Chapter 17

 

After Danny and Arras had successfully taken the gunship back from the Air Force, Val had mulled over how they could prevent the vessel from being stolen again.  Relocation seemed like the most viable option, to an area Arthur Emmerich and his people couldn’t get to.  She had considered putting the ship into high-orbit in stealth mode—but this was all before Rededication appeared.

Relocating the ship was still necessary, though.  And so, on their way back to Manhattan from Nevada, Damon and Val discussed potential hiding places for the ship.  They tossed several ideas back and forth before settling on one of Damon’s suggestions.  They disembarked the ship in as vacant an area as they could find among the boroughs, networked its nav computer into Ridarin’s control system, then sent it on an automated flight and dive into the Laurentian abyss.

For several days, the gunship had been hiding three miles beneath the ocean, tucked away in an underwater valley off the eastern Canadian coast, in the Atlantic.  Running on low-power mode, the vessel crawled from one hydrothermal vent to another, bathing in the eruptions of heat and troubled water, absorbing the energy of each blast to maintain its power supply.  In this state, the gunship would remain hidden from anyone on Earth, and perhaps even Truth herself.

Standing in the corridor outside the testing chamber, with his back against the wall, Danny’s eyes and face flared with hairs of nanites.  The nanoscopic machines excitedly circulated between his optical nerves and his brain, conveying to him diagnostics and sensory data from the distant gunship.  Such a connection was difficult to establish, let alone maintain, even for someone who had been born with a nano-net.  Though Ridarin’s net had been amplified and optimized in order to handle the suit’s control system and synchronization, Danny still struggled through the process.  At his side, Val coached him through every step of the startup sequence as Arras and Ila watched curiously.

“Remember to take it easy until you’ve fully transitioned from low-power to nominal operations,” Val instructed.

As she spoke, Danny seemed only to stare absently out the floor-to-ceiling window of the hallway, but his vision was thoroughly elsewhere.  He replied verbally in order to confirm he had received and complied with her directions.

“Beginning vertical takeoff,” he reported in a mutter.  “Depth: fifteen thousand feet…  Twelve thousand…  Seven thousand…  This isn’t easy.”

“Just focus on surfacing,” Val replied.  “Once you’re out of the water, everything should be simple.”

Entirely invested in the intricate process of raising a spaceship from the depths of the ocean, Danny furrowed his brow.

“I think I’ve got it,” he finally replied.  “Still, I can’t help but empathize with a certain Skywalker right about now.”

Another few seconds passed in quiet thought before Danny nodded firmly.  “Got it.  I’m out of the water.  Power consumption, normal.  Stealth systems, deactivated.  Main rocket motors, firing.”  He cracked a thrilled grin.  “Here it comes!”

Nearly two thousand miles from their location, the gunship ripped across the Atlantic at a low altitude.  A shallow, tapering trench formed in the water beneath the ship, displaced against the force of the vessel’s acceleration.  In full control, Danny kept a close eye on the sensory array, making a point not to get too close to any ships or submarines, though he still made sure he had an audience.  His net conveyed the visuals around the gunship, making Danny feel as if he was simply watching through the ship’s canopy rather than from Manhattan.

The ship increased its altitude while remaining near the Canadian coast, making sure to attract plenty of attention.  Listening to intercepted and decrypted radio signals, the transmissions echoing in his ears, Danny listened to the Canadian Royal Navy and the United States Navy jump into a frenzy as they detected him.  By then, however, he was already over New Brunswick, entering the airspace above Maine.

Having only the excited look on his face to go by, Val, Arras, and Ila waited for Danny to make his final call.

“It’s time,” he finally said.  “Arras, you’re up.”

“Right,” Arras replied, pulling a Beretta M9 from her holster.

Val and Ila together helped Danny turn away from the window; the three of them then covered their ears as Arras took aim.  She fired three shots into the window in slow succession before the wall of glass splintered, flurrying down to one of the lower roofs of the tower, allowing an oppressive window to blow into the corridor from outside.  With the window removed, the three women stared down at the raging crowds below.  The incoherent roars of the nearly featureless mass of rioters carried on the wind, reaching even this high floor.  Distinct barriers segmented the crowd into a small circle around the building itself and a much wider circle around them.  Though the perimeter seemed to hold, everyone including Danny wondered how much longer it would be before the people downstairs managed to reach this level of the tower.

Left only to wait out the final few moments, Arras wondered if anyone around the tower had even noticed the window that had just been blown out.  Even if they hadn’t, she figured, they would surely notice what came next.

“Our ride’s here,” Danny proudly announced, pulling Arras from her musing.  “Let’s see if I can’t make a showy entrance.”

Down the street by several blocks, between the two walls of buildings that made the city’s concrete canyon, they could see two tightly bundled contrails slicing the evening sky with white.  As the pale scars approached, arcing ever more slightly with every second, Danny watched through a view only he could see, preparing to thread the needle.  The gunship decelerated with a fury, the roar of the reverse thrusters’ decelerating force managing to overwhelm even the sound of the mob in the streets.  Speeding between the two flanks of buildings, directly over the street, the windows near the ship popped to shards and cars below rocked on their wheels.  Punching its way forward at a frighteningly low altitude, the gunship attracted all the attention it could as it approached the tower.

Passing Teleios, Danny brought the ship about, ascending in a spiral around the tower to the level he and the others were on.  The rush of the ship’s engines loudened until the vessel stopped directly in front of the opening in the wall, where the window had shattered.  Stopped in midair, balancing clumsily on its VTOL thrusters, the gunship extended a short wing toward the opening and lifted its hatch, waiting to receive its passengers.

“Think that was enough?” Danny asked, still grinning.

“Quite,” Val replied sheepishly, staring hesitantly at the precariously hovering vessel.

“I’d say you far exceeded the goal,” Ila murmured, looking down at the screaming masses below.  “No one’s going to be ignorant of our departure now.”

“Well then, all aboard!” Danny said, appearing as if he was struggling as the ship wobbled threateningly.  “As fun as it’s been, Val, I’d appreciate it if you took the reins right about now.”

“On it,” Val replied as sheepishly as before, inching her way toward the edge of the floor.  Taking a deep breath, ignoring the sound of her heart pounding in her ears, she took a leaping step from the edge of the window and onto the ship’s quivering wing.  Suddenly conscious of the fact that she was now teetering on unsure ground, several hundred feet above the ground, Val lunged forward, landing her hands onto the edge of the hatch’s threshold.  With exact movements, she clamored into the cabin and ran immediately to the pilot’s seat.

Sighing with relief, Danny leaned back against the wall, his nano-net calming and his eyes returning to normal; knowing Val was now at the controls, he took a deep breath.  Looking over at Arras and Ila, he said, “We should get going before the mosh pit downstairs gets any more out of hand.”

“Agreed,” Ila replied before taking another nervous look at the seemingly infinite gap between the floor and the ship.

Effortlessly, Arras was the first to step from the solid floor of the hall to the now steadier wing outside.  Rather than entering the cabin, she held onto one of the metal arms holding the hatch up and turned around, her eyes landing on Ila.  “Come on,” she called to her sister, fearlessly extending a hand.  “I’ll help you.”

Though still battling her own tumbling insides, Ila found the confidence to make that big step between the ship and the tower.  With her hand clasped tightly in Arras’, Ila leapt, landing against her sister; Arras wrapped a protective arm around Ila before pulling her into the cabin.

Watching the two disappear, Danny wondered if Ila had noticed it: as Arras had helped her aboard, she was smiling.  It was a real smile, one that seemed untouched by everything else she had been through.  And that made Danny smile.  Instantly energized, he bounded adventurously from the hall’s floor straight into the cabin, landing with armored legs on the deck as the hatch closed behind him.

Arras headed straight for the cockpit, to the co-pilot’s seat beside Val.  Danny helped Ila strap into one of the seats in the cramped rear cabin before taking his own seat next to her.  Preparing for liftoff, Val and Arras seemed as invested in the ship’s controls as Danny had been until only a moment ago.

“The people below can’t stop us from leaving,” Val said as she calibrated the thrusters for their ascent, “but Truth and the New Pact can.”

“I know,” Arras replied, already prepping for their FTL jump.  “Just evade whatever they throw at us.  We’ll be ready to jump once we’re at a high enough altitude.”

Hearing this, Danny called up to the cockpit, “Can’t we make the jump above the city or something?  Trying to leave the planet first just seems like asking for trouble.”

“An FTL jump does more than just transport you,” Val called back, her eyes still forward.  “It can have catastrophic residual effects on the immediate environment if you’re not careful, much like nuclear fallout.  It’s safest to make a jump in space, but the upper atmosphere will have to do.”

A soft tug at his sleeve brought Danny’s attention back to the cabin.  He looked down at Ila, who had a portion of his shirt pinched between her fingers.  “FTL jumps have anti-gravitational shockwaves,” she explained to him.  “Those shockwaves travel through nearby dark energy as their medium, which could devastate anything caught in the blast.  Don’t you remember how you detonated that star when you jumped an entire platform into it a few months ago?”

Appreciating the details, Danny still couldn’t help but smile slyly back at her.  “Do you remember that?”

“Bits and pieces,” Ila replied with a sweet smile of her own.

“Everyone hang on,” Val yelled back to them, “we’re making our ascent now.”

The sheer amount of G-force that went into the upward thrust left even the ship’s synthetic gravity struggling to compensate.  Everyone felt their insides sink for several grueling seconds before the gunship leveled out and increased its altitude, accelerating to escape velocity.

Looking out through the canopy from the cabin, Danny and Ila watched as the deep blue sky progressively darkened, turning into naked space as they left the atmosphere.  Watching the dark sky outside, Ridarin identified three New Pact battleships with blue markers; an additional note informed him that the ships had just launched guided missiles.

“We’ve got incoming,” Danny called to Val.

“Please no backseat driving,” Val almost pleaded

With precise commands, Val threw the ship into a corkscrew, barreling away from the incoming missiles.  Two rockets zipped beneath them, missing by only a few feet before twisting back around for another pass.  Spinning the ship around, Val locked on to the two explosives and opened fire with the forward cannons, blowing one away and catching the second after adjustments to her aim.  All the while, Arras continued her meticulous work, trying to tune out the commotion.

The ship’s sensory array and Ridarin’s own threat detection picked up several more warships drawing in from all directions, as if to box in the small gunship.  The ship’s own equipment began to shriek as it registered several more explosive devices locking on and firing from the New Pact vessels.

“I’d appreciate it if you finished your calculations, Arras,” Val grunted as she threw the ship into another gut-wrenching maneuver, preparing for the next assault.

As if waiting for her to speak, the FTL drive revved to life from the aft.  “Just one more second,” Arras muttered back, still busy typing at her terminal.  “Just… one… more…  Now.  Nix the countdown, make the jump.”

“Got it,” Val replied firmly, giving the ship its command as several finger-like rockets sped toward them, seconds from clawing their vessel.

A flash of light overtook the canopy’s view as the jump drive obeyed Val’s command.  Then followed the familiar sensation of calm space instantaneously being replaced by solar winds jostling the ship.  Though the ship shook menacingly, it remained under control—they had successfully emerged behind the orbital’s massive solar shield.

A timer popped up on the nav computer’s monitor, beginning a countdown from 34 minutes the moment the jump was made.  As the seconds ticked away, Arras and Val hurriedly traded seats.

In the blink of an eye, Aurin stood between the cockpit and rear cabin, startling everyone but Arras and Ila.  “I’m ready to receive you,” he told Arras, ignoring everyone else’s surprise.  “The airlock is already prepped, so just come in nice and easy.”

“Docking now,” Arras replied squarely, tilting the ship’s controls slightly as she spoke.  The ship shifted noticeably in response to her commands, and Aurin vanished from sight.  Only a few seconds passed before another rough jolt announced their soft impact with the orbital’s airlock; the gunship created a hard seal and opened its hatch the moment it was secured to the station.

Arras unstrapped herself from her seat.  “Time to move.”

Aurin met them in the short tunnel leading to the station’s main body.  As they all walked briskly through the narrow corridor, he gave them their instructions.  “Danny and Val,” he said, “you both proceed to the tail of the station.  You’ll find the FTL drive there.  You’ll need to manually reconnect the breakers that form the circuit between the drive and the station’s reactor and command system.  I’ll walk you through everything once you’re there.”

“Got it,” Danny replied, feeling a new rush as he eyed the timer in the corner of his eye.

“Arras, Ila, proceed to the control room,” Aurin continued.  “Arras, I need you to unlock FTL operations the moment the drive is prepped.”

“Understood,” Arras replied, appearing completely in her element.

With the work divided, they split at the exit to the airlock’s tunnel, each group on their way to their respective stations.

“Good luck,” Danny called after Arras and Ila.

“Same to you,” Arras replied as the distance between them increased.

Though it should have been inconsequential, looking back at the two sisters, Danny couldn’t help but notice Ila—and the look on her face.  She didn’t say a word, but she watched Danny and Val as they ran off, her smile gone.  He only had a second to see it, but the look on Ila’s face was unexpected, and he could not explain it.  It was something like sadness.

Ila disappeared with Arras behind the sliding metal doors of one of the station’s modules before Danny could think anything of it.  Setting the matter aside, he refocused himself.  After all, they had only so much time to spare.