The slender ledge came up fast, with Zephyr sprawled practically right where Vespa was going to hit. She couldn’t avoid him. Their limbs slammed into each other, tangling. Zephyr cursed. Vespa grunted. Her breath left in a whoosh. The world went black, then reignited as gravel skidded down the incline above. Struggling to rise, Vespa looked up and realized the reptilian beast hadn’t followed. Clawing and stamping, it peered over the ledge. Froth oozed between a row of protruding teeth. The raging monster raised its head and bellowed.
“What do we do?”
Zephyr rolled. His hand brushed the ground, then closed on something beneath it. “I could kiss you, Vee.”
He opened his fingers to reveal the comdee. “You didn’t drop it.”
Swiping it from his hand, she tapped in Argus’ code. “Extraction necessary. Repeat, life or death here.” She prayed for the flashing indicator of an incoming transmission. With the ever-present tumult engulfing the island, she envisioned Argus blasted and broken among the destruction, and regretted her earlier venomous fit. “Please.”
Zephyr stepped to the shelf’s edge to survey the possibilities below. His expression grim, he turned to gaze up the steep slope at the snarling beast. “Get against the rock.” He matched actions with words, snatching her as he flattened against the slope.
Scree rained down on the spot where they had just stood. Practically molding into the rock, Vespa brought the comdee back toward her mouth. “Argus, Argus, I’m sorry –”
The line crackled with static as the transmission was suddenly interrupted. Vespa’s heart sank.
“Hold your kryli.”
The new yet familiar synthesized feminine voice lifted Vespa from the depths of despair.
“Wisper? Wis–” Superheated air and deafening concussive noises ended Vespa’s excited cries.
“Hold,” Wisper commanded impatiently.
“Like that’s a choice,” Zephyr muttered. They both clutched the rockface. The earth shook. Rubble rained down like hail. The beast emitted a wounded shriek, growing closer and closer. The reptile plummeted past them to meet its end on the rocks far below.
“You are clear. Haste is prudent,” the feminine voice noted matter-of-factly from the comdee.
“Look up,” Zephyr said.
Drifting past the ledge, growing ever-larger as it drew into view, a burnished silver ship descended from the heavens. The moment the midsection of the massive spaceyacht became visible, a portal irised opened in the aft section and a hooked cable dropped through.
“Quickly,” the voice ordered.
Zephyr reached high, twisting his hand and wrist into the cable. Following his example, Vespa did the same. “Ready in five,” she said into the comdee before tucking it back into her slingbag.
“Four, three, two, one.” The countdown preceded a shoulder-jarring jolt. The cable began to retract into the ship. The palm of her hand burned. The wrist, elbow, and shoulder of her left arm, which bore most of the weight, ached instantly under the strain. Wind whipped at them once they rose above the ledge. A fall now would mean certain death.
Abruptly the brutal assault of air subsided, the sensation of rising ended, and a mechanical clank locked the cable into its housing. Below their feet the portal slammed shut. Vespa and Zephyr dropped, landing in an unceremonious heap. The feel of smooth polished metal, the smell of recirc air, the hum of anti-grav thrusters – this was home.
With no time to relish in the familiarity, Vespa barked a command. “Continue to last known coordinates on my personal comdee.”
“Hostile approaching. Threat Reaction Program Alpha,” responded Argus’ deep voice over the ship’s intercom.
Even with the g-force buffers engaged, the sudden acceleration halted Vespa’s attempt to rise. Stumbling to her feet, she ordered, “Override TRP Alpha. We have to find Terraq and Gemini.”
“Brace for impact.”
A detonation shook the deckplating right out from under their feet. Vespa and Zephyr slammed into the bulkhead.
“Dammit! Will these guys ever stop trying to kill us?” Having secured his footing first, he caught her under the armpits and shoved her down the corridor toward the cockpit.
“When we get to the bridge, you can open a line to ask.”
“I just might,” he said, sprinting after her.
They were knocked off their feet twice more before reaching the yacht’s cockpit. Vespa slipped into the pilot’s seat and was immediately dwarfed in a chair more suited to her father’s frame. A quick assessment of the altimeter and positioning system showed that evasive maneuvers were not taking them closer to the resort.
She grabbed the yoke. “Argus, release the controls.”
The fingerprint verification pinged, but Argus did not otherwise acknowledge the release. He was probably still peeved over her earlier tirade, but she would have to deal with him later. She flew this ship so rarely now, it was easy to forget she needed to interact with Argus like a small child – completely different than all those countless hours with Wisper.
“Coordinates on your heads-up.” Zephyr’s fingers danced over the co-pilot controls.
Vespa absorbed the streaming information – coordinates, altitude and position, threat assessments – scrolling across her viewport as the tactical holo overlaid with the heads-up. After years of Airspar, she quickly recognized an impending intersecting vector on the tactical grid. But this was no friendly competition – the display showed a deadly opponent, unknown weapons fire, and closure at an alarming rate.
She rolled the yacht about its axis, then banked sharply starboard and down. The enemy craft had not expected their new direction to be moonward, and a superheated plasma blast flew by with meters to spare.
TRP Alpha called for Argus’ computational capacity and power to be focused on shields and rapid escape. She asked Zephyr, “Weapons?”
“Already bringing them online.”
For once, all the time spent simming for fun at the Wynde Industries complex in their youth, then later at Kedu Academy, was paying off. Back then it had been all about winning the Airspar matches or the combat sims. Today her training just might save their lives.
“I’ve got at least two hostiles,” Zephyr added.
“Correction, three,” a deep voice rumbled from the control panel.
“Thanks, Argus.” Angling toward the island, Vespa held their dive until they were meters from the volcano’s steep outer slope. Trees erupted in laserfire ahead. The bolts careened past, missing by a hairsbreadth as Vespa wigged and juked the ship. “Wisper, are you tapped into the systems?”
“Of course,” the robotic feminine voice answered. “Who do you think convinced Argus to rescue your ungrateful hides?”
“I owe you one.” Vespa tugged the yoke hard to starboard and kicked the rudder to initiate a sideslip more appropriate for an AB-22 than a yacht. “Suggestions would be helpful.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Beside her, Zephyr braced in a wide-arm position against the controls. “She picks now to keep her ideas to herself?”
“I think –” Vespa grimaced as the starboard wingtip clipped a tree. “– she took offense to my tone earlier, too.”
“Speaking of offense,” Zephyr said, toggling the laser controls, and started to align the targeting sights, “I’ll do it.”
“I believe,” Wisper said, “an array spray would be more effective in this situation, Master Tames.”
“Don’t debate her this time,” Vespa gritted through her teeth. “Use the array.”
Four chimes sounded in succession. On the aft monitors she watched particulate cluster flares disperse in a wide arc from the dorsal cannons. One of the tailing enemy craft erupted in a fireball and a second trailed smoke.
The pizzicato of laserfire chased the flares, finishing the second craft before blasting the third hostile squarely in the center. “Two and three down,” Zephyr said.
“Good. Let’s go get Gemini.”
Vespa put them back on course toward the resort, but found it hard to visualize among the smoke and mist in the bay. When they sped over a large blaze, she finally recognized the thatched roof of the main building. She inhaled slowly, suddenly fearing what they might find. The locator on the heads-up blinked faster, pinging in time, as the yacht closed on her personal comdee’s last known coordinates in Argus’ computer. Once they found her cabana, Gemini’s would be easy enough to locate.
She dropped the yacht down to meters above the water. They had warded off her original pursuers, but she wanted to maintain as low a profile as possible. About a grotball field’s length from the remains of her cabana, Vespa spotted several erect figures wading through the shallow waters. They were closing in from the north, like wraiths from the Waterhell. “What are those?”
Zephyr’s hand shot up. “Look! Whatever they are, they’re heading toward her.”
A woman in a yellow dress sloshed through the water. Vespa watched her slip and struggle to rise. “Is that Cali?”
“What are those… things?”
“Who knows, but they aren’t here to help her.”
“She’s heading right toward Gem’s cabana.” Vespa frowned. She had been rapidly weighing alternatives without much success. Scrambling back to her feet, Cali noticed the approaching silver yacht and started waving her hands. “We need to do something about those things.”
“I’m working on it.” A few quick taps by Zephyr brought an enhanced image onto the heads-up between the two pilot seats. Taller than an average human, broad in the shoulders, the shadowy figures had piston-like mechanical legs and moved stiffly. Yet they progressed through the water with amazing ease. From overhead it was apparent they were forming a crescent around their prey, trapping her as she fled toward the cabana. One paused, black as the deepest recesses of the ocean, and reconnoitered left and right. In profile, a longblaster was visible in its arms. Whatever had distracted this thing didn’t quite grab its attention, though, and the grim beast resumed its march toward the cabana’s ruins.
Argus closed on the cabana rapidly, and in magnification the figures began to fill the tactical screen. One, then another, stopped in its tracks. Now there was no doubt they realized the spaceyacht was approaching.
“Shoot them!” Vespa ordered as she double-checked Argus’ shield status.
The aliens swung their longblasters around into firing position.
“And don’t stop shooting!” From the corner of her eye, she saw a blue bolt erupt from Argus’ ventral gun. Fire exploded from one creature’s chest. Energy sparked and spread across its armor, but the alien still managed to get off a shot. A red laserblast ricocheted harmlessly off the forward shields, followed by a haze of more in its wake.
Vespa hoped the shields were strong enough to resist a barrage of enemy fire of unknown type and strength while they landed. “Argus, I’m coming in hot and hard. Hold lift-off ready, TRP Pheta.”
“Acknowledged,” Argus’ thick voice replied.
She struggled to keep herself in the pilot’s seat and simultaneously work the yoke and rudders against the sudden deceleration. Sparing a quick glance, Vespa spotted the smoldering pile that had once been Gemini’s cabana. She noticed movement amid a mound of furniture. Incredibly, it was her brother weakly trying to rise with Gemini propped up against him. Somehow her brother and best friend had found each other.
The yacht swooped down on their location and the pair disappeared from her view. Vespa did her best to put Argus between the wreckage and the aliens. If she was lucky, she might blow one or two of those barkneks off their feet with the downthrust.
More like a muted crash than a hard landing, the struts broke through the water and settled into the saturated silt. Water splashed wildly around the viewport, blinding them momentarily.
“Touchdown,” Argus confirmed. “Corrosive exposure. Hydrocleaning service request logged in maintenance records.”
“I’d like a bath too, Argus.” Reaching down to a panel under the pilot’s chair, Vespa grasped for the hidden latch. The panel shifted slightly and she blindly yanked it open, then dug around inside. Her fingers easily found the holdout blaster favored by her father. Vespa leapt up and sprinted out of the cockpit on Zephyr’s heels.
Skidding to a stop at a chest-high control panel, he tapped in the code. A portion of the corridor wall retracted into the floor to reveal a cache of weaponry. Zephyr huffed. “These are all hunting weapons.”
“Yes, for killing things. Stop whining, Tames.”
“Can I have the big shiny one?” He eyed the GL-74.
“No time to be picky,” Vespa said, shouldering past to snag her personal bow and its quiver of arrows. These were the most familiar, and her aim truest. From what she could tell, the aliens’ armor apparently absorbed energy blasts. Very few things could stop a tensisteel arrowhead, though, and Vespa’s could take down an ironhide felder boar. She slung the quiver’s strap over her shoulder and readied the bow in her left hand before sprinting down the corridor. Her footsteps faltered only long enough to deposit the holdout blaster in the small alcove that housed Fayti’s idol, just inside the boarding ramp.
Ducking down to get a better view as she descended the lowered ramp, she spotted Terraq hobbling beside Gemini. On closer inspection, it was less clear who was holding up whom – and Vespa hesitated momentarily when she recognized Terraq’s team jersey on Gemini.
“You’re going to be polishing the hull for days.” Her brother’s quip, accompanied by the half-curl of his handsomely crooked mouth, snapped her back to reality.
“Watch your dirty feet, kids,” she countered with their father’s favorite admonishment. Extending her hand, she helped the pair the first few steps up. “Don’t forget to greet Fayti,” she called after him, this time in a tone reminiscent of their mother’s well-practiced voice for chiding misbehaving children.
Zephyr reached the ramp, so Vespa left them in his capable hands. Notching an arrow, she let the familiar calm of the hunting ritual take over her mind and body. She listened to her inner predator. The thundering in her ears quieted and her vision honed in pursuit of specific movement. Her peripheral vision picked up the hulking black figures first. Quickly she tracked her weapon around, calculating range and wind direction almost instantly.
This was just a hunt, she told herself. Only the hunted died.
Taking advantage of the cover of the boarding ramp, she loosed her arrow through the narrow gap between the ship’s dorsal section and the ramp itself. The arrow flew true and straight, driving into the intersecting leather straps on the alien’s chest. Her grandmother would have been proud. Its legs buckled and the beast fell. Unable to see any of the others, or Cali, Vespa listened for the black wraiths’ approach by the sound of their laserfire. Several bolts sputtered off the ship’s underside, so she bounced across the ramp in two strides, planted her left foot, and swept her bow around. Searching for the next target, she sighted on a shadow lumbering toward the farthest landing strut. Vespa slipped her fingers and her next arrow ripped.
She stepped off the boarding ramp to try to get the drop on another one, then stopped about three meters out when she saw no aliens. Still in hunting mode, her ears were attuned to any whispers of sound. All she heard, though, was Cali’s frantic shrieks, calling for them to wait for her. Somehow she had managed to elude the wraiths. Vespa could see Cali now, emerging from behind the ruins of the cabana, splashing and floundering ungracefully through the water.
There wasn’t time to shout reassurance. The aliens were closer, and Vespa would have to force some kind of advantage. The slosh of water from behind caught her attention. Reflexively, Vespa drew and shot the first of two aliens rounding the lip of the ramp. With the beast approaching rapidly while she reached back for another arrow, she feared she’d be too slow. Then suddenly a hulking mass launched down the boarding ramp and crashed into the black creature. In the flurry of limbs, Zephyr was nearly inseparable from the alien. A thick black arm crunched into Zephyr’s face. Blood erupted from his dislocated nose, and he howled. Flopping into the bay, he disappeared into the embrace of its dark waters.
Vespa didn’t hesitate to pounce. Leaping, she leveled the bow across her shoulder and whipped it around like a farball bat. The bow made contact at the creature’s thick neck, actually slicing into the suit. The alien grasped fruitlessly, trying to yank it out, while indigo fluid wept from the opening and spilled down its shoulder. Dodging its elbow, Vespa noticed the white marking partially obscured by the creature’s breathing apparatus. Its gloved hands still clutching for the bow lodged solidly in its neck, Vespa was forced to let go when the beast dropped to its knees, then keeled on its side, convulsing. Barely a meter away, Zephyr struggled to stand.
Wasting no time, Vespa grabbed her friend by the shoulder and pulled him up. He held his nose and yammered indiscernible oaths, but she ignored them and shoved him toward the ramp. She started to scream for Cali, but the sight of two more aliens made Vespa choke on the call. From higher up the ramp a high-intensity green laser bolt whizzed past and earned a screech from the nearest of the aliens. Energized by raging pain, the alien swung its arms wildly. With nothing left but the quiver, Vespa whipped it off her shoulder, spinning as she did. She held on long enough for the hollowed portion of an alder wood’s tree to meet the creature’s white eye-spot with a resounding thud.
“Get in the ship,” her brother ordered.
She glanced quickly in the direction she had last heard Cali’s screams, but heard nothing except the retort of laserfire and thrum of eager engines.
“Vespa!” Terraq barked.
Finally obeying, Vespa sprinted up the ramp toward Terraq, who had one hand depressed on the controls. The other hand held their father’s holdout blaster. The ship rose beneath her feet, but her stomach plummeted in sick realization.
“It was necessary,” Terraq said, not to anyone in particular.
Vespa hardly knew Cali. Staring at the sealing ramp, Vespa tasted bile in her mouth.
Her brother placed his palm on top of her shoulder. “I’ve got to take care of Gem.”
Vespa’s stomach lurched again as the ship accelerated into the air. “Sure. I’ll fly.”
“I’ll make it quick.” Did her brother actually sound guilty?
“Don’t tell Gemini that. You know how girls…” The barb failed on the tip of Vespa’s tongue when she put all the puzzle pieces together. She lifted her chin and stared slack-jawed at her brother.
“Vespa, it’s not –”
“Doesn’t matter.” The words hadn’t come out right, but the ever-increasing jumps and tremors under her feet reminded Vespa that she simply didn’t have time to deal with whatever had happened between her brother and her best friend. She parted ways with Terraq, he limping for the main cabin, she hurrying for the cockpit. The ship was at maximum forward speed by the time she got there.
“Are you sure you can help fly this thing?” Vespa asked Zephyr as she dropped once more into the pilot’s chair. Apparently so – he was already strapped in. When Argus executed a textbook sideslip, she decided she’d better do the same. Her hands were just taking hold of the yoke when the spaceyacht’s shields absorbed enemy fire, and it trembled under her fingertips. The tremors weren’t the result of enemy fire or gravitational forces, but her own hands.
“Anyone else you’re planning to leave behind?”
“I didn’t –”
“I know,” Zephyr rumbled. He pounded at the controls on the weapons panel, and the shiver of a torpedo rocketing out of its tube vibrated up the yoke. “Just hoping I’m not next.”
“I would never…” Never what? Leave a friend like Zephyr behind? Vespa wasn’t even sure what she was capable of. Not anymore. She glanced sideways, and couldn’t help but notice that Zephyr’s broken nose had swollen to the size of a farball and turned the color of the chameleons found on the Kavil moon’s famed Cerulean Coast. His left hand was clenched in a fist so tight the bones of Zephyr’s knuckles practically jutted through his skin.
She wanted to say more, but probably shouldn’t with the utter mess she had made. Better to just shut up and fly.
The silence lasted a few awkward seconds before Zephyr croaked out one more word. “Incoming.”