Our hero contemplates staggering truths in the calm before the storm. I was once again floating in the void but tethered to our vessel and busy cutting away the now useless parachutes. Aeliana spoke of
Our hero contemplates staggering truths in the calm before the storm.
I was once again floating in the void but tethered to our vessel and busy cutting away the now useless parachutes. Aeliana spoke of our plans over the suit radio she’d shown me how to use.
“If we watch our fuel, we have just enough for a long burn toward the planet, but our retro thrusters are empty,” she said. “We’ll insert at very low orbit and then use atmospheric drag to slow ourselves enough for a water landing.”
I cut away another tether. “I’m no mathematician, but it sounds like you have some work ahead of you.”
The deliberate calm was evident in her voice. “Correct.”
Another tether parted under my hand, then I realized my thoughtlessness. “Look at how far we’ve come. We’ve risen to meet every peril. You know these systems, so I know you’ll get us down safely.”
In her voice was the warmth I loved to hear, “Thank you…,” but she hesitated, ending with the icy formality that speared my heart, “…Lord Faustus.”
We’d passed in and out of formality as we danced around what we felt for each other. My father was her betrothed. From her point of view, he’d been gone for mere hours, but in a different universe, it was decades for him, with a wife and son in the bargain. Then I arrived and woke her. To call the mess complicated would be an understatement.
Then there was one looming fact—she was, in theory, Empress of the High Imperium. I still couldn’t wrap my head around that. She ruled from the nation of Suddene, but her larger dominion was over all the nations of mankind…all humanity. Or rather, she would rule them, should she ever sit the throne. Much of their world was consumed in war, conventional and nuclear, with the Hypogeans, aided by would-be revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the nobility. We’d captured one of them.
I worked at severing the last parachute tether. “How’s our guest?”
“Still breathing but hasn’t woken. He’s nice and snug…”
It’d been four hours since we turned the tables on our captors and found that the traitor, Eude Osmot, had somehow survived. For whatever reason, we couldn’t raise Lucan and the Vigil II station, so it was onward to the surface of Aarde, to reach Clovis Cyprianus, commander of the forces in Quivira…in the midst of an enemy assault. It’s not like our entire journey hadn’t been desperate, so all I could do was shrug my shoulders. I’d curl up in a ball later.
I went hand over hand toward the entry hatch of the assault shuttle. “Well, I’m done here. How long till we hit dirtside?”
“A day and a half, by my initial calculations.”
I came in through the airlock and only stripped off my helmet before I strapped myself into the copilot’s chair beside Aeliana. We had secured the orbs to the instrument panel, keeping extra mass and volume out of our suits while we worked. That was another looming truth—that I apparently had the Inheritance, the power to directly control the ancient technology of the Fathers. In uncounted generations, only a few had possessed the ability outside of the ruling House.
I turned to her. “How will this work?”
She continued to look at the instruments, performing calculations and checks that were beyond me. “We’ll spend half our fuel accelerating toward Aarde, use the maneuver thrusters to reverse our orientation at the halfway point, then four-fifths of the remaining fuel to decelerate. With the maneuvering thrusters, we’ll slip into a low orbit, scraping the atmosphere. If we don’t burn up,” she paused, her hand shaking slightly, “or skip off the atmosphere, the drag will slow us enough that we’ll have a chance of landing safely…maybe.”
I squeezed her shoulder; she grasped my hand. The brief moment was over, and she returned to her instruments. This was all the intimacy the empress of mankind still allowed.
Once the engines ignited, the ship shuddered and reverberated with a deep roar. I was pressed back into my seat for a few minutes of acceleration, which is what half our fuel got us, using chemical rocket motors.
In vacuum, that’s enough. We sailed toward the planet mostly in silence. At times, we broke it with conversation on small matters or dumb jokes, explaining them to each other when we didn’t get it. We did everything, but open our hearts to each other.
The planet loomed in the cockpit window, and the first faint sounds of wind ran through the hull. Aeliana did something with the controls and tilted the shuttle on its long axis at an oblique angle to the planet’s surface, so that the windward side, with most of the heat shielding, faced the onslaught of the atmosphere.
The change was subtle, occurring over hours as we circled the planet, but the sound was the crackle and rush of flames as reentry plasma bathed and sparked over the cockpit windows, half-covered with metal shutters. If this was the escape capsule we used the first time, we would likely end up as debris on the planet’s surface, but if these assault shuttles were sturdy enough, we might survive.
Aeliana’s gloved hand gripped my own. Her courtly mask was gone. The eyes of a young woman, hardly more than a girl, looked into mine. “Tell me again, will we make it!?”
I interwove my fingers into hers, squeezed her hand, and smiled. “Of course we will! And you know what?” A wild impulse surged up within me, mingled fear and excitement, stoked by the possibility of death.
Her eyes were wide. “What?”
“I love you.”
Emotions played across her face, too many to name, but she didn’t release my hand. With our heads pressed against our seats, she never looked away from me.
In the background, I heard Eude’s shouts. He’d woken at some point during the journey.
The moment we hit the Celadon, an inland sea in the middle of Quivira, it was like smashing into a brick wall. The metal shutters clapped shut before the water could shatter the cockpit window and pour in. Aeliana and I were slammed against our harnesses. The hull shuttered and groaned under the force. The shuttle was designed to float, but without chutes or retro thrusters, the impact would’ve caused a breach. We had only minutes.
I undid my harness, snatched the crystal sphere from the instrument panel, and stowed it in a cargo pocket. Aeliana did the same.
I checked on the traitor as he was groggily fumbling at his harness. He still had dried blood under his nose from when we decompressed the shuttle. As he looked up at me, I smiled and punched him out. Then I put his helmet on him and turned on his air supply.
Aeliana and I put on our helmets as I supported Eude’s limp form to the external hatch. There was already water sloshing around our feet.
We blew the hatch and water rushed in, pinning us to the hull opposite the exit. I kept a hold of Eude’s forearm.
With the shuttle full of water and sinking to the bottom of the Celadon, we swam out the hatch and made for the surface, Eude in tow.
To be continued…