For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
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"We're clear of the launch bay," said Jenny.
Dray opened her eyes and watched the expanse of empty space visible through the view port behind her seat. Pinpoints of light marked the distant stars, but she saw no evidence of other ships in the vicinity.
"Take us around to planet-side," ordered Malory.
The ship turned slowly to the right and accelerated toward the far side of the base station. Dray studied the station as it passed beyond her view port. It looked the same as always, a metal behemoth in orbit around Beta-five's largest moon. As Jenny steered the ship toward Beta-five, the rest of the station came into view.
"Look," said Jordan. "There's where they blew out the launch bays."
Dray kept her eyes on the damaged station, unable to resist gawking at the destruction. Why did they attack Zenon? It was predominantly an Academy post to train cadets. Dray turned to their prisoner, wishing he were closer so she could question their motives.
"We've got debris," said Red as his hands flew over the ships controls.
Scraps of metal drifted across the front view port as Jenny and Red guided the ship through the debris. Dray frowned, wondering why parts of Zenon were drifting beyond its core orbital range. And where were the rest of the evacuation ships?
Malory cursed in her chair and covered her face with her hands. "Why?" she asked, raking her fingers through her blond hair.
Dray watched metal drift past her view port. Her heart sank as she read the letters on the piece of twisted metal.
"They blew up an evacuation ship," she said, disbelieving the evidence in her view.
The perimeter alarm clanged, sending Dray's heart racing.
"We've got hostiles," said Malory. "What's our weapons status?"
"Non-existent," said Red. "We're equipped as a training ship."
"We're not alone out here," said Jenny. "I'm picking up one more evac ship." She turned to Malory. "It's between us and the hostiles."
"What class are the enemy ships?" asked Malory.
"They read as standard FX-27s," said Red. "If they've taken our training fighters, they may not know they've got no fire power either."
Malory leaned forward. "Let's hope so. Bring us along side the evac ship. We'll see if we can intimidate them with size."
Jenny steered the transport toward the lone evac ship, accelerating into the turn.
"Three hostiles heading for the evac ship," Red declared.
Dray stretched in her restraints, trying to get a clear view through the front view port. She could make out the oblong bulk of the evac ship, but the fighters were too small to see from a distance. Jordan shook her arm.
"He knows something," said Jordan, pointing to the prisoner.
Dray glanced over to Franklin and saw the sardonic grin on his face. She pulled at her restraints, wanting to unbuckle and force him to confess what he knew.
Jordan grabbed her wrist. "Don't. It's not safe."
"But he can tell us what they're up to."
Red interrupted them. "No sign of weapons fire yet."
Dray strained to see the fighters. As Jenny steered closer, Dray made out three specks approaching the evac ship. She wondered if it had any defensive capabilities. She got her answer when the black space between the fighters and the evac ship lit up with glowing trails of weapons fire. One of the attacking fighters transformed into a glowing ball and then disappeared.
"Score one for the good guys," she said.
They had a clear view now of the evac ship. Dray counted two close fighters and the telltale specks of five more fighters approaching. Weapons fire traced across the black space again, but the two remaining fighters avoided the attack, flying closer to the evac ship.
"Have the hostiles fired any weapons?" asked Malory.
"Negative," said Jenny. "So far only the evac ship has fired."
Dray leaned forward. "What are they up to?"
The closest hostile fighter turned hard and then flew into the command deck on the evac ship. A mushroom of fire engulfed the front section of the ship as the second fighter slammed into the aft deck.
"Pull out! Pull out!" Malory commanded. "They're suicide runners!"
The Cygna-major forward engines roared to life as Jenny and Red tried to reverse direction. The ship turned hard to port. Dray's heart pounded as she watched the burning ruins of the evac ship drift out of view. She twisted in her seat, trying to see through her side view port. She saw Jordan's face in profile, tears tracing a path down her cheeks. She wanted to reach for her friend, comfort her, but then the remains of the evac ship exploded and then dissipated into a debris field. Dray saw the unmistakable signs of four other fighters heading for their transport.
"Bring up the hyper-engines," Malory shouted.
"We have no flight plan," Red replied.
Malory swore. "Can we outrun them?"
Jenny scanned her display. "Not with in this crate."
Dray watched in dismay as two fighters came in full view. She heard the high-pitched whine of the hyper-engines, but with no flight plan, they would be as good as dead if they jumped to hyperspace.
"Grace!" Dray shouted. Malory looked at her over her shoulder. "Pull up the ship's travel log. Look for the last hyper jump."
Malory's face lit up. "You heard her, Red. Find us a flight plan."
Red's orange hands tapped out commands on his console as Jenny lurched the ship away from the nearest fighters.
"I've got one. Last used nearly a full rotation ago," said Red.
"Where to?" asked Malory.
"Not sure," Red studied his display. "An unmarked semi-habitable planet in the demilitarized zone."
Malory ran a hand through her disheveled hair. "Anything else?"
"No. That's the only hyper-jump in the log."
"Well, that's where we go then." Malory sat back in her seat. "Punch in the flight plan and take us out of here."
Carson squirmed in his seat, leaning forward. "Are you mad? That could be a Vtaryn base for all we know."
Malory glared at him. "Keep silent, cadet. That's an order."
Dray watched two more fighters heading toward their left flank. They were close enough to read the identifying letters on the fighters.
"Flight plan ready." Red announced.
"Take us out of here," said Malory.
Dray grasped Jordan's hand and held tightly as the hyper-engines roared. She'd experienced only one other hyper-jump, when she arrived at Zenon. It wasn't a pleasant experience.
"Jump engaged," said Red.
Dray's stomach lurched as the ship accelerated. Then everything changed. Sight, sound, all senses faded, leaving her with the sensation of falling from an immense height. She couldn't feel the seat or her restraints, nor could she feel Jordan's hand in hers. All she felt was the nauseating sensation of free-fall. Her mind knew it was an illusion created from the lack of sensation in hyper-space, but that didn't stop her from wanting to hurl.
Moments later, she slammed into her restraints, feeling them stretch across her chest. Sight and sound returned as well and she blinked to focus. The ship decelerated as it approached a massive gray planet illuminated by a binary star set.
"You're hurting me," said Jordan.
"Oh, sorry." Dray let go of Jordan's hand, embarrassed at how tightly she had been clutching it.
"Ship status?" asked Malory.
"We're just outside the planetary orbit of an unmarked giant-class planet," Jenny replied. "No sign of local technology or habitation."
"Planetary vitals?" asked Malory.
"Gravity is 1.1 Terran-standard. Atmosphere is borderline," said Jenny.
"Which means?" asked Malory.
Red turned to her. "It means the air is breathable to humans but only for short periods. After three or more hours, the air will have detrimental effects. Human's will be ship-bound most of the time."
Malory leaned back. "Does this ship have a distress beacon?"
"We've got three," said Jenny.
"Good. Send off one with our situation and coordinates. Then take us planet-side."
The group spent a full cycle inside the transport after it landed, hoping in vain for a quick rescue. They took turns watching the prisoner after the binary stars set and an icy wind howled across the desolate landscape outside the ship. As the planet again lightened under the twin suns, Dray slid off her cot in the rear section of the transport. As a Cygna-major class ship, there were double the number of single-bunk sleep cubicles than their small group needed.
For the first time in months, Dray spent the night in a room without Jordan. She tossed fitfully and woke with a dull headache. Pulling on her wrinkled cadet uniform, Dray emerged into the center corridor. She walked toward the break room for food, pausing outside the cubicle that Jordan had chosen long enough to determine that her friend was either still asleep, or already at breakfast.
Dray stepped into the break room and greeted Jenny, who sat alone by the blank vid-screen.
"Where is everyone?" Dray asked as she poured herself a steaming mug of synth-coffee.
Jenny munched on a muffin. "Already out, most of them. Malory sent out exploration parties. I think she just wanted to give the younger cadets something to do. It's their first excursion off Zenon since they were accepted at the Academy."
"Jordan left too?"
Dray felt her head throb as she sank into a plasteen chair across from Jenny. She felt disappointed that Jordan hadn't woken her for the trip.
"What about you? How come you are still here?" Dray asked as she bit into a dry muffin.
"I just got off guard duty for Franklin. He's an odd one."
"Do you want to go exploring?" asked Dray. The thought of sitting inside the ship for another cycle seemed unbearable, especially with Jordan already outside somewhere.
Jenny drained her drink. "Sure. I'll report our plans to Malory, and then meet you by the rear doors in ten minutes."
Dray watched Jenny leave and then finished off her dull breakfast in a few quick bites. At least the ship was well stocked with two squadrons' worth of food and supplies. Maybe time planet-side would ease the ache in her head and her sense of loneliness.
"How long to do we have?" asked Dray as she clipped on a com-link and strapped a laser strafer over her shoulder.
Jenny tightened the straps on her backpack. "Malory's keeping trips down to an hour, just to be on the safe side. Red and Venkata have already gone off on a longer trip, since the atmosphere doesn't affect them."
Dray and Jenny hiked in silence along what looked like an ancient riverbed that sliced a narrow canyon between two towering cliffs. The air blew warm across Dray's exposed face and hands as they scrambled over boulders. It was already warming up and by the mid-day meal, they would all want to be locked inside the simulated climate within the transport ship.
"Any news on a rescue?" Dray asked.
"Nothing yet. But we've got an encrypted distress signal going from the ship as well as the beacon we sent back to Zenon before we landed. They'll come for us soon."
Dray brushed a dusty hand across her brow. "So, how's it going with you and Malory?"
Jenny frowned and looked away. "What do you mean?"
"Come on, she did the whole hero thing, back on Zenon. That's got to mean something."
"Yeah, I just wish I knew what."
Dray picked up a rock and tossed it along their path. "So is she back to her old self, then?"
"No. She's been very kind to me, actually. But she hasn't, well, we haven't really talked."
"Hmm. Not that I'm taking her side or anything, because I'm not. She's not good enough for you."
"Anyway, she's our C.O for now. And the commanding officer can't exactly be romancing one of the troops, now can she?"
"I suppose you're right." Jenny sighed. "I'm not even sure I want her to anyway. I mean, how do I trust her again?"
Movement caught Dray's attention and she didn't respond. She studied a series of rock formations jutting out from the left hand side of the canyon they were in. Something changed, shifted on the top of the rocks.
"Look," she said, pointing. "Did you see that?"
"What?" Jenny turned toward the rocks.
"Something up there. It moved."
Jenny pulled out a pair of binoculars and scanned the walls of the canyon. "I don't see anything."
She handed the binoculars Dray. Dray lifted them to her eyes and adjusted the focus. She scanned the rock formation again. When nothing out of the ordinary showed up, she flicked on the heat monitors and looked again. A dim haze of yellow and orange was superimposed over the face of the canyon walls, showing where the suns heated the surface. She saw nothing giving off any unusual heat reflection.
"Maybe I'm hallucinating," she said, handing the binoculars back to Jenny.
"I don't think so," Jenny laughed. "We'd have to be out here another hour or more before the atmosphere started playing with your mind."
"Then I'd start hallucinating?"
"Not right away. First you'd just get silly, like drinking too much alcohol. Then you'd hallucinate."
Dray stretched her back. "Then I'd drop dead?"
"If you're lucky. If not, you'd linger in a vegetative state for rotations, well into your old age."
"Nice," said Dray. "Feel like heading back?"
Jenny laughed. "Sure. You've seen one pile of rocks, you've seen them all."
To be continued in part 7.
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