Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 23

Shuttle Prydwen, Whixby
January 2400
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The Prydwen shuddered almost the moment they took off, and Thawn kept her grip on the co-pilot’s controls tight even as she read the display. Somehow, watching a storm front looming on sensors was less stressful than looking through the canopy, where the seas churned and the skies roiled.

‘I really need you,’ she said in a tight, slightly high-pitched voice, ‘to be absolutely sincere in how well you can fly. So I can map you the best route through this storm.’

Beckett didn’t look up from the pilot’s controls, but he did make a face. ‘How am I supposed to quantify that?’ he said, and the Prydwen lurched as a thick gust of wind took them. His hands scrabbled to compensate, and though they accelerated, it was not what Thawn would call smooth.

‘You said you were a better pilot than me! So I assume you have a level of piloting qualification…’

‘If I said I did,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘would that tell you just how deep into the storm you can take us?’ She’d set what she’d thought was a generous course the moment they’d started to power up, but already the storm was intensifying; whatever was going on in orbit was not messing around. ‘Just give me the heading. I know we’re not flying right through the eye of the bloody thing, but don’t handle me with kid gloves.’

‘I notice,’ she said a little frantically, though she still adjusted the course heading as they swept on a north-eastern route, ‘you haven’t really answered the question.’

There was a beat. ‘I was in a flight team at the Academy.’

Tension gripping her throat, Thawn’s gaze came up. Out of the canopy she could see the winds raking across Sanditor below, buildings buffeted, trees bent at a bough-breaking angle. High seas already tore across the docks, and she could see boats ripped away, piers battered and broken. None of this island paradise had been built for a cyclone. ‘How good a flight team?’

‘Okay, so I was the bottom-rated pilot of the bottom-rated flight team -’

Beckett –

Someone has to be!’ he pointed out. ‘The team needed a spot filling, I still qualified, and I was against a bunch of people who’re in red shirts now! I don’t fly professionally, I fly for fun!’

‘This isn’t fun!’

‘You’re right! You’re here!’

Her lips thinned, and she reached for the nav controls again. ‘I’m giving us a wider berth of the cyclone -’

‘Look out there, Thawn. Do you think Sanditor has even the extra minutes that’ll take? Stay the course, I can handle it.’ And before she could adjust or counter, he’d hit the impulse thrusters for massive acceleration, the Prydwen shooting away from the island and towards the storm-boiled seas. ‘Keep an eye out on sensors for the Bedivere.’

‘I know,’ she hissed. ‘But you know, there are worse places to be in a storm than a shuttle. It might not be pleasant, but even if it’s seabound they should be able to weather it.’

‘That really depends on what made Harkon crash, doesn’t it.’

Thawn made a face. ‘…I’m flying into a storm that bested Harkon’s skills,’ she realised aloud, ‘with you.’

‘Sorry I’m not Rhade,’ he snarled. ‘He could have flown you into danger if you hadn’t banished him for being an enormous bore.’

‘That’s not-’ Of all the things she didn’t want to talk about with Beckett in the middle of a lethal storm, her relationship with Rhade was close to the top of the list. ‘If you hadn’t wormed your way into this mission for a holiday, I might have someone more useful with me! But no, Daddy had to hand-wrap his darling son a choice assignment!’

Lightning flashed across the Prydwen’s bow, a distance away but enough to have Beckett veer the yacht to port to avoid this oncoming knot of storm, and they both had to hang on tight. She didn’t need to be a telepath to feel the wave of horror off him, though, even if his look her way had only lasted a split second, and she knew his feelings weren’t for the weather.

‘You think I used my father to wriggle into this team?’ Beckett thundered. ‘Fuck my father.’ Now she could feel it, the resentment and bitterness roiling off him, pouring out of a strongbox that perhaps she’d unlocked, but wasn’t at her. ‘If I did things for my father, I wouldn’t be an archaeologist and I wouldn’t have gone behind Graelin’s back with you, and I wouldn’t even be on Endeavour!’ But it wasn’t his words which struck home. There were a dozen retorts she could give, including challenging what he was doing on this mission if she was so wrong. The depth of his outrage wasn’t what stopped her short, but its nature.

Because however differently they showed it, Thawn knew his resentment towards his family and its demands well. It was the same resentment that howled inside her in the black of night, the same bitter sense of entrapment every time she squirmed against restraints that had seen her muzzled on Sanditor – and betrothed to Adamant Rhade.

She met his gaze for only half a heartbeat, and something in her eyes must have stopped him short, too. Then there was an alert from her console, and she rounded back on the sensors.

‘We’ve got a pocket of high pressure ahead; if we go around the outskirts that’s an extra six minutes on our ETA.’ Thawn bit her lip. ‘I can plot us a course through the rain bands closer to the eye. But you’re going to have to react fast to my updates, and there is no room for error.’

There was a split second he struggled to deal with the change in her tone. Then Nate Beckett gave a broad, toothy grin. ‘Piece of cake for the worst pilot in the class of ‘98.’

‘Great Fire,’ Thawn groaned. ‘Do not let me die here with you.’

He was right: he was not a great pilot. But he was better than her, more instinctive. She struggled because she didn’t want to think quickly, she wanted to consult her instruments at every step, but he was better at taking in only what he needed, and adjusting accordingly. She excelled because here she could think six steps ahead, assess the storm as it changed and intensified, and update the flight plan to match.

It was still a bumpy ride as the Prydwen swung to starboard, and she tried to keep track of every surging gust of wind that might knock them disastrously off-course. Sanditor had been left far behind, and she could barely see anything through the canopy but churning clouds and lashing rain; could hear the wind howling across the hull.

Getting out the other side of this pocket of difficulty didn’t feel much better, because the storm was only intensifying, but it did clear up her sensors an iota, her readings otherwise haywire with the level of ionisation in the atmosphere and storm. Thawn drew a shuddering breath. ‘There it is, there’s Starglimmer.’ Nothing was visible through the canopy yet, but Beckett began to guide the Prydwen back lower. ‘We have about twenty minutes before the deeper rain bands hit Sanditor. Wind speeds that high will get people killed.’

‘How quickly can the weather control matrix dissipate it once it’s back online?’

‘I… ten minutes?’

‘So that’s ten minutes to get there and fix this.’ Beckett blew out his cheeks as the view through the canopy began to clear to show the roiling seas and the dark dot of their island destination. ‘Plenty of time.’

There wasn’t much to Starglimmer Isle, and there was even less in the middle of a cyclone. As a volcanic island, it was more of a spit of land and rock striking high into the sky, which was why it had been chosen as a part of the pylon network for the weather control matrix, but as they descended, Thawn could see the lower reaches, the beaches and natural harbours, were all but gone in the sea’s determined campaign to seize the land. The pylon itself struck out some twenty metres above the highest point of the isle, a sturdy and reinforced structure built around one of the rocky outcroppings for stability and shelter.

‘There’s a control hub built onto a gantry at the base of the pylon, around that jagged south-eastern edge of the peak,’ Thawn directed. ‘Get me there and I can do this.’

Beckett’s eyes widened as he examined his display and the canopy. ‘I can set the Prydwen to come alongside the gantry, but there’s no way disembarking isn’t gonna suck.’

Coming alongside the gantry turned out to, indeed, suck. Thawn tightened the already-suffocating seat restraints, Beckett swore the whole way, and when the Prydwen came to a relative stop, hovering in mid-air near the gantry, the cliff-face was mere metres away. It would be so easy for them to be dashed against it with the wrong gust of wind, the wrong move of the thrusters.

But just as Thawn rose from her seat, a new alert flashed on her console, and she hesitated. ‘The Bedivere’s here.’

Beckett shot upright. ‘What?’

‘It looks like they crashed, they’re about a hundred metres below us, near the – the rising sea level.’ She swallowed hard. ‘I’m getting the automated distress signal from the shuttle, but there’s nothing on comms.’

His expression slumped, jaw working for a moment. ‘Life signs?’

‘There’s – there’s so much ionisation in this atmosphere, Beckett.’ She stood up, and grabbed his shoulder. ‘We have to stop this storm. Then we can get them.’

He blinked hard, then shook his head as if to clear it. ‘Right. Safety gear.’

The wind howled with a fresh fury when they popped the hatch, rain at once lashing in. The Prydwen could automatically hold steady only if conditions didn’t massively worsen, only if the computer could continue to compensate, and still there was a longer distance than Thawn really liked between the deck of the yacht and the rain-slicked gantry. It ran around the periphery of the cliff-face, the control panel in the middle set into the pylon that rose along with, and then beyond, the rocks above.

Beckett shrugged into a harness and clipped the safety lock onto a railing above the hatch. He tossed another harness to her. ‘You got this?’

She pulled it on. ‘You don’t need to come with me!’ Already she had to raise her voice to be heard above the howling wind. ‘You can keep the yacht steady!’

‘Oh, hell no. If we pull this off, we don’t need the damn yacht. If you get blown away or something, the yacht’s not gonna save us.’

He was probably right; the longer they were here, the less likely it was they were flying out of this storm until it passed, one way or another. And if there were any parts of this pylon that needed manual repairs, an extra pair of hands might come in handy.

She clipped the toolbox to her webbing, then looked at the gap. ‘Then here goes nothing.’

It was not a difficult jump; not for two trained officers with safety harnesses, even in high winds. But with the plunging depths below, with the slick and juddering landing on a rattling gantry, it was still a heart-stopping lunge, and Thawn staggered to grab the railing. They dragged themselves, foot by excruciating foot, along the wind-and-rain-lashed gantry, and it was safer to look at the pylon ahead, at the cliff beside them. Better than looking to the roiling storm to the right, the depths of this cyclone threatening to consume everything, or the churning reaches below.

An error message gleamed on the main display when they got to the control panel, and Thawn grabbed the edges hard as she set to work. ‘It looks like there’s a glitch in one of the isolinear chips; this pylon never properly connected when the system powered up.’

Beckett was leaning over the railing, peering at the rest of the isle below. ‘Can you fix it?’

‘I’ll have to program a chip to replace it.’ This wasn’t, strictly speaking, complicated work. The storm just had other ideas, and Thawn knelt down as she snapped her toolkit open and fiddled with increasingly numb fingers with the equipment inside. ‘Can you see them?’

‘I think I can see the Bedivere. It might be a rock; visibility’s rubbish.’

‘Hold this for me.’ An extra pair of hands wasn’t essential, but it was useful, and she knew it made him feel useful to crouch before her, hang onto the chip so she had more freedom to connect it through her tricorder and set it up for only the most basic of network functions.

She’d just finished when something else tugged at her attention, a thought that for a moment she parsed as a passing distraction, of her mind trying to go elsewhere to block out the intensifying wind, the chill of already being soaked to the bone. Then she blinked and looked sharply down. ‘I can hear Harkon.’

Beckett stiffened. ‘Hear?’

‘Her mind, she’s down there.’ Thawn shoved the chip and tricorder into his hands, then slid on her front towards the edge of the railing, as if looking down would help. The drop was gut-wrenching, but when she narrowed her eyes and focused, she could feel that familiar shape of thought. And the utter terror it was attached to. ‘She’s alive. I can’t sense Forrester. I don’t know Forrester.’

She slid back to join him, and he wordlessly handed her the tricorder, gaze guarded, as they returned to work. What they were doing was technically simple, but this was as far from a workshop as she’d ever tried to do her job.

‘Got it,’ she said after a couple more minutes, and tucked the tricorder away to pull out a fresh tool, crank open the hatch below the control panel. The isolinear chips gleamed at her, and she ran her finger across the row to locate the one which needed replacing. Despite the circumstances, she tucked it into her away jacket, just in case. ‘Give me the chip.’

He did, then returned to the gantry railing. For the moment her attention was on slotting the chip in place, sealing the hatch, rising to study the display, and she grimaced as she realised it would still need properly calibrating.

Then, from behind her, Beckett said, ‘I’m going down there.’

Thawn turned on the spot, eyes wide. ‘You’re what?’

‘The seas are getting rougher and higher; Forrester and Harkon won’t have much time.’

‘What’re you going to do, sling them both over your shoulder and climb back up with them?’

She could see the fear in his eyes, the uncertainty, but he jerked a thumb at the safety line. ‘I can jury-rig something down there. Get the Prydwen to haul us back up.’ He shook his head, and pointed at the panel. ‘You need to work on this.’

She scowled, knowing he was right on that last count at least, and turned back to crack on with the calibrations. The sky churned overhead, lightning flashed at a distance, and soon, too soon after, came the roll of thunder. She was drenched to the bone, her fingers nearly frozen solid, and the rain on the display didn’t make it easy to read.

So when Beckett landed back on the gantry with a clatter, she hadn’t realised he’d even returned to the Prydwen. But when he straightened he was strapping a medkit to his harness, and she still glared at him even as she worked. ‘This is crazy, Beckett; you’re going to need saving yourself if you go down there.’

‘You don’t need me, you got this.’

‘Maybe, but – you’re the guy who froze up on Jhorkesh, and now you want to go play hero down there?’ For once, she didn’t sound condemning. She’d had her own battle with fear in the face of violence, and now that fear bound them, rather than divided them.

He hesitated, and she looked up to meet his gaze as he said, simply, ‘Yeah, but this is different. That was about taking lives. Now I’ve got to save them.’

Beckett!’

He took a step back, to the edge of the space between the gantry and the Prydwen. ‘Hey, fix this soon enough and you can come pick me up down there.’

‘Wait!’ She hurried over and grabbed his tricorder from his belt. A few quick commands was all it took before she popped it back. ‘I’ve synchronised it with mine. It should provide a boost to comms.’

Beckett gave a crooked smile. ‘See? I said you were a rock star at your job. Now finish saving this damned planet.’ Then he swung off the gantry, using the safety line hanging from the hatch of the Prydwen to rappel down, down towards the lower reaches of the isle, and within seconds he disappeared into the roiling mass of sea and rain and wind.

Thawn was swearing all the time as she staggered back to the panel. Recalibration was almost complete, and from there she could re-activate the whole network – but then she’d have to confirm alignment of each pylon in a final stage before the weather control matrix could start to do its job and shield Whixby from the storm. Underfoot, the gantry rattled at the latest gust of wind.

The calibration bleeped completion a second before there was a chirrup of her comms, Beckett’s voice coming through fractured and distorted. ‘Thawn? I’m almost at the shuttle, I’m on solid rock, but I’m out of line.

It took her a moment to realise what he was talking about, then she looked back to the Prydwen, saw his safety line taut, then twitch as he tugged it. She staggered over, gripping the railing tight as the wind tried to blow her away, and swung back onto the yacht’s deck. It did not take her long to crack open the locker of safety gear, and her heart lunged into her throat.

‘There’s no more. We didn’t pack this thing for mountain-climbing.’

A beat. Then, ‘Okay. I’m going to detach and scramble –

‘Do not do that,’ Thawn spat, hurrying back to the open hatch. ‘That’s stupid as all hell.’

What am I supposed to do?

‘Hang on.’ She stared at his taut line. Then looked down at her own, loose and with hardly any in-use. Ten seconds later she was back on the comms. ‘You’re good. Go on.’

Thawn – what did you do -’

‘Go save them.’

Did you give me your damn line?’

There was nothing really more dangerous about this leap, again, from the Prydwen onto the rain-slicked gantry a hundred metres up in the air. But doing it without a safety line made it feel worse, and the wind was stronger, and Thawn let herself stagger straight into the railing and grabbed it with an iron grip as she landed. Her vision swam in front of her for a heartbeat, a vertigo she’d never felt rushing to the forefront before she swallowed it back.

Only then did she answer. ‘Yes. I’m almost done here. Go get them. Thawn out.’

She dragged herself by the railing, foot by foot, to return to the control panel. The display shimmered under the lashing rain, and she had to keep an iron grip on the panel itself as she rebooted the network, and the weather control programme kicked into action, beginning its assessment.

Seconds dragged out, a minute, and a buffet of wind rocked her on her feet as the systems took longer, far longer than she would have liked, to assess what she knew: the storm was bad.

‘…Thawn!’

Over the wind and rain, she could barely hear even across the short distance from the hovering Prydwen. Now her head snapped around to see two figures rising from the mist, strapped to the dangling line, and her heart lunged into her throat as she saw them: the prone shape of Forrester, hanging from the harness, with a conscious Harkon tied to her in a jury-rigged setup.

The wind almost stole Thawn’s voice. ‘Where’s Beckett?’ she had to holler over the howling.

Dried blood ran down the side of Harkon’s face, and the pilot looked unsteady as the line retracted to bring them to the open hatch. Harkon dragged them both onto the deck, fumbling to set Forrester down and then almost collapsing against a bulkhead herself.

‘Still down there!’ she called, and clumsily she detached the safety line. ‘We couldn’t figure a way to get us all up!’

‘Send the damn line back down -’

‘I’m doing it…’

Harkon had clearly needed medical aid just to get on her feet, and for a moment Thawn thought she might totter out of the hatch. But with a hammer on the line’s control, she sent it whirring back down below, tossed and spinning in the wind.

How, Thawn thought for a heartbeat, is he supposed to catch that in these winds?

But the next gust of wind made the gantry not merely shudder – but groan, and with a shriek of metal, the walkway sagged. She grabbed the edge of the panel in an iron grip and stared at it, willing it to finish readying so she could make it begin.

‘Thawn!’ Harkon’s voice sounded distant, muffled. ‘The damn thing’s coming down!’

On the display, the map of Whixby sprawled out before her, each pylon turning green in turn as the network confirmed a connection. One, two, three –

– another groan of metal, and the gantry twisted ten degrees. Thawn’s grip on the panel slipped, and she slid down, scrambling, failing to get a grasp on anything, and hit the railing that was the only thing between her and a long drop. Harkon was yelling, fear stealing Thawn’s hearing as much as the storm, but for the moment all she did was stay there, clinging to the railing for dear life, staring desperately up at the display.

Which at last turned fully green. The network was ready.

It was not with one last, heroic surge of strength that Thawn lunged to hit the activation button. It was a scrambling sort of pounce, her feet skidding on the gantry as she pulled herself up, and then the pylon before her, stabbing up so high into this storm-boiled sky she could not see the top, began to whir.

As she rounded on the Prydwen, the metal gantry groaned underfoot again, and she knew she had no time to take it carefully. If she slipped even a little, she wasn’t going to make it back on the shuttle before the whole walkway collapsed.

Never in her life had Thawn been so deft of foot as she ran, skidding and scrambling to try to hit top speed on this slanted, rain-slicked gantry that teetered and groaned and threatened at any second to send her tumbling to oblivion. She barely got a good push-off as she leapt across the distance, launched herself into the wind with less velocity than she liked, needed –

And caught the edge of the hatch, her midriff hitting the hull. For a heart-stopping moment, her feet kicked at nothing, and she heard the shriek of metal behind her as the gantry finally came sheer of its moorings to the cliff and fell. Then the wavering grip of Harkon on her forearm helped her scramble up the rest of the way.

Thawn rolled face-first onto the deck once she was up, heart thundering in her ears. Beside her, Harkon had all but collapsed in turn next to the unmoving Forrester, only barely conscious. For what felt like an eternity, the three women lay there, Thawn gasping for breath, as the storm raged beyond the hull and the Prydwen hummed at the effort of its battle with the storm.

Then she remembered. Beckett.

Thawn lurched upright just as there was a shadow in the hatchway, and up came Nate Beckett, wild-haired and wild-eyed and pale as a ghost as he hung from the retracted line. He swung back aboard the Prydwen and immediately smacked the button to close the hatch behind him, but she was barely on her feet when he rounded on her.

‘Are you mental?’ he yelped. ‘What were you doing, giving me your damn line! You had to fix the bloody pylon, the damn gantry came down almost on top of me, what if you’d been on it!’

In her relief and exhaustion, it was easier to match his indignation. ‘Me? What if it had hit you, dangling from the shuttle like a bloody fool! You couldn’t wait ten minutes before rushing off to play hero?!’ But he was laughing now, and she couldn’t help but match that, too, relief and hysteria tumbling together. They were both soaked through, both chilled to the bone, and when he pulled her into an embrace of sheer euphoria at their shared survival, shared victory, she had to return it.

‘Told you,’ Beckett croaked in her ear, and now she could hear – feel, radiating off him – the exhaustion and terror of their ordeal. ‘Told you you’re a rock star.’

‘I’m not,’ she wheezed. ‘Because I was stupid enough to not want you here with me. And to let you go down there.’

He laughed again as he pulled back, and this was one of his sillier laughs, with one of his sillier, self-assured artifices of a grin. ‘Don’t worry, Thawn. I’ll come back every time.’ They broke free, and turned to the two rescued officers, both of them a state on the deck. ‘We better get them patched up; I had to revive Har at the scene so she could haul Forrester up with her.’

‘Yeah,’ groaned Harkon from the deck, still propped up against the bulkhead. ‘Didn’t love that. Did love Nate’s timing; looked like the sea was about to take the whole shuttle.’ She looked up, gaze unfocused, and Thawn moved about the room to crack open another cabinet of emergency supplies, dig out a fresh medkit. ‘Is that it? Storm’s going to die down?’

‘It will,’ said Thawn, before casting a cautious look at Beckett. ‘Assuming whatever’s going on with the rift doesn’t get worse.’