It didn’t take long for Drianna to get the requisite permissions to have Kenian accompany them. Something about the Chief’s ready agreement set her teeth on edge. She left his office to pass the news to Kenian and then made her way to the hangar, nodding at familiar faces along the way. On the way, she passed by supply requisition and stopped, spotting Ashrinn inside.
Her uniform was pristine, washed and pressed, her insignia badge gleaming in the detachment’s sterile light. Her strawberry blond hair was neat and tied back in a regulation ponytail. She exchanged polite words with the supply clerk, but didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the conversation, her gaze wandering around the room. Spotting Drianna, Ashrinn waved.
“Are you ready to go?” Drianna asked.
She nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“You seem nervous.”
Ashrinn frowned, rubbing the back of her head. “Something feels…wrong about this mission, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Can you elaborate?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, Captain. You know how it is with those feelings I get.”
“Your instinct hasn’t steered us wrong yet, but you’ve never been this vague before.” At Ashrinn’s helpless expression, she continued. “If you get a stronger feeling later, speak up.”
“Aye, Captain.” Ashrinn nodded. She hefted a satchel over her shoulder. “Supply thought we may need extras.” She grimaced. “These things are heavy.”
The hangar bay was, as usual, a busy place. The stone floored room with its high domed ceiling was massive and bustling with mechanics, agents going out, agents bringing captured targets in, and fuel trucks zooming around. With practiced ease, the two women headed towards the front of the bay where their ship should be. She trusted Yumori to have let Jiyandi know it was time to prep for launch.
Sure enough, there it was.
The boarding ramp was down. Their polished, regulation boots clanked on the metal as they walked up and into the body of the ship. Inside, Drianna pressed the button that retracted the ramp and closed the door, sealing it shut. Together, they walked to the bow.
Jiyandi was already in her pilot’s chair. Her jacket sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. With her light blue hair, she was a rare sight in the Agency as her people almost never left the coast. Her strange hair colour and angled black eyes set her people apart from the humans that had settled on Atharia so long ago. Their name was unpronounceable, so in typical human fashion the first settlers had dubbed her people Swimmers. It was an apt, if rather bland, moniker given that her people could breathe underwater and built cities that floated on the oceans. They’d allowed humans to settle the rest of the planet as they had no use for anything further in from the coast.
Jiyandi ran through her pre-flight system’s check, making sure there were no bugs in the system that could cause problems along the way. She took extra care in checking the fuel, armour, weapons, and navigation systems as those had caused problems in the past.
“Where’s our passenger?” Drianna asked, shutting the door to the bridge behind her.
“He’s secured in the bay,” Jiyandi said without looking up from her consoles. Her voice had a liquid, soothing quality to it. “He wanted to be here, but I told him he’d get in the way now. He’s free to come back once we’ve achieved a stable altitude.”
“Good.” Drianna nodded, sitting down in her chair while Ashrinn sat down at the weapon’s console. “I’d rather not have him on board at all, but there’s not much I can do about that.”
Jiyandi shook head, her long braid snaking across her back with the motion. “I know very little about the Datroya Plains, so I appreciate the help.”
“I thought you Swimmers were good at navigating,” Ashrinn teased.
Jiyandi’s black eyes locked with Ashrinn’s green ones. “Have you ever flown over that place?”
Ashrinn shook her head. “No,” she admitted. “I completed my training in the Atraya District.”
Jiyandi snorted and turned back to her consoles. “You’ll see why we’re wary of this place soon enough, then. For now… sit back while we get our bird ready for flight.”
Soon afterwards, with all systems found operational, Jiyandi hailed the control tower. “This is the Shrike requesting permission to launch.”
A moment later, a man’s voice came over the com. “Shrike, we’ve received your flight plan. Be advised that you proceed with extreme caution. I repeat, extreme caution. There are several storm systems that will converge on the plains in the next few hours.”
“Control, I will take that under advisement.”
“Shrike, you have a go for launch.”
“Copy that.” She turned the com off. “Buckle in. We’re getting out of here. ETA is five hours.” She flipped a few switches to put the engines from standby into active mode. A few more button presses later and the Shrike was airborne, its landing gear retracting as it inched forward. Once they were clear of the hangar, Jiyandi increased the engine’s power and pulled the ship higher into the sky.
Drianna smiled as the Shrike shot upwards into the clear sky and then leveled out, flying north northwest towards the plains.
* * *
Shortly before the Shrike entered the airspace over the Datroya Plain, Kenian joined the rest of the crew in the cockpit. Ashrinn watched him with thinly disguised curiosity. Her lip twitched as he stared at Jiyandi in her pilot’s chair. As was her habit, she was whistling to herself as she manipulated the controls. Ashrinn knew she was simply talking to herself in her native language. Even though Ashrinn had known Jiyandi for years, and had lived around Swimmers her whole life, the sight of Jiyandi’s blue hair sometimes gave her pause. Based on Kenian’s reaction to the whistling and her bright hair, she guessed he wasn’t as familiar with Atharia’s aquatic people as the crew was.
Kenian wobbled ever so slightly in place, grabbing hold of a rail bolted to the wall beside her station. The ship was equipped with inertial dampeners, so his difficulty was likely related to his physical condition. She stood and offered him her chair.
“I think you need it more than I do,” she explained. “I can stand.”
“Don’t you need to man your station?” he asked, eyeing the chair with poorly disguised longing.
“Until we reach our destination, I don’t have much to do. Standing beside it will suffice for now.”
He flashed a grateful smile at her before sitting down, peering out of the main viewscreen as he absentmindedly scratched at the back of his hands. His eyes wandered to the belt around her waist. “Do you usually carry a weapon?”
“We’re heading into a hostile situation, so I’d rather be armed and not need it than the other way around.”
“I take it, then, that all is ready for infiltrating the compound?” Drianna asked.
Ashrinn nodded, though her eyes were glued to the viewscreen. “Stunners are charged and waiting at the hatch with several sets of magcuffs.”
Drianna nodded, pleased.
“Which way do we go from here, Mr. Deepwood?” Jiyandi asked. Her voice was chipper.
“Head for the Tassren Spire, then turn thirty-six degrees left and keep going. You’ll see a long chain of dunes. You can’t follow them straight through or you’ll wind up in the middle of a dead zone. Most technology doesn’t function well there and I’m sure you’d rather your ship not crash.”
“Not crashing would be ideal,” Yumori commented.
“Can this ship hover?” Kenian asked.
“Not well, but it can,” Jiyandi confirmed.
“That’s perfect. Once you get to the dunes, you’ll need to stop and look for a pattern. There are two: one looks like a winding river while the other looks like a v. Go straight through the middle of the v until you see no more dunes. There should be a cliff face to the left. Go towards it for a while and then turn right.”
At the speed the Shrike was traveling, it wasn’t long before they reached the Spire. Jiyandi made the appropriate course correction and continued on.
Ashrinn watched the dunes passing by, spotting the wreckage of ships brought down by the anomalies in the area. Judging from what little she could see of them, they were old, most likely dating back at least five centuries. She wondered how many more were out there that she couldn’t see. Even these few were barely visible above the windblown desert sand. A glint of white caught her eye, likely animal bones.
She frowned, suppressing a shudder. “This seems like a roundabout way to get there.”
“It is, but it’s the safest way. There are some nasty eddies around here that can wreak havoc with your navigation systems. They’ve caused more than a dozen crashes over the last twenty years.”
Jiyandi nodded. “My people avoid this place. I’m the first one to go within a hundred feet of it since the last war created this wasteland. I’ve never heard of these… eddies, as you call them, but their existence makes sense.”
“You’re taking him at his word, then?” Yumori asked.
“It corroborates things I’ve learned about my people’s history, things that happened when we were less civilized. It’s a time we don’t like to think about, but we’re taught about what happened to prevent history from repeating itself.”
Ashrinn frowned and turned to gaze back out the window. “How much further is it, Mr. Deepwood?”
“I’d say not more than another ten or fifteen more minutes.” He looked up at her. “Please, call me Kenian. It makes me feel old when people call me Mr. Deepwood.”
“This is official business,” Drianna said. “To refer to you by first name would be unprofessional.”
Kenian sighed. “I suppose that’s fair.” He gestured at some rock formations coming up on the screen. “We’re here.”
Jiyandi looked down at her console, back up at the screen, and then back down. “Are you sure about that? I’m not picking up anything on the sensors.”
“This is it.” Kenian stood and walked up to the screen, looking around.
“Then explain the lack of…anything on the sensors,” Jiyandi said, gesturing at the left-hand side of the console. “No energy readings, no biologicals, nothing.”
Kenian rubbed his temples. “I was afraid of this. They were bound to notice my absence, but I’d hoped the Agency would get to my interrogation sooner than they did. Asharos isn’t stupid. He probably put the compound in lockdown mode.”
Ashrinn felt her heart lurch in her chest, her throat constricting. It was a sensation she was all-too familiar with from previous missions. As she opened her mouth to say something, Jiyandi’s console screamed, lights flashing.
“Captain, I’m reading a tremendous buildup of energy coming from within the compound,” Jiyandi said.
“I thought you said there was nothing on the sensors,” Drianna said.
“There wasn’t. One dua it wasn’t, then it was.”
“Can you identify its source?” Drianna asked. The ship rocked violently. “What was that?”
Kenian moved so Ashrinn could check the screens at her console. “We’re being hit by some kind of…energy discharge.” She looked back at Drianna. “It’s coming from somewhere underground.”
“Lady’s tits!” Drianna swore through gritted teeth. “Get the shields up! Evasive maneuvers!”
Another blast hit them. “That almost took out our engines,” Yumori yelled. “Whatever this is is cutting through our shields.”
“Put as much power as you can into the shield,” Drianna yelled.
“Aye,” Yumori said, struggling to be heard over the warning klaxons.
The next blast cut straight through the shields and punched a hole in the ship’s starboard side. Yumori’s hands danced over his console, rushing to put up the emergency force field.
More blasts rocked the ship. Yumori was thrown from his chair, hitting his head on the way down. A moment later the ship exploded.