Darien Hammond gripped the top corner of the dresser with both hands and heaved it away from the wall. He reached into the gap and wrapped his fingers around the cold steel barrel of his old flashgun.
Abigail called to him from the hallway. "I'm ready to go, Daddy! I brought Kai's teddy bear, too, and the toothbrush he forgot."
Darien pulled out the flashgun, fished a new battery out of his back pocket, and clapped it into the butt of the weapon. "Okay, thanks, Abby."
"Will we see Kai and Mommy right away when we get to Pacu?"
"I don't know," said Darien. "They have a long way to drive, so it depends what time they leave Auntie Karen's house in Endira."
"I wish I could've gone to visit Auntie Karen, too..."
"Well we can't always get what we want. Go get in the jeep with Uncle Jake. I'll be right behind you."
Darien heard Abigail's footsteps pattering down the stairs, along the hallway, and across the carpet of the living room to the front door. He hefted a full duffel bag onto his shoulder and stood for a moment looking over the empty bedroom. There was the bed he would never lie on again. There were the drawers full of clothes that he would never wear again. There was the lamp Tiffany would never use to read the kids another bedtime story. There was the box of Harvest Day decorations tucked up on the shelf in the closet, ready and waiting to be pulled out next week and draped all over the house and the barn. But there weren't going to be any more Harvest Days, not here in the farmlands, not in the cities of Pacu or Endira, not anywhere on planet Oronado.
Darien turned out the bedroom light and stumped down the stairs, the flashgun dangling at the end of his arm. Stopping briefly in the kitchen, he twisted open the gas valves on the stove and listened to the hiss. He looked at the radio sitting in the window and reached for the dial to turn it on, but thought better of it. He couldn't bear to listen to more reports of what was happening across the planet, the fallout, the panic, the chaos, the evacuation logistics. Enough.
At the door he pulled his thick-soled boots on and tied them methodically. He scratched a match along his insole and it flared into life. Taking a candle down from a ledge beside the door, he lit it with the match and settled it on the floor.
Then he shouldered his gun and his duffel bag again, pushed his way through the door, and jogged out to the open-topped jeep, where his daughter and his old friend Jake were waiting for him.
"Daddy, where did you get that gun?" Abigail was only 8, still a child, but not for long. Not after today.
"They gave it to me before you were born," grunted Darien, lifting the tarp covering the back of the jeep and tossing his duffel bag in. He turned back for one last look at the house he had built so many years ago.
"Who gave you the gun?" asked Abigail.
Darien didn't answer, so Jake filled in the silence: "The army did, kiddo," he said. "We all had guns back then."
Abigail's eyes opened wide in wonder. "You were in the army?"
Jake lifted up his cap and ran his fingers through his short black hair. "Everyone was in the army, when we first got here. They wouldn't've let us come here otherwise."
"Well where's your gun?" asked Abigail.
"I sold it years ago. Never thought I'd need it again." Jake revved the engine. "Jump in, Dare. We gotta go, or all the shuttles are gonna be gone without us. We should've headed for Pacu a couple days ago, with everyone else."
"Don't panic," said Darien. "We'll get there." He tied down the tarp at the back of the jeep, swung himself into the passenger seat, and pulled the door shut behind him. "Might as well head up to higher ground for a better view, anyways. This is going to take a few minutes."
"What is?" said Jake.
"I'm not leaving anything behind for 'em."
"Come on, Dare, really? What difference do you think that's gonna make?"
"Makes a difference to me." Darien looked down at Abigail in the back seat. "Put your seatbelt on, Abby."
Darien nodded to his friend. "Let's go, Jake."
Jake sighed and gunned the engine. The jeep peeled out in a hail of gravel and headed uphill, climbing out of the valley bowl that held Darien's farmhouse and fields.
As they reached the top of the hill and swung out onto the main highway, Darien gestured to Jake to stop. "Should be soon," he said.
"You sure you want Abby to see this?" said Jake.
"I want her to remember."
Jake frowned. "You're just gonna make this day harder for her than it already is."
"Don't tell me how to raise my daughter. Abigail, watch the house. This is what the Cust have done to us."
There were a few more moments of quiet, and then the house erupted in a ball of flame. Abigail screamed and hid her face in her hands. Darien watched as the house collapsed in on itself, as the fire spread rapidly into the surrounding fields of wheat. Gouts of blue and green flame burst upwards out of the fields here and there as the chemical sprinkler heads in the irrigation mats popped.
Abigail was sobbing into her arms.
Jake shook his head slowly. "This was a bad idea, Dare."
"This whole planet was a bad idea. Every single second we ever spent here was a mistake, so shut up and drive."
Jake drove. For about two hours they wound along the highway, running across the tops of the hills and looking down over the hundreds of small, abandoned farms set into the valleys and plains. Jake tried the jeep's radio a few times, but could only raise static.
"They're probably jamming us," he said.
"All the way from orbit?" asked Darien.
"Whatever," said Darien. "I don't really want to hear it, anyways."
Every now and then, as they passed through the farmland, they came across a house-sized black crater standing near the road.
"You know, I've been wondering," said Jake. "If the Cust wanted to blast away at our farms from orbit like this, why only target our houses? They turned two whole cities into craters last week. Are they trying to impress us with their aim or something?"
"I don't care," said Darien.
"I'm just saying," said Jake. "Seems kind of weird."
"If you ask me," said Darien, "I think they're making a game out of killing us all. They're taking pot-shots. A city here, a farmhouse there. They don't care whether we stay or leave; they just want to destroy things. I say we leave 'em as little to play with as we can."
"Always the optimist," muttered Jake. He kept driving.
Soon a city began to grow visible in the near distance, its skyline broken by a series of rising skyscrapers. Farmland was giving way to suburbs and retail malls. The highway skirted a small, empty town and dipped down into the shadow of a hill for a few miles.
"Not a soul in sight," said Jake. "I would've figured there'd be a whole stream of people on their way into the city still."
"They could've headed somewhere else," said Darien. "Other cities have spaceports, too."
"I guess," said Jake. "Whatever the reason, we've got clear roads and smooth sailing. Another 10 minutes or so to downtown Pacu, and then we hop a shuttle out of here."
"And good riddance," added Darien.
"Daddy?" said Abigail from the back seat.
Darien turned in his seat to look where Abigail was pointing. A short ways off, buzzing low through the air, was a dark, shifting, quick-moving cloud. Darien cursed. "That's a Cust swarm... Hit it, Jake!"
Jake didn't need the encouragement. He hammered down the gas. "Better get that flashgun ready," he warned. "I doubt we can outrun 'em for long." He squealed the jeep around a wide corner and opened up the throttle on a straight stretch. Taller buildings were rising up around them as they entered the outskirts of the city.
"They're gaining!" said Darien.
Just behind them, a burst of green light flashed onto the asphalt, blasting a hole in the surface. More Cust lasers followed, tearing up the road and burning holes through the jeep's bumper. Jake began to weave across the lanes.
Darien turned backwards in his seat and balanced his flashgun beside the headrest. "Abby, get down on the floor!" he barked. Abigail undid her seatbelt and curled up at the foot of her seat, tears streaming down her face. "Get us some cover, Jake!"
Jake spun the steering wheel and left a trail of rubber through an empty intersection, putting some buildings between them and the swarm. Seconds later, the swarm swept around the corner behind them, now less than 100 feet away. A fresh hail of lasers fell. Most missed, but a few put holes in the windshield.
Darien took aim and pulled the trigger. A wide burst of white energy erupted from the muzzle of his flashgun, searing through the air. The swarm parted fluidly in the middle, all but a few of the insect-like Cust evading the beam, but several of them tumbled out of the sky. The rest of the swarm pulled back a short ways and rose higher in the air. Darien fired again, but they dodged more easily this time and responded with another scattershot.
"They're out of my range," reported Darien. "Only a matter of time before one of 'em gets a lucky shot on us." He fired again, to keep the swarm moving. "Jake, we're almost at the river, right? Forget the bridges; can you get us to a tunnel?"
In response, Jake squealed through another turn and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. He dodged through the streets like a madman, nearly rolling the jeep over on the corners, as Darien and the Cust swarm continued to exchange long-range fire.
The empty, unlit toll booths guarding the entrance to the tunnel were just ahead. All of the lights in the tunnel were out, apparently cut off from their power source.
"Hold onto your hat!" said Jake. Darien ducked down and reached around his seat to hold Abigail's hand. Another salvo of laser fire swept over them just as Jake rammed the jeep through the toll booth, smashing the gates and crumpling the jeep's front bumper. They dove down into the darkness of the tunnel.
"Now!" shouted Darien. "Turn it around!"
Jake slammed on the brakes and spun the jeep around to face the opening of the tunnel. Darien leapt to his feet and propped the flashgun up on the top of the windshield. The tunnel echoed with the two men's heavy breathing and the idling of the jeep's engine.
"Come on, you God-forsaken bugs," whispered Darien through clenched teeth. "Come get some."
"Dare, they're not comin'."
"I'll burn 'em all."
"Dare... Dare, I'm hit."
Darien looked down from the gun sights. The front of Jake's shirt just below his right shoulder was black and burnt. Jake slumped forward, and Darien saw a hole through the seat where the laser had burned through.
"Breathe, Jake. Just breathe." Darien's hands shook on the trigger of the flashgun. He looked back and forth between Jake and the mouth of the tunnel. Still the Cust didn't come.
"Dare... You gotta drive."
Darien swore. Taking one last look at the tunnel mouth, he leapt out of the jeep and hurried around to the driver side. "Abby, get in the front," he ordered. While Abby climbed around to the passenger seat, Darien pulled Jake out of the jeep and laid him out in the back bench. He pushed the flashgun into Jake's hands. "Take care of this," he said. Then he hopped into the driver's seat, gunned the engine, and spun the jeep around to head further down the tunnel.
The headlights cut yellow holes through the darkness as he drove. The echoes of the screaming, red-lining engine sounded like the tormented cries of some otherworldly beast. Darien checked the rear-view mirror constantly to see whether they were being followed, but saw no sign of the Cust swarm.
The tunnel began to rise, and Darien saw natural light ahead. "Keep your head down," he told Abigail. "We don't know what's waiting for us outside. Hang on back there, Jake!"
Stomping the gas pedal to the floor, Darien pushed the jeep to its top speed as they climbed out of the tunnel. The window of light at the exit grew wider and the noise of the engine rang in their ears.
They shot out into the daylight going 90 miles an hour. Darien blinked in the sunlight, momentarily blinded, but kept his foot down. He heard Jake scream from the back seat and the sound of the flashgun being fired once, twice, three times. As his eyes adjusted and the road swam into focus, Darien saw a street lined with tall skyscrapers stretching out in front of them. He checked the mirrors and his heart almost stopped.
Two enormous Cust battle tanks were standing on either side of the tunnel mouth, their turrets pointed skywards as they launched enormous balls of green energy up at the buildings. Jake was firing the flashgun at the tanks and screaming at the top of his lungs while Abigail held her ears and tucked her head down towards her knees.
"Jake, stop!" Darien reached back with one hand and grabbed Jake's elbow. Jake fired one more shot, then lapsed into tortured breathing.
Above them, several floors of a skyscraper exploded, and the building began to pancake down on itself, showering down debris into the jeep's path. Darien searched frantically for an escape, but there was nowhere to turn. He put his head down, pushed Abby's head between her knees, and held the steering wheel straight.
With an ear-shattering WHUMPF the skyscraper toppled, and a shockwave cloud of wreckage and rubble swept down the street and over the jeep. Just when Darien thought he couldn't hold his breath any longer they burst through the veil of dust, trailing a haze of filth behind them. The jeep ran up onto the sidewalk and Darien lifted his head barely in time to haul on the steering wheel, veering them away from a streetlight. The jeep spun out and flipped onto its side, raising a shower of sparks as it slid across the pavement.
Lights and sounds resonated through Darien's skull. He reached out for Abigail, but felt only cloth, plastic, and metal. In a paroxysm of panic he thrashed around, searching desperately for her.
Strong hands gripped his arms and legs. There was pressure on his forehead.
"Relax!" barked a voice.
"Jake?" Darien's eyes fluttered open. Three faces hovered over him, none of them familiar. "Where am I?"
"You're in Pacu, in the Colonial Hospital," said one of the faces.
"Where's my daughter?"
"Abigail's here, just down the hall. She's fine. She wants to see you."
"What about Jake?"
"Is he a friend of yours?"
"He was with us! He was in the back..."
The faces looked at each other and shrugged. "We don't know." Someone called out from somewhere else in the room, and two of the faces turned and left.
"What's your name?" said the remaining face. It was flat and wide-nosed with dark, pitted skin.
Darien snarled, "Where's my wife?"
"I'm sorry. I don't know."
"Then what good are you?" Darien struggled to push himself up onto his elbows, then sat the rest of the way up. Blood rushed out of his head, making him dizzy, but he rubbed his temples and held himself vertical. He saw that he had knocked over some kind of IV stand. The face, who was wearing military fatigues, was picking it up.
"Don't worry about this," said the face. "Just fluids. You've been out for the better part of a day, but there's nothing really wrong with you. The dizziness should pass soon. You've got bumps and bruises, but nothing's broken. I'm Fax, by the way."
"Are you a doctor?"
Darien snorted. "A simple 'no' would have sufficed, then."
Fax took the barb in stride, and his face remained placid. "Your daughter's just down the hall. Think you can walk?"
Darien swung his legs out from under the threadbare blanket that was covering him. He saw that he was dressed in a thin, gauzy hospital smock. He lowered his feet to the floor and transferred his weight onto his legs. After a briefly intense wave of further dizziness, he stepped away from the bed and looked around the room. There were several other beds, all occupied with people in various states of ill health and injury. Darien looked for the door.
"Good," said Fax. "You can walk. That makes the shuttle seating simpler. All right, follow me." He led Darien out into the hallway. Dozens of people were churning through the narrow space, hurried and harried, talking animatedly. Fax cleared a path for Darien, whose steps were weak and faltering. Thankfully they only had to advance past three or four doors before Fax guided Darien into the room where Abigail was waiting.
She was lying in a hospital bed reading an old magazine. Her eyes were red and puffy. She looked up as they came in. "Daddy!"
Darien swooped down on her for a hug.
"Careful," said Fax. "Watch her arm."
Darien saw that his daughter's right arm was wrapped in a cast and tucked up in a sling. "Are you okay, Abby?"
"My arm hurts."
"It's broken," said Fax, "but not too badly. From the sounds of things, you're both pretty lucky."
"What happened?" asked Darien. "How did we get here?"
"One of our patrols brought you in. They said they found you in an overturned jeep out by the river."
The tunnels. "Yeah," said Darien. "We were making a run into the city. We came in through one of the tunnels and saw some tanks. They almost collapsed a skyscraper right onto our heads."
"You're probably among the last to make it through," said Fax. "They've blocked up all the entrances now. Not that it makes much of a difference anymore. We're going to have a hard time fitting everyone on the last few shuttles as it is."
"Flights are still going out, then?"
Fax nodded. "Every ten minutes or so. We've still got clear skies, though probably not for much longer. By tonight this city will be completely empty, one way or another."
"What about the other cities? Are they sieged up, too? Are they still launching shuttles of their own?"
A look of sadness came over Fax's face. "Oh, you haven't heard..."
Darien's gaze hardened. "Heard what?"
"There... are no more cities. They're all gone."
Time stood still. The words swam through Darien's ears like molasses. He clenched his jaw. "Gone?!"
Fax nodded slowly. "One by one, like clockwork, over the past couple of days. Just like they did to Tivic and Yohama."
The hospital room seemed to be collapsing in upon itself. Darien's next question came out as the barest whisper. "What about... Endira?"
"Early last night," Fax confirmed. "They've been working their way around, going east to west, one city at a time. Lomo got hit about 20 minutes ago. We're the last ones left."
Darien's knees wobbled.
Fax put his hand on Darien's shoulder and gently but firmly pushed him down to sit on Abby's bed. He poured a glass of water from a sink, pressed it into Darien's hand, and lifted it to his lips.
Darien drank without being aware of the action. His mind was transfixed by a vision of entire cities, millions of people, burning into dust in mere instants, leaving behind blackened craters like the remnants of the farmhouses he had seen. Men, women, children, dead before they even had a chance to scream. Kai... Tiffany...
He choked. Abby flung her arm around his neck. Her tears ran down his chest and her little body heaved. Darien could see that she was sobbing, but he couldn't hear anything. His eyes were filled with fog and his ears were filled with blood. He saw himself moving his hand in slow motion, cradling her head, pulling her close.
Burning down the house, torching the fields... He'd wanted her to understand the invasion, to remember, but not this. She shouldn't have to understand this.
Fax's lips were moving. Darien tried to blink away the fog.
"...there's anything I can do," Fax was saying.
"Yeah," choked Darien. "Yes. Get us off this dying planet."
The shuttle pilot's voice came on over the speakers: "Two minutes to launch. Make sure all safety harnesses are fastened securely."
Darien helped Abigail pull her buckles tight and gave her hand a squeeze. He couldn't tell whether she had registered the gesture. She was shutting herself off from him, from the whole world. Darien felt utterly helpless.
But at least she was alive. Darien was just starting to appreciate how close he'd come to losing her, too. One stray laser from that Cust swarm could have stolen her from him, one stray brick from that falling skyscraper could have claimed her, one whim from those orbiting Cust destroyers could have cratered their farmhouse last week instead of their neighbours'. And if he'd let her go to Endira to visit her aunt instead of having her stay home so she could go to school...
Millions of human were dead. The Cust were sweeping Oronado clear of colonists. Mere thousands had been escaping by means of these shuttles. Darien knew he should be thankful to be aboard one and to have his daughter with him, but it was hard to feel grateful when such a gaping chasm had been opened up beneath his feet.
He should never have come to Oronado. Humanity should never have tried to make this planet her own. It had belonged to the Cust before they had arrived; they should have known the Cust would come back for vengeance.
The noise level in the shuttle increased as the massive turbines began to spin up for launch. Darien steeled himself for the crushing sensation of liftoff, something he remembered so clearly from his last flight, 18 years ago.
The engines spun and whined for 30 seconds, 45, a minute. What was going on? They should've been moving by now.
The engines spun down again, and the pilot came on: "Sit tight, folks. Minor difficulties. Nothing to worry about. We'll be underway in 10 minutes or so."
A murmur arose among the passengers. What could be wrong? Was there a problem with the shuttle? Were the Cust attacking?
Darien checked on Abigail. She was staring at the floor, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. Only a slight tremble in her bottom lip betrayed any sign of emotion. Hang in there, Abby, thought Darien. We're going to get you off this planet. We'll deal with the emotions later.
A wispy, curly-haired man across the aisle from Darien was conversing excitedly with his seatmate. "There's got to be a reason for it," he was saying.
"They're bugs, Doctor Morin," snorted his companion, a heavyset woman with a furrowed brow. "Stop trying to figure out how they think. They aren't like us."
"But they're rational creatures, at least on some level," insisted Morin. "They must have some kind of plan."
Darien inserted himself into the conversation. "Yeah, their plan is to kill us all, and they're doing a pretty good job of it."
Morin turned to Darien. "Is that all there is to it, though? If all they wanted to do is kill humans, they've been going about it in a pretty strange way."
Darien scoffed. "Like the lady said, they're bugs. Everything about them is strange."
"Yes, but think about it. Hear me out. The first thing they did when they showed up was burn Tivic and Yohama into dust, right? That got everyone good and panicked. Then over the next three or four days, they started precision-targeting random farmhouses all over the planet. Why would they do that? Why start picking off farmers if they could be taking out whole cities?"
"Because this is a game," said Darien. "They probably enjoyed watching us all run around like ants under a magnifying glass."
"Where did all the farmers run to, though?" said Morin. "Everyone came to the cities, right? And then a week after they first showed up, they finally started torching the rest of the cities."
"They probably just wanted to get us all at once. All the farmers flooded into the cities, and suddenly it was that much easier for the Cust to wipe us all out from orbit."
"Yes, that's part of it, but have you stopped to consider why they've left Pacu for last? This is our biggest population centre, and by far our largest spaceport. Why didn't they target it first? We've had more than two days to effect our evacuations, far more time than they ought to have given us if they were really so concerned with the 'efficiency' of their bombardments. And besides, none of this explains the lull."
"You have to realize we should all have been dead hours ago... There were three hours, at most, between the burning of any two other cities, but it has now been"—Morin checked his watch—"nearly four hours since Lomo was struck, and Pacu is still standing. How can we explain that?"
"Forget explaining it," said Darien. "Let's just be glad we're still alive, and get ourselves off the ground before time runs out, I say. No point wasting time thinking when we should be flying. Why aren't those engines running yet?"
"Maybe if you hear my theory," persisted Morin, "you'll agree that my 'thinking time' has not been wasted. Look at the situation this way: once our last few shuttles have gone, what's going to be left for the Cust? A dozen mounds of rubble where the cities used to stand, a planetful of fields ready for harvesting, and, as it stands right now, the city of Pacu."
"What's your point?"
"Don't you see?" said the man. "We wanted Oronado for a farming planet. We've spent the past 18 years terraforming it and laying down hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigation mats to build our farms on. We've made this planet 20 or 30 times more productive than it was when we first arrived. You can be certain that such an increase in crop output would appeal to the Cust. They were barely scraping by when we got here and chased them off, but imagine the population they could sustain if they had our technology to work with. And all of our irrigation runs through Pacu, doesn't it? We built the city as a control hub, and the majority of our core wells are here."
"That doesn't explain why the Cust staged their attack the way they did," pointed out Darien.
"It absolutely does. If they want Oronado for its crops, then it makes perfect sense for them to scare the farmers out of the fields and into the cities before destroying us all."
Darien narrowed his eyes skeptically.
Morin continued. "If they had just bombarded all of the cities as soon as they showed up, what would you have done?"
Darien thought about this. "I probably would have gone into the hills and tried to fight it out."
"Precisely," said Morin, "Millions of other farmers would have, too. And if you were fighting a guerrilla war and saw the Cust going through your fields and harvesting your crops, I think I can guess what your next move would have been."
"I would've burned every field I came across." Darien pictured the flames that had been consuming his farmhouse and fields as they drove away. The image was bittersweet, but satisfying.
Morin nodded. "Exactly. So the Cust adopted a strategy that they thought would minimize damage to our crops and technology."
"Hmm," said Darien. "It's an interesting theory. If you're right, the smart thing to do would be to burn our bridges behind us... Have you shared your theory with anyone else?"
Morin shook his head. "I couldn't get access to anyone worth telling. Besides, it's too late now."
The intercom crackled. "I apologize for the delay," said the pilot. "We're back up and running. Another shuttle is in the processing of launching in front of us, and we'll be following close behind them. Please remain ready."
Morin shrugged his shoulders. "Still, I suppose it doesn't make that much difference what we do, in the end. Oronado is theirs now. At least some of us are getting away."
Darien balled his fists as the shuttle's engines wound up again. He'd felt better about the situation when he'd thought the Cust were just mindless killing machines. The idea that the bugs might be planning to live off of the 18 years of blood, sweat, and sacrifice that he and the other colonists had put into terraforming Oronado grated on him. But Morin was right: it was too late now. Only a handful of shuttles remained to depart.
Darien reached down and took Abby's hand again as the shuttle started to rumble, and then they were airborne, the pressure of launch pounding them back into their seats, thrusting them skyward, tearing them away from everything they had worked so long and so hard to build.
By the end of the ascent Abigail was crying again and Darien was exhausted from the strain on his joints and muscles. He welcomed the peacefulness of zero gravity and tried to relax his aching body. "We're through the worst of it," he told Abby, not sure whether she was even listening. "It gets easier now." He closed his eyes.
Then a piercing alarm rang out. Darien knew that sound... He prayed it didn't mean what he thought it meant.
A woman in a military uniform burst through the folding door at the front of the passenger area. "Does anyone in here have space combat experience?"
No, thought Darien. Not this. But against his every urge, he felt his hand raising. "I do," he said. He sighed haggardly, then flung off his safety harness and propelled himself forward. A man from a few rows further back joined him.
"Through here," said the woman.
Before following, Darien looked back towards Abigail. She was staring after him with wide eyes and a quavering chin. Darien pointed to Morin and the woman sitting with him. "Take care of my daughter!" he called. Then he dove forward through the folding door.
There were half a dozen people in the cockpit, a skeleton crew. With so many shuttles departing, the ranks had obviously been stretched pretty thin. The pilot and co-pilot, both wearing viewmasks that allowed them to see through the ship's external cameras, were moving their hands frantically across massive banks of controls. Six defense pods lined the walls, three on each side. Three were occupied, and the other volunteer was climbing into a fourth.
"Take that one," the woman instructed Darien, before crawling back into her own.
Darien slipped into the seat and pulled the viewmask over his eyes. The fit was a bit off, but the feeling was familiar, despite the 18 years that separated him from the last time he had sat in this position. He flipped a switch on the side of the viewmask and the retinal projectors buzzed into life. He blinked a few times to accustom his eyes to the vibrant colours of the heads-up display.
He was staring out along the barrels of a laser turret, positioned near the rear of the shuttle. At first he could see only stars, but then some shapes swam into view. He saw the other shuttle not far away, the one that had been meant to launch after them but had ended up preceding them when they had been delayed. Several smaller, glimmering shapes were swarming around it. Green flashes were passing between the swarming ships and the shuttle.
A few moments later, the shuttle exploded in a puff of glowing sparks. Several voices cried out in fear, shock, and anger.
"Where did they come from?" demanded Darien. "Why didn't we know?"
Someone in the pod beside Darien's called back, "We couldn't see them! We've been monitoring this space constantly since the evac launches started. We thought it was clear! They must be jamming our instruments from orbit somehow. We can't even call back to ground control to warn them."
The implications swept over Darien like a bucket of ice water. All of those shuttles that had gone before, thousands of people evacuating, leaving Oronado to the Cust... Had they all been surprised like this, picked off as soon as they reached orbit? Had anyone at all actually escaped?
He gripped the turret controls. At least this shuttle wasn't going to be caught quite so unprepared.
"They're coming around," said one of the other gunners. "Look alive."
"Buy us three minutes!" called the pilot. "We're resetting for re-entry."
"Re-entry?" said Darien. "Can't we jump out of here?"
"There's no way we could hold them off long enough to spool up."
The Cust fighters were regrouping from their kill, aligning themselves into a loose formation.
"Target the leaders!" ordered one of the gunners.
Darien turned his turret towards the alien attackers and tracked their movement, waiting for them to come into range. The turrets at the front of the shuttle started lancing blue needles of energy through the void, and an instant later Darien's targeting reticule blinked the Ready signal. He pulled the trigger and watched the blue beam pass between three of the spiralling, dodging, twisting little fighters. He cursed and swung the clumsy turret to the left, following the fighters as they did a fly-by, peppering the shuttle's hull with laser fire.
"Two more passes like that and we're done for!" the pilot informed them.
"Try to anticipate their movement," advised one of the other gunners. "The bugs never sit still for long."
Darien aligned his turret with the fighter swarm as it swung around for another pass. He had the first shot at them this time, and lined up his reticule with the lead fighter's nose. Just before pulling the trigger, he bumped his aim upwards, guessing the direction of the fighter's dodge. It leapt the opposite direction, down and away from his beam, but another turret had anticipated it better, and it was cut apart and exploded into a million tiny fragments.
"Whoo!" shouted the other gunner. "Good teamwork!"
Three more fighters took hits, but the shuttle suffered another barrage.
"Keep them off us!" said the Pilot. "We're almost there!"
Half a dozen Cust fighters still remained. They gathered themselves into a new formation, preparing to finish the shuttle off. As Darien was swinging his turret around to face the new direction of attack, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Two slower, bulkier Cust ships were approaching the shuttle from a different angle.
"They've got support!" he shouted. "Starboard!"
"I'm on it!" said someone. "Stick with the main group!"
But Darien kept his reticule on the new attackers. He'd seen these before, 18 years ago. And if he remembered right...
The young gunner who had called the new targets blasted a beam straight into the cockpit of the lead ship. It shook and jumped, but kept coming. Lacking the mobility of the smaller fighters, the Cust bombers had been built with heavier defenses. Their main armour was simply too strong for the second-rate weapons possessed by a passenger shuttle like this one.
But Darien had seen this problem solved once before... He found a spot just below the ship's wing, tracked it, honed in, and fired. The ship rolled, cracked, and burst apart. Following Darien's example, the other gunner hit the same spot on the second ship, with the same result.
Darien pumped his fist, but his satisfaction was short-lived. The main fighter group was sweeping past, laying down another bombardment.
The shuttle shuddered, but didn't crack. Darien shot at the backs of the fighters as they circled around but missed.
"Here we go!" called the pilot. "Screens off, and pray she holds together!"
The stars in Darien's viewmask swam and spun, and the turbines at the rear of the shuttle fired. Reacting too slowly, Darien scrambled for the switch on the viewmask to turn it off, but the light of the turbines had seared trails onto his eyeballs, like he'd looked at the sun. He swore as he peeled off the viewmask, and continued cursing as the shuttle dove back down into Oronado's atmosphere, shaking like a leaf.
Darien clung to the seat of the defense pod with white knuckles until the shaking stopped. He braced himself with his feet as gravity reasserted itself.
"Essential systems intact," reported the pilot. He let out a long, slow breath. "Congratulations, team. We're out of the fire, back into the frying pan."
The shuttle swooped back down to the surface, soaring at incredible speed over horizons of farmland, broken here and there by mountain ranges, rocky wastes, and a handful of charcoal warts that marked the mass graves of millions. As soon as contact with ground control was restored the communication systems began buzzing frantically. Darien listened to the conversations from outside himself, hearing the words but not their meanings. He learned afterwards that another shuttle had launched behind them, before they could convey their warning. For hours afterwards the survivors on the ground waited, but no sign of it ever reappeared.
Upon landing, the passengers and crew tumbled out of the shuttle like peas spilling out of a broken pod. Darien slumped over on the tarmac, emptied of all emotions but one, inhaling and exhaling only dust, emptiness, and a spark of rage. Then the voice of Dr. Morin behind him said, "Here he is," and Abigail's fingers found his cheek. She collapsed limply into his lap. Darien held her and stared into her eyes, those little brown eyes, so much like her mother's. Something broke inside him and he breathed again, a real breath, a lungful of life-giving oxygen, the perfect fuel to ignite the spark inside him into flame.
The familiar, cutting voice of Captain Asaki crackled over the shortwave radio. "All teams, report in."
Darien got the thumbs up from his partner, who was crouching on the other side of the window, and listened to the others reporting their readiness.
"Demo 1, all set."
"Demo 2, ready..."
When it was his turn, he said, "Decoy 3, we're good to go," and tucked the butt of the railgun into his shoulder. He carefully pulled apart the blinds covering the window of the ground-floor office where he had taken up his position. The tank was still sitting in front of the massive grain silo, with three Cust swarms circling overhead.
"How long until they figure out Doc Morin's plan, you think?" said Darien to his partner, as the rest of the teams checked in.
"What, that we're trying to destroy the silos rather than recapture them? Not much longer, probably. I'd say after we've hit three or four they'll start to see the pattern. The real question is how they'll react once they clue in."
"True. My money's on a full ground assault. They're going to get tired of trying to starve us out sooner or later." Darien let the blinds fall back into place. He wondered idly what inane chore they'd found to keep Abby and the other children out of the way today. He caught himself and forced his attention back to the radio. Focus.
Captain Asaki wrapped up the check-in process. "All teams are in position. Prepare to engage on my mark."
Darien tensed. A single bead of sweat traced the length of his nose.
Darien's partner ripped on the cord to raise the blinds, then swung the butt of her flashgun against the window, shattering the glass.
Darien took a deep breath to steady himself and aimed his railgun at the base of the tank's turret. "This one's for you, Tiff," he said, and fired.