Foray Into Pure Science Fiction

Okay, my absolutely fabulous editor was right. If this series is going to be urban fantasy with a dash of sf (and some have made a VERY good argument that it’s sf regardless but we won’t get into that now), then the next book has to take place on Earth.

So here’s Chapter 2 of what would have been Jahannan’s Children. These days, I call it an experiment. No reason that it can’t end up as a different book…

Garrett felt sick. This was the moment she’d dreaded since leaving Earth. Melera hadn’t minced words when she’d told the three of them what they’d face after reaching Maqu. Still, Garrett had prayed she would be wrong. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Come on, she thought. Keep it together. There’s nothing you can do.

At the sound of Melera’s voice, she opened her eyes and looked up. “Just like we practiced,” Melera said, facing both men. “Parker, you take the starboard cannons. Kurt, you’re on port.” Parker and Kurt nodded once. Then Melera seemed to look at something off to her side. “Kyle. Cover our tail, but save your smarts for me.”

“Yes, Shen’zae,” Kyle said.

Melera finally turned to Garrett. “You. On the bridge. Move!”

A flash of anger burned away Garrett’s queasiness. For a split second, she held the other’s cold, slit-pupiled stare with her defiant, hazel one. Then Melera whirled and ran for the two person lift on the commons’ far side.

Garrett followed but she wasn’t nearly as fast as Melera. The alien reached the lift first. Garrett’s jaw tightened. She’d no doubt Melera would take it, leaving her to either climb the emergency ladder, or wait for the lift to return to the lower deck. It didn’t make much difference either way, but that was just the kind of thing Melera would do. She’d done it before.

But Melera didn’t take the lift. Without breaking stride, she leapt up into the well, caught the edge of the deck and effortlessly hauled herself up.

“Show off,” Garrett muttered.

The mage stepped onto the lift’s kidney-shaped platform. “Tsu,” she said, the machine’s vocal command for “up.” The lift started to move.

Garrett took a quick breath and braced herself for the battle that would shortly begin. Working the aft cannons was supposed to have been her job, but she’d refused to do it. She’d learned to operate the cruiser’s weapons as a concession, but being a Healer, she’d made it clear that she would never use them on a living being. To Melera, that made her baggage, to be ignored as much as possible. Whenever she had to deal with Melera one-on-one, Garrett found it best to be armed with steel skin and frozen feelings.

By the time she’d reached the small bridge, Melera was already seated in the command chair, the viscreens were on bubble, and the ship was moving. Stepping off the lift, Garrett quickly crossed the compact deck to the instrument console and settled in the second of the bridge’s two chairs.

Glancing to her left, she noticed Melera’s hands had disappeared inside a glowing rectangular gap set into the console’s leading edge. An identical gap faced her, except hers was dark. The hollow rectangle was a biointerface port, which allowed a living person to meld with the spaceship’s artificial brain via the body’s central nervous system. A nervejacked ship driver’s response time increased exponentially–meaning she could fly almost as fast as she could think.

Garrett stared at the darkened port. Should she plug into Kyle? Adding her neurocircuitry to Melera’s would give Kyle extra capacity. With all those javs out there, they needed all the help they could get. Still, she hesitated. Nervejacking nauseated her and after disconnecting, always left her feeling violated. She gave her head a small shake. She wouldn’t take the aft cannons, but there were other ways she could make herself useful. She reached for the slot.

“Stop!” Melera said. “You want to kill us both?”

Garrett’s hands halted in mid-air, her cheeks flaming with anger and embarrassment. How could she have forgotten? To each other, she and Melera were aliens. If she’d completed the neural link, their brains would have fried immediately. Lips tight, the mage settled into the second’s chair, folded her hands in her lap and tried not to feel useless. So much for steel skin and frozen feelings.

With a grace that belied its size, Melera’s cruiser steered through the javelin jungle at breakneck speed. It was all Garrettt could do not to flinch when it looked as if they’d collide with one of the stationary fighters–which was often. She tried not to look but with the bridge’s bubble-like view, there was no place else to focus.

Except on Melera. From the corner of her eye, Garrett studied the alien sitting inches away and wondered for the umpteenth time why in the Mother’s name Parker would want to follow her. She understood his attraction–Melera was six-foot two and built like a superhero. But there was something reptilian about her, from her golden, disco-ball eyes to the way she moved, like a cobra stalking its prey. That she had all the charm of a crocodile didn’t help.

A burst of blue-white light caught Garrett’s attention. She noticed they were moving away from it. “I take it the Akkadians thought they were shooting at us?” she said.

The port thrusters whined as Melera drove her ship between two javs and then rolled it sideways to bypass two more. “Yes.”

Garrett nodded, remembering. Melera had blinked several times after Kyle had severed communication with Beloc. In those eyeblinks, she must have skipped them through the Void, the vast, cold emptiness that separates here from there. So, not being where the Akkadians had thought they were, the jav jocks had taken out a few of their own. But something else bothered her. She looked up. “How’d you know we wouldn’t come out of the Void in the same place as another jav?”

“Luck.”

Garrett stared at Melera with wide, incredulous eyes. “Luck?”

When Melera didn’t answer, Garrett turned back to the viscreens. The javs still clustered around them, but even so, they seemed to be making serious headway. She looked at Melera again. “Don’t tell me it’s going to be this easy.”

Melera smirked. “Don’t worry. They’ll find us.”

“How? Isn’t the stealth shield up?”

“Yeah, but it can’t hide our heat signature. All the jocks have to do is switch from visual to beta infrared and there we are.”

As if on cue, the nearest javelins broke ranks, turned, and began firing at them. Six lavender streaks of lightning from their own ship answered the barrage. A couple of javs blew up. The rest did not. Garrett heard Melera mutter something in Xia’saan. The view on the viscreens went blank and returned a split second later, as if the cruiser’s opticals had hiccupped. Garrett understood. Inside the Void, there was nothing to see.

Melera drove through the swarm. She skipped them through the Void when she could and when she couldn’t, played a game of deep-space chicken. That was nerve-wracking enough, but then there was the ship’s near-continuous shuddering from the stealth shield absorbing the laser scores Melera couldn’t evade. On top of that, it seemed that for every jav Kurt or Parker destroyed, two more took its place.

Absorbed in the battle, Garrett jumped in her seat when Melera spoke. “Garrett–Kyle’s a little busy right now, so why don’t you make yourself useful and give me an update on the drives and the stealth shield?”

Garrett’s cheeks and ears reddened a second time as she reached for the instrument panel. She didn’t need to give Melera an update on anything, and they both knew it. Being nervejacked into the ship meant, in a sense, that Melera had become the ship. She was perfectly aware of the craft’s condition, down to the tiniest detail. Garrett knew why she’d asked. It had been a none-too-subtle jab at Garrett’s determined pacifism, an attempt to make her feel as useless as Melera thought her to be. It was working too, which angered Garrett even more. But now was not the time to get into a fight with an alien twice her size.

“Shield holding at seven-two percent,” Garrett said, managing to keep the anger out of her voice. “Primary and auxiliary drives holding in the upper normal range.”

“Divert power from the auxiliaries to the shield. Get it as close to full capacity as you can, but don’t slow us down,” Melera said.

Garrett gritted her teeth at Melera’s peremptory tone. “Yes, Your Majesty,” she muttered and made the adjustments.

“Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t destroyed us by now,” Garrett heard Kurt’s voice over the intercom. He sounded as if he was remarking on the weather. “Or do your Akkadians just have terrible aim?”

Garrett wondered how the vampire could remain so calm. She gave a tiny shrug. Well, what’s he got to be afraid of? He’s already dead.

“They’re not trying to kill us,” Melera said. “They’re trying to cripple us. After we’ve been captured, then they’ll kill us. Nice shot, Kurt.”

There was a long pause. Garrett gave Melera a sidelong look. “Thank you, my dear,” Kurt said. His tone sounded as suspicious as she felt.

“Hey, what about me?” Parker said.

Garrett saw a small smile appear on Melera’s lips. “You need practice.”

Minutes passed. No one spoke. Melera skipped them through the Void twice in succession. Then she charged a trio of javs. Two of the jocks turned chicken and altered course. But the third didn’t. Neither did Melera. She bore down on the smaller craft as if she intended to ram it. Heart pounding, Garrett gripped the arms of her chair. On the viscreen, the jav grew bigger and bigger, and bigger still. Garrett opened her mouth but no sound came out. She was too scared to scream.

At the last possible moment, Melera rolled her ship to port. The mage saw a green spherical glow shoot from the jav’s belly just before it disappeared from her line of sight. An alarm jangled.

“Jakk!” Melera yelled.

Garrett heard and felt a bone-shaking bang. The bridge disappeared in a spectacular burst of light. She felt a brief sensation of flight, and then something hard smashed against her head. Stars skittered across her vision. She lay on the deck, trying to figure out what had happened. Then her nose caught the acrid smell of burned insulation and she remembered. Adrenalin surged through her, banishing the pain in her head. She struggled to her knees, coughing against the dense smoke enveloping the bridge. “Melera!” she shouted.

There was no answer. Eyes stinging, Garrett crawled blindly along the deck, hoping she was headed towards the command console. The exhaust fans kicked on and the smoke disappeared. Scrambling to her feet, she spotted Melera crumpled between the console and the bulkhead. “Melera!” she shouted again as she ran forward. Reaching her, the first thing Garrett noticed was a trail of reddish-gold blood flowing freely from a shallow gash above Melera’s left brow. Then she noticed the alien’s hands. The explosion had burnt her golden brown skin black and had turned her fingers into claws. Garrett’s healer’s instinct kicked into high gear. She dropped to her knees, a spell already on her lips.

Garrett had about to take Melera’s charred hands into her own when the other woman’s eyes popped open. Before she could say anything further, Melera surged to her feet, knocking Garrett aside. Sprawled on the deck, she looked up just in time to see Melera slide into the command chair in obvious agony.

The shock of having been thrown across the bridge wore off instantly. Garrett jumped to her feet and a moment later was at Melera’s side, bending over the injured woman. “Let me–“

Melera’s arm lashed out, hitting Garrett squarely in her chest. She stumbled backwards and fell into the second’s seat. Surprise quickly turned to anger and disbelief as she stared at the panting, sweating alien. “Let me help you,” she shouted.

“Get those visuals back online,” Melera shouted back. She waved her burned hands over the console, its lights flashing like a demented Christmas tree. “We’re blind!”

Garrett’s anger evaporated. Absorbed by Melera’s plight, it hadn’t occurred to her that no one was driving the ship. She turned in her seat and got busy, her fingers expertly dancing across the console as if troubleshooting alien software was something she’d done all her life. In moments, the bridge’s bubble-like view reappeared. Garrett wished it hadn’t. A bright green orb–another torpedo–was almost on top of them. Before she could scream, the orb veered to the left, and then she saw a lavender streak zip from the ship’s port side. The torpedo disappeared in a flash of light.

Relief turned to puzzlement and then understanding in lightning succession. Garrett’s jaw dropped. The torpedo had missed them because the ship had moved out of its way. Whipping her head around, she stared at Melera’s hands. The alien’s supple fingers flitted over the ship’s manual controls, her golden brown skin smooth and unmarked as if she’d never been burned at all. Garrett blinked once. No one told me she was a self-healer.

“Garrett! Audios and diagnostics! Move!” Melera yelled.

The sound of Melera’s shouting jerked Garrett into the present. Her jaw clenched. She’d had enough of Melera’s treating her as if she was the village idiot. She’d swear on the Mother’s Breast that five seconds hadn’t passed since she’d gotten the viscreens back online, and now the bitch was barking at her again. “Will you give me a motherdamned minute?” she snapped.

“I don’t have a motherdamned minute!” Melera shot back.

Fuming, Garrett reached for the audio controls, a radiant, rectangular panel showing a jumble of yellow and purple squares and began tapping her fingers on the colored blocks. She badly wanted to tell Melera where to stick it, but she couldn’t. Not yet. But if we get out of this, I’m going to ream her a new asshole. If she even has one.

Once Garrett had re-created the audio panel’s familiar yellow teardrop against a purple background, Kurt’s cultured tones blared from the cruiser’s amplifiers.

“-lo. Everyone still in one piece?”

“Parker!” Melera shouted.

Garrett heard the werewolf cough once. “Okay, sweetheart.”

Melera dodged another torpedo and scowled. “Garrett!”

Garrett was ready this time. “Primaries One and Two holding at six-five and six-nine,” she said crisply, without looking around. Melera said nothing. Garrett would have smiled at having managed to shut her up for once, but these numbers weren’t anything to smile about. “Auxiliaries Three and Four…” she peered at the minutely detailed holo of the ship floating about eight inches above the console. “Auxiliary Three fluctuating point five at five-two, and Four holding at five-six.”

“Thrusters.”

“Port holding at seven-oh, starboard fluctuating point six at three-five.” She bit her lip. The starboard wing was almost useless.

“Stealth shield.”

Garrett studied the faint orange glow enshrouding the holo ship. She read the numbers and paled. “Shield one-two.” She tapped a key to her right twice. A blank, blue ball appeared in the craft’s deepest recesses. She tapped the key again. The ball didn’t change. She looked at Melera. “No Kyle.”

“Meaning our ass is wide open,” Melera said. Her eyes narrowed. To Garrett, she looked more reptilian than ever. “Twelve percent,” she said softly. “Garrett, we need those tail guns.”

Garrett knew that was about as close to a request she’d ever get from Melera, but she just couldn’t do it. “I–“

Then she had an idea. Years ago, she’d watched a mage-level Healer like her magickally jumpstart a computer with a burnt out motherboard. “Same principle,” he’d told her with a shrug. “Flesh or plastic, a body’s a body.”

And a computer’s a computer, isn’t it?

She thought about it for a moment longer, then slumped in her seat. There was just one problem. She’d told no one, but the tryst had robbed her of much of her talent. Like the starboard thrusters, her magickal strength fluctuated but even if it didn’t she was pretty sure she hadn’t enough psychic muscle to pull off this particular trick.

Staring at the holo, she watched the shield capacity readout drop from twelve to eleven point four percent. That decided her. I might not be much, but right now I’m all we’ve got.

Muttering a quick prayer to the GODDESS, Garrett leapt from her chair and ran for the lift.

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