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Proximity warning claxons shattered the silence in the space shuttle. Navigation Officer Selandra responded by quickly tapping pads on the Nav console with both hands.
"Sir, a ship just appeared in sensor range," she reported over her shoulder, her tone sharp with urgency.
"Identification?" From the co-pilot's seat to her right, Denali scanned his instruments and the viewscreen. Ships were rare on this frontier of space. Had the activity of the Panesh ship dropping off their passengers attracted unwanted attention to the shuttle? His muscles tensed as his fingers touched controls on the panel in front of him.
"Too far away yet." She spoke crisply while performing her Nav duties.
"Let me know as soon as you identify it."
Two minutes later, Selandra hissed at him, "Malchovists! They're closing fast!"
Shock rocketed through him, and he stiffened. Anger and hatred followed quickly, spurting fire into his veins. Malchovists were the Felisians' mortal enemies and the foes of every other species in Unified Sentient Planets, or USP. They were indiscriminant killers who raided unprotected colonies, as they'd done to the Felisians' own colony, Felis II, in its infancy.
"Wake Beratim!" he ordered Selandra, while he disengaged the piloting from the computer. He was a communications officer, not a pilot. He knew how to operate the shuttle, but in a fight or flight situation, he knew to delegate to the person with the most skill. Selandra sprinted toward the back of the shuttle, her long bronze mane flying out behind her.
Normally Felisians would fight Malchovists fiercely, but their shuttle was no match for a spaceship in maneuverability,speed or weaponry. Besides, they had their Bonwee passenger on board....
His mind froze in horror for a second, skittering to a stop at the thought of petite Mala Avonee, captured by the Malchovists. Because of the Bonwee species' capacity for languages, two other Bonwees had been captured in the past and both had been horribly abused. The Malchovists would systematically torture, rape and starve her until they got whatever compliance or information they wanted out of her. The rest of those on board the shuttle would die, but she would be mistreated until she wished for death. No! Denali wouldn't let that happen; he would rather kill her himself than allow her to suffer at their hands.
At the sound of bare feet slapping a staccato on the decking, Denali glanced around. The shuttle pilot, Beratim, a young man of nineteen, dashed from the sleeping berths, still in his black military issue pajamas. He'd cut the top of his mane short, but let the rest hang to his shoulder blades.
Denali moved over to the Com station. As his two officers strapped on their harnesses, he turned back to the passenger section where Mala sat with her large Grimari bodyguard, Tarana.
"Belt in. We've got company. Malchovists!" He had no time to think in Basic, the language of USP, so Mala would have to translate to Tarana. He knew Mala understood the peril when he saw her face pale. He put on his harness and his earpiece and spoke into the Com, trying to remain calm, even as his heart raced. Their space ship was six minutes away for messages, even longer than that for anything more. He squelched that thought.
"This is BQN2 shuttle. We have Malchovists in this sector. We're being pursued and are beginning evasive maneuvers. Do you copy BQN-3210?"
This wasn't supposed to happen. Their voyage was a routine passenger transport, a favor for USP. Pick up Mala and Tarana from the Panesh and deliver them to the planet Felis II to await the next transport to the USP interior two weeks hence. "An uneventful trip" was how Captain SoAhnor had described Denali's first command assignment. It might turn into a ride through an exploding nova instead.
While he waited for what now seemed an interminable lag time, he turned toward Beratim and Selandra. He was in charge of this mission, so he'd do the best he could. "Any success at evading them, Beratim?"
"No sir, but I'm trying." The young man's voice quavered slightly.
"Status, Selandra?" Denali asked.
"They're almost within firing range--for both of us."
"Fire only if you can hit something. Look for a planet or moon to hide behind."
A minute later the first hit rocked the shuttle and threw him forward against his harness. The lights flickered. A second, smaller jostling indicated Selandra had returned fire with the laser weaponry on board.
"Status reports?" Denali barked.
"They hit one of our engines!" Beratim exclaimed, his voice going high with anxiety. "I've lost some maneuverability and a lot of speed."
"They're trying to disable us," Selandra cried.
"We fight to the death if we can't get away. Agreed?" Denali demanded.
"Agreed!" Selandra snarled. She was almost his age, old enough for the attacks on the Felis II colony to have been told to her as an impressionable child.
"Agreed," Beratim said, less vehemently. He didn't have the proximity to the past that Denali and Selandra had, but he was Felisian, and the Malchovists were his enemy.
Denali turned to Mala and Tarana. Tarana's black eyes were alert and she had a laser weapon in her big hands already. Mala was very pale, making her green eyes appear huge in her face. He took a deep breath and schooled himself to speak in Basic to Tarana as he addressed her directly. He wasn't fluent enough to speak it naturally under stress, and she didn't speak the Felisian language like Mala did.
"The Malchovists want to disable the shuttle so they can board. We will try to get away. We will fight if we have to, but if they board and we lose the fight, you must kill Mala. If something happens to you, I will kill her. Do you understand?" It was imperative that Tarana understand. Mala could not risk capture.
"I understand. I will not let Mala be taken!" Tarana's face was fierce, skin dark and taut with menace. Her species were the fiercest warriors in USP.
"Tara," Mala protested, but Tarana began speaking rapidly in what Denali had come to recognize was the Grimari language, all gutturals and harshness.
He turned back to the Com as the return message came in from their ship. "Shuttle, this is BQN-3210. We're coming! What's your position shuttle?" First Com's voice held more than a note of anxiety.
"Selandra, where are we now?" Denali asked.
As Selandra began to yell coordinates, another blast hit the Nav side of the ship. The Nav station exploded in a shower of sparks that threw her backward to the floor. Denali stared in horror at the bloody mess that had been his friend and knew that she was dead. He looked up to find Beratim gaping at Selandra's body. Tears rolled down the young man's cheeks.
"Veer away, Beratim!" Denali snapped at the pilot out of his shock.
"Yes, sir." Beratim turned back to his controls.
Denali spoke rapidly into the Com. "This is BQN2 shuttle. We're hit! One engine is disabled. Nav is destroyed. Selandra is dead. Last known position was 24.352 by 16.481. We've now veered off course. We'll hide if we can; otherwise we'll turn and fight. The Bonwee will not be captured. Hurry!"
Denali slipped off his earpiece and harness and moved to the co-pilot's seat. "How are you doing, Beratim?"
He tried to project a calm he didn't feel. His heart slammed against his chest with the knowledge that the final minutes of his life were ticking away too fast. He hadn't even had a chance to tell Mala the startling thoughts he'd had about her since she'd boarded--thoughts of an impossible interspecies relationship, even a mate bond. How could he have found his permanent mate--someone not even Felisian--only to lose her? They hadn't had a chance at all. He fought off blind panic.
Beratim talked too rapidly with a voice gone high with panic. "It's hard to maneuver and it's slow moving."
"Can you turn enough to make a direct hit when we fire?"
"I think so. Sir, I wanted to live a little longer than this!" It was a wail from the heart that Denali echoed.
"So did I. So let's do what we can to take these blasted Malchovists with us."
The shuttle turned ponderously and the Malchovists' ship came into view to fill the viewscreen. "You know the weak spots, Beratim?"
"Yes, sir. I learned them in pilot's training."
"I'll hold the shuttle steady and you fire, all right?"
"Yes, sir." Beratim fired, but nothing happened.
Denali frowned over the instruments. Were they damaged? "Did you miss?"
"No, sir. I don't know what happened. I'll try again."
Beratim fired again and suddenly the Malchovist ship exploded like a sun going nova. Denali threw his arm over his eyes to lessen the brightness of the explosion, while with the other hand he tried desperately to turn the shuttle away from the direction of the blast. Beratim helped with the struggle, but the shuttle was showered with debris, from small particles to massive chunks of hull. The thumps on the hull rattled Denali's brain with percussive shock waves. The shuttle was rocked over and over and pushed along increasingly fast and out of control in the wake of the explosion.
There was a massive thump, then they lost power and the emergency lights came on. Oxygen masks dropped and Denali and Beratim donned theirs. Denali glanced back to see Mala and Tarana had donned their masks as well.
"Shuttle, do you read? Shuttle, this is BQN-3210 responding to your distress call. What's your status?" There was panic in First Com's voice as he called the shuttle. Denali could feel a corresponding panic that increased as internal gravity in the shuttle was lost. His stomach roiled.
"I have to go to Com," he told Beratim. "Can you handle piloting for a few minutes?"
"Yes sir. Nothing to do right now, but go where we're being pushed."
Denali unharnessed and floated out of his seat, swimming in the zero gravity towards the Com station. He finally grabbed the back of the Com seat and brought his body close to the communicator. He took a quick breath from the oxygen mask over the Com.
Posted July 27, 2011
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Posted September 3, 2011
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