Somewhere from a distance, amorphous yellow blobs were consuming Beta Prime.
Lightning and mist surrounded the liquid gold as it flowed across the dense forests and cities of Serry’s home planet. The blobs were eating the planet’s crust. They were blotting out the sun.
Serry found it hard to care. It wasn’t the gold blobs that frightened her but the pink ones. Not again, she moaned. Not again.
Everything was at a peculiar angle. The lights around the officer flickered bluishly. Emergency lights. Beta Prime vanished in a golden blur. Serry recognized that she was no longer on her homeworld. Nor was she on her old ship, the Ulysses Olandros. She was onboard The Flags of Centauri Independence. Gold and pink giant amoebas were fighting in the passageways. They splashed and quivered against one another and the poor crew who got in their way.
Those people were screaming. Someone was screaming at her: “He’s dead! He’s dead, Serry!!”
Serry peered around her, horrorstruck. Where the gold blobs crushed those crewmen they caught, the pink blobs enveloped them, clung to them, and left behind perfectly pink feminine dolls behind. Perfectly pink female dolls with enormous boobs and golden, featureless eyes.
Serry panicked and ran.
Where was Captain Lindl? No, that wasn’t right. Captain Lindl was the commander of her old ship, the Olandros. Where was that bastard, drone-using captain of the Centauri Independence?
Serry searched desperately, seeking a way out before she was caught again.
The ship started to slant in another direction. Gaps opened up in the hull. She could see the stars. It was hard to breathe. There was something in her throat, in her lungs, something pulpy.
It hurt to breathe. Her leg hurt. So did her shoulder.
I have to get to the shuttle bay, Serry thought. I have to save my people. But hadn’t that already happened? She wasn’t sure. The pain in her shoulder was bad. It hurt to move or to think.
The pain in her leg was worse. She was choking. She was vomiting.
Serry opened her eyes and saw a pink mass evacuating her mouth. She tried to scream, but she was choking on the pink, she was choking, the slaveskin was tightening, again, and she couldn’t breathe . . .
“Breathe, Serry! Breathe!!”
Serry opened her eyes. Oxygen-rich gel - a blue gel - exited her mouth and onto a misty ground.
It was very cold.
She couldn’t speak. Holding her head up, Eben Halc cleared her mouth and then slipped a rebreather mask over Serry’s face. The organoplastic material affixed itself. The little bubble in front of her mouth and nose began to flex, signifying that it was working.
“Breathe,” Serry heard Eben say, and so she did, deeply. The world in which Serry found herself came into focus.
“Where . . ?” she started to say. She tried to get up, but a lance of pain forced her to lie flat on the ground again. She winced. When Serry opened her eyes again, she saw Eben staring down at her.
“Your shoulder’s shattered,” he told her bluntly. His face was bleeding from a facial laceration. His eyes were bloodshot behind his transparent mask. “So is your right leg.” He looked her over quickly.
“Does it hurt anywhere else? In your chest? The portadoc’s not working. I want to give you a shot, but I don’t want to put you in danger if you have internal injuries.”
“Give me the shot,” Serry said. Above her friend’s head, the commander saw a sky that was a solid layer of white. She was lying in the snow, she realized. Snow with a thick covering of white mist. She had never seen that particular weather combination before. It was very cold. “What’s our status?”
Serry felt the injector at her neck. There was pressure and then, finally, warmth. The pain in her limbs, and the general ache that filled her body, diminished at once. What little pain was left she found she could ignore. “Well,” Senior Lieutenant Halc said, hovering over her, “first thing is, we’re alive.”
He reached tried to make Serry more comfortable. From a medical kit, he began attaching a calcium knitter to her shoulder. The needle-limbs of the automated spider device went to work. It moved around, took an X-ray, adjusted again, settled, and then sank its needles into Serry’s exposed flesh.
Eben put a thermal blanket over the commander, too.
“Six of us made it down. Laur died in the crash. Radila’s injuries were too much. He didn’t stand a chance.” Eben crept down to Serry’s leg. He didn’t lift the blanket far enough for Serry to see the extent of her injuries, and for that she was grateful. He attached three knitters, though, which was telling. She felt them go to work. The one on her shoulder was already expanding, forming the shell of the necessary restraining cast. Eben continued to rummage through the first-aid kit.
A wave of tiredness swept over Serry. “Damn,” she whispered. Two dead. That left her, Eben, Lieutenant Wirry, and Crewmen Damml, Gisha, and . . and Sud, Sud, that was his name.
“How are my people?” she demanded. She was the ranking officer. They were her responsibility.
“Not so bad, considering how fast we came in,” Eben said. “Cuts, bruises, broken bones. Nothing that’s not repairable.” He took out and shook a portable chemical regenerator. Like the portadoc, it looked damaged. It wouldn’t turn on. “I’ll have to find another one.” He made as if to stand up.
“Later,” Serry said, clutching him with her good arm. “Where the hell are we?”
For a second time, she tried to sit. The pain wasn’t so bad on this attempt, but the knitter sinking into her shoulder and ballooning made it awkward to move. Her leg, too, felt like it was swelling with gas.
Using Eben as leverage, she took a quick look around. For the first couple of seconds, all she saw was a pristine white: white sky, white ground, white mist. Then she saw the blood on the snow, and the debris, and the smoke, and things started slowly to come into perspective. Serry was lying a few meters away from the shattered wreck of the shuttle’s life cabin.
It was no longer a solid frame: jagged pieces of metal, ceramic, and plastic lay in a mess all around. Some of the pieces were smoldering. The black smoke contrasted against the omnipresent fog.
There were two actual fires going, one next to her. A crewman she couldn’t identify was on the other side of it. Between the mask over his face, the thermal blanket, and the ballooning calcium knitters over his chest, he was thoroughly disguised. Three figures huddled around the second fire.
Okay, that’s the cabin, Serry thought. So, where’s the rest of the shuttle?
She tried turning her head and just couldn’t. Her eyes were throbbing. She blinked, spat blood, and followed as best she could the line of Eben’s arm as he pointed off into the distance.
A trail of broken equipment and hullmetal extended as far as she could see.
“We were very lucky,” she heard Eben say distantly. “We had a good pilot.”
Things became clear. They were in a valley between snow-covered hills. In front of Serry, a mountain extended into the mist and the clouds. Somewhere along it the shuttle had crashed. There was a big fire up there and lots of smoke. I see, Serry thought. I see.
Something had happened that she had read about but never seen happen in real life. The shuttle had hit that mountain over there at whatever ungodly speed they had been traveling. The life cabin had burst from the shuttle like a seed eaten in a fruit and spat out. The synthetic gravity fields had only encompassed the cabin, and synthetic gravity played weird tricks with inertia. The shuttle had split apart around the affected area, and the cabin, its contents protected by couches, gel, and foam, had rolled down the mountain before coming to rest what looked like several kilometers from the initial crash site.
There was blood on the snow. There was a lot of it.
Serry finally saw the evaporating crash foam, barely distinguishable due its pale color from the snow and the mist. The cabin, she observed, had split apart like a piņata. They were the candy.
They had fallen out of the sky, and they were alive. It was almost enough to make her want to praise a Forerunner.
Serry laid down. Epsilon Indi A VI’s surface gravity felt light. It felt like a .6 or a .55 gee, she judged, ever the life-support officer. The low gee may have contributed to their surviving the crash as well. She reflected. No planet anywhere in all the stellar systems to which humanity had spread, aside from Earth itself, had started off habitable. Someone had always had to terraform. Indi A VI could support life - they were, after all, alive - but not unenhanced human beings, which they most definitely were.
They couldn’t breathe the atmosphere without filters. That would make long-term survival a challenge.
First things first, though, Serry thought. It’s cold outside.
“We have to find shelter,” she said, and Eben nodded.
Eben started to say something to her, and that was when both of them heard the whirring sound approaching. Serry sat up a third time, and a spasm of real pain came back and made her wince.
A fat lot of good I’m going to be in a fight, she thought, collapsing. Fuck!!
“Wirry! Gisha!” Eben ordered. He pointed off somewhere Serry couldn’t turn her head to see. “Get behind those rocks! Sud! Get over here! Help me move the commander!”
Serry shook her head as best she could. “NO! Get him out first!” She pointed to the man - It had to be Damml - next to her by the fire. “Leave me!”
“Beggin’ the commander’s pardon, ma’am,” a crewman said, suddenly over her face and grabbing her by her unbroken shoulder. It was Crewman Sud. “But that’s a terrible idea, ma’am!”
Serry was hauled bodily to the rocks.
“At least give me a weapon,” she shouted. Sud obligingly put a blaster in her good hand. The whirring got louder. In no time at all it was right on top of them.
If they look like golden amoebas, Serry thought, we’re dead.
She glanced around. No golden amoebas, either like the one she had seen in space or the ones from her hallucination, appeared. Instead, out of the mist to every side of them, tall red figures emerged.
While they weren’t what she expected, for the second time that day Serry had a hard time believing what she was seeing.
The men surrounding her party and pointing their bayoneted rifles at them were huge, half-naked, heavily muscled, and a deep, deep crimson in skin color. They stood out amidst the overwhelming white every bit as much as the blood on the ground did. They yelled something in a foreign language.
Serry was not a religious person, but Betan society revered the past, and the Hereditarians were influential enough that she recognized the ancient symbols and icons. The red figures surrounding her and her men looked like devils out of an archaic representation of Hell.
All they were missing were the yellow horns, the black beards, and the bat’s wings.
They looked like bodybuilders, too, the lot of them. They were gigantic, the largest humanoids Serry had ever seen. Their chests were so wide and so brawny they looked like caricatures of the masculine human form. Their abdominal and pectoral development was so powerfully built it looked like stones were buried beneath their skin. Their arms and legs were so titanic Serry seriously wondered how they could move so quickly. Despite the weather, all most of them had on were brief leather kilts. Many also carried bandoleers hung with edged weapons strung across their broad frames. Their arms, with corded biceps bigger than Serry’s head, were girded with antique metal bracers and ornamental rings.
They were surrounded by these red devils. Their rifles, if rifles indeed they were, pointed at them.
Serry wasn’t completely sure they were firearms, truth be told. The weapons curved so extravagantly around and through themselves they looked like the brass ensemble from an orchestra. Nonetheless, their open maws pointed in the crew’s direction and looked deadly, as did the sharp, sword-like weapons the red men carried. In a way, Serry found the swords more bizarre than the rifles. When one lived in a society as she did where interstellar flight was possible, and the choice of weapons ranged from particle-beam blasters to chemiprocessor-guided projectiles that penetrated their targets and then went on vital organ-hunting expeditions inside the body, one didn’t expect to see swords in actual use anymore. It was like seeing a horse and buggy going down the central boulevard of Saqlawiyah City.
The whirring sound got louder. Serry looked up.
Above them, two personal flying craft resembling nothing less than a pair of chariots hovered.
The floating platforms were flat on the interior, three meters in length, and made of what looked like solid gold, as were the rifles aimed at them. It was an ominous color, considering recent events. The front of each flying craft curved upwards into a kind of podium. Behind each podium stood a pair of hornless red devils. One guided the craft; the other aimed one of those fancy, curling firearms at them.
The Betans had absolutely no cover.
Underneath the chariots, propellers - Propellers! - spun in a concave shell. That design can’t possibly work, Serry thought, amazed. It can’t produce enough lift. Then again, they were on a light gravity planet. Maybe it could work here.
One of the bloody-red men on the floating chariots yelled something again in his foreign tongue. The men surrounding the Centauri crew moved forward with their ornamental and primitive-looking firearms.
Eben looked down at Serry.
“What do you want to do, commander?” he asked her formally. She was in authority. Eben would fight if she told him to fight. The others would too, probably. Then they would all die.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of options. Eben and Serry looked at each other. She could tell from his expression that he knew what she was thinking. Their nonverbal communication was one of the reasons they got along so well. Wearily, she nodded.
The Betans threw down their guns.
It was the perfect end to a perfect day.