The Battle Begins — Into the Heart of the Beast
Walker opened fleet communications when the ships dropped out of deep-space drive and assumed their planned positions. His first concern was that the direction reversal back toward home had been successful. He was pleased that everyone was holding position at two thousand kilometers in front of the dark menace that was now commonly referred to as Doom Cloud. He switched to a screen view and confirmed each of the ships were evenly spaced in a circle almost exactly the size of the moon. They were a very small circle set against an immense cloud. The two light cruisers skippered by Sequoia and Shawn were in the circle’s center, as planned.
“Fire your weapons now,” Walker said, calmly.
Golden yellow joy beams from all fifty-eight ships focused on a center point ten thousand kilometers below Doom Cloud’s surface. The reaction was instantaneous, Doom Cloud folded inward like an octopus yanking its tentacles back from an unknown touch. Small ink-black clouds shot toward each ship. To everyone’s happy surprise these smaller attack clouds were easily evaporated by rapid-fire defensive weapons before they could reach the ships and do any damage. Everyone wondered whether the main beams had evaporated Doom Cloud’s surface or it had simply pulled inward. Either way, there was a huge cavernous rent soon extending thousands of kilometers beneath the cloud surface. The ships kept firing.
The cruisers dove into the open chasm at full power. Sequoia and Shawn guided their cruisers toward the center of the fleet’s focused joy beams. They dove toward the bottom of an immense funnel lined with bars of gold and white. A repugnant ink black material was ponderously falling inward between the beams, cosmic-scale waterfalls mostly evaporated oozing through the warm colored beams. The cruisers pounded through swirling eddies left behind as the fleet weapons bored wider and deeper.
Though the perfectly shaped incision that cut into Doom Cloud was the size of a large continent, such a distance is short for deep-space cruisers; they were approaching bottom fast. Shawn and Sequoia launched the fighters and aimed their joy beams directly ahead at maximum power just before they reached the full range of the fleet’s focused weapons. A narow deeper tunnel opened around their beams as they dove into the clouds beneath the fleet’s weapon range.
Sequoia instantly felt icy cold pressing to his bones. He quickly glanced at the thermometer as four fighters streaked ahead, holding as close as possible to the twin cruiser beams without avoiding being vaporized. He was surprised to see that the temperature was normal. Why, then, was he so cold he could barely move? Everything was happening fast yet his body moved slowly, and only with concentrated effort. Straining mightily, he reversed direction and blasted out of the tunnel and back to the chasm still held wide by the fleet’s combined strength.
A quick glance assured Sequoia that Shawn’s cruiser was safe as well. They both reversed their direction once again and aimed their joy beams down the center of the tunnel, keeping as steady as possible to hold it open for the escaping fighters. The painful cold made Sequoia’s hands clumsy at the ship controls. He wondered how Eddy was. His mind seemed to be echoing thoughts from someone else’s body. Physical agony made time drag sluggishly through thoughts that grew more and more fractured by pressing cold.
Eddy had one thing on his mind when he turned his joy generators to full-power and left safety far behind. He hugged as close to the center as possible without vaporizing himself in the cruisers’ weapon path. His own joy beam was raking a deep groove in the sidewall of the tunnel, just as the other three fighters were doing. He kept his eyes on the sensors and his hands on the flight controls. The instant the cruiser beams switched off he knew they had turned around; with a swift motion he kicked his fighter into a flip and reversed direction.
He felt the ice cold grip of Doom Cloud the moment before he set his escape course and diverted weapon power to engine thrust for full escape speed. It hit him like a shockwave in front of an explosion. His arms and legs felt almost nothing as he struggled with the controls, setting his joy generator to full power deep-space drive. Success unleashed him from Doom Cloud’s grip with an acceleration so powerful it pinned him against the back of his seat. Eddy watched in horror as the tunnel collapsed inward. He was dimly aware of the cruiser beams turning back on, he saw warm yellow gold but felt deep numbing cold.
The fighter shot by the cruisers going far too fast for the human eye to see, Eddy watched that milestone on his instruments. A split second later he flashed out of the Doom Cloud chasm, past the main fleet and out into wide open space. He willed his arms to reach for the engine switch, forced his fingers to move, reversed thrust, turned off the engine and blacked out.
Shawn and Sequoia both saw Eddie’s ship turn and dart back towards them. They also saw something Eddy couldn’t, the other three fighters didn’t turn back. Those three ships continued inward with their weapons aimed straight ahead and their engines at full blast. A huge explosion that looked like a colorful sunset engulfed them as they vanished deep inside Doom Cloud. The cruisers turned and accelerated out of the chasm just ahead of the explosion.
The main fleet was still firing its weapons in concentrated focus as the cruisers swept by. Huge collapsing cauldrons hurled continuous eruptions toward each ship in the fleet. None were lost, though Doom Cloud’s second assault forced them to defend with their main weapons and retreat to a safer distance. Walker directed the fleet to move even farther away from the cloud for greater safety and time to recharge as much as possible before another attack could be unleashed against them. He called to Shawn and Sequoia, gasping in shock when their images appeared on his screen; both had silver white hair.
“It’s the same for everyone on my ship,” Sequoia said, “we all have white hair.”
“Same here,” Shawn reported, “all of us have white hair, too.”
“We only saw one fighter return.” Walker said, as he locked onto Eddie’s ship with his sensors.
“The other three fighters didn’t turn back,” Sequoia responded. “They disappeared at full throttle, going straight into the cloud, then there was a huge eruption deep inside.”
“The cruiser weapon charges are both empty,” Shawn said. “We’ll go pick up Eddy, send the sensor logs, and return to the central Delfinian ship position as soon as possible.”
“There’s one more detail,” Sequoia said, “I was pretty busy trying to get out of there and I’m not sure I trust my memory completely, especially with this white hair, but I have to tell you, I heard the same singing sound recorded by the Delfinians when their planet was destroyed.”
“Yep, I heard it, too,” Shawn agreed, as he brought his ship alongside Eddy’s fighter. “We’re bringing Eddy aboard now, I’ll let you know what we find out.”
Shawn made sure the flight deck crew was preparing a course for the Delfinian position before hurrying back to the fighter bay. Eddy’s ship was already aboard the cruiser and the landing bay was almost pressurized when he reached the door. After impatiently watching the pressure needle rise and waiting for the safety latch to open, Shawn dashed through the door and ran for the fighter. The maintenance crew had also been waiting. They were carrying ladders that they set against the fighter. The crew opened the hatch, pulled Eddy’s limp body from the seat and slid him down to Shawn, who carried him through the landing bay and into the small medical room.
Shawn laid Eddy on the examination table, unbuttoned his flight suit and removed Eddy’s helmet and goggles. Sight of Eddy made him involuntarily jerked back in dismay. He stared another moment with his mind unable to fully comprehend what he was seeing: Eddy had turned from a vital young man into an unconscious eighty-five-year-old.
The medic gently moved Shawn aside and checked Eddy’s pulse. He opened Eddy’s eyelid, shined a light through the pupil and listened to Eddy’s heart. “Help me get him undressed and into bed,” the medic asked Shawn, who mechanically started untying Eddy’s boots. “I’d say we have a very old person here who is suffering from acute exhaustion,” the medic concluded. “He needs to be in a hospital.”
Shawn looked at the medic’s white hair, “I think we all need to be checked out. Can you finish here alone?”
The medic nodded a silent, “Yes.” Shawn hurried back to the maintenance area. “We need to load those sensor logs on to the main computer and save the originals,” he said.
“It’s already done, skipper.”
“Okay. Check out that fighter as soon as possible.”
“We have started work and will let you know about anything we find.”
“Good. Keep at it. I’m going back to the bridge.” He opened communications as soon as he was back in his seat. “Sequoia. Walker. Are you listening?”
“Yep. How is Eddy doing?” Walker was joined by Sequoia as they asked in unison.
Shawn took a deep breath. “He’s alive but looks like he’s at least eighty-five years old, maybe ninety. I’m figuring the other pilots died of old age and just kept on going until we saw the explosion. I’m ready to take off into deep-space drive as soon as I send Eddy’s sensor logs.”
“I am starting for the Delfinian ship now,” Sequoia said. “Did you hear Walker’s battle report?”
“Doom Cloud slowed down when we first hit it. The even better news is it’s a tad smaller.”
“How much smaller?” Shawn asked excitedly.
“It’s less than one hundredth of a percent smaller,” Walker joined in, “maybe only a thousandth.”
“That’s the right direction, anyway,” Shawn said. “Small is beautiful.”
“There might be a chance after all,” Sequoia said. “I have my copies of the sensor logs. We will arrive at the Delfinian ship a few hours after our transmission is complete. They will be ready for us. See you there, Shawn.
Beat that Doom Cloud thing down every inch of the way, Walker.” Sequoia concluded.
Shawn watched Sequoia’s joy generator glow flash into the distance and disappear. “Walker,” he said. “You are my brother. Be careful. Don’t come back with white hair like me or an old man like Eddy. I’ll be back to help as soon as the doctors let me loose.”
“Tell the doctors they can study you all they want when this is over,” Walker said. “We’re almost ready to go hit it again. You put Eddy in the hospital and come back as soon as you can.”
Shawn reached for the controls and checked monitor lights to see if anyone showed up as red or not ready. “We’re all lights green. Here we go,” he said and engaged joy generators for deep-space drive.
Return time to the Delfinian ships had dropped to 18 hours. Shawn and tried to calculate if that meant the main Delfinian fleet had already reached Pacifica, but found he was too exhausted to think clearly. He left the flight deck to those who had slept as best they could before the battle and went straight to his bunk, where he slept soundly for more than half the trip.
Shawn awoke to the soft beeping of his personal communicator. He swung his feet to the floor and activated the communicator with a verbal command as he pulled clean clothes from his travel chest.
“Skipper,” the medics said, “Eddy is conscious. He wants to talk with you.”
“Okay, tell him I’ll be there in half an hour.” He hurried along the passageway to the bathroom, took a quick shower, dressed, and went to the galley for his breakfast. After eating he went straight to the medical room, walked to the bed, and gently shook Eddy’s shoulder. “I’m here now. Are you awake?”
Eddy rolled his head toward Shawn, who found himself looking into the eyes of a rested but elderly man. Eddy’s eyes opened wide, “Your hair, Shawn! It’s as white as snow. I thought I was dreaming when I saw the medic’s white hair. And look at me, my hands look like I am a hundred years old.” He pulled a bony old wrinkled hand out from under the bed covers and showed it to Shawn, “What has happened to me? All the medic will say is we’ll be at the hospital ship soon and I should rest until then.”
Shawn walked to the foot of the bed so Eddy could see him without turning his head, an effort that seemed almost too strenuous for the old man. “I don’t know much about this,” Shawn said. “You look old, Eddy. We need to have the doctors check you over and find out what caused this. I’m hoping you will heal back to your regular self with rest. What happened in there?”
“It was cold, Shawn, a kind of cold that hurt.”
“I know,” Shawn responded. “We all felt it. I almost lost control of my ship trying to turn it around and keep your escape path open. You were moving too fast to see when you came out of there, though we did see a huge eruption of joy force behind you.”
“I heard it, too, Shawn. Something in there, I heard it and saw it.” “What did you see, Eddy?”
“I don’t exactly know, maybe it was a city, maybe it was planets. It was too far in to tell, I was just turning around when I saw them.”
“Yes, them. I think maybe they were in a circle,” Eddy said, closing his eyes.
Shawn stood at the foot of the bed looking at a thin and frail old man who had just turned nineteen, or so. Was that yesterday or today? He shrugged at his own joke. Time is still a thing that flows by in space, even at many times the speed of light. But without the rhythmic rise of sun and stars it quickly becomes an arbitrary measurement floating around like a mirage in the desert.
“Happy birthday, Eddy,” he said, quietly turning toward the door.
Eddy opened his eyes just to Shawn was leaving. “What happened to the other fighters? Did they make it back?”
“No,” Shawn answered, meeting Eddy's eyes with his. “They kept on going and disappeared into a huge explosion deep inside Doom Cloud.”
“I thought so,” Eddy sighed wearily. “I saw them aim their joy beams straight ahead instead of raking the tunnel wall. When I felt that singing sound, it was like warm light buzzing around and moving my hands and feet at the controls, I wondered if it also moved the other pilots’ hands and feet. That’s when the tunnel collapsed around me. I felt my joy generator kicked into deep-space drive and the next thing I knew I was here in sick bay.”
“You've added valuable information to the sensor logs, Eddy. We will be arriving at the hospital ship soon. I’m going to the bridge now, you need more rest.” Shawn put his hand on Eddy’s shoulder and watched the old man fall asleep even before he left.
continue to Chapter 12