Gayle slipped away from the others under the pretence of repairing The Ares’ interstellar drives. Instead he spent the next two hours hacking one of them out. It was not an easy task, maybe the most complex of his career – if you called his stagger from one job to another a career. There were hundreds of wires and conduits to disconnect. It was far more complex than any other drive he’d seen before, although he remembered the ship’s blueprint and connectivity diagram which he hoped would allow him to reconfigure the drive for Achilles or another ship later. He felt like a butcher as he slashed, as if he was committing a heinous crime – the ship was a one of a kind after all.
Meron and Ty had headed off, disguised in the uniforms of the troopers they had killed in the greenhouse, and slipped over to Achilles to supervise the installation of the new weaponry Kode had arranged; they took the boy Beetle with them at Gayle’s suggestion. Meanwhile, Meers stayed on the control deck to get to grips with The Ares while keeping the Major under guard. He imagined Weavel shamelessly blowing his own trumpet to the others and was thankful he had escaped.
“How’s it going down there Gayle?” Meers called over the ship’s com. “I’m getting warnings here; one of the drives appears to be offline.”
“Err, yeah, don’t worry about it, the drive is good – must be a false reading.” he lied. “I’ll be through here in half an hour – I got some spare parts though that I’d like to get them over to Achilles.” Gayle added.
Meers didn’t respond and Gayle began to think the old general suspected he was up to something, “err, Meers?”
“You know you’re alright Gayle.” Meers said eventually, his quavering voice sounded reflective and sentimental. ”You would’ve been handy out on Redhouse.”
Gayle rolled his eyes, last thing he wanted to hear was another war story from the egotistical old bastard. He decided to spill the beans, “yeah well, I had my hands tied out on Phobos.”
“Phobos? Really?” Meers sounded skeptical. Gayle could hear him scratching at his beard, ”I thought you said you’d spent the war out on Hellenic?”
“I started out on Hellenic. I was transferred to Phobos dockyards later, just before the shit hit the fan.”
Meers whistled, ”that must a been one hell of a fight.”
Phobos. He shook his head. It hadn’t been a fight, it had been a slaughter. The fighting had been more intense than Redhouse by all accounts, so it was no wonder the general paid him some respect. This was the typical pattern when folks found out he’d served there. It had come down to a desperate hand-to-hand fight, and in the end only a handful had escaped. He was one of ‘The Few’.
Meers’ voice was a mix of shock and awe, ”You must have been just a kid?”
Gayle clenched his teeth; his eyes were tearing up as the memories engulfed him. He had been just a kid, a baby. Hollow-eyed faces haunted him, long-dead friends drifted to the front of his mind as vivid to him as though it were today. The Colonial Fleet had been drawn away from its safe harbour to defend against a faux attack on Portsmith Base. Without the Armada to protect the yards it had been like a shooting gallery for the Earth Forces.
“I had no idea.” Meers said. “We lost a lot of good people there – my brother for one.”
Gayle shrugged, he was glad Meers couldn’t see him. “I don’t talk about it, no one like to remember a defeat do they?” He closed the thought, he’d dwelt on Phobos through the bottom of a bottle too many times; he wished for that sweet burning of whiskey in the back of his throat right now – he’d even settle for a cheap synth-bourbon.
“I’ll let you know when I’m done.” His reply must have been harsher than he’d intended because Meers’ reply was a curt ‘roger’.
Finally, with one last cut the drive was freed. Gayle undid the massive restraining bolts and using a makeshift gantry he transferred it onto a waiting gravMat where he covered it with a polySheet.
He reached the airlock just as the warning light began to flash indicating that it was about to open. Through the window he caught sight of several uniforms and tensed. Meron’s face appeared on one of the uniforms. Feeling stupid, he relaxed recalling that they had gone off earlier to work on Achilles.
Behind her, brandishing a blaster, Ty followed with Beetle who bounced over to him, “Man! You should see the cannon we got! – it looks like something off an old battleship! So meanie! I patched it in best I could – Hey, what you got there?”
Gayle put his hand firmly on the polySheet but tried to feign disinterest, “Nothing important…just some parts.”
“Let me see.”
The boy was about to lift the sheet when Meron hooked him with a firm hand on his shoulder, “Beetle, your mother is waiting.”
He frowned, “Yeah, I know. She worries too much – I can look after myself!”
She ruffled his hair, “I know, but humour her – you’re all she’s got.” A distant look clouded her face as she turned to Ty, “take him up to the control deck.”
“Come on Beetle, there’ll be plenty of time for that stuff later.”
The boy groaned and dragging his feet headed off after Ty; Meron paused watching until he was gone then turned back to Gayle inquisitively examining his face. “Have you been crying?”
Gayle wiped his eyes but ignored the question. He lifted the polySheet, “I got the drive…given the mass of Achilles this one should be more than enough to power it-”
She nodded, ”What happened over here?”
“Huh? Oh, nothing.” He indicated his reddened eyes, “I reacted to some …lubricant or something…must be allergic.“
“Ok…” She looked unconvinced but went on. “…Get this stowed over on Achilles, then we are set to go.”
Meers spoke over the Ship’s com, “Gayle, I just got a call from Kode, his people are in place, ready to hit those listening posts when we send the signal.”
“Roger We’ll be there in a minute,” he replied.
“Oh and we got some well-wishers who’ve come for the farewell,” he added.
Everyone had gathered on The Ares’ control deck to finalise the escape plan. Outside the ship, at what they thought was a safe distance, a squad of enviroSuited troops, were setting up some kind of weaponry. Gayle figured that the station Commander, Nesbit, had finally woken up. He only hoped that they he hadn’t connected The Ares with Achilles.
“The Ares is still not really space worthy, despite the hard work by Gayle and the engineers, so I want everyone to transfer over to Achilles. I’ll be flying this ship out.” Meron said.
“Do you think I’m a fool? You’ll take off with it and leave the rest of us on that scrap-heap you call a ship!” Weavel interrupted, waving dismissively at Achilles.
Meers shook his head, “I can’t let you do that anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Though I hate to admit it, you are the better pilot Meron and it is better you fly the most people out in case something goes wrong. The Ares will be the target not Achilles. Besides, I like the idea of saying I was the one who flew the beast out of Sedna – you know how I like the spotlight.”
Meron touched the old general on the arm, “You sure?”
“Am I ever sure? Yeah, I’m sure.” He winked at her but they shared an uncertain look.
A surge of emotion filled Gayle; he understood now what everyone else saw in the old general. He still thought the man was a cantankerous and egotistical old fool, but when it came to it the man was prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Gayle flushed with shame; his natural instinct was the complete opposite. On Phobos he had fought ferociously it was true, but only because he was a cornered rat.
“Alight then let’s get to it!” Meron said clapping her hands together.
Ten minutes later everyone was in place. Seated in the cramped enclosure of Achilles’ cockpit Meron paged Kode with the prearranged encrypted transmission.
Kode’s reply came in a squelch of digital distortion, “Roger, I’s got a lil’ surprise for these guys. Stay tuned.”
“Thanks Kode.” Meron replied.”Look after yourself.”
“Oh, I always do. Don’t forget – you owe me.”
“I never forget a favour.” She clicked off.
Gayle slotted himself into the co-pilot’s chair, it was no comparison to the luxury of The Ares but it fitted him like a glove and he smiled at its thread-bare comfort.
“What are you grinning at?” Meron snapped though her look didn’t match the harshness of her words.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I guess life ain’t so shit after all.”
She shook her head and grinned, “We aren’t out of this yet.” She turned and yelled to the others behind them, “Strap yourselves in.”
Beetle leaned in through the hatchway, “Hey, you might wanna turn on the ship’s com; I fixed a few things there too.”
Gayle raised an eyebrow and flicked on the com and was assailed by a mayhem of chatter. It sounded like a million channels at once.
“I unlocked the Icarus base’s communication channels. You can filter it down with that dial.”
He grinned with surprise; the boy was going to put him out of a job. “Good work kid, now go strap in!”
In a few seconds scanning the dial he picked out a frantic half-garbled voice. “…Under attack…listening post number one…request immediate assistance!”
A minute later three interceptors zipped past and up the shaft.
“That’s our cue.” Gayle said. He could see The Ares engines burst to life in response too. The troopers who had been setting up the heavy weapon were clearly surprised, they abandoned and scrambled to get out of the way.
“Here we go.” Meron kicked Achilles to life and gingerly pulled back on the throttle. The old freighter shuddered for a moment then lifted gracefully off the icy field.
A sharp voice came at them over the digital ether, “Freighter Achilles, you are not cleared for takeoff. Please stand down immediately!”
“I’m afraid we are going to have to disappoint them.” She said out of the side of her mouth.
Like a bullet Achilles shot out of the shaft and slipped out into free space; inside the cockpit the garbled chatter from the first listening post went silent though the demands from the base increased.
Behind them The Ares appeared out of the shaft like a bloated cow and was followed a few seconds later by four of the interceptors.
Gayle powered up the new gun as Meron came about, the boy had been right about the new weapon, it was an enormous, antique canon and appeared ridiculous stuck on the top of the old freighter. He only hoped it packed enough of a punch to knock out some of those interceptors.
They could see the Ares being battered by a hail of laser fire. “The Ares won’t last long under this barrage,” Meron said.
Unfortunately, due to the incompatible design of Achilles with the new cannon, the arc of fire was limited to about 45 degrees and so Gayle could only fire in the forward arc. “Come on, a few more degrees…”
Achilles groaned as Meron, clenching her teeth, pulled the controls hard to the right, “Come on ol’ boy!”
Gayle had the first of the fighters almost in his sights, “Another inch, come on!”
Just then the com blared alive with a panicked voice, “We’re under attack! This is Beta Listening-”
“That’ll be Kode’s second team, hope this changes the numbers.” She said.
Finally the targeting system locked on the trailing interceptor and Gayle jammed his thumb down on the trigger, but nothing happened. “What the fu-”
He was cut short by a flickering in the whole power system, and then everything shut down, plunging the ship into darkness.
“What the hell is this?” Meron shrieked, but before she could say another word the whole field of vision flared white hot and they tumbled out of control.
“We’re spinning,” Gayle said half-blinded and disoriented. “Recoil, Achilles is too small to counteract it.”
Meron growled smacking the now useless controls in disgust, “Beetle! We’ve got no power!”
“Give it a second,” The boy replied. “The canon drains a lot of power…”
“No shit, anything else you want to tell us?” Gayle was getting vertigo as the ship’s gravity plane flipped with each rotation. In total darkness the background of stars was disconcerting.
True to the boys word the cabin lights began to hum and flickered back on with a clunk; a few seconds later power returned to the ship. Meron expertly took control and righted Achilles with a few well-directed blasts of the stabilisers.
“Where’s The Ares?” Gayle looked about, his brain still spinning. He examined the scanner, “Looks like we got one of ’em.”
“Somewhere behind us, give me a sec and I’ll bring us about.”
In front of them, at some distance, they could make out The Ares lit up between flashes of silent laser fire. As they watched a plume of fire erupted filling space momentarily and vanishing as quickly as it appeared.
“Meers! We’ve got to help him.” Meron said.
Beetle shouted out, “You can scale back the power on the canon, just use the dial.”
Gayle tweaked a knob on the top of the joystick, “Ok, just get us close and I’ll give this another shot.”
“Damn! Looks like they didn’t take the bait.”
“Scanners show three interceptors…” Gayle said.
“One is breaking off.” Meron said as they re-approached. ”Brace yourselves!”
The interceptor fired off a volley of bolts just as it streaked past them, Meron, reacting swiftly, rolled ninety degrees so that the bolts passed harmlessly either side of them, though they blinding them for a moment.
“Hesu, that was close.” Gayle was already sweating.
Meron hunched over the controls glanced at him, “Just be ready with that gun”.
The interceptor was moving far too quickly and the aft camera was showing that it was already angling to lock on their tail.
“They’re behind us!”
“I know, I know!” Meron yelled twisting the ship back and forth to make them a more difficult target but she couldn’t shake the pursuer. To Gayle she appeared part of the ship the way she arched over the controls and moved with it.
“I got an idea,” She said as more blasts whizzed over their shoulders.
Gayle looked over to her, clutching the side of the chair, “better make it quick, if one of those bolts lands we’re space junk!”
Meron slammed down the throttle and pointed the ship directly at The Ares which was now in full view. That one-sided battle was continuing with the remaining two interceptor taking turns strafing the colony ship. Over the com they could hear the excited banter between the trigger-happy pilots.
“Wha- what are you doing?” Gayle whimpered, releasing the trigger.
“We can’t do anything about the one on our tail right now but we can help Meers out – man that gun!”
Gayle took up the trigger with a nervous gulp. The targeting system quickly locked onto one of the ships, who was oblivious to their approach.
“Wait…” Meron warned. “Wait… fire! Fire now!”
Gayle closed his eyes and with a silent prayer pressed the trigger.
This time Achilles bucked but did not lose power. Meron hit the vertical stabilizers and by some miracle managed to keep them angled forward and they zipped through a rain of debris that peppered the hull.
“Nice shot.” Meron said but immediately the ship was rocked by a blast. An alarm blared.
Gayle checked the damage control screen in front of him, “We’ve been hit, it’s punctured into the hold!”
“Seal it off before we’re vacced out!” She yelled as she rolled the ship over and took the ship into the shadow of The Ares.
“That ought to make us a harder target,” She said. “Any chance you get, take a shot!”
The interceptor that had been on their tail whizzed past, unable to copy Meron’s manoeuvre, and shot off in the opposite direction. Meron meanwhile brought the ship full circle, using the The Ares as a shield, and came up facing their attacker who had by that point circled around – now it was head to head.
“Sheesh, these guys are amateurs!” Meron sneered.
Yeah, but amateurs can still kill us, Gayle thought to himself.
The Com crackled with Meers’ voice, “Meron…this ship isn’t going to hold together…I’ve got multiply system failures…don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Meron frowned. Continuing to dodge laser fire, she shouted over the open channel, “What are you talking about?”
“This is it Meron. I’ve been a lucky man…you know what I mean?”
“Don’t be stupid Edward.” She said. Her eyes glistened as tears began to peel down her cheeks. The Ares rocked with an almighty explosion, it was a warning.
“It’s already over sweetpea,” his voice came over calm, zen-like. “Run while you can.”
Gayle could tell that The Ares had only minutes remaining; he’d seen capital ships breakup before and it wasn’t pretty, you didn’t want to be in the area that was for sure.
He touched her shoulder, “Meron, he’s right, there is nothing to be done. We need to go.”
“Keep her safe for me Gayle.” Meers said.
“Remember the good times baby…this is how it should have ended for me a long time ago.”
The Ares banked away and a put on a sudden burst of power pulling the ships apart. Ty guessed Meers’ intention, “he’s taking the ship back towards the base.”
A voice from the base broke in, communicating to the attacking pilots, “Forget the smaller ship. Defend the base.”
Meron stared blankly at the scene before them as the interceptor that had been on their tail shot off after the larger ship.
“Meron? Meron!” Gayle shook her. “We have to go, now!”
Something finally clicked over inside her as she took up the controls and swung Achilles about, pointing it away from Sedna. They would be safe now, thanks to Edward Meers.