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June 12th, 2007, 06:14 AM
Can't seem to get the "Stories" page to load, so here's part three the hard way:

EDIT: Here it is: http://www.sffworld.com/community/story/2483p0.html

The Pride burned through the atmosphere, looking like a meteor lancing down to strike a killing blow on Brantial VI’s surface. Tarin braced himself in his captain’s chair, feeling the turbulence knock the ship around. Hikal had been able to get the drive engines running at thirty-seven percent capacity, but that meant the gravitational compensation unit could only run at twenty-one. Usually, the gravcomp picked up all the interference, and entrance felt no different from standard space flight. To make matters worse, they didn’t have their heat shield running at all.

From his station below and to the right of Tarin, Dune shook his head. “We’re going to burn up. No one will even know we tried to land, save for the ash that showers down and kills the relg crop.”

Tarin pursed his lips. “The armor will hold.”

“You’ve tried this before?”

“Only once, over Narye Prime.” The planet, home to most of the galaxy’s smugglers and pirates, sat on the Rim almost directly opposite Brantial VI.

Cira folded her arms over her chest. “And?”

Tarin glanced down. “The ship burned up. We had to eject, and came down in the Razorwolf District. Never saw the ship again.” He traced two fingers along a scar stretching from elbow to wrist on his right arm. “Had to fight our way out of Razorwolf.”

Dune punched his open palm. “Great. That inspires a ton of confidence, Captain.”

Tarin shrugged. “The armor will hold. If it doesn’t, we won’t care for long.”

The bow began to burn hotter with every meter of descent. Smoke and flame billowed off the Pride’s nose. The forward viewscreen turned a dull gray that darkened as the carbon scoring grew worse. Tarin squinted, peering through the holes, and wondered how in hell they would put this ship down if they even got to the surface. With the autopilot shot and the landing sequence offline, he’d have to do it by visuals and manual controls. He sighed. But it could have been worse.

Hikal coughed. “Uh, sir, Hall’s ship seems to have come around.”

Tarin jerked his head up. “What?”

“The Shrike, Captain--Hall’s ship. It is following us down, and appears to be gaining.”

“How do you know? The sensor scopes are dead.”

“Not all of them, sir. I managed to get the rear one back online before coming up to the command deck. I had the feed routed to my console. The long-range targeting is gone, but I can’t imagine another twin-hulled vessel having shown up in the time it took us to get here, and then happening on our trail.”

“We are leaving quite a trail,” Tarin quipped, eyeing the torrents of smoke now washing over the forward viewscreen. “Show me.”

Hikal hit a button on his console, and Tarin’s lit up. The view was wreathed in smoke, but in the center of the shot he could see a gray blip. Hikal, with his implant to advance his sight, could obviously see more that Tarin. “You’re sure that’s the Shrike?”

“Like I said, sir--”

“Yeah, I heard you.” Tarin waved a hand. “How fast are they gaining?”

“At their current rate, they will not catch us before we reach the surface.”

Dune laughed once. “Well that’s good news.”

Hikal ignored the younger man. “They will, however, catch us within three minutes of impact--of landing, sir. They show no issues with their heat shield and are running hard enough to suggest they have full power. I do not think I need to tell you what that means.”

“It means we have two and a half minutes to get off the ship once it hits.” Tarin shifted forward, clenching his armrests. “Or they just hover overhead and melt us once we hit.”

Cira raised a hand. “So let’s hit hard.”

Tarin frowned. “How hard?”

“As hard as possible. Don’t kick in the repulsorlifts at the end, just slow us a bit and crash into the planet’s surface. That’ll buy us at least a half a minute.”

Dune swiveled to look at her with wide eyes. “Maybe, but it’ll kill us. We’re already damaged. We can’t take an impact like that. The ship will split like a rotten gwala fruit.”

Cira grinned back, and laced her fingers together. “The armor will hold.”


It did, barely. The Pride of Marik hit Brantial VI’s surface, skipped off an outcropping of boulders, and furrowed deep into a field of relg. As they hit, Tarin had time to think of this as a small stroke of luck on an otherwise bad day. The tall, green and red plants needed very soft, moist soil to grow in. This cushioned the impact enough that his forehead only bounced off his console twice--and the first, when they hit the boulders, proved hard enough that he nearly didn’t notice the second.

Cira unbuckled his restraints and dragged him from his chair, slapping him twice across the face. “Come on, Captain. Wake up. We can’t afford to waste time now.”

Tarin shook his head and forced his eyes open. This ship looked all wrong, and even the dim lights glared down at him. Cira was dragging him, walking on the wall. “What?”

“The ship’s on its side, sir.” She grabbed his collar and hoisted him to his feet. “Now come on. We have to find cover, and fast, or Hall will sink us and the Pride right into this field.”

Events came flooding back, and Tarin grimaced. A dull throb was beginning to hammer at the base of his skull, and through his forehead. “Oh yeah, Hall.” He looked around. “Where are Hikal and Dune?”

“Already outside, if they want to live.” Cira let go of him and started for the door. “That’s where we should be, too.”

Tarin grit his teeth and followed Cira. He remembered to check his blast pistol, and was amazed to find it still of his hip. Climbing through the door was difficult, as it was canted sideways, and he almost fell. Nausea welled up with every step. He swallowed down the desire to vomit and pushed forward. Breaking into a slight jog along the wall of the passageways, he kept up with Cira. The boarding ramp had been extended, through it jutted off into the sky like the hand of a dying man begging for help. They climbed out and slid down the outside of the side’s hull, which had cooled when they broke into the lower reaches of the atmosphere.

“Over here; it’s all we’ve got!” Dune stood at the far end of the relg field, near a shallow hill. “There’s a cave.”

Cira glanced upward and broke into a sprint. Tarin followed her eyes, and saw a bright light overhead. A ship coming down. He tucked his head down and ran. His vision blurred, but he kept stumbling forward. He tripped and fell once, and his arm plunged into the relg field up to his elbow. The ground smelled like rot and growth, all at the same time. He threw himself back to his feet, oriented on Dune’s voice calling him, and dashed the last thirty meters.

Dune grabbed him by the back and pulled him inside. The cave was small and unlit, and smelled more like rot than growth. Tarin dropped down on his face, panting, in a pile of old relg. Gone bad, perhaps, and thrown inside to get it out of the way? Whatever the case, it was certainly bad now. Dune fell next to him, and Tarin could hear Hikal beyond him. Good, they were all inside.

The roar of heavy laser fire split the air. Tarin looked up. The field raged with crimson light, split by the green beams of the light turrets. Wave after wave washed over the Pride’s hull, melting armor plating ripping joints apart. One turret cored deep into the ships charge cells, and they exploded like a clap of thunder. Chunks of debris rained down throughout the field, and Hall’s gunners still didn’t to relent. The command deck turned to slag, with molten metal pouring down the sides of the ship in rivettes.

Cira cursed. “Would you look at that? He’s not even going to leave scrape metal for the scavengers.”

“Does he think we’re still inside?” Dune had a blast pistol in his hand, for all the good it would do.

“Maybe. Or he’s just destroying the ship before he blasts this cave to pieces.”

“But what sense does this make? If he wanted to rob us, he’s just lost his chance. Even with this ship down, he could still have looted it.”

Tarin pulled his own blast pistol out, even through he couldn’t see the Shrike for the top edge of the cave’s mouth. “It’s revenge.”

Cira nodded. “You killed some of his men with that bomb stunt. He’s less than pleased, and he’s sending a message. When the next smuggler ship hears how ruthless he is, they won’t put up a fight. It loses him this shipment, but gains him many more in the future. And for a lot less work.”

They watched as Jessan Hall finished the job. When the batteries finally ceased fire, all the remained of the Pride was a burned out skeleton of a ship, with a charred black crater around it. Steam and smoke drifted up, wafting on the air currents. Repulsorlifts screamed as Hall’s ship lifted away, and then the main engines fire. Silence settled over the field.

Tarin sat up, rubbed a hand against his forehead and wincing when it hurt more than expected. “Is everyone all right?”

Dune nodded the affirmative; Cira said nothing but began checking the various weapons stored in her black flightsuit.

From further back in the cave, Hikal spoke up. “I am fine. You looked like you took the worst of it, Captain. I have some painkillers, if you desire them.”
Tarin held out a hand. “Give ‘em to me. What kind?”

“Military grade hayspheen.” He dropped two white pills into Tarin’s hand. “I picked them up the last time we were on Marik. A surgeon with the Marines has a tendency to over-order--on accident, of course--and I keep a running communication with him. He lets me know when these errors occur, and I do what I can to fix the problem. We could not have him getting caught with surplus supplies, now could we?”

“Of course not.” Tarin grinned swallowed both pills, washing them down with the canteen of water he wore at his belt.

Dune stood, peering outside. “Looks like our friend is gone. Now what?”

Tarin hooked the canteen back on his belt rose. “Now we find some other form of transport off this rock. And we try to do it before Cakhis finds out that we lost his shipment of blast rifles. He may be governor, but that hardly means he’s responsible for his public image. Not with this society. He’d just as soon kill us and plant our bodies in the wreckage out there.”

“Do we know where we are?” Cira tapped her fingers against the wall. “This whole planet is full of relg farms, so that’s hardly telling.”

Hikal shook his head and brushed his hands off on the front of his jacket. “Without scopes, I couldn’t get any readings. We’re on the South Continent, but that’s all I know.”

“Near the coast?”

“No.” Hikal frowned. “I didn’t see the Dreston Ocean as we came down. So we’re probably in the dead center of the continent. I didn’t plan to be anywhere but Jaggard City, so I didn’t study the rest of the population charts.”

“In short, we’re lost and there’s not going to be a ship for over a hundred kilometers.” Tarin stepped out of the cave. Clouds were forming on the horizon, dark and ominous. He could feel a chill laced through the soft breeze. “I say we move, but camp out before that storm hits. We just can’t stay here in case Hall comes back to make sure we’re dead. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Cira moved to his side without making a sound. “Then where to?”

Tarin let his gaze drift in a semicircle across the landscape. Besides a few small hills like the one they stood under, it looked as flat as a desert. Grasslands covered the surface, alternating between green and brown weeds that shot up to about knee height. Relg farms sprang into view every now and them with their deep red and harsher greens. He could see nothing that looked like a settlement. “South, maybe? Jaggard City is that way, and it’s our best bet at getting a transport.”

“It also brings us closer to Cakhis.”

“That may not be a problem. If Hall spreads the word that he killed us, Cakhis will believe him. Especially when his rifles don’t show up. He knows we don’t miss shipments unless we have no other choice.”

Cira’s eyes hardened. “Then when he sees us, he’s going to be twice as angry.”

Tarin shrugged. “That’s just a chance we’re going to have to take.”