Saturday, 24 October 2009
The wrecked battleship, though wing-clipped, was anything but dead: over the years, the escaped slaves had worked to restore and adapt its systems to meet their needs, and the soft rumble of pumps and generators had for decades been a comfort.
Scall was particularly proud of her work on the sensor and communications arrays. After taking the Republic University’s distance-learning courses on starship electronics and mechanics, she’d dedicated her hours to bringing the systems back up to near-perfect functionality. It was her pet project, and her husband had long bemoaned that she spent more time in the ship than she did at home.
There were still a few bugs to work out, though, and Scall had decided to open up one of the consoles and find out why it wasn’t lighting properly.
Something pinged unpleasantly as she pulled a wire free of its contact.
‘Crap.’ She plugged it back in and the ping sounded again, then again. She started sorting through the mass of fibreoptic spaghetti, then realised the sound wasn’t related to her work. The noise was becoming repetitive, and urgent, and the stocky woman spun to see several sensors lit up at once, points of amethyst, amber and ruby flickering across the boards.
‘Oh no… no, no, no…’ Hurriedly, Scall woke up the display they’d jury-rigged into the capsule trunk-leads in order to see the command overview. Multiple pilot signatures filled the system channels; a bit of fiddling with the spliced-in controls revealed the fleet transponder codes.
Heart in her throat, the specialist sprinted for the comms chamber above, sandaled feet pounding the metal steps, and slapped her hand on the alarm.
Coiled in the guts of the metal beast, wires excised from other parts of the ship and grafted in to modify the functions of other parts stirred with current for the first time in generations. Even as the improvised alert system blared a warning across the rooftops of the colony, the focussed-band FTL transmitter fired off a pre-set message.
The Republic communications relays were not the only ones to receive it.
TIIA EDGRIET stalks through station halls filled with men and women in uniforms hurrying this way and that; the legend in the lower-right corner reads Dal I: Tribal Liberation Force Assembly Plant. The commander looks tense and anxious, a datapad gripped in one hand as her secretary struggles to keep up with her. Rounding a bend in the hall, she spies SPACE CAPTAIN STARKE and ALISTAIR AVION and changes direction to meet them.
Starke, where the Hel have you been?
STARKE and AVION exchange a look.
The clone bay, updating.
The Brutor captain presses back against the wall to let a group of pilots hurry past.
What’ve we got?
EDGRIET tosses the datapad at him over her shoulder as she leads them toward the lift to the capsuleer hangars.
Emergency signal, not encoded or anything. Straight from Ubtes, contains a snapshot of what was on the scanner when they pushed the button.
The smaller woman halts and turns suddenly, nearly causing STARKE and AVION to pile into her. She stares up at STARKE with the intensity of a solar flare.
Your staged informant scenes aside, there’s no more time to waste. Are your pilots ready, Captain?
SPACE CAPTAIN STARKE studies her for a moment, then nods.
We’re at your command.
The Sebiestor commander studies him a moment longer, then nods sharply.
To your ships, then, gentlemen.
ALISTAIR AVION watches EDGRIET leave, then cranes his neck up and around to eye his commander.
Try not to do anything stupid in order to impress her, will you?
STARKE is frowning at the datapad.
STARKE: (muttering distractedly)
I can hold it together, don’t worry about me.
He hands the ‘pad over to his Amarrian second in command.
We’re not going to make it before their fleet’s in position.
Watching sunlight glimmer off the cloud structures far below, the Reclamation fleet's scout almost missed the appearance of a new signature on her local grid. She frowned as it winked out before identification could be made. Was that...? 'Command, scout. We may have company, What's your ETA? ...Five minutes, understood.'
Small points of gold began to appear at the edge of the atmosphere fifty kilometres away: support ships followed by a group of five battleships, gleaming in the refracted light. The signal was given, and the shimmering whirlpool of a cynosural field lit up, heralding the arrival of the fleet's primary component, an Archon-class carrier filled with dropships to collect the Matari settlers.
The beacon collapsed suddenly, and comms descended into a mass of confusion as the pilot of the generator frigate lost both his ship and his life in rapid succession. The Retribution-class assault frigate which had destroyed the generator under the nose of its own fleet was quickly torn apart as the Amarrian forces obtained targeting locks, but the space around them was beginning to flood with unaffiliated ships. Alarms blared as the Reclamation fleet struggled to restore order and reorient towards the unexpected threat. Lasers began to cross the sky, searing and crackling in the high-level atmosphere.
The Ammatar had arrived, and they were not happy.
'Everyone form up on the gate. Libbies, you with us?'
''Libbies'. Starke, you cheeky bastard...'
'With us or not, Tiia?' Sylar grinned to himself, feeling his assault frigate responding easily to his commands. Alistair has his recording equipment running at peak performance; this fight might easily be more desperate than any they'd ever been in before, but that was all the more reason to get every moment into the show. A Reclaiming fleet was not the sort of thing most Minmatar would ever see, let alone the rest of the cluster. People needed to know this was still happening.
'You know better than to ask that.' Tiia's Tempest and the rest of her squadrons formed the bulk of the fleet; the Novas in their smaller frigates and cruisers appeared fewer in comparison, though their numbers were about even.
Sylar chuckled. 'We all need to loosen up here. Riva, whatcha got in there?'
'Ubtes is hopping, sir. Looks like there's a fight going on.'
A fight? 'Who's involved?'
'Lemme actually get out of warp, huh? ...OHH! Cap', we're missing the fun. Looks like the local Ammatar have decided to let the Amarr fleet know they're no longer welcome out here.'
Tiia's voice cut through the comms. 'Nice to know they're serious about making their peace with the Republic.'
Mind racing, Sylar asked, 'Riv, what kind of opposition are we looking at?'
'There's wrecks all over the place. Looks like an Amarr carrier and standard support fleet versus a varied Ammatar fleet. No cynos up, looks like their generator frig got popped. Field looks balanced, the carrier is holding off drop pattern.'
'That's because it'll be vulnerable to attack with the drops down. Locate the Ammatar commander, I want a word with him before we get involved.'
'Scall, let's go! Everyone else is out, what are you still doing in here?' Aoli tugged at the communications specialist's shoulder. The older woman flapped her hand impatiently.
'You go. Someone needs to listen in. We need to know what's happening.'
'And if the slaver ships land?'
Scall held up the small laser pistol she'd liberated from the Apocalypse's armoury; it was an antique, but it worked still. 'They won't take me alive.'
Aoli slapped the back of Scall's head. 'You be careful, dammit.' Scall was right, but the younger woman still worried as she hurried from the battleship wreck towards the treeline and the hills to the south. When the ship had first landed, the escaped slaves had hidden among the woods, fearing the ship would be found by rescue parties. None had come, however, and the hidden caves had lain abandoned until now. Again, they would shelter the colonists... hopefully.
She paused at the edge of the village, glancing up at the sky above. Bright flashes had been seen; they could only hope it was Captain Starke holding the Amarrian fleet off.
Realspace coalesced around the Matari fleet as they dropped out of warp, vivid bursts of missile impacts and laser-fire filling their overviews.
'Good timing, Captain,' the Ammatar commander, Mirithak Hatthro, said. The Nefantar tribesman's deep voice threatened to overwhelm the communications link, resonating with a richness better-suited to a holo-performer than a thirty-year career officer. The incoming fleet had disbanded and re-formed as squads under Hatthro's command, putting them into the same comms frequency. Tiia and Imkara had been less than fond of the idea of joining the Ammatar fleet, but it was the only way to coordinate. 'We've got the carrier pinned down, but there's a lot of logistics being used, Starke. We've been picking off the little ones, but it's slow going.'
'You focus on the battleships, we'll take care of the support,' Sylar responded. The Matari ships surged forward into the mess, squads peeling off in different directions as leaders called primaries.
Amarrian pilots' signatures began to wink out one after another as the balance shifted. As he came around for another pass on an enemy Guardian-class cruiser, Sylar spotted a lone Amarrian frigate moving toward the Ammatar fleet, guarded by destroyers. 'Riva, get me a scan of that Punisher, fast! I don't like it.'
'I'm too far off... oh, just brilliant.' The Vherokior pilot cursed as the Punisher activated another cyno beacon. 'Now what?'
A blinding flash announced the arrival of another Amarrian capital ship; as the glare faded, the menacing, pointed prow of a Revelation-class dreadnaught turned with terrible purpose toward the Ammatar ships, turrets larger than a cruiser rotating smoothly around to focus on the enemy fleet.
'All battleships, evasive manoeuvers! Don't make an easy target of yourselves!' Hatthro ordered hoarsely. It was the worst possible situation the battle-scarred veteran could imagine, and he gripped the arms of his command chair tightly. Only the presence of the capsuleers in his fleet stopped him from calling a retreat. 'Someone take out that cyno frigate before anything else comes through.'
'On it. Cherry, cover me,' Sylar responded tightly, his assault frigate banking gracefully towards the stationary target.
'Syl, you back the fuck off, those are destroyers--'
'Al, trust me.' Sylar settled into a tight orbit alongside Cherry's Hound, autocannons and missiles tearing the Amarrian frigate apart, their own shields beginning to buckle as the trio of Coercers turned their guns on them.
'I'm webbed! Gonna try--' Cherry's transmission cut off as the destroyers' small lasers broke through her shields, melting quickly through armour and hull; one of the ships got a lucky lock on the outlaw's capsule, and the egg-shaped craft imploded under a fat volley of laserfire. Sylar Starke's Jaguar and capsule quickly followed.
'No!' Tiia cried, seeing Sylar's overview icon redline and vanish. 'Shit! Shit! Al, you're in charge there, keep the fires burning. Swap targets!'
'Ugh!' Sylar surged upright, shaking cloning-vat fluid from his head, instantly missing the feel of his dreadlocks; those were gone, now, part of a body he would never wear again. In the next vat over, he could see Cherry struggling to unhook herself from the input wires, looking strange without her tattoos. The Caldari cloning bay attendants looked alarmed.
One of them stepped forward, regaining most of his composure. 'Welcome to Ebodold Kaalakiota station. I'm Doctor Mi--'
'Spare us the speech, we need to be flight-ready ten minutes ago,' the captain grunted shortly. 'And set us up for fresh clones, we may be seeing you again today.' The attendants hurried forward to remove the wires the pilots couldn't reach, handing them towels as they emerged, dripping translucent blue fluid on the cloning-bay floor.
The captain reached over and slapped the younger woman's shoulder. 'Let's saddle 'em up. You ready?'
The former pirate grinned broadly up at him as she wiped vat-fluid from her generous curves. 'I been waiting for this since the day I bought her. Those suckers won't know what hit 'em.'
To Be Concluded Next Week!
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This article was first published on EVE-Mag.com – an independent EVE magazine (www.EVE-Mag.com). Reprinted with permission.
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