Excerpt (from Chapter 25, “Death Rose”)
When his half of the station powered up, Marty imitated Arra’s movements, surprised at how smoothly the target ring tracked the red icons corresponding to incoming Valdrōsian fighters.
The deck beneath him shook to the discharge of Arra’s first shot.
His canopy display glowed amber, like the sight on the shuttle, but it followed his eyes, as he tracked the incoming red streaks on the screen.
Cool! Damn thing reads my mind!
Marty locked up one of the incoming fighters by sight and touched the triggers in the grips when the sights winked blue. The hull resonated with energy as both barrels of a disrupter he couldn’t see fired. He watched the trace of both plasma bolts miss high.
“Shit!” Not so easy. He tracked another, fired and missed again. “Goddamn it!” He engaged two more fighters, flashing past after a gunnery run, missing both.
The next few minutes were the busiest of Marty’s life. He lost count of how many enemy fighters he acquired, tracked and fired upon, all misses. Fear of death and letting Arra down made him desperate, but he talked himself off the ledge of panic. Focus!
He acquired another fighter, boring in almost head-on. He felt the impact of its disrupters ripple through the hull as he fired back. The fighter winked out and Marty howled in triumph. He trained his weapon at another fighter arcing away and fired again, watching the track of his disrupters intersect the fighter’s path. It disappeared from the screen, in anticlimactic silence. Keep firing!
Now in rhythm, one fighter after another died under Arra and Marty’s weapons. He began to hope, until a violent impact threw him from his seat. Another salvo of missiles from the fourth cruiser? As if to confirm, a second more violent shock slammed him into the bow of their ship, throwing him from his gunner’s station. Two more detonations rang through the hull, followed by an almost human groan as the ship’s hull distorted. He jumped back into the gunner’s station.
Another shock wave rippled through the ship and the weapons stations went dark. Arra jumped from her station, dragging Marty after her with surprising strength.
“Follow!” she commanded in High Language. Hustling Marty toward the Bridge, Arra slapped the open button to the door. When it didn’t budge, she grabbed Marty by the shoulder of his cruiser suit, hustling him back to the junction of the passageways wrapping around the bow.
She opened a panel in the bulkhead and slapped an amber button, pulling Marty around the corner with her. An explosion sent a shock wave and chunks of debris rattling off the bulkheads and past them. Sound went cottony and an acrid smell like gunpowder wafted down the passageway, along with a veil of smoke.
Pulling him to his feet, Arra led him down the passageway, through the Bridge. Deserted, except for the crumpled bloody mass of the Navigator slumped behind her station and the DCO next to her. Did he die trying to save her? Had everyone left?
“No! Follow.” Arra led him down the passageway, half-running, half-swimming in the failing gravity. It got stronger amidships. At a levi-tube, Arra punched the actuator and squeezed in before the door was fully open, jerking Marty in after her, before the door could close. Their combined weight overwhelmed the one-person grav-rings and they plummeted down the shaft, landing with a jolt in an undignified heap at the bottom of the shaft.
Arra pushed Marty off and scrambled to her feet. The hangar deck, minus the shuttles. Launched? Jettisoned? What was left of the crew stood in orderly lines, donning suits of some sort.
Standing next to Captain Vaís, Kholôtha caught sight of Marty exiting the levi-tube. She hurled all her worried exasperation and relief into a single thought. “Hero? Really?”
Arra took Marty’s blood-slick hand and dragged him toward Kholôtha, firing a volley of Knolan at her. She squeezed Marty’s hand once before leaving. Marty watched her go.
“She must assist with the demolition,” Kholôtha explained.
“Yes. Cygnus is dying. We are sinking rapidly into Ashilear’s atmosphere. For the safety of the settlements, we must destroy the ship so the pieces will burn up before they impact the surface.”
Marty looked at her, blankly.
“We must abandon ship before Cygnus hits atmosphere,” she yelled, out loud. “There is no time.” She looked down, taking in the gash on his leg, still oozing blood and his bloody hands.
“Zero gravity in a drop capsule with those wounds will prove messy.” She reached into a pouch on her utility belt. “Take my battle dressings. Bind up your hands and leg while I prepare your drop suit.” “Welcome to the Concordant,” she added, with an incongruous grin.
Kholôtha returned inside of two minutes, to help Marty into his suit. “Your suit has enough oxygen to last about one of your hours,” she told him, handing him a helmet. “Do not don your helmet until so ordered. You may need every molecule of oxygen in your breather.
“You will be assigned a drop capsule…” Kholôtha waved at the far bulkhead, stress blocking out the English word for it. “Over there. Get in line and follow instructions. The ride down will be bumpy, and the landing violent. Stay with your capsule. I will find its beacon. May your Way be smooth.” Kholôtha laughed at the irony of her words.
“Kunathir, Kholôtha,” he replied.
She met his eye, then pushed him in the direction of the bulkhead, where a Knolan officer shepherded him into line.
In five Earth minutes, Marty had climbed into one of the padded capsules in a line of launch tubes recessed in the deck. It was only a little wider than his shoulders.
The officer motioned for him to don his helmet, then sealed the capsule. In another minute, a vicious detonation launched him into space, adding a ringing sound to his already cottony hearing.
What had Kholôtha called the planet…Alsheer…Ashtear? Marty couldn’t remember. The ride proved smoother than he expected, after Kholôtha’s warning. And there was a lot to see, through the narrow view slot. Hot gases from burning ships bathed near-space in a ghostly spectrum of shifting color.
Pieces of Valdrōsian and Knolan ships captured by the planet’s gravity rained down, streaking toward the surface in fiery, man-made meteor showers.
Marty had never been in a battle, much less one in space. He’d gone into it with no notion what to expect. He hadn’t expected to fight in it, and clearly, Kholôtha hadn’t wanted him to. He realized he was shaking violently. Fear? Reaction setting in? Both?
“Welcome to the Concordant,” Kholôtha had said. Her displeasure at being disobeyed notwithstanding, Marty had detected pride that he’d chosen to fight, rather than scuttle for safety.
There is meaning in this! he thought.
Self-congratulation was cut short by his entry into the atmosphere. The capsule began to shake and yaw wildly in the stratospheric winds. In moments, his shoulders were bruised, and he was shaking even more uncontrollably. Fear for sure, this time. His ears kept popping as he descended, and the capsule was getting warm.
Twice, his capsule ricocheted off debris as he plunged toward Ashilear, spinning on one axis then another. How long had Kholôtha said? Thirty minutes?
It was getting very hot. She hadn’t mentioned that. The capsule was almost too hot, now, even through the thick padding of his cocoon. Or was it his coffin? Impact extinguished thought.