looking to Rose next, “Rose? Are you alright?”
“I’m alright, Doctor,” she shrugged, “now if you’ll excuse me. Edge, coffee would be great!”
“Black?” Edge shouted up the stairs.
“Wrong answer! Black?”
“No, two simu--fine, Edge, black!”
With that, Rose followed the troubled Captain into her cabin, running her hands through her hair as if knowing this routine, or having been through this situation more than once. She knew that while Laura was confident and perhaps cocky on her exterior, she was still a troubled, fragile individual. The news that the Skyreign crew might be cut off from the Dominion could not have been taken very well, and anyone with a pair of eyes would have known it when her face became awash in despair.
Still, Laura was a veteran of the T’pauzi war, and had survived with her platoon for three years with very little contact from Behraan. Was this truly so different?
Olsein watched Rose carefully and intently as she disappeared behind the door, muttering something subtle and indistinguishable as any one language under his tongue, at an undertone hardly any could hear.
“Did you say something?” except Darrick.
“Not at all,” the old man shrugged, looking to the pilot, “say—where did you learn solarcraft piloting anyhow? They don’t exactly teach flying lessons in prison. Let alone, solarcraft flying lessons.”
“Well,” he leaned back more, then stood and lightly held one of the control sticks, “before I was a prisoner, I was a freighter deckhand. Worked for a man named Terry. The Skylark.”
“That vessel disappeared decades ago,” Olsein reminisced, his eye wandering occasionally to the view beyond the bow, “but that does not answer my question.”
“We had a small solarcraft aboard the Skylark,” the pilot added, “it was a great deal smaller, but flew the same way. Open deck like this one; solar blades of Noregite or something photovoltaic; lifters for all ranges of movement. The principles are the same.”
“Yes,” Olsein hummed, his eye then wandering occasionally to Darrick—his eyes rarely locked onto any one thing—as he noted, “principles. You do seem to be a man of principle, Mister Walson, so—how did you end up in jail?”
“Well--” he noted the other crewmates either weren’t listening whilst in their turrets, weren’t otherwise close enough to hear, or didn’t care at all, “that’s the thing. It could have been being at the wrong place at the wrong time—but I have reason to believe I was framed.”
“Framed?” this time his eyes both narrowed in on the man, “elaborate.”
“Can it wait until we get closer to the ground?” Darrick reverted attention to the console, barely functional though it was.
“Guess it can,” Olsein nodded and backed away to the stairwell, “it seems as though we will all be spending a long time together anyway. Why say today what we can just say tomorrow?”
Darrick would glance every so often at the point in the sky where the Daunting left a streak of fire, disappearing beyond the slowly rising horizon, as he muttered, “yeah. Tomorrow’s going to be real fun.”