Saturday, 31 October 2009
His Zealot's shields were completely gone, and lasers were nibbling at the edges of his armour when Alistair's comms crackled to life.
'Hey, Al, would you do us a favour?'
'Good to hear you, Syl. You're not back in Dal, are you?'
'Our tower in Ebodold. We're going to step this up a bit. Open the door for us, would you? We're too chunky to squeeze through the gates.' Sylar sounded gleeful. Alistair started to grin.
'I did warn you about the food there, didn't I?' The Amarrian pilot reopened his fleet comms. 'Commander Hatthro, notify the fleet, I'm lighting a cynogen, could use a bit of defense.'
'Captain Starke, you are go in three, two, one...' Alistair activated the generator, the load of liquid ozone in his cargo hold burned up in an instant as the miniature wormhole appeared beside his ship.
'Avion! What the hell...?' Tiia demanded, just as the jump portal flared twice.
Two looming shapes the colour of dried blood appeared in the midst of the battle, massive hulls scattering smaller ships which hadn't got out of the way in time as they claimed the space. Cherry's blade-shaped, monolithic Naglfar, towering above the furious battle, turned with a terrible purpose, turrets rising and settling back as she acquired a target-lock on the Amarrian fleet's dreadnaught. This was going to be a slugfest.
'Let 'er rip, sister, I got your back.' Sylar felt the deadly hum of his new ship's systems building up around him, awakened by the adrenalin flooding his body. The shriek of Cherry's gleeful laughter was the sound of immense autocannons unleashing their full force upon the enemy.
Tiia's voice echoed in his ear, filled with an odd mix of relief, surprise, and anger. 'Why didn't you tell us what you had planned, you bastard?'
'It was a last-minute idea. We didn't know if we'd need these or not; I was only going to use this girl to lift the colonists out. ' With a thought, Sylar commanded fighters to launch into the fight, instructing them to focus on what remained of the Amarrian support as he brought heavy energy neutraliser batteries to bear on the closest ship: the Reclamation fleet's carrier. 'Why so surprised? Just because we specialise in wolfpack doesn't mean we can't field anything bigger.' His Hel-class mothership locked onto the Archon, and Sylar asked Hatthro, 'You got enough left to take out the carrier and dread, or are we gonna have to do it ourselves?'
The Ammatar fleet's commander swore at him. 'Next time, I trust you'll let us know before you pull a stunt like this. I've lost half my men; we could have used your caps a lot sooner.'
Instead of retreating, the Amarrian ships seemed to throw themselves at the mixed Minmatar fleet with a frenzy borne of desperation to remove the threat of the Matari capitals before all else. Draining the capacitor energy from the smaller carrier as fast as the Amarrian Guardians could replenish it, Sylar felt his shields begin to prickle from lasers and a peppering of missiles as the remaining Amarrian fleet focussed fire. Two of his fighter pilots went down, felled by Amarrian drones, and he recalled the rest, launching a fresh group as soon as the first had docked.
The Archon's armour passed its peak, and the enemy fleet had redoubled their efforts to defend it. Someone somewhere was probably cursing as the mistake was realised: the defense fleet was better-prepared than they had expected, and with their fleet already decimated, it was only a matter of time before their own capital ships fell.
A volley of torpedo-fire struck the Archon from the sky like the hand of an angry god; before the blue-white glare had faded, Sylar was already focussing his mothership's massive energy neutraliser batteries on the Revelation which was pounding down on Cherry's armour. 'Let's see you use those lasers without any cap, mate,' he muttered, unaware that his words went out over the open comms. The Archon's fighters, disoriented by the carrier's destruction, drifted about the field, and Starke ordered his own flight to focus fire at will amongst the remaining fleet.
In the caves on the planet below, Nareen huddled under her father's worn old jacket. It was cold in here, and damp seeped through the rough stone walls and floor, leaving a chilly slick on her skin. The girl glanced around at the gathered mass of her people, all crouching or sitting on blankets on the floor to avoid the low ceiling. The adults had said they couldn't make fires because the heat would be seen by the slavers, and Nareen was starting to wonder how her great-grandparents had lived this way.
A scuffle toward the entrance brought several people upright, ready to stand. Someone cracked the shield on a lantern, revealing Scall staggering in, the woman somewhat blinded from the change from light to darkness, her hand on the ceiling to prevent her banging her head.
'They're here! On the radio, I heard it. They've destroyed most of the Amarr ships, and the slave carrier. Come on!'
Stepping blinking into the sunlight filtering through the trees, Nareen felt someone take her hand; she turned to see Komar looking excited and terrified.
'It's Space Capt'n Starke, 'Ree. I tol' you he- he could do anythin'.' He tugged her forward and up the hill towards the treeline, following Scall into the open.
The middle-aged woman pointed up into the sky, away from the low morning sun, 'Look, you can just see them!' Against the sooty blue, flecks and glimmers of light could be seen. It was impossible to tell what was happening at this distance, but as they watched, a flash brighter than the others appeared, then again, then--
Everyone gasped as something lit up, a small second sun flaring in the sky. Scall began to yell with triumph. 'They did it! They did it! Do you see?!'
Nikitta appeared at Nareen's other elbow. 'What do you think's happening?'
Komar released the taller girl's hand and ran forward, waving his toy Rifter about in the air. 'Capt'n Starke blew 'em up! Boom! Like that!'
The colonists hung back cautiously among the trees, uncertain what would happen next as Scall returned to the wrecked Apocalypse. After a while, five dark shapes appeared in the air, descending carefully to the fields just beyond the limits of the houses. A few minutes later, Scall returned with a wiry Sebiestor man dressed like a soldier following closely.
'I'm Corporal Vahann, I'm in charge of the drop you see over there. Those ships will take you and your possessions up to our mothership for transport off-world.' He looked around the gathered crowd among the trees, taking in homespun clothing, rough animal leathers and hard-worn yet determined faces. 'This is a hazardous system for an undefended colony like this, but whether you choose to leave or remain is up to you.'
SPACE CAPTAIN STARKE strides through the halls of his mothership, running a hand over his new short-cropped hair. Guarded by the Ammatar and renegade TLF fleets, he feels safe enough to park the ship in empty space and leave his capsule.
There is business to discuss.
He is followed by TIIA EDGRIET and MIRITHAK HATTHRO, along with the Nefantar commander's small honour-guard. The trust between the Matari forces and the Ammatar is still thin and laced with suspicion, but HATTHRO has the authority of his tribe's leaders and EDGRIET has been contacted by THE GENERAL to endorse the opening of diplomatic relations in this backwater system.
The group enters the assembly bay, a cavernous room usually used for mustering ground-forces near the dropship hangar. Something buzzes through the air and strikes STARKE's leg before tumbling to the floor with a whirr; he stops with a puzzled frown to pick it up. A smile forms on his face as he turns the clockwork wooden Rifter over in his hands, recognising the hand-painted sunburst design. The captain looks up to see three terrified children staring up at him from behind a pile of bales and boxes, all the Ubtes colonists' worldly possessions.
STARKE: (still smiling)
Is this yours?
EDGRIET peers curiously at the toy, then grins and looks out across the room at the ten thousand worried people gathered there. HATTHRO looks calculating, then looks to EDGRIET and nods. The TLF commander, her rank restored and gleaming at her collar, returns the nod, then steps forward.
EDGRIET: (in a clear voice which carries well through the room)
My people... my family. (she smiles) It's been far too long, and I truly wish the circumstances were better. (she sobers) We have lost our home. The land we have worked all our lives, the houses we have built with our bare hands. We are orphans of the cluster, as our grandparents and great-grandparents once were.
As she speaks, the people begin to cluster around, hushing children so that the woman can be heard by all.
We cannot go back. I wish we could, but the Amarr know about the settlement now, and will return. This leaves you with a choice. The Republic will welcome each and every one of you: rehome you, offer you jobs, education, medical care. It's an easier life than what you're accustomed you. There are better opportunities.
She glances to the side, then waves her hand to indicate HATTHRO.
This man has a different offer for you; he represents the Nefantar tribe. The Ammatar have an interest in becoming a part of the Republic once again, and in good faith, they are willing to offer you places on another planet they are already colonising. What they offer is much like what we had on Ubtes VIII, working alongside Nefantar volunteers. You will be offered equal standing with their people, with respect given to our own customs; and the world is closer to the centre of their domain, and much better protected.
A ripple of voices runs through the room as the refugees look to one another, seeking guidance. HATTHRO steps forward.
The offer is genuine. Your skills and experiences will greatly benefit our own colonists, and the Nefantar will not reduce you to the slaves your ancestors once were. No ill will shall be held if you choose to return to the Republic.
A man steps forward from the crowd; it is RISGA, NAREEN's father, who was elected speaker for the refugees before they boarded the dropships. He stands tall, proud in his rough-woven clothing and hand-made leather boots before the Republic and Ammatar representatives.
I speak for all of us gathered here. We would prefer to remain on our world, if such a thing were possible, though we realise the extent of the danger. A life in the Republic would be comfortable, yes, but we do not want an easy life. Some may choose that for themselves, and the rest of us wish them well. But as a whole, we will accept the offer of the Nefantar, provided that we are permitted contact with the Republic at any time.
The Nefantar commander nods.
Of course. The planet we offer you is Abha VII, and not much different from Ubtes VIII. You will be given tools and equipment, as well as a modern communications system...
As he speaks, STARKE murmurs to EDGRIET.
Is this what you expected from your people?
Charity is not something we accept easily, Captain. Better to be granted only the barest necessities so that we can make our own way.
The Brutor captain nods, then glances over to where the three children still watch him. Crouching, he holds the toy Rifter out towards them. NIKITTA, NAREEN and KOMAR approach shyly, and KOMAR accepts his toy back without removing his eyes from STARKE.
Unless I'm very much mistaken, you're my nephew, Niki, yes? You were very small when I last saw you.
NIKITTA nods. Smiling, STARKE holds his hand out.
Nice to meet you. Who are your friends?
NIKITTA: (shaking STARKE's hand)
Nareen and Komar... sir.
STARKE reaches out to shake the other children's hands, too.
It's great to meet you guys. I guess you watch the show, huh?
The children nod. The captain smiles broadly.
Why don't you go ask your parents if you can meet the rest of the Nova Elite while you're here? Tell your friends, too.
NAREEN squeals and runs back towards her mother, SAPHA, who is standing to the side as her husband and HATTHRO negotiate. NIKITTA also hurries away, but KOMAR hangs back, staring at STARKE solemnly.
I told them you could do anything.
STARKE smiles proudly.
The Nova Elite always fly to defend our people.
This article was first published on EVE-Mag.com – an independent EVE magazine (www.EVE-Mag.com). Reprinted with permission.
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