…B’rok Shoreline Resort
Stretching along the pristine beaches of Abaka Bay, which lay nestled within the steep eastern slopes of the island, the private resort was the crown jewel of the Kavil moon. The main concierge building towered at the center of a network of boardwalks leading to individual guest cabanas.
Now the remnants of the boardwalk hung in the air like a trail to the Four Hells. Scattered blazes still burned atop the water. Smoke combined with the morning mists to form a dank, noxious fog. Even so, wading along the wreckage of the boardwalk was by far their best chance of making their way to Gemini’s cabana. Vespa still had no idea how they could possibly determine which cabana was Cali’s, though, and all Zephyr could manage to contribute was an empty reassurance that Gemini would help them come up with a solution.
With visibility reduced to a few meters, Vespa allowed Zephyr to take the lead while she dug around in her slingbag. She found the slim line of her comdee in a matter of seconds. Thumbing the power toggle, she pulled out the handsize unit and prayed for the glow of powerup. A faint incandescence preceded the ignition of the CasTel logo twirling about like a coin in the device’s center face. Then two beeps, a quick flash of words – SHUTDOWN IMMINENT – and the CasTel logo vanished.
“Forgot to plug in your comdee again,” Zephyr stated grimly.
“It’s not my fault.” At home, recharging fields dotted the estate, just like they did Kedu Academy. A resort this expensive shouldn’t be relying on quaint antiquities like actually having to plug devices into power sockets.
Zephyr’s brow pinched.
“We should split up and search,” she continued. This time she kept a hushed tone, her best attempt at conciliation after he had begrudgingly taken up her quest.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Zephyr gazed upwards into the fog. His eyes searched blindly. “This isn’t over. We’re better off together.”
Since the second wave of bombings, they had heard only the staccato crackle-spit of burning wet wood echoing over the gentle lapping of the bay waters. Vespa’s step faltered as she scanned the horizon. She wondered if the moon was collectively holding its breath like she was, afraid of what the next sound foretold. She couldn’t just stand there, thigh deep in water, fearing whatever horror awaited them. After she found Terraq and Gemini, they would all figure out what to do. It was imperative to keep her mind focused on only this step, because beyond that the future was rife with impossibilities. Ramming the impotent comdee back in the slingbag, she snagged the shoes from where they hung around her neck and stuffed them in as well.
“Fine, then. Follow me around if you must.” She shoved off, knocking away a large slab-board that had floated into her path. “But keep looking.”
Zephyr stalked next to her, sometimes glancing overhead, sometimes surveying the debris field. Abruptly he rooted in place. Vespa swung around, mouth halfway opened to scold him for slowing her down – but she held her tongue when Zephyr’s expression revealed keen attention. His focus wasn’t on anything in particular; the blankness behind his eyes suggested he was listening. A low throbbing hum tickled her eardrums.
“Rescue parties,” Zephyr said.
Vespa shook her head. She closed her eyes and swiveled her head, straining to hear the familiar sounds of Primean engines beneath the menacing crescendo swelling over the bay.
“That’s not anything from Prime.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“Unfortunately,” she said, opening her eyes to meet his stare, “I can.” Vespa had literally been raised in the development bays of Wynde Industries. She had mimicked the trill of a well-tuned engine before she’d talked.
A horrible truth dawned across Zephyr’s face, but speech eluded him. The faint rumble of an explosion sounded from the far side of the ridge that rose beyond the bay. After a few echoes on the interior rim of the island’s towering caldera walls, the first burst was overwhelmed by a hail of explosive concussions growing closer with each furious pulse.
Zephyr heard her, but he made a dash for the cover of a nearby pile. “Get down!”
He hadn’t figured it out yet. Stillness was always a worse tactical position when you were flying – or going up against something that was flying. Charging through the water, her legs churning furiously, she skipped the effort of explanation. Zephyr would follow.
Barreling past him, Vespa picked up speed as she hit the beach. Zephyr chased after her, hollering something about her being insane as a rabid yobi.
A volley of red laserfire superheated the fog, shredding the only intact portion of the boardwalk. When she reached the dunes, Vespa threw herself into a shallow valley between them. She tried to keep her head low as the alien aircraft shrieked overhead. From beyond the caldera rim, the eruptions clapped like thunder. Explosion after explosion at an ever-quickening pace preceded rib-rattling booms.
“Knarf!” Zephyr exclaimed, flopping down beside her. “They’ll pin down the Fleet.”
They sure would. The Antillan port had been constructed within a protective natural sanctuary. The island was an enormous inactive volcano that had blown its top in the catastrophic early life of the moon. The wind currents that flowed like rivers of air across the southern hemisphere had eroded the western side of the crater until it had collapsed centuries ago, and over the millennia the tides had washed much of the crumbled rock out to sea. When the first settlers had come to the Kavil moon, the island of Antilla had offered shelter that would have taken immeasurable resources and time to construct. Yet the vortices of the Western Current still made the approach to the island tricky, and all Primean craft advanced from the west, riding with the winds. But the resort was east of the port, so if the bombings had started here… Well, then the tactical options for attack were wide open.
Vespa rolled up to sitting. “A south-to-north run will damage the Fleet first –”
“Can you just –” Zephyr shoved her back down. “– not make us a target?”
From a distance, the scene had the surreal quality of a vidsim. The noises and visual input were real enough for the brain to process, but it wasn’t actual reality. “Why was the resort attacked?”
Still prone, Zephyr shrugged. “Does it really matter?”
“Yes.” Gradually she was constructing a scenario in her head, calculating whether this apparently lone vessel still attacking the resort had any other assignment than just to ensure the attackers had succeeding in wiping it out before all weapons were brought to bear on the port. “We have to get to Argus.”
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Listen.” Vespa rolled up to her knees, giving him time to absorb the sounds of the ongoing devastation of the port. “No one is going to be coming to rescue us.”
“If you tell them who your mom is –”
“Who am I supposed to tell?” Blowing a ringlet of hair out of her eyes in disgust, she rose to her feet. “We’re going to have to do this ourselves.”
“Can we even make it to the caves?”
“My guess is they’ll make a couple more passes.” Vespa eyed the narrow, rocky trail that led up the steep slope to the mid-level caves that had been converted to a hangar for the yachts and other craft brought by the resort’s guests. She reached into her slingbag, pulled out the winged shoes, and tugged one on her bare foot.
“Gem is going to kill you,” Zephyr noted. He was staring warily up the ridge they were about to climb.
“Let’s hope so.” Vespa shoved on the other shoe, then broke into a jog. “We need to get to Argus before that thing changes from assigned targets to seek and destroy.”
“You sound just like your father.” Long-legged, Zephyr passed her in a couple of strides. He batted aside a tree limb, and she ducked under it as it whipped back. After just a few more steps, he glanced back over his shoulder. “Who’s doing this?”
Vespa nearly slipped clambering up a rock ledge. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
That wasn’t true, and Zephyr knew it too. He turned to give her a hand up. “But you have a theory.”
“Do you think we were attacked for a reason?”
They reached the graded path to the caves and broke into a run. Zephyr paced himself to remain by Vespa’s side. “Any specific reason?”
Ignoring his question, she ran faster. Emerging above the sea-level haze, they now had the benefit of clean air – but that only made the dark-grey, fuel-fed plumes billowing over the caldera rim all the more ominous. The Fleet had to be crippled. How could anything survive the endless barrage they could hear still raining down in the port?
Tears blurred Vespa’s vision. The reality of the situation grew more terrifying with each heaving breath. Were Terraq and Gemini dying as she rushed away from them? Choosing to retrieve the ship had been an instinctive decision, but had it been the right one? The path traversed a northerly direction, eventually winding its way back to the caves, which were now straight up the slope from them. Vespa’s feet faltered. Her hands propped on her knees as she bent over, panting with exhaustion and despair closing in.
“Come on,” Zephyr called over his shoulder.
She gulped in a breath, waiting for him to stop. When he did, Vespa simply pointed upward toward the caves. Zephyr had donned his stubborn face, and she expected an argument. Instead he only nodded once before marching back in her direction. Together they began to climb.
After a few minutes her knees were bloodied, cracking into different raw designs every few steps. Vespa grabbed onto the pain as a reminder that she was still alive. Her eyes stung and itched. With her hand she wiped away a tear, leaving a smudge of blood from a scratched palm. She stared down for her upcoming footfalls, occasionally glancing ahead to verify their trajectory remained true toward the caves where Argus would be waiting, sheltered from the attack. She looked to the northern sky and wondered if the attackers might have finished their task of destroying the port and started fanning out to finish off survivors.
“Look! We’re almost there.” Zephyr sounded as if he hadn’t thought he’d ever really see it.
Etched into the volcanic rock, narrow openings belied the true size of the enormous caverns. The use of the natural geographic feature maintained the illusion of an undisturbed island setting for the tourists looking up from the resort. Zephyr and Vespa moved along the slope, high enough they could determine the actual opening where Argus was berthed. The winds were stronger here, whipping up over the wall to bring a river of smoke that carried hot ash mixed with the stench of death.
“That one.” Vespa pointed to an opening about twenty meters to their right.
They ran for it. Her mind was already considering whether they could gain access if the gates had been locked down. The air was filling with soot quickly, and she feared they would lose their way. At some point, Zephyr grabbed her arm so they couldn’t be separated.
To their relief, the entrance hadn’t been sealed by the blast doors. The main power appeared to be down, though, because no illumination rods shone overhead, but blinking lights on the door controls indicated backup power was still working. They’d just started inside when rapidly approaching footsteps echoed from within the darkness.
Zephyr shouted at the woman who barreled through the opening. Plowing ahead, she mowed Vespa to the ground. Zephyr grabbed for the woman. Despite his size he stumbled a few steps, caught off-guard by the urgency of her momentum. She kicked and flailed her arms, connecting one good fist with his face.
He roared, then wrestled her to arms’ length. “Stop! We won’t hurt you.”
“Let me go!” The woman didn’t care. She yanked, managing to make another step away from the door. “They’re coming. They’ll kill you. Just like everyone else.”
“Who?” Vespa asked while Zephyr struggled to hold the woman.
“The –” A flash of red erupted in the woman’s back. Her struggle ceased. She fell lifeless into Zephyr’s arms.
More laser bolts whizzed from the cavern’s depths. Vespa lunged for the control panel and slapped the emergency blast door trigger. For a second she feared the auxiliary units wouldn’t provide enough power, but then she heard the clattering of releases. On backup power the blast doors relied on gravity to do the bulk of the work, but as heavy as they were they slid down quickly. The massive wall of peristeel ended its descent with a resounding clang. The next instant it crackled and popped as laserfire struck it from the other side.
“Zephyr, forget her!”
He stood staring at his hands, as if he had accidentally crushed the life out of the poor woman.
His last name, bellowed like an Academy trainer, snapped him from his trance.
“The door!” Dozens of impacts caused the peristeel to begin to glow in several locations. Vespa stood back flat against the stone, staring at the blast door beside her. Numb. “What do we do?”
“We have to go back.” His words sounded as hopeless as she felt.
Then that didn’t even matter. The slope erupted in concussive bursts of fire. Slagged boulders of reinforced cinderbrac rained from the sky, kicking up chunks of rust-colored dirt where they impacted the ground. The sound deafened them, rooting Vespa and Zephyr where they huddled together beside the closed blast doors. By now the dark plumes of smoke pouring out of the port had decreased visibility to less than two meters. Behind her, the cacophony of lasers on metal increased steadily.
“We can’t stay here,” Zephyr shouted over the never-ending din.
The pair grabbed hands and struck off, back the way they had come. They had to step over the corpse, and as they did, Vespa noticed something.
“We’ve got to –”
“No.” She knelt down, releasing his hand. On the dead woman’s belt was the one thing they needed the most – a comdee. With a charged battery. Snatching it, Vespa stood and offered her hand back to Zephyr. Together they ran into the sooty fog.