September 20, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Twenty-three

Jenna's voice was flat, devoid of all emotion. "He must have destroyed the panel so we could get out the doors before the Klodfons could close them."

"There's no way anyone could have survived that fireball,” Glen said, stunned. The man they had come into the base to save was dead—and had died to save him. Skylar had been right; as a civilian he was a liability to the others.

"Glen, take the third seat and strap in. Quick." Skylar spoke crisply. Lissanne stepped back inside the ship and slammed the control that would shut the door.

“But Rantek—” Glen began, unmoving in his place.

Skylar’s harsh voice cut across his protest. “Is dead. Now get in that seat and strap in before we’re dead, too.”

Glen moved, slowly, numbly.

“Move!” Skylar bellowed.

In shock, Glen scrambled to obey, while he shouted almost childishly at Skylar.

“You don’t even care! That man died—died to save us—and you sit here acting like nothing’s wrong and we’re going for a Sunday drive!”

Skylar ignored Glen and swiftly continued to prepare the ship for flight, his face impassive, his attention focused.

Glen tried to make sense of the array of straps that passed for an alien seat belt, his fingers fumbling. Lissanne stepped to his side and buckled the straps around him. She retreated to the corner Glen had been standing in, braced her feet solidly, her back in the corner, and held tightly to the webbing straps, her knuckles going white with the fierceness of her grip.

Glen sat in his seat, continuing to fume at Skylar’s careless attitude toward a man’s death.

Preparations complete, Skylar threw the ship into motion, lifting swiftly between the massive hangar doors and into the bright blue afternoon sky.

"Objective accomplished,” Skylar murmured, half to himself. “I found Rantek and he's beyond the reach of the Klodfons. He won't be forgotten, I'll see to that."

Glen cleared his throat. “How do your people honor their dead?”

“We hold a memorial service,” Jenna said softly, “and share our special memories of our fallen comrades-in-arms.”

“What about his body? We can’t just leave it there.”

“After that explosion there won’t be enough of a body to retrieve,” Skylar said, “We have to finish the battle first. There’ll be time to mourn later.”

Shame washed over him as Glen realized he had once again misjudged Skylar. He was neither callous toward death, nor uncaring of his companions’ safety. What he was, was a competent, professional soldier. He recalled his own days in the army and the necessity of leaving the dead, on occasion, to be buried later when there was time to mourn and honor them.

The important thing at the moment was to insure that Rantek’s sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. They must themselves escape and bring reinforcements back to destroy the base and remove the Clod-fawns from his planet.

"This might be a good time to do some damage to their base before they follow us." Lissanne said.

Skylar shook his head. "I don't want to do any fancy maneuvering this close to the ground, especially with a loose body in the cockpit. We need to let the fleet know about the base and destroy it properly."

Skylar turned the ship in the general direction of Glen's camp. "How's the scanner look?"

"Empty," Jenna replied, then, "No...wait," she paused a moment. "Five pursuit craft."

"We'll worry about getting Glen home later. Let's build some altitude."

The ship climbed sharply, pressing them all into their seats.

Skylar glanced at Jenna. "The firing controls should be on your side; pair of buttons about halfway up your panel on the left. Find them?"

"Think so," Jenna answered, experimentally pressing a purplish button. Twin beams of blue energy reached out in front of the ship, exploding the air at their point of contact. "Got it."

"How close are they behind us?" Skylar asked.

Her eyes scanned the monitor. "Too close. Twenty seconds and closing. Are you going to loop?" The raider shook from the concussion of a shot behind them.

Skylar shook his head. "I'm going to hit full reverse thrust. They'll fly right past us, into our sights."

"Skylar, that's crazy! It'll never work!"

"Trust me." He was calm, his voice assured.

"It’s your skin, Captain."

“It’s your skin, too,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s what’s got me worried,”

Skylar smiled as he slowed the craft as quickly as he could and the Klodfons flew past.

Lissanne lost her grip on the cargo net and slid into the back of Jenna's seat. She scrambled for something to hold on to as Skylar accelerated again, now behind the Clod-fawns.

As soon as the first raider was past them, Jenna fired at the ships. She blasted the first one in the engines, transforming it instantly into a glowing fireball. The second was cut nearly in half under her fire and disintegrated before their eyes. Nothing remained but a cloud of sparkling particles, drifting slowly towards the ground.

During the exchange of fire they had climbed steeply, the Clod-fawns seeking their natural fighting ground in the airless void of space. The three remaining Clod-fawn ships were busy using evasive measures to avoid Jenna's fire.

The sky grew dark, then black. The stars came out as they left the Earth's atmosphere and entered space.

Glen had a sudden sensation of falling and it was all he could do not to become ill as his stomach turned inside out. Lissanne began to float upwards until she threaded her arms and one foot more securely through holes in the cargo netting she’d clung to.

"See if you can get the gravity working," Skylar muttered, swallowing convulsively. “Try something on the far top right corner of the panel.”

Jenna nodded and fiddled with several switches before she found the one she wanted. Weight returned with a rush and Glen’s stomach stopped complaining.

A sudden fireball erupted next to the view port, the blast causing all aboard to flinch.

Skylar dove their raider away from the ships chasing them, executing a neat outside loop and emerging behind the trio of Klodfon ships.

"I didn't know these ships were that maneuverable," Jenna remarked as she fired on her targets, destroying another raider.

"Neither did I," Skylar returned. The ship jerked as it slowed. "They must be worse pilots than we thought."

Jenna blasted another ship to fragments. "Either that, or their instruction manual skipped the chapter on 'Creative Combat Maneuvers' written by Captain Skylar."

Glen shook his head in amazement. “We’re about to get blasted into a cloud of dust and you two have nothing better to do than make jokes?”

“Yeah, well, joking about it is better than crying,” Jenna said, blasting the fourth ship.

“You doing okay back there?” Skylar asked.

“I’m managing,” Glen replied.

“Lissanne?”

“Hanging on, Captain,” her cheerful voice replied.

The last Klodfon ship turned tail and ran toward the planet below them.

"He'll be back pretty soon with some of his friends," Skylar said. "Let's see if we can raise the Charys."

He searched the control panel and flipped a switch. “Automated distress signal on the Wyvern channel,” he commented to Jenna, “but I don’t see any other fleet frequency.”

This part of the battle over, and gravity restored to the ship, Lissanne untangled herself from the netting. Skylar turned to his rear passengers and gave Glen a reassuring smile. "Sorry we had to drag you along like this; I meant to drop you off at your campsite before we left."

The threat of imminent annihilation at least temporarily removed, Glen grinned back. "I don't mind. I wanted to see your spaceship anyway. Besides,” he said, "Hannah's not expecting me for a day or so." His voice then became more serious. "How will I get home?"

Skylar frowned and turned back to his controls. "I really don't know. We have to do something fairly soon, before we're out of range. Right now, that's the least of our concerns."

"You mean the one that got away?" Glen asked.

"That, too," Skylar agreed.

“That, 'too'? What else?" Glen’s voice was grave.

Jenna answered, her voice flat and serious. "Have you stopped to consider what the Charys is going to think when we come cruising up in a Klodfon ship?"

"I hadn't thought of that," Glen said, slowly. He grew very quiet as he sat contemplating the possibilities. He didn’t like the prospects those thoughts brought to his mind.