Alan heard his breath reverberate throughout his helmet. His slow, rhythmic pulse echoed in his chest. The only other noise he heard was a soft beeping indicating Nalia’s position next to him. He looked over the exterior of the station. It resembled a cityscape surrounded by the night sky. Lifting his hand, he pointed a finger at a location across from them a few hundred meters away.
“There,” his voice garbled over the suit radio. “That’s the hangar.”
“Copy that,” replied Nalia.
They stepped forward, their magnetic boots adhering to the station’s surface. Metallic protrusions dotted its exterior. Small valleys with glowing lights provided some illumination of the landscape. Steam from numerous vents floated into space. Alan jumped forward, using his momentum to travel farther. He reoriented his trajectory with the suit jump jets. He motioned to Nalia and she followed. They landed a few meters away from their former position. Looking up, Alan gazed at the binary star that was the center of this system. No ships were seen. They were too small and too far away to be detected by the naked eye anyways.
As soon as he had that exact thought, the sharp needle-like shape of a corvette glided over them, casting a thin shadow over the silent landscape. Alan held his breath as it continued its path. It soon disappeared over to the other side of the station. He regretted the use of his jumpjets. Their sensors had probably just detected them.
“We need to hurry,” he whispered into the suit mic.
“I know,” said Nalia. She used her own jump jets to glide parallel to his position. A yellow bolt passed over them without a sound. His blood froze.
Using his suit optics to magnify sight, he looked to their right. Far off in the distance, eight spacesuit-clad Republic marines jetted towards them, impact rifles in tow. He boosted his jump jets, careful not to overdo it and end up a stain on the station exterior. More yellow sparks of light passed over them. Impact bolts. One almost grazed his arm as he pointed to a box-like object on the surface. Both he and Nalia floated to cover behind it as more impact bolts scratched the station surface.
For a few seconds, they hid as the bolts flew over them. Each impact ripped a large chunk of metal away from the object.
“We can’t stay here!” Nalia’s voice came through on the radio.
“Wait, I’ve got an idea.” He watched as she took out a round object, pressed a button at the top, and threw it into the air. A grey smoke covered their immediate area, providing shelter from the marines firing at them.
“Good idea,” he said. Alan thought a moment. “We’re dead if we stay here, though. We’re going to have to jump.”
“Roger. I really should have practiced more with those zero-G simulations,” Nalia said with a slight edge to her voice.
He grabbed her hand. “We go on the count of three.” Through the smoke, an impact bolt hit the corner of their cover box, sending shrapnel hurling past them. “Three. Two. One. JUMP!” They both pushed off the surface, heading towards the stars up above. Below, he saw the silhouettes of the marines take aim and shoot. Their luck wouldn’t hold for much longer. Yellow streaks of light illuminated even further by the ECM cloud missed them by millimeters. “FULL BURN!” he yelled.
Blue flames erupted from their jump jets as they accelerated towards the hangar. The landscape below them passed by fast as they continued their trajectory. They emerged from the cloud and saw their destination. “CHANGE DIRECTIONS!” Alan ordered as they reached the hangar. They reoriented the jump jets into their destination. He watched a single red line on the floor as they landed and crashed on a metal staircase at the wall of the hangar. They lay a while to let the shock of the impact pass. He glanced at some readings from the suit computer. The hangar had air and gravity. He quickly removed his helmet and got out of his suit. He cursed the arrival of that corvette as he helped Nalia out of her suit.
The Hawking-class ship that had worked so well in the battle lay still in the hangar. He would have preferred it to be in a launch bay, but this would have to do.
“Remind me never to play zero-G sports with you,” Nalia said, throwing one of the gloves on the floor. Alan didn’t answer. He took out his pistol as they both slowly approached the lone black and blue arrow-headed ship. Using his ID card, he opened the electronically sealed door. Inside, they found it empty. Alan slipped into the front station, while Nalia took a station besides him. They sat down on leather seats and put on the safety belts. He flipped a switch on the console.
“Ship activation sequence started,” a commanding female voice told them. “Engines active. Shields active. Weapons active.” Alan smiled with relief. They would have some protection. The tactical holo turned on, revealing two clusters of yellow indicators converging upon them. He switched them to red. On cue, two groups of marines approached from the entrances of the hangar. “Nalia. Weapons!” he called out.
“Roger that!” she shouted back. Turrets activated, sending their deadly particle payload into the approaching troopers. Some were vaporized immediately, while others flew backwards as if hit by a sledgehammer. The others ran to cover, but that would be of little use against even a Hawking’s weaponry. Alan willed his pilot’s gland to secrete amphetamine into his bloodstream. He felt his own awareness expand. His pulse quickened.
Alan activated vertical takeoff and oriented them towards open space. He pushed the throttle as far as it could go and turned on full burn. The green flames of the ship’s engines filled the hangar, incinerating the rest of the marines. They flew out of it at thousands of meters per second. His mind registered the field of stars around them. The tactical holo filled with hundreds of red indicators. First Fleet. Three indicators representing a Hawking-class starship and two drones moving to intercept appeared on the screen. Alan mumbled a short prayer.
“Where should we go?” asked Nalia.
“Hell if I know,” said Alan. The nearest tesseract was blocked by the First Fleet. Any attempt to head further into the Ramanujan Expanse would be intercepted by the just as swift enemy ships.
“I can’t get comms off. Too much jamming.” Nalia slammed her fist onto her view screen. It held.
“There’s only one thing we can do.” Alan watched the three ships approach on his screen.
“Unknown hijackers. You are illegally flying a spacecraft belonging to the Earth Republic. Deactivate weapons and surrender,” a harsh male voice said through the speakers. A few tense moments passed by. “If you do not surrender immediately, we will be forced to open fire.”
“We’ve got to go down, to the planet,” said Alan as he switched most of the power to engines.
Nalia aimed the turrets at the approaching ships. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said. She released ECM countermeasures to deter the inevitable missile fire.
“I do,” he answered as they rushed into Danube’s atmosphere. The computer went red, warning them that they were conducting a high-risk maneuver. An alarm shrilled, revealing that a hypervelocity missile had almost hit them. They danced around nearly invisible particle beams, each one avoided as Alan and the ship’s AI predicted the position of the turrets and the velocity of their payload. He was grateful for the fog of ECM.
Alan knew exactly how they would shake off their pursuers. They continued to lower altitude into the atmosphere as flames caused by friction danced around them. They passed through a cloud and dispersed it into nothingness.
“Visual,” Alan told the computer. Cameras outside the ship revealed the barren desert and the blue sky around them. He looked into the distance and spotted a storm over the mountains of the Great Rift. Perfect, he thought as he decelerated the ship. Although they had to go slower in atmosphere, they could still make good time. The air around curved into a sonic boom. In seconds, they went through the storm, rendering external visuals useless. Luckily for them, Alan was more familiar with the gravitational and atmospheric permutations of the planet than the pursuing ships. Using that knowledge, he was able to outmaneuver the other Hawking. The dust cloud illuminated the beam of particle light that attempted to vaporize them. Below, a group of rock formations disintegrated into dust as the energy hit them at megaton levels.
As they left the dust storm, a giant tower of orange flame from a high yield explosion appeared in front of the ship. He maneuvered around it, noting the multiple trajectories of swarm missiles heading in their direction. The air rocked with shockwaves as the missiles detonated or turned the sand on the surface into glass. He knew where they were all going and dodged them like a mongoose avoiding viper strikes.
They flew into the Great Rift, a giant canyon that burrowed deep into the planet’s crust. Hundreds of meters deep, it provided sufficient cover for their lone ship. He dived deeper into the canyon, the darkness briefly illuminated by the ship’s lights. The grey-red walls of the canyon rushed by them, an unending wall of rock face. The three ships, the Hawking and the drones,stayed in pursuit, firing their beam weapons, causing the rock walls to burst into more dust and debris. He maneuvered the craft to and fro, not allowing them to get a lock with their missiles. A tunnel veering downwards greeted them and he drove them into the depths of the planet. He watched the edge of the blue sky disappear from visuals.
A green particle beam illuminated from the dust and debris grazed the ship and hit the canyon wall in front of them. Alan diverted more power to the weapons. He turned the ship around while engaging the reverse thrusters. “Do it!” he shouted. Nalia found a lock on one of their pursuers and fired a hypervelocity missile. It hit a pursuing drone, which exploded in a shower of electronics and steel. The ball of fire disappeared into the darkness. One down. The momentum carried them into a vast chamber, with an underground lake reflecting the battle above its surface. He oriented the ship around again, ready to face their opponents.
Nalia fired the beam weapons into the darkness, causing the enemy ships to briefly appear on external visuals. All combatants groped blind in the dark, unused to Hawking-ships fighting each other in a giant underground rock tunnel. Nalia and Alan approached a red wall at high speed, turning around at the last possible moment. The last pursuing drone realized the incoming obstacle too late and crashed into it. A small orange fireball briefly covered the view of one of the cameras. The Hawking ship, the most intelligent of their enemies, continued its pursuit. Its missiles hit a rocky outcropping, the combat range too close for their computer guidance systems to get a proper lock. Hundreds of stalagmites fell into the underground lake.
Nalia fired back, but the Hawking ship dodged with the nimbleness of a dancer. The green beam exploded far away from the enemy ship in a dark corner of the chamber. Pieces of rocks flew past them at high speed. They continued their dance in the caverns, briefly illuminated by particle light in the dust.
“Time to end this,” Alan said as he brought significant power to shields.
Before Nalia could comment, he oriented the ship towards the enemy and activated full burn. Most of the energy went to forward shields. The remainder went to engines. The green flames lit and scarred the rock chamber as they rammed the Hawking ship. A white and orange explosion overwhelmed all the cameras as the impact disintegrated the enemy. He barely avoided a wall as he reduced power to the engines and used thrusters to get out of the way. Debris rained down, making small ripples in the underground lake. Alan sat back in relief. The computer indicated no more hostiles. They were victorious. Nalia laughed on the ascent back towards the surface. He was too exhausted to wonder why.