Authors: Patrick J. Loller
Regardless of the distance between them, the Exile could feel the glee and savage hatred that warred inside the Shadow. It was a creature of destruction, and it tore through its enemies like a house pet with a toy. The bombers and fighters it encountered didn't stand a chance against its invisible strikes, its weapons born of darkness. Exile shouldn't have been able to sense the minds of the pilots anymore, but she was connected to the Shadow, and so she felt all their terror and pain as their lives were snuffed out.
Again and again, she reminded herself that it was necessary, that she had bonded with the monster for a reason. Whatever that reason, it was washed away in the wake of the pain and anguish that assaulted her. She had no defenses against it, no barriers to erect that would withstand the pounding blows. The iron reek of human blood penetrated her senses; the blood the Shadow had not soaked up was pooling around her as she lay collapsed beside the body. The wet, thick texture around her hand was almost gentle against the throb behind her horn. She needed to move the body. She wouldn't have the strength to purge anyone's mind if she was found unconscious beside the victim with a murder weapon in her hand.
She forced herself up from the ground and then to her feet. She would not have the strength to move the body, not while her mind still throbbed. She ran her hand over the horn growing from her forehead and concentrated on the arm that wasn't there. She could always “feel” it—the phantom pain that reminded her of what she had lost—but she searched for something else, something more tangible.
A calm center, a clear mind
The words from her conclave training bubbled to the surface.
In the same way her Web could reach out and connect with unsecured AMIs and influence thoughts, she could draw her Shell to enhance and protect her body. The energy lurked on the fringes. It was something she did not spend nearly as much time using. The Web allowed her to keep tabs on anyone around her, and when she released it to draw her Shell, she felt as though she were blind.
Still, she forced the switch, and her perception of the unconscious crew members around her and the thoughts of the pilots fell away. The pain from the Shadow diminished slightly, but did not disappear. Its power was not limited to what she could sense.
Her body tingled as energy wrapped around her, and a blue ethereal shape pushed out from her shoulder. An arm formed, then a wrist, and then fingers. Her arm was gone, but the Shell remained; she twisted the ghost fingers into a fist, and could almost imagine they were there. Unlike the illusions she cast with her Web, the Shell was as solid as her, and she wrapped her ghost and flesh hands around the fallen man's uniform.
An ice pick of pain lanced from her spine to her feet as she lifted the man. Somehow she kept her grip, and despite the Shadow's distraction, she was able to drag the body towards the airlock. Trapped with only her own thoughts and the Shadow’s disgusting, monstrous glee, she felt like the journey took an hour. In truth, it was less than two minutes. She could barely maintain her Shell, let alone use the power fully.
Once she unceremoniously dropped the man’s body into the airlock, she looked back at the trail of blood she had caused. That would pose a problem. It wouldn't take a CSI team to figure out what had happened. She might be able to conceal her actions with a clever Web illusion, but the effect would only last as long as she concentrated on it.
The pain continued to throb in her head, and she had a difficult time remembering what to do. She needed a plan. Not just for the blood, but for moving forward. For the first time in years, she was on her own; she had only herself, that cursed knife, and her entire race willing to kill her on sight. She had taken a serious gamble going to Bastogne, following the rumor of a secret testing facility. The wildfires had forced her back into space, and once she was aboard a fleet ship, things would only get worse.
She ran her hands over the man's pockets, searching for anything useful. From one she pulled a date cube. Though he was dead, his AMI unit still functioned enough for her to dig his passcodes out and activate it. She brushed her fingers over him to make the contact—it was the only way to maintain her Shell and connect to the AMI. Spreading out her Web would cost her time. Once she accessed the cube, she searched for the man's purpose for going to the fleet. Was he a colonist escaping the fires below, a scientist, or a sailor? No—he was none of those things. He was a Special Forces soldier on assignment there, and he was being recalled.
This was something the Exile could use.
The Special Forces were their own worst enemy when it came to tracking their soldiers. They did not keep detailed records of their operatives, which could expose them. Instead, they worked as cells, only dependent on the most immediate chain of command. They were ghosts. Ghosts with powerful resources and no ability to check if she belonged. Once she disposed of the man, she could take his place, and any new command could be conned into believing she was their commander. The box had only the name of the platoon he was meant to command: The Condemned. How fitting.
She also found a number of weapons on his person, including a set of explosives. Now the Exile had a plan. She would make it to the fleet unhindered after all.
Vincent fought the stick for every meter as he careened down toward the surface of Bastogne. The raging fires below wreaked havoc with the air currents, and his already harrowing descent on emergency wings was made that much more difficult by the turbulence.
"I really need somewhere I can land. Somewhere not on fire," Vincent called, and he felt the acknowledgment as his AMI pushed out the sensors to find somewhere not completely engulfed. What was left of his armor would probably withstand most of the heat, but if he was going to repair his fighter, or be rescued by a tug, he needed somewhere he could get out of the cockpit.
What had caused so much destruction to the planet? The fires had to have spread hundreds of thousands of kilometers. He had been briefed on the situation, but flying above it gave him a new perspective.
"Negative," Vincent snapped. "Just put it on the screen." Not a chance he was putting his fate in the hands of the computer.
Boxes appeared on his display tracking; they grew ever smaller towards a point in the distance. Vincent tapped the rudders to bring him inside of the first projected box, and aimed for the second. Just like playing a video game. When the whole craft dropped a meter on dead air and shuddered, he reconsidered the thought. It felt like being strapped into a rollercoaster, trying to fly a fight simulator with a busted stick. Without his grav prop to compensate, he felt every g of force. Even with his tightening nano-suit and the padding, the restraints still cut into his shoulders, but they kept him firmly in his seat.
Vincent's wrists ached as he tried to keep the sticks in line; the fighter seemed to want to go anywhere except where he was directing it. The basic frame wasn't meant for this kind of flying. That's why he had an atmospheric configuration sitting back in the fighter bay. For all the good that did him.
The heavy armor frame could have handled it too; all the frames could adjust on the fly, assuming you didn't slam into a gravity hard enough to melt the armor off. His was somewhere behind him, a shower of flaming debris from his reentry. The term
sprang to mind.
He was far enough down that if he ejected he would survive. Rover's survival routine would kick in, and the two of them would float down somewhere and hopefully land outside a hot spot. Vincent knew if he lost his fighter he wouldn't get another one anytime soon. The Chimeras were in short supply, they were prototypes after all. There certainly were none to spare. Best case, he would be taking another pilot off the line; worst case, he was on a shuttle back to Fleet HQ for reassignment.
No, he was going to land, and hopefully he'd live to brag about it.
He leveled out best as he was going to manage, the stumpy wings barely catching the air. It was little better than a nose dive. His air brakes were open to their max, and he was still moving fast enough that the ground was a blur. What he wouldn't give for some science fiction antigravity. Why couldn't the gnomes have invented that?
“Come on baby, hold together,”
Vincent readied the command in his mind; he couldn't let go of the stick long enough to flip the trigger. He ignored all the instrument panels and alerts from the AMI unit. He knew his ship, and he waited for the perfect moment.
When he triggered the command, the thrusters fired off below his nose and directly ahead of him. He jerked forward against the restraints, feeling like he’d just been slugged in the gut. His speed slowed dramatically over the course of a few seconds, and his ship bucked like an animal. He kept a white-knuckle grip on the sticks. He was almost there—the trees below were close enough to see the individual leaves—and then he saw it ahead of him. A soot-covered lake, maybe a kilometer across.
"A lake?" he yelled. "The ship isn't going to float!"
Vincent wished the AMI had a neck he could throttle, but he didn't have the time; already, the water was beneath him, and with one last burst of his thrusters, he crashed into the surface. It was like hitting a brick wall, his right shoulder gave a sharp pop as he slammed back into his seat. Collision alarms flared, and he watched the water bubble up over the cockpit. He had to work to drop the controls, his fingers refusing to give up the grip, and he winced as he dropped his hand, his shoulder screaming. He grabbed at it, making things a thousand times worse, and could feel the gap between shoulder and arm beneath his suit. Dislocated, definitely dislocated. He hit a button on the chest harness to harden the nano-suit arm into a makeshift sling.
The pain didn't diminish completely, but at least he wouldn't move it. His craft hit the bottom of the lake with a thud. He didn't seem to have sprung any leaks, but as he looked out into the murky water, he felt oddly claustrophobic. Somehow, the vacuum of space seemed less dangerous than sitting beneath however many feet of water.
His emergency beacon was on and transmitting. Now all he could do was wait, and hope the battle above came out with the Joint Fleet on top. Otherwise the Separatists would be the ones fishing him out.
Admiral Johnston was not pleased. It wasn't enough that the Separatists had broken the treaty and forced his hand; they had also unleashed some sort of “magic” weapon that damaged one of his fighters, and blew up half of their own bombers. The damage to the enemy was not his concern, though any loss of human life was a waste in his eyes. What troubled him was how fast it had torn through them, like a wolf tearing open its prey. The ships’ husks floated on their inertia, some with drives still active, only their hulls were torn open like tin cans, and the pilots within skewered.
Johnston was no stranger to forces he didn't understand. No admiral worth his salt would blink at the sight of an elemental, crystal, or dragon. Those were enemies they had faced down and could defeat. They were enemies that could be seen. Magic or not, impossible or not, they were at least a known quantity. Whatever had damaged those ships was certainly not on any fleet report.
"What the hell have you done?" the Russian admiral demanded, his com signal now reconnected.
"That weapon originated from the civilian shuttle, the same shuttle that came from the planet you claim is under your jurisdiction. What sort of facility is down there?" Johnston asked, a deadly edge to his voice. The Multi-Verse war was enough without the Separatists experimenting with magic.
"You think we would shoot down our own ships?" Kolchak's face shone red.
"You were quick enough to endanger our relief efforts, and it seems we have discovered why."
"I will make you regret this," Kolchak blustered, and then cut the connection off again.
"Sir!" Sensor called. "The Russians are maneuvering away. I have Alcubierre drive signatures."
"Have they recalled their fighters?" Johnston asked.
"Negative. The closest ones are turning back, but the others will not reach them before they make a jump."
Communications cut in. "They are broadcasting so much that we had no trouble breaking their codes. It's all the same, sir; the pilots think they are being left behind."
"Bloody hell," Johnston muttered, then said in a voice that carried over the others, "CAG, stand down our fighters and pull them back to a safe distance. Do not fire unless actively engaged. If those fighters are abandoned, then we will have no trouble scooping them up. They'll die without their carrier."
"What are they thinking, retreating like that?" McKinley wondered aloud. Johnson quietly shared the thought. Whatever they had created down on that planet was enough to abandon half a dozen squadrons to capture. That did not bode well for anyone.
"Sir, one of the civilian vessels’ engines detonated," Tactical said. "They are venting atmosphere."
"Destroyed?" the admiral asked.
"Negative, sir, they are still broadcasting an SOS."
"Dispatch a rescue tug immediately. Send a marine escort with them, those civilians need to be quarantined"
"And send another to the planet’s surface after that beached fighter," he added. He knew the chances of survival were slim, but he had already lost seven Vapefalcons and did not want to lose even one more. "Which pilot went down?" he asked.
"Barkhorn," the CAG said, and Johnston thought he saw a hint of a smile.