The Third Side
The Battle for the Solar System : Book Two
- Three chapter excerpt -
This is an excerpt from THE THIRD SIDE, by Stephen J Sweeney. The complete novel is available as an eBook for Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony eBookstore, Kobo Books and Diesel Books.
ISBN-10 : 0955856175
ISBN-13 : 9780955856174
£1.99 / $3.99 USD / €1.99
— A Daughter's Promise —
An excerpt from A GIFT FROM THE GODS
By Kelly Taylor
Tuesday, 9th December 2617
I would speak to my family often whilst I was in the service of the Confederation Stellar Navy; at least once a fortnight, circumstances allowing. It wasn't only because I wanted to keep in touch (I was always quite the family girl at heart), but because one could never be sure of whether or not this would be the last time. I was in the service of the military and accidents could still happen even during training exercises, as well as when on active duty. The encounters with the Pandoran army made me only increase the frequency of my calls home.
After Operation Menelaus and the events of Aster and Phylent, I found it harder to keep in direct communication with them. The most I was able to achieve in those months were recorded messages that we would send back and forth. The ATAF training kept both myself and the other White Knights fully occupied around the clock. The CSN were also keen to keep our location and activities as secret as possible. I never found out whether it was because of this, or whether the connections in the various places that we were posted were bad, but I was often never able to establish a live connection to home. I can't begin to count the hours that I spent sitting alone in comms rooms, watching three little cogs turning round and round, the word ‘Connecting...’ floating just above them. It began to become almost as burned into my mind as it was the screen. It was very frustrating – not only because I wanted to speak to my family directly, but because I had questions for my father. Although I had asked them of him during my recorded communications, he had always been evasive, leaving them totally unanswered. It was that that made me grow suspicious that he was in some way working for the CSN and its allies.
After a few months of this, I finally managed to make direct contact. I was stationed aboard Alexandria Orbital, within the Granada system, tucked away in a little corner of the station with nothing other than the low hum of working machinery and computer systems for company. I had been waiting there for the best part of half an hour, and had just moved to comply with the familiar and inviting Cancel prompt, when the console finally jingled its connection success. It was wonderful to see my father's face again. I can see it as clearly now as I did back then; perhaps better, given the granularity of the connections sometimes. I'm grateful for the memories.
* * *
‘Connected. Waiting for Answer...’
Not before time, Kelly thought. The words came as a welcome change to the single one she had been staring at. She had waited for this moment for a good twenty or thirty minutes now. She sat back in her chair, her confidence in the system restored, and waited for her contact to answer the request.
Presently, a middle-aged man appeared on the screen. His hair and the goatee-style beard that he kept trimmed short were bright white, complementing his fair skin. Behind him, lavish paintings, with equally splendid frames, hung on cream coloured walls, whilst ornaments and a number of fine-looking vases, filled with fresh cut, colourful flowers sat on a table. The man's surroundings were beautifully decorated, as could be expected of the family home of a wealthy, successful business man.
“Aaron Tay-” the man began. “Oh! Hello, Kelly!” The initial business-like expression disappeared from his face, replaced by one of surprise and joy.
“Hello, Dad,” Kelly smiled warmly at her father. It was nice to see him again. It had been months since she had spoken to him face-to-face, the only prior communication between the two having been recorded video messages. It was a shame then that, on this rare occasion that they could converse real-time with one another, the picture and audio quality wasn't the best. The video was choppy and somewhat pixelated, like a badly animated movie, and the audio was distinctly lacking in clarity. Still, it mattered little to her.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I'm very well, thank you, Kelly,” her father beamed. “How are you?”
“Fine, fine. Mum keeping you busy?” Kelly noted that her father held a dishcloth in one hand. No doubt he was helping her mother make preparations for a dinner party of some kind. Despite having access to a multitude of live-in staff, there were still things that her mother preferred to do herself, just for the personal touch. And whether he liked it or not, her father would often find himself helping out, in one capacity or another.
Aaron chuckled. “You know your mother, always making sure that I'm being kept busy.” He squinted at the screen. “This line's a bit bad.”
“I know, sorry. It was being a pain. I had to try about twenty times before it would actually connect.”
“Where are you?”
“Alexandria Orbital Station, Granada.”
“Central Provinces?” Aaron said, sounding a little surprised.
The man's face brightened for a moment. “Are ... are you on your way home?” he asked hopefully, although by the tone in his voice, it sounded like he already had a good idea of what the answer was going to be.
Kelly shook her head, knowing she was about to disappoint him. “Not yet. I don't get shore leave for another six weeks or so.”
“Oh, well that's not too far away then.”
“No, it's not. But we're heading off again in the next day or so. I'm glad this thing finally connected and we're actually able to talk for a change, otherwise it would have been a video message again.”
“You're going away again?”
“That's a long tour they've got you on.”
Kelly noted that her father's face had fallen and that he now looked sad, distant and a touch distressed. “You okay, Dad?”
“Let me get your mother,” he said suddenly, before Kelly could ask any more questions. “Barbara!” he called, to no response.
For the first time, Kelly became aware of the loud music that was emanating from somewhere in the background and guessed that her mother was playing some of her favourite music, whilst she busied herself in the kitchen.
“Barbara!” her father called out again, to no avail. His calls were being drowned out by what sounded like the warbling voice of an opera singer. “Just a moment, darling,” he said, before he disappeared off the screen and moved in the direction of the kitchen.
Kelly fished a small data card out of her trouser pocket and inserted it into one of the available slots of the console in front of her. The card contained a copy of her latest journal entries, detailing the events of and musings on her life whilst in the service of the Confederation Stellar Navy. These she would often post to her family, both so that they could be kept up to date with what was happening in her world, and for safekeeping. She was mindful of keeping sensitive information out of her diary, ensuring that her notes and entries were kept somewhat generic. An entire journal filled with such information, with her name plastered all over it, would without doubt lead to a court martial and an instant dismissal from service. It could also land her behind bars if she wasn't too careful. Maintaining her journal had become increasingly difficult in recent months, as more of her time had been consumed by her involvement in so-called Special Operations, leading to her entries becoming ever more cryptic. It had reached a point where she had to think hard about what she had been referring to whenever she re-read her own writings.
The console acknowledged its acceptance of the card and Kelly began to work through the options to prepare to send over her journal data. She was momentarily distracted by the sound of two excited voices, coming from somewhere within the family home. They were speaking quickly and drawing closer.
A few moments later, two similar-looking young women sauntered into the frame, one turning her head towards the display. “Kelly! Oh my God!” she squeaked.
Gemma and Susan, her two younger twin sisters.
“Hi ... Gemma, Susan,” Kelly said, unsure of the identity of which sister had spoken. There had been a time before when she had been easily able to tell the difference between her younger identical twin sisters, just by their mannerisms. She now found herself flummoxed as to which was which. And now, by the look of things, the two girls' wardrobes had finally merged together, both dressed the same as one another - short-sleeved white t-shirts, featuring the logo of some sports team or another, blue jeans, with a brown leather belt. They sported near-identical hair styles, blonde curly locks bobbing gently around the sides of their heads.
“How are you? Where are you?” the same twin asked.
“Is that your uniform?” the other interrupted, peering rather critically at the dark-blue shirt Kelly wore.
“Part of it,” Kelly answered, glancing down at her shirt. The top three buttons were undone, allowing part of the white vest she wore beneath to show through.
“Are you still enjoying being a soldier?” the other girl said.
“I'm a pilot, Susan.” Kelly took a stab at which sister she was speaking to. Susan had always feigned ignorance of her profession, though she was apparently secretly quite proud of what her sister did. “I fly starfighters.”
“Same thing,” Susan said dismissively. “Wouldn't get me into one of those things in a million years. I don't see why you still do it, babe.”
“I'm doing an important job, Susan.”
“As well as crawling through mud, being shouted at, getting up at stupid o'clock, eating crappy food ...”
Kelly knew not to rise to such comments. Her sisters were only joking; playing towards age-old stereotypes and exaggerations of what life in the military entailed.
Well, maybe not total exaggerations.
“Oh, tell Kelly about what happened last week,” Gemma said to her sister.
Susan laughed. “Kelly, you really should've been here! It was the funniest thing ...”
Kelly smiled, and chuckled along as her two sisters began to regale her with tales of their latest exploits, though she paid little attention to the details, happy for the opportunity to speak to her sisters. Despite what some people thought, she didn't dislike her younger siblings, though she did find them quite tiresome, the two girls seemly not interested in escaping the stereotypical imagery that had dogged them for years. She thought it a shame that her journals had obviously failed to make an impression on either of them. Then again, perhaps if they had bothered to pick them up and read them, it might have been a different story.
“Are you coming home for Christmas?” Gemma suddenly wanted to know.
“Christmas? That's not for a while yet,” Kelly said, returning to her journal transfer preparation.
“Er ... No! Four weeks!”
“Closer to three,” Susan corrected.
Kelly stopped her preparation. “It's December?”
Her sisters gave her a quizzical look. “Yes?” they said in unison.
It was the end of the year already? How had she lost track of so much time recently? Although she had been writing in her journal and had been making a note of the date along with each entry, the significance of it had seemingly been lost on her. They had become letters and numbers. Had it really already been six months since the ATAF training project, the failed operation to recover Dragon, and the incident at Arlos starport? She had been so busy lately that the time seemed to have just slipped right past her.
“I haven't even thought about presents,” she thought out loud.
“No? Well, not that I care,” Susan said, holding her left hand up to the screen, as Kelly attempted to collect her thoughts. “Jake gave me my present already!”
Kelly couldn't help but stare at the beautiful band that adorned her sister's ring finger - platinum, carrying three diamonds that sparkled brightly in the light as she turned her hand on the screen.
“Well? What do you think?” Susan said.
Though she had never openly admitted it, on the few occasions she had met him, Kelly had found Susan's now husband-to-be repulsive. In her opinion, Jake Brookes was ugly, arrogant, ignorant and downright sexist. All of these things seemed to have been lost on Susan, however, who seemed to find all his undignified habits, “charming” and “cute”. She could only imagine how her mother and father might have reacted to the news. She was certain Jake had hit Susan on more than one occasion, too.
Stupid girl! Of all the people! Even so, Kelly couldn't help but feel a small twinge of envy within her. “It's gorgeous, Susan. Congratulations,” she said, with as much sincerity as she could muster. It was a nice ring, she'd give Jake that.
“Jealous?” Gemma said, taking her sister's hand and gazing at the stones.
Perhaps a little. Though not because of the ring; she could easily afford several like it if her heart so desired. No, rather because of what it represented. Susan had found someone; even if the man was a pig. Who did she have? No one. Well, perhaps not no one. Maybe one man, with sandy-blonde hair ... But how long had that been going on? Why, after so long, had they never let each other in?
“Yeah, she's jealous,” Susan quipped to Kelly's silence.
“Excuse me, girls,” her father's voice came from behind the twins. He had finally returned with their mother. The pair pushed the two twin girls aside so they could get a better look at their eldest daughter.
“Hello, dear,” Kelly's mother greeted her, presenting a bright smile of perfect white teeth.
“Hi, Mum,” Kelly said, feeling her own smile and happiness returning.
“Home for Christmas?”
“I'll be in service,” Kelly said, regretfully. “Back in about six weeks.”
“Oh, not to worry. We'll see you then. Everything okay?”
“Good; it's nice to know that you're keeping well,” her mother said, always very practical and to the point.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
Kelly saw her eyes flicker briefly to Susan's ring. They hovered there only a moment, but Kelly was sure her mother had noticed her catch the glance.
“I've just finished reading the last entries of your journal,” Barbara said, changing the subject. “The more recent ones have been a little hard to understand, but it's still very interesting.”
“Yes, sorry about that,” Kelly said. “It's still all classified, I'm afraid.”
Her mother waved away the apology. “Don't worry, I understand. I was actually speaking with a senior editor at Whitmore-Price the other day, and he said he would be very interested in working with you sometime to get a couple of books out. He said your journals were exactly the sort of thing they will want to publish in the next few years. He especially liked your eye for detail.”
“Oh, really?” Kelly said, a little surprised. So the writing hadn't been a waste of time after all. It was possible that she could go on to inspire many others to fulfil their maximum potential and strive for greatness in their lives. She felt her chest swell with pride.
“Only snag is ...” Her mother turned to look at her father, who began to chuckle a little. Her mother seemingly couldn't help but join in.
Kelly couldn't see what was amusing them so. “W ... what's so funny? What's the snag?”
Barbara calmed herself. “He said that you might need to work on your style a bit.”
“What do you mean?”
That look again between mother and father. “He said ... he said that right now it reads more like the diary of a teenage girl, rather than the memoirs of a naval pilot, out in the field.”
Kelly flushed and felt herself deflate. For every way in which she thought she had escaped the stereotype of an unsophisticated, air-headed daughter of a billionaire entrepreneur, it seemed that it was still nestled somewhere within her bones.
“Don't worry, dear,” her mother continued. “I had a look at some of the earlier entries and re-wrote them for you. I'll have your father send them to you in a moment. If you use those as a style guide when you come to write your newer ones, I'm sure Mr Kent will find them more suitable.”
Kelly flushed again, a little embarrassed, but grateful that her mother would go out of her way to help her in such a way. “Thank you,” she said.
“Don't mention it. Now, tell us what's been happening in your world ...”
The family spoke at length, discussing the highs - business still good, excellent snow in the resorts in Tigibel, and a number of very flattering pieces about Kelly's accomplishments within naval service; as well as the lows - Susan's abrupt engagement, which seemed to be the source of a rift between father and daughter. They still managed to share a number of laughs in between. Eventually, Barbara decided she needed to return to her cooking and preparations, and started back to the kitchen, herding the twins along with her.
“That's what we have maids for,” one of Kelly's siblings complained.
“Whilst you're staying here, you can show some gratitude and help your mother out in the kitchen,” Barbara said. “One of you has a lot to make up for.” There was more grumbling before the two skulked off in the direction of the music that was still being played at a remarkable volume.
“We'll see you soon, dear,” Barbara said, before departing.
“I love you, Mum.”
“I love you too, Kelly. Aaron, could you forward those edited journal entries to her, please? I put them in the outbox marked KT.”
Kelly's father nodded and set to work, his hands working across the screen in front of him.
“I'll send you over my latest ones, too,” Kelly said. “Connection's still bad though, so it might be a while.” The contents of the data card she had inserted popped up on the display as a number of little icons, appearing like pieces of paper, neatly arranged in their own little container on the right-hand side of the screen. She placed a fingertip onto the screen's touch-sensitive surface, over one of the icons, and smoothly ran it across to where another small receptacle resided.
“How are your friends enjoying their new found fame?” her father asked her, as she moved on to the next entry to transfer.
Kelly laughed, thinking about it. “Estelle is loving the attention she's getting; it's like a dream come true for her. She's getting a lot more respect and admiration from senior command, too. Looks like she's finally getting all the recognition that she always wanted.”
Though that wasn't all. Kelly remembered the look on Estelle's face when she had come to her new quarters aboard Spirit Orbital, to show her her pay cheque. There had quite literally been another digit added to the total. Allegedly, with the increased amount of money that Estelle was now sending home, the de Winters had moved house twice. And, for the first time in nearly ten years, Jed was now walking without the aid of a cane, the family at last able to afford the surgery to correct his knee.
“Dodds and Enrique are just taking it in their stride,” Kelly added. Though she cut short of telling her father how the two men were capitalizing on their fame to exploit some of the female cadets, much to Estelle's great irritation. “And Chaz, is ... Well, Chaz is Chaz. He's hardly brightened at all.”
Aaron nodded in understanding. “And how are you getting along?” he wanted to know. “After all, part of the reason you enlisted was to get away from that sort of thing.”
“It's not changed anything for me,” Kelly said, placing two fingertips on the screen, to drag a couple more entries over to the transfer queue. She was almost done. “People already knew who I was, anyway.”
Aaron nodded again. “How long have you been with the navy now?”
Kelly paused momentarily as she finalized the entries to be sent over. Odd question; she was sure he already knew. “About nine years?”
“Hmm. That's quite a long time really, isn't it?”
“Well, it's sort of flown by, if you'll pardon the expression.”
“You know, I think it's time you came home,” Aaron said.
“Uh huh,” Kelly murmured, as she started the data transfer. Along the bottom of the screen, a small notification appeared and a luminous horizontal white bar began to fill, indicating the transfer progress. It was filling rather slowly. “I'll be back in six weeks; straight after Christmas. After all of this, I intend to stay for at least two weeks. Hopefully a month.”
“I meant for good.”
Kelly's brow creased. Up until now, her father had been one hundred percent behind her naval career, doing whatever he could to help her succeed and get through the difficult times. She felt a little bewildered. “Sorry?”
“Well, you've been there a long time. Don't you think it's time for a change? You must be ready for something else by now, surely? I mean, you're not thinking about staying there forever, are you?”
Kelly stared at her father for a moment. Did he really just say that? Was he really asking her to pack it in and come home? Something wasn't quite right there. His face looked sincere, but there was something else there - there was concern; something was amiss. For several months now, Kelly had had a number of questions playing on her mind, all of which begged for immediate answers. One in particular she had wanted to discuss face-to-face with her father, and with the data transfer showing no signs of finishing up any time soon, now was as good a time as any.
“Dad, something I wanted to ask you; never had the chance before with the recorded messages.” Or rather, you never answered them. “When we were ... when we were on that mission six months ago ...” She paused as she thought about how to phrase what she was going to say, before opting to come straight out with it instead. “What was one of Gloucester Enterprises' freighters doing in Imperial space?”
There was a pause. “Freighter? What freighter?” her father asked. The man started to touch absent-mindedly at parts of his face, tugging gently at his ear lobes.
You're hiding something from me, Kelly thought. Whenever her father became nervous, he would begin to scratch at some non-existent itch, usually located somewhere about his face. His ear lobes would suffer the most if he was feeling particularly pressured. He had never been a very good bluffer as a result.
“I saw one of our freighters, Dad,” Kelly continued. “There were people onboard.”
“Well, yes, those freighters aren't automated. They require a crew to--”
“I mean civilians, Dad. Refugees!” Kelly watched her father's expression closely. He hadn't totally denied the freighter's existence and she was certain of what she had seen when she and the other White Knights had approached Arlos starport. “What was one of the company's ships doing out there? Where was it taking those people?”
Aaron composed himself, taking his hand from his face. “I'm not sure what you think you saw, Kelly, but none of our freighters are anywhere near Imperial space,” he said, keeping his expression as straight and deadpan as he could. Something there looked to be begging to be scratched. “No one within the Confederacy has been granted a trading permit within any Imperial systems for decades, not since the Imperial Senate laid out and pushed forward their bills of restrictions on transport and commerce.”
“I know what I saw—” Kelly protested.
“You're starting to see things, Mouse,” her father countered. “You've been in that job for too long, and things like that blow to your head couldn't have helped matters. Some deep space pilots have been known to suffer from mild delusions, caused by spending too much time out there. They claim to see people and faces, and hear whispering voices and such. It never is anything of the sort - the brain is very good at picking out things that aren't really there. That's why people used to think they saw ghosts in old photographs.”
Kelly couldn't help but scowl. “Are you suggesting that I'm going crazy?” she asked, incredulously.
“No, darling, but it sounds like you're seeing things that you want to - freighters, refugees, zombies, sold—”
“Zombies?” Kelly interrupted.
Her father hesitated.
“I never mentioned that.”
Aaron flushed. “You did; in your journal,” her father contradicted her again.
“No, never.” Kelly continued to regard her father in silence, wondering what it could be that he wasn't telling her. There was little doubt in her mind that he knew what she was talking about, and perhaps even some things that she didn't. What was it he wasn't telling her? Why didn't he want to tell her?
“Dad—” she started. The console before her jingled. The little progress bar at the bottom of the screen had now filled. The transfer was complete. It must've sped up when they were talking.
“I have to go help your mother,” Aaron made his excuses, the sad look once again visible in his eyes.
“Okay,” Kelly said reluctantly.
“Have you still got your pendent?”
Another odd, out of the blue question. “Of course. I never take it off.” She felt her hand involuntarily move to where it hung around her neck, fingering its oval shape.
She rubbed at the pendent, subtly feeling the engraving. “I was thinking of getting a new chain for it, but otherwise it's fine.”
“Good ... good,” Aaron said. He looked as though he wanted to say something else. “I love you, Kelly.”
“I love you too, Dad,” she said, and prepared to sign off.
“Come home soon, okay?” he added. He was clearly very worried for her, for reasons he refused to share. Or maybe for reasons he thought she was better off not knowing.
Kelly smiled back at him, though unable to help feel sadness entering into it. “Don't worry, Dad. I'll be fine,” she said. “I promise.”
— How Are the Mighty Fallen —
First Lieutenant Simon Dodds steadied himself as CSN Ifrit trembled beneath his feet. The vibration that shuddered its way across the carrier's bridge was accompanied by a deep rumbling, coming from somewhere lower down within the vessel. Before him stood the ship's acting captain, Commodore Christian Hail. Dodds strained to hear the man clearly, as the grumbling from the stricken vessel drowned out the brief he was attempting to deliver.
Hail raised his voice, “We're going to drop into a low orbit around Mythos and then start—”
A tremendous boom silenced him and the ship gave a sudden lurch. Dodds was almost knocked off his feet as Estelle crashed into his side. He set himself and his commanding officer straight, and looked back to Hail.
Hail raised a hand and looked around to the frontal viewport. “Just a minute!” he said, before he hastened down the bridge's length, the man's stature and way he moved reminding Dodds of a beardless Captain Meyers. Hail went to stand by the helmsman's console, taking hold of the back of the operator's seat for support, and began pointing and gesturing at both the console and the viewport. His words were lost to Dodds' ears, consumed by the distance, continuous rumblings and wail of alarms.
Dodds watched him for a time, before his eyes moved to the scene beyond the carrier, seen through the massive central viewport. Ahead of them loomed the increasingly huge, blue form of Mythos. Ifrit was now so close to the planet that Dodds was able to start making out the more intricate details of the many continents below. Streaks of white cloud lay scattered over the vast blue oceans and yellowy-green land masses, giving the planet the appearance of a huge, misty marble.
Between the carrier and the planet a desperate battle raged, Ifrit's meagre complement of starfighters totally overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers that made up the opposing forces. With its position towards the rear half of the carrier, Ifrit's bridge presented its occupants with a view of the top of the enclosed flight deck. From his experience of visits to similar class carriers, Dodds would have expected to see a great fiery emblem of the carrier's namesake spread across the top. Further forward, two plasma accelerator cannons would be affixed to the bow, as well as a number of other cannons, dotted across the surface.
The sight that greeted him now couldn't be more different - the bow of Ifrit was shattered, torn and crumpled, as though the ship had been driven headlong into a thick, impenetrable wall. Somewhere in that mess of battered steel were the accelerators, never to be fired again. The emblem of the fiery jinn was all but gone, the outer surface of the forward portion of the ship blackened by impacts from laser, plasma, missile and rocket fire. Parts of it looked as though they had been split apart by a great knife. The carrier's shielding had long since relinquished its full power to the onslaught of fire the enemy had thrown against it. Every now and again, as a plasma round missed its intended target and crashed into the carrier, a thin skin of rippling blue light would materialise, the sliver being all that remained of the defences. It would dissipate quickly, the energy barrier seemingly unable to fend off even the most trivial of attacks.
Many of the defensive cannons that Dodds could still make out were a shadow of their former selves. And whilst some didn't appear to have suffered as much damage as their cousins, they stood silently by as Imperial starfighters wheeled overhead, the turrets not even turning to track them. A few of the carrier's remaining offensive armaments still functioned, though their rate of fire had diminished greatly, the efforts now more akin to that of a garden hose, whose inconsistent water pressure was causing it to splutter.
With Hail still issuing orders to the helmsman at the front, Dodds' eyes strayed to the screens of the operators, who sat at consoles parallel to the central aisle. The operators were working frantically at their systems, conferring with one another and jabbing at the screens and consoles before them. Many of the screens were displaying statistics and information pertaining to the particular system the officer was currently assigned to monitoring. Others were displaying the health states of various parts of the ship.
One that he could see was displaying a two-dimensional overview of the carrier, appearing like a set of schematics. Many of the different sectors of Ifrit were reported to be suffering from considerable stress, bands of yellow and red splashed throughout the graphic. There were few remaining undamaged portions of the vessel left, as far as he could see; not a single part of the overview suggesting any sector of the carrier was operating under normal conditions.
He then caught sight of one of the live security camera feeds from the lower decks of the ship. It was cycling between views every few seconds. Each rotation of the feed painted a grim picture. The image was a little hazy in the current feed, but the floor of the corridor it monitored could clearly be seen to be littered with debris and molten metals, from where the ship's invaders had blasted their way in through a bulkhead. There was movement somewhere further up the corridor, around a corner. Dodds could see feet moving and shadows leaping.
The image cycled again, this time showing a woman running. In pursuit behind her was a figure clad entirely in black. One of the invading soldiers. Their head was covered by a full black helmet, shielding the view of their face. Though the woman appeared to be running for all her worth, the soldier chasing after her was moving fast. Very fast. From their build - a thick torso, with large muscles on their arms and legs - it looked to be a man. He caught up with the woman in mere seconds, his stride and speed easily outstripping that of his quarry. He stretched out a hand and grabbed hold of her arm, yanking her to a halt. Dodds caught a short glimpse of the look of sheer terror on the woman's face as she was spun around to meet her opponent. Though she struggled against him, the man was far taller and considerably stronger than she was. It was like watching a fully-grown man tackling a child.
The soldier's hands closed around her head, and in one quick movement her neck was broken. He performed the action with considerable ease, as though he was snapping nothing but a dry twig. The solider let the woman's body slide to the floor, the ruby-red eyes of the helmet watching her limp form crumble down for but a scant few moments before he set off again, stepping over her body, in search of his next target.
The feed cycled once more. This time, the scene was that of a battle within a slightly larger area of the ship, a control room of some sort. There, personnel were once again fighting a losing battle against the unstoppable invaders. Men and women were taking cover behind walls, consoles and other equipment, whilst attempting to return fire. One of the black-suited soldiers was sprawled out on the floor, looking to have been gunned down. As the display continued to relay the feed of the fight, the soldier began to get back to their feet, quickly snatching up the weapon that had tumbled from their grasp as they had been downed. They moved as if they had merely tripped, rather than having incurred multiple gunshot wounds.
Dodds saw two of the carrier's crew exchange looks of exasperation and began shouting to others that couldn't be seen. There was no audio, but Dodds didn't need it to know the thoughts and words of the people in that room - “Why isn't he dead?”, “He's getting back up!”, “Why won't they stay down?”, “Keep shooting them! You only wounded him!”, “There was blood! I saw them bleed!”
The images did nothing to ease his discomfort of their shared predicament.
He turned around to his companions, to see Enrique, Estelle, Kelly and Chaz all watching the same feed as he. Estelle looked as serious and determined as always, though Dodds knew that that was just a mask she practised well. Her eyes would often betray her true feelings, as they did so now. Kelly, on the other hand, had the telltale signs of distress written all over her face. Beside her stood Enrique, who may have been as calm as Estelle and Dodds himself, had he not clearly been concerned for Kelly's well-being. Chaz caught Dodds' eye and Dodds once again saw that unsettling look - one of deep concern.
Dodds turned back to the front, as Hail bounded back over.
“We don't have much time,” Hail started, raising his voice over the sound of the wailing alerts. “It should be very clear to you by now that Ifrit's situation is dire - we have been boarded by a large Enemy force; been pushed out of jump, far from our intended destination; and now find ourselves totally outgunned and outnumbered by the Enemy's naval presence.”
In the face of what was happening to his ship, Hail was speaking very calmly. Though Dodds couldn't help but feel he was hiding his true feelings well.
“Captain,” Estelle said. “I'm confident that with the ATAFs we could hold back the Imperial attackers, long enough for help to arrive.”
Hail held up a hand and shook his head, to prevent Estelle from saying any more. “That's a valiant suggestion, Commander, but far too risky in Ifrit's current state. My mission priorities also forbid it.” Estelle moved to speak once more, but Hail raised his own voice, apparently not willing to entertain any more of the woman's proposals. “When I was assigned to this mission, I was told that there were two things on this carrier that were far more important than anything else - the ATAFs and the lives of the White Knights. Should anything untoward happen during the course of the operation, I was to ensure the safety of those things above all else. These orders come directly from Fleet Admiral Jenkins herself. Given the current circumstances, I will first ensure that you five are able to safely reach the escape pods, before issuing the general call to abandon ship.”
“Sir—” Estelle gaped.
“Ifrit's security chief and his team will ensure that you are able to reach the escape pods unhindered. They are currently working to ensure you have a clear route there.”
“What's our destination?” Estelle said, taking her eyes off the ship's captain and looking to the battle ahead of them. “How are the CSN going to effect pick-up?”
Dodds agreed with her concern. They were going to jettison escape pods in the middle of this? They would be sitting ducks! They would have little in the way of manoeuvrability and the pods obviously lacked any sort of defensive or offensive capability. As far as he knew, they didn't even have energy shields. He once more looked past Hail, to the growing form of Mythos and suddenly realised the captain's intent.
Hail said, “You're not going to await pick-up here, Commander. You're going to make the journey down to Mythos and wait for the CSN to come get you. Your destination is a beach on the east coast of Sherland, not far from the city of New Malaga.” He turned and gestured to the large landmass that was almost central in the viewport. “I have instructed that we be taken into low orbit over the planet, so that you can escape into the atmosphere as quickly as possible. It should prevent the Imperial fighters from giving chase.”
“What about the ATAFs?” Estelle said.
Yes, what about the ATAFs? Dodds thought. At the time, Dodds had assumed the reason the five had been summoned to the bridge was to initiate a counter offensive with the fighter craft, just as they had done months earlier when faced with a similar situation.
“They will be securely sealed in the cargo hold,” Hail said. “My intent is to ditch Ifrit in the Tanis Sea, just east of Sherland; the continent you are heading for. With any luck, it should mean that the ATAFs can be retrieved by the CSN before the Enemy can get to them. A distress signal has already been broadcast and should reach naval headquarters within the hour. They will affect both your own rescue and the salvage operation for the ATAFs.”
“And Ifrit?” Dodds said, though he felt he knew the answer to the question even before he'd asked it.
“The carrier is lost,” Hail shook his head once more. “It is better that I now try and save as many of the lives of the crew as possible, rather than lose them all. Now, we must hurry! There is no time for any more questions!” He looked past the Knights. “Mr Cole?”
“Sir,” a man came striding up to join the six.
“Is the route clear?”
“Quite literally just this minute, sir.”
“Good. You and your team will escort the White Knights to the escape pods, for immediate departure. You are to avoid all contact with hostile forces wherever possible and head directly to the surface. Understood?”
“Good,” Hail said. “Now go; all of you!”
* * *
From bridge, to lift, to command deck, to a second lift, the way was as clear as Cole had promised his security team would make it. The escaping party was now made up of eleven - the five Knights; five security personnel, one assigned as bodyguard to each pilot; and Cole himself. The men and women crammed themselves into the lift car, Cole allowing everyone else in before entering himself.
Dodds looked over his fellow team mates. The expressions of concern still remained on each of their faces. He recalled the last time he had seen such collective distress - when they had been fleeing Arlos starport. The driving force back then had been the presence of six heavily armed soldiers, not unlike the ones that now littered the interior of the ship. The image of those uniforms and helmets was forever burned into his mind. Dressed entirely in black, there was little else in the way of colour, save for two somewhat extrinsic white insignias on their left breast and right upper arm, as well as a pair of piercing, ruby-red eyes. He was sure he had heard the soldiers given a name at one time, too. What had they been called? A strange moniker; it escaped him.
He wondered how Estelle was feeling, and looked past the tight huddle to where she was almost jammed into the corner. In times such as these, he knew her to start becoming quite pensive and begin drawing breath far quicker than normal. It was something he knew was attributed to her character, rather than any kind of medical condition. Oddly, however, she appeared far calmer than he was expecting; calmer now than she had looked back up on the bridge. She looked more relaxed and focused, her eyes no longer betraying any sense of distress that she might have been feeling.
He wondered what had changed. Had she gone to her happy place? Was she simply performing some sort of breathing exercise, to help keep herself steady? Dodds had never known her to be one to believe in either of those kinds of things. He noticed her cup her hand over something in her jacket, feeling its shape. It looked as though she was checking that something was still there. Her eyes met his, but she made no other gesture.
The communicator that Cole clutched tight in his hand suddenly squawked. “Captain, it's López here! We need to make a slight alteration to the original route!” The voice was accompanied by background noise that sounded like a mixture of gunfire and the shouts of others.
Cole pulled back from the lift control he was about to activate and raised the communicator. “What's the problem?”
“We've had to bring down more fire doors to hold the boarders off! They're going nuts with the cutters down here! It means we've had to seal off the most direct route to the escape pods. It's still possible to—” The voice was lost in a sudden explosion of white noise.
“López, you're breaking up!” Cole raised his voice. “Repeat your previous transmission!”
The communicator spat nothing but an indecipherable jumble of static and the odd barely recognisable word.
“López, are you there? López!”
Cole swore and punched the lift controls. “Change of plan,” he said, glancing around the group. “We're going to head to the sled bay instead. You've all had sled training, right?”
A general look of unease flickered across the faces of his security team.
Cole looked from one member to the next, as the lift began its rapid descent. “Okay, who here hasn't had sled training?”
All of the security team raised their hands.
Cole looked exasperated. “You've gotta be kidding me!”
“We'll pilot the sleds,” Estelle said, nodding to the Knights. “We'll rendezvous on the coast, as originally planned, and regroup once we've landed. Each of us will pair up with one of your team and guide us down to the surface.”
Estelle's voice was calm, yet determined, and Dodds found himself wishing that she would share the secret of her solace since leaving the bridge.
“An excellent plan, Commander,” Cole nodded.
“It does mean that we can expect to come down at different times and points,” Estelle added.
“In that case, you should all have weapons in case we get separated and you need to defend yourselves, once we put down on the surface,” Cole said. He signalled to his team. “Give them your spares.”
The five men did as they were ordered, unstrapped weapons and handing them to each of the Knights. Dodds reached out to take the proffered pistol, when another hand knocked his away. Estelle fixed him with a serious look.
“Not for him,” she said to Cole.
Dodds stared back at her incredulously. “Estelle, I'm not going to shoot anyone by mistake.”
“Sorry, Dodds, I don't want to risk it.”
“What's the problem?” Cole said.
“Lieutenant Dodds was involved in a gunfire accident one year ago; two civilians lost their lives,” Estelle interrupted. “I think it's best he remains unarmed.”
“No,” Estelle said.
Dodds looked to Enrique and Chaz. Enrique gave a small shrug. Chaz said nothing, his expression unreadable.
“Are you sure, Commander?” Cole said.
“Positive,” Estelle said.
“Fine. Adams, looks like you'll be shooting for two.”
The lift continued its descent, and less than a minute later the doors parted, revealing a short, dark corridor. At the other end lay the entrance to another lift, above which, in dark red letters, glowed the words “Sled Bay”. The doors were already open, the lift car waiting for them to enter.
Cole pointed. “Let's go.” The occupants of the lift spilled out and began to make their way swiftly across the short distance between the two cars.
What happened next, Dodds could not accurately describe. Whether it had been because of the sirens, the flashing red alert, or simply because he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, he couldn't quite be sure. All he knew was that at one point he was keeping pace with the group and the next he had been knocked off his feet. An instant before the event, he had caught a glimpse of black, intermixed with greys and whites, and then he was hit in the side by what felt like a charging bull. His world tumbled about him, shapes and colours blurring and intermixing with one another. He caught fleeting images of legs carrying on past and then he hit the floor, rolling over backwards as he did so. He tried to get to his feet, but with his world still turning he only staggered backward, crashing into two figures behind him and returning once more to the floor.
Looking up, he discovered the cause of his current predicament - two figures were grappling with one another. One was a member of Ifrit's security, the other, one of the carrier's many invaders. The pair were fighting over a weapon of some kind. It looked like a shotgun.
“Dodds!” a voice called out.
Dodds hunted around for the source of the voice, before - with shock - he regained his orientation. Whilst at first he believed the two fighting men to be behind him, he discovered them to actually be standing between him and the lift leading toward the sled bay. Beyond the tussling pair, he could see Cole and a number of the Knights' escorts attempting to contain the group within the car. Enrique and Chaz were struggling against them, trying to get out, to get back to him.
“Dodds! Get up! Come on!” Enrique cried out once again.
Dodds heard something clatter to the floor. The shotgun that had been the object of the struggle between the black-suited solider and the security guard had fallen from both their grasps. It bounced and skirted along the floor, away from them. The solider ignored it and instead thrust out a gloved hand, gripping the security guard tightly around the throat. His victim began to choke and Dodds was certain that, even over the other noises that were flooding the corridor, he heard something crack. The grip was a strong one, he knew that all too well himself; certainly, the man's feet were no longer fully rested on the floor.
“Dodds!” Estelle, this time.
Dodds pulled himself up and made to head to the lift, but the close by sounds of choking gave him pause. He saw himself escaping into the lift with his friends, doing nothing to help the security guard, and leaving the man to die. He couldn't bring himself to do that.
“No! Leave him!” Cole shouted, as if sensing his intentions. “He's none of your concern!”
The security guard's eyes flickered to Dodds, seeming to suggest he follow Cole's suggestion and get away while he still could. Reluctantly, Dodds agreed, starting forward. At the same time, the black-suited solider released his grip on his victim's throat, letting the man slide choking and spluttering to the floor, turning to meet Dodds' approach. An instant later, the solider grabbed hold of him.
Dodds had no choice now; he'd have to fight. Or at least try. The solider was fully armoured, wearing the heavy and hard-looking suit that he knew was actually composed of thick leather. Striking that with his bare fists would do nothing. Equally, with it still protected by the all-encompassing helmet, attempting any blow to the head wasn't an option. Dodds wasn't altogether sure of how he could tackle his opponent. And as his mind raced to filter his options and come up with a workable solution, his adversary effortlessly flipped him over, utilizing the inhuman strength Dodds had experienced before.
With a painful thud, Dodds found himself once more flat on his back. Should've gone for the gun! As he turned to look for it, he caught a flash of steel as the soldier withdrew what looked like a hunting knife from where it had been holstered about his leg. The solider twirled it around in one hand, pointing the blade down, preparing to plunge it into Dodds' chest. Dodds tried to roll away, but found his opponent had already pinned him expertly, one knee pressing down hard on his chest.
His thoughts went back to memories of the refugee at Arlos who'd had his jugular slit; of how the man had clutched at his throat, attempting to stem the rapid flow of blood that was gushing between his fingers and spilling into the corridor; of how his attacker's knife had been red with his victim's blood. Dodds was certain that the blade that now hovered before him was about to become stained thick with his own.
The steel flew towards him—
There were several bangs and the knife wavered. The wielder cried out in pain and turned to face the source of the explosions. Another bang came, their head snapping back as a bullet ricocheted off it, before several hits to the torso knocked them to the ground.
As the soldier fell away, Dodds became aware of feet standing close by. At first, he expected to see Estelle. But looking up, he saw the stern face of a man clutching a pistol and staring intently at the body on the ground. The man emptied the remainder of his bullets into the body, before he ejected the spent clip and shoved in another. The speed at which he did so was something to behold, and Dodds couldn't quite be sure what the driving factor was - talent, fear, or necessity. Given the circumstances, it was likely a combination of all three.
Determined to remain upright, Dodds pulled himself to his feet and turned just in time to see the doors of the sled bay lift closing. He caught a brief glimpse of Estelle's face. Her clear and calm expression had gone; she looked fearful and anxious. The doors sealed shut ... and she was gone.
Dodds glanced to the body on the floor, noticing for the first time that his attacker was female. Despite having heard the cries of pain and been so close to them, his attacker's sex had not registered. He then looked to the two men close by him. One of them - the man who, it appeared, had crashed into him - was rubbing at his throat. By the sounds of things, he was having difficulty drawing breath. In the absence of a weapon, the solider must've been attempting to strangle him. Dodds felt at his own throat, where he had once worn a reminder of his own very similar experience.
The second man Dodds recognised as one of Cole's security team. It was Adams, the man who had been assigned to escort him to the surface.
He looked to Dodds. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Dodds said.
“Cole sent me back to help you.”
“What about the others? Where are they?”
“They're safe; don't worry about them. They're on their way down to the sled bay.” He looked to the man who was massaging his throat. “Hey, how you holding up?”
The man nodded and appeared to struggle to swallow. “Fine,” he said in a rasping tone.
There came the sound of gunfire from further down the interconnecting corridor that the solider had appeared from. Voices joined it, a mixture of words that Dodds recognised and the strange, somewhat unsettling tones of the black-suited soldiers. He didn't feel like waiting around for them to appear. He sprang over to the lift that his fellow team mates had disappeared into and slammed his palm several times against the call button. His hopes that the lift car might still be there were dashed as the button did nothing but light up in acknowledgement of his request. Damn lift!
“There must be another way to get down there!” he said, looking for signs of a stairwell or inter-deck ladder.
“There's no time!” Adams called to him. “Cole said we should make our way to the other sled bay.”
“That's on the opposite side of the ship!”
“No, it's not as far as that,” Adams said. “But we still have to hurry. How many of these guys were you trying to handle back there?” he added, looking to the security guard who was still rubbing his throat.
“A lot,” the man said.
Dodds swore and turned his back on the lift, rejoining the two men by the body. “Want me to get that?” Dodds nodded in the shotgun's direction.
“No point - bloody thing's empty!” the scratchy voice informed. “I was trying to reload it, when the bitch came at me! Made me drop all my shells!” The rasping came back stronger once he'd finished.
“What's your name?” Adams said.
“Johnson,” he managed, after swallowing some more.
“Right, Johnson, you're with me now,” he said, turning over his spare plasma pistol to the man. “Our priority is to get this guy down to the surface, safe and sound. Got that?”
Johnson merely nodded.
“Good. Best you only talk when you need to, eh? Right, come with us.”
* * *
The small party managed to find their way across to the other side of Ifrit unhindered, and as they entered the bay, Dodds saw that all of the small craft remained, despite the general evacuation order that had begun to proliferate throughout the carrier. Cole must've informed Hail that he and the others had made it safely to the sled bays. The three men came to stand side by side, looking over the chamber.
The bay was small, designed only to accommodate the tiny vessels that resided within, as well as various pieces of maintenance equipment. The craft were aligned along the walls of the bay, resting on their catapult rails, in front of the closed launch tubes. Unlike the escape pods they had originally been making for, capable of carrying as many as fifty people, the sleds were little more than two person shuttles, seating one passenger behind the other. The craft's colour scheme was like that of other Confederation vessels, painted in a mixture of blue hues. The overall shape was roughly akin to that of a bobsleigh, featuring a smooth, curved body. During his training, Dodds had found them to be functional, if quite cramped and unappealing. A far cry from the ATAF that he had spent the past several months flying.
Despite the sled training they had provided, the CSN actually advised against using them. Life support was at a minimum, providing little more than a few hours of oxygen, and there was obviously no food or water. They were designed for quick and dirty evacuations only. Planetfall was possible, but would be an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience. Though, under circumstances such as these, beggars couldn't be choosers.
There was one major problem that Dodds could see, however. He looked to Johnson. “You ever flown one of these?”
“N—” the injured man tried to answer, then shook his head instead.
Dodds swore under his breath. He would rather that neither Adams nor Johnson were left behind. But given that there were three of them, it would mean that one would end up flying solo. Unfortunately, neither of the two men who had accompanied him here knew how to pilot a sled.
As he prepared to suggest that one of the two would have to seek out a capable member of the crew to see them to the surface, there came the sound of weapons fire from behind. Adams staggered forward with a cry, and Dodds' eyes flew to the bay's approach corridor, seeing a pair of dark figures racing towards them. The two pairs of feet quickly became more than a dozen. Dodds wasn't about to wait around and see how many more might appear, and darted aside, taking cover behind the walls adjacent to the entrance, as plasma fire streaked into the bay.
Johnson, too, moved to cover, blindly returning fire with the pistol that Adams had given him. It seemed that he was doing so only to buy some time, as he was looking all about himself. He then saw what he was looking for, suddenly leaping over and slamming his fist into a control panel on the wall, closing the bay doors and sealing the two inside.
Dodds moved to where Adams had fallen. Two black marks were quite visible on the man's back, where he had been struck by plasma fire. Already, the smell of burnt flesh and material was beginning to fill both the air and Dodds' nostrils.
“Adams,” Dodds shook him, nonetheless. There was no response. Ah, hell. He looked around to Johnson. The man had sunk to his knees, one hand on his chest, as though he had just taken a heavy punch to the gut and was trying to catch his breath. “You okay?”
The man waved his pistol towards the door. “Won't ... hold them for long,” Johnson said in the same scratchy voice. “They'll bring cutters.”
A groaning noise came from all around them, followed by a thunderous clamour. The entire vessel jerked and the lights in the bay began to flicker like a naked flame in a threatening wind.
Dodds took the hint and hurried to Johnson's side, helping the man get to his feet. His legs were wobbling as Dodds began to walk them over to the closest sled.
“I ... can't breathe,” Johnson said.
“You'll feel better once we've got you sat down.”
“He's dead. It's just you and me now.”
As Dodds assisted the unsteady Johnson into the rear seat, he heard a crackling sound coming from behind. Glancing back to the doors, he saw a small, bright white ball tracing its way upward from the floor, accompanied by a small shower of sparks. In its wake it left behind a glowing red hot trail, which cooled to reveal a deep gash in the metal.
Cutters! Damn, Johnson wasn't kidding - they were working fast! Dodds responded by leaping into the front seat of the sled, tapping furiously at the controls on the instrument panel. A small screen in front of him lit up and filled with data, scrolling rapidly up the display. Moments later, the CSN's insignia sprang up and a short sentence informed him that the craft was ready.
Ensuring that his companion was settled in, Dodds closed the canopy and flipped the switches that would begin the departure procedure. Ahead of him, the spiral cover of the launch tube spun open, to reveal a short dark passage, a second spiral cover at the other end. The sled trundled forward into the tube, halting just in front of the outer cover. The inner doors shut behind them, shrouding the capsule in near darkness for a few seconds before the outer doors wound open, presenting Dodds with a stunning view of Mythos, not far below.
It was closer than ever now, Ifrit low in the orbit of the planet. At this distance, Dodds knew that it would only be a matter of minutes before the carrier hit the atmosphere, which could make their launch extremely problematic.
“You ... flown one of these before?” Johnson asked from the seat behind him.
“Good, you're ... an expert.”
“Yeah, if you're willing to go by the results of the sims,” Dodds answered.
Johnson gave no reply, though his breathing was heavy.
“Okay. Here we go.”
The engines of the sled engaged and the catapult it rested on slung the pod forward, out into space and straight into the atmosphere of the planet. Dodds wrestled with the flight stick, immediately missing the ease of control that the ATAF - or any other Confederation starfighter for that matter - afforded him.
He looked around at the scene outside the capsule, seeing the final remaining Confederation starfighter pilots struggling in their battle against the great number of Imperial fighters. How he could've helped them, if only he had been given the chance. But there was little time for pity as the pod began to bounce like a jet ski, skipping across the planet's atmosphere. He turned his attention back to the minimal console and surrounded the canopy with the heat shields. As the capsule shook, Dodds attempted to steer, the sled's tiny screen his only means of navigation for the duration of re-entry.
With Ifrit lost and the ATAFs with it, Dodds had a bad feeling about the entire situation. He hoped it would not be long before the Confederation sent help. Though something in the back of his mind told him that this time things wouldn't be so easy on him.
Or any of them, for that matter.
— Into the Fire —
Enrique and Kelly made their way towards two sleds, their allotted bodyguards following just behind them. Estelle watched for a moment as they began to climb into the little capsules, before she turned to glare at Cole. The man was clutching at his side, from where a bullet had torn into him. Blood was seeping from the wound, staining his hand crimson as it trickled between his fingers and dripped down onto the sled bay floor. He was leaning up against a bulkhead, catching his breath following the preceding firefight.
As the group had made their way into the sled bay, a pair of the invaders had ambushed them. Cole and his team had been quick to deal with the threat, but not before they had lost one member of the security detail and Cole himself had taken a hit. Despite all appearances, he had dismissed it as nothing but a flesh wound.
“You could've waited a little longer!” Estelle said to him. “A few more seconds and Dodds could've made it into the lift!”
Cole winced and pushed off from the wall. “I couldn't risk the time. My orders were to get as many of you to safety as possible, so I had very little choice.”
“As many of us?” Estelle shot back. “Hail said all of us!”
“No, as many,” Cole said. “And besides, Adams called in - they're fine. They made it to the other bay unhurt and took someone else with them. Now, come on - Hail is about to sound the general evacuation.” He began limping over to join another of his team, who was marking the bodies of two black-clad soldiers lying sprawled out on the floor.
Estelle cursed Cole's stubbornness, as well as Dodds' selflessness. He had ignored her calls - no, her orders - for him to get into the lift with the others and had instead taken it upon himself to assist the security in their struggle against the invader. She shook away the anger she could feel building within her. At least he was safe. Yes, Cole was right; she had heard Adams report that they had made it to the sled bay unhindered, and was confident that she would rejoin him as soon as they were on the surface. Dodds was a fine pilot; he'd have no problems getting down to the beach. She joined Cole by the bodies.
“How's Harley?” Cole asked of the marker, nodding to the man who lay not far from the two invaders.
“He's dead; took a bullet straight to the forehead,” the man said. He then indicated the two soldiers. “Want me to shoot these two up some more, in case they get back up?”
Cole shook his head. “No, we'll continue to mark them while these guys get out of here. I'll fly us down once they've evacuated.”
“Estelle,” Kelly's voice came.
Estelle looked to Kelly and Enrique, the two occupying sleds next to one another, waiting for her. Each had their elected bodyguards settled into the rear seat.
“We need to get going,” Kelly prompted. “We're prepped and ready.”
“You go on,” Estelle said. “I'll catch you up in a moment.”
“We'll wait for you—”
“No, launch now. That's an order, Taylor! You too, Todd!”
There was a brief exchange between Kelly and Enrique, before the pair sat down in the pilot's seats. Estelle figured the two must've been reassuring one another of the journey, and arranging where and how they would meet on the ground. She imagined herself having the same exchange with Dodds, had he been there. The sled canopies promptly closed and the two little capsules slid forward, down the chutes, and out of sight.
Enrique and Kelly were on their way. That left four - herself, Chaz, Cole and the only remaining member of his security detail, who continued marking the bodies of the two Imperial soldiers on the floor. The marker was glancing around every few seconds, as though expecting the boarders to come seeping in through the walls themselves. Estelle needed a sled partner. Cole had already said that he and the marker would remain behind for the time being, which left Estelle with only one person with whom to share the ride down to the surface ...
The sound of the lift chime at the end of the approaching corridor drew her attention. She hadn't even noticed the lift leave the bay floor, let alone been aware of its impending arrival.
Cole swore and raised the rifle he had retrieved from one of the fallen invaders, stepping back towards the bay entrance and training it on the doors at the far end. It appeared that he was expecting the worst to spill from the car - an army of tall black figures, with terrible ruby-red eyes.
Estelle was holding out hopes of something else - Dodds and his escorts. Though she knew he had made it to the second bay, she still held on to the hope that he may have decided to double back and rejoin them. She wouldn't put it past him to do so. Her expectations were dashed as the doors parted and a sizeable group of men and women - fleeing crew members - leapt from within and raced towards the awaiting sleds. The general evacuation call started to ring. It seemed these few had been given a heads-up.
Cole raised his weapon and trained it on the front most, who skittered to a near-halt, a few feet from him. Cole began shouting at them to keep back, gesturing with the rifle. They, in turn, shouted back at him and pointed to the sleds. The one remaining security guard, who was still marking the bodies, kept his eyes on the figures on the floor, though he seemed to be making ready to assist Cole, should he need to.
“Commander, go!” Cole shouted over his shoulder to Estelle. “Now!”
Estelle looked over to one of the sleds, where Chaz lingered. Of all the people she would've preferred not to spend the upcoming descent with. But she knew she couldn't stall any longer. It might not be long before the crew that Cole was attempting to contain barged their way past him and created problems. She saw the indicator on the elevator light up again; it was on its way to receive more passengers to the bay, though these might not be friendly. No more stalling.
“See you on the surface,” she said to Cole.
“Have a safe trip, Commander.”
She glanced uneasily at the sleds again, then said, “I wouldn't recommend you try and ditch those things anywhere that isn't soft. They don't look like they could survive an impact at all. Try and put down in the sea, just off the coast, and then swim to the shore.”
“Thanks,” Cole said, without even looking back.
With that, Estelle darted over to the sled Chaz stood by. The two locked eyes for a moment, and for an instant, Estelle considered taking a separate sled to the man.
“What about them?” Chaz said, nodding to Cole and the other man.
“Cole is going to fly them down to the surface, once we're out.”
Chaz nodded, but said nothing else.
“Want to take the stick?” Estelle said, motioning to the sled.
“You're the better driver, Commander,” Chaz said.
Estelle knew that wasn't true. Though she was by no means a bad pilot, measure for measure she ranked the poorest of the Knights. Kelly ranked the foremost pilot of the group, followed by Dodds and Enrique; Dodds, being more cocksure, just edging out Enrique. Chaz wasn't all that far behind them, either.
“Right; get in, Lieutenant,” she said.
The two took to their seats and prepared themselves for departure.
“What's wrong?” Chaz's voice came from the seat behind her, after a time.
Though Estelle had settled into the sled, she was finding it hard to do anything more than buckle herself in. She couldn't quite bring herself to making the launch preparations. “I'm worried about Dodds,” she said, after another short pause.
“Don't be. He's resourceful and knows how to handle himself.” For once, Chaz's voice sounded warm and understanding, far from the apathetic tone she had half-expected of the man. “He'll be okay.”
“He's unarmed.” Why had she refused to let him have a gun? Dodds was right, he wasn't about to gun down their entire team in a mad frenzy. If anything happened to him, it would be her fault.
“It's not your fault,” Chaz said, as though reading her mind. “You were only doing what you thought was right at the time.”
Estelle acknowledged that he was right and drew herself up in her seat. “Okay. Prepare yourself for launch, Lieutenant.” She tapped away at the instrument panel in front of her, initializing the capsule's systems and bringing all the essential services online. The small screen in front of her lit up and she read the output quickly, but carefully, to ensure there were no reported issues. She had never trusted these things. It was her opinion that they should've been removed from service long ago.
The spiral doors ahead of her wound open and the sled rattled forward on its rails, coming to a halt in front of the second, outer door, leading out into space. The first door sealed shut behind, plunging the sled into near-darkness, save for the soft illumination emanating from the small screen on the instrument panel before her. As she waited for the outer door to open, she moved a hand across her chest, letting it come to rest over her heart. Despite all that had just occurred, she found the beat quite calm and steady. The hard thumping she had come to expect was totally absent. Her breathing was also much calmer.
Her hand then wandered a little higher, cupping itself around a hard cylindrical object. The little plastic bottle was still there, keeping safe the precious little pills that resided within; the pills that would keep her calm, sedate and focused. She counted them in her head as she remembered last seeing them - six, perhaps seven. She was running low, whatever the count. She would have to ration them out once they were on the surface. But how long might they be there? Twelve hours? Twenty-four? Longer? She hoped not. The longer they were there, the more of the pills she saw herself needing.
“What's the hold up?” Chaz said, the big man's voice yanking her from her thoughts.
She studied the small screen for a moment, then looked around the tube that surrounded them, seeking an explanation for the unusually long period of inactivity. By now, the sled should've launched. “I'm not sure,” she said. “Maybe there's a fault—”
The cramped little cockpit of the sled was suddenly bathed in light as the doors ahead of her moved apart, greeting her with the sight of the oceans and continents of the planet below. Several shapes winged their way into view, other sleds, their bodies enveloped in bright, violent, fiery hues as they hit the shock layer of the atmosphere.
For a moment, Estelle felt great trepidation rise within her. Sleds were never really designed for this. They were essentially fallback escape pods, though they had originally been designed only with astral travel in mind, the escapees evacuating into space, where they could easily pilot the craft over to other Confederation vessels for pick up and rescue. The ability to handle atmospheric drops had been thrown in as an afterthought. Even the tiny wings on the craft did not provide it with the manoeuvrability it truly required for the task, and felt more like a token gesture than a practical addition.
A moment later, her apprehensions passed and she returned both hands to the flight stick in front of her. She gripped it tight and turned as best she could to the big man crushed in behind. It couldn't have been all that comfortable back there. “Ready?”
Estelle tapped the instrument panel and the sled shot forward along the rails and out into space, leaving the stricken Ifrit behind it. As they sped away from it and down into the planet's atmosphere, Estelle found it hard to take her eyes off the carrier. Was Dodds still there, trapped somewhere aboard the ship as it continued to come apart? Sure, Cole had said he had made it to the sled bay intact, but what if he had become stuck in the launch chute, like she and Chaz had nearly done just then? She spied what appeared to be a number of bodies, tumbling in the void amongst a mass of debris. They must've been spaced during the Imperial assault. Could Dodds have ... She tried not to think about it any further.
She returned her eyes forward. Perhaps he was somewhere in amongst the fleet of sleds that were streaming ahead of her. The small navigation screen of the capsule marked several other friendly craft in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps he was right behind her, never really having been far from her at all. Chaz was right - Dodds was resourceful and she shouldn't worry.
The capsule started to vibrate and the sled's console began warning her of the threats posed to the structure of the vessel and the health of its occupants, due to the increasing stresses and temperatures. She turned her head for one last look at the carrier they had evacuated before raising the sled's heat shields, so as to protect them from the dangers of re-entry into Mythos' atmosphere. The alloy slid up around the thick glass canopy before locking into place, leaving her with the image of a crumbling and shattered Ifrit as likely the last she would ever see of the once proud symbol of the Confederacy's power.
She took a good hold of the flight stick and focused on the navicom that would be guiding them into the planet's atmosphere. The shuddering intensified the further they went, the two occupants feeling the vibrations course through their whole bodies. The juddering grew so severe that it felt as though the sled was about to come apart. Reading the navicom became increasingly difficult. Eventually, the vibrations started to subside and Estelle began to relax her grip on the stick, feeling the worst was over.
A deafening crash almost split her ears and the sled lurched to one side, a terrible screech coming from the right-hand side of the craft, feeling and sounding like something was scraping itself along its entire length. Estelle opened her mouth to speak, but found her words drowned out by the noises all around her. The roar of metal upon metal lasted for a while longer, before the sled jumped away, as though something had barged it forcefully aside.
“What the hell was that!” Estelle said, taking a firmer grip on the flight stick, to attempt to calm the pod down.
“Sounds like we just hit something!” Chaz said.
Estelle studied the navicom, seeing a handful of green markers close by. One was a great deal closer than any of the rest, moving away slowly. “I think some idiot just flew straight into us!” she called back.
There was a jingle from the navicom as the system confirmed their re-entry attempt had been successful. Estelle breathed a small sigh of relief and tapped the control to lower the heat shields.
She jabbed at it several more times, to no avail. She swore out loud, glancing at the minimal flight data on the tiny screen and then up at the intrusive dark shell that continued to surround the canopy, totally obscuring her view of the outside world. Yet another reason why the sled was so ill-advised had just reared its ugly head.
“What's happened?” Chaz said.
“I can't lower the heat shield!” Estelle called back, jabbing away at the control some more. She began to investigate the other options available to her in the sled's console, though none presented her with any kind of formal solution. It didn't even provide her with any information as to what might have been affecting the mechanism.
“Power down the sled and then bring the whole system back online,” Chaz suggested.
“And what happens if it doesn't come back up?” Estelle snapped back at him. “I'd rather be blind but in control, than blind and helpless!” Estelle felt her stress levels beginning to rise. She slid her hand once more over her chest and felt that her heart rate was increasing. Dammit! One pill was normally enough to help her keep cool. Was she building up a tolerance to them? No; this situation was one that would test even the most level-headed of people, one that simply demanded a lot more of her. She tried to calm herself by focusing and relaxing her breathing. The situation wasn't as dire as she believed.
Just keep your breathing slow, focus on the calm inhalation of breath. Nice and steady. Think of the parks you used to play in during the summer, how the leaves would slowly turn golden in the autumn months. Remember walking through there with Mum, Dad and Jed, eating ice cream and playing with the dog. That was a happy time, a happy place where the ills of the world could be forgotten for a time. Just focus on that.
A minute later, she gave up. That wasn't working. It never worked! There was only one thing for it - keeping a tight grip on the flight stick with one hand, she reached into her pocket and fumbled to get the top off the little bottle and retrieve one of the pills inside.
Six left. Only six left, she thought. And we're not even down on the ground. She hoped that this was the worst of it.
* * *
Kelly's sled's on-board computer system jingled, informing her that it had made contact with the local geographical mapping services. Textual information started to rapidly flash across the screen as the system began to retrieve, process and collate the data. Less than a minute later, the navicom produced a map of the local area, sketching in more of the intricate details as they became available.
With the dangers posed by atmospheric entry having passed, Kelly lowered the sled's heat shield. Bright sunlight crept into the cockpit as the alloy slid away from the acrylic glass canopy. Kelly was relieved to see that the altimeter appeared to be accurate - they were indeed still several thousand feet above sea level. All around her she could see the gleaming shapes of other sleds, as they raced towards their destination. Her sled was descending fast, and details of the coastal city of New Malaga were springing further into relief the lower they went. Though there were some elements that Kelly would have preferred not to have seen.
Harris, her evacuation partner, swore from the seat behind her. “Look at the place! What the hell's happening?”
Kelly's eyes darted from one part of the city to the next, seeing the plumes of smoke that issued skyward from a variety of locations. Even from this height, it was easy to see that there was a lot of movement on and above the ground. Light was catching and reflecting off swift-moving objects, punctuated by short, sharp bursts. Explosions! Moving closer still, the unmistakable red and yellow hues from flames could be seen, scattered around the streets and consuming buildings. Huge fires raged as far as she could see, none of them small by any means. There was fighting on the surface, and it was clearly far from a small scuffle.
“We're headed into a war zone!” Harris cried.
Kelly looked to the other sleds that were still hurtling towards the surface. They were adjusting their flight paths, but not by a lot. They looked to be merely making compensations both against air turbulence and for being off course. All were still heading towards the coast. If any of them had seen what she and her companion had - and doubtful they hadn't - they were making no diversions to the agreed set-down location.
Kelly turned to the instrument panel before her, searching for a way to communicate with the other sleds in the fleet. There didn't appear to be any easy means of doing so. If there were, then it was far from obvious. She wished she could contact Enrique.
Harris swore once more. Between the numerous tall buildings ran a series of walkways and bridges, conduits for all manner of traffic. Something had just hit one of the highest. It started to splinter like a plank of wood, raining concrete, metals, glass and masonry down onto whatever lay beneath. A wall of dust and debris followed swiftly, as did the vehicles, passengers and people that had occupied it. They tumbled down, crashing onto other bridges and walkways beneath as they went, creating an avalanche of wreckage.
Kelly tore her eyes from the scene, concentrating on the sled's flight path. She adjusted the pitch, to better align the sled with its destination, bringing about a rapid descent.
“We're still heading to the beach?” Harris said. His voice was steady, but with a detectable trace of concern. That was more than understandable.
“We don't have much choice,” Kelly said. Although she wished that they did.
It wasn't long before they were only a few hundred metres from the ground, speeding over buildings whose height gradually gave way as they escaped the inner city and approached the waterfront. They passed over shops, hotels, swimming pools, and a great variety of trees that surrounded a gorgeous sandy beach. Crystal clear waters lapped at the shoreline. A perfect location for a getaway, Kelly thought, if it had not been dotted with charred bodies, clogged with all manner of vehicles, and engulfed in raging fires.
The waters of the expansive ocean grew nearer, and began to race by faster beneath them as their altitude decreased, the sun dancing off the waves. Kelly knew she had to wait until they were far enough out before making the final ditch. She didn't want to risk hitting a shallow or even a reef. Far ahead, she saw another sled enter the water with a tremendous splash. They would catch up with it in a matter of seconds.
“We're going to hit the water hard!” Kelly called back. “I'm going to blow the canopy the second we do. Hold your breath and get ready to swim for the surface. Got it?”
“Got it,” Harris said. He sounded very tense now.
The sled continued to speed away from the coast. Just a few seconds more. Another sled came into view. It was keeping its altitude steady and level, its descent measured. It was keeping pace with her. Now was the time.
“Ready?” Kelly asked.
“Ready,” Harris answered.
And with that, she dipped the nose and the sled plunged deep into the sea.
* * *
Throughout the streets and on top of buildings, hundreds of black-clothed figures raised their heads to the sky, like wolves catching a scent upon a light evening breeze. From their tanks, armoured personnel carriers, skybikes and dropships, their eyes followed the dark, smoky path that the fire-engulfed vessel carved through the clear blue skies. After only a few moments of watching, the regiments sprang into action. Orders proliferated through the ranks and the soldiers moved out, heading in the direction that the stricken craft was leading them.
Many had already seen the tiny capsule-like vessels falling from the skies, knowing that they could only contain people. Already, they were on their way to intercept and annihilate any survivors. Weapons were checked and reloaded, vehicles were started. They drove, flew and ran, making their way between the crumbling and ruined buildings, leaving the many corpses of men, women, children and animals behind them.
* * *
Commodore Hail barked to the few remaining bridge crew to keep Ifrit level, as the cityscape rushed beneath the burning carrier.
Beyond the frontal viewport, he saw the tall buildings of the inner city make way to the glorious beach front, with its piers and promenades. He saw the golden sand far below and the bright sun reflecting off the calm ocean that stretched far beyond, out toward the horizon. He saw where they were going to put down. They continued to lose altitude and the remaining crew did their best to keep the ship as steady as possible, so that it would not ditch too shallow. They did an admirable job and Hail praised them for their courage and efforts.
Six miles out from the shore, the ship's engines finally gave out and it plunged from the sky. At incredible speed, the carrier hit the surface of the water. The bridge's frontal viewport shattered; hundreds of thousands of litres of water poured in; Commodore Hail drowned; and CSN Ifrit sank to a watery grave.