Olsein and Rose returned about two hours after they set out, stepping up the ramp into the lower deck. Laura stood at the top of the ramp, arms crossed.
“Well?” said Laura.
“Well, what?” said Rose, slightly worse for wear than before. She seemed somewhat dirty, perhaps a little blood-covered.
“What happened out there?”
“Not much,” said Olsein, covered with significantly less weapons than before. He was simply coated in blood, though was decent enough to wipe his face and hands clean.
“We found a small passageway next to the gate,” said Rose, “we found a control room for said gate. It was guarded by black-garbed and hooded figures.”
“Continue,” said Laura as she tapped her foot.
“We said hello,” Olsein added, “They shot at us. We shot at them. They died. We lived.”
“How many were there?”
“Not enough,” Rose shrugged.
“How many?” Laura asked again.
Rose and Olsein looked to each other, and said in concert, “thirty.”
“And you killed them all.”
“We killed a few at a time,” said Rose, “all stealthy-like for me, while Olsein never had a hand without a gun in it. And—somewhere down the line we figured out they were talking to each other in Behraanese, and they must have figured out we were talking to each other in Behraanese, and—yeah...thirty.”
“Yeah, thirty of them,” Olsein nodded, “we checked them.”
“Just a few rifles could have done the job,” Laura cocked a brow.
“Had to disintegrate them,” Olsein kept wiping his bloody hands with a rag.
"Had to? That’s grotesque," Laura grimaced.
“Oh yeah, I forget you prefer spattering brains from afar,” Olsein grinned morbidly.
“But why did you have to?” Laura’s facial contortion became semi-permanent.
“Because I’m betting there are more of them past the gate,” Olsein shrugged, “which we opened, by the way.”
“It won’t open all the way though,” said Rose, “mechanism’s in bad shape. The Skyreign would get through but--”
“Not a good idea until we know what’s past the gate, I get it,” said Laura, “still—Behraan? Here?”
The two only nodded.
“At least thirty,” said Rose.
“Well,” Olsein looked Rose’s way, “however many there are minus thirty now.”
“Any alarms?” Laura questioned, “witnesses? patrols, security footage, anything that could give us away?”
Rose shook her head, “didn’t even have trackers on them, searched them pretty thoroughly.”
“Clean yourselves up,” said the Captain at last, waving them off “this changes everything. Meet me on the bridge in an hour.”
“Exactly how does this change everything?” asked Rose.
“Well if Behraan’s in town,” Laura said as she turned part way to head back up, "we won’t be very welcome, to start with,”
“Change of plan,” said Laura to all the crew on the deck, “we have Behraanese military in there. They were the ones who closed the gate. It stands to reason they knew we were coming.”
“Trouble indeed,” said Grace, eyeing Laura.
“How many of them were present?” Janeth asked, “their platoon count can tell me what sort of soldiers they were.”
“Thirty,” said Rose and Olsein in concert.
“Thirty,” Janeth nodded, “unless things have changed beyond my recognition in the last half a century, then the ones you encountered were part of the Occupation branch of the Dominion military. Thirty links of a chain that binds and suppresses all enemies of Behraan.”
“I heard about that,” said Laura, “never saw it myself though. Not even on T’pauzi V. But then, I wasn't there for the annexation.”
“I never really paid attention to battalions on worlds we invaded,” said Olsein as he scratched his chin, “but she’s right. They were all in groups of thirty. They marched in three by ten. But the thirty we encountered weren’t marching anywhere. Pretty casual actually.”
“Which leads me to a terrifying conclusion,” said Janeth, as she scanned the crew, “Pillars has been occupied. Perhaps for years.”
“And nobody knew?” Darrick asked in alarm, “I mean, this planet was just some faraway desert world nobody cared about, until someone caught wind our dear Admiral here might have been on it. Now it’s got the sacred ship, it’s got Nywan, and part of this planet has had Behraan presence for years. How does this kind of thing not leak out?”
“Most things don’t,” Janeth stated, “most people don’t. Perhaps Behraan saw some potential in that.”
“This planet is a shithole,” said Savath, “nobody cares about a shithole planet. It’s old, used up, couple of warring tribes on it and some antiquated tech. And the whole world’s got some scrambler that ruins transmission range and rips water apart. Easy to hide something big like this on a planet nobody wants to see.”
“Therein lies the issue,” said Janeth, “what are they hiding here? And how big is it?”
The crew fell silent.
“Is it possible they have been seeking the Sacred Vessel?” said Elsie.
“Possible,” said Janeth, “though if they’re looking at Pillars, they’re way off. Where we’re going is past Pillars. However, now that we’re underground—we have no choice but to go through Pillars. There is no other way.”
“We’d be shot down for sure!” said Darrick.
“Olsein, Rose,” Laura turned to the two, “did you disintegrate everything?”
“Everything organic,” Olsein stated, “things like their weapons and clothes survived. Mostly."
“Well,” Laura crossed her arms and paced around the deck, “if we—if we took their uniforms, and simply walked in…. The uniforms are hooded, right?”
“And it’s decently hard making out facial features in such a dark place, right?”
“I see where you’re going,” Janeth grinned, “we impersonate them. Wouldn’t be difficult, since you already speak the tongue and you already know the protocols. Rose and Olsein know first-hand what happened in the gate room, so it would be easy to, perhaps, stretch the truth.
“There is a problem with that approach, however,” said Janeth, “even if we made it across Pillars, pretending to be Chain soldiers, what about the Skyreign? How do you plan to get it across the city? The city spans at least ten kilometres in diameter. Not nearly the size of Groaning Giants, but still expansive. A golden solarcraft in the eternal night will surely turn a few heads.”
Silence. Perhaps a minute of silence.
“We could leap across,” said Darrick quietly, his voice filled with uncertainty.
Laura found the idea completely unfathomable, as she turned to the pilot, “what?”
“Yeah, we could leap across,” Darrick suggested again.
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” said Savath, laughing heartily.
“Not quite the stupidest,” Rose added, “but pretty damn close. Why on Bentor do you think that’s gonna work?”
“I don’t,” said Darrick weakly, “but we can’t turn back. We can’t go forward. One way or another, we’re screwed.”
“That is not entirely true,” said Janeth, “Leaping underground, across ten kilometres, is impossible—without the right conditions being met.”
Laura looked to Janeth, “conditions?”
“Last I remember, leap-drives work by emitting a leap beacon, which secures a matter-to-energy connection from the point of the ship. The beacon then reconstitutes the vessel exactly as it was as the energy is returned to matter. The process is never perfect so a huge amount of energy output is required to run the drive, especially continuously.”
“But we don’t have line-of-sight with the other side of an underground city,” said Laura.
“Which means we could have to place the beacon on the other side ourselves,” said Janeth, “though even then, we would likely have to fly the ship at least part of the way into the city to make lock with the beacon and safely leap over.”
“That would take a lot of calculation,” said Darrick.
“Agreed,” said Elsie, “still, if we had an idea of the city’s actual size, from a to-scale map perhaps, and we did a depth-scan to give us an idea of exactly how much is between us and that point...it’s possible. The Ophelia did it a few times before. A Behraanese fleet a thousand cruisers thick would surround it as the rest of the Ophelians rescued whoever was being oppressed. Then, they would leap clear onto the other side of the fleet, using a beacon planted discretely by another ship, giving them a clear getaway.
“Still, the quality of the drive would have to be—well—Ophelian. Or better, if there were such a thing.”
“The Skyreign was built by the Ophelian fleet, right?” said Laura.
“I take it at least the leapdrive is of such quality, and not sub-par like the rest of the ship’s parts?”
Darrick nodded again.
“Then it’s clear to me,” Laura stated, “we need to sneak into the city, likely with the help of those uniforms. If anyone asks, we were ambushed by some deserters. We disintegrated their remains as a lesson to those who desert the Dominion. We came back to get rest and food. While we do this, one of us needs to get a scaled map. Data, hard copy, doesn’t matter.”
“I believe I can work that out,” said Janeth, “I don’t have a scaled map, yet, but I’ve come here before and I know some people who might be able to help us out.”
“Fine,” Laura carried on, “Rose and I will go in and ‘inform’ the other Occupiers of what has happened to this guard. Olsein and Savath will do the same but will be in charge of bringing the beacon across the city. Elsie, Grace and Darrick will remain here. Darrick, you’ll work on the depth scan. Elsie, work the engine room and help Darrick out if he needs it. Grace, I doubt this plan will go perfectly, so be prepared for a few plasmar wounds here and there. Especially if Rose or Olsein decide to say their version of ‘hello’ again.”
“We should gather the uniforms first,” Grace added, “fortune favours us in that the Dominion does not give names to most uniforms belonging to simple soldiers. I can tailor them to fit each of you, and perhaps bolster them with shield belts or whatever I can find. I can be done in a day.”
“Good,” Laura nodded, “everything helps. This has a pretty slim chance of working, but it’s better than some other alternatives I can think of. Dying while sitting here, for one.”
“If we die,” said Savath, “it won’t be sitting down!”
“I won’t be sitting in your turret seat, anyway,” Olsein added with a smirk.
“Jaegrynn, bring up all the largest targets in range,” Saferon said, “link with the Nywanese ships to bolster our targeting scanners. I want to see what they see.”
<Hopefully not all the screaming and dying?>
“Not now, Jae. Just do it. Please.”
<Of course,> Jaegrynn complied and presented a wealth of information on the HUD.
“Now give me the closest target capital ship,” Saferon added, “give me everything you can on him.”
<Targeting. Behraanese frigate, Maker-Twenty. Estimated length two hundred twenty-seven metres. Condition: estimated hull integrity fifty-seven percent. Shields down on aft and port quarters. A rather prime opportunity, dare I say!>
“On screen, please.”
The Jaegrynn just emerged from a ball of fire in his speedy planetfall, and waited no longer to extend the fighter’s array of thesium cannons and missile volley bays.
“Sam, you’re on point defence,” Saferon commanded, “There’s a turret just behind the cockpit. Use it.”
“I see it on my console,” Sam said, pulling an arm-mounted display on the back of Saferon's chair, “will do, Captain.”
“Edge, watch my power levels. Don’t let us die. Rotate shield frequencies. That kind of thing.”
“Stop suicidal maniac from actually committing suicide. Check.”
<Saferon!> Winnibahn shouted into the intercom, the sounds of battle cascading behind her voice, <I said go! Turn around while you still can! Get help!>
“I am the help,” said Saferon firmly, “a beacon had been deployed in geosync. I cannot in my conscience abandon this nation.”
<I don’t have time to argue with you right now,> Win sighed, shouting something obscene at another officer in the background, <don’t die.>
The transmission then came to an end, but Saferon left the frequency on, just in case.
“My job, right?” said Edge.
<We’re getting into range,> Jaegrynn announced.
“Keep our energy signature as well-masked as possible,” Saferon said aloud as she lined up the main lifter on the main frigate ahead, with her crosshairs. Upon doing so, the crosshairs followed that same target, even as the ship oscillated ever so slightly up and down.
<The atmosphere is thick on this world,> said Jaegrynn, <I find it difficult to compensate for the additional lift as you increase speed.>
“Don’t stress over it,” Saferon pushed her back more into the chair as the frigate grew in her view.
As she drew closer, the minor details of battle became that much more apparent. Bolts and rays of energy screeched in every direction; smoke filled the air from weapons exhaust and from the burning husks of downed ships.
One stray bolt struck the Jaegrynn, causing it to jitter slightly before stabilizing.
<Twas nothing,> said the boisterous fighter, <that’s close enough. Fire!>
And fire she did. She clenched down hard on the two ordnance triggers on the control sticks, and two streaker torpedoes, needle-like and barely illuminated, jetted forth from the two wings towards the lifter array under the frigate.
The first one burst into a blue fire against the flickering shields of the once-Behraanese vessel. The second one broke through and completely disintegrated the lifter array, thereby removing the one source of lift the frigate had. It began to spiral out of control towards the ground, but by that point, the Jaegrynn was already a kilometre past it.
“This is completely unlike them,” said Saferon to herself, “the Bentorii are small-time raiders, pirates. Not an organized navy like this....”
“They are now,” Edge replied.
Sam was far too occupied with finding a fighter and either swatting its missiles or swatting the fighter itself. A near-steady stream of bolts of lightning reached out from the swivelling cannon to the target.
“Next,” Saferon picked another frigate, another Behraanese Maker.
<Next, a bunch or sorry saps completely unaware of their coming doom, hmm?>
“Looks like it’s tying up some Nywanese airships,” she hummed, “how long before we get more streaks?”
“Thesium cannons it is. Switch it for me?”
<Done before you asked.>
Saferon nodded and let fly the pulsing array of yellow-white bolts of energy, most of which impacted the shield, the rest of which ate into metal.
She slowed down and kept firing until the ship was riddled with more holes, one of which shots struck a munitions reserve and burst violently.
This frigate survived her better than the first, and as she passed by, two of its turrets locked onto and fired at her.
Saferon gasped and banked hard to the left, pushing the throttle to the maximum position.
But not quite soon enough before a barrage of plasmar shots bashed against the Jaegrynn’s shield. Some of the white-hot plasma crept through and flaked away harmlessly against the ablative armour.
<I suggest against a head-on attack from now on,> the Jaegrynn warned.
“Your ship is pretty damn smart, Saf,” said Edge.
“Three fighters picked us up!” shouted Sam, “they’re under and behind us. I can’t shoot at them!”
<Shake them off!>
Saferon was already banking to the right until the wings were perpendicular to the ground. Those wings stretched and warped to maintain the harsh bank angle. However, once the two vectoring thrusters behind the engines pivoted and the omnidirectional deflector flared up, the fighter spun around, flew backwards and gave Saferon the perfect line-up for her warm thesium cannons. She unloaded a generous portion of the capacitor and tore just one fighter to pieces. The other two fired at the same time, grazing the Jaegrynn’s shielding as they both flew by in the opposite direction.
This put both into Sam’s field of fire, and fire he did. Both dropped from the sky, one by one.
<Pay attention to the intercooler,> Jaegrynn said cautiously, <this is a hotter world with thicker air. The heat sink is having difficulty keeping up with your furious firing!>
“I’ll work on that,” said Edge as he worked on various consoles around him, “I’m real glad this ship can recognize we speak Behraanese.”
<I speak forty-seven languages,> said Jaegrynn, <I’ll have you know, I take it upon myself to learn as much as I can from just about everything.>
“Coming back around on that one frigate,” said Saferon, “streakers?”
<Twenty seconds. Patience.>
<Those nasty little buggers have been primed up since you opened the array,> the ship said with some pride, <sixty-four of them, all in all. Shall I arm them?>
“Yes--” Saferon yanked the sticks and pulled up as another fighter passed by, then countersteered as a stray shot bounced off their shielding again, “Yes, please!”
The ship replied with a visual indicator on the HUD of how many rockets remained and their effective range.
As she approached the frigate, she noticed that it wasn’t bothering with the airships around it. It was solely focused on launching torpedoes into the city. They exploded violently and shot out red-hot shrapnel, leaving gaping craters in the sides of the tallest buildings and exposing the ancient skeletal structure beneath.
“Stop those torpedoes!” Saferon shouted back as she came into range, firing a barrage of six rockets. They, too, were needle-like, more like bullets than rockets, red-hot and appearing as bolts of light as they pierced into shield and armour alike, then violently tore up entire sections of hull.
Before the turrets could come around, Saferon had already unleashed more cannon fire to finish the job. A deep explosion from within caused bulges throughout the rattled hull, with one final burst out the opposite side of the ship, cracking the framework enough to separate the bow half from the stern. Both of which fell lifelessly to the ground, spewing fire and black smoke in their wakes.
“Next,” Saferon said somewhat nonchalantly.
Just as she said that, the ship quivered and shook, and the lighting inside of the ship flickered before sputtering back on.
“What was that!?” Saferon shouted.
<That was our mask generator,> said Jaegrynn, <it must have come loose from one of those high-G turns of yours. But anyway, we’re in plain sight now.>
“It looks like they see us a lot better now!” said Sam, “several fighters have broken away from the main fight and are coming at us!”
“Do what you can back there!” Saferon shook her head, “we’ll just have to be one step ahead.”
“Still think this was a good idea?” Edge said shakily, “I was perfectly fine with being alive, you know.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“For how long?” said Edge.
<We’ve been targeted!> said the Jaegrynn, with a minor bleeping alarm blaring off in the background.
“Give me more engines back there, Edge!” Saferon shouted as she put out the speedbrakes, dove down, rolled upright and pulled up, before retracting the speedbrakes and pushing the throttle to the maximum.
Yet at that point, she had lost so much altitude that she had one extra obstacle.
The city itself.
<We are no longer targeted, for the moment,> said Jaegrynn as the alarm was silenced.
“What did I do to piss them off so much!?” Saferon growled.
<You destroyed two capital ships as soon as you got here,> said the Jaegrynn, <well—actually--I destroyed two capital ships. And I shot down five fighters. You know, in some cultures, that actually makes me an ace!>
“You're a machine, you have no culture,” Saferon said coldly as she climbed steadily to avoid the scrapers.
<You hurt me so, Saferon. You hurt me so.>
“They’re coming in from behind!” shouted Sam.
“Being an ace is only good to you alive, Jaegrynn,” said Saferon as she checked her rear-view camera and spotted the dots swarming in behind them, “get us through this and we can talk titles.”
<Seven targeting—one lock!> the alarm doubled in its intensity, red signal lights blinking erratically.
Saferon wasted no time. Immediately she deployed the speedbrakes and fired the reverse thrusters, stepping hard into the right rudder pedal and allowing the fighter to drop rapidly.
The seven mixed-make Bentorii fighters screamed by and over them, lining up perfectly into the sights. Still sinking, she let the cannon banks unload the capacitor and gouge gaping wounds into those who called themselves enemies of Nywan.
Just two fell from the skies at first, one smashing into a scraper and one spinning out of control, plummeting into a skyway and bursting violently into flames and shrapnel.
Three others began to spout flames from the open wounds, and before long, one more could carry on no longer, struggling to remain airborne until it, too, met the earth.
The two most ahead of the group were largely unscathed and split off, disappearing into the city.
Saferon then disengaged the speedbrakes and feathered the throttle forward. It only then occurred to her that the lock alarms hadn’t halted at all.
<It’s not from an air target!> said Jaegrynn in a panic, <it’s from below!>
“What!?” Saferon gasped. As she did so, she felt a distinct feeling.
One she felt the night before.
That same feeling she endured, the last time she fought alongside General Ritana Caal.
Suddenly, the ship lurched to the left. The power quickly failed, lighting being the first sign, and complete lack of control being the next. The co-pilot’s console shot sparks and shrapnel from the impact, the rest of the fighter still lifeless.
In a panic, Saferon reached for and pulled a red lever under the console. Moments later, power flickered back on, though her sensors array was completely illegible.
<Fire on engine two! Deflector disabled!!> said Jaegrynn in a panic, <sink rate! Sink rate! Sink rate!>
The rest of the sounds the ship could make sirened off as they plummeted towards the ground.
“Cut power from both!” Saferon shouted back. Not receiving a response, she glanced back, “Edge!?”
She looked only long enough to realize his face was planted into his console, blood dripping down from the lacerations in his forehead.
Sam suffered a similar fate, groaning weakly as he struggled to remain conscious.
<Done!> said Jaegrynn, his voice still audible, the quality of the audio severely reduced and muffled, <deploying emergency slats and impact dampers! We’re going down!!!>
"How far can you glide!?"
<Dunno-how far can a brick glide? About that much.>
Saferon wouldn’t accept it. She wouldn’t accept the fine crack in the canopy. Not the ground rushing up at them. She kept going through the engine restart routines, the controls sloppy and largely ineffective, just enough to stop the fighter from spinning wildly out of control.
<Auto-beacon deployed! Shutting down to preserve my memory bank!> With that, the voice dissipated. The screams and howls of the wind through that tiny crack was all she would hear until the moment came.
“See you soon, Ritana,” she said quietly.
Seconds later, ones that felt like hours, she barely came to. The world around her was barely tangible, as if behind glass, but a blur of sounds and sights and smells all blending together.
She swore she could make out the Jaegrynn restarting and spewing angry profanities of some kind, but it was all so far away. She felt around for the canopy locks and, after an epic struggle to get her arms coordinated enough, she pulled and released them.
The canopy sprung open, all the smoke built up within releasing into the open, only to blend into more smoke from everything else.
Next, she dragged herself up and over the side. Her legs were not quite responding, as if completely asleep. Still, her arms were then strong enough to hurl herself out of the cockpit, down onto the charred sand and gravel a metre below. Her feet were not awake enough to properly absorb the fall and crumpled, forcing her onto the ground.
As her helmet seemed to only limit her view, she gathered what strength she could to pull it off and toss it aside, rolling onto her back and feeling around her leg for the pistol-loaded holster.
With at least a weapon, she tried to take a better look around, focusing on her fighter, on buildings, on the ground. Her eyes could not quite work together, not quite able to focus, as if she was in a drunken haze.
She did make out the faint yet distinct sound of feet treading sand, slow and methodical. She heard it for sure, perhaps the clearest thing in her mind. She looked about, not able to locate the source of the sound.
Until the sound stopped.
And then she felt that presence again. Above all else, she felt it.
Her body reacted faster than her mind. She spun her head around, her feeble body as well, as her eyes locked onto the looming figure that stood over her.
Those sunguards. That black, ragged cloak. That vile grin.
That mass of a cannon propped on his shoulder, which he then planted into the sand next to him.
Saferon lifted her shaky hand, with the thesium pistol barely staying in it.
Kicking it out of her hand was all too easy for him. Kicking her heel-first in the chest was just as easy for him, knocking the wind out of her and forcing her into a desperate pant.
Defiantly, she tried to scream. Help. Help! Nothing. Her feet kicked violently to propel herself away from him, too weak to lift herself up upon them.
All for naught. The next thing she knew, his hand effortlessly lifted her high above him by her neck, the other hand wielding one of his serrated katars, poised at her throat.