Sreyler slammed a fist down on the arm of the command chair. Her face flushed a dark blue and her brow contorted into a scowl, “It’s been two days, Lup. We’ve got nothing to show for it. Every kind of scan frequency, transporter modification… Razor blizzards, we’ve even tried the blasted deflector. We don’t even know what they’re down there for. We don’t even know they want to come back.”
Delfino shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She made what felt like the millionth minor course correction suggested by the computer. Periodic lulls and surges in the ionising radiation were theoretically possible to predict. However, even when employing every available memory allocation unit, the Ahwahnee’s computer was unable to model exactly where the lulls would occur fast enough for Delfino to make use of them. Each time the ship was in position to make a penetrating scan, the opportunity slipped away into a radioactive soup of incoherent data. She gritted her teeth, rubbed her sunken eyes, and tried again.
Lupulo leaned over from the first officer’s seat, “Captain, a word?” His eyes darted over in the direction of the ready room. Nonplussed for a second, her own eyes widened a fraction as she caught on, “Sure.”
It was the first time either of them had set foot in the room since Vordenna’s disappearance. As she entered, Sreyler realised too that it would be the first time they had seen it empty. She hesitated in front of his desk. The chair was still angled to the side, as if the Captain had simply returned to his quarters for a rest.
“Go on, sit,” Lupulo urged, waving a thin arm over to the chair.
“I dunno, Lup,” Sreyler looked back at him over her shoulder, “this one’s harder than the big chair.”
“You’re the Captain. Now that’s your desk, too.”
“I don’t want to. It feels like acceptance. Like we know he’s not coming.”
“Hey listen,” the time for encouragement was over and the urgency in his voice broke through, “you might be next up in the chain of command, but I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have. A word of advice, and I’m speaking as your XO now so it’s my damned job; keep your cool.”
Sreyler bit her bottom lip and looked to the ceiling. She became aware that her hands had balled into fists again, and she flexed them a few times, “Alright,” she puffed out her cheeks, “alright alright alright alright.” She looked him dead in the eye, “I’m good.”
“We can’t stay here forever,” Lupulo got back to business, “Starfleet’s going to want to know why it took us so long to report what’s happened.”
Sreyler was silent. Her racing thoughts gave way to grim resignation.
“I want to protect them too,” he nudged, “but it’s keeping secrets that’s got us into this mess. It’s not gonna get us out.”
“Alright,” like calm skies after a storm, her eyes met his with a calm resolve, “24 hours.”
The jolt shot through Felrak as the airship’s wide steel gangplank hit the ground. The clanking of unspooling chains tore through through the air around him. Each vessel now hovered only a metre from the ground in a rough arrow formation. Felrak steadied himself as the deck pitched forwards, and a tremendous rumble rose from beneath his feet. He ran to the side, craning his head out over the railing in an attempt to find the source of the noise. Plumes of dust billowed up in a slow-motion eruption, and Felrak sensed the vibrations fall into unmistakable rhythm of hooves. Riding forth from the mouth of each airship on burden beasts, nine wide columns of war riders thundered towards the massed troops on the horizon. Their long spears, pointed towards the sky like a forest of Argosian bamboo, rose and fell as their steeds carried them towards their fates.
“I’ve always preferred to command from the ground,” Freyyn’s lilting voice came from behind. Felrak turned, noticing two brown leather saddles slung over the lizard’s shoulders. The Magistrate’s black eyes blinked slowly, “will you be joining me, Wide-eyes? Then again, this is not your fight.”
“That… Mammal,” Felrak’s thoughts turned to Tursk, “I know him. He’s from my starship.”
“Most intriguing!” Freyyn’s was forced to raise his voice above the growing cacophony, “I would have loved to meet him. Alas, my duties lie elsewhere…” He held out a saddle, “Perhaps such a mode of transport might be too quaint for a starship captain?”
“I never said I was-” A twinkle in Freyyn’s eye cut Felrak short.
“I know the look of a commander who fears for his people,” Freyyn made a wistful sort of smile. Through it, shone a lifetime of decisions, triumphs and regrets.
A wave of fatigue crashed over Felrak. It was if something hung over him, dragging his willpower through the top of his skull and out across the vast plain beyond. He looked down at his hands. The lichen was a dull grey now. The moss, brown and lifeless between the faded colours of his scales. He fought it. Tursk was here now, and the Ahwahnee. Theb was in command up there; the one he’d plucked from Efrosia all those years ago. He’d seen what she could do. Now where would she go? Perhaps this was how his own parents had felt? He shook his head, pushing himself off the railings, holding out an arm to receive the saddle, “My world does have similar animals, yes.” Felrak copied the Magistrate, draping it over his shoulder, “Although, it is some time since I’ve used them for transport…”
“Then let’s get going,” Freyyn concluded, “you’ll pick it back up in no time.”
“Thank you, M’Lord.”
The clank of their boots against metal steps signaled their descent to the lower levels, “Perhaps the timing of our meeting was fortuitous indeed, Captain.” They stepped through to the burden beast stables.
“Oh?” Felrak began to fasten the saddle to the animal beside Freyyn’s.
“At least now your interference in our development will be kept to a minimum.” Freyyn heaved himself up onto the back of the burly, horned quadruped.
Felrak frowned, “What makes you so sure?”
Clouds, black and swirling like a boiling malevolent whirlpool had begun to converge overhead. What had been fair skies not thirty minutes prior now darkened into overcast gloom. Sheet lightning had begun to spring from cloud to cloud at the apex of the writhing celestial mass. A muted rolling peal thundered across the plain.
“The weapon you seek,” Freyyn pointed ahead and upwards, “It’s here.”