Chapter 16In perfect formation, the trio of security fighters curved across the stars in a mad streak towards Hraden's mining hauler. "Run!! Get the frak out of there!" Verana shouted out in terror. "My fighter didn't last long at all against them – you won't make their first pass!"
But he hardly heard her, his hands flying across the controls as threw his ship into a barrel roll, successfully dodging the first onslaught of crystalline projectiles. While Sofie may have been ugly by Odgen standards, she was a little more maneuverable than the typical Brelyme fighter, but Hraden hardly had time to think about it – twisting back, his proton beams streaked rapidly across the first drone's shields, dimming them until they flickered out. His eyes followed the drone in fascination as it flew past in a smoking whirl, just missing him – it was hardly two meters long.
Unfortunately, the momentary distraction left him vulnerable to the third drone's attack.
"Hraden, dodge!!" Sofie shrieked, but just a little too late – his shield's hexagonal cells rippled outwards with a faint glow as a fusillade of powerful explosions pounded against them, almost shaking him from his chair. As the perpetrator of the attack disappeared behind him, she said sternly, "Hraden, our shields are at 27 percent already, and it won't be long before a fourth and fifth drone arrive."
"Do you really think these guys are going to let me leave?" Hraden asked incredulously, trying to readjust himself. "I'll have to whittle them away. That last one shouldn't take more than another pass."
"You have zero chance of getting out of here alive if the others get here, and you can't take them alone," she insisted, helpless as he curved his ship around. "If you're going to take care of them, you have to do it now."
He nodded, focusing his attention closely on the three remaining drones. "Sofie, target the weakest of them," he ordered, and a red ring formed on the integrated HUD around the selected enemy. Stepping up the throttle, he hurtled towards their curving, speeding forms and let loose with his particle cannons. They returned his attack, and he rolled left to dodge, flipping his afterburner exhaust sideways to spiral into a tight turn, and launched one final barrage. His target exploded in a puff of flames as its reserves detonated, its sparking innards thrown tumbling into space along its former flight path.
"That's one," Hraden called out triumphantly over the comms. "How are you holding up, Verana?"
Just at that moment, a powerful golden beam cut towards the two remaining drones from behind him, slicing through what remained of the foremost's shields and decimating its hull in a powerful explosion of molten metal. The final drone, shaken and caught in the shrapnel, tumbled away in a rapid, haphazard spin, seemingly disoriented.
"I'm limping, but I've still got some fight left in me," Verana said with a note of complacency as her Synchosite flashed into view, slowing before him. Her top-right engine was fizzling and smoking; it looked like it could explode at any moment. Hraden didn't relish the thought of what might have happened if they had stalled. "My shields are fried, but it's nothing compared to my thrusters. Auxiliary port coolant systems are leaking fluid, starboard zenith engine is damaged and at half capacity."
"Try to work around it," he advised, expanding schematics of her ship on his holoscreen with his fingertips. "Reroute energy from the primary gravity dampeners to the drive coil, and try not to do too much in the way of deceleration. And keep an eye on temperature – you might have to overextend your SZ's cowl flaps to compensate."
"Roger... I'll trust you on that. I don't really have much of an option, though, do I..."
"Not really. And next time, let's come up with a plan before we go charging in." He gave her a brief glare.
Verana rolled her eyes and sighed. "I just didn't expect them to be so advanced. They were so small – my ship is at least five times their length, and probably more than a hundred times their mass – and their weapons still ate through my hull like the armor wasn’t even there. I'm surprised we got away safely, though. When I came along with you, I wasn't expecting such a harrowing experience."
"No? What were you expecting?"
"Well, you wouldn't have asked for me to come along if it hadn't been dangerous, but I never dreamed we'd be fighting our hyper-advanced god-ancestors. Although..." she paused, smirking at the thought, "I guess I've paid you back for saving Jarnel now, haven't I..."
"If I'd been alone, I wouldn't have survived that... so I'd say you have," Hraden agreed. "Let's just follow the warp rail home and be done with it."
"Roger that. I've seen enough action for one day." She sidled up close to Hraden's position, and together they fled deeper into the debris field.
Unfortunately, it wasn't to be that simple. It wasn't long before Hraden noticed the last drone behind them in his aft cam display, but he almost thought he could make out at least one more following along behind it. "Sofie," he asked, studying the holoscreen, "How many drones do we still have on us, exactly?"
"Three within ten kilometers, and I see two more still coming. They'll reach us long before we make it to the wormhole," she warned softly. She seemed to understand what that implied.
Hraden let out a long sigh. "With Verana damaged like she is, we're not going to make it out of this together... We'd never survive a second attack." Feeling depressed, he considered his options. Running was out of the question. They might try to hide, but he had a feeling that the drones would be intelligent enough to find them if they tried. The only other idea he had was for one of them to stay behind so the other could escape. It was an idea he greatly abhorred, but he didn't see a way around it.
After some time, and with a fair degree of reluctance, he addressed his comrade. "Verana, there's five of those drones still out there. We can't possibly fight that many off. ...I'm going to fall back and let you escape."
She sounded appropriately incredulous. "What, and leave you?? Don't try to play the hero. If we fight, I'm staying."
"We have no choice," Hraden said firmly. "Just get out of here, got it? You're military – if I went back without you, Odgen would take me into custody, and they'd probably find me guilty of murder. Besides, there's a war brewing, and you need to be out there protecting our countrymen.
"As to the rest of Farpoint," he went on dismally, "just do whatever you feel is best. Give it to Odgen or whatever scientists you want, but..." he paused, a lump forming in his throat as he forced back tears. "My girlfriend – Taiya Helania – make sure she gets my share of whatever money you make off of it. And..." He swallowed, frowning sharply as his eyes watered with regret. "Tell her I'm sorry... Tell her I love her."
"Holy shit," Verana said, her voice a hushed whisper over the comms. "This is really the end, isn't it..."
"It is for me," the man agreed, heaving a sigh. "I'm going to do whatever it takes to buy you some time. Get to that wormhole as fast as you can, and don't do anything stupid. If anybody else comes back in here, make sure they're not alone. You got that? Don't let them die the way I did, and don't let the wealth of Farpoint go to waste." To his vague surprise, he found that having resigned himself to his fate, he felt somewhat calmer.
She pursed her lips and gave a quick, sympathetic nod.
There was a solemn, quiet pause as they collectively pondered their mortality. Hraden glanced at the image of his friend's face – her expression was one of hopelessness. After a moment, she seemed to compose herself, and finally spoke: softly, in a genuine expression of sorrow. "I really don't know what to say... nothing seems fitting. I... I'm sorry, Hraden... I'll make sure Taiya knows."
Hraden nodded his thanks. "Just get out of here. I'll be fine." It was less a reassurance of his safety, though, and more a reassurance of his willpower. Like any good captain of legend, he was going down with his ship. There was a certain heroic dignity in the thought; it seemed to command a degree of respect.
Without another word, he reached forwards and shut off the comms, Verana's face disappearing for the last time. "I'll be fine," he echoed quietly, this time merely for his own benefit. As he turned his ship around, he flexed his tense, aching fingers, whispering again, "I'll be fine."
But Sofie disagreed. "No, you won't be fine," she stated in obvious irritation. "You have five drones coming in from the station now. I understand that you're trying to protect Verana, but what about me?"
The AI's agitation spread to her pilot. "I can't help but bring you along – you're part of the ship," Hraden muttered, flipping the engines into a powerful axial rotation, carving a path towards the oncoming threat.
"I'm not just 'part of the ship'!" she protested, sounding upset. "I have feelings too!"
"Then turn them off! You're a computer – why don't you stop running them?"
"I..." She paused, sounding legitimately hurt, but then tried to change the subject. "Hraden, is this really the best time for us to be fighting?"
"When will there be a better time?" he retorted, but then changed his mind, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. "No... no, you're right." Then his facade broke into a frown. He didn't feel panicked about his death – it was inevitable. There was no way he could delay it, and yet he still wished that somehow, it wouldn't have to happen. As he stared blankly out into the darkened, purple skies through his cockpit's central window, searching for the five distant ships that would bring about his end, he felt an intense regret that he couldn't put into words. All he could manage to whisper was, "Gods, I wish I could see Taiya one last time..."
And silence fell in the cockpit for but a moment before a soft, hesitant voice answered him. "Maybe you can..." came Sofie's unexpected reply. "But I need you to trust me. No matter what."
Hraden raised an eyebrow, afraid to put faith in her words. "Trust you?"
"Yes, trust me." Sofie said, her voice growing stronger. "Hraden, you asked me to analyze the situation and find a way we could survive... I couldn't find one that involved Verana tagging along, but with her gone, we might have a chance..."
"Just a chance?"
She was quiet for a moment, and Hraden could almost imagine her glaring at him reproachfully. "Yes. A chance. I know you don't have any ideas for keeping us alive, so this is our only shot. It's not a sure thing, I know... but I need your cooperation. Do I have it?"
Small choices, Hraden thought, shaking his head as he stared off into the distance. "Fine, I'll bite. What's your idea? – And you'd better hurry because we're almost out of time."
Despite his urging, there was another pause as Sofie hesitated. "I... I can't explain it, but... I have knowledge I shouldn't possess – shouldn't be able to or allowed to. I don't know why I have it, I... It doesn't make sense to me, but please, just trust me... okay?"
"I said I would," Hraden pointed out, wondering what she meant, and why she sounded so nervous. Then, something seemed to click, like a figurative light bulb going on, and his eyes widened with understanding. "You don't even trust yourself, do you..." It was a statement, not a question, and one Sofie chose to ignore.
"We can talk about that later – we need to get started now." Without further hesitation, she placed an arrow on the center of the HUD, pointing downwards. "I marked one of the Ctaelan ships – I need you to reach it as fast as you can. Put on the afterburners if you have to, and don't worry about them overheating – you won't need them much after we get there."
"Right." Hraden flipped his little makeshift hauler upside-down in a half-roll and pulled back, aiming for Sofie's target: a mighty Ctaelan dreadnaught. Its hull showed signs of extreme damage, including a massive hole blown over one of the rear engines, but it was still mostly intact, and marked with a spinning gray circle on his integrated HUD. "Big ship... It's as long as Odgen station," he said quietly in awe, readjusting his cold, sweaty palms on the controls. The afterburners roared behind him as he amped them up to the maximum, his ship quaking silently as he shot towards the ancient hulk.
Behind him, the security drones had already curved their paths towards his ship, completely ignoring Verana's trajectory. It meant that she would manage to get away. Unfortunately, it also meant that this last portion of the fight was entirely up to him. "I really hope this idea of yours is a good one, Sofie," Hraden muttered.
She didn't seem to be listening. "Okay," she said, almost in a whisper, "here:" The HUD outlined several portions of the massive ship – one against the backside of the ship's typical Ctaelan frontal bulb, and two nestled among the bulky engines jutting from the back. She was highlighting giant arrays of black panels, dozens of meters wide altogether, that looked remarkably similar to those he'd seen on Farpoint Station. "You're going to fire at one of these, but with your proton beams, not your particle cannons. I've adjusted them for a greater power output, so our shields will be weak for a little while after we use them."
Hraden's heart missed a beat. "Wait. Wait just a minute. We're going to power this ship up? Are you crazy??"
"I know what I'm doing," Sofie assured him, somewhat unconvincingly.
"I don't believe that for a second," he shot back. "What if this thing attacks us?"
"Then maybe it'll attack the drones too, I don't know! You said you would trust me!"
He gritted his teeth, mumbling, "This is insane," under his breath, as he turned in a painfully slow arc towards the rear of the dreadnought, trying to keep from losing too much speed. Without warning, he found himself lurching forwards as his afterburners overheated and shut down. As soon as he'd leaned back upright, he turned his ship directly towards the targeted panels and fired.
The familiar blue-white beams streaked forwards, far brighter than he remembered, and his ship slowed slightly from the immense power drain, humming strangely amidst a dangerous flicker from the floor lights.
After a few seconds, he let up on the trigger, boosted his speed back to normal, and admired his handiwork. Although the Ctaelan power panels were glowing a dull red, Hraden couldn't actually tell that it had even done anything useful.
Sofie was swift to answer his unasked question. "It didn't work. Maybe that particular array is damaged – you'll have to try the next one. It's down the hull a bit – here –" A blue, spinning model of the Ctaelan battleship appeared mid-console, flashing red in a small spot closer to the ship's bow.
"The next one??" he asked in disbelief, beginning to feel annoyed with the way she seemed to be keeping the details of the plan a secret. "Okay, fine... but if we're stretching this out, I need eyes on the drones." At his command, three displays refreshed themselves on his holoscreen, each showing a different pursuer.
With his throttle at maximum, Hraden made a reckless, spinning dive towards the Ctaelan warship. As he reached the engine's housing, he pulled up sharply until he was parallel with the hull, aiming for what appeared to be a roofed hangar – the "roof" being at least a dozen meters thick. At that very moment, an alarm sounded urgently, flashing on his HUD; the enemy was within firing range. He looked at it for less than an instant, but it was enough of a distraction that he almost shattered his hauler on one of the massive strobnium archways that swept their way across the hull. Out of pure reflex, he fired the thrusters left at full power, nearly throwing himself from his seat as his ship swerved sideways into the open hangar. His heart pounding from the narrow scrape, he called out in agitation, "Sofie, those guys are on me!"
"It's fine," she assured him. "Just focus on unloading those proton beams into that ship!"
It was anything but fine: even as she spoke, the nearest of the drones let out a spray of purple-white projectiles. Hraden whirled his hauler inwards to avoid them. Moments later, the dreadnought shuddered around him as a series of explosions cascaded across the deck to his left, but he was too preoccupied to look. Ancient ships floated all around him in the darkness, and dodging their debris took all of his concentration, even as he tried to funnel his rapid flight path towards the panels far ahead. The G-forces in the cockpit were wild and disorienting as the hauler pitched back and forth, up and down in a way that felt wholly random, all while going as fast as he dared to travel.
Suddenly, another bright purple flash illuminated the wreckage around him, and Hraden instinctively rolled his ship to the side, trying to dodge the spray. "Sofie!!!" he yelled in irritation.
She was starting to seem a little uptight herself. "Hraden, I'm keeping an eye on them – they wouldn't have hit you anyway! They can't keep up and are probably hoping you'll crash – just trust me and focus!"
Feeling a slight degree of animosity towards her, he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes, bringing his ship down and skimming the hangar's surface as he passed beneath dozens of tumbling Ctaelan fighters, many of which exploded behind him as the drones continued firing.
"Hraden, here, now!" His HUD flickered, outlining the dark array of power panels set against the back of the dreadnought's bulb.
After maneuvering to find a clear tunnel through the debris, he took the shot, gritting his teeth as his muscles tensed. His holodisplay flickered briefly from the sudden drain of power, and the power panels began to glow – first red, then a searing orange as his proton beams sliced past.
And then, all at once, the ancient gargantuan came to life. Dozens of red warning lights flickered on all across its hull, hundreds of bright floodlights chased away the darkness of the hangar, and tens of thousands of windows turned white despite the absence of their former occupants. At the same time, the warship shook violently, shuddering and groaning as a series of internal explosions shook it to its core. Moments later, the lights went dark again, some of them throwing sparks as they flickered from existence.
The entire maneuver hardly lasted more than a few seconds before he reached the panels, his shields crackling from the intensity of the heat as he rolled left to avoid them, into a little trench that wound its way around the frontal bulb. In front of him, an attack drone dropped into the trench through one of the gaps between the overheard arches – Hraden panicked and threw the thrusters into a swerving path to avoid its fire. Shaken and panting, he shouted, "Sofie! Say something – did it work? This would be a really good time to tell me what's going on!"
"Don't yell at me!" she all but shouted back, seeming highly distressed. "Yes, it worked! I'm shutting down their lights to conserve power! I'll tell you, I just..."
"You just what??" he shouted, almost crashing into the hull as another fusillade clipped his shields. "How am I supposed to trust a ship that hides things from its owner??"
His words hurt her noticeably. "Look, I'm sorry! I don't even know what's going on, okay?? I thought I was an AI!"
That last came as a legitimate shock. "What?! You are an AI!"
"Then why the hell am I panicking?!?"
Her words rendered him speechless. He remembered quite well that she'd said she wasn't capable of feeling most negative emotions... including panic.
"Dodge left!" she shouted suddenly.
His hands moved reflexively; the hull ahead and to his right was ripped asunder, his shields flickering blue as shards of metal bounced away. His mind was spinning. "Fine, I'll believe you for now – we'll get the problem fixed as soon as we get back to Odgen – but what is your plan??"
She hesitated. "I'm... I'm trying to hack into the Ctaelan ship's computers so I can remotely restart the nuclear engines... so that I'll have enough power to hack and control its turrets."
Hraden was quick to voice his disbelief. "You're going to hack it?? Since when was it ethical to teach an AI to hack? Or even possible?"
"I've already started," she said shamelessly, brushing off his doubts. "And yes, I know hacking is illegal, and it's even worse to design an AI that can, but we're not exactly in civilized space anymore and I'd like to point out that this is all we have. I need to concentrate, though," Sofie added, sounding stressed. "The power you dumped into their reserves won't last very long and I have to get the primary reactors online before it runs out. I also need to be careful not to awaken the warship's own AI, because if I do that we probably will get blasted away."
"Then let's do this," Hraden muttered, his brow deeply furrowed as he tightened his grip on the controls. "You focus on the hacking or whatever, and I'll try to stay alive."
"Okay," she said quickly, and then quieted as she got to work.
Hraden threw on the afterburners and rocketed out of the trench, curving tightly around the dreadnought's frontal bulb. The aft cam displays showed his pursuers following him out, closer than ever; he could only assume they'd realized he was capable of dodging and were conserving ammunition. It felt like flying against real pilots, and it seemed unnatural – even wrong – that an AI could be so intelligent. But he had no time to finish his thoughts – on reaching the back edge of the bulb, he dove downwards, plummeting back beneath the mighty archways that formed the roof of the deck-top hangar, swerving, dodging, flashing his way between control towers and floating wreckage. It was his hope that with their high thrust-to-weight ratio, they wouldn't be able to turn as quickly, and it definitely seemed to be the case. Although it took every ounce of skill he had to pull off the tricky maneuvers, he was slowly gaining ground, and inching steadily away from them. It actually reminded him of the drone races he'd often participated in as a boy.
All around him, the warship seemed to be struggling for life like a wounded animal – lights would flicker on seemingly at random, and fade again as Sofie shut them off to conserve energy. Hraden wondered what it would look like from a distance, but he didn't exactly have the luxury to try. Instead, he took it upon himself to pour a little more power into the Ctaelan's reserves. As he reached the back of the hangar bay, he reversed the engines and made an extremely tight hairpin turn. The thruster exhaust coiled around him as he slowed, almost hitting the wall behind him. His hands flying, he flicked the afterburners on again, amping the engines and shooting off towards the bow's power panels a second time. The drones fired wildly as he passed them, barely missing. Behind him, one of them actually exploded as it ran out of room to maneuver and crashed into a wrecked fighter. Only instants later, Hraden had to divert full power to his zenith thrusters to keep from meeting the same fate.
"Watch it!" Sofie cried out. "I won't be able to focus if you keep pulling that kind of stunt."
"It's fine," Hraden assured her, realigning himself and diving back into the tangled, ruined debris. "You do your job, I'll do mine. I know what I'm doing."
The AI continued chidingly, "We need to talk about your piloting skills after this is over."
"Fine with me," the miner shot back distractedly. "I have some things I need to talk to you about, too." After a few more seconds of winding his way towards the front of the dreadnought, he came out into the clear again, flooding the dully-glowing power panels with his proton beams. The lights around him increased in intensity, though he'd nearly depleted his own reserves.
Sofie, at least, seemed to appreciate the help. "Thanks, Hraden. It'll be a lot easier now that I don't have to conserve... wait..."
"No, wait," she repeated urgently, seeming wildly distracted.
Hraden nodded, diving into the deep trench around the front of the ship again. It was his hope that he still had some time while the drones extricated themselves from the hangar bay.
All around him, lights were flashing, hatches opening and closing – the effects of Sofie's wild attempts to hack the ancient machine. "I got it!" she suddenly exulted. "I did it!" As if on cue, the massive ship shuddered mightily beneath them, throbbing visibly with power, all the lights coming on at once in a dim, eerie glow. "Primary reactors are online," Sofie said proudly. "Native AI circumvented; systems rebooting; fusion batteries recharging. Hraden, we've resurrected it!"
And his shields exploded as a hail of purple fireballs rained down from above.