Aurora’s  Tale

By Tarot Barnes

With edits and advice by J.H. and Brantley

Part Three

 

 

Chapter 9

 

The plains, two hundred kilometers behind Séuchčo Estak

Three and a half hours before launch.

 

Aurora waited behind a cloud while a hundred and fifty kilometers away, between her and Séuchčo Estak, Aurean Landwarriors leisurely made their way towards the spaceport

She still wasn’t sure about that. She’d almost convinced herself that their slow speed was an attempt to try and avoid detection, but something still nagged at her. Too many things didn’t add up and uncertainties were lethal, which was a shame since they were always so prevalent.

But there was nothing she could do about it, short of flying down and asking the Aureans themselves.

She rethought that and allowed herself to grin. Well… in a manner of speaking she was about to ask them what they were doing.

The Aureans weren’t aware of her. Of that much she was sure. Though her body absorbed energy, enough was reflected to give an opaque silhouette on radar. Nonetheless, there was only so much space on a Landwarrior and the Aureans had dedicated most of what there was to fighting the enemies they could defeat. What little equipment they had for detecting Protectors was limited to a hundred kilometers or so and naturally their attention would be focused on the port, not a patch of sky behind them.

In any case, she could literally see their state of awareness. If they even suspected she was around the power intensive active camouflage would go down and their shields would go up. The Aurean military had long since learned that a Protector’s eyesight was too good to try and fool.

A little beyond them, bunkered hull down at the tops of hills and slight elevations, hidden in copses and behind hedges, Otávio’s force bided its time. They had their affected their own primitive camouflage by planting small trees and shrubs to their hulls.

Personally, Aurora thought the foliage made them blend with the background better than their Aurean counterparts, but she was biased. The Aurean vehicles were almost invisible while moving whereas the Porturegans’ ’Warriors were only stealthy when still.

Timing was everything. If she struck too soon, the Aureans would split and outflank the Porturegans. If she struck too late, she’d deny Otávio his opportunity.

Deep within the recesses of her mind, calculations rattled, balancing probabilities and equating in a single decreasing, number.

Now!

Aurora dove into action. Flinging her arms out before her, she dropped a couple thousand meters and ignoring the g forces, accelerated hard.

The Aureans didn’t react until she was only 60 kilometers away and she cursed herself for her speed; first one, then two, a dozen and finally all of the ‘warriors dropped their camouflage and flashed momentarily silver as their shields raised.

Even as they tried to defend themselves, their cannons were traversing and the trucks and APC’s were screaming to get out of her way. Not one of the main guns was even halfway round before she’d ripped through the first ‘warrior.

Aurora’s decision to attack from the rear was a double blind. Not only would it stop the Aureans form firing on her – feeble as their shells were – but more importantly it meant that they would be looking in entirely the wrong direction when Otávio attacked.

For now she ignored the lesser fighting vehicles as non-combatants. The Aurean infantry was fearsome but, in this arena at least, they were far less of a threat than their armour.

Swerving around while in the middle of the column, she extended her arms and virtual cut a warrior in half before rising briefly to get a view of the column. She swung and dropped low again, almost scraping the short dry grass on the plains then reversing herself hard, long legs scything through root and soil to stop herself directly beneath an Aurean ‘warrior.

Almost without resistance her diamantine fingers penetrated its shield bubble and buried themselves in the hardened armour. Half buried in the ground she flew up, hefting the multi-ton tank into the air before hurling it back down again.

Her aim was perfect. The ‘warrior crashed down on top of another, instantly killing its crew. The second ‘warrior careened sideways, shields flashing into non-existence even as it slammed into a third with enough force to crush its side.

Aurora didn’t stay to watch the carnage, she was already moving on a forth ‘warrior. This time she didn’t stop to lift it, but simply went straight through its rear plate. Her extended hands missed the ammunition store by inches so there was no explosion, only the clang of hatches and screams of wounded crew bailed out of their crippled vehicle.

In the time it took for the first of their feet to hit the ground, Aurora had destroyed three more of their brethren in the same way and was lifting a fourth to hurl at a fifth.

By now the Aurean formation was in complete disarray as the Aureans’ Comandantes came to terms with what they were facing and their training took over.

Those ’Warriors closest to Aurora whirred around sharply, hoping to catch her in a crossfire while the rest broke away Even as the cannons roared those who stayed knew it was suicide, but spent their lives in the hope that the rest of their company would live.

It was a vain hope. Those who ran fled straight into Otávio. Aurean warriors seemed to turn silver as their shields suddenly absorbed the massive might of the Porturegan broadside.

Already panicked, and now startled by this new threat, the Aureans broke discipline and began firing wildly. Cannon shells split trees, smashed ground and even exploded in the sky as the mad gunners tried in vain to slaughter whatever was hurting them.

One of their ’Warriors suddenly blew up, its turret rocketing skywards as its shields were struck in rapid succession by two double broadsides and then a third that penetrated its side, slaughtered the crew and ignited the ammunition.

It was an attack the Porturegan machines were uniquely adapted for. They resembled low-slung beetles, with a smooth sloped hull that extended over their tracks. Whereas most other planets fielded a single massive cannon, the Porturegan warriors had two or more medium guns. The limited their penetrating power but they could fire twice as fast as any ‘warrior of similar size and, uniquely, allowed them to fire in two directions at once.

Another Aurean ‘warrior brewed up like the first and another careened into the ground, its engines destroyed, before the invaders found the Porturegans. Otávio would have been proud of the record had his not been amongst the first Porturegan ‘warriors to explode in the ensuing firestorm.

The Porturegan force fields surprised the Aureans as a volley that should have laid waste to half the attacking force merely caused it to jerk backwards Then a sharp eyed Comandante saw the unusual ‘poles’ sticking out of the front of each Porturegan vehicle and recognized the light sparking as a damaged force field shutting down.

After that the Aureans knew what to do. They hadn’t expected the force fields, but they were well trained and staggered their fire so the first volley would cripple the Porturegan shields and the second would tear through what remained to obliterate the vehicle.

Then their attention was distracted yet again as Aurora, finished with the force that had attempted to delay her, ripped the rear most ’Warrior apart with her bare hands and used the shattered hull to cripple two more. Rapidly shifting their targets yet again, only one ’Warrior was able to train its cannon on her, and by then its crew was a thin veneer coating the inside of their vehicle.

Yet even as the Imperial force was consumed from the rear, the Porturegans were smashing it from the front. Realizing that he was caught in an impossible position, the senior Comandante ordered an advance, hoping to break into open country where he’d be free of at least one of their persecutors.

His prayer went unanswered, as most of the Porturegans had already fallen back to their secondary positions and used them to stage another ambush. Six more Aurean ’Warriors fell before the Aureans could form to volley fire and by then, having learned the limits of their new armor the hard way, the Porturegans were already scurrying out of sight.

Aurora had not given up pursuit and more Aureans died as the terrified Comandantes gave contradictory orders, ran, fired randomly and barely avoided killing each other in their confusion.

By the time they reached the Porturegans’ third defensive line, more than two thirds of the Aureans had been slaughtered and their offensive push and turned into a rout. It was more than the Virago could have prayed for; the Porturegans had given her just enough of an edge to let her kill the rest of the ’Warriors before they reached Séuchčo Estak.

Aurora gave the Aureans a short break while she used her new toy to consult with the surviving Porturegans.

“Good work, but I can finish up here. You go after the infantry…” She flew higher and used her tachyon vision to find the infantry in the middle of the thick forest they’d retreated into. “They are…about three kilometers north west and east of your position. You will find most of the northwestern pocket heading along a medium sized road through the forest… shortly to arrive at a river, which should make an excellent ambush point. Oh, and watch the personnel carriers; they have caches of anti-armor missiles.” They already knew that of course, but she thought it best to ensure it was at the top of their minds. “The eastern pocket is more dispersed, but if you align yourselves along the north of the river and you should rack up a good tally.” She looked at the battlefield and the smoking columns, each a gravestone. “…How many of you are left.”

“Eight,” The response was oddly cheerful. “In pretty good condition.”

“Eight?” Aurora didn’t let her revulsion show; Eight out of thirty two? Out loud she said, “That’s four for each pocket then.”

As the ’Warriors assembled themselves into two squadrons and headed towards their new targets, the rearmost on the eastward-headed column blew apart. Aurora was already moving but it was too late to do anything for the crew. It had just been their misfortune that a dip in the landscape revealed a sliver of hull, which was all an Aurean gunner needed.

The Aurean could only have had only an instant, but it was a good hit, directly between the fuel tanks and the ammunition store; the crew wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Unable to help, the other ’Warriors moved out and Aurora, her blood heated even more by the unnecessary deaths, moved in on the remaining Aureans.

 

* * *

 

Two hours later, the last ’Warrior scrabbled into a blind gully and, realizing its mistake, tried to reverse course without sufficiently reducing speed. All it achieved was to turn itself halfway around before crunching into the soft gully wall.

By sheer chance this brought the barrel directly into line with the triangle of flesh on the approaching Virago’s chest. The Aurean gunner saw his only opportunity and depressed the trigger.

His gun coughed and the shell exploded, hot fragments lodging in Aurora’s exposed cleavage; but she didn’t even change her stride.

The gunner tried again, this time aiming for her head but it was too late. In the space between eye blinks she had gone from a leisurely stroll to a pounce. The Imperial systems couldn’t hope to keep up with her and even as they strained to raise the cannon, she was descending at mach 2.

The Landwarrior’s shields had been long depleted by its reckless course across uneven ground, so there was nothing to offer resistance as Aurora came through the roof. Metal crumpled easily beneath her shoulder, tearing almost effortlessly as the ceramic shell shattered like salt crystals. Compared to the galvanized armour of a warship, the ’Warrior offered no more resistance than the air around it, yet as fast as her plunge was, Aurora was able to bring herself to a complete halt before she hit the ground.

Extracting herself from the remains, she flew high and attempted to recommence radio contact with the surviving Porturegans. To her delight, the little gizmo in her throat was everything Josué had promised

To her indescribable relief, a voice answered her call.

“We are here, Fair Child,” it said, “…some of us anyway.”

Aurora flew above the valley’s walls and, seeing the very tip of Séuchčo Estak’s tallest building rise, knew there wasn’t much time. “How goes the hunt?” she asked almost reluctantly, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.

“We got a lot of them,” the voice answered reluctantly, “but… there were just too many.”

“How many of you are left?”

“Two.” The voice was deadly solemn.

“Two!” Aurora exploded. She had to force herself to stop and regain control; even the infantry version of the GAR was to be feared. Even with their new shields, it was amazing any of the brave crews had escaped the forest. “…Okay, unless you see something that is incredibly tempting, I am going to suggest that you retreat to Séuchčo Estak and make your final preparations there. I will do what I can with the infantry.”

There was a pause as the Comandante debated the wisdom of her suggestion, then an affirmative. “Understood, Fair Child. I would like to say you are wrong, but with just two of us in close country…” he tailed off-- “we will do more good on the spaceport’s field.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Oh, and don’t waste your strength on those trucks; they are carrying non-combatants.”

“Non-combatants?” Aurora’s memory flashed up images of the armourless Betans and suddenly, things felt as if they were on the verge of falling into place. “How?”

“We could not get close enough to be certain but the equipment they were carrying looked technical. Computers, scanners, things like that. Not a gun amongst them as far as we could see.”

“And the personnel carriers?”

“Oh those carry soldiers alright. Many, many Betans in armor…” he hesitated and Aurora sensed a ‘but.’

“But,” she supplied.

“But their weapons were not right.”

Aurora groaned as things did indeed slip into place, “Let me guess; GAR 182’s and similar, all very heavy?”

“How did you know?”

“It fits the pattern.” Aurora swore in Velorian, the first time she’d used her language in months. “They were not coming here to attack Séuchčo Estak, Comandante; they were coming to defend it!”

She heard the man scratch his head. “I do not understand.”

“All of this,” Aurora waved her hand,s although it was impossible that he could have seen her. “The attack and their unusual dependency on heavy arms? None of it made sense; their equipment favors a defensive fight, not something they would use it if they expected to have to take Séuchčo Estak from us. They didn’t know we were here!”

“But why do they want the port?”

Aurora recalled her earlier conversation with Otávio, “Because they want to use the vacuum port for themselves once their fleet breaks through. It was just bad timing that they attacked when we were going to launch.” She swore again, louder and more vehemently than before. “Skietra, I am such a fool! This changes everything.”

“How?” Despite his experiences, the Comandante’s voice betrayed a touch of eagerness.

“Nothing that you can do for now, I'm afraid. Return to the port as we agreed and prepare yourselves for an assault. And make sure Colonel Leandro knows what is happening; above everything else, he has to know they were expecting to fight a defensive battle, not lead an assault. He will know what to do.”

“If you say so,” The Comandante sounder uncertain but would do as instructed. “Good luck, Fair Child. Unit out.”

There was a slight crackle as he cleared the line and her hearing was one hundred percent again. Aurora wondered how that could be; the technology behind her implants wasn’t Porturegan, it’d been adapted from the Aureans who, it seemed, had no idea it could be put to this use. But to wear something that was truly undetectable was unnerving; her senses were some of the most acute in the galaxy, but when the implants were inactive, they were undetectable. It was odd to say the least, but she supposed humans survived with undetectable prosthetics -- General Inácio had implants throughout most of his body and had no complaints except an aversion to mirrors -- and so could she.

She sighed and went hunting.

 

 

Séuchčo Estak.

Fifty five minutes before launch.

 

Aurora flew between the soaring grey towers of Séuchčo Estak, watching the troops settle into their final positions. Far below her the Landwarriors had been sequestered inside a couple of submerged sheds with excellent fields of fire where the Aureans would advance.

That assumed the Aureans were still coming. They weren’t prepared for an assault, hadn’t been briefed on what to expect and had seen most of their armor ripped apart by a single woman. Running scared and off mission, there was no telling what the Aureans would do.

At least that is what her protectorates though. Aurora knew exactly what the Aureans would do: they would do what Aureans always did -- they would attack. It was in their mentality; when hurt, to hit back harder.

Besides, after Protectors, Aureans were the finest soldiers in the galaxy. Having to attack something they’d expected to defend mid-mission with vastly depleted resources and against an invincible foe was nothing out of the ordinary for them.

Also, the fact that she’d just spent the last two hours surrendering ground to the infantry was a pretty good indication that they fully intended to take Séuchčo Estak, armor or no armor.

The question was whether they would be able to hold it for the next fifty minutes, which was why she’d darted back to the port to assess the troops. They hadn’t significantly changed their disposition since she’d last seen them and the addition of two ’Warriors had obviously increased morale. Aurora had worried about their condition, but if anything the cracked, burned and pitted armour only seemed to inspire the defenders.

Finally, when she had assured herself that the vacuum port was as well protected as it possibly could be, she allowed herself the luxury of visiting the launch site.

The Lance had fully emerged from its silo and its tall form seemed to be resting, like an athlete before a marathon, while it was carried on its pad along the launch rail. As tall as the ship was, it was still hidden by the valley’s slope. Yet the Aureans would know it was there; in addition to vehicle launched UAV’s, the infantry had their own drones which would have announced the pristine vehicle’s existence to them.

Aurora took pleasure in imagining that a lot of Aureans who, until now had only had to worry about the unexpected resistance, now had to wonder why the Porturegans were busying around the tall spire. Their fear warmed Aurora’s heart and allowed her to fly a little closer.

The Lance was enormous; even without its new engines it was easily as big as the old rockets that had propelled its predecessors into space. At the moment it resembled those old rockets as its delicate surfaces were wrapped in several layers of disposable heat and friction shielding. Underneath its shields however, The Lance gleamed. Although it was a basic tube necessary to facilitate its entry into space, its skin glistened as if oiled and was as graceful as something grown instead of built. The tiny flowing lines etched into its hull reinforced this image, as did the protrusions and intrusions placed seemingly at random along its hull, all with a purpose and all overshadowed by the solar sails which, while inactive, wrapped around The Lance like a chrysalis, but when spread, were as beautiful and delicate as a butterfly’s wings.

Out in space, its natural environment, The Lance was more a work of art than a working science vessel. Its beauty had been part of what made it stand out when she’d first laid eyes upon it all those years ago.

Well… that and, although she would never say it to Beni’s face, the fact that it looked a little primitive to her eyes.

Concern crossed Aurora’s face as she remembered that Beni was inside The Lance, strapped down so tight he could barely twitch a finger, and so very vulnerable.

The Porturegans had not entirely rejected fuel boosters yet; without antigrav the huge rockets were the only way to get things into space. Although design evolution had markedly increased safety, reliability and cost, The Lance was still strapped to what was effectively a huge pillar of fuel. All it required was a spark, something an Aurean GAR would be happy to provide.

And given the range of the average GAR, the Aureans would barely need to set foot on Séuchčo Estak to provide that spark. The Lance’s sole defense was its size; before Séuchčo Estak’s huge towers, the ship might be simply too big for the Aureans to recognize as a target.

It was a small hope, but one that she clung to, because there was absolutely nothing else she could do to protect her lover.

Her sharp eyes spotted dark shapes rising on the valley’s rise and knew the grace period was over. The Aureans had arrived and she had thirty eight minutes to stop them from crossing a thousand meters. Two thousand if she included the distance to the Lance’s rail.

Aurora smiled resolutely. There couldn’t be more than a battalion of them; it shouldn’t be hard.

She dove. Half a second later the first HGAR split the sky and the battle for Séuchčo Estak had begun.

 

* * *

 

There was a whoosh and an RPG shot past Aurora, impacting somewhere in the Betans' lines. She couldn’t tell if it did any damage or not but the Aureans seemed not to notice. The Imperial military was built around its infantry, and the infantry was built around the Charge.

It deserved the emphasis.

Aureans didn’t like defending. They could defend, and like most things to do with war, they did it very well. But they were predatory by nature and predators prefer to attack. Thus had been born the Charge.

Most armies learned the fallacy of human wave attacks around the time they discovered automatic firearms, but the Aureans had never run into that evolutionary conundrum because for thousands of years their enemies wielded weapons that were no threat to them. Even in the early days before advanced armor, thousands of Betans had fearlessly waded through bullets, shells and round shot. Their success only improved with their as armor got better, and lighter, and the Aurean military began to resemble a dark version of something out of the ancient crusades on Earth.

Without revolution, evolution took place and the Aurean military adapted itself to its unrivalled dominance in the physical realm. The key to its success was simplicity. The Charge was just that; hundreds or thousands of infantry lined up and then unleashed like a wave that could wash away resistance like the tide.

Modulated by a few rules, Aurean physical perfection and intensive training, the Empire had found that the Charge was a solution to anything, even against enemies with weapons that could puncture Betan armour.

All of this passed through Aurora’s mind as she piled into the Betans. Dozens died around her, either splashed across her body or thrown into the air to fall on their friends. But the Charge had a solution even for Viragos and that was simple dispersion.

Aurora, even with her eyes, couldn’t “see” Aureans before her. She saw a wave that her higher brain knew was composed of Aureans, but she couldn’t see them as individuals. She could temporarily speed up her reflexes so she could see individuals, but that made her head hurt after a while and there were always more Aureans. Better to dive blind and try again and again than try to pick out individuals in a swarm.

Besides, she really didn’t like seeing the people she was killing. Betans were frighteningly close to humans in their fragility.

The Charge wasn’t in play yet. Aurora could see it forming along the valley’s edge but it wasn’t ready. Small sorties as groups spilled down the hill were simple probes, preludes to the main attack that would gather information with the same coordination of a wolf pack circling for the kill.

Aurora had one chance. To its annoyance the Hall, even after three thousand years, had yet to discover a truly effective counter to the Charge. It had discovered that if a Charge could be caught before, or in the midst of forming then it would be broken

Though both sides were out of effective GAR range, her protectorates were already doing a fair job of splitting the enemy. But Aureans were trained to assemble the Charge under fire. The golden death streaking up from aeneucrete spires was nothing they weren’t prepared for.

For that matter, neither was she; but that didn’t stop Aurora killing them in droves. Aureans were only the second-finest warriors in the galaxy and unlike them she was fighting for something; her protectorate, and her love.

She dived again. Some Aureans fired at her, some GAR’s splashed off her chest, none stopped her. Missiles exploded, dirt fountained. Death flashed back and forth between the sides and all the while the line was forming.

Then it was no longer forming and there was a terrible moment of stillness even as she eradicated file after file and as the massed legions of black clad troops tensed themselves. Then the moment was gone in a single wave of motion, the line broke and surged forward, flooding the green slope beneath a treacle black sea of flesh and armour.

It was too late. Aurora could only watch with cold horror; she hadn’t stopped the Charge, and now a bare hundred men were all that stood between Beni and the tide.

As the Aureans moved into range, all four cannons on both Landwarriors erupted, exploding the brown sod, scything the long grass and flinging bodies high into the air. Along with their main armament the Commandante’s forces fired their heavy GAR’s, laying down withering suppressing fire that decimated the Aureans even as the Porturegan’s own infantry split the advancing aliens with vertical lightning. From the huge silver rails, each one taller than a man, the captured HGAR set up a terrible din of destruction as its unwavering beams cut wet zigzags in the sod, having already passed, almost unobstructed, through countless Betan bodies.

The ’Warriors switched to alternate fire, discharging one cannon as the other reloaded and spitting indiscriminate death among the Imperial waves.

The slaughter was overwhelming, yet still the Aureans came. Unafraid and utterly determined, firing as they ran, the invaders ignored everything but their goal. Not even Aurora, who massacred them without effort, could slow the pace at which their feet beat down the grass.

Then it was thirty minutes to launch and the Aureans had reached the grey edge where nature gave way to smooth aeneucrete. There they were momentarily checked by the wire fence and for an instant it looked as if the Charge might be stalled. The Porturegans, driven almost mad by the unwavering rush of their enemy, screamed as they cut into the Aureans bunching up on the port’s margin.

But the delay was transitory. Scant seconds passed before the Betans battered down the flimsy fence, using their great strength to destroy or rend the wire. Before them lay open ground and a withering enemy; almost half of the defenders had been killed or wounded and the grey aeneucrete had been splashed red with blood, bodies and offal. Barely 70 men remained and the Aureans still came in their hundreds.

The speed with which they moved belied their accuracy and their pragmatism; for despite its name, the Charge was not a single long surge of movement. The Aureans wove, ducked, stopped and ran in spurts. They fired over one another’s heads, used whatever sparse cover there was, even \their own dead, which speckled Séuchčo Estak’s flat boundary, piling the bodies up into fleshy barriers from which they could pour fire into the diminishing defensive pocket.

But while the Charge continued to move, it had been visibly slowed by the flat expanse it was forced to cross. For all the Imperial expertise the defenders had a clear line of fire and the weak Porturegan GAR’s could cut through two or three bodies, even with their armor, before being exhausted.

Finally Leandro gave the order to abandon the front line and the Aurean whoop of victory could be heard all the way to The Lance as the defenders fled before them.

The Landwarriors continued to fight even when it was clear that they were overwhelmed. The first was killed as the last of its infantry screen was shot down and Betans got close enough to toss grenades into its shelter. The second, realising that hope was lost, decided to meet death head on and rode out into the swarm. Betans fell beneath its armored tracks, were smashed against its armour and obliterated by its armament and for a moment it almost looked as if it might turn the tide all by itself.

Almost. With molten metal spilling in white hot drops in its wake and even the ceramic screens reaching ignition point, the ’Warrior was bleeding to death. It was hellishly hot within the vehicle and desperate to breathe, the crew tried to open their hatches. To their horror the molten metal had sagged and kept the flaps down, entombing them and then there was the terrific crack of an armoured track finally snapping under stress and heat.

The ’Warrior screamed and skidded in a wide circle, its now bare left side wheels scraping a long groove in the aeneucrete. Yet still the fighting vehicle continued its murderous course, crashing into the charge like a tipsy juggernaut amongst mice even as its crew screamed and died.

It could not last. Finally someone managed to toss a grenade beneath its streaming carapace and blew what remained of its traction apart. Even then ’Warrior would not rest as its gunner, realizing his doom and not wishing to die alone, continued firing indiscriminately into the masses. With both loaders dead from the heat he had only two rounds left to fire but by then a group of Aureans had risked the heat of the ’Warrior’s hull to reach an access hatch and fling yet more grenades inside.

The ’Warrior finally died, gloriously as superheated plasma first crushed the miserable soft targets within, then blew them without as it burned through to the ammunition and turned the glowing wreck into a red column of fire and smoke.

Aurora watched the death from the distant second line, looking away only as the sides ruptured and sprayed molten death over the immediate landscape.

The Aureans were already closing on the second line and it was obvious that very shortly yet another retreat would have to be called… but, she braved a glance at The Lance and its still miraculously unmarked hull. There were only minutes till launch. If they could only hold out just a little bit longer they would make it.

So she did the only thing she could. She landed before the twenty of so survivors, with her back to the enemy and her cape rippling in the breeze, she put her hands on her hips to address them

Many were injured, having been dragged painfully over the rough aeneucrete by comrades who did not wish to see them delivered to the mercies of the Aureans. Yet despite their pain and red soaked bandages, they looked up at her. Even as muddy and filthily as she was, Aurora was their symbol of hope, an angel from heaven, their saint and Protector.

“You have fought hard,” she spoke aloud. “Fought so very hard. For longer and harder than could ever have been expected of you. You have achieved more than I could have ever hoped when I asked you to resist the Aurean plague, yet I must ask you for one more thing, one more task before you can rest and that is to hold on for fifteen more minutos. That is all. Just fifteen minutos and all of your sacrifices, all of your death and pain will be vindicated because that ship--” she pointed to The Lance-- “will bring my sisters to me and we will finally drive this scourge from your world.”

She looked into their eyes. She saw their pain. Pain, bone-tired weariness and not a little fear. But she also saw hope, which until moments ago had been dying and now burned like a beacon. They would follow her, and they would give her fifteen minutes

“Thank you,” She bowed almost double, tears of joy and awe spilling from her eyes. “Fifteen minutos, that is all, and you can go. Thank you.”

Someone actually cheered and started to clap. Even the stoic Colonel, crippled as he was by the loss of his arm above the elbow, could be seen trying to give her ovation by slapping his remaining hand against his breastplate.

“You heard her!” someone shouted. “The Fair Child needs fifteen minutos, and we shall give them to her!”

The cry went up. “Fifteen minutos!” “Fifteen minutos!” “Fifteen minutos!”

 

* * *

 

The Aureans suddenly found themselves in a new fight. Closing on what they thought was a broken and demoralized mass, they were astonished to find themselves being cut down by men who fought as if they’d just entered the battle.

The front of the Charge was obliterated, wiped out beneath the weight of Porturegans fire. The second and third ranks faltered, and then the impossible happened; an Aurean Charge was driven back.

Barely two hundred Aureans were still standing, and though they faced but twenty uninjured survivors and a score of walking wounded they were forced to turn, fleeing for the cover of the Aloc Acoc. Their indecipherable screams of surprise was suddenly drowned out by an even deeper crack and they realized that even the flimsy protection afforded by the skyscrapers was not enough against an infuriated Virago.

Some of the Aureans had adopted the Porturegans’ tactic of firing from the lower windows and were crushed as the buildings they were using for cover shook and collapsed as the Virago soared high.

As the Aloc Acoc tower collapsed on the recoiling Aureans, the sun broke from behind a cloud and Aurora, still flying high above the battle, seemed to flash into brilliance as the light reflected off her white uniform.

To the troops below she appeared a sun child, and even those who were not Believers felt a tug of greatness as the glowing speck arced slowly and then dove, driving through yet another building and sending it crashing down on the invaders.

Yet even that deafening roar was drowned out by what came next. It was as if God had reached down and struck the earth.

Nothing, nothing in any of the collective experiences of either side could even begin to prepare them for the roar and explosion of being so close to a starship breaking contact with the earth.

A vast, indescribable column of pure white gas roared and spilled over the distant launching pad, obscuring everything beneath a glowing cloud Such was the immensity of the eruption that Aurora froze in mid air, terrified that the worst had happened and some stray shot had penetrated the great fuel tank,

But then from out of the maelstrom The Lance emerged. Slowly at first, but then with greater and greater speed it rocketed into the heavens on a column of marble white gas.

As one, both armies stopped and stared as the rapidly climbing rocket mastered the mighty pull of gravity and then escaped it, leaving nothing but a coiling snake of smoke and steam.

It took a while for everyone’s hearing to return, but when it did, it came back to the sound of human cheers.

Aurora, who was no less elated than her protectorate, was eager to be among them once again. “My friends,” she gushed over her new toy, “you have done everything I have ever… could ever expect from you. But now you must go. You gave me my fifteen minutos and now there is no reason to give me your lives. You must retreat Go, now!”

It was hardly as moving as her previous speech, but was no less effective. Far below, she saw the tiny group of ragged survivors stand around their wounded Colonel and begin to move out.

Aurora, her heart out in space with her lover and wishing to join it with her body, was obliged to stay also and cover their retreat, but she did so willingly. It was after all the least she could do for people who had given her so much.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Aurora headed back from her engagement with the fleet. Things had the sense of completion. The Lance was in space, Séuchčo Estak and whatever forces the Aureans had hoped to occupy it with was a glowing crater, and the Aurean fleet was scrap metal.

Hundreds of people had died to launch The Lance but, looking back on it from an endorphin high, it seemed to have been easy, even inevitable. For moments at a time she could even forget the nail-biting tension of those last few moments.

The fleet had been easier, much easier. That had been just her life on the line, and besides, it was what she was trained for.

She wasn’t about to deny that there’d been elements of the attack that had been… tricky; but nothing that truly tested her. There had only been eight warships after all, a command ship, one Heavy Cruiser, a handful of Destroyers and a couple of frigates. She’d had the luxury of Porturegan missiles battering the fleet to make things even easier.

Only one of the frigates remained operational, although it was far from a fighting platform. Aurora had left it intact for two reasons. The first was emotional; as much as she disliked Aureans, the survivors were living things and she simply couldn’t condemn them to the lingering death of deep space. The second was pragmatic; if she destroyed their last ship, the survivors would try to land on Betah Stronberg, which would mean boosting the wrong side by several thousand. With a single intact, albeit damaged ship the survivors would have a place where they could rally – assuming it had life support for them all, and if it didn’t, that was too bad. From there they could surrender or, if they were feeling suicidal, try run for the wormhole.

Either way it was a win/win situation.

Dealing with the transports had not been so easy.

Aureans used Carrier Transports to move their personnel around. Each could carry as many as a million troops, and because no environmental system could support so many active bodies, every one of those soldiers was kept in suspended animation They were put to sleep at their debarkation point, wherever that was, and kept like that until they made planet fall.

Not all of the Aureans who’d set out to invade Betah Stronberg had made it to the planet. The sensor network that surrounded the world had caught them by surprise and a third of the Transports had been stuck in space

Because they had never made it to the surface, the Betans they carried had never been awakened. Because they’d never woken, they never knew they were under attack

The positive side of that was that they’d never felt anything; but the deaths still weighed on Aurora’s conscience. To massacre millions of helpless men and women was Aurean behavior. No matter how pragmatic and necessary it was, she wished there was some other way.

She sighed -- something that was impossible in a vacuum but that she attempted anyway. War was a disgusting business, nothing would ever change that.

She was about halfway back to the planet when her audio pickup started working. She’d been surprised to learn that her implants worked without an atmosphere, but the people at Quatroecks had explained it was because both implants were in contact with her body

“Aurora,” a voice said, sound strangely tinny without air,  “…ission… …go well… …d… … …need assistance?”

“Mission went fine,” she reported, slightly confused; she’d radioed in her success as soon as she’d finished and even if she hadn’t, their lidar would have told them in almost real time. “And no, I don’t need assistance.” Something was wrong, she could feel it. Communication over long distances was rough but it’d never been this bad.

“No!” The voice’s vehemence cut over the static. “The Aureans are creating… interference. The Lance is in trouble…”

Aurora didn’t hear anything after that; the operator continued speaking but she simply didn’t hear him in her shock.

She interrupted. “Where is he?”

“They were just breaking orbit… … …hundred kilometers above the surface, seventy eight degrees above parallel…” the transmission broke into a burst of static.

“I can’t hear you.” Aurora shouted, then had a flash of inspiration, “Link up with The Lance, tell them to contact me. Strongest transmission they can make.”

“What good… … that do?”

“Too complicated to explain. Just do it.”

“…rry well…ne second.”

It took more than a second. A good deal longer than a second. It took 8.235 seconds for a very welcome voice to boom in her ear.

“Aurora?” The Lance, floating above whatever the Aureans were doing on the ground, had a perfect transmission

“Beni!” Aurora gasped. “Skietra blessed your parents; you are alive! But if you are to remain that way I need to locate you. Keep speaking.”

“Ok…?” Beni’s confusion was obvious. “But Aurora, there is something you must know.”

“Yes?” In her excitement at hearing her lover’s voice again, Aurora wasn’t really listening to him, or at least not to what he was saying. She was slowly turning her head and listening to how his voice dipped and rose.

What she was doing would be impossible for one of her protectorates; their bodies didn’t absorb electromagnetic radiation, but as hers did she could use her own shadow to fix on the transmission’s source. It was crude, but effective.

“Tala is the one attacking us!” Beni’s sudden urgency froze her head mid-arc.

“Tala?” Aurora hissed.

“Yes, me,” a very unwelcome voice entered the conversation. “And this time you do not have your precious humans to look after you.”

“Beni, is she there with you?” Aurora instantly jumped to the worst possible conclusion.

“Oh no, my Fair Child,” Tala’s voice returned to mock her. “Don’t worry; the tin can is quite intact… although it might be missing a few bits and pieces. And I haven’t begun to start on the crew, or your ‘Beni’ I will though, and you know I’ll enjoy it.” With almost joyful abandon she continued. “In case you’re wondering how I’m communicating with you, did you really think that we hadn’t seen your latest toy? And I must admit I can see why you had your pets design it; it is so fantastically useful. Wonderfully adaptable and nearly as indestructible as ourselves. I can only wonder why we didn’t come up with the idea, it’s so obvious; but then you need a simple mind for simple ideas. And I will most certainly enjoy spreading this simple idea to my sisters. But do not fret yourself,” Tala allowed herself to sound gracious, “I will give full credit to you; it is the credit due to anyone who improves the Empire.” Laughter wasn’t picked up by the implant for some reason but Aurora would have known what the egomaniac was doing from across the galaxy

She couldn’t escape what Tala had said about the crew. The Tset’lar would torture them for her own amusement in any case, but by expressing her attachment to Beni, she’d just reserved him for Tala’s special attention.

And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it! Aurora was ten minutes away from Betah Stronberg and another minute from The Lance’s position, not counting the time it’d take to find the ship once she got to where she thought it was.

She was going to have to hear her lover tortured to death and watch as her protectorates’ hopes were ripped apart.

Beni was not so fatalistic. Despite, or perhaps because of, his long-term relationship with a Supremis, Beni refused to see the hopelessness of his situation

“Sara,” he ordered one of his officers, “power up the Comitatus and re-key them for a small target. Paulo.” He spoke to another. “Unfurl the lace and unlock luz. Get engineering on the line, I need some equations and pull doctor Cornélio out of whatever hole he’s found. I need an opinion ”

“I’ll offer you one for free, little human,” Tala taunted, almost apoplectic with glee. “I know you’re not in the military, despite your rank, but it should be obvious even to you that you really shouldn’t transmit tactical information on a frequency the enemy is monitoring. Or are you so paralyzed with fear that you’re beyond rational thought?”

Leave him alone!” Aurora screamed helplessly. She had not gone through all of this just to see her lover end this way.

“Oh, touched a nerve, have I my Fair Child?” Tala’s voice grated and for an instant Aurora could see the Tset’lar, feel her hands around her throat and squeezing. “I knew this ‘Beni’ was important to you, but not that he was special to you. Hmm, perhaps, as a special favor, I should kill him outright instead of allowing him to share the fate of his comrades?”

“If you touch him, his crew or his ship--”

“Too late for that, I’m afraid my Fair Child. You couldn’t hear it but that was me tearing something important off your… lovers? quaint little barge. Don’t worry, it wasn’t anything too important. I want to have my fun with the frails after all.”

All the while Beni was issuing orders. For moments at a time his signal disappeared and Aurora was plunged into terrified uncertainty, waiting for the screams that would come with the Tset’lar’s entrance into The Lance, but always he returned, determined yet calm.

Then he vanished.

Beni!” She screamed, “Beni! Are you still there. Answer me! Tala, if you have hurt them I will remove your skin!”

Tala tutted. “Haven’t you been listening my Fair Child? Your ‘Beni’ is trying to hurt me with those quaint little rockets. Why would I try and stop him when he is going to such lengths to prove himself for you? I’m not totally heartless after all. I’m just sorry we can’t hear him anymore, his little reports were quite amusing but I must have damaged their comm array in my last pass”

It was then that Aurora located them with her telescopic vision. At such range, even to her eyes they were barely more than dots against the stars, but she could still clearly make out the graceful curves of The Lance, and the darting shape of the Tset’lar.

She ignored the Aurean and focused on The Lance, trying to will her pupils to open wider and drink in every photon The ship never developed in to anything greater than a splinter of light, but she could still make out the damage

The Lance had, for some reason, fully unfurled its lace-like solar sails; yet Tala had declined the invitation and left them undamaged. Instead she’d torn great gouges down the sides, ripped off equipment and pounded the exterior hull until it resembled the moon. There was some outgassing, though thankfully none of it was atmospheric. Instead short sprays of green and yellow gas were twisting the already listing ship off axis, making already desperate maneuvers even more difficult and reducing their course to a series of wild, erratic curves and circles.

And she was still a minute away; what she was seeing and hearing wasn’t even in real time.

Tala darted in and suddenly an entirely different type of gas blew out into space.

“Oops,” Tala giggled. “It would seem I have accidentally perjured myself. This barge is even more fragile than it looks. Oh well, one down, a hundred and eleven to go.”

Aurora squeezed her eyes shut and mouthed a short prayer for the crew member who, she hoped, was now dead. Nothing terrified her more than Beni’s tales of what happened to the human body when it fell into hard vacuum.

The prayer was interrupted when Beni returned, still apparently ignorant of the fact his radio was on. “Sara, Timoteo, lock targets. Everyone else hold on!”

“Still preparing yourself, little human?” Tala asked, flying effortlessly along side the wildly twisting starship. “You really aren’t a military crew are you? Very well, I said I’d be sporting. You can try your best… then I’ll try my worst and we’ll see who fares better shall we?”

Beni didn’t answer.

The Lance appeared to explode.

From along the midpoint of the vessel, dozens of limpet shaped objects simultaneously ruptured their contents, thrusting what looked like dozens of wildly tumbling and turning threads into the void.

After a moment the threads, which Aurora realized had to be missile trails, gathered together and doubled back on Tala’s position.

The Tset’lar, knowing that the rockets posed absolutely no threat, remained absolutely still and waited for them to come to her.

The wispy trails shot straight past her. Despite the distance, Aurora could just make out Tala’s mocking smirk as she asked. “All that preparation and they missed?” There was another slight movement that was difficult to make out since the Tset’lar wore black but which could only be a shrug. “Ah well, I said I’d give you one shot. Now I’ll try mine.”

“No, please,” Aurora begged, already knowing it was too late. “I will do anything, Tala, anything if you leave him alone. I will swear fealty to you, surrender to the Aureans, anything if you will just let him live!”

Her plea fell on deaf ears. It most likely would have done so even if there hadn’t been a delay between her speaking the words and Tala receiving them.

Tala moved and an explosion lit up space. The slightly actinic blue tinge told Aurora that it could only have been made by an anti-matter canister rupturing.

The explosion was so bright, that even so far away Aurora could feel warmth on her cheeks and had to look away from the intense burst. On Betah Stronberg every ocean turned white with reflected light and clouds flared in the unexpected radiation. Thankfully The Lance had been far enough away that its death had not stripped its homeworld of its atmosphere.

Aurora could only scream.

 

* * *

 

“Aurora.”

Aurora drifted through space, not really bothering, carried only by her own momentum. Her world had lost its sun. Without Beni, life lacked meaning. He had been her gentler, the one who connected her to humanity. And now he was gone because she hadn’t protected him.

“Aurora.”

She ignored the voice from Quatroecks It was pretty faint anyway and it was almost too easy to believe it was just her imagination. Some part of her mind noticed the line was free from its earlier static.

“Aurora, are you okay?”

What a question. Of course she wasn’t “okay.” She’d just seen the love of her life blasted into his constituent atoms, without even the chance to see his face.

“Aurora, we need you.”

That struck a cord. People needed her. It was her job, her reason for existence, the cause for her birth. Yet… without Beni.

“Aurora, The Lance is intact. We need you to rescue it.”

“What?” She raised her head sharply towards Betah Stronberg. “I saw–”

“You saw an antimatter tank explode.” The voice interrupted. “Allvariz detonated it with a flight of Comitatus rockets.”

“But… why?”

“You are not going to believe this.” The voice sounded like it was having trouble believing it itself. “But they managed to execute an FTL jump.”

“What… how?” Aurora couldn’t twist her head around it. First Beni was alive, now he’d managed to go faster than light inside the solar system? It was too much impossibility for her to handle.

Fortunately the voice was willing to explain. “It is complicated. We do not use the Aurean model for faster than light travel… though we did not know that when we invented it. Our drive is slower than your standard, but does not need a run up; just an injection of energy to start the reaction. Since The Lance already had sails, it was easier to use them than install a power generator.”

“Yes?” All six chambers of Aurora’s heart were pounding madly; Beni was alive!

“Somehow Allvariz got the idea of using The Lance’s antimatter to kick-start the reaction”

Another impossibility Aurora’s mind couldn’t wrap around. She barely understood the concepts behind Aurean FTL, let alone whatever bastardized version the Porturegans had developed; but she did know that antimatter was used only after the light barrier had been crossed, when the drive thirsted for the energy it needed to keep an object at trans-luminal velocities. If that much energy was released without something to absorb it, the engines would be destroyed, if not the entire ship. “That’s impossible,” she croaked.

“We thought so too, until we realized what he’d done. When antimatter reacts with normal matter the energy release is photonic, which is what The Lance’s solar sails were designed to absorb. The crew obviously calculated how far away the tank needed to be to provide them with sufficient energy without incinerating the ship. What we want to know is how they rigged the sails to catch that much energy; they weren’t designed to absorb that much energy so quickly.”

“Where is he?” Aurora asked.

There was an uncomfortable silence as the voice debated telling her and the tried to equivocate, “The problem comes from the fact that the antimatter was meant to be fuel for their journey, by using it all for activation energy Allvariz would only be able to make a very short journey, a jump really.”

“Where are they.” Then, when the voice didn’t answer immediately, she demanded. “Where.”

“…We do not know.”

“What?”

“Aurora there are a lot of numbers to crunch here. The Lance was tumbling on all axis, damaged, traveling at an erratic velocity… just working out their exact inclination when they crossed the light barrier is going to take several minutes. Determining how far they went is going to take significantly longer There are a lot of factors… particle density alone …” Aurora knew he was shaking his head.

“Can you at least tell me what half of the system they were pointing towards?” Any advantage she could claim might be the difference between life and death. Tala would no doubt be doing the same thing and Aurean computers were immensely more powerful than Porturegan ones…

Tala

“Tala!” She gasped. “Where is Tala? Did the antimatter… did it, get her?”

She almost didn’t dare think it, the thought was too delicious. Antimatter was one of the few things against which Supremis, even Tset’lar, had no defense against, and even if she hadn’t been touched by the lethal material, she must have been right next to the tank when it ruptured.

“She is still alive,” the voice sighed. “We have her on lidar. It looks like she was knocked unconscious by the explosion but from what we are seeing, that is all that happened. I am sorry”

“So am I…” Aurora cursed and wondered if she could reach the Tset’lar before she woke, then dismissed the notion. Beni and his crew were her priority now. In any case she was still minutes away and Tala would likely wake well before she arrived. “So where should I start looking for The Lance?”

“Preliminary indications suggest they were pointed in system,” the voice answered. “The jump probably took them between Internouno, and the sun.”

The target area comprised thousands of billions of cubic kilometers but Aurora didn’t say a word of complaint. She merely offered her thanks to the speaker, and to Skietra, and set her course.

 

* * *

 

As fast as Aurora could move, it still took the Virago hours to catch up with The Lance. As she flew, Quatroecks continued to refine the starship’s probable location; but as each update came in, Aurora couldn’t help but notice that they placed the fragile vessel closer and closer to the sun.

Finally she came into range of the crippled vessel.

“Aurora!”

Her relief was palpable. “Beni.” She laughed. “Thank Skietra. When that tank exploded I feared… I thought the worst.”

There was no response for six long seconds. “I am sorry for that… it was the only thing we could think to do and there was no way to warn you.”

“Not with Tala listening in, no,” Aurora shook her head. “But it was pretty ingenious to use the radio to ‘accidentally’ reveal your plan to us, Beni.”

Again there was the six-second lag, suggesting to Aurora that she still had some distance to go. “Thank you, but I can not take the credit. You remember Lígia, my communications specialist? She is the one who came up with it, and ‘black outs’ so we could speak in the open. Speaking of Tala… did we get her?”

“I am afraid not,” Aurora bit her lip, “it was a good idea but she was too far away.”

“It was always a long shot.” Beni sounding as if he were sucking his teeth. “It would have been nice to show her that we ‘little humans’ can actually achieve something.”

“If a human took out a Tset’lar, it would be worthy of galaxy wide news,” Aurora grinned. “Escaping one in a ‘barge’ is merely worthy of this arm.”

“It was risky…” Beni answered, “But, if you Supremis do have one weakness, it is your egos.”

“And Tala is better endowed than most of us,” Aurora grinned at the slight prod. “But what you say is true… it was my pride that allowed you to venture out here by yourself.  I should have been looking out for you, not indulging myself with the fleet. Your mission was more important.”

“This mission can save us, Aurora, but not for months, and it will mean nothing if you can not preserve us in the here and now.” Aurora heard him speak to someone else then say, “We have got you on radar about three light seconds out. Have you located us yet?”

“No. I have been trying but the distance is just too great. You are pretty faint as it is.” The most recent report from Quatroecks had been so faint even she had to strain her ears and she’d heard nothing from them at all for the last twenty minutes.

“I think we might be able to do something about that. Tala did a lot of damage to us, and our improvised flight did more, but our long range imaging array is still in pretty good shape.”

“What will that do?” Aurora tried to remember the LIA from the enthusiastic tours Beni had given her, but she’d always been more interested in the captain than his ship. She had a vague recollection of a large dish that could emerge from just beneath The Lance’s nosecone, which Beni had said could be used to detect tiny objects anywhere up to two million kilometers away.

“It is basically very powerful lidar,” he chuckled. “I can fry an egg on the moon from orbit so I think that if we attenuate the beam, you should be able to feel it?” There was just the hint of a question in his tone.

“Giving me your direction,” Aurora beamed in the airless vacuum, “you really are smart.”

“Again, it was not my idea. It will take a few moments to generate the pulse and our chances of hitting you would be better if you hold your course.”

“Understood,” Aurora nodded. “But I should warn you, this close to the sun I can already feel a lot of radiation, so make whatever you do stand out.”

“Capacitor charged, Captain,” Aurora heard someone say in the background, “Targeting the Fair Child’s location. One moment… firing.”

Aurora couldn’t feel anything at first, just the cozy radiation of the sun, then, like a single familiar voice emerging from a crowd, she thought she felt something prickle against her skin. It was subtle… but she thought she felt a slowly alternating pulse. First short, short, short, then long, then short, then long and short, short, short again. Yet they seemed to be coming almost directly out of the sun. She looked up, fortunately it was considerably dimmer to her eyes than the antimatter explosion of a few hours earlier.

“Have you got it?” Beni’s voice squeaked, “We’re operating on batteries here and this is draining our reserves.”

“I think I do,” Aurora answered, eyes closed, every inch of exposed skin aching for the pulse’s caress. She wished she’d thought to strip off her uniform but the pulse was so gentle that she feared losing it if she so much as twitched, “Hang on, I think I’ve got your bearing; check if I’m correct.”

After a few moments a joyful Allvariz declared that her course couldn’t be more steady with approach radar.

“It’s only a million kilometers, Beni,” Aurora gently chided -- though inwardly she beamed-- “hardly worth boasting about.” She opened her eyes and imagined she caught a flash of light just on the edge of the bright corona, “but you must be incredibly close to the sun?”

“We are. In fact we were lucky to miss it, but we are quite safe here. Our engines are good against the gravitational pull and our shield is fully charged.”

“You have a shield?” That was news to Aurora.

“…More of a magnetic envelope,” Beni conceded. “Nothing that you, or the Aureans, would consider a shield I am sure. But it fulfils its purpose and keeps us safe. It is not too different from the one we used a few years ago when we were out here examining the solar magnetosphere.”

Aurora remembered the mission, and the pride Beni had felt being chosen for it. She’d teased him for a lack of dedication to duty when he’d returned with a tan

“You mentioned damage before?” Aurora asked as she continued to accelerate. The sun was an enormous black speckled orange ball that extended out to all but the very corners of her vision. “Will you need assistance getting back?”

“Thankfully no, though we are going to have to take the long way. Even if we still had antimatter, we have nothing to pre-fire the FTL drive; there was no time to retract the sails when we jumped and they were never designed to withstand that kind of acceleration”

“What about the rest of the ship… I know you lost a person.”

“Yes.” Beni’s voice was suddenly low. “Crewman Fausto, a cold plasma coolant technician.”

“I am sorry for you. Is there any other damage?”

“Nothing of note. We have been able to repair most of our wounds. Fortunately, Tala concentrated on tearing peripheral systems, nothing of consequence to our survival Although I am sure the accountants will say something different when they see the bill for our refit.”

“You always said The Lance needs an upgrade. Here’s your opportunity.”

“I only wish the circumstances were better. Still, in a month we will be able to make another attempt.”

“A month?” Aurora queried.

“Possibly less, as I said, most of the damage is peripheral. No critical systems need to be replaced and, now that the Aurean fleet is a non-entity we will be able to do them in orbit. No need to wait for a launch window this time.”

“That is good to hear…” She remembered the explosion. “What about antimatter? Your world has yet to come up with an efficient method of production.”

“No need. We were thinking about this earlier and we realized the Aureans are going to give us all we will ever need”

“Yes, and they will be reluctant to surrender…” Aurora stopped as realization hit, “You mean their fleet?”

Aurean ships, like most intersystem vessels, used antimatter as a fuel. But, rather than risk contaminating space lanes with such lethal material, when a ship was lost its stores were automatically vented into clearly marked, un-reactive magnetic bottles for safe recovery.

Only in this case the recovery would be done by the wrong side. Aurora could almost feel Beni’s grin as he said, “Of course. Those cases are bleating their hearts out and it would be a shame to let their cries go unanswered.”

“They’ll also be a hazard to navigation,” Sofia, his second in command, broke in. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but we have a new problem you should look at.”

“Sorry, Aurora,” Beni audibly shrugged, “I am going to have to leave you for now.”

“I am sure I will survive on my own. Hopefully I will see you in person before long”

“I hope you will, Lance out.”

 

 

Chapter 11

 

One Month ago: The sun.

 

When Aurora finally spotted the tiny sliver splinter, sparkling brilliantly against the vast orange sphere, space was hot, so hot that she would have been sweating if she wasn’t in a vacuum. She’d been wrong when she thought they were close to the sun, the Lance was fighting the gravitational incline at a distance where its electromagnetic shield could withstand the roaring radiation.

It wasn’t an accident that the Lance hovered where it was either. Almost as soon as he was able, Beni had set course for the sun. He was no fool and knew, perhaps better than most people, the power of Aurean equipment and guessed that that the best defense against pursuit was to be as far away as possible from his last known location. If he could also immerse himself in an opaque swamp of radiation, it was so much the better.

He’d been almost too good. Even with her eyes Aurora had almost missed the vessel between solar granules; at her distance, the Lance was little more than a speck of silver against a background of unbelievable brightness.

It’d grown slightly since then, not much, but a bit and Aurora was busy concentrating on her course. Space was a difficult medium to navigate and imposed paradoxical realities, such as the fact that while she wanted to be with Beni as quickly as possible she was decelerating as hard as she could, lest she overshoot him.

She could just begin to make out battle damage on the Lance’s hull when something slammed into the small of her back, a foot sharply connected with the small of her spine, and fists slammed into her shoulders and skull.

Bright stars of pain exploded behind her eyes, blinding her even from the sun’s glare and for long seconds she was left falling helpless towards the sun, unable to do anything but clutch her wounds.

Only the sheerest chance let her locate the Lance again.

And heading straight directly towards it, aligned perfectly with her old course, was Tala’Aerie.

Even dazed and furious, Aurora had to admit the masterstroke of navigation; Tala was under the same constraints as Aurora, but in slamming into the Virago, she’d managed to shed a huge fraction of her own momentum. It had been an enormous risk; Tala had put off braking to catch up with Aurora and if she’d missed, it would have been impossible to recover. But in succeeding she’d not only shortened her own flight time but lengthened Aurora’s, since the Virago now had to kill not only her own speed but Tala’s imparted momentum.

The pain had simply been the coup de grČce; every second Aurora fought the pain instead of her speed she increased the separation yet further.

“Sorry to be so abrupt, my fair child,” Tala’s voice hissed and stretched over the com. “But the necessities of war so rarely give us the opportunity to extend one another the correct courtesies, do you not agree?” Her tone dripped mockery, “But please, do not worry; I will reconcile my rudeness with your lover; what time I can’t spend with you, will be used on him instead. Incidentally, ‘Beni’,” Tala switched inflections, once again sounding truly admiring, “that was a truly inspired tactic you used on me, but now that I know you can’t repeat it I will have such fun educating you in the other lessons of war. You really should have listened to me when I warned about the dangers of exchanging tactical information on an open frequency. If you have any last words, I suggest you share them now…” she paused, “then again, you’ll be together again soon enough that you might as well not bother.”

“Tala.” Aurora began, only to be interrupted by the Tset’lar’s scathing voice.

“You’re not going to threaten me again, are you, Fair child?  Please, we both know how outclassed you are and the only things more pathetic than your threats are your pleas. Another free lesson; intimidation--” her voice stretched again, dragging out the insult-- “is only effective when the threat-er has any measure of power at all over the threat-ee For example, when I meet your ‘Beni’ I can threaten him with the amount of pain he experiences, or the number of limbs I pluck, or the number of bones I extract, or the number of crew members I eviscerate before I rip his skull off. Assuming of course I haven’t already found some other use for his spine; human bones make the most beautiful jewelry, did you know? I can’t remember the number of conversations I’ve stopped by just whipping them out.” She gloated silently.

Aurora was beyond listening to her, “Beni!” She cried. “Power your engines and get away!” Her voice failed her. She had seen her lover’s life threatened no less than three times in twenty hours, only to see him escape death by the slimmest of margins and fall yet more danger. It was the ultimate nightmare for a Protector to be helpless while a loved one was in mortal peril, yet Aurora had been forced to watch it twice and she was running low on emotional strength.

And this time she’d be utterly helpless, a victim of physics as much as of the Tset’lar.  Like a driver who had seen a crash ahead, yet continued to slide into disaster despite hitting the brakes, there was absolutely nothing she could do to shed her new momentum before Tala caught the Lance. And when that happened, Tala would have seven and a half minutes to put the crew through every single torment her twisted mind could imagine. Aurora, at home in a vacuum, could see it as clearly as looking at a graph; every event plotted neatly and indelibly on fate.

Yet once again, Beni showed a complete disregard for the inevitable.

“Do not worry, Aurora,” his voice crackled and popped in the solar radiation. “We had a plan for this eventuality. Paulo, as we discussed. Sofia, warn the crew we are going down.”

 

Down?’ Aurora frowned, ‘how can you go down in space? Oh, shit. He could not do that; even Beni is not that insane.

But he was. Even as she watched, the Lance’s main drive, rimmed by a huge shield dish, which had been ruthlessly pushed to keep the craft above the sun, slowly dimmed and shut down.

Almost immediately the Lance began to fall backward, sliding down the gravitation incline as surely as a log down a hill. Energy swirled in odd patterns around the ship, flaring like a living thing along its hull, almost caressing the metallic skin as the electromagnetic envelope that protected the ship was forced to work beyond its endurance.

Aurora didn’t know what Beni was thinking. Maybe he hoped the star could pull them faster than Tala could approach, but that was ridiculous on too many levels to contemplate. Not the least of those reasons was that he could no longer escape; it’d taken every erg of power in his ship just to hold it above the sun and now…

Aurora blinked. Not content merely to fall into the nuclear furnace, Beni was cumbersomely turning his long ship, angling the heavy shield dish which might have protected him from some of the radiation three quarters towards her and exposing his entire flank to the sun’s mercy. Even as she watched an actinic glow began to collect around the dish as the craft’s nuclear reactor was pumped once again; he was accelerating. Aurora had never seen anything so suicidal in her life.

And neither had Tala, judging from the way she swore, “What the crud…”

Apparently even a Tset’lar could forget about restraining herself over open lines

Aurora might have smiled if every thought wasn’t locked on the sight of her lover throwing not only his life, crew and ship away but the last hope for his world.

But she couldn’t believe that was true. Beni had shown brilliance until now and Aurora doubted that had suddenly turned to insanity. Unconsciously she forgot herself and began to push forward, instinctively trying to bridge the gap between herself and Beni.

It therefore came as a surprise when her love called attention to this slip with two words, “Beautiful, Aurora.”

For a moment the Virago wondered if he really had gone mad and was wasting his last moments complimenting her. Then she realized what she was doing and was about to throttle back when it occurred to her that Beni was not in fact speeding towards the sun, but across it

by moving away from the descending Supremis, Beni had changed the field. Instead of falling on a single point, they were chasing a moving target and in that game, Aurora’s greater speed suddenly gave her an edge.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw Tala’s puzzled face, glowing brightly this close to the sun. Clearly the Tset’lar hadn’t realized yet and that was just as well for it was possible to accelerate in a chase. It was dangerous to do so because the risk of overshooting was just as real and even harder to calculate for a moving target.

But she had to risk it. Assuming he hadn’t already irradiated himself beyond all hope, in addition to the Aurean, Beni was now fighting a slippery slope beneath which was the fury of the sun.

Aurora’s head was beginning to hurt with the effort of thought. Skietra, in her genius had designed her species with an ability to navigate space that bordered on the savant. Even Porturegan supercomputers couldn’t plot a course as fast as Aurora, but her brain had been designed around stellar navigation, not combat. She could easily guide herself between planets, but trying to work out the dead zone between three independent objects on a sliding gradient was hard.

She didn’t want to race the Tset’lar to the Lance at all. If she could, she would have gladly fought the Aurean then and there, but that was as impossible as it’d been when they were in freefall.

No matter how she looked at it, vector tables hidden in the depths of her subconscious told her that at their rate of decent the only place she and Tala would be slow enough to fight was a nebulous sphere centred on the lance. With her lead and acceleration advantage Aurora knew she could probably head off the Aurean before they reached the ship, but only by a few kilometers. The only blessing was that in space Tala would need to physically touch the ship to do damage, but that was still a murderously thin benefit.

And on top of all that, Aurora had to consider the sun. Far from merely destroying Beni’s fragile Lance, the star’s corona burned at three million degrees, a temperature that would incinerate even her. Complicating things even further was gravity which, while not so much a problem for Aurora or Tala as it was for Beni and his crew, was still like fighting with their back to a wall.

Everything considered, it was the kind of situation to her instructors on Velor nightmares. Certainly they would had never dared to give it as a scenario to their acolytes.

That will probably change now, Aurora, her head buzzing from the effort of concentration, allowed herself a moment of levity, assuming I survive to tell anyone.

She risked another glance over her shoulder but Tala was still continuing to decelerate, steadily falling away from her. Aurora couldn’t trust that luck to hold for more than a few more seconds; in fact even as she watched, shocked horror briefly flashed over the Aurean’s face and she flipped herself around to surge forward.

The race was on in earnest, its prize the one hundred fourteen strong crew of the Lance, and the fate of a planet. For once in all the battles between Supremis, victory would not go to the strongest but to the best mathematician.

Aurora idly worried how much time in a Tset’lar’s education was devoted to astrogation, felt her instincts scream, threw her feet forward and drove every erg of force into reverse. The shock hit her as solidly as a wall; instantly her body felt fifty times heavier and her head was snapped down hard enough to shoot sparks down her spine.

Aurora, her attention focussed entirely on the effort of decelerating could no long distinguish all the sensations wracking her body. The sun was so close she could feel its tug like an immense fist on her cape yet all her weight seemed to be gathered ninety degrees away in her feet. Her skin couldn’t seem to decide if it was boiling or freezing and her hair, which paradoxically hung like a fine golden mist in the direction of movement, felt like every strand was tied around a lead bead.

She felt suddenly faint, her blood pulled in too many directions and she fought to keep conscious; to black out now would be the end. Tala wouldn’t need to touch her, just watch as she fell into the boiling ocean below them.

Faint hope inspired her to push her head, which might have been a gold ball, back and gaze at the Tset’lar. For a moment her vision swam, went grey and then dazzlingly bright and she saw the Aurean a few hundred kilometers behind her.

But that was all she could see; Tala’s hair was pulled as taught as her own by the power of the deceleration and formed a sheer curtain over her features. Even so, Aurora felt a flare of hope when she caught sight of the Aurean’s livid purple hands; Tala’s constitution might be stronger but was her control good enough for such exact manoeuvring? If she’d miscalculated and pushed herself too hard, her brain only needed to be starved of a single ounce of blood and there needn’t be a battle.

The universe swam again as Aurora allowed her head to snap back onto her chest with teeth rattling force. Deep below her, seemingly embroiled in the star’s turbulent atmosphere, the Lance visibly struggled to maintain course. Already its glittering skin had tarnished black and every few seconds its paltry shield would flare as a particularly violent particle stream was bent away. Beni was driving his ship hard, taking the Lance so far beyond its structural limits that its hull was beginning to warp. Already, the sun’s pull had forced him to angle his ship, presenting almost the full burn of his engine towards simple survival instead of acceleration.

Even as she watched, a once silver antenna folded in half and tore away from the hull, hurtling down the full length of the ship towards the sun’s broiling surface. Even millions of miles away, the temperature was intense and Aurora could almost believe she heard the monstrous roar of exploding gas.

The illusion was so real that she forced herself to blink, then realised she really could hear something. White noise crackled and popped in her ear and for a moment she thought her implant had broken, or was picking up random noise from the star, but as she concentrated, she could just pick out words beneath the hiss.

“Aurora,” Beni’s voice was the barest whisper on the electronic breeze, “…rora, can you hear me?”

“Yes, yes!” She cried, shouting despite the fact it made no difference in a vacuum, “I hear you!”

Static all but obliterated his reply, but Aurora caught the word array and realised it’d been the radio antenna that’d torn away. “Yes, I saw,” she shouted again, not caring how ridiculous it was, simply glad to have even tenuous contact with her, “Beni, you’re insane but you’re brilliant.”

More hisses and pops were his only answer.

“I can barely hear you,” Aurora shook her head, “but Beni, I am coming. I’ll Protect you, Beni; whatever it takes, I’ll get you home, you have my word.” She hesitated, then whispered, “…but if you have any other tricks, now is the time to use them.”

Noise crackled once in her ear, she was about to tell him she didn’t understand when a freak fluctuation in the solar weather twitched his voice into crystal clarity, “…get out, … …ll expl…n ow. …now, our fate… …in your hands. Aurora… I have never prayed to you, but I am now, and if you get us out of this I will… Because this is it, we have no more tricks. Everything depends on you now,” he dissolved into static.

“Nice words,” Tala’s voice intruded with a bite it hadn’t had before, “but wasted. You have never bested me, fair child, not even with your pets to support you. I have the advantage here; how can you hope to fulfil your promise?”

“Because everything that I am and will be is here, Tala,” Aurora answered calmly.

Then there was nothing left to say or do.

 

Long minutes slid past. One side of Aurora’s body froze in space while the other side baked, absorbing the sun’s energy. Even concentrating on her destination, she took comfort in the warmth, knowing she would need the energy shortly.

Of course Tala would absorb just as much energy.

Finally she was there. A hundred kilometres below, The Lance was a rapidly expanding flicker of light when at last she felt inertia slacken its grip and she could manoeuvre.

She desperately wanted to continue falling, give Beni’s ship a pass and make certain he really was ok, but there was no time. Instead she was forced to turn her head away from her endangered lover and face their enemy. As soon as she was able, she flexed her legs and shot back along the way she’d come.

Tala saw the rising Virago, read the fury on her face and with a sudden spark of irrational fear, tried to swerve but it was too late. Her mind filled with intercept vectors Aurora had forgotten the simplest fact of all; stopping first meant that she had the initiative.

The Virago accelerated as hard as she dared, once again balancing force against control. If she missed… it was the same situation as before; Tala would get to The Lance.

The Tset’lar was on the opposite end of that equation with near total thrust and next to no control.

There was no noise in space, nothing to convey the sound of two invulnerable bodies slamming together with the force of cannon rounds.

It hurt. Even prepared, Aurora’s head rang with the impact. For a second Tala’s fingers caught in the top of her uniform and they spun madly before spinning away. Luck was in Tala’s favour and despite the tremendous collision, she sailed in the Lance’s direction while Aurora was shot off in the opposite direction.

The Velorian recovered first however. While Tala was still dazed, she recovered and shot downwards.

She switched to vc’spa vision. As good as her eyesight was in face of a star, there was no point fighting half blind. Instantly the hot glare vanished, replaced with swirling oceans the size of planets.

In the stark void, Tala and the Lance stuck out like new pins on a white sheet.

 

Aurora struck. Even as Tala was recovering, the Virago smashed her fist into her jaw. The crack smashed the Tset’lar’s brain into the top of her skull and sent her spinning. Again, Aurora pursued but Tala was able to shake off the punch and in the instant before avenging hands could reach her, she grabbed the Virago’s shoulders and vaulted away.

Aurora swivelled in time to avoid the retaliatory kick, grabbed Tala’s foot and swung her around.

But space wasn’t like fighting on the ground; there was no resistance, nothing to smash her opponent into. Even her punches, which should have been enough to smash granite, were nearly wasted since nearly all the force was transformed into movement.

It hurt, but didn’t injure.

Of course Aurora had been trained to kill in a vacuum. It was just no one had seriously expected her to have to fight an opponent who could fly, certainly not one who was even stronger than she was.

The target, as always, was the heart. Getting to it however, was the hard part, especially since Tala would be trying the same thing.

Aurora punched, snapping Tala’s head back again only for the Tset’lar to spin 360 degrees, run up her body and kick her under the chin. She managed to see the blow coming and her flinch saved her from much of the impact. In return she lashed out, striking the Aurean’s midriff and doubling her over.

The pair continued to exchange strikes in a supremely elegant ballet that belied the viciousness of their battle. Aurora and Tala gave and received planet shaking blows, always moving, forever falling.

A scarce hundred kilometers away, Benigno Allvariz burned the last of his reaction thrusters trying to buy his ship a few more seconds

Tala balled her fists together, swung, missed and dodged, just feeling Aurora’s nails across her cheek. She kicked, pivoted, jabbed, ducked, struck, spun, elbowed, flew, dove, gasped, stabbed, avoided and lashed, all while Aurora did exactly the same thing.

One lucky dive succeeded in drawing blood as she grabbed the blonde her and smashed it into her knee, but Aurora merely bit back the pain and hammered her thumbs into the Aurean’s kidneys, drawing a silent shriek of agony.

Minutes passed, finally Tala kicked away and sought for distance, reflexively panting for nonexistent oxygen Aurora, similarly exhausted despite the sun’s proximity, let her go, content to take the lower position and be that much closer to her lover. Somehow they’d closed the gap slightly and a mere eighty kilometres of hot vacuum separated them from The Lance.

 

Then supringly, Tala was in Aurora’s head.

“What is it that makes this human so special, fair child?” Tala paused as her cells synthesised the oxygen they needed, “He’s just a man. Well, to you he might be something more but in the grand scheme of things… why he is so important? I mean, I can get your attack on the fleet -- for which this crew will suffer in extreme -- but the mission makes no sense. This rickety barge might crewed by fairly exceptional people, so far as humans go, but it’s no match for us. It’s slow, primitive and its weapons, if they can be called that, wouldn’t worry a shuttle let alone a warship There is no reason for it to be here yet you threw away hundreds of lives defending it? Tell me the answer and upon my honour, I will not make the crew suffer unduly.”

Aurora didn’t respond, there wasn’t any point in doing so. ‘Upon my honour’ was a tricky phrase because it only implied an invocation of the individual’s word, it didn’t insist upon it. The distinction was fine but to a Supremis a verbal contract was only binding if their word was cited, simply calling upon their honour wasn’t always enough.

Tala continued her taunt. “No answer, Aurora? You’re usually so talkative.” She shrugged, “No matter, I’m sure you’ll start talking when I start playing with your lover. But before then I think you should know about the woman, the one who stayed behind at the spaceport. I only mention her now because, before the end you should know your faith in your protectorate is not entirely misplaced. It must take a certain kind of bravery to arm a bomb not knowing if you can escape before it explodes. Her death was almost Aurean in that respect… oh, did I forget to mention she was dead? Sorry, my mistake. She ran into someone she didn’t expect on her way out.”

The relish in voice made Aurora snarl, “You killed her.”

“Of course. Oh!” she covered her mouth in feigned shock, “don’t worry my fair child. I just broke her neck. In retrospect that was a mistake – we could have used those men – but,” she made a show of sighing, “you can’t blame a predator when it sees something helpless.”

“That explosion should have killed you too!” Aurora tried to ignore Sabina’s death, but she couldn’t. The senior engineer had hardly been a friend but Beni had liked her and besides, Tala was right, it did take a special kind of person to do what she’d done. Sabina hadn’t been a soldier, she’d spent the past thirty years behind a desk in Skietra’s name, yet she’d still volunteered to draw lots and accepted the judgment when they’d come up against her. She certainly hadn’t deserved to run into a monster like Tala.

Aurora shook her head at the thought. Whether by immolation or beneath Tala’s hand, a fine woman was needlessly dead. She glared up at her enemy, suddenly forgetting her exhaustion.

The Aurean, oblivious to Aurora’s reaction, chuckled, “You know, fair child, I don’t think this relationship of ours is going to work. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true, I’ll just have to terminate it. We just don’t communicate anymore… we don’t click, you hear what I’m saying? There’s no repartee, no… connection I guess. Yes that’s it, we just don’t connect!”

Tala’s body blossomed from a speck to full size in an instant. An instant before they collided, Aurora pulled back her arm, tensed her muscles and put every iota of strength into slamming the base of her palm into the Tset’lar’s neck.

Tala squawked in pain and gagged, too blinded by pain to do more than stare at Aurora in surprise. But Aurora had already swung around behind her. Wrapping an blazing arm around Tala’s throat and wrenching the dark head back with everything she had, Aurora snaked her other hand around the Aurean’s front, fingers snaking for her heart.

It might have worked if Tala hadn’t ignored the pain, grabbed Aurora’s hand, needled its stress points and used the leverage to rip Aurora from her.

Overwhelmed by the shooting pain in her overstressed arm, Aurora had no choice but to relinquish her grip. Tala, realizing her disadvantage, pulled her knees up and kicked Aurora in the chest, using the movement to catapult herself into flight.

By the time the pain had cleared enough for Aurora to get a fix on her position, Tala was gone. She wanted to follow, but was wary of a trap. They were both dangerously close to the corona; far below, she could see magnetic loops – deadly as the ionized gas. Holding back wasn’t a much better prospect; in hesitation, she lost sight of the Aurean in the glare.

And then she was back, coming straight at her. “Sneaky, Fair Child.” Tala taunted her. “Almost Aurean in fact.” And then the Tset’lar was upon her again..

There was something in Tala’s tone; it was too condescending, even for her. Aurora swung quickly, balling both fists together just in time to smash Tala across the jaw.

The Tset’lar’s head spun around, although to Aurora’s disappointment, remained on her shoulders, yet before Aurora could follow up, the Aurean had retreated again, far enough away that Aurora didn’t want to risk rushing her.

Tala rubbed her cheek where she’d been struck. In the energy rich environment, the sore faded even faster than it would normally.

“Two good hits, Fair Child. You’re learning, it’s been a slow evolution but you might finally be a worthy opponent.”

Then she struck. There was no warning, nothing. One moment she was completely at ease, the next she was diving at Aurora, teeth bared and nails ready. Aurora had only the briefest of seconds to make herself ready, then she was locked with the Aurean and everything was legs and fists and feet and arms.

There was none of the brutal elegance of their previous battles; it was just pure savagery as hard fists slammed into hard muscle and bone. Tala managed to wrap her powerful thighs around Aurora’s waist, locking her heels into the Virago’s lower spine and using the leverage to squeeze with every ounce of pressure in her body.

Aurora’s response was to take hold of the Aurean’s chin and push it back with all her might, blinding Tala to the elbow Aurora smashed into her face. Tala flailed for a moment, then recovered with a punch that left Aurora dazed long enough for her to find yet more strength with which to squeeze her waist and dig Aurora’s ribs with her nails.

Aurora punched her stomach, loosening Tala’s grip enough for the Virago to slip free, back off and hurl herself anew. Tala dodged, striking the back of Aurora’s head and throwing towards the corona. Aurora knew she was getting close to the point of no return.

Then she had a thought. Maybe that was the key. Maybe she didn’t have to destroy the Tset’lar’s heart, maybe she just had to lure her down to seal her fate.

Of course… in doing so she would also doom herself.

But if that was the price she had to pay for her world’s safety. So be it.

That far down, their communicators wouldn’t work, but Aurora didn’t need to speak a word to entice the enraged Aurean. All she need do was turn her back, wait an instant then flip over Tala as the Tset’lar hurled herself down into the sun.

She didn’t quite get to kick Tala as Tala had, but she didn’t need to. All she needed to do was accelerate hard into Tala’s back, take hold of her arms and throw them deeper and deeper towards the corona

Kilometers whirled past them in columns of flame. They were only a tiny fraction of the way into the sun’s outer atmosphere but already they felt like they were racing into a volcano. Both began to sweat only to have the moisture instantly vaporize, leaving their skins dangerously dehydrated and drawn out across their muscles like canvas over rocks.

Tala, realizing Aurora’s plan, struggled to get free but the Virago’s grip was maniacal. Her fingers scored the Aurean’s iron limbs. Both trembled with the force of their restrained strength. Their hair flailed and streamed as if caught in the fires of hell. Unbelievably the tips even began to singe.

Faster and faster they fell and still there was no letup. The pain increased, both from fighting one another and from the heat as it began to burn through their invulnerability. This was the end, Aurora knew it. There was nothing that could stop them now, they were nearly at the point where it wouldn’t matter and she could let go… not long after that, there wouldn’t be anything to let go of, to let go with.

A moment of regret crossed her mind. She was sorry for Beni, sorry that he would never see her again. Strange that. For all the fear she’d had for his safety she’d never once thought of her own. She still didn’t. If it took her life to wipe out the Tset’lar it was a life well spent. Velor would send another Protector, maybe even a couple to make up the advances the Aureans would make in the deficit months, and everyone would be safe.

Not all of her agreed. Some fragment of conscience emerged from the restrained sections of her mind and a spark infiltrated her muscles, making them relax just the tiniest fraction. She might just be tired, she would later try to convince herself, she might just have been tired. She had been fighting the Tset’lar for a long time; close to the sun, maybe because of its too intense heat, fatigue might have set in.

Whatever the cause, the momentary relaxation was just enough for Tala to slip her arm free and drive it back into Aurora’s kidneys. Staggered by the unexpected pain, Aurora could only scrabble at the Aurean’s hips as Tala fought her way free and raced upwards for freedom.

There was no time for regret or self-recrimination. Aurora had to save herself before it was too late. Putting every iota of force into it. Aurora twisted herself so her feet pointed down and pushed against the immense gravity. For crucial moments she feared that it was already too late, that she was indeed trapped. Then, like the Lance pulling away from the ground, she found herself moving upwards. Slowly at first but then with greater and greater speed.

Then, only a few thousand kilometers from the corona, she saw the Lance.

And ascending towards it at an ungodly speed, was Tala.

It was clear that the Lance had seen her, and was doing everything in its power to get out of her way, but there was nothing they could do. Tala struck them amidships, punctured the ship easily and crashed out the other side in a trail of fragments. It wasn’t enough to destroy the ship. But then came a wave of secondary explosions – Aurora realized in terror that the tanks of the mid-section thrusters had gone off. The Lance bent and then broke as the rear section with the main engines broke off and drifted away.

Tala turned back and tried to finish what she’d started. She wasn’t even a fifth of the way back before Aurora smacked into her, deflecting them just enough to miss the Lance altogether.

Tala went from being about to kill a ridiculously soft target to the worst fight of her life. Seeing the Lance crippled was all it took to unlock Aurora’s rage. She’d been angry before, infuriated by Tala’s attitude and the threat she posed to her lover, but she hadn’t realized it was possible for her to grow so angry that it transformed into an entirely new emotion.

For a moment it looked as if Aurora had the upper hand, that Tala was completely overwhelmed by the Virago’s passion. Then the Tset’lar’s superior strength and reflexes took over and she managed to bat the Velorian away.

If Aurora noticed the pain of the blow, or registered the setback, she didn’t show it for she instantly threw herself at Tala again. What she’d already seen, combined with the imminent threat Tala posed to the the Lance pushed her past thought into pure instinct, a battle lust comprised of all the knowledge and skill instilled by her instructors.

It was like trying to fight a wild animal imbued with knowledge of the finest martial arts. Tala would deflect a jab, expecting a kick only to receive a ringing head butt followed by a chop into her liver and a kick on the ass. It was as if they were magnetized, Aurora simply would not leave Tala alone and would fly back every time she was punched back.

And yet, for all their fury and speed, neither adversary could find an edge that would lead to victory. With the sun around them, they healed too quickly, and with the sun around them, they would never tire.

It seemed they were doomed to fight for all eternity, when a voice tickled the back of Aurora’s consciousness.

“Aurora.”

At first she didn’t hear it, so focused was she on her target; then when it repeated, she ignored it. Finally it came a third time, more instantly than ever.

“Aurora. Listen to me.”

She couldn’t turn her head away from Tala but she devoted as many resources to the voice as she dared. “Yes?” She almost whispered.

“Aurora… it is Beni… I am on the command deck. Be careful how you respond, we have encrypted this transmission so only you can hear, but Tala will be able to hear anything you say.”

“Yes?” Aurora ducked Tala’s fist and drove her palm into the Tset’lar’s nose.

“Aurora, you need to get away from Tala.”

“What!” Aurora couldn’t restrain herself. Tala used the distraction to crack a rib.

“You heard me… we are trying something. But you have to get away from Tala.”

“You will die.”

Tala, thinking the utterance was directed at her, answered. “Don’t be so sure.”

“No. Please believe me, Aurora. This will work… but if we do not do it soon there will not be another opportunity.”

“But…!”

“Aurora, listen to me. Believe me. We can do this, but only if you let us. Step aside, now!”

His voice, which had been weak, suddenly took on the aspect of command he was used to, and in spite of herself, Aurora felt herself obeying.

“Aurora!” Beni bellowed and that was everything she needed to spring into action.

Kicking Tala twice in the chest, Aurora bounced away.

Though neither had noticed it, Aurora and Tala had come closer to the Lance during their battle. Now it floated above them, a dark grey cylinder in the white tachyon world, and something was happening along its underside.

Energy was gathering. Although invisible to Aurora’s glowing eyes, she could see hull plates rearranging to uncover vents from which little tubes emerged and aligned themselves away from the ship

Aurora had no idea what they were doing.

Then Aurora saw the surge begin. A linear precession of gas rushing out of the tubes preceded it, then hydrogen and helium began to compress before the Lance

Then, with disturbing speed, it burst out and slammed into the Tset’lar with staggering force, blasting what remained of her uniform from her body and stripping the hairs from her head. Tala’s skin fluoresced and her eyes burned. Her body was bleached with heat and began to flake away. In matter of seconds every inch of skin had been stripped from her torso. Incredibly she was able to withstand the fireball for a moment, then, toothless, hairless and blind, she was swept away into the sun.

The Lance didn’t let up. It was piling on the power, creating a mile wide column of force that extended all the way to the chromosphere. And that far down, exposed to nearly two million degrees of heat, nothing could survive, not even Tala.

Aurora couldn’t stop herself from smiling, she was so proud!

Racing up to the Lance, she wanted to congratulate Beni and his crew in person, but had to settle for merely floating outside, her skin tingling from the magnetic envelopebeaming at them.

Reaching out and pressing her hands against the forward viewport, she saw him smirk tiredly and lift his arm to do the same. Feeling his warmth through the window, Aurora felt a pang in her heart; it was painful to be so close to Beni, yet be separated by just an inch of polymer. Behind him the command deck was a mess with debris and blood through which few people moved. When Tala had hit, the explosions she had set off had sent superheated shrapnel up and down the Lance’s length. Even metal compartments hadn’t offered protection from them; only an elaborate sequence of bulkheads had kept thirty two survivors from asphyxiation.

Beni had been just one of those thirty two. He had a shallow cut that ran across his cheek; it was surrounded by blisters, a testimony to the heat of the fragment that’d so nearly taken his life. Like the other people on the deck his hair was a sweaty mess while his uniform was unnaturally dark and so wet it stuck to his body like a second skin. The air inside the ship almost visibly wavered and beads of moisture made heavy trails down the inside of the view port.

“That was absolutely incredible!” She gushed, flexing her fingers against the port, more overjoyed than she could describe that some technician had thought of She;giving her a voice in space. But even that was a twitch compared to the sense of elation that came from knowing what her protectorate, her Beni, had done. “Now, tell me how in Skietra’s name you did it.”

Wearily, Beni answered, “Remember that ultra-massive particle deflector you lifted from the freighter?”

“Of course.” Aurora realized. “…That should have been so obvious, the deflector is just a massively overpowered repulsor. But would it work here? Stupid question of course it worked. I mean, how did you know it would work?”

Beni shrugged. “We did not. It was Sara’s idea to try it.”

“She’ll—”

“Aurora, there is something you must know.”

Not listening, Aurora grinned even wider. “When we get back, I will never see you for the number of conferences you will be invited to.”

Beni did not take that as she expected him to. He actually turned away from her, pulling his fingers from the window. “No… I will not.”

“Beni,” She drifted as close as she could, pressing her body up against the polymer. “I was kidding.”

“I am not…” He sighed, gazing back at the goddess outside from the demolished wreck of his command center.  . “Aurora, you must leave us, now.”

“Beni?” Aurora frowned. “What is wrong?”

Beni would not meet her gaze. “We will not be going with you.”

“What.”

“The ship is too badly damaged. We would never survive an ascent.”

“No.” Aurora refused to accept his words. “That is impossible.” She looked the damaged fragment  up and down. “Can you move?”

Beni wiped a sweaty lock from his forehead. “Even if we had the engines, we no longer have power; what we had was used on the deflector.” He saw her expression and held up his hand. “Aurora; we were finished the moment Tala struck us. Without engines… we can’t climb out of this.”

Aurora swore, a surge of irrational hatred filling her. “Beni, there has got to be a way? After all that I…” She caught herself. “With all that is riding on your mission, we can’t throw your lives away.” Before he could answer, she snapped, “And it is not just you!

Need I remind you that this is the only ship you have that is both FTL and wormhole capable? Most of its components are irreplaceable. Your people do not have the science to recreate them. No, I will not accept this. There has to be a way.”

Beni chuckled and flapped his shirt to circulate air. “If there is, please suggest one.”

“I can lift you.”

“We discussed this already. The Lance is too heavy. Even half of it is too heavy.”

“But there has to be a way.” Aurora pleaded, tears vaporizing on her face “After all this, there has to be. I cannot lose you again. Not after today.”

“But you will. You have to. I was trying to explain this before, there is no time left. You have to go now, before it is too late.”

“No.” Aurora shook her head violently. “If it’s your fate to die here, I will see you to the end I will not abandon you.”

“If you do not, your fate will be ours. Aurora.” He gazed at her sadly. “Please; do not do this. Our world needs you.”

“And I need you,” Aurora wept, cursing the window for keeping her from him. How could the universe be so cruel in making his body so much more fragile than her own? Why could she bath in the harsh vacuum when he was confined to a little metal bubble?

“And I need you,” Beni nodded, wiping the undamaged side of his face. “But there is no point to you staying.”

“I will not leave you.” Aurora said, not realizing that she had given up on saving him.

“You must, or our sacrifice will be in vain. Tala is dead, that was the ultimate aim of our mission so the loss of the Lance will not hurt us. But if we lose you as well, then we may as well have done nothing because you alone hold the balance between victory and defeat.”

“But…” She pushed against the window, lost for words.

Beni filled in. “Fate only affords us so many chances, Aurora. I think that after today, we have exhausted ours. I love you, but now you must go.”

“I won’t.”

“You must.” He answered with gentle assurance. “We will not feel anything, please, do not make our sacrifice vain.”

As he spoke, a vibration shook them as the leading edge of a solar flare finally licking at them. In desperation Aurora began to look around, seeking anything that would, if nothing else, buy her time.

Beni pressed his hands to the glass once again, as if hoping to meet hers, meters away. “At least we got to see one another one last time, tus bettia Veloor.

Aurora had always teased Beni that after she had gone to the trouble of learning his language, even to the extent of removing uncouth contractions from her speech, he could at least learn some of hers. Somehow though, he had never been able to anything other than that phrase which meant simply, “my beautiful Velorian.”

Aurora nodded, no longer weeping and solemnly said: “At least we did that. If, at the end of my life I am still worthy of heaven, I will look forward to seeing you there. I love you.”

“And I you.”

Slowly, heart leaden, Aurora allowed the once beautiful starship and its valiant captain drop away from her. Faster and faster it fell, turning silver once again as the hull melted and dripped away until all that was left was a shinning streak or shooting star that was eventually lost amongst the flames.

Even then Aurora would not ascend. She merely waited, allowing the solar furnace to sear her flesh and burn until it had done to her heart what it had done to the one who had been its most precious possessor.

When she left, she never looked back.

 

THE END