Fire Above, Earth Below
The Neversail was a Noregaan battleship, the finest ever constructed by the skilled hands of the numerous races belonging to that planet.
Winnibahn knew its history well. It never was capable of space flight, yet it had its own form of interstellar travel: astral travel.
Some civilizations had warped the fields around their vessels to attain faster-than-light travel. Others developed ways to allow ships to enter subspace and hop from planet to planet in the blink of an eye.
More still used the more advanced but now commonplace leap drive, which deconstructed and reconstructed a vessel, vast spaces apart, multiple times a second while the crew never noticed any difference as it all happened so quickly.
The Neversail’s unique astral drive was designed enter the fabled Astral Plane, the plane of existence that entire matrices of existence, such as Kabaiila, owed their existences to. Just a short jaunt in the Astral Plane put a traveller thousands of times that distance in the Material Plane. What took ships months to do, from one location in the galaxy to the other, took the Neversail hours. Minutes, under the right conditions.
That drive had been inoperable for decades. The Neversail, otherwise not a spacefaring vessel, would remain bound to Suragaa for eternity.
A failed interstellar drive would not phase Winnibahn’s determination to thwart the onslaught to come. Even without an astral drive, the Neversail was otherwise fully operational, with an array of powerful weapons and thick armour that could contend with even the most modern of starships of similar size and class. And unlike most starships of similar size and class, the Neversail was far more manoeuvrable in the air.
She stood with a foot forward, almost as if poised to leap forth at the numerous uninvited guests, as they swarmed in from above. Around her, bridge officers called status updates back and forth, confirmed information, quarrelled over tactics and tossed out old plans before they could even take effect.
“Numbers, dammit,” Win shouted, “give me some numbers!”
“Hundreds of fighters!” shouted a sensors officer, “dozens of gunships, and a few frigates!”
“More on the way!” another added, “vectors one-two-zero, one-five-zero, two-two-zero--”
“Everywhere!” the first officer finished, “every side of the city!”
“Call the fleet!” Winnibahn commanded, sitting in the chair centred in the room, “and in the meantime, position us high and above the innermost perimeter. We have a real siege on our hands now!”
As she awaited the fleet channel to become active, she listened to the gentle rumbling of the ship as the numerous fighters attempted feebly to penetrate the ship’s hearty Thesium-powered shielding.
“Channel open,” said the communications officer.
“All ships under the banner of Nywan! Ignore the Ma’guul forces for now! Treat the Bentorii as priority-one targets! Remain within the city perimeter at all times, and do not climb above the altitude of the Neversail! The civilians come first! Diinshtago!”
Numerous acknowledgements poured in.
“Flight deck: launch everything! If it can fly, fly it! Stay at or above the Neversail’s altitude and intercept incoming fighters!”
With that, Winnibahn made a knife-hand and gestured it in front of her neck, signalling the officer to cut the channel.
“I guess that’s Behraan’s fleet done in,” Win said in undertone, just loud enough for others in the bridge to hear, “this Vinfield woman had better be of consequence after all. We’re running out of time....”
“Uh, Captain,” said Edge as he heard the intercom, still not yet in the cockpit of the Jaegrynn,” “please tell me the Admiral’s not putting us out there to feed Benny?”
“She told me to get off this planet,” Saferon said as she shifted into her jumpsuit and donned her helmet.
<And I suppose this is where you tell me to get off this planet, hmm?> said the boisterous, eccentric and noble-voiced Jaegrynn from the speakers of the fighter’s inner and outer hull.
“Objections?” Saferon asked as she buckled into the pilot’s seat.
“The thing talks?” Edge said.
“Get in, mister Levee,” Sam said as he sat down in the rear seat, leaving one seat beside Saferon and one beside Sam.
<A few strays again?> said Jaegrynn in disappointment, <if either one regurgitates when I perform one of your plucky manoeuvres-->
“You don’t know the Skyreign,” said Edge as he climbed up the extended ladder and hopped into the chair next to Sam, “we’ve been tossed around a whole lot, and there aren’t any comfy chairs in the engine room.”
“No such ‘comfy’ chairs here, either,” Saferon said as she flicked a few switches to retract the ladder and close the canopy. She shook the clamps along the side of the cockpit to assure herself that it wouldn’t release inadvertently.
<Yes, well I apologize on behalf of your captain, boys,> said Jaegrynn, <for I lack the arms and legs she possesses to replace the chairs—let alone a wide array of parts I am in dire need of replacing!>
“I could help with that,” Edge shrugged, “pretty obvious what’s in it for me.”
<Saferon, you see that?> the fighter continued as Saferon brought up main power and the vertical lifters, <a complete stranger would sooner assist my needs than my own pilot. For shame!>
“Can we talk about this after we escape the deathtrap planet?” Saferon growled as she pulled the two control yokes out from the sides, hit one more button for manual control, tapped the heads-up display a few times to stop the projector from flickering, and then grabbed the yokes and eased the fighter off its feet.
<You said those very words three months ago when you let my hull take the full brunt of a meteor shower!>
“Saf, I didn’t take you for the procrastinating type,” said Edge with some satisfaction that he finally found a flaw in the woman.
“Quiet, you,” said Saferon as she steered the ship out the open maw of the dock.
The Skyreign sped down the underground highway with more space to breathe. Darrick took advantage of that by setting up shallow turns, climbs and dives well before reaching any obstacle. The headlights could only tell him so much, but the now gravitationally attuned depth scanners gave him enough hints to know what was coming as far as a kilometre away, to within centimetres of accuracy.
Those same depth scanners also betrayed the presence of something no level of accuracy was necessary for.
“Is that supposed to be there?” Darrick tapped the point on the sensor visuals.
Janeth leaned over and observed, her brows raising, “no, it is not. It certainly was not present in my last journey to the spaceport.”
“Laura,” Darrick called into the intercom, “you’d better get out here.”
<What is it?> said Laura, groggy from what was perhaps a short nap.
“There’s something blocking the highway,” Darrick replied, “looks like a huge gate of some kind, too exact in dimension to be a cave-in. Anyway, we have to stop.”
Moments later, Laura emerged from her cabin, her eyes blackened with a deep fatigue as she planted herself in the chair, “a gate, huh?”
“Two kilometres away,” Darrick added.
“Stop the ship,” she said, rubbing her throbbing temples, “stop here, now. Pull off to the side and throw the anchors.”
Darrick took a quick glance back to his Captain, then spoke as he complied, “Get some coffee in you or something. You look worse than Olsein does.”
“Well shit,” said Savath from his turret, “just one thing after another with you guys.”
Shortly after, Darrick found a sufficiently clear spot to land the ship, pointed the spotlights down and around, extended the anchors and idled the lifters to a gentle float as the four anchors touched the stone floor.
“Begin a depth scan,” said Laura as she stood, testing the floor under her, “I’m grabbing some coffee.”
Darrick sighed, “great. Another problem.”
“I will need to collect my thoughts,” said Janeth as she also stood, “it has been some time since I afforded myself some rest. Let me meditate a while on the matter. When I have more answers, I will be back.”
“Rose, Olsein,” Laura said into the intercom, “you’re up. Arm yourselves to the teeth and get into the rec room. Five minutes—ten, actually. I need a coffee.”
She didn’t bother to wait on word back, and made for one of the shelves behind a metal cabinet door, grabbed a closed steel mug that stood among many others, opened the lid and allowed herself to become invigorated by the welcome scent of caffeine.
For ten minutes, she sat. For ten minutes, the galaxy ceased to matter. For ten minutes, she had coffee.
Ten minutes was barely long enough for the exhausted Laura Vinfield, but it had to do. She would have another coffee after she briefed the two crewmates. And perhaps another one after that.
Olsein surfaced from his quarters and entered the rec room. His body was covered with more weapons than clothing. “About time you let us off the leash,” he grinned.
“Since you have the advantage of reading minds,” Laura shot him a look that could kill lessers, “why don’t you do the briefing?”
“Check out the gate,” said Olsein, “if that’s what it is. Snoop around for another way around. If we run into trouble, plug ’em. How far off am I?”
Rose shot him a look too as she entered the room. Her armament was far less obvious under her black tunic and loose pants, close to the body so as to not limit her more-than-heightened dexterity.
“You know what to do. Go.” Laura then turned back to the cabinet, pulling out another, coffee-laden mug and storing the empty one.
“So many weapons, Olsein,” Rose said quietly as she and Olsein made their way forward in the grand highway.
The flashlights at the end of the barrels of their rifles were the only sources of light, save for the minimal lighting emitted by the Skyreign behind them.
The two had otherwise not spoken since they departed their ship, still visible from afar. From the ground level, and under a more direct light, the environment around the two became that much more vivid. There were several tiers of roadway from the lowest point in the tunnel, until roughly half of the way up, where Rose concluded larger or faster ships must have come and gone.
All around them, ground-bound wheeled vehicles could be seen, most of which where only skeletal remains of their former selves, the panels and working parts having been long since salvaged or withered away.
While she thought of all this, she realized a minute had come and gone without any reply from Olsein. He never trailed back or disappeared; he remained right there, beside her. Silently, he remained.
“You’re better armed than you were in Nywan,” Rose added, stopping to turn to him, “mind telling me why?”
“Just following orders, in my own way,” Olsein said. Only the reflection of the light upon the lifeless metallic corpses around them gave enough light for Rose to make out a crooked grin on the old man’s face.
“I don’t buy it,” Rose shook her head, “you’re the last person on the ship to so eagerly follow an order. What’s going on?”
“It’s easy to forget how wise you are,” Olsein nodded, stopping as well, “you’ve survived this many decades and will survive so many more. Your youth betrays that wisdom.”
“You speak like a politician,” Rose hissed, “Answer the damn question, old man. First officer’s orders.”
“Ask me again in a little while,” Olsein rubbed his beard and began to move again.
“I asked you now,” Rose stopped him with her hand pressed against his shoulder, looking him in the eye, “read my mind: I will get an answer from you, one way or another.”
“I wonder which way you will choose...first?” Olsein gently pinched her palm and flecked it away.
Rose knew very well at that point that he did indeed read the surface thoughts of her mind. She wasn’t afraid to beat it out of him, and he wasn’t afraid to take that risk. In fact, her eyes were sharp enough to tell that under all of his weapons and belts and armour, his body was subtly twitching, as if poised and prepared for an attack.
For a moment, she questioned why she would go to such an extreme to hear the answer to a rather irrelevant question.
That moment passed and the first fist was thrown, straight for his nose.
It never made it halfway, as Olsein easily swatted her fist away, as gently as his first gesture.
Her rifle was still her only source of light, but at that point, it was more a burden than a benefit. She dropped it and swung in and up. The gun clattered to the floor, causing a distant echo against the stone walls. Its light was too confined to a beam to provide ambient lighting.
Ambient lighting that might have provided a solid hit in her second attempt to mar the face of the old man. Instead, he simply took half a step back and let her fist rocket past the target nose.
Olsein then made a swift kick to her shin, light enough not to cause harm with the heavy boot on his foot, yet forceful enough to force her to step back and reconsider her actions.
“Get a hold of yourself, Oasiian,” Olsein growled quietly, “save your energy for someone more deserving of your rage.”
“What makes you so undeserving?” Rose said as she advanced again, her attacks far more calculated and yet more natural as well. Right fist in at the neck; swatted away. Left nearly as quickly as the right; met with his own palm and repelled. Two more right jabs, met with the slam of his forearm. He had still not taken a full step from where he was. He had drawn one slow, full, relaxed breath.
“If I was so deserving, you wouldn’t be holding back,” he grinned, his hands coming behind his back. “if you truly think I deserve this, prove it.”
Rose moved then to jump, spin and kick him with her trailing heel, cleanly in the chest.
The jump was all she achieved, as Olsein’s hand swung out from behind him, grabbed the first foot that left the ground and swung it in the opposite direction from the spin, sending her hurdling to the cold stone floor.
Yet Rose was well-trained and had decades of experience. Much of that experience became second nature over time, and so did the ability to quickly recover from a throw. She reached out for the ground with one hand and vaulted herself up onto her feet.
Yet Olsein must have known exactly what she would do, as before she could recompose her stance, her feet were just as quickly swept out from under her by his low spinning leg.
She knew how to recover from that as well, but it wasn’t fast enough. Before she was even allowed to make contact with the floor, Olsein had come around from the second part of the spin with a higher kick that planted itself squarely between the eyes, again countering the direction of her spin and sending her metres away. She yelped as the bludgeoning force of his heel left her forehead throbbing in agony.
Olsein then allowed her to scrape herself up from the floor. He drew but one more deep breath as he placed his hands behind his back again.
“Where on Bentor did you learn to fight like that?” Rose uttered out between pants, holding her throbbing head.
“I will say this,” Olsein shrugged as he pulled a small vial filled with a silvery liquid out from his chest pocket, “divination was not all I learned on Noregaa. I combined it with Taan-Thesaal martial arts, learned from one of the last royal Sandstorm Dancers. But I do find it helps to know what your opponent is going to do before even before they do.”
“I don’t know that art,” Rose held herself up with one arm, leaning against a ruined mass transit vehicle, likely an old train, “never even heard of it.”
“Perhaps not by that name,” Olsein grinned as he passed her the vial, “for your head.”
Hesitantly, she grabbed the vial, waited for her heart to slow and her panting to come back under control, and then knocked it back.
Moments later, the pain and the already-blackening bruise had all but become a memory.
“Poisonous, if you don’t have a real injury to treat,” Olsein warned, “consider that next time you come across an ailbane vial. Also, consider that the next time I have to teach you a lesson, you’ll need more than one vial. And I charge. They’re not cheap to make.”
“What about this time then?” she scrunched her eyebrows, “what do I owe you for this vial?”
“This beating was on me,” he grinned, picking up her rifle and handing it to her, “though as I was saying, perhaps you do not know the art by that name. Your mother knew it, as well, though I bet you wouldn’t listen to her.”
“Why do you say that?” she took her rifle back, checking for any damages from her dropping it and finding none.
“Because you likely had a hard time listening to anyone else. You learn so quick, you feel you surpass your teachers long before the lessons are even completed. You miss the subtle details in everything. For example, you expended a great deal of energy to damage me. Had you learned Thesaal, truly learned it, you might be picking me up from the floor.”
“You were reading my mind,” said Rose.
“I was reading your body,” Olsein shook his head, “most people won’t see how much you telegraph. You do it a lot though, and that’s what I read. There are only so many ways a person can move, no matter how skillful or powerful. You don’t need to learn divination for something that innate.”
“And I couldn’t see you coming at all, but you weren’t even that fast,” Rose added, beginning to walk down the tunnel again.
“That’s the idea,” Olsein followed, “that’s the idea.”
“Well,” Rose sighed, still rubbing her head, perhaps a ghost pain, “you’re pretty unorthodox for being Behraanese. For example, you’re very smart.”
“You’re pretty unorthodox for an Oasiian,” Olsein retorted, “for example, you’re still alive. And--mostly sane.”
Numerous vessels rained from the skies, with streaks of fire in their wakes as they made planetfall.
The Giith spiders hungered and often starved from the collective intelligence of the planet’s indigenous citizens to steer clear. But that day, they feasted upon the foolhardy Bentorii. They jumped thousands of metres to meet them, bringing prey down, small and large. They shot their webs and tugged the vessels down. The largest ones, spanning tens of metres in height, waited patiently for their smaller children to bring the prey to them.
Yet for every one of the Giith, there were hundreds of targets, and the metal-eating spiders could only eat so much before they had their fill.
Many Bentorii still were safe from harm as they flew over the continent to which Nywan owed its former safety, the vast ruin of a city to which Nywan owed its former prosperity.
Those Bentorii came in every form and no form. Their ships ranged from numerous makes, from Behraanese to T’pauzi to Oasiian to Kelviki to Francescan to other interstellar races Winnibahn had never seen before in all her years.
Yet that day, the majority of those signatures were freshly Behraanese. The Bentorii did not bother to change or disable the signature indicators. Often, a telltale sign that a vessel no longer belonged to its faction was that the transponder code that accompanied the signature was badly outdated.
The Dominion had lost that battle above them after all.
“All fighters have been launched!” shouted Win’s communications officer, “Generals Hakrum and Bryesco have reported in. They are falling back to protect the domes and the innermost perimeter. But they won’t do any good against that much firepower!”
“Some Bentorii ships have broken through the blockade!” shouted another officer, “they’re bombing the ground!”
“Get a squadron out to fight them!”
“None of our fighters can match their speed!” the same officer retorted, “we don’t have half their air superiority!”
“Then bring in a squadron from the east side! Intercept them head-on!”
“But you’ll be sending them to their deaths!”
“Better them than the civilians who can’t defend themselves. Make the order or I will!”
The Neversail still rumbled from weapons fire, basking from the advantage that the Bentorii were not known for their intellect. Had they adapted to change the frequencies of their energy weapons, the shielding on most of the Nywanese fleet ships would not have lasted seconds against the descending horde.
“Where’s the damn Ophelia when we need her?” she said in an undertone.
Saferon was true to her orders. She flew higher and higher. It seemed the Bentorii completely ignored the Jaegrynn, though she knew it was because he was designed as a stealth fighter first.
She listened to the battle chatter as it carried on. At first, it was rather composed. Callsigns waited their turns and reported casual status updates. Nywanese fighters might have been inferior, but their pilots were far from so. They knew all the tricks. They had the advantage of their ships being designed for atmospheric combat, streamlined and manoeuvrable, albeit not as fast as they lacked gravitic deflectors made standard in most spacecraft.
Yet just in minutes, those composed voices became plagued with panic. Fighters were swarmed, unable to withstand the sheer number of attacks from their predators. Some were lucky enough to get a scream in as their planes took their last dive into the city. Others were blown to pieces the second their shields gave out.
The airships shared similar fates, except in one regard: the Bentorii would also attempt to board and capture them. As unintelligent as those Bentorii seemed to be, they were highly adaptive, able to learn the basic function of large ships with relative ease. They also had great feats of strength and fortitude, able to shrug off at least a few plasmar shots, and dozens of lesser weapons shots. Woe betide those who met just one of these brutes in the halls of their own ship.
Panic turned to screams for help. Saferon could even make out the blood-curdling warcries of the Bentorii as they butchered the crewmates of various ships. The weapons fire was always very brief.
<Calling all remaining vessels!> shouted Winnibahn across every frequency, <fall back to the perimeter! Stay together and combine fire on targets! Do not let yourself get caught out there alone! All fighters, stay in the city, and stay low! Weave through the scrapers and the highways if you have to! I will not accept further losses! Nywan will prevail! Diinshtago!>
Eventually, those frequencies faded away as she drew further and further away from the planet.
“Launch a beacon,” said Saferon, “send it into geosync. Make it a distress signal, priority-one. Call the Galactic Council. Call the Ophelia. Call the Marioch. Call everyone.”
<Automated distress beacon, yes,> said Jaegrynn, <and—dare I ask why we’re deploying a beacon and not emitting the signal ourselves?>
“Oh, don’t tell me,” Ejjar placed his head in his hands, “you’re going back down there, aren’t you.”
“That easy a read, am I?”
“That gutsy and that stupid,” Edge said lowly, “Pretty sure the Admiral told you to go far, far away, right?”
“See, I like Winnibahn. She doesn’t want us to die for nothing.”
“Not exactly a fan of living for nothing either,” said Saferon as she turned she disengaged the engines, spun the fighter around to face the planet again, and re-engaged the engines in the opposite direction to her track to bring them to a halt sooner, “Any time I want, I could find some Bentorii at any given dark corner of the galaxy and destroy as many as I think I can get away with. But today, Nywan still stands. Tomorrow, it may not. And there won’t be any more Nywanese after that.”
“Why do I bother reasoning with you?” said Edge.
<I stopped bothering ages ago,> Jaegrynn replied, <and yet, here I am, still putting up with her balls-in-first nonsense.>
“I will stand by you until the bitter end, Captain,” said Sam, not being lured into all the depressive talk, remaining ever so objective.
“You’re probably right,” Ejjar patted his one-eyed friend’s shoulder.
“Ritana died down there,” said Saferon, “she was--she was my friend. I owe her at least one more effort to save all that she died for. I owe it to her.”
<You owe me a lot of things and you still come short,> Jaegrynn snorted, <If I lose a heat shield and you all burn and die, don’t blame me. I’d fix myself if I could, you know.>
“When we get out of this,” Saferon sighed, bringing up said shields, “remind me to install a mute button.”