Chapter 35: Dying Embers

Winter’s Gate belonged to the Dying Embers, a cluster of white dwarfs near the trailing edge of colonized space.  The exposed core of the dead sun was like a corpse going cold in the night; its dim glow indistinguishable from lights that burned dozens of lee beyond.  The massive cloud of dust and gas, expelled in the star’s death rattle, stole all sight of those distant lanterns from the hiding corsairs however.

Just as well as far as Captain Darcy was concerned, the brief glimpse he caught of it made him think he was looking into the eye of death itself.  A mariner all his life, he had faced intractable foes, braved the gravity tides of Scylla, and likely seen more people die then he’d actually spoken to; but this ghostly realm chilled his blood.  There was a finality to it he never encountered before and would rather not again.

Unsettling as the neighborhood was, it had been chosen as an escape point because the nebula would interfere with enemy sensors and allow them to refuel quickly.  The low gravity of the dead star also meant they could shunt away as soon as they cleared the massive shell of gas, the system’s inner planets long since devoured and its outer jovians lost to the Evernight.  Unfortunately, the same qualities that made it an ideal hiding place made it an obvious one.  The navy arrived less than an hour behind them.

“Hang on!”  Kaminski shouted, grabbing hold of her consol with both hands.  Sidewinder shuddered from the blast, the warhead detonating inside half a kee of the flagship.  The bridge went dark for several seconds, save for the flashing of sparks.  Floyd, badly jarred, bit his tongue.  He choked-down a mouthful of blood and hoped it would stop soon.

            Debris began pelting the ship’s hull as an engine pod floated by the viewport.

            “Who you think it was?” Kaminski asked, moving to a small porthole.  They had no way of identifying the casualty with every possible system shut down and only passive sensors still online.

            “Looks like a Bowcorp model,” Gabriel said.  “Maybe Zapata or Black Bart.”

            “Scupper it!” Floyd snapped, spraying the inside of his visor with small droplets of blood and swallowing again.  “And shut the fucking deadlights.”  As the shutters came down he leaned forward and rested his head in his hands; likely they would all die in this wretched miasma.

            From time to time the passive sensors would detect the faint hiss of a neutrino beam sweeping through the cloud: the hunter’s tongue tasting the night, like a serpent, for sign of prey.  Only detectable at very close range, everyone tensed and held their breath with each.  It was already too late to slip away with the beam that close, the turbulence and heating of the surrounding gas would betray you instantly.

Again the ship trembled and the dark gas around her lit up like a thundering storm cloud.  This time it was far gentler and everyone sighed in relief.  Their enemies had not pinpointed their location and were firing blind into the haze of the planetary nebula.  The cloud provided ample fuel but they dared not try extracting it until the hunters were gone.

There was no telling how long it would take the navy to find them or give-up but they would need to leave soon to make the rendezvous, within the next thirty hours to be safe.  All margin of error had been surrendered when he decided to backtrack to Malzonto and clear the way for third wing.  There was no real option of course; Floyd had no intention of letting a quarter million of his people die, possibly the last of his people.  Not after all they endured.

            Another detonation registered, but without a discernable shockwave, and everyone relaxed a bit.  Prematurely as it turned out as they were suddenly, violently shaken; power going down and the bridge left in darkness.  Floyd’s head snapped back against his chair, stunning him senseless despite the protection of his helmet.

            “Captain!”  Kaminski took him by the shoulders.  “Floyd!”

            “I’m here,” he told her.  “I’m alright.”  He looked around the bridge but could only make out the glare of helmet lights.  Something floated in front of him.  At first he thought he was seeing things, but squinting to focus, found it to be a glob of his own blood suspended in his helmet.  He removed his harness and pushed forward so it splashed on his face.  Some of it went into his eye but better that than letting it smear across his visor and blind him.

            “What the fuck happened?” he asked, feeling like he had just woken from a long sleep.

            “That was Zapata that got hit,” Kaminski told him.  “We just saw the wreck float by.  She’s venting hot plasma, they must have seen it.”

            Floyd clenched his eyes shut for a moment to focus.  “We have to get clear of here.  Status?”

            “Fucked,” she reported.  “Nothing’s working.”

            Another blast jarred the ship; less brutal but hardly indifferent.  Floyd, now free of his restraint, flew across the cabin and bounced off the navigation consol.  He grabbed hold of it and pushed back to his chair.

            “Vicki, Gabe.  Get down to engineering.  I need you to manually fire the aft maneuver thrusters.  We’ll steer from up here with the port and starboard units.  We need to move into a denser part of the cloud.”

They nodded and made to go, turning on their boot-clamps.  “No,” he ordered.  “If we get hit again you could break your ankles.  Nobody use your clamps,” he added to the entire bridge crew.  The two senior commanders acknowledged and got underway.

“Fred.”

“Yarr, boss.”

            “A simple ‘yarr’ will do,” the captain told him.  “Hook Max up to the VR controls and get him outside, right up on our nosecone.  Sensors are down so we’ll use him to steer.  Link your com through mine and await instructions.”

            “Yarr.”

            Floyd ordered his helmsman to the port thruster while he took up position at the starboard, opening the panel with a wrench and switching it to manual fire.  “Engineering, why don’t I have battery power?”

            “The battery room is smashed.  We’re pulling the cells we think we can salvage.  Should have something rigged in half-an-hour.”

            “Understood,” the captain acknowledged.  “Fast as you can, then put every hand on sealing and reinforcing any breaches.  There’s gonna be pressure on the hull.”

            “Yarr.”

            His team in place, Floyd called down to Fred for a status report.  Max exited Sidewinder through the main airlock and made his way to the bow where he stood like an animated figure head.  This allowed Fred to relay firing instructions to the officers stationed at the thruster controls.  The aft thrusters ignited and Sidewinder began her slow crawl, making for a denser region of the nebula.

            The newly minted bosun smiled at the thought of the bot still dressed up in pirate garb, plus the cursing robotic parrot Bob and Ray added, standing there pointing the way.  Literally so in fact; Max wielded a cutlass in one hand which Fred used as a pointer on his HUD display.  The bot had top-end sensor gear which allowed him to navigate efficiently and pick-out the denser areas of the cloud.

            His mood darkened then, thinking of the moron twins.  Bob and Ray were thrown into a bulkhead by one of the bigger explosions; out cold when the medics dragged them to the infirmary.  He steeled himself to the task at hand, knowing he would do them no good by getting everyone killed.  The detonations were well-off target by now but continued with purpose.  Still, worry tore at his innards.

 

“Stop it!” Bob yelled.

“Stop what?” Ray asked.

“Stop hitting me!” Bob demanded.

“I didn’t,” Ray explained.

“You did it again!”

 

For the next thirty minutes the explosions continued, some near some far.  Once power had been restored they were able to send a short, static-charged message to the rest of the talon telling them to follow suit and giving the final escape orders.  The transmission, though brief, required a high-powered signal to overcome the nebula’s interference and the navy took advantage.

            A barrage of warheads detonated in the space around Sidewinder, the ship again battered and tossed about.  The intensity of the explosions compressed the dense gasses further and the alternating pressure cracked bracings and sent bolts shooting from their mountings.  Floyd took a gamble and ordered the helm to heave ho.  The maneuver drive lit-up the cloud around them as the ram scoop was opened, drawing-in raw fuel at the front as it poured burning from the rear.

            The corsair shook with mounting force as it tore through the currents of thickening gas.  Equipment shaken loose from mountings flew about the cabin, smashing into walls and the occasional crewmen.  Sensor alarms then began to sound as they found themselves hurtling toward a massive sphere of metal almost five hundred kilometers across, likely the core of a brown dwarf companion blown apart by waves of solar material that expanded from its convulsing overlord.  It must have been close in to the star to still be in orbit.

            “Rex up fifteen-D and heave-ho!  Sound collision!”  Floyd shouted instinctively though he realized the latter order futile, if they actually struck this object it meant the end of them.  Though its overall mass was relatively low, it was so densely packed that a man standing on it would weigh many hundreds of tons.

The pressure outside grew to over forty ESL and the helm became increasingly sluggish.  They barely avoided impact, coming within three kee of the planetoid.  Its gravity should have thrown them clear like a slingshot but a dense proto-atmosphere had formed from the nebula.  Heat and pressure were increasing rapidly, the ship lost momentum as the cloud began to visibly glow around them.  In concert with the hot soup of ionized gas they swam through, the metallic ghost of the vanquished super planet gained a firm hold.  The vessel began to strain and shake, fighting like a sailfish caught on a line.

“Flame-out, port engine,” Gabriel reported from the helm.

Floyd cursed under his breath.  “Augment with the aft maneuver thrusters: full power, continuous firing.”

“We’re losing thrust,” Kaminski warned.

 “Release the safety; increase the flow to one-fifty.”

“Won’t help,” she said.  “The gas is so dense its backing up material in the exhaust port.  We’ll choke the engine.”

“We’re going down,” Gabe interrupted, “estimated impact in twenty-two minutes.”

Floyd thought quickly.  “Release the safety, give me one-fifty.”

The wounded starship lurched forward and back, struggling to wrench itself from the hungry monster’s grip.  The screams of the tortured engine echoed through the hull which groaned under the staggering pressure bearing down on it.

“She’s losing power,” Gabe announced.  “Impact now in sixteen minutes.”

“Boss,” Fred called from the drive room.

“I’m here,” the captain responded, never taking his eyes off the timer.

“I have an idea,” Fred told him, “Turn us nose down and heave-to.”

“We’d lose too much altitude in the engine cut,” Floyd told him.

“Trust me, I have a plan.”

Floyd took a deep breath and addressed himself to the helm, “Gabe, do it.”  As he feared, Sidewinder fell like a brick the moment the engines switched off and the re-ignition only slowed their descent nominally. The impact timer recalculated the drop, giving them eight minutes and change to live.

A sudden jolt followed and the ship began to viciously quake.  They were slowing down.  The bow began to waver back and forth and Gabriel yelped, nearly losing control.  He needed to constantly adjust his exhaust alignment to keep their nose aimed downward but Sidewinder began to climb, faster and faster.  Once they reached a safe distance from their would-be destroyer, Peace Frog and Lu Bu hog tackled their flagship and pulled her from harm’s way.

Ordering the ship pressurized and leaving Vicki in command, Wing Captain Darcy headed to engineering and gave Fred a powerful bear-hug.  “What in the name of Mother Night did you do?”  He asked with enthusiasm.

“We ejected all the stored fuel through the ram scoop,” Fred explained once free.  “I sent some guys to load the missile tubes backwards after removing the warheads for some extra thrust.  I think we ruined the launch tubes but I figured that would have happened in the crash.”

 

Floyd retired to his darkened cabin aft of the bridge once the bombardment ended.  He resolved to get a few hours sleep before they moved on but his head pounded from lack of down time and his second concussion in three months.  He had already begun hallucinating: sounds echoed, colors were bright and distorted, his nerves were frayed and he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

We’ll take five days at Delta Capricorn, he told himself, pressing in on his eyes with both hands.  He could take something to put him out but didn’t want to risk it.  The navy could still be out there.  They had covered nearly sixty lee with no more than a day’s break between jumps and much of the crew showed signs of hyperspace dementia.

A great deal of repair work needed doing before they could move on but the captain ordered the older mariners to bed down for the next ten hours.  The younger crewmen, less susceptible, were left to their own devices.  They had a mighty task before them but were doing him proud according to the updates he constantly checked.

Fred was placed in command of the effort; Bob and Ray released from sickbay with minor injuries.  All three were proving to be brilliant engineers, and though he always regarded core-worlders as soft, they had acquitted themselves brilliantly during their protracted and fiery baptism.

            “What?”  He was quiet for a moment and shook his head.  He kept thinking he heard voices.  Knowing that it took a long time for damage to become permanent did little to comfort him.  This was as bad a case as he ever had and it would only get worse with the next jump.  The “mariner’s twilight” was something that always worried spacers in their later years.

Julian once told him of a friend who succumbed to it.  Bastian Pulaski served with him for years on the Rix, eventually buying a cargo ship and quitting the dance to go trader.  Not a year later it hit him: paranoid and incoherent for hours then days at a time, rambling and raving, becoming violent.  Eventually, during a lucid if very depressing moment, he ate a bullet.

            Floyd decided to have a drink rather than continue this morbid line of thought; he needed to rest while he could.  There would be precious little in the next few weeks if they were going to catch-up with Yousef and the rest of second wing at Kappa Phoenicis, seventy-eight lee ahead.

It’s this fucking place, he told himself.  I’ll feel better once we’re gone.

 

Sensor alarms began to sound the moment they cleared the nebula.  Waiting as long as they could, the time had come to make a run for it.  A light cruiser, a frigate and two destroyers were bearing down on the eight wounded corsairs at speed.  Sidewinder and her escorts were more than outmatched but left with no choice but to fight.

A rapid series of beeps from the operations consul made everyone’s hair stand-up as Kaminski issued the alert:  “Nukes inbound!”

 

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