Another blast sent shudders through the ship. Tristan Cray felt them, but he could not see the ship. With the virtu-round system on, it was as if he were floating alone in space, his control systems ghostly panels of lights against the star-spangled black background. Alone in space, with just a pursuing Dynastic frigate for company.
Dimly wondering how he had allowed himself to be volunteered as rear gunner, he looked away from the sinister grey shape of the pursuing vessel and pondered a panel showing the sorry state of his own ship. A schematic of the patrol craft showed precisely where she had been hit, which systems were down and which were ailing. The self-repair nanosystems were being constantly interrupted by electromagnetic interference, and were unable to fix the broken circuits fast enough. One more good hit from the frigate and they would all be stardust.
“Tris? Tris, are you there?” Smeed’s voice came through the comset.
“Course I’m here,” Tristan snapped. “You think I’m out picking daisies?”
“Tris, we’re in luck,” Smeed called. “There’s a habitable world coming up. Name of Thelema, and it has a colony of some sort. If we can get down into the atmosphere they can’t follow us.”
“They’ll send down landing parties,” Tristan observed. “They certainly aren’t going to let us just walk away.”
“It’s our best chance, Tris. We...”
A red light winked angrily at Tristan. “They’re powering up the weapons again,” he barked. “They aren’t going to give you that chance.”
“Throw everything at them,” said Smeed.
Tristan felt a jolt as Smeed accelerated. He looked glumly at his display. There was precious little left to throw.
A flash from the frigate. Heavy artillery incoming. Tristan launched the last chaff canisters. They sped out to greet the enemy, scattering at the last moment and bursting like fireworks. Even through the filters, the blast was brilliant.
But one neutron shell got through. Tristan’s finger jabbed at the automatic counter-fire panel, then saw that automatic control was inoperative. He cursed softly and brought up the manual targeting system. The Dynasty would see how well they had taught their own.
He jiggled the target square towards the approaching shell. He would have one shot. The cross-hairs edged closer, closer, until they were over the spot of light in the square. Tristan thumbed the firing button.
An explosion blossomed. The patrol craft bucked on the shock wave. Debris clattered and skittered over its hull. They had bought a little time, but would it be enough?
The frigate loomed closer, continuously closer. They were about to let go another salvo.
Smeed’s voice was heard again. “Entering atmosphere... now.”
Almost simultaneously, the frigate practically disappeared behind a wave of its own firepower. Tristan hit his own firing button, but there was nothing there.
He switched off the virtu-round system, and the gunner’s cabin materialised around him. He released the safety-grip on his chair and made for the door. The ship was already being buffeted by the ride through the upper atmosphere of the planet, and it was already getting appreciably warmer. If they weren’t destroyed by the frigate, the heat shield might give out, and they would fry.
Tristan lurched down the passage, grabbing wildly at handholds as the ship rocked more violently. His boots clung reassuringly to the deck. It was the only thing in all this that was reassuring.
“Incoming!” Smeed’s voice hit a new high note. Beyond it, he could hear the others in a state of panic.
And then it hit. The ship went into spasm. Tristan was thrown to the floor as it plunged into a steep headlong dive, and he slid uncontrollably, straight towards the bulkhead, until, at the last moment, the floor and walls wrenched open with an ear-piercing metallic screech, brilliant light burst in, and, screaming, Tristan was pitched out into white emptiness.
Plunging through cloud in absolute terror for seconds that were stretched to an eternity, Tristan knew impact was imminent. He was falling, falling endlessly through a featureless fog, bracing for the end.
And then, another sensation, impact with yielding white, bitter cold, and a continued falling, but less vertical. On and on it went, while another part of his brain distantly registered a jarring and a brilliance in the clouds, perceived like the sun through fog, but brighter, and hotter, and a tremor that passed through everything. He knew that the ship had crashed.
Still the plunge went on, helter skelter, while he sensed dimly a lethal rain of debris falling around him, and hitting him once or twice.
Shards of rock appeared through the snow, growing swiftly more numerous, and then bone-jarring impacts and searing pain wracked his body. He careered into a crag and lay still.