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ID5: Chapter 24



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The mission window’s remaining sixty seconds felt like an eternity for Orelia as she watched the still-too-long line of refugees file up the Legacy’s ramp. There were so many people… too many to leave behind. They just weren’t moving fast enough, and in the tunnels’ tight confines, there was no way to get them through any quicker.


With stratusaires infiltrating the enclave’s north side and gunships descending ever closer, the clock hit zero. Hale was about to give the order, and Orelia couldn’t bear to see the faces of the people left behind. She imagined them fighting to hold hands with their loved ones or leaping toward the closing ramp, many falling to their deaths.


This can’t be, she thought to herself, heart twisting in knots. We can’t leave like this.


Finally, Orelia flipped her visor up and looked at Hale, eyes pleading. “Don’t,” she said, putting a hand on his forearm. “We can’t do this.”


“If we don’t leave right now, then everyone on the ship is dead, Orelia. At least these people here have a chance to survive underground until we can come back.”


“Survive? Or hide until the Stratus ferrets them out?”


Hale averted his eyes.


“There’s nothing you can think of?”


He shook his head grimly.


“Then I’m staying with them.”


Now it was his turn to grab her arm. “Orelia. No. You can’t.”


“Can’t I? Being a leader is full of hard decisions. And this one is mine.”


“But you’ll… you’ll—”


“What? Die?” She searched his face. “So you admit that leaving them here is signing their death warrant? That makes us no better than the Imperium.”


Hale clenched his jaw, muscles pulsing, and cursed bitterly under his breath. “This was premature,” he said at last.


“But it had to be done. Perhaps if we all stay, we can fend them off.”


“No.”


“But we have plenty of supplies and firepower. Plus, with your abilities—”


“I’m spent, Orelia. And no one fends off the Stratus. You of all people should know that by now.”


Veepo’s voice cut through comms. “We have overstayed, Just Hale. What are your instructions?”


Orelia placed a hand on his chest plate. “Go if you must. But I am staying.”


“Dammit, Orelia.” He ran a hand down his face and then opened a general channel on his inquisa. “All units, the Legacy is departing. For anyone who wants to stay behind and help defend those who can’t leave, Orelia and I are taking volunteers.”


Did that mean he was staying with her? Orelia’s heart warmed to near-bursting.


Dell was quick to respond, “But saba, you know that you’ll be—”


Taking volunteers,” Hale repeated more forcefully.


There was an extended silence before Dell finally said, “Got it. Then count me in, saba.”


“Thank you, Dell. Anyone else, you can join us in redirecting the remnants as deep into the mountain as we can and defend the descent.” Hale turned toward Bashok who was busy helping people up the ramp. “That’s it.”


Bashok looked up, pain and anger written all over his pink-furred face. “Bashok does not like.”


“Me neither, buddy. Get them to Trion. We’ll see you soon.”


“You are stupid Viridis man.”


“So I’ve heard.” Hale made the sign of the Valorious to the Kamigarian and then ordered Veepo to shove off.


A man in his eighties using two canes to keep himself upright tried pushing his way past Hale. “What are you doing? Let me through!”


“I’m sorry, sir. But we’ve run out of time,” Hale replied as the ramp started edging away. “You and everyone else will need to join us below.”


“But my daughter and grandchildren are on that ship,” he said as more voices started crying out behind him. “I must be with them! They can’t leave.”


“I’m so sorry.” Hale meant it, Orelia knew, but he wasn’t suited for this kind of diplomacy.


So Orelia interjected. “Sir, if we delay, your family won’t make it out of the system alive. You’ve given them a chance. Now you need to come with us. Please.”


The elderly man searched her face and then finally relented.


“Thank you. Now, help us spread the word,” Orelia added. “We need everyone to head down, as fast as they’re able. Understand?”


The man nodded and then turned around slowly, but not before casting a forlorn look at the Legacy.


“Everyone, your attention please,” Orelia said, voice competing with the sound of the repulsor engines as well as the cries of bewilderment from those refugees still in the tunnel. “Your attention! Our evacuation ship needs to depart immediately in order to preserve the lives of those on board. While we await their return, we ask that you please proceed back down the way you came. TRL leaders will help direct you. Please move as fast as you can without causing—”


A violent explosion thundered just outside the hangar bay, making the ground rumble. Bits of ice and stone sprinkled down from the ceiling.


“Veepo, report,” Hale shouted over his inquisa.


“We are taking enemy fire,” the bot replied. “Shields are at seventy-eight percent.”


Another buh-boom! sounded, accompanied by more ground shaking.


“Now at sixty-one percent.”


“GET OUT OF HERE,” Hale ordered. “NOW!”


“Aye-aye, Just Ha—”


A third cannon round nearly knocked Orelia off her feet. “They’re going to destroy the ship!”


Hale rushed to the hangar’s edge and looked up. Orelia joined him a second later to see a massive battleship pointed down at them, hanging like a wedge of Kalettian stone in the pale blue sky. It, along with its companion heavy cruiser, was still several miles up, followed quickly by a squadron of black Scythe attack fighters. While the vessels barely seemed to move, Orelia knew they were closing fast.


The battleship Fortuitous fired again.


Orelia watched in horror as the energy round exploded against the Legacy’s plasma shield. The concussive noise distorted her helmet’s audio while the sudden flash of light dimmed her visor. She braced herself against Hale and fought the sense of helplessness rising in her chest.


“Shields at sixteen percent,” Veepo said, still edging the cruiser out of the mountainscape and attempting to climb.


Orelia grabbed Hale’s bicep. “One more hit and—”


“I know!”


She felt so powerless… like seeing Tess atop the pallador pyramids. Once again, more refugees were going to die, all because she had pushed too hard. Orelia held her breath, waiting for the death stroke to come, when a sudden flash of light streaked across the sky and hit…


The Fortuitous.


An enormous billowing explosion of orange and black erupted from the battleship’s port side. Three more energy rounds collided in quick succession, adding to the destruction and amplifying the light and debris rippling along the hull. Orelia felt Hale’s body tense as she tried to make sense of the scene and determine who was firing on the Squadra vessel, but the hangar’s roof blocked the view.


Another volley of energy rounds slammed into the heavy cruiser, followed by several missiles. This resulted in even more fire and streaks of shrapnel tearing furrows across the heavens. The attack fighters pulled back like flies fleeing a sinking corpse, and still Orelia couldn’t see the aggression’s origin.


All at once, the sound waves from the initial strikes reached the hangar bay and filled it with crackling thunder that, once again, shook the cave. The deafening roar continued, reverberating through Orelia’s gut and on into the tunnels. She watched in fascination as the behemoths began lumbering to port, falling away from their flight path.


The whole thing took a matter of seconds, though it seemed like forever before Hale yelled over comms, “What in hadion is happening?”


“I can’t believe it,” Rim replied. “It’s… Kull!”


“WHAT?”


Gramps chimed in. “He said, he can grieve wits with skull. It’s total gibberish, if you ask me.”


“Get off me, old man!” There was a moment’s delay where Orelia imagined Rim pushing Gramps away from the Maven’s microphone. “It’s the Validus, Hale. I planted a tracking device on Kull’s shuttle back when we let him go, and the signal is pinging off the charts!” Another barrage of energy weapons and missiles ripped into the sides of both target ships. “And he’s clearly out for blood. Comets and crows, it’s beautiful!”


“But how?” Orelia asked. “Why?”


“Don’t know, don’t care,” Hale said, his voice a mix of excitement and exhaustion. “Veepo, get back here. Everyone else, turn the remnant around. We’re all getting out of here!”


* * *


Orelia charged back through the tunnels toward Sillix’s position. Imperium stratusaires had breached the enclave and were reportedly advancing toward the hangar bay. Hale was too fatigued to do anything but help load the last of the refugees, and Dell refused to leave his side. So Orelia took it upon herself to respond when Sillix asked for help.

Just ahead, blaster bolts cracked against walls, vaporizing ice and showering the floor with sparks. Orelia crouched and eased her way toward a junction. The overhead lights flickered, and she heard shouts from around the corner.


“I’m just behind you,” Orelia said over comms. “How can I help?”


“We’ve got four enemies bearing down on us,” Sillix replied. “Another four broke off moments ago. I suspect they’re going to flank us. West tunnel.”


That was across the intersection. “On it.”


“Be careful,” Sillix added. “They’re pissed.”


“So am I.”


Orelia waited for a break in enemy fire and then raced across the junction while shooting to her right. As soon as she was safely across, Orelia sprinted through the tunnel, careful to watch for enemy forces. It wasn’t lost on her that she was no match for four stratusaires. Her Veul armor and G3 blaster were formidable, but compared to Stratus hardware, Orelia wouldn’t last more than a few seconds in an open firefight with them.


So she’d need to be smarter.


After skidding to a stop in a long straightaway, Orelia pulled one of her micro-fusion detonators from her kit and stuffed it in a recess along the wall. The device was paired with her inquisa and listed as “Active and Ready” on the display. She backtracked and placed two more in similar recesses in ten-foot increments from the first.


From there, she retreated a dozen more paces before slowing to a stop, collapsing on the ground, and then assuming the position of a slain rebel as best she could. Orelia considered removing her helmet and purposefully wounding herself for the appearance of blood, but she remembered Dell’s training instructions on the dangers of removing one’s head protection during combat. Plus, she’d most likely go deaf from the explosion’s proximity.


So Orelia settled for splaying her legs in awkward angles and putting her arms over her head, index finger of her right hand ready to tap the key on her inquisa. Her blaster was six inches from her hip, ready for retrieval. Last but not least, she took a deep breath and envisioned herself in rooted tree position. While the Keeda stance required that a practitioner be on their feet, the mental state of drawing energy from the ground while remaining utterly still was what Orelia needed now. At once, she felt her anxiety lessen and her heart rate stabilize.


And not a moment too soon.


The sound of footsteps echoed from down the tunnel. A few seconds later, she made out crimson helmets poking above her visor’s lower edge. The enemy had arrived… and they were slowing at the sight of her, just as she hoped.


A little bit more, she said to herself, index finger ready to trigger her inquisa.

The stratusaires had their weapons raised, but they weren’t shooting. That was good. And they had advanced past the first grenade.


Little more


Within another two seconds, their chests were in view, and Orelia figured they had passed the midpoint of her trap. She detected the sounds of muffled voices too and imagined they were discussing her.


Now, she thought, and pushed the button on her inquisa.


The micro-fusion detonators erupted and shook the tunnel. Orelia’s body vibrated, and her vision filled with light. Ears ringing. Smoke swirling. She snagged the blaster at her hip and pulled it up, finger squeezing the trigger even before she could see targets. The energy rounds zipped into the ether and made the smoke glow momentarily. Shadows lunged and fell and jumped. Orelia fired more, hands squeezing the weapon tightly. It bucked incessantly, but she managed to keep it pointed straight down the tunnel.

Finally, her magazine went dry, and she reached for a replacement. Her hands were shaking, but Dell had coached her on this and reminded her to always use her Keeda training, even in a gunfight. She did and forced herself to breathe deeply as she swapped out mags. The well-practiced action came to her more quickly than she would have imagined. Within a few seconds, Orelia was on her feet with her weapon fully recharged.


That’s when a crimson shadow burst from the haze and drove a shoulder into her gut.

Orelia flew backward and crashed to the ground, the enemy atop her. Her armor saved the air from being knocked from her lungs, but she’d lost her rifle in the process.

The man sat up, straddling her, and raised his right arm, gauntlet formed into a fist. Orelia leaned away in time for the incoming punch to strike the rock beside her head. The warrior’s left hand went back and then came down in the same manner, forcing Orelia to lean the opposite direction.


When the third punch came, Orelia pushed the man’s arm across his chest. His momentum threw him off balance, and he landed with his back against her. Orelia threw her left arm around his neck at the same time that she withdrew her fourth and final micro-fusion detonator from her hip. She blindly slapped it on his belly while pressing the default three-second button.


But the strat wasn’t done.


He wrenched free of her grip and rolled onto his hands and knees. Orelia would be caught in the grenade blast. So she did a kip-up and then jumped on the man’s back. A beat later, the tunnel went white, and Orelia found herself airborne, back hitting the ceiling, before returning to the ground. This time, the air had been knocked from her lungs, and she tasted blood in her mouth. Something in her chest made it hard to breathe, and her head felt like a temple bell was ringing inside.


Orelia lifted her chin to find the stratusaire unmoving beside her, a pool of dark red blood extending from his severed torso. The only thing holding him together were strands of charred armor. She looked down past her feet, wondering if another strat would emerge from the haze-filled tunnel.


She heard more footsteps.


Orelia blinked, trying to summon her will to fight again, wondering how to best yet another Imperium stratusaire in hand-to-hand combat. She needed her rifle. It was somewhere in the tunnel, hopefully not damaged from the blast.


The footsteps were growing louder.


Orelia’s hands probed the stone path, sifting through ice and blood and pebbles. She tried calming her nerves, but the Keeda techniques weren’t working. Where was her gun?


The enemy was almost on top of her.


That’s when Orelia’s hand brushed the familiar shape on the weapon’s handle. At the last second, she pulled it up and aimed at the sound.


“Orelia, it’s me,” said a familiar voice.


She hesitated and then blinked several times until a purple face materialized in the smoke. “Sillix?”


“Come on,” the assassin added while slipping an arm under Orelia’s shoulder and helping her off the ground. “Time to leave.”


* * *


“Rim, how close are you to Veenkah?” Hale asked, his voice reverberating through the Gray Maven’s bridge.


Rim Fellows was too distracted by the sight of Squadra ships attacking each other to reply at first. The fleet carrier Validus was laying waste to the smaller battleship and heavy cruiser, and all from upper atmo, which made the energy rounds and missile salvos that much more dramatic.


Massive fireballs erupted from the ailing ships as they pitched out of the sky, something rarely seen in space combat. The ships fell like wounded mammoth gulls unable to keep their oversized bodies aloft, careening toward the ice-laden planet below.


“Rim? You copy?”


“Hey, Mister Rellows?” said Gramps, snapping Rim out of his stare. “The guy trapped in the speaker wants to hear your face.”


“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get your blaster bent out of shape.” Rim pushed the comms channel button. “I’m, uh… ’bout three minutes away, Hale. Why?”


“I need you to pick up someone.”


“No can do. That place is on high alert.”


“Then it’s a risk you’ll have to take. We can’t leave anyone behind.”


“Then you’d better get used to—”


A hand slapped Rim across the face.


“What in hadion is wrong with you?” Rim said to the old drunk.


“Nothing. Why?”


“You… slapped me, you nimdoed bishnick.”


Gramps stared at his hand. “I did? That’s weird.”


Back on mic, Rim tried to complete his thought to Hale. “You’d better get used to disappointment, pal. There’s no way I’m—”


Gramps slapped Rim again.


“Okay! That’s enough of that!”


“Is it? ’Cause it seems to me and myself like you don’t wanna change yer mind, mister.”


Rim scowled. “Because I’m not.”


“Then I’m gonna keep slapping your hairy little baby face over and over ’til ya do, see? ’Cause this here’s half as important as every other time it wasn’t. And don’t make me explain that, ’cause I won’t, but only if you can.”


Rim continued to glare at Gramps. Nonsense withstanding, there was something about the old geezer’s insistence that piqued Rim’s curiosity, at least to ask Hale about the errand. “What’s the package?”


“Cindra Kin, TRL commander stranded outside the city,” Hale replied. “Her general shoved her off that skiff piled with explosives and drove it into the garrison without her. She won’t last the day once the Stratus lock down the city, and I figure it’s the least we can do to honor the general’s sacrifice by—”


“Alright, alright. Fine. But you owe me for this, Hale. I’m way above and beyond the call of duty here.”


“Noted. Sending her last known coordinates now. And, Rim?”


“Yeah?”


“Thanks.”


“You can thank me in credits later.” Rim closed the channel.


Another slap across the face startled him. He touched his cheek and looked at Gramps. “I said yes, old man! What was that for?”


“Huh. I’m not sure,” Gramps replied, staring at his palm again in disbelief. “Must’a been a voluntary reflex.”


* * *


As forecasted, it took Rim just over three minutes to reach Veenkah and another thirty seconds to find Cindra Kin. She stood in a shallow dell waving at him as he did an inspection flyover.


“Commander Kin, this is the Gray Maven. Got eyes on you,” he said over comms.


“Good to see you, Maven,” she replied.


Gramps reached over and depressed the talk button. “And I’ve got eyes too, just so you know.”


Cindra sounded confused. “Okay?”


“Disregard that,” Rim added. “Circling back and descending to your east.”


“Understood. I’ll be ready.”


Rim banked hard while double-checking that nothing was headed his way from the Stratus garrison. He assumed they were far too busy with the disaster unraveling overhead to pay him any mind. Still, it paid to keep one’s eyes peeled. Rim flared the Maven and set her down as promised, aft ramp open. Over the hold’s speaker, he said, “Punch the close button when you’re aboard.”


“All set,” she replied a moment later.


Rim checked the console to make sure the ramp light had switched to red and then pushed off the deck. He heard the woman’s footsteps racing toward the bridge, and she entered a moment later. “Take a seat and hold on,” Rim said without looking up. He shoved the throttle forward and pitched up.


“We’re not heading back for the Legacy?” Cindra said from behind Gramps’s co-pilot seat. “What about hyperspace?”


“She’s got her own hyperdrive,” Rim said while patting the console gently and then turning to look at Cindra. “We’ll catch up with…”


When he failed to get more words out, she said, “Yes?”


But all Rim could do was stare at her. He hadn’t expected her to be so pretty.


“You’ll need to forgive yourself,” Gramps said, breaking the awkward silence as he looked around his seat back. “Mr. Fim Rellows isn’t used to having strange people on the bridge, see?” He offered her a toothy grin and a squinting left eye.


“What… he means to say,” Rim said at last, “is that I’m pleased to welcome strangers, especially ones who are responsible for sticking it to the Imperium. Name’s Rim. Rim Fellows.” He stuck his roll of tokowee between his lips and then held out a hand.


Cindra seemed reluctant to shake it.


Rim put his hand back on the controls and double-checked their heading. “Everything okay?”


“I did not stick it to the Imperium,” she finally replied. “That was my general’s doing… Gownder Peel.”


“Right. I’m sorry to hear about his loss.”


“His sacrifice,” Cindra corrected, her face hardening.


“Yeah. That too.”


Finally, when Cindra’s shoulders relaxed, she removed her gloves and offered Rim her hand. “Cindra Kin. Thank you for the ride.”


He shook her hand, noticing her strength and her skin’s warmth. “Pleasure. Say, any chance you’d be up for a layover on, I dunno, Porjelle or Sollencia Prime before we rejoin your people? Could be a nice way to relax after all this—”


Cindra squeezed his hand so hard that Rim’s knuckles popped.


“Straight through it is! Here we go…”


She released her grip, and Rim shook out his hand before putting it back on the controls.


“How come you never invite me to Sollencia Prime?” Gramps said.


“Never?” added Cindra. “That seems a real shame.”


Gramps spun around. “Tell me about it! I’ve got a new skinny-dipping suit picked out and everything. He’s just a cheapskate and only wants me for my body.”


Cindra laughed, which completely distracted Rim. For a split second, he forgot about Gramps and his antics… about the battle waging outside… about smuggling, making a living, or even staying alive. He didn’t know why, exactly, but something about Cindra Kin was messing with his head.


And you need to lock it down before it gets the best of you, Rim said to himself.


But that was just it…


For the first time in as long as he could remember, Rim Fellows wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to avoid being bested. He glanced over his shoulder at Cindra who was busy talking with Gramps about the old man’s various woes and ailments. Common sense said to dismiss whatever he was feeling. He didn’t have time for romance. Plus, she was far too young for him. Mid-to-late-twenties, maybe? And yet, there was something inside him that wasn’t going to let this go, which was either going to be bad for business or bad for his health.


“Most likely both,” he said under his breath.


“What was that?” Cindra asked, her voice genuine and somehow alluring.


“Just talking to myself.”


“He does that all the time,” Gramps added with a wave of his hand. “You get used to me, though.”


“Duly noted,” Cindra replied and then sat back, arms folded.


For a fleeting second, Rim thought he saw her smile. The image stayed with him as he accelerated out of Tahee Minor’s atmosphere and then made the jump to hyperspace, bound for Trion.

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