Chapter 24 – Daredevil Pilot

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The hanger was abuzz with activity. The shuttle was coming in swiftly with some very unpleasant business following not far behind. The castle’s defenses were already on high alert, meaning all manner of weaponry was primed and pointed out at the inbound hostiles. With an incoming friendly moving awfully fast, tension was mounting for the ground crew.

“You’re coming in too hot! Break right and come around for another pass! I repeat, you are coming in too hot!” the controller frantically screamed over the radio, desperate to give his people a little breathing room.

The shuttle rocked back and forth as three large masses fired away, missing by only meters. They were wide ships, appearing to have no unified design in their hull. Almost as though they were grown rather than built. They sailed eerily gracefully high above the trees, bearing down on the single craft. The pilot–Roslin–was quite annoyed.

“That’s a negative, tower! We won’t last another pass! Main engine one has flamed out! Auxiliary power is failing! All defensive screens are buckling! We are coming in now! Prep for collision! Start powering the main shields now!” she fired back through her headset.

A renewed scramble claimed the hanger as they rigged for a crash landing. The tower controller was more than just a little flustered.

“Negative! We cannot engage the shields until you pass the threshold!” the flight controller shouted.

“Dammit, do it now!” Roslin swore, “That’s an order! The field will close just as we cross inside!”

“On whose authority!?” the controller asked angrily, not believing whoever this was had the right to make such a call.

A growl escaped the woman as she was rocked hard by another blast. That one was much closer. She was done playing. She needed to get everyone to do as they were told.

“Mine! This is Minister Terentia Roslin! Authenticate, five-five-delta-niner-sigma!” she roared over the radio.

Silence befell the controller as he ran the code. The tension level suddenly grew exponentially. If they all survived this crisis, he figured he was probably going to get demoted at best.

“Yes… Yes ma’am! Powering the shield now!” the controller said before he switched over to the castle’s internal PA system, calling out to the crew in the hanger below, “Alert! Disabled vehicle inbound! Changing designation to Wingloft 1! Repeat, changing designation to Wingloft 1! Minister Roslin is aboard! Ready all inertial stabilizers! Medical response teams on standby!”

Roslin sawed away at the yoke, struggling to maintain some degree of level flight. Impa did what she could from the co-pilot’s seat, keeping the ship together as long as possible. The team in the back remained strapped in as the lights turned from a gentle white to a harsh red. They were going to crash.

“Tower! How’s it coming on the guidance field!? I could really use a little help here!” Roslin shouted.

“It’s having a difficult time locking onto you, ma’am! Your flight pattern is too erratic! The safeties will not allow it to engage!” the controller replied.

“Override them!” Roslin ordered, “If you don’t get that field up and guide us in, we’re gonna plow right into the observation deck!”

“Stand by! Shields are going up now! Increase your speed! It’s going to sheer you in half!” the controller cried as he watched the already bad situation suddenly turn worse.

Roslin gripped the throttle and slammed it forward as far as it would go. The remaining thrusters whined louder as they were urged to accelerate. They would likely burn out, but not before the Minister managed to get them in the landing bay. The pale blue glow of the shield rose from below, threatening to carve into the shuttle like a roast bird. Roslin grit her teeth and held fast to her course. There was only so much speed she could call for from the engines.

“We’re not going to make it, my lady! We are at max thrust!” Impa called out over the noise of the rattling craft.

“If it’s one thing your people taught me, it’s never say die!” Roslin replied as she shoved the yoke forward, forcing the craft into a dive, aiming for the climbing edge of the shield.

The sudden boost in speed pushed both pilot and co-pilot into their seats. A warning prompt flashed in the windscreen alerting them to the danger of a collision. Two rows of numbers appeared, counting down rapidly, time to impact and distance.

“If I may,” Impa said calmly, still trying to work what controls she held sway over, “I would like to go on record saying this is a very reckless idea.”

“Noted!” Roslin shouted back, “Tower! Where’s that guidance field!?”

“It’s locking on now! Ten seconds!” the controller answered.

“Get ready for some more erratic flying!” the Minister replied, the only warning she could give at the moment.

She ignored the comment she could hear coming back through the radio as the controller pulled the microphone away from his mouth so she might not catch what he said.

“That crazy bitch is actually going for it!” he hissed to one of the others nearby.

The Minister decided to let it slide, just this once. Her comment about ‘erratic flight’ had been heard loud and clear. It was a general order to all within earshot. As the distance readout plummeted, Impa closed her eyes and began to recite something in an ancient dialect. Whatever it was she was saying, it irritated Roslin.

“You shut your mouth this instant! We’re not dying on my watch!” she snapped, “Tower! Fire up the field on my mark!”

The distance readout dropped further, frighteningly low, passing within fifty meters. Their speed read well above the danger threshold and the shuttle shook about violently, threatening to come apart at the seams. Immediately, Roslin pulled back hard on the yoke and leveled them out, rocketing across the edge of the rising barrier. It had been one hell of a gamble, but it had paid off. Unfortunately, there had been a cost to pay.

The tail of the craft was caught by the shield, sheering off a small portion of the rear stabilizer. It rocked the whole shuttle powerfully and knocked them off course dramatically. Alarms blared, lights flashed, and the controls grew even more difficult to wrangle, and yet Roslin held on, fighting until either they had landed, or they were dead.

“Mark!” the Minister shouted.

Within a matter of seconds of her voice reaching the tower, a soft orange light surrounded the whole of the vehicle. The passengers were jostled hard as their speed decreased at a dangerous pace. Roslin and Impa were thrown forward in their harnesses, then off to one side as the shuttle was forced to redirect towards the hanger’s opening. No doubt they would be sore from this little exercise. The ship rose rather dramatically, still moving at break neck speed but decelerating rapidly. The ground crew scattered and cleared the way as the shuttle sailed all too quickly into the hanger. The horrid sound of metal scraping against metal rang out as it slammed against the floor, screeching across the deck before finally coming to a rough stop as it bounced off the energized ‘crash net’.

All fell still as the shuttle came to rest. The pilot and co-pilot panted from exhaustion. The whole ordeal had been quite the workout. As soon as the vehicle was stationary, the ground crew pounced on it, ripping panels off, blasting flaming sections with extinguishers, emptying fuel lines, and disconnecting components to render the whole ship inert, as well as provide access to the team inside.

“First Minister! Are you alright!?” one of the ground staff shouted, terrified that he had been witness to the death of one of the most powerful members of the government.

Roslin waved a hand dismissively, disconnecting her harness as she climbed out of her seat unsteadily. Her first priority was her co-pilot. When she was satisfied Impa was unharmed for the most part, she turned her attention to the team in the hold.

“I’m fine, a little banged up but no worse for the wear. How’s the team?” Roslin asked.

“We’re removing them now. No major injuries except to Lieutenant Link. His shoulder has been dislocated. Great flying ma’am… a lesser pilot would have lost all hands.” the member of the ground staff said.

“Get him to the infirmary immediately,” Roslin ordered gently, then raised her voice as her rage came flaring back in full force, “And someone get me a damned status report on the incoming hostiles!”

A large group of people helped the Minister out of the shuttle wreckage, some offering her a change of clothes which she rather harshly refused.

“We detect three enemy craft on close inbound. We’ve not seen anything like this configuration before. We’re calling them cruisers for the time being. Long range sensors show more like them holding at a distance of twenty kilometers, our count is ten at the moment, but there appear to be more already en route. It’s an entirely fleet.”

“Clear the flight deck! Get this wreckage out of the way! Get the fighters ready for a sortie but do not launch until I give the word! We may have to take more drastic action!” Roslin commanded.

“Minister!” Link shouted, fighting to cut through the pain in his shoulder, “Minister, wait!”

Roslin turned and moved towards the Lieutenant, concerned something more was the matter than a dislocated joint.

“What is it, soldier?” she asked.

“I need to go with you,” Link said with a grunt, “Something’s wrong upstairs.”

“You are in no condition to escort me anywhere, Lieutenant. You really like messing up that shoulder of yours. You keep this going and your arm will fall right off. I commend your valor but you’re off duty until you’re mended.” Roslin replied.

As she turned to leave and bark the order to have them taken away, Link reached out and gripped her wrist, almost falling off the gurney he was on.

“No… I have to go with you!” he shouted then released her arm when he saw he had her attention and moved his right hand to rest over the back of his left palm, “If Impa can make this work, then so can I.”

He winced as he gripped his left hand, straining to find the place Impa had reached to trigger the mark’s power. He found the door, and it began to open. Light began to shine forth between his fingers as he cried out in agony. The golden brilliance under his hand began to seep forth around his shoulder. A sickening pop sounded as his shoulder was suddenly yanked back into socket and he gasped, taken quite by surprise. As quickly as the mind-searing pain began, it vanished and he flexed his fingers.

Roslin frowned as she watched the whole scene before her. He was learning fast. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. The medics began to examine him again and were stunned with the results.

“Minister… his shoulder… it’s like he was never injured in the first place.” one of the medics said in utter astonishment.

“I know,” Roslin said darkly, “Get him on his feet. He’s with me.”

She turned and began to hurry off through the hanger. Link was dragged up and took off after her and Impa. Saito and Bruno gave chase. They weren’t about to get left behind on this one.

As the ground crew began to clear the wreckage and reset for combat launch, the whole palace shook. Some were knocked to the ground. Some steadied themselves against a nearby wall. A voice came through the PA system from the command room.

“Hostiles have opened fire! Shields down to eighty-seven percent from the first volley alone!” reported a voice.

Roslin slammed a closed fist against a nearby intercom panel as Impa tried to help steady her, “All batteries! Return fire!”

The order echoed throughout the palace as the chain of command passed it on. The castle lit up with the blaze of two dozen heavy cannons offering their own volley in response. All three of the dark cruisers sailed forward as though they didn’t care. Explosions rocked the enemy ships but they seemed relatively unfazed, approaching with the same insistent malevolence. Roslin and her people raced through the corridors until they reached the command room, shaken back and forth by continued blasts from above.

“Report!” the Minister shouted as she made a bee line for the holographic display in the center of the room.

“Shields weakening! We’re below forty-three percent! All batteries firing! Enemy cruisers have suffered moderate damage but remain combat effective!” replied a nearby officer.

Roslin shoved her way to the holographic projector table in the center, pushing Yates away rudely.

“Get him out of the way! Have all batteries concentrate their fire on the two flanking ships! Try to locate a power source to target! If you can’t, then target their weapons! Bring the main railgun online!” the Minister shouted furiously.

Her orders were followed without question. Near the base of the mountain-like structure the palace sat upon, a ring of rock fell away, sliding down to reveal smooth metal. It spun slowly bringing a large, round aperture into view of the cruisers. From the aperture extended four long points, held together by a mesh of metal scaffolding that created a cylindrical cage. The whole structure lifted, rising to point at the lead cruiser as a violet light shined from deep inside. As the other guns divided their efforts between only two ships, the lead vessel found itself the only one able to fire.

“Minister, main railgun is online and primed. Flanking vessels have been disarmed and are attempting to retreat. Lead vessel is pressing the attack.” reported one of the officers stationed nearby.

“All batteries continue targeting the retreating ships,” Roslin pressed a holographic button on the table in front of her, bringing up a list of commands from which she selected one and began entering an authorization code, “Railgun Control Room… target the lead vessel.”

She waited for confirmation, watching as the two retreating craft began to fall out of the sky, exploding from the heavy damage they had suffered. The batteries then went quiet.

“Fire.”

The violet light glowing deep within the base of the cannon intensified as energy arced off the four points. A deafening thud split the silence and a bolt of brilliant purple raced up along the barrel. It moved with blinding speed. In the blink of an eye, it had left the end of the cannon and struck the lead cruiser. It hadn’t so much impacted it but rather it passed completely through the vessel and continued on with tremendous haste off into the sky, carrying chunks of the craft with it. The single remaining cruiser crumbled and exploded, falling to the ground in a heap of strange non-metallic wreckage.

A cry of victory passed through the whole of the mountain and palace. Roslin sighed in relief, letting her head hang in a relaxed fashion for a brief moment before taking up her usual posture. Now that she had a chance to compose herself, she intended to handle the situation with the proper degree of poise. She examined her glasses to see if they were damaged, then slipped them on to make herself look more presentable.

“Hail the cultist fleet. Let’s see if they’re willing to talk now.” the Minister said.

Link frowned as he moved to stand near her. There was a very uneasy feeling filling him. His hand was aching fiercely. The mark was pulsing.

“We’re attempting to get external communications back online ma’am. Stand by.” replied one of the officers.

With a brief respite provided, Roslin felt just a bit more at ease, “Get the main shield recharged. I want a damage report. Move all non-essential personnel off site. Has the Potentate been relocated to a safe position?”

“Yes ma’am. She was moved at the onset of the attack.” reported another officer.

“Good. Have her escape shuttle on standby. I don’t want us caught with our pants down,” Roslin said then turned to the Regent standing a short ways away, looking rather displeased with him, “What in the hell was that!? You were in command for less than a day and you managed to screw it up so bad we almost lost the Zora platform itself! Then we get attacked by whatever those things are the cultists have under their command! We should have seen at least some of this coming! Hell the palace shield should have been activated long before my shuttle got in range! What do you have to say for yourself!?

Link reached out, taking Roslin by the shoulder to pull her back away. Her anger was terribly powerful, but there was something he couldn’t articulate about the situation that he needed to protect her from. She shook his hand off while Yates cleared his throat, ready to defend himself.

“I am no military commander, your Excellency.” the Regent said.

“Do not call me that!” Roslin shouted, her words slow and loud, her fury seeping forth with each punctuation, “It’s either Minister, or ma’am! And I don’t give a damn what your background is! You should know how to give an order!”

“Minister Roslin, is there a point to emasculating me in front of the entire command staff?” Yates asked, sounding terribly annoyed.

The furious woman narrowed her eyes, “You bet your ass there is. There were only a handful of people who knew anything more than the basics for this mission. Even fewer knew the target coordinates. Our shuttle flew in low under the radar and masked its transponder, I know. I was there. I gave the order. There is only one possible way the enemy could have known our position. The security breach. And of all the people who knew enough specifics to pass that information on, you were the only one not actually out on mission.”

The Regent frowned deeply, his usual calm and measured exterior beginning to melt away into a look of anger.

“If you do not mind me asking ma’am, just what are you insinuating?” he asked as his voice dripped with disdain.

“I’m not insinuating anything! I’m accusing!” Roslin shouted, if she had been an animal, all the fur along her back would be standing on end and she would be bearing her fangs at the Regent, “You are the security breach! You handed us over to them on a silver platter!”

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