The Imperator’s Hand was indeed massive. Even from an altitude as high as six kilometres, it blotted out the sun. The Giith spiders could not reach it with their webs nor their jumps.
Thankfully, the same applied to the Jaegrynn, her company and the Neversail that rose to meet the ancient vessel.
It sported a long neck with a bulbous forward section, with several rear-swept towers, much resembling the horns of a dragon. It had a high and wide mid-section, littered with large turrets and docking ports. It sported three giant wings, making its span nearly as wide as the vessel was long. Two wings were mounted high on the body and angled thirty degrees above the plane, while one, forward-swept wing jutted forward and underneath the colossus.
It was littered with craters small and large, but even so, the ship was largely intact and functioning well enough to fly in the atmosphere.
<Analysis complete,> said Jaegrynn, <Long story or short?>
“Short, please,” said Saferon as she kept a healthy distance from the Hand, but remained close enough to get a good readout from her scanners.
<In short then, we’re doomed!> said the fighter.
“...Okay, and the long version?”
“Is your ship always this eccentric?” said Maxis in Nywanese, as he sat in the passenger seat next to her.
“Always,” said Saferon as the Jaegrynn fed Saferon the readouts on one of the console displays.
“Thank you again for seeing my son to the perimeter,” said Maxis as he looked to Saferon, “I will not charge for the parts you required.”
“Thank Guillius for that,” said Saferon, “I wouldn’t have been able to, without he and his troops covering for us.”
“You can thank me for the work, you know,” said Ejjar from the back seat, “Making those parts compatible with big Jae here is trickier than I make it look.”
“Tricky?” said Sam, rolling his one eye, “you plugged in the parts. They worked.”
“Shut up, Sam,” Edge said under his breath.
“Leave it to Sam to say it like it is,” Saferon added.
<I—I flew him there,> Jaegrynn reminded, <Zackuum? I flew him to the perimeter. As requested. Or have you forgotten?>
“Leave it to Jae to say it like it is,” Edge mocked.
<Still awake over there?> said Winnibahn from the approaching Neversail, <I’m pushing the altitude limits of my ship, but we should be okay up here. Can’t use the outer deck guns though, because the containment system failed out earlier. Crew would freeze to death or suffocate or worse.>
“You still have decks and decks of cannons, right?” said Saferon.
<And decks and decks of angry cannoneers,> Win replied, <how about that readout?>
“Transmitting now!” Saferon pressed the appropriate buttons and sent the information to the other local ships.
<Saferon,> said Guillius from his gunship, <We are ready.>
“I hope so,” Saferon quickly tweaked a few small knobs at the bases of the two yokes to recalibrate them, “Jaegrynn, the weapons, please.”
“Uh, Captain,” Edge leaned forward, “this fighter makes a lot of missiles, right?”
“Yes, it fabricates them as needed,” Saferon noted the energy reserves allocated to missile constructors, “why?”
“Because we’re gonna need a lot of missiles,” Edge pointed at a spot on the Hand, an open docking bay pouring out fighter after fighter after fighter.
“Kabaiila save us,” said Maxis.
<You could ask me to save you,> said Jaegrynn.
“How about those weapons?” Saferon retorted.
<You don’t see that big green blinking circle next to my armaments?>
Saferon saw nothing of the sort on the top-down display of the fighter’s internal systems.
<Must be a glitch. But I’m armed, I assure you.>
<Saferon, do not engage!> Winnibahn shouted, <counting hundreds of fighters inbound. They’re not Behraanese, I—I don’t know what they are!>
<I know,> said Jaegrynn, in a lower, more serious tone, <Oasiic June-dagger fighters. As ancient as the Hand.>
<June-daggers!?> Winnibahn exclaimed, <Saferon, listen to me. You cannot engage! Do not-->
The signal was cut silent.
“So they can jam us now,” said Saferon, “if we survive this, we’ll have to rewrite all the books about the Bentorii.”
<I am one to agree with the Admiral,> said Jaegrynn, <My systems are just operational. Another foray could be the death of us. But the decision is ultimately yours, Saferon. I will fight if flown to do so.>
The swarm of fighters spread out wide, almost equally apart from each other, forming a spherical formation with the Hand in the centre. A practical fortress in the air.
“Uh, Captain,” said Ejjar, “I don’t mind walking away from this.”
“You know where the cockpit latch is,” said Saferon, “walk.”
Ejjar remained quiet.
The formation around the Hand then broke, and the June-daggers turned their attention to the Neversail. The Hand lumbered slowly, nearly crawling in the air towards the Nywanese flagship, its massive turrets slowly swivelling and training upon their prey.
<I cannot lock missiles upon them,> said Jaegrynn, <but allow me to maintain the stealth generator and the cannons instead, and I believe we might fare better.>
“Good, do it,” said Saferon, as she steadily increased forward throttle and disarmed the missiles already in the banks, “Sam, get that turret ready."
“Done already,” Sam replied.
“Caution to the wind, eh?” said Edge.
<Initiating stealth,> said Jaegrynn.
Saferon did not reply, focused on her field of view as she approached the swarm that flew towards the Neversail.
Those fighters began to fire from kilometres away, spouting two blood-red ion beams instantly from fighter to target. From such a distance, very little of that firepower phased the robust shields. But as they closed in, at between Mach two and three, those red beams began to strike harder. Most was still absorbed by the shield.
Just a few beams punctured it and ate shallow holes into the thick hull.
The Neversail’s gallant crew did not take the beating lightly, and fired its brilliant array of Thesium cannons, bolts of lightning that struck and destroyed numerous assailants. Even from within the Jaegrynn, the cacophonous thunder made the whole interior tremble.
Saferon then flew up and behind one of the straggling fighters, taking a closer look at it as she lined it up with her crosshairs. They were highly streamlined, sporting two stubby wings. They boasted two large cannons on the sides of the winglets, stretching from nose to tail. Three small engines were mounted onto the rear side of the fuselage, recessed and protected by shards of armour. The cockpit was impossible to hit from behind.
Saferon didn’t care. She held down the triggers, and both arrays of cannons blared angrily at the June-dagger and tore it asunder. It didn’t happen as quickly as she thought, but it did happen.
<We must remain evasive,> said Jaegrynn, <those beams are too fast for me! If they can get a lock on us, we’re done for!>
“Let me see what I can do about that,” said Edge, “we still have some missiles, right?”
<Seven,> said Jaegrynn as Saferon sped up and weaved in between the still-chaotic June-daggers, <I can maintain stealth below Mach three. Any faster, and they will easily detect us!>
Saferon nodded in response, rolling and diving back as she tracked another passing June-dagger with her eyes alone, planing out directly behind them and firing away.
This one took a few rounds on its starboard winglet, blowing off the mounted cannon, before it took a hard turn to the right and pulled up to climb. As with most spacefaring fighters, lift was not coming from the wings.
Most fighters were still occupied with the Neversail, clearly struggling and firing its cannons in every direction they had a turret to cover. Most of their shots missed, just one step behind the agile fighters.
<Three Daggers have picked us up!> shouted Jaegrynn, <I still cannot tell if they have a lock on us!>
“Sam!” Saferon shouted.
“I see them!” Sam replied in kind as he turned the turret and fired upon the three fighters.
The ship then shook violently, a single string of distressful sounds blaring from the console as the ship showed its weakening rear shield status.
Saferon reacted immediately by pulling up as well, rolling fully around at breakneck speeds and then pulling back hard on the yokes to tighten her turning radius. The engines audibly struggled under the intense g-force, and the damper drive, usually silent, began to churn and gurgle.
Maxis gripped his seat tight, as did Edge, as Saferon planed out once again from the manoeuvre.
“Don’t ever do that again!” shouted Edge.
“It’s still not too late to walk away!” Saferon retorted.
“Still think the Admiral was right--”
“To hell with what the Admiral said!” she exploded, just before the ship shook again, more violently than before.
<I cannot take another hit like that from the aft quarter!> said Jaegrynn.
“I can’t hit them!” Sam said frantically, “they’re too fast!”
“If I ever delay the overhaul I’ve been promising you,” said Saferon as she executed a hard brake and thrust the fighter down, waiting for the Daggers to pass and firing intensely on them from under, “remind me of today!”
<I think if we survive, I needn’t,> the Jaegrynn said lowly.
Though Saferon’s long-range sensors were disabled, she was still able to discern another swarm of—something--off in the distance and well above the cloud of June-daggers.
Something much larger than a fighrer--but perhaps not quite as large as the Hand--glinted in the high sun, barely visible with the planet’s crystal ring just behind it.
From that something, a rain of white light showered the swarm of fighters, seemingly in no specific direction, except that all the rays hit a June-dagger, causing them to explode into tiny fragments, or fall out of the sky as the rays punctured clean through.
That something seemed to be positioned in such a way that it would not line up the Bentorii with the Neversail, Jaegrynn or the Ma’guul accompaniment.
Dozens of these little dots in her field of view began to burst apart or tumble, some of which colliding with fighters below them. One was cut cleanly in half directly in front of her, forcing her to swerve out of the way.
All of this happened in just fractions of a second, far too fast for a reaction from the unsuspecting Bentorii, before the barrage halted.
The Neversail crew must have been just as confused as Saferon was, but they seemed to use the surprise to their advantage and began an aggressive strike on the slowly-approaching Hand and its June-Dagger vanguard, firing their thesium cannon arrays with all their hearts.
By the time those shots landed on targets, the swarm had spread out and become chaotic in its overall movements, dodging and evading the manually-aimed cannonfire. Those fighters then returned their attention to the Neversail, flying in zigzags and firing their own weaponry, again chipping away at armour.
As one swarm moved away from the Hand, another moved in from above. Fighters of a wholly other make flew in. They sported five short winglets, each carrying long-snouted cannons and ball-jointed engines, with the cockpit set forward. The design was clearly space-intended, but in such a thick atmosphere with such light gravity, Saferon doubted the limited wingspan and plentiful thrust would be an issue, even without lifters. Yet they were larger, heavier. Slower. Fewer.
They engaged both the June-daggers and the Hand itself, strafing erratically to keep targets in their crosshairs, and to keep the Bentorii guessing as to where they would be next. Saferon could only evade the debris and smoke that began to fill the sky, firing occasionally at the large chunks of fighter she could not avoid.
<I do not recognize those fighters,> said Jaegrynn, <though they have the Ophelian insignias painted on their hulls. Willing to bet that’s the Ophelia herself up there.>
“Finally!” Saferon gasped, “can you get a visual distance on it?”
“About ten kilometres,” said Edge, “pointed a laser at it. Only thing they can’t jam.”
<Oh dear,> said Jaegrynn in worry, <it would appear as though our Ma’guul friends are in trouble. They are holding themselves close to the Neversail, but I can only see three of the gunships!>
<Unknown. I’m sorry. I would contact them if I could.>
“We need to take out the Hand's transmission array on the lower wing, fore quarter,” said Saferon at last, “I imagine that is the source of the jamming.”
“Saferon, there’s something else out there,” said Sam, “trying to get a good visual on it--”
<I see it,> said Jaegrynn, <and I suggest we disengage. Now.>
“It’s coming up on us fast!” said Sam in a hurry.
<Now, Saferon, Now,> Jaegrynn, albeit a fighter, sounded horribly nervous.
“Curse Kabaiila, listen to him!” Edge shouted, “it’s a plugged Dragonfly!”
Dragonfly. A word that spread fear into every heart and mind that knew the meaning. A word that represented an infamous Oasiic fightercraft, ancient in design but without rival the most powerful fighter, in nearly every way, known to any intelligent species. A word that spelled the end of fleets, cities, lives.
Dragonfly. A word that would describe a fighter with an engine mounted to the front that pulled it, with two engines mounted to the rear fuselage that thrust it. Four long, slender wings sprouted from the sides, typically with one set swept forward over the other which were swept back, though they moved, flexed and contorted to the wishes of the pilot. Each wing housed four recessed cannons of an unknown energy type, with an array of unknown torpedo banks at their stems. Its cockpit was above the fuselage, looking over the front engine. The rear fuselage sprouted three tails of equal size, two to the sides and angled up, with the third one sprouting down. The whole of the fighter flexed, engines and weapons included.
Worst of all, the fighter’s skin, so flexible and durable, also changed colour, pattern, texture and finish to match its environment. Because of some mysterious Oasiian technology Saferon wasn’t aware of, the Dragonfly could never be detected. Ever.
Saferon knew this, because she had seen one. She knew no more about it, because she barely had time to flee one.
Would she survive another?
“Incoming!” Shouted Sam as he struggled to follow the fighter with his turret.
“That’s no Bentorii!” Saferon gasped as she devoted more power to engines and pushed them to the maximum, “that’s the same one that wiped out a Behraanese fleet, a year ago!”
<RUN!!!--> Jaegrynn wailed before being cut off suddenly—along with all power on the ship. The engines whined down. The screens went black. The yokes went limp and did nothing.
Saferon immediately reached under for emergency power, flicking it on again and again and again, to no avail.
“Kabaiila take us,” said Maxis as he clenched his eyes.
“Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap!!!” shouted Edge, his head cuddled in his hands as he bobbed back and forth in his chair, “we’re so dead!!”
Before Saferon could as much as say anything, that same Dragonfly flew right next to the Jaegrynn, following him on his shallow descent. Saferon peered into the fighter’s cockpit, seeing only tinted windows. And she knew that whatever pilot was in there, was smart enough to hack into another fighter and cut all power from it, including a separate emergency line.
Then, a single screen powered up, one directly in front of Saferon. Maxis peeked, though Edge was still panicking, and Sam continued to fight the controls.
On the screen, text began to appear:
DISCONTINUE PURSUING CAPITOL SHIP TARGET.
The text disappeared after a few seconds.
COMPLETE BATTLE. THEN PROCEED TO COORDINATES AT THE CORRECT TIME.
JAEGRYNN WILL KNOW.
THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL.
Then, seconds later, all power was restored. The engines began again and the controls came alive. But before Saferon paid any amount of attention to all of this, she leaned forward and scanned the skies again, only to see that the Dragonfly had slipped far ahead of the Jaegrynn, so fast and so well-hidden in plain sight that the only way she could know it was still there, was when it opened up its oversized array of cannons and effortlessly shred June-daggers to pieces.
“We’re okay,” said Edge shakily as he stopped bobbing, “we’re okay, right? We’re not dead?”
“No, we’re not,” said Sam as he patted his metal shoulder.
<A rather enigmatic fighter, she was,> said Jaegrynn lowly, <and I suggest we listen to her. I would rather not incur her wrath.>
“I do not enjoy being told what to do,” Saferon said coldly, “I did not enjoy having my fighter completely humbled.”
“I still don’t think he’s humble,” Edge said under his breath.
“So what do we do now?” asked Maxis.
<Something else, Saferon,> said Jaegrynn, <from what I can see, the Bentorii are attempting to board the Neversail. Fighting can be seen from the battle deck. The containment field has been restored and marines are on deck in melee. They cannot take over another ship, or Nywan will truly be doomed!>
Saferon knew the consequence of losing the Neversail. Winnibahn was right: that battleship truly was the last line of defence. To have it used against the city would spell defeat for certain.
“Take me to the Neversail,” said Saferon, without a second thought or doubt, “I’m authorizing complete free will until I get back. Get the others to safety!”
“I’ve got an idea what you have in mind,” said Edge, shaking his head in grief, “and I don’t like it.”
“I will join you,” said Sam.
“Jae will need you both,” said Saferon as she looked back and let go of the controls, taking off her helmet, “until he can get his sensors back, all he has is visual scanning. Every pair of eyes—sorry--he needs all the eyes he can get.”
“I wasn’t giving you the choice,” Sam argued, taking his rifle out from under the forward passenger seat.
<I can fire my own turret, you know,> said Jaegrynn, <you had best hope that when you come back, I’ll want to give up my free will again.>
Saferon shook her head as she put on her emerald-jewelled circlet and started up her shield belt, “alright, fine Sam. But they are called “demons” for a reason.”
“You don’t know the Francescan Military,” Sam smirked and winked, “I might be quiet. You’ll see why when we get down there.”
“I always knew you were crazy,” said Edge to Sam, “just saying.”
“Never was there a time where a sane person changed the world,” said Maxis, “though being the most sane person in this fighter, I think I had best remain here.”
Saferon simply nodded, looking forward again to see that Jaegrynn had indeed altered course and flew over the Neversail, already using the turret to harry off incoming fighters. He attempted to match the speed of the lumbering battleship and brought himself low enough to the deck, so that Saferon wouldn’t have far to go.
<I cannot descend any further!> said Jaegrynn, <lest I get close enough that the Bentorii may damage major systems! I suggest you be a lady and help the flightless gentleman down?>
The fighter was lightly buffeted by both flying slower and the heat rising from weapons fire all around the deck and, indeed, the rest of the ship.
“Put your shield belt on,” said Saferon to Sam, “the sheer cold will kill you up here without it. Never mind, the lacking air.”
Maxis nodded to them both, “I must admit, your bravery is admirable. Diinshtago.”
Sam glanced to his belt and flicked it on, looking at her with his one eye, “ready.”
“I hope so,” said Saferon, as she pulled on both latches, opening the canopy. The fighter’s shields then became the only thing keeping the air from rushing out of the cabin. She hastily grabbed his hand, pulled him next to her and jumped out of the canopy.
As Saferon descended upon the fray, she noticed that the Bentorii were fighting two enemies: the Nywanese, clearly in protective suits, holed up in the turrets and huddled together behind makeshift barricades upon the metal deck; the second enemy, was one another. They seemed to care little who they killed, only that they had the luxury of doing so to someone.
One fragment of solace existed for the two, when they descended through and physically felt the tickle of the atmospheric field the ship was once again generating.
Just before she hit the deck, she thought herself into a gentle, if swift, glide. Before either Sam or Saferon hit the ground, Sam let himself go, dropping onto one of the Bentorii and smashing down upon the back of his skull with the butt of his rifle with impressive precision.
It was as if he knew exactly where to strike, because he placed himself directly behind the next “demon” and fired at the exact same spot, ending her entirely.
He had a system, perhaps intense training, and he used it masterfully. He would gauge an opponent that presented himself or herself, read their movements regardless how fast, and disable them as quickly and cleanly as possible, sparing the energy reserves in his rifle. Rolling with the hits as they clashed against his light carbonmail jacket. Staying just one step ahead of the next opponent. Taking complete advantage of the chaos.
Saferon had to admire that for all of Sam’s usual lack of communication and daft loyalty to people, he was very skilled in combat close and far. He knew his arms. He knew his armour. He knew his body. His mind. And all of these of the enemy. He acted only as needed, never flourishing or taunting, never speaking a word or boasting. Never lunging, never backing down.
Still, with all his effort in pushing the enemy back, the Bentorii just kept sending in transports filled with boarding parties, and the foes whom the collective Nywanese Forces and Sam alike cut down, were replaced in fractions of moments.
The only advantage was that whatever mysterious hand was guiding them all as a unified force, simply let go of the strings once they stepped aboard the Neversail.
Saferon landed, thinking her sword into one hand, and her thesium pistol in the other. She took a single glance up to see the Jaegrynn break off, breaking the sound barrier several times. He hurdled towards the horizon, nimbly dodging the June-daggers, whom were still largely occupied with the Ophelian forces.
A single glance was all she could afford, as the first of the Bentorii spotted her.
Saferon composed herself, placing the hilt of her sword close to her hip and awaiting the berzerking enemies.
She searched their minds, having never had the chance to read one from a live Bentorii.
She found little by way of thought, and only emotion. Pure emotion, though not rage as she might have thought. Not anger, nor hatred, nor a blind lust for blood.
Despair. She found despair. The same despair Saferon saw commonly in those who had been prisoners for a long time. The same despair she saw deeply buried in Ritana, as she briefly remembered breaking the black-winged lady out of a torture chamber many years before, tortured for what she was.
“Victory, or Kabaiila,” Saferon’s lips spoke without command, as she swung the first stroke of her silver sword, charged with electricity generated from the depths of her spirit. The Bentorii were quick, this one quick enough to parry the block with her sawsword, though not quick enough to stop the electrical current from reaching her heart and exploding it.
The second one met the business end of a thesium pistol, cleanly through her skull.
Her. Woman after woman. Most of these Bentorii were women. Women. Why? Why so few men?
A race with no memories. How could they function as a race at all? How did they remain the same as for a thousand years? How did they reproduce? How did they build ships advanced enough to traverse the stars, with nothing but emotions driving them?
Before Saferon moved to swing at another one of these women, the woman stopped, looking into her eyes, stopping in her tracks. Her eyes—they were sentient. They were filled with tears. She could not make her mouth move, but her eyes—they begged.
She begged, for she could not choose.
Saferon nearly could not kill her—until the woman dropped her weapon and charged into the silver sword.
Before she passed, she mouthed words, words she lacked the air in her lungs to project.
Saferon understood but one of those words.
The woman fell upon her blade, that she may escape the prison of her body and go to Kabaiila.
The first act of free will that Saferon could see.
And then it dawned upon her. All of the Nywanese troops wanted the Bentorii dead. Rightly so, as they had slaughtered many of their friends and family, and endangered their very existence.
Saferon truly wished to understand them. She observed. She wished to find out more, and this must have been somehow sensed by the woman who now laid dead upon her blade.
It was as if they portrayed the emotions sensed in others. As if they emulated it. The more extreme the emotion, the more extreme the reaction.
Saferon felt compassion for the woman who willingly gave her life.
And she noticed that not a single Bentorii had attacked her since.
More still poured in, and more still began to fight among themselves, many of which began to focus on Sam. Sam, who had a ring of corpses around him, almost in a perfect one-metre radius.
Winnibahn, Saferon called out through thought.
Saferon, Winnibahn sounded clearly annoyed, what the fuck are you doing in my head?
We must stand down, said Saferon, I think your jammer’s working, but they emulate the emotions around them. I think if we stopped acting so aggressively, we may be able to stop them from seeing us as enemies!
My crew will not be able to, said Winnibahn, even if your unbelievable theory holds true.
Then tell them to evacuate the decks and seal up, said Saferon, I know what to do now. But I need you to continue emitting that signal flood.
Winnibahn took time to respond. Saferon could see her there, in the tower overlooking the deck, thinking hard upon the matter.
<All hands, stand down!> shouted Winnibahn over a mounted megaphone, <do not engage the Bentorii any further! Exercise Method Twenty-One immediately!>
What is Method Twenty-one?
In-battle meditation, said Winnibahn, it cleans the mind of any built-up anger, sadness, rage, that kind of crap. Haren made it a part of military training. One had to be proficient enough to pass as even the lowliest soldier.
Does that work?
Almost as if magic—though Saferon detected no such thing—the Soldiers lowered their weapons and stood there, eyes closed, motionless and emotionless.
It amazed Saferon that those on deck would listen so unwaveringly so such an outrageous idea.
Yet, this was indeed the Neversail and even the lowliest soldiers here were all seasoned veterans.
But the true seeming of magic was that not only did the soldiers stop—but so did the Bentorii. They stood, still and pensive, confused and delusional still, yet almost as at-peace as those around them.
Oddly enough, Sam, a Francescan soldier once owing allegiance to Behraan, also knew the Method, and performed it.
Saferon thought her weapons away, seeing that they would serve no further purpose. The deck of the Neversail had become quiet and serene.
The battle, at least then and there, if just for a moment, had come to an end.
One woman, drenched in blood, began to look around, wondering why she had been that way. It was as if she woke up from a dream, and found herself like this.
She approached Saferon, her eyes inquisitive, tilting her head as she stood before her, again attempting to mouth words.
What she said, again silent, seemed to resonate more and more in her mind, which Saferon could actually read at that point. The same word perpetuated, again and again, weakly at first but more and more in force.
Saferon recognized the word as ancient Oasiic--for Awakened. Awakened. We've awakened.
As all of this transpired, Saferon took a moment to scan the open skies, realizing that the Hand had turned away and was quickly climbing away. Then, suddenly, it disappeared, leaving a large ring of fire that expanded perpendicular to the then-vanished vessel. All the other fighters had already retreated, from both sides.
Only smoke continued to permeate in the air behind the battle that had ended as quickly as it began.