Durand watched as the electric onslaught from the Breitenfeld’s Q-shell died away from the Xaros drones. Disabled drones floated in space, their stalks twitching.
“All right everyone, you know the mission,” she said to her combined Dotok and human fighter pilots. “Kill every drone you can and keep any that reactivate off the Mule. Glue, you and your gals get torps in those Canticle-class starships. Good hunting.”
She redlined her engines and was the first to the drones. The Gatling gun on her Eagle went to work, blowing drones to disintegrating chunks. She looped around and found an easy target.
Gauss shots zipped over her canopy and blew the drone away. A Dotok fighter flashed overhead. She’d bet her last cigarette that was Bar’en.
“Show off,” she muttered.
“Torps away!” Glue announced.
Durand inverted her fighter and saw the burning engines of point-detonating torpedoes streaking toward one of the big ships. The torpedoes looked like a fly charging a bull elephant, but the Dotok had told Glue exactly where to strike the generation ships. An explosion in just the right spot should knock its engines out of commission. They didn’t need to destroy those ships; they just needed the drones to think that was their target—anything to keep them away from the Mule and Lafayette’s bomb.
Durand returned to the task at hand and watched as the drone she had in her sights came to life and slipped past her bullets.
“Hurry, Lafayette,” Durand said.
Elias’ gauss cannons blew a drone to pieces. Shells ricocheted down the passageway that the drone had almost made it through. A stalk tip, glowing red with energy, popped around the edge and fired a pencil-thin disintegration beam at Elias. He ducked behind his shield and the beam diffused against the surface.
Kallen snapped off a single shot and blew the stalk apart.
Elias charged toward the open door, his upper body protected by his shield. His right hand retracted into its forearm casing and a pneumatic spike took its place. Originally meant to pierce the inner tanks of enemy armor, the spikes had proved adept at cracking drone shells.
A new stalk tip folded around the doorway.
Elias bashed the edge of his shield against the stalk, using the edge of the doorway to sheer the point away. He swung his spike into an uppercut and impaled the drone hiding above the doorway. The tip penetrated the drone’s shell and Elias felt it struggle against his weapon like a fish caught on a line.
He yanked the drone off the ceiling and stomped its cracked body, crushing it into dissolving fragments.
Three more drones came into the long passageway, using their stalks to walk against the deck like giant arachnids. Elias fired off a burst and sidestepped the blasts of energy the drones sent back.
“Lafayette,” Elias said, “how much longer?”
“Another minute,” the Karigole said from behind Kallen and her shield. “Maybe two. The implosion device was damaged when I—”
“Don’t. Care. Two minutes,” Elias said as he replaced his spike for his armor’s hand and leaned into the hallway…and didn’t see any drones. “What the…”
“Elias!” he turned at Kallen’s warning. The armor floating above the plinth glowed from within. A ragged column of light roared up from the plinth and into the armor, overwhelming Elias’ optics with a torrent of light.
The General stepped from the plinth and raised an ethereal hand to Kallen. A beam of red light as thick as a tree trunk lanced out and struck Kallen’s shield, blasting her back into the bulkhead so hard her armor cracked.
Elias fired a double shot from his forearm cannons. The bullets flashed against an energy barrier around the General and vanished in a puff of smoke. The General turned its face toward Elias and casually swung its hand toward the Iron Heart.
Elias grabbed the edge of his banshee armor shield and hurled it at the General’s arm. The shield caught the brunt of an energy lance. It sprang away from the general like it had been struck by a bat and shattered against the deck.
The distraction was brief, but it was all Elias needed to close the distance. He leaped at the General and brought an armored fist down with an overhand strike. He connected with the General’s helm. For all the force he could muster, the blow only managed to turn the General’s head aside. Elias twisted his body into the follow-on strike, snapping his spike out mid-blow. The spike deflected off an armor plate and embedded inside the General’s body.
A trill rose in the command center as the General lashed out at Elias, knocking a dent against Elias’ spike arm. The armor blackened and smoked at the General’s touch.
Elias wrapped a hand around the General’s face-plate, his fingers sizzling and melting.
“This is for Earth!”
Elias ripped the face-plate from the rest of the armor. A flood of light erupted from the head-less armor. The General’s arms rose, trying to contain the light as it stumbled back to the plinth. The armor crashed into the plinth and white light spilled into it like water tossed from a bucket.
The armor plates clattered to the deck.
Elias kicked the armor plates, scattering them across the room.
“Yeah, that hurt,” she said, pushing herself off the deck. Her right arm hung limp from the elbow actuator, the forearm split open and smoking. She detached the broken armor and tossed it aside. “Did you kill it?” she asked, pointing her stump at the General’s loose armor plates.
Elias looked down at the face-plate fused into his damaged hand.
“I don’t know what that was either, much less if it’s deceased,” Lafayette said. “But the bomb is set and we should leave. Now.”
Kallen and Elias activated their cutting torches.
Durand’s head snapped back as she watched three Dotok fighters race overhead, all on a vector toward a Canticle –class ship, not towards the Mule that was blasting off the surface of the proto-Crucible.
“I said abort your attack runs! Pull back to the package and get ready to break contact!” Durand shouted into the IR.
“If we can destroy the Xaros infecting the ship,” Bar’en said, “maybe we can bring it with us to—”
“Not our mission! Cover the extraction. Get back to the Breitenfeld. That’s all we’re here to do,” Durand said. She caught a glimpse of a drone from the corner of her eye and made an inverted dive just in time to dodge a blast of red energy.
“Got one on me!” Durand’s Eagle slalomed from side to side as she dove toward the Crucible. She flinched as a Xaros beam singed her cockpit.
The Mule with Lafayette and the Iron Hearts rose up from the half-complete surface, heading directly into a mob of drones. She hit a button on her fire control panel and charged up her only Q-shell.
“Good a time as any,” she muttered, and pulled the trigger.
A silver arrow of light connected to the mob of drones, electricity connecting them all in a spider’s web of lightning. Durand steered her ship for the mass of disabled drones and a tendril of energy leaped out and stabbed into her ship.
Electric panels shorted out as her engines coughed and died. She looked back for the drone pursuing her and saw it suffer the same fate as her, but the pursuer collided with the rest of the drones, knocking them apart like a cue ball into a rack of billiards.
“Glue? Anyone?” There was no answer from Durand’s dead IR.
She pressed against the back of her seat and grabbed the yellow and black handles of her ejection-seat controls. She closed her eyes and steeled her body for the ugly kick that came with punching out of a fighter jet.
Her hands squeezed white-knuckle tight…then relaxed. There was no Search-and-Rescue craft that could pick her up. There was no way back to the ship if her Eagle was out of the fight. Bile rose in her throat as she realized her fate. She found some peace in the inevitable.
The Mule with the bomb team soared away on pillars of light from its overworked engines. It couldn’t come for her, not it if wanted to make it back to the ship.
“This is Gall. If anyone can read this, return to the Breitenfeld. Do not stop for anything,” she said. Sparks snapped beneath her communication panel.
“If I’m going to die out here, I’ll do it in my Eagle,” she said.
She kept her eyes on the Crucible, waiting to see if this mission had all been in vain. Space around the command dome blurred, then the Crucible collapsed against the dome, like the hand of some great and ancient celestial being had reached out and squeezed the Crucible until it cracked from the pressure.
She felt a brief pull toward the station, then the weightlessness of the void returned.
“Good job, Lafayette.”
A shadow crossed over her cockpit. She looked up, ready to stare at the drone that had come for her.
Instead, she saw the cockpit of a Condor bomber. The Ma cousins waved to her from the triple cockpit. Durand waved them off, pointing back toward the Breitenfeld.
The Condor rotated on its axis, the underside of the bomber now above Durand’s head. A torpedo bay opened. The bay was empty…and just big enough for her.
“Here goes nothing.” Durand found a red handle on the base of her canopy and pulled it open. The glass dome popped off, and she pushed it aside, sending it tumbling into the void. The Condor was almost fifty feet away, plenty of distance for her to miscalculate.
She unsnapped her restraints and crouched on her seat, then pushed off and launched into open space. Her ankle caught against an armrest and sent her tumbling. Her arms flailed as she went end over end, catching sight of the approaching Condor with each rotation.
Her feet and shins hit the Condor. She twisted and grabbed for the open bay door, her finger-tips slid against the exposed wiring and circuitry as her momentum dragged her across the surface of the Condor.
“No!” she screamed as she slid free and into the void.
A hand grabbed her wrist.
Glue had one hand on Durand, while the other held on to Filly in the Condor’s open cockpit. Glue nodded to her slowly, then gave her hand a jerk. Durand floated back toward the Condor. She got a grip on the edge of the open bay doors, then maneuvered into the empty space. She braced herself against the sides and slammed an elbow against the plane twice.
The bay doors closed, trapping Durand in a dark abyss.
The Canticle of Reason hung in space ahead of the Breitenfeld. Puffs of atmosphere jetted from the seals between old hull plating. It loomed over the human carrier like a whale over a diver.
“Christ, that’s a big ship,” Valdar said. “Engineering, are you done prepping the jump engines?”
“Captain, three of the compromised ships are coming over the horizon,” the XO said. “They’re on an intercept course with us…ETA is seven minutes.”
“Nothing’s ever easy, is it?” Valdar mused. “Engineering, status report.”
“That Crucible is still close enough to affect our wormhole. We can leave, but the power drain on the engines will be significant,” Levin said over the IR.
“Engage the jump engines. We wait for a perfect solution and we’ll be a ring of debris around the planet,” Valdar said.
“Aye aye, skipper. Two minutes.”
Valdar tapped a button to open a channel to the Canticle of Reason. “Pa’lon, we’re two minutes from jumping out. Might be a little late to ask this, but is your ship going to hold up?”
“This is Wen’la, life support is stable. But we’ll need the MacDougall as soon as you can spare him. What is it you humans are always saying to each other for good fortune?”
“Gott mitt uns,”
“Cod mittens to you too.”
Valdar closed the channel with a shake of his head. He felt vibrations through his command chair and prayed that once, just once, that engines would do what they were supposed to do. He opened a ship-wide channel.
“This is Captain Valdar. Prepare to jump.”
Medics ran to the Condor bomber, carrying a stretcher between them.
“Move! Move!” the lead medic shouted to the scrum of pilots and deck hands gathering around the Condor. A path cleared, but there was no sign of the patient they’d been promised.
“The bay doors are stuck!” Filly shouted from the open cockpit.
A mechanic ducked under the Condor and jammed a speeder handle into a port. The torpedo bay doors opened excruciatingly slowly as the mechanic worked the tool. The doors opened perpendicular to the bay…but nothing came out.
“Did you open the right one?” a mechanic asked.
Durand fell out of the bay and flopped against the flight deck. She rolled onto her back and took off her helmet. Sweat soaked hair clung to her face.
“Gall, are you alright?” Glue asked, reaching for her commander.
Durand slapped her hands away.
“Thanks for the pick-up. Did everyone make it back?” Durand asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Glue said.
“Then give me a goddamned cigarette.”
Cheers broke out across the flight deck.
“All hands brace for jump engine activation!” sounded across the flight deck. “All hands brace for jump engine activation!”