StarCrossed Chapter 10
Mystician Empire. Tempestas Solar-System. Tempestas. Orbit.
Year: 323 A.A. Month: 6. Day: 2. Time: 1:45 P.M., Galactic Standard Time.
Falcon growled as the shield's power level continued to drop. The ship shuddered, knocking them all off-balance, but she didn't look away from her terminal. Her hands were a blur on the controls. She was frantically trying to keep this ship alive. The computer announced that the shields were at fifty percent. "Not too much longer, Captain," she muttered. "Not long at all."
Hopkins simply smiled, the flashing red lights casting strange shadows on his face. "Agreed. But our ship's fate is unimportant." He leaned back in his captain's chair and pointed at the viewscreen that was the focal point of the bridge. "Making planetfall is all that matters."
Newton stared at the viewscreen, at the planet they were slowly but inevitably falling toward. It was called Tempestas. The picture wasn't clear, though; the screen was heavily tinted red, where the shields were trying to hold off the continuing barrage of energy. And failing.
"Damn it, we don't have a chance in hell of making planetfall!" shouted Koch. "We're all going to die up here!" But he kept on splicing wires, trying to keep the ship alive for one more second.
"Turn off the alarms," Hopkins said, calmly. A moment later, the alarms stopped. "You're right, Koch. We won't." This statement, so quiet and serene, brought the entire bridge to complete silence. He continued, "Prep the escape pod. Someone will have to make planetfall alone."
Falcon immediately pressed three keys and reported "Escape pod prepped, sir." She looked up from her station at Hopkins. "Who goes?"
Hopkins looked around the bridge. "Anyone who wants to go, raise your hand. The pod has enough room for two." Everyone's hands stayed firmly in place, and Hopkins smiled. "As I thought. But someone must go down." He thought for a moment, giving careful consideration even as the computer announced that the shields were down to thirty percent.
"Newton. Brandt. Report." The two officers rushed to stand before Hopkins. "You two take the pod."
Brandt nodded and ran to the door, but Newton hesitated. "Sir," he said, "why do you want me to go? There are others who are more experienced."
"Now is hardly the time to question orders," Hopkins replied mildly. "However, I shall remind you that you two are the only two not essential to the running of the ship in battle conditions. The rest of us will hold off the Pyrrh ships so that you may escape. Now, go." And he handed Newton a disk. "Make sure this gets home."
Newton hesitated only a moment before saluting and joining Brandt. They exited the bridge, and Newton only glanced back once before the door shut behind him.
The ensuing silence was briefly broken as the computer announced the weakening of shields to twenty percent. The bridge shook, and a terminal exploded, throwing Koch back into a wall. He hit it with a loud grunt and slid to the floor. He didn't get back up. The red emergency light finally stopped flashing, and the only light was that of the faintly glowing screens on the terminals.
In the silent darkness, Falcon spoke up. "Why didn't you tell him the truth?"
Hopkins smiled, though she couldn't see it. "If I'd told him that I trust him, he'd know that there's someone to distrust. And I want him to make his own judgments." He bowed his head. "And if I'd told him that I love him, he wouldn't have left."
"Why'd you send Brandt? You know you can't trust him."
Hopkins stood and walked up to the viewscreen. It was blank now; no power remained for it. "We were ordered to watch him, not let him die. I think the Vagabond has plans for him. Besides, dying here would be too good for him."
The computer announced that the shields were down to ten percent. Hopkins placed a hand on the viewscreen. "Good luck, son."
Time: 1:51 P.M.
Newton ran down the corridor a half-step behind Brandt. Newton had to fight back the urge to stop, turn and run back. But he kept running. He had a mission.
When they finally reached the pod, Brandt jumped in. He pressed the button to close the hatch, leaving Newton just enough time to jump in before it closed with the hiss of air pressurization. They both strapped in, and Brandt pressed the button for the intercom. "We're in the pod, Falcon. Shoot us out."
There was a pause, then Falcon's voice asked, "Both of you?"
"I'm here, too," Newton said quietly.
"Launching pod," she replied promptly. "Good luck, Newton."
Before he could respond, the pod was thrown from the ship with a sudden jolt. The pod's one window showed the airlock rapidly shrinking away from them as the cold vacuum of space sucked them out. He caught one clear glimpse of the ship, could even read the name: Sevenstar. With a bright flash, they passed through the ship's shields, and suddenly the pod was surrounded by red light. Soon Newton could see the Pyrrh ships, all three of them, constantly firing upon the Sevenstar. He couldn't help but feel a surge of anger at seeing those ships, shining white, as they mercilessly pounded away at the ship that had been his home for years.
The pod spun as it moved, turning so that they could clearly see the planet below. It was so large that it seemed that he could make out individual land formations... but their view turned so rapidly that everything was there and gone before he could process it.
The window turned to show the ship again, and Newton cried out as the first laser penetrated the shields. Soon, the shields were all but useless, and the beams slammed again and again into the hull of the Sevenstar. Newton hit the intercom button with his fists, unsure if the pod could reach the ship, but not caring.
"Father!" he shouted, and the ship exploded, a brief flash of flame and shrapnel flying out in an ever-expanding ring. And all of it silent, the horrible silence of space. He screamed to fill the silence, and the ring of shrapnel overcame the pod in a wave. The pod shook and spun, and Newton hit his head.
His mind went as silent as the space which was the Sevenstar's grave.
Day: 3. Time: 8:34 A.M.
Newton awoke in a blaze of pain. So great was it, he almost slipped back into unconsciousness. Through force of will, he managed to stay awake. He knew, somehow, that if he gave in now, that if he succumbed to the pain in his head and in his heart, he might never awaken.
So he opened his eyes. That in itself was not painful; it was an overcast day. That led to another realization: the pod's hatch was open. Brandt was apparently nowhere to be found. Had the pod opened in midair and dropped Brandt out along the way? It was unlikely, but possible. But no, Brandt's restraints were not torn, and the hatch did not seem unduly damaged. He had survived impact. And he had left.
Right now, Newton was too groggy to wonder where Brandt was, or why he had left. All he knew was that Brandt was gone and he was alone. There was no food in the pod, and as hungry as Newton was, he thought that some time must have passed.
That thought jolted something in his unreliable memory: his mission. He suddenly remembered the truth, that he didn't have much time. If he didn't succeed, a great many more people would die.
And so he fumbled at his restraints until they fell away, and struggled, turtle-like, to his feet. He looked around then, seeing the planet for the first time. The terrain here was rocky, inhospitable. Off in the distance, he could see some plant-life, but that was miles away. The only living things nearby resembled weeds. The sky could have been blue; it was too cloudy to tell. The clouds themselves looked to be a strange color, though. Dark green, perhaps. Did that relate to the color of the sky? Newton couldn't remember.
He looked back, and saw a trench, carved out by the pod, half a mile in length. No life could be seen that way, though. That direction was dead. So, turning back to the slim crescent of green on the horizon, he began to walk.
Time: 3:22 P.M.
Newton awoke, and was surprised to find himself waking. He had not remembered falling asleep. The last thing he remembered was walking. He did not know for how long he had walked... the minutes and hours melded into sameness in his memory. The walk was shadowy in his mind, an endless journey through nothingness toward no real destination.
Obviously, though, it had ended. Now he was in... a cave of some sort, it seemed. The entrance was beyond his field of vision, but weak sunlight permeated the cave; it was still daylight. He was lying on something soft. Someone had saved him. Brandt?
He managed to sit up, though his head felt full of rocks. He instantly put a hand to his forehead, only to find something there. He felt it around its length, and recognized it as a bandage, wrapped around his entire head. He also noticed that his feet were bandaged. A good thing, that; the bandages were stained red. The walk over the rocky terrain had torn his feet apart despite the boots he wore. Other than the boots, he was still fully clothed.
" 'Tis good that I found thee."
Newton tried to get to his feet to confront the woman's voice behind him, but immediately stumbled. Two strong hands grabbed his shoulders from behind, and lowered him back to a sitting position on what he now saw was a green fur cloak, the one on which he'd slept. The hands held on to his shoulder long enough to sturdy him, and were removed.
"Be still, lad. Thou'rt not yet in prime condition," cautioned his benefactor as she walked around him and sat cross-legged, facing him.
Newton had been all over the Empire, had seen many different people. But he'd never seen anyone quite like this woman. Her body was wrapped in white and brown furs, leaving her muscular arms bare except for leather gloves. Her pants, which once were simple slacks, were now frayed up to the knees, and her fur-lined leather boots looked worn. A sword scabbard hung from a strip of rawhide that functioned as a belt. From the other side of the belt hung a small pouch.
Like the rest of her, her face was constructed not so much for beauty as for strength. Her jawline was square, her nose strong, her lips thin. Her large green eyes were almost hidden by her wild green hair, which flowed unhindered down her back. There was a brown mark on her forehead that looked like a burn. And yet, though none of these features would have made her attractive alone, together they gave her something of a wild allure, a sense that she was untamed and untamable.
She made an odd contrast to Newton himself, with his sharp, angular face, his slightly spiky black hair, and his more modern attire. He wore what every officer on the Sevenstar had worn: a black bodysuit, with a dark cloak draped over his shoulders. The cloak's clasp was engraved with a single line down the center, the only sign of his rank. His own weapons, easily the match of any archaic sword, were where they always were: wrapped around his wrists, looking like nothing more than ornate wrist-guards.
"As I said," she continued in a strange accent, "'Tis a good thing that I found thee, lad. Thy spark of life was nearly snuffed out."
Newton stared, dumbfounded. "What?"
She smiled, amused. "Doth my accent confound thee, lad? Fear not; I shall moderate it forthwith. I merely remarked that thou... you were lucky that I looked for you."
Newton shook his head slowly. He was still in a great deal of pain, and groggy besides. "You... were looking for me? Who are you?"
"I am Rana," she replied. Abruptly, she opened the pouch at her waist and focused her attention on rummaging around in it. "And you?"
"My name's Newton," he replied, omitting his rank. "What are you doing?"
"A strange name, that," she remarked, ignoring his question.
Newton bristled. "It was the name of a great man, who lived on Earth long ago."
"Where?" asked Rana, but she didn't give him time to respond. "Ah, there." She pulled a roll of cloth out of the pouch, and looked back at Newton. "Now, lean forward, lad."
"Why?" That "lad" remark made him disinclined toward cooperation. He was twenty, after all. Rana could only be twenty-five at most.
" 'Why?' " Rana unfolded her legs and sat back on her heels, giving her the advantage of height as she frowned at him. She put her fists on her hips for added effect. " 'Why?' Yon bandage 'round thy fool head seems a red ribbon, 'tis all. If thou desireth infection, 'tis thine own business." She loomed above him, her expression indicating that she would brook no more nonsense.
Newton leaned forward, and Rana began removing the bandage. With his face so close to her, he noticed that she had a definite smell. Not unpleasant, but something of a surprise when Newton was used to a shower every day, and women who always wore perfume. A sudden pain made him jerk back (and realize he'd been leaning closer and closer to Rana). "Ow!"
Rana apologized, and dropped the bandage to the cave floor. As she'd indicated, it was soaked through with blood. She began wrapping fresh bandages around Newton's head.
"Sorry about being stubborn," Newton said. After another pang made him draw breath sharply, he continued, "I've just been under... a lot of stress, lately."
"Aye, I've no doubt. This may hurt," she cautioned him, just before she pulled the bandage tight. It did, but he was prepared. She sat back down. "And I apologize as well. Thou... you are not a fool." She touched a hand to her chest in such a way that it appeared to mean something.
Newton touched his chest as well, just to be safe. Different people had different customs. "Thanks. And thanks for saving me." He frowned. "What were you doing out there in the middle of nowhere, anyway?"
Rana laughed. "The middle of nowhere? We are only ten furlongs from the settlement. And I was looking for thee... you."
"Looking for me? What do you mean?"
"Thy comrade, Brandt, preceded thee. He told us that he and another had escaped from a crashing ship, and that thou... you... Augh! 'Tis difficult, this dialect."
"Don't worry. You can speak normally. I think I can understand you now."
Rana smiled. "Many thanks. Regardless, the man said the crash had been thy doom. I came to bury thee."
"Thanks," said Newton wryly, "Glad you didn't have to. Why'd you come, though? Are you a priestess or something?"
"This planet is... dangerous." She patted her sword. "I'm more prepared for travel than most."
"Well, I'm glad you came. I don't know how I can repay you."
Rana raised an eyebrow. "Thou couldst tell me the truth."
"I... don't know what..."
"For three fortnights, we have seen ships in the sky. They never land, simply pass. Now we see lights in the sky, and two men in like raiment crash. Thy comrade continually tries to call for assistance from men whom he will not name. If thou art thankful, thou wilt tell me. Is there danger?"
Newton stared. "You mean, Brandt didn't tell you?" He bit his lip in thought. "There's not much time. We should get back to your settlement. I'll tell everyone, then."
Rana shook her head. "We can go nowhere now."
Abruptly, there was a crash of thunder. Only then did Newton notice that the light coming from the mouth of the cave had been steadily decreasing. It was almost lightless, now. There was silence for a moment, and then came the roar of a sudden torrent of rain.
The sudden sharp ring of Rana's sword being drawn distracted him from the pounding rain. It took Newton a moment to realize that the sword was very slightly glowing. In its faint light, Rana moved over to a pile of wood that he hadn't noticed before. She struck a match (that she'd presumably gotten from her belt pouch), and set it to the wood. After a few moments, she had a fire going, and sheathed the sword.
"I really think we should be going, Rana. A little rain never hurt anyone." He stood and wobbled, but he stayed upright. He began to limp to the cave's mouth.
Rana's hand was suddenly on his shoulder, her grip almost painful. "None may travel in the rain of Tempestas," she told him firmly. "Thou hast seen the burn upon my brow? 'Twas done by the rain."
Newton looked back at her incredulously. The fire was behind her, hiding her face in shadow. He couldn't see the burn right now, but he remembered it. "The rain is acidic?"
"Aye. 'Tis why only one settlement existeth on Tempestas. Besides, thou'rt in no condition for travel." She nodded back at the fire. "Now, come. Sit. Tell me." She didn't release his shoulder until he agreed.
They pulled the cloak closer to the fire, and sat facing eachother. "I don't know where to start," Newton said, as he munched on some trail mix that Rana had pulled out of her belt pouch.
"Who art thou?"
"I'm Newton, an Orphan."
"I am sorry."
Newton chuckled. "No, I have parents-" His voice froze in his throat as it hit home that his father had gone down with the Sevenstar. But he decided that he would have to grieve later; he had to complete his father's last orders. That would be the best way to honor him.
He continued, "The Orphans are an organization of people whose homeworlds have been destroyed. We all live in a space station known as the Orphanage."
Rana shook her head in disbelief. "Thine homeworlds... destroyed? How?"
"It's different for everyone. Some were destroyed in wars. Some were ruined by pollution. But most... most are destroyed by either Lavoids or the Pyrrh."
"Lavoids and Pyrrh? What are these creatures?"
"I'll tell you all I know about both of them. The Lavoids are a species of... well, parasites. It's rumored that they originated in the Sol Dominion, but I don't really know one way or the other. They're ancient, though. So ancient that many consider them nothing more than legends.
"When a Lavoid lands on a planet, it begins to change things. It subtly guides the life on the planet, turning all living things toward the Lavoid's purpose. Soon, the entire planet becomes bent toward the Lavoid's will... until the Lavoid reproduces. When that happens... nine times out of ten, the Lavoid rises from its underground hiding place and scorches the surface of the planet. Nobody really knows why it does that. Some say that it's to protect its young from the planet's natives. Personally, I think it's just because the Lavoids like destruction."
"How can such a creature exist? And why have I not heard of them before?"
"Well, for one thing, they don't appear often. According to what records we have, some of the Lavoids travel through time. They can appear at any time, on any planet, and people never know until it's too late... unless someone figures out how to detect a Lavoid's presence. We at the Orphanage have such technology, but it's... crude. As for your second question, none of the Galactic Powers like to admit that Lavoids actually exist. No government likes to admit that there are problems it can't solve."
"Can they be destroyed?"
Newton hesitated. "Yes and no. According to our records at the Orphanage, there was once an organization which knew how to find and kill a Lavoid before it could do any harm. It was called the LEA, or 'Lavoid Exterminatorum Adeptus.' Supposedly, they were the bane of Lavoids everywhere."
"They're gone. Nobody really knows what happened. They went to Earth for some reason, and never returned. Apparently, there was a very powerful Lavoid there. But their legend lives on. I suppose you could say the Orphans are trying to be another LEA. A large part of what we do is researching new ways to find and destroy Lavoids."
"And the Pyrrh?"
"You know those ships you said you've been seeing? Those are Pyrrh ships. Their mission, much like ours, is the destruction of Lavoids. They're also like us in that they have no homeworld; they all live on three gigantic ships."
"Yet thou accuseth the Pyrrh of destroying planets."
"I told you that they consider it their mission to destroy Lavoids. I didn't mention the way they go about fulfilling that mission. They send squads of Pyrrh throughout the galaxy, searching every planet. When they find a planet infested by a Lavoid, they immediately create a blockade around the planet, fencing it in so that none may go in or out. They seem to fear that individuals can be infected by Lavoids. After the blockade is set up, one of the three ships, known as the Terracide, appears and... destroys the planet."
" 'Tis insane! Whether the Pyrrh find the Lavoid or not, the planet still dies."
"And when the Lavoid awakens, it merely scorches the surface. The Terracide is armed with a weapon known as the Screw, which can blow an entire planet into rubble. But the Pyrrh seem to think it's worth it in order to make sure that the Lavoid doesn't reproduce, and send new Lavoids to ruin new planets. Statistically, it makes sense."
"Thou'rt defending them?"
"Not at all. The ends don't justify the means. Besides, their method doesn't always work; some Lavoids are just too powerful to be destroyed, even by a weapon as powerful as the Screw."
" 'Tis nigh unbelievable. What could destroy such a monster?"
Newton shook his head. "I don't know. If I knew a method, you can be sure the Orphans would be using it. There are dozens of Lavoids in our databanks that we simply can't destroy. And we dare not tell the Pyrrh where these Lavoids are, because the Pyrrh-"
"Would destroy the planet," Rana interrupted. She looked up for a moment. " 'Twas they who shot thee down?"
"They hath created a blockade, then?"
Rana closed her eyes. "Tempestas hath a Lavoid. 'Tis the only explanation."
Newton could only offer her his sympathies. He reached to hold her hand, and she grasped it. "I know how you feel, Rana," Newton said quietly. "I was a child when the Pyyrh started shooting down ships around my homeworld. When the Orphans came, their ships fell by the dozens, but they still tried to save as many of us as possible. The Orphans are the only reason why any still live who once knew the world of Greenwaters."
"So the Orphans intend to save us?"
Newton hesitated. "They... don't know yet. Our ship was a scout ship, sent out to search for Pyrrh. But they already had the blockade up, and we never had a chance to send word to the Orphanage. If I can get to some communications equipment before the Terracide gets here, I can notify the Orphanage. Then... we wait."
"How long must we wait?"
"Our ships are fast. I'd say, maybe five days."
"And how long until the Pyrrh destroy us?"
Newton sighed. "I don't know."
Rana abruptly released his hand and stood. She drew her sword; in the light of the fire it looked black as onyx. "We mustn't waste more time, then. We must go forth."
Newton rose, and Rana bent over to retrieve her cloak. She picked it up and donned it in one smooth motion. "I don't understand," he protested as she turned to the fire. "You said that nobody travels through the rain of Tempestas."
"Aye," she agreed. "Nobody travels through the rain. Except for me." And with that she thrust the black sword into the fire. In an instant, the flame went out, and the cave was bathed in darkness, save for the sudden return of the black sword's faint glow. "This blade has been my companion since I was but a babe. I know not from whence it came, but its power hath served me well. The rain approacheth not when the blade is drawn." She walked toward the exit.
Newton was incredulous, but put on his boots and followed a step behind. "Wait. If we could have left at any time, why didn't we go when I said so?"
Rana halted, and glanced at him over her shoulder. "I trust not thine companion, Brandt. He mentioned nothing of Lavoids or Pyrrh. I wanted to make sure I could trust thee before bringing thee to the settlement."
"I trust thee to do what thou canst to defend my people." She turned back to the rain, but paused yet again. "If the Orphans arrive, can they save Tempestas?"
"There's no time to waste, Rana."
She nodded. "Stay thou close to me, Newton. Mine blade cannot protect thee if thou stray'st."
And she stepped out into the curtain of rain that marked the overhang of the cave's mouth. But a strange thing happened; the rain seemed to part a few feet over her head, so that she remained untouched by rain. Cautiously, Newton joined her, staring up at the rain as it parted overhead without any visible cause.
"Are you sure you can't use magic?"
"Nay, 'tis the blade. Now, let us go." And she set off, Newton close behind her.
They moved at a steady pace; not too fast for Newton's injured feet, but not slow by any means. At one point, she stopped long enough to search through her pouch and pull out a small leaf. She told Newton to chew it. He did, and though it tasted horrible, he found that the pain in his feet began to abate.
As they traveled, Newton found himself wondering at the wilderness through which they hiked. He had seen many worlds, though he hadn't often been outside of the city, but he'd never once seen plant-life like that found on this world. The shapes he glimpsed through the pouring rain seemed twisted, gnarled, as if the acidity of the rain had warped the very plant-life of this world.
Time went on, and Newton began to tire. When he brought up the idea of rest, though, Rana told him to wait for a few minutes. And indeed, she soon brought him to a clearing, with mossy rocks to sit on. Newton was afraid to sit on the moss for a moment, since he thought the acidic rain had soaked in. But he was surprised to find that the sword's presence had actually dried the moss.
Again and again, Rana proved herself a capable guide. It was difficult to see clearly through the rain, but she navigated the forest as if she had clear daylight and marked paths. She must, Newton thought, have been navigating these forests her whole life. He absently wondered whether everyone on this planet were at home with the wilderness as she. Probably not; her sword gave her the ability to travel in weather that would prove deadly to others.
A nearby explosion drew their attention. "Nay," Rana whispered. " 'Tis the settlement."
She suddenly began to run, almost as if she'd forgotten that her sword was protecting Newton. But as Newton began to run after her, he realized that the rain had abruptly stopped. He didn't have time to consider that, though. Now that the rain had stopped, he could clearly see smoke over the treetops, and the orange glow of flame reflected from the clouds above.
Newton followed, finally entering a clearing. He found Rana standing there, and stood beside her as they stared at the settlement, or what was left of it. It was a dome of metal and glass, now smashed as if struck by a meteor. It was lit by the constant flashes of light caused by the battle that raged all around.
"Pyrrh," Newton growled as he watched the small white figures running around, often in groups of three or four. They were throwing spells up in the air, a torrent of energies aimed at several different points.
"What be those?" Rana asked, pointing upward with her sword.
"Farilii," he answered simply, struck with an old hatred as he watched the blue figures flying through the air, dodging spells and countering with arrows of flame. "They're servants of this world's Lavoid."
"What's going on?" Rana whispered.
"The Lavoid knows that it's in danger. It's brought out the Farilii to hold off the Pyrrh so it can escape." He shook his head. "I had hoped war wouldn't come to the surface. I had hoped to avoid casualties-"
Rana suddenly let out a scream of the purest rage, and charged into the clearing, her sword trailing behind. Newton only paused a moment before deciding. He quietly gave the command, and claws extended from his Lacryma, the "wrist guards" on his arms. With an angry cry of his own, he charged into battle.
"Revenge... 'Tis all that matters now."