|From My Cover Art|
Marcus tapped his fingers across the touch screen controls, righting the pole-ward drift of his fighter as he headed for the curve of the horizon. He glanced at the two massive starships orbiting almost side-by-side above the world. The smaller Moonwind had unexpectedly dropped in system within hours of the larger Augusta's arrival -- a rare occasion to have two such well-known craft in the same system. The Moonwind had deployed a long, tubular shuttle full of partygoers and ranking crew, already heading for the Augusta. A dozen single-man fighters danced around the two ships' perimeters, sunlight illuminating one after another in bursts of silver light. He could trace their movement, having flown those patterns dozens of times. All routine.
His own fighter followed a different path towards the planet's equator, en route for the dark side of Kailani. Pretty name; he had learned the word meant "the sea and the sky" in an old Earth language. When the Augusta came within visual range of the planet he understood the aptness of the name. The colony gave the term backwater a whole new meaning. It didn't just refer to the world's lack of technology, though with a few commsats in orbit Marcus wouldn't have needed to take this recon swing. The name came for another reason, though. He had never seen so much water in one place, the blue broken by occasional white clouds and distant specks of small islands.
Two inconspicuous moons hung above the horizon, gravity linking them in a stable orbit. They cast an odd, grayish-green light back from the sun.
The recon work was a waste of time. The Inner Worlds Council fleet had fought the enemy off two systems away, and the Augusta headed here as a protective measure to keep this mineral-rich colony safe while others did the mop-up work elsewhere. The war seemed to be coming to a slow and laborious end and the fighting had become sporadic. Recon flights, and not dogfights, would become more common.
As he crossed the twilight line into night, Marcus couldn't even see the distant glow of planet-bound cities since there was nothing larger than villages on the islands. Contact with the Augusta disappeared over the horizon, leaving Marcus with a long silent orbit and nothing to watch except the red and green indicators on the boards; little distraction while he battled boredom and fatigue. The infrared scanner finally found a sizable warm spot, but computer analysis read the area as a huge algae patch in the sea, the natural oxygen builders for this water world.
By the time he completed the slow, five orbit sweep of this world the crews of both ships would have had their party and he'd be lucky to get the mess crew to warm some coffee for him.
And it was his own fault. He knew Captain Harris hated him. He shouldn't have been so cocky in their last meeting. He feared a long time would pass before Harris let him fly patterns with the others. He foresaw his future as a series of increasingly boring recon flights unless he somehow won a transfer to another ship. Or he might leave the service entirely, since his option would come up soon.
Could he tie himself forever to some world and never travel the stars again?
Marcus shivered at the thought and fixated on the work at hand. One bit of land poked out from the southern pole into the wide ocean. Somewhere on the peninsula, the IWC center had a small landing port and an observation station. It sent a monotonous single automated beep as he passed overhead. The locals mistrusted the IWC, which made officials nervous with the rebels so close.
Not his problem. He needed to scan and report back to the ship. With one orbit almost completed, he swept the fighter toward the slate-blue horizon while watching the edge of a gigantic storm swirling in a chaotic mass near the dawn's edge. The sheer magnitude of the weather system, and the readings his scanners gave on the winds, almost pulled him out of his bad mood. At a better time, he would have been tempted to slip down to the edge of the storm and ride out some of the bands. Few of his fellow pilots enjoyed atmosphere flying, but to Marcus the storm presented a real challenge.
Unfortunately, he dared not do anything except what was by-the-book or else he would chance making things worse between him and the Captain. He took the expected readings from the storm and let his imagination play with the idea of flying into the heart of the weather system.
He rounded the curve of the planet, his vidcam catching the first rays of sunlight as the window polarized. Islands dotted the world below like pebbles thrown into a pond. The ships --
Something very wrong: Fighters out of position, debris, hot spots -- the signs of battle. His hands automatically keyed on his weapons, a series of familiar movements and beeps accompanied by the flash of amber lights on the right side of his board. He twisted in his seat, frantic as he searched for the rebel ship which must be somewhere nearby. Tracking went live overlaying the bubble dome above him with a glowing green grid of lines. He still couldn't find the enemy.
His equipment picked up signs of massive damage to the Augusta's starboard bay. He couldn't get a naked-eye visual from here, but with a touch of the controls the vidcam zoomed in on twisted and melted metal -- already cooled -- and debris hugging close to the larger ship. His computer located a few pieces of the Moonwind's shuttle, flung far outward from the ship . . . and the computer gave a ninety-five percent possibility of more pieces imbedded in the damaged bay.
The shuttle had exploded inside the Augusta.
He could find no rebel craft.
His fingers moved by rote, keying the vidcam's range back just as the Moonwind fired weapons straight into the Augusta.
"No, no, no!" Was that his voice?
The stream of luminous neutrons punched straight through the unprotected shell of the larger ship. In a timeless moment of mind-numbing fear and loss, Marcus watched as brutal explosions ripped through the interior, throwing off pieces of the hull plating and scattering debris out the far side. No one would survive!
"Marcus! Get your ass out of --"
O'Dell's voice, there and as quickly cut off. His comp tracked her fighter as two Moonwind craft drew down on her, weapons firing. O'Dell's fighter exploded under their combined attack, a smaller loss almost lost in the glow of the larger one.
His body obeyed her orders. Hands trembling, he reached for the controls and tried to dive out of the path of the Moonwind fighters.
They followed, but he maneuvered into a tight swing against gravity, proving himself a better pilot. Marcus flew under the belly of the first fighter before the weapons could track. He fired so close he could see the metal burn before the fighter exploded.
One for O'Dell. It didn't ease the cold, icy feeling of shock taking hold of him. His hands kept moving. Well-trained. How many could he take? Not enough -- not enough revenge for everyone gone --
Hands moved, eyes focused, but his mind skittered between rage and emptiness at the loss he couldn't accept or comprehend. Movement honed by years of training and battles became instinctive. He caught the second fighter by surprise, sweeping past and firing, the bubble top bursting and the pilot dead in vacuum before the rest exploded. He moved on to another craft, fighting his way towards his ship to . . . to do something.
Someone shouted his name, dragging him back to the reality of his impossible situation. Whoever had called hadn't survived for long: the comp no longer tracked any undamaged Augusta craft in his range. He fired and destroyed another enemy fighter, but the rest of Moonwind's crew didn't have anyone left to target but him. Two came at Marcus from the side, the first clipping his engine and the second damaging the booster. The combined assault sent his craft tumbling and he banged his arm against the side of the cockpit with enough force that he heard the bone snap before he felt the pain. A moment later, his suit registered the break and shot a painkiller into the arm, though it dimmed it to an ache. The blocker would only hold for a few hours.
He gasped as lights flashed red with warnings of system failure across the board. Power surged as the computer failed to shunt the overload away from the dead boards. He could taste the bitter hint of burnt electronics. Marcus tried to jab at the weapon controls, but pain shot from his right wrist to the shoulder, leaving him too breathless to even curse. He worked the board with his left hand, gliding fingers over the buttons and indentations, powering down what he could of the fighter's controls. His weakened communications system caught part of the broadcast the Moonwind put out, warning of rebels nearby, as though they hadn't been the ones to destroy the Augusta.
Damn. Marcus focused on the board and the flashing a warning of low power, the charge seeping away with each blink of the light. He couldn't tell if the power pack had a full link to his engines, and he couldn't run a diagnostic. Didn't have time; The Moonwind's fighters came for him.
If -- if he still had power -- he could make a quick dive into the gravity well, skim along the top of the clouds, and then head into the night side beyond the storm. There he could try to reach some settlement and --
Hell. It wouldn't work. Backwater world. They didn't have commsats for a reason, which included a long, bad history with the Inner Worlds Council and a dislike of technology. He had read the story with passing interest; old history, nothing he thought he would have to worry about. Now he recalled how the majority of the original population had been lab-adapted to live and work in the mineral-rich expanse of blue oceans. A few generations later, the natives had thrown out the company which still controlled them and turned their backs on the technology used to create them. They didn't have much in technology at all. Going to the natives would not help.
He had to reach the Inner Worlds Council's single Kailani outpost on the little strip of land near the southern pole. They had equipment to punch a message out beyond the system. His vidcam held proof of treachery which would get the Moonwind hunted through every quarter of the Inner Worlds and the Fringe, if need be.
Survival required him to take action. Reaching the outpost wouldn't provide long-term safety, but it was a goal. The outpost, on the far side of a world without commsats, would have no idea what had really happened. They'd know what the Moonwind told them -- what the ship already broadcasted and what its tech crew created for vids.
He marked trajectory by dead reckoning and fired the engines, moving when the other craft least expected as they closed in. Marcus felt his breath catch at the sight of stark white pinpricks of stars scattered across the dark sky. He knew reaching the IWC outpost was no real safety and he would probably never fly the stars again.
His sight blurred in mourning at the thought. How strange when he had lost everything else.
The Augusta came into view as the fighter made the turn. He half lifted his left hand in a final salute, even to that bastard Captain Harris, who had unwittingly saved his life by being so damned prissy and sending Marcus on the recon mission out of spite.
The planet -- Kailani -- came into view. He put his left hand on the board and tried to lift the right to the other controls, but changed his mind as pain lanced through his arm and shoulder. He could see the slight glow of friction as his fighter traced a path along the upper edge of the thermosphere. No time left. Marcus fired the right thruster and aimed pole-ward. The damaged fighter bucked and tried to roll out of his control, but he judged the effect and fired the booster to compensate. The Moonwind fighters came swarming in as soon as they saw him lunge downward toward the world. He hoped he had no trouble finding the peninsula of land sitting uncomfortably near the southern ice cap. He didn't want to crash into the uninviting wilderness of white. Would going there prove better than crashing into the endless expanse of blue ocean covering the rest of the world?
A circumpolar route was the shorter route to the IWC outpost, nearly half a world away. As his good hand began to manipulate the sluggish controls, three Moonwind fighters swept around to cut him off. He cursed and curved toward the longer route, cutting across the equator and sweeping over the top of massive outriders from the storm. The huge clouds with bubbling cotton-tops spread out on his starboard side, obscuring his view.
The craft jumped and squealed with a sudden hit from the enemy craft. He could hear a hiss of air escaping behind his seat. Marcus tried to head towards the south, but the Moonwind's fighters cut him off, herding him north into the wide expanse of ocean.
Damned Kailani technophobes with no communication's system! He needed to get over the horizon and close enough to send a message, even if he didn't have power to send vid as well. He needed to warn them.
A fighter swept towards him, a sudden dark spot coming out of the sun. Marcus skipped out of range with a thruster burst, and the mostly-dead craft obeyed his swiftly-keyed commands. If this had been a one-on-one battle he would have had a chance, even now.
He didn't try to count the number of enemy fighters pursuing him. Two more sweeps by the group won a hit to the port thruster. The fighter spun, his injured arm sending needles of pain through his body. He could hear metal tear --
And his fighter slipped into the thick bank of clouds.
Marcus held his breath, fighting the sluggish ship controls and firing his remaining thruster. The booster was gone as well. He held his breath and spun into the very heart of the storm, seeking a place to hide. The winds, chaotic and powerful, drew him northward into a maelstrom of hail and sleet. Lightning flashed so near he could feel the tingle as more of the board went dead. He couldn't see through the dark clouds, and thunder shook the ship, deafening him. Hope, hopelessness: the two emotions balanced on a single sputtering thruster engine keeping him in the air.
One of the fighters tore through the clouds above, firing at random. They must have lost him in the flash of lightning, natural electronic chaff to upset sensors. The shots missed. Marcus breathed again.
He thought more lightning filled the air until the light slipped along the right side of his craft and he saw the outline of another fighter coming at him, weapons blazing. The permaglass bubble cracked, but held. He heard the engine explode and the board went irrevocably dead, all the lights gone. Marcus leaned back, drawing his hand away from the controls. The wind bounced the fighter, tilting the craft at an uncomfortable angle and sending a shock of pain through his broken arm. He watched as the right foil tore off and fell.
That couldn't be right. He should have felt the pressure of the forward thrust die and the craft should have gone straight down with the foil. Instead, he continued to move forward.
Marcus stripped off the harness so he could see behind the cockpit. No power for alarms to ring or safety hooks to stop him. He fought away the sharp pain through his arm.
Worth it. The single starboard thruster still fired. The other, the already dead one, had taken the hit, exploded and fell.
Hope again? Dare he?
Lightning flashed and he felt the prickling once more, like a touch of life returned. He focused his attention back to the controls, his left hand moving over the keys. The board didn't light, but the craft slowly responded when he keyed in a turn. He grinned, unexpectedly remembering Lt. Lisle's last words to him as he climbed into the craft, heading off for a useless recon flight.
"The Captain's a fool to take you out of the fighter wing. You could fly a dead ship through a black hole, Marcus."
This was as close as he would ever get to finding out if Lisle had been right. The controls took finesse. He wanted to head south, but he'd lost all sense of direction, and he wasn't certain he could get the fighter to respond anyway. Marcus closed his eyes and tried to envision the clouds from above. The system had been moving south to north, spreading over the equator and across open ocean. But then ninety-six percent of the world consisted of ocean, though some a shallow covering over submerged landmasses. Shallow might be a relative term, he supposed. Marcus had no doubt he could drown in any part of the watery expanse.
The fighter squealed and shuddered at every attempt to turn. Something else tore free, and the craft lost more stability. The fighter would not survive much longer. He wouldn't reach the IWC post in this craft, but if he survived at least he might find other transport.
Marcus pointed the nose downward and hoped to find land.
The closer he came to the planet's surface, the harder the winds buffeted him. He kept the craft moving at a right angle to the winds, trying to reach the edge of the storm. Getting out of the weather system seemed the best way to survive, though he wondered where the Moonwind fighters had gone and how long they would take to track him.
The nose dipped downward and he had a hell of a time leveling off before he went straight into the ocean. He hoped to see land, but instead he saw only the rush of water around him, confounding sea and storm. He thought he saw occasional spikes of rock and feared he might plow right into one, but he had very little control now.
The damaged permaglass bubble began to crack in a spider web design, obscuring more of the view. Marcus reached out and pushed his hand over the board's controls and fired the thruster -- fired hard and long as he prayed to reach the storm's edge.
The engine shrieked in protest a moment before it exploded. Even the explosion propelled him forward a few heartbeats longer. For a moment he saw the edge of the clouds through the fractured bubble; a low dark line of clouds with the brighter sky beyond, and a rolling expanse of turbulent ocean . . . without a single island in sight.
The fighter plunged into the sea.
His neck snapped backward, leaving his sight blurred and his head pounding. The permaglass bubble shattered, sending shards everywhere. He felt a sting against his face.
Then he felt the slap of cold wind and icy water.
The storm raged overhead. Waves rushed over the broken permaglass and into the interior. The water level reached above his knees and then to his waist. He grabbed the harness, knowing the little craft wouldn't stay afloat long, but unwilling to let go.
Cold. God, even with his flight suit kicking up the temp to compensate, he still felt the frigid water rushing around him while thunder roared and the wind shrieked as though it became something alive.
Marcus knew he wouldn't survive. He should have thrown himself at the Augusta and gone out like a little star impacting against the dead ship, rather than die alone in some alien sea. He should have died with the rest of his people.
Remember, your flight suit will float if you go down on this damned wet world. As soon as the suit senses the water pressure around you, it will inflate. The suit will seal off damaged areas. Unless it's totally in shreds, the suit will keep you buoyant until help arrives. Your beacon will come on automatically in one half hour unless you turn it off to avoid detection by the enemy.
Had Spraug or Lisle given the lecture as they came in system? He wanted to remember. Why hadn't he been paying better attention? Why couldn't he remember how they looked, standing there in the crew's lounge, preparing the pilots, all of them there conspicuous in the silver and red jackets and black suits rather than the white uniforms of the IWC soldiers. Oh yes, they'd always made a show of being different --
The next wave filled the interior with water up to the boards. He started to release the harness but at the last moment remembered to grab the vidchit from the box on the control board. He shoved the chit into his jacket pocket and sealed it closed, giving himself a reason to survive as he threw himself out into the sea.
Water everywhere as the storm and waves crashed over him, and he could no longer tell where storm ended and ocean began. However, the suit ballooned and he bounced along in this hellish maelstrom. He found one of those rock spires and grabbed hold with his good arm. The surface felt slick, but solid. He jabbed the beacon off. No one to come for him, anyway.
He stared up into the gray-on-gray sky while the rain and waves washed over him. He would likely drown anyway.
He hadn't gone far, but when he looked back he saw the fighter's wing rise, dip, and disappear.
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