Back | Next

3: Into the Blue

The mission seemed destined to drive Mikhail insane. Not that it would be a very long trip at any given time according to his U.C. psych evaluations.

There was no simple way to get a boat or two in space. The Swordfish wouldn't fit into the Svoboda, and if it had anything like a longboat or dory, it had drifted into deep space before the Plymouth Station work crew showed up. Similarly wilderness survival gear was limited. The most likely reason was because Plymouth Station was in orbit around a planet still in the throes of the initial terraforming stage. Landing on it was not an option, so Plymouth stocked no equipment.

Paradise, before the nefrim attack, had boats. Lieutenant Belokurov returned Mikhail's queries with news that currently the coast towns were too radioactive to investigate and no one was taking Imperial credits.

"Obviously the universe doesn't want you to have boats, Captain," His second-in-command Semyon Furtsev was not happy with the mission. He was maintaining a running line of sarcastic comments, punctuated by a short dry sound that was a mix of laughter and disgust. "The runabout can handle shallow water."

"Perhaps it was just as well," Mikhail said. "Most of our crew has only seen an ocean from orbit. They'd have no clue as to how to handle a boat."

Furtsev gave his scoffing laugh yet again. "The whole point of being a ship's Captain is coming out a war hero, not flushing us down the galactic toilet, never to be seen again."

That was what Mikhail liked about Furtsev; he wasn't one to grovel in worship of the Volkov godhead. Nor did he grudgingly give Mikhail his proper respect. He had held his judgment, waited to see what Mikhail had been made of, and then backed him fully.

"We've gone over their data twice so far," Mikhail pointed out. "It proves that Fenrir has found some odd corner of the universe to fall into . . ."

"And if someone dives into the sun, we're to dive in too?"

"In this instance, yes."

Furtsev scoffed again. "The loyalist party will be furious."

"It invariably is. I don't think it's ever been pleased with me, which is somewhat ironic since they're the ones that asked Ivan to create me."

"They were thinking of the madness that went on after Viktor disappeared without an heir."

"So instead they have an heir they don't want to see inherit."

"You ask a demon for his get, you get hell spawn. If the nobles don't like it, it's their own fault."

It wasn't that Mikhail wanted to inherit either, but when his father did die, Mikhail would be a serious roadblock to anyone wanting to take power. If he managed to outlive his father—his military career might eliminate the need to worry about such things—Mikhail was going to have take over or be killed. No one would ever believe that the clone of Viktor the Great would just quietly disappear.

There was a great deal of genetic material left of Viktor, albeit now over fifty years old. He was fairly sure that the only reason his father and the loyalists didn't start the production of another clone to replace Mikhail was there was no certainty that the next one would turn out any better. Instead everyone sat around waiting to see if Mikhail could redeem himself.

It gave his life a certain sense of being strapped to an invisible bomb. Furtsev was one of the few men that seemed able to understand Mikhail's position.

There was a scratch on the door as Turk ignored the door chime to rake his claws down the outside panel. Things must not have gone well on Paradise.

Mikhail keyed open his door. Turk leaned against the doorframe, filling the doorway with tall, dark annoyance.

"No Reds?" Mikhail guessed the source of Turk's annoyance.

"I got them." Turk brushed into the room, apparently annoyed past military niceties. He was coming to Mikhail as a brother, not an officer. It meant something personally unsettling happened.

"Settle dominance?" Furtsev asked.

"No. I haven't sorted out which one is their top cat yet. The owner left dominance issues to her Red commander, but he was killed in the last raid. They contend that the top cat was killed too and they haven't bothered to figure it out. More they say yes, the more I think no, and it has me worried."

"Why?" Furtsev asked.

"Because at least two would say they were top cat," Turk said.

"Someone is in control," Mikhail murmured.

"Yes," Turk said. "That he's got all them covering for him means that they're a unified group. It's going to be hard to blend them in. I'm going to keep them separated out for now."

"We're jumping in . . ." Mikhail consulted his timepiece. "Less than an hour."

"When we go in," Furtsev said. "The last thing we need is the Reds fighting each other."

Turk shrugged. "I'll suit them up and strap them in for a combat drop and tell them nothing else. In a combat situation, they'll hold off any infighting."

"You sure?" Mikhail asked.

"They should," Turk said. "That's the way they've been trained."

"Get us ready for the jump." Mikhail ordered Furtsev to give him a chance to talk to Turk alone. Furtsev snapped a salute and left. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." Turk growled

"You sure?" Mikhail carefully gripped him by the shoulder. Turk wouldn't intentionally hurt him, but that didn't mean he wouldn't accidentally whack Mikhail a good one if startled. "We're going in blind. We need everyone to be sharp."

Turk nodded his understanding. Mikhail hoped there would be more; some clue to what triggered Turk's mood.

Turk did, though, what Turk normally did. He took a deep breath and released it, putting his hurt and anger aside. They were polar-opposites in that way. "I'm fine."

Mikhail gave Turk's shoulder a small shake. "You know that I love you?"

Turk's eyes widened. "Now you're scaring me. You've never said that before a mission before—you think we're jumping into nothing."

"If I really thought that, I wouldn't go. But . . ." Deep down he was screaming in terror? "I can't help feeling as if we're about to do a hugely stupid thing."

"We are." Turk shrugged. "When did that ever stop us?"

"I'll have you know, I've only done things I thought were intelligent . . .at the time."

Turk gave him a grin and cuffed him. "Come on, let's shake the universe and see what falls out."

* * *

War was all about acting on scanty data and assumptions. The Volkovs excelled at making the correct assumptions on the barest facts. It was how Viktor went from an indentured plaything of the idle rich to the first Tsar once he forged all the Russian descendant colonies into an empire. It was how Ivan made his way from puppet ruler to a Tsar in his own right. Mikhail knew he had the gift, but he'd never had to act so blindly.

The Swordfish was a vital clue that the ships were in an Earth-like environment. One gravity. Breathable astrosphere. Bodies of water. Some land. At least partially terraformed. Compared to the hell under Plymouth Station, a viable paradise. That the Fenrir was on the planet and not in orbit was a clue that the coordinates would probably bring them out inside the planet's gravity well. Perhaps even at a very low altitude. If this was an Earth-like planet in regards of orbit, and the Svoboda came out at a dead stop, they'd be stationary while the planet moved at an orbital speed of roughly thirty kilometers per second. Hopefully they wouldn't come out in the path of the planet, else they could quickly become a bug on the planetary windshield. And any momentum that they had would speed that process up.

A quiet hush went over the crew as Mikhail walked onto the Svoboda's cramped bridge. It was times like now that Mikhail felt like a conductor of an orchestra. His crew waited silently at their stations, watching for the upswing of the baton. He settled into his chair by the lift, and started the music.

"All monitors to exterior view," Mikhail said. "I want to see what we're jumping into."

Local space took form around Mikhail, cloaking him into darkness.

A light flared amber on the operations board.

"What is that?" Mikhail asked.

"We've got a fight in Alpha Red," Operations said. "They've taken out . . ..the lockdown mechanism . . .and triggered damage control."

"Commander Turk is responding," Furtsev reported. "He says to go ahead with the jump."

"Keep an eye on it," Mikhail ordered. "Let's lose our velocity."

"Decreasing velocity to zero," Helm said.

"I believe we will be coming out in low planetary orbit," Mikhail said. "If we do, we need to immediately deploy the wings."

"Wings standing by," Planetary said. "VTOL engines all green."

"I want shields up as soon as we come out of jump," Mikhail said.

"Shields standing by," Defense answered.

"Velocity zero." Helm reported.

"Okay people, let's do this," Mikhail said.

Helm counted down the jump. "Warp field generation in five, four, three, two . . ."

The field flashed over him, making the hair on his arms stand up. There was a deep hum as if the universe was picking up the tune of Mikhail's music. The vibration went down to the bone. His vision filled with the color of wine . . .

 . . .and then brilliance filled the bridge. Pure, endless blue encircled Mikhail, shining off the pale faces of his crew.

"We're in orbit!" Mikhail cried as his crew sat stunned. "Deploy wings. VTOL engines ready to active on wing lock! Shields! Status? What is our . . ."

Green eclipsed the front cameras.

Land? In the sky?

Mikhail glanced quickly to see if the Svoboda's wings had been extended and locked. "Right VTOL engines at maximum! Hard to right! Turn! Turn!"

* * *

Turk was riding the jump out in Beta Red with his veteran Reds. He'd put the replacements in Alpha Red. Usually nothing unified a group better than engaging an enemy. Until one presented itself, though, he was going to keep the two separate.

He hated sitting in the pit in full combat gear, wondering what was happening on the bridge. He'd learned the hard way, though, once they were in position, he had to be with his Reds to move them into action. Seconds counted.

His comline chimed and Furtsev said, "Turk, we've got an alarm in Alpha Red. The cameras showed a fight breaking out before we lost visual."

Turk swore. He'd told the replacements that they were going in hot. That should have kept them settled. "I'll take care of it."

He unstrapped and ducked out of Beta Red. Unlike his veterans, he had the replacements locked into their pit. He coded the door to only temporarily unlock, and automatically shut and seal behind him. The last thing he wanted was the replacements taking the fight into the rest of the ship.

The replacements were unstrapped and pounding on each other in a full out free-for-all. The little space was filled with grappling bodies and hoarse angry growling.

"We're going hot! Prepare for combat!" Turk bellowed, wading into them. "Get into your seats."

They were used to brawling between themselves. The crèche only taught maneuvers effective against nefrim. It was obvious as he moved through them, plucking up one after another and judo throwing them into seats that they'd never seen human martial arts.

He'd thrown the last one into a seat, shouting, "Strap in! We're about to jump blind!" when he felt the jump. All his senses protested being shoved through a hole in time and space. There was that jolt of heat and cold and smell and blindness and nausea all at once and then it was over. "We're in enemy territory. Prepare to . . ."

And then he saw the trap. The cover was off the airlock control pad. Wires trailed down from the panel to the Red nearest the door. He had a moment to register that the Red was Butcher, the biggest of the replacements, the one he'd pegged as the top cat.

And then both doors of the airlock opened.

Depressurization blasted him out the door in a roaring explosion. He never had a chance to even reach for handhold. He expected black, stars, silence and death. Endless blue surrounded him. The roaring continued as he fell away from the Svoboda. They'd jumped into a planet's atmosphere! He tumbled madly for a moment. Then his training kicked in and he righted himself.

They were so deep into the envelope of oxygen that the air was pale to almost white instead of the deep blue of the outer edge. There was a huge landmass floating in mid-air. Green jungle, shimmering lakes, and darting brilliant-colored birds burned into his mind. The island ended abruptly in a steep cliff, and far, far below lay an ocean. Between water and island there was nothing but sky. Both he and the Svoboda were falling. He was going to miss the island. But the Svoboda was going to hit it.

"Pull up!" He shouted into his comline. "Fire the damn VTOL engines!"

The Svoboda's wings were unfolding with maddening slowness even as it careened sideways as if jerked on an invisible string. It nearly looked like they might miss.

"Come on! Come on!"

But then wings locked into place and the VTOL engines fired just as the ship rolled. The resulting vector slammed the ship into the jungle.

Turk howled in helpless dismay and continued to fall toward the water, far, far below.

Back | Next