Deniv’s voice was accompanied by the coughing whine of the engines. They fluttered and faltered for a breath-haltingly long time, but they chugged back into alignment, the group relaxing visibly.
“Everybody on!” he shouted.
Wallen and Markeros charged up the ramp after him.
Gardner was halfway up when he realised the alien general wasn’t with him. Draliv was leaning on the hydraulic ram of the ramp itself. His face was ashen, and he was barely able to stand; his skin was clammy and cold.
“Go on, Lieutenant.”
“You can barely move.”
Draliv smiled weakly. “I’m old, what do you expect?”
He coughed into his hand, and it came away bloody.
He collapsed into Gardner’s arms, who bellowed for some medical help. Deniv was first down, panic on his face, fearing the worst.
“What happened?” he demanded, as if this were his flesh and blood.
Gardner shook his head, “I don’t know. I think he was wounded and hid it. He’s lost a lot of blood internally. He hasn’t got long. “
Deniv’s bottom lip trembled.
“I’m sorry, Deniv.”
Nobody moved, Markeros returning with a generous medical kit, breaking it open and attending to the general.
“We need to get him to a hospital, or a medical ship,” he said. Gardner was in agreement; the old man wouldn’t survive without professional help. He had seen injuries like it already in the last day.
“Get him onboard,” he barked to the others. Deniv was staring wide-eyed at his commanding officer; Gardner hoped he wasn’t too traumatised to fly the shuttle, or they would all be stuck here. They all took a limb as gingerly as they could, carrying Draliv into the shuttle hold where the other refugees were still cowering.
The shuttle shook, pitching over.
Gardner swore, slamming into the nearest bulkhead.
“What was that?” he shouted.
“The planet’s breaking up!” replied Wallen, unadulterated fear in his voice.
“DENIV, GET ON THE CONTROLS!” Gardner roared. “HELP THE GENERAL LATER!”
Deniv snapped out of it, glared at the Terran officer, and leaped into the cockpit. His quick hands brought the thrumming engines to full capacity.
The ground had given way completely, the ship was sliding towards a massive rent, black as space.
Thrusters coughed and the engines struggled.
Deniv fought with the controls, deftly ordering Wallen to adjust ratio mixes and coolant levels.
The shuttle began to stop its slide towards oblivion, and Gardner could feel the pull of gravity as the shuttle –a Wintness-class he later found out- fought the planet. Deniv was muttering in his native language, cursing the gods and such Gardner presumed.
The ground began slipping away downwards.
“We’ve got traction,” Deniv grunted through gritted teeth.
The ground fell away with an almighty bang. The look on the pilot’s face told Gardner that he wasn’t expecting it, and it wasn’t because the shuttle was moving, but a massive portion of the spaceport and city falling into the Earth’s crust.
Fiery light replaced it from below.
“Gods, the magma’s coming up,” Wallen breathed.
“I don’t think so,” countered Deniv. “The planet’s crust is shrinking.”
Ahead of them, the planet spewed rock into the air in a continuous fountain of fiery doom. Deniv stood up, and craned his neck around.
“It’s all around us,” he said, pointing to the rock flying through the air. “The gravity field is collapsing, and isn’t pulling the rock down as quickly.”
He was right; there were curtains of rock everywhere, all around them in fact.
“I can’t see a path out,” Deniv murmured, though the others heard. “Sensors are blind beyond that wall of fire and rock.”
“So we’re stuck,” stated Markeros.
“We can’t go up?” asked Gardner. He looked up out of the windows, and saw it wasn’t feasible. The rocks thrown upward were starting to stay up there, gravity losing strength in random places. “Oh.”
“This ship’s weapons aren’t strong enough to get through that. This is a diplomatic shuttle, not a combat vessel.” They all looked at Deniv, accusation on their faces, as if it was his fault that the Litin Prime’s government had assigned the shuttle to him.
“There’s still the spaceport’s defences,” Markeros chimed in. He was reviewing the sensors on his monitors, and had located a set of turrets on the western edge of the landing field. They were still standing. For now.
“How are they not toast?” asked Wallen.
Markeros brought up the schematics on the monitor. “They have an independent power system from the main grids, so they can operate during an invasion if the enemy cut off power elsewhere. All five turrets are linked to the central, slaved if you will. There’s enough firepower for what we need if only three of them are operational.”
He typed in commands several times, each time the screen briefly became bordered with red trim, flashing like a siren.
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
“What?” said Deniv, pushing the hovering shuttle further and further towards the location.
“They won’t respond to external remote.”
“Somebody’s going to have to go down there.”
“I’ll go,” they all said unison. There were chuckles and guffaws, breaking the tension building up at the thought of not escaping the planet.
The shuttle came in hovering over the turrets, their barrels depressed high as if somebody had already used them.
“So who goes?”
The entrance ramp suddenly opened, the controls overridden.
Deniv knew who it was, who it could be.
Gardner made the same connection as well, barring the pilot’s path.
“No, General, you can’t!”
The ramp closed again, this time a voice crackling through the speakers.
“Sorry, Deniv.” Even through the comms, they could hear how weak his voice was. “I haven’t got long anyway. I’d never make it to orbit, let alone back home to whatever’s left of Litin Prime.”
“Sir, you’re the homeworld’s only hope.”
“No, Deniv; you are. I hereby promote you, Ragec Can Deniv, to Commander in the Litin Prime Defence Force. You are hereby…”
He trailed off, and Deniv found himself scrambling over the others to look out the windows. Draliv was charging across the platforms, limping and holding his side. Markeros had patched him up well, but it was a reprieve.
He tumbled over and struggled to right himself.
“Dammit, Commander, get your ship out of here! That’s a direct order from your commanding officer. Get those people to safety now!”
Deniv looked like he had been slapped.
Draliv had disappeared from sight into the central turret.
Deniv snapped off a salute, and dropped into his pilot’s chair, and grabbing the controls.
* * *
The turret came alive around him as he slumped into the command couch, the monitors and controls folding out around him, giving him total control. There was some buckling around the turrets still active, but they were operational and power was full.
The rocks were hanging there, waiting like sitting poultry.
He slipped his hands around the firing sticks, and pulled the trigger, getting the feel of the weapons. The pain was still incredible, threatening to make him pass out. But he held onto consciousness.
He activated the comms.
“Deniv, do me a favour. When you get to the homeworld, go and see my wife, Dia.”
“Of course, sir,” Deniv’s voice choked.
“Good lad. Liberate our planet. You’re the best damn pilot I’ve ever soon. I know you’ll do great. Goodbye.”
“Good luck, sir.”
Draliv smiled, and brought the weapons around to find a suitable channel to make for the shuttle. The weapons system locked onto a large collection of hanging rocks that had settled into a zero-gee tumble.
Another contact came on the screens, a freighter.
It was heading to fall in on the shuttle’s rear, but it made no aggressive move, no weapons lock toned, nor any sensor activity. It was taking the opportunity as well.
He homed in on the rocks, keeping his eye in.
* * *
The streams of plasma rounds from the flak turrets smashed the rocks apart and vaporised the smaller ones. Dust filled the air, but the shuttle’s new system would be able to handle it this time.
The air filled with precisely aimed shots, every energy round not gone to waste.
The other ship, a battered old freighter, fell in behind them, making sure not to stray from their path. Deniv was glad somebody else would make it out, more lives to tally up beside Draliv’s name in the Hall of the Honoured on Litin Prime.
The other ship wouldn’t reveal who they were.
Deniv didn’t complain, the ship’s registry and ID would be enough.
Draliv was cutting an impressive channel through the rock curtains, an explosion every few as the plasma rounds hit a ball of molten rock spat up by the collapsing planet. The magma splashed against the shuttle’s shields, heating them close to overload.
But they held.
Deniv was grunting, putting all his effort into flying the shuttle.
Gardner held on for dear life, whilst Markeros continued to watch the sensors, as if he could see Draliv making his final stand.
“The planet’s collapsing!” he suddenly shouted. “The magnetic field just disappeared, and the gravity is gone completely now. The inner core is collapsing in on itself. We have maybe a minute before it explodes.”
“How would it do that?” asked Gardner, oblivious to such things. “It’s a planet.”
“With no gravity field or magnetic field to keep it in check, so all the kinetic energy will be released. If we can get far enough away, it will be okay.”
“A minute,” breathed Gardner.
* * *
“One minute,” announced M’Der, oh-so-helpfully.
The freighter was shaking itself apart, and the shields weren’t fully protecting it, some of the liquid metal and rock getting in and melting armour plating and hull. What weapons they had were gone, and the shields would be next.
They had seconds at best before the ship was either fried, or stalled and fell backwards towards the rapidly collapsing planet.
Row pumped reserves from other systems into the engines and shields. They were the two most important.
“This one’s going to be close,” he declared.
“When is it never?” wailed his brother.
* * *
Silver watched as she noticed the two ships trying to escape.
Her view was blocked by the occasional spray of red and orange. She pressed herself against the glass. The time currents had cast her aside, she no longer detected Caine, Gold, or the strong currents that had bounced her around recently.
Where were they all?
The ships started to struggle, the lower of the two faltering and failing.
She held her breath.
* * *
“There’s a ship coming up out of the planet!” somebody shouted.
Langton and Ophelia were stunned; they were in a large mess hall, the gargantuan dreadnaught Atlantis hovering within Luna’s orbit circle. Edward and Jameson were with a group of children, sat playing and commiserating.
But there was not one but two ships coming up, two dots against the bright red of the planet’s surface. People were willing them on vocally, as if that would wipe away the loss of their homes.
* * *
Deniv roared as the shuttle shook like it had been picked up by some cruel god and used as a rattle. He managed to see through, Draliv still firing, still clearing away the rock. Wallen was praying, and Markeros was as vocal as Deniv.
The ship was starting to groan loudly, the spaceframe shaking itself apart.
* * *
“We just lost port thrusters!”
“The sublights can take it,” reassured Row, still keeping straight and steady.
There was a bang and a crash.
“We just lost the stabilisers on the starboard thrusters.”
The ship was squealing, fighting the energies threatening to destroy them.
* * *
Draliv slumped back into the command chair.
The outer turrets had overheated and literally melted as the ground spewed forth liquid death. The central one had been hit by rock, cutting its power and thus denying Draliv the pleasure of seeing Deniv get the others to safety.
As the turrets sank into the ground, and his own small bunker began breaking apart and collapsing, he gave up a final prayer to his gods, telling them to watch over Dia, his wife.
He smiled at the thought of Deniv liberating their homeworld.
He died, exsanguinating, before molten rock rolled over his turret and him.
* * *
There was an intense bright white light that erupted from the planet’s core, and split the Terran homeworld apart, a small shockwave spreading the rocks apart, and smashing some into more dust.
The hot magma cooled and tumbled around with the rock.
Nobody noticed the red cruiser that slipped away afterwards…
* * *
“Are we dead?” a voice said.
“Nope,” replied another. Weariness and pain robbed them of celebrating their survival.
“Where are we?”
“Drifting away from the planet. Our engines are dead, but other systems are still operating like life support and communications.”
Row looked at his brother.
“The auto-beacon is transmitting our location.”
“So what? We just drift here until the Navy gets us?”
Row leaned back in his chair, and sighed.
* * *
“We did it.”
Wallen let out a massive sigh, and slumped on the floor. The shuttle’s engines were still running, still going. The shockwave from the planet’s final demise had kicked the aft end up, but Deniv had recovered expertly.
The spaceport guns had fallen silent some time before escaping.
Terra was just a collection of rocks and cooling metal.
Gardner shook his head.
He didn’t tell the others his family had still been down there, too stubborn to leave when the evacuation order had come.
Markeros cried, both with the joy of survival, and then the pain of grief.
Deniv didn’t say anything, the muscles in his jaw flexing.
He set a course for the biggest of the Navy ships still hanging around to watch the end, latching a tractor beam onto the freighter that had followed them up from the hell of the planet.
He was alive.
But the Hero of the Grag War was dead.