‘Get us out of here, Bek.’ Ferrash kept his voice level, but the view beyond the canopy forced urgency into it. He tried to ignore that view. He tried to focus on the control panels instead, but it wasn’t something he could easily look away from. His nerves thrummed, taut with fear.
Outside, the ice-crowned ocean depths of Everatus IV were burning. Sickening green waves of flame danced in blinding aurorae across the surface, never ending, soaring higher and higher, dancing away from the boiling water beneath them. Delicate traceries of canyons and arches, frozen for billions of years, vanished in incomprehensible seconds. Piercing cries lanced through the skies as whole herds of mesospheric animals saw a lifetime’s flight snatched from them, the rarefied air they had evolved to breathe stripped by the hunger of the encroaching inferno.
They flew a bare dozen miles above it – far too close for comfort.
Beside him, blond hair painted emerald by the flames, Bek stabbed a finger upwards. ‘You want me to head back up there? We won’t make it out of atmosphere before they shoot us down.’
Ferrash didn’t look where he pointed. He knew what was up there. A ship the size of a small moon, crouching high above them, near enough to be deadly. It was deadlier than most, the flagship for the galaxy’s biggest nation and their employers’ oldest enemy. He’d figured their ship being so small in comparison would make it easy to slip away. He hadn’t counted on stumbling into this mess.
‘Got a better plan?’ Ferrash asked.
‘Yeah.’ Bek nodded, his eyes flicking between the control panels and the horizon. ‘We’ve a few minutes before all that—’ he tilted his chin towards the flames ‘—reaches us.’
‘How’d you figure that?’
Bek shrugged. ‘Guessed. But if we can make it far enough while there’s still time, we can come out on the other side of the planet. Long as the ship doesn’t move, we’re good.’
And as long as debris doesn’t take us out.
From where Ferrash sat in the navigator’s seat, he had a good view all the way down to the planet’s surface. He risked a glance outside. Ghosts flickered beyond the canopy, the vague shapes of animals that had been thrown to higher altitudes on jets of turbulent air. Engulfed by green fire – Empyrean fire, he realised now, and suppressed a shudder – the remnants of their forms performed agonised ballets before hissing away into smoke. But they were only the leading edge of the inferno. Further below, chunks of the planet’s crust were splitting off. Green light seared into his eyes from between the cracks. Even when he closed them, the colour danced in his vision. His breath caught in his throat.
‘You seen anything like this before?’ Bek asked.
Ferrash shook his head. ‘On a person, sure, but the Empyrean doesn’t scale to a whole planet. This is…’ What was it? It wasn’t impossible, because it was happening. It was unbelievable, that was for sure, but it was happening.
A sudden crash of turbulence jarred his teeth together. The engine strained as Bek pushed it to its limits, trying to scud them across the planet’s atmosphere before it was too late. They punched through vapour escaping from the chaos below, just as they should be trying to escape.
‘Do you reckon it’s the ship?’ said Bek.
‘Bile and… No, no I don’t reckon it’s the ship. Hegemony world, Hegemony ship. You really think they’d burn their own planet just to get a couple spies?’ He shook his head, swallowed as a ballooning motion sent his stomach into his throat. ‘Besides, I said – it doesn’t scale that way.’
Bek said nothing. Their ship was fast approaching what should have been the night side of the planet. Light from the fires saturated everything. This close to them, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, like the flames were already trying to pluck them from his skin. Where the wires of his pain mesh sat beneath the surface of one side of his face, his skin fizzed, and he didn’t know if it was the Empyrean reacting with its circuits as designed or if he was imagining it. He looked up, double-checked their ship’s sensor readings via his implants. The flagship wasn’t there – which was a start.
‘Keepers take me,’ Bek swore. ‘Is that the orbital platform?’
Ferrash turned away from the sky and followed Bek’s gaze. Sure enough, a tiny structure glinted in the distance. It wasn’t that far below them. As he watched, a searing beam of light shot through it from the rising flames below. A split second later, as it began to fall apart, a small shape darted away. A shuttle, or an escape pod. He traced its path upwards, struggling to rise away from danger. The platform vanished into the inferno. Arcing tendrils lashed past it.
‘That’s our cue to leave,’ Ferrash said. ‘Follow that shuttle.’
Bek gave a slight shake of his head. ‘Might have left it too late.’
Ferrash closed his eyes. ‘Don’t say that.’ Those flames would consume everything they touched. Emotion, memory, life, matter. He’d rather they blew the ship up themselves than let the flames reach them.
The engine strained further, juddering the whole ship underneath them. For a long time, Bek said nothing. The force of their acceleration pressed Ferrash back into his seat, and he tensed against the strain. He smelt their sweat in the close confines. His own clung to his skin. How long until the Empyrean ripped it from him? Would it catch upon the fear first? Or his memories? You could never tell, beyond the flesh disintegrating, when you saw a person die to it.
The ship rocked and he jerked sideways in his straps, but the noise was beginning to die away. When finally everything went quiet, he opened his eyes again.
Bek had kept them pointed at the shuttle, and it glinted periodically as it spun on its axis. It must have taken a hit as it escaped atmosphere. Ferrash narrowed his eyes at it, wondering what the forces of that spin would be. If its inertial dampers were out, that would matter. Whoever was inside it might already be…
There were no stars behind it.
He paused. That was wrong. He should be able to see plenty of stars, unless their light was being washed out by something else nearby. On a hunch, he leaned closer to the canopy and peered back towards the planet. It wasn’t there anymore. A bright new star lay where it had been, ice hanging there in multitudinous splendour. It danced with rocks, expanding ever outwards, each crystalline spark reflecting the light of the system’s sun. Only minutes ago, it had been fully formed, its mountains rose-tinged with the sunrise. There was nothing left that might be called a planet now, though something of its shape remained.
Ferrash rested his head against the canopy, brows knitted together. Chills marched along his skin. He couldn’t press the fear down into the white noise that formed the rest of his emotions. ‘We need to put as much distance between us and here as possible.’
Bek didn’t answer. When Ferrash glanced over to check on him, he saw him staring after the shuttle as it got further and further away.
‘We can’t go after it,’ Ferrash said. ‘We need to go.’
‘What if they’re hurt?’
‘Not our problem.’
Bek waved a hand in the direction of the shuttle. ‘They’re not transmitting. They’re out of control. And the flagship can’t see them this side of the planet. They’ll be dust if we don’t help them.’
‘And what are you planning to do with them after that?’
Bek shrugged. He was already accelerating after it. Not too many years ago, he would have left them. The Protectorate had assigned Ferrash’s partner as an emotion-stripped vatborn made to their specification. To spy with him, and on him. Bek had grown beyond that. Ferrash couldn’t fault him for it, but it made for annoying moments like this.
Sighing, Ferrash tried to focus on the idea that whoever was on that shuttle might at least have answers. What had done this? If it was something that could happen again, his employers would want to know – and by taking the only other witnesses away before the Hegemony could find them, they’d have the edge on any potential threats. A nice boon to take back along with the rest of their intelligence from the flagship.
They were gaining on the shuttle now. It drifted across the expanse, its thrusters only firing to nudge it out of the way of incoming rocks, its autopilot clearly clever enough for collision avoidance, but not much else. Some of the smaller chunks of debris were starting to catch up with them. Neither of their ships would stay safe for long.
‘Will you be able to pick it up?’ Ferrash asked, then winced as a rock scored along the side of the shuttle’s canopy.
Bek nodded, his gaze flicking between the canopy, the controls, the readouts on the viewscreens around him.
‘And you’re sure? This isn’t a kind thing to do, Bek.’
Bek shot Ferrash a sour look. ‘Think you’ve got your definitions muddled.’
‘We leave them here, maybe the flagship finds them, saves them. We take them with us, the committees won’t want to let them go. Best they’ll get is a death sentence.’
Bek made a noise in the back of his throat, but nothing more. The shuttle grew larger in the canopy, its edges picked out by the reflected light of the ice behind them. Ferrash’s back itched to think of it. Beneath the shuttle’s canopy, he caught sight of a head lolling to one side, white hair cowering atop it, but then Bek spun them around beneath it and they slipped out of sight. Old, then, whoever they were – though the worrying thought they might be young and empyrric suggested itself at the back of his mind. A burning planet was one thing, a living weapon quite another. He’d had enough of empyrrics for one lifetime. If he brought one onboard his ship, they could hurt him and Bek in all the ways the flames had failed to.
‘Where are the rest of them?’ Bek asked.
Ferrash dragged his focus back, trying to work out if he’d missed the first part of Bek’s question. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The Hege don’t go far without their families. This is just one person.’
‘Maybe this was all that made it.’ With a thunk, the shuttle attached to their docking clamps and he rocked on his feet.
‘Maybe. I’m going to put it down on that rock over there,’ Bek said.
Ferrash looked to where Bek had nodded. He noticed the rock for the first time, curving by a few metres to their right, and flinched away from the canopy. Capturing the shuttle had brought them dangerously close. He’d been so focused on it that he hadn’t noticed.
Bek brought them down onto the rock’s concave surface at a steady pace, careful, so careful not to argue with the chunk’s unstable velocity. Ferrash resisted hurrying him on. Sensor readings told him the shuttle was running out of breathable air faster than normal use could account for, so it probably had a leak somewhere. The shuttle might be clamped, but it had nothing for their docking tube to connect to. That meant they couldn’t just pump in a bit of their own air to help. The faster they could get the survivor out – and get themselves away from this place – the better, but rushing things would only make it worse. So he waited, fingers digging into his arm, and when the shuttle touched down he let out his held breath. Bek disengaged the clamps and put their ship down beside it, everything becoming still at the moment of contact.
Ferrash rose from his seat. ‘Last chance to leave them here and get out before anyone spots us?’
‘We’ll sort something out. No one needs to know.’
Ferrash bit back his first reply. Bek would know the ship was monitored, but he wouldn’t know how much of that monitoring Ferrash had stripped out over the years. There were just enough active sensors left to register an added life on board. But he said, ‘Fine. I’ll suit up. Get the medical kit ready. Whoever’s in there might need it.’
Ferrash took a void suit from the armoury and changed in the cramped airlock directly beneath the observation dome. While the air hissed out to silence, he clenched his fist around the handle of his tool bag, thought of the air in the shuttle slipping out into the void every second he stood there.
Ten of those long seconds later, he stepped out into space, the claws on his boots biting the rock underfoot. He picked out the shuttle straight ahead of him and set off, extending a temporary membrane from the airlock with repeater posts as he went. It wasn’t a perfect solution – they’d still be exposed to a good deal of the cold – but it was the best a ship like theirs could muster in the circumstances. Their lack of rescue capability was something he’d complained about many times, but survivability wasn’t high on the Protectorate’s priority list. Always more ships, always more people. He gritted his teeth.
He reached the shuttle with a minute left on its air supply, solved that problem by enclosing it within the membrane, and found the canopy controls fried beyond repair. Any ladder up to the cockpit had been burned away, so he perched on its side like an insect, magnetic pads in his knees and toes keeping him there at an awkward angle, and set to work cutting.
The canopy shuddered under the cutting torch, then lifted away. He gave it a push to help it up and let it float off. Inside lay a woman. Young, despite the shoulder-length white hair framing her face. He reached in and cut her from her harness, noticing the badge of a scientific order sat proud on her collar but not stopping to peer at it. He bundled her into his arms before pushing back down to the dirt.
The membrane retained just enough heat that she wouldn’t freeze straight away, but he walked as fast as he could regardless. If he made it, he made it. If he didn’t… He kept her held tight to his chest all the way back to the ship and through the airlock, only lowering her to the floor when he caught sight of Bek. He’d set up in the corridor with pretty much all of their medical equipment piled neatly to one side. Ferrash doubted a little trip further to the sleeping quarters would have killed her, but it looked like she’d have to make do here.
He removed his helmet and nodded to Bek. ‘Check her over and wake her up. Let’s see what she has to say.’