Not sure the title is totally appropriate for this episode, but I picked it before I knew exactly what was going to happen in this part, and then I was stuck with it. Oh, well.
I’ve been playing way too much Halo the last few days, but I still managed to get Princess of Shadows to over 145,000 words this week. Kathy is in the House of Glory, hiding from just about everybody at the moment. I’m probably doing too much of a Dickens homage with a gang of street kids led by a pickpocket named Dart. May need to think about that.
The dubious scribblings below are copyrighted by me, 2013, because 1). I wrote them, and 2). it would be really skeevy to try to blame them on someone else.
Episode Three: Run Through the Jungle
When Paul could see straight again—when the universe stopped tumbling, crashing, and ripping apart— he found himself hanging sideways in the straps of his seat. There was a stink of burning insulation and of ozone. He looked about, gasping. The air was warm and humid. The cockpit canopy was gone; its top had been sheared off, and only a jagged rim of transmetal remained.
“Wake up,” someone was yelling. “Wake up, you stupid organic, the damn ship’s on fire!”
It was Jasper; the AI had focused his audio output so that it sounded as if it were right in Paul’s ear. “All right, all right,” Paul answered. He blinked and understood for the first time what he was seeing.
The scout ship had gone right through the belt of trees—apparently it was only a few yards thick—and was now lying canted over on its port side by about thirty degrees, in a shallow eddy of the river. Water, roiled by the impact and fouled by mud and leaking hydraulics, swirled around the ship. The air-foils on both sides had been ripped off by the trees. Leaves and branches were still falling. A pall of thick black smoke billowed up from the ship’s aft section.
“Mackemann!” Paul yelled. He removed his helmet, clawed at his harness release, and flipped it open. He fell sideways onto the cockpit bulkhead; water was pouring over its edge. “Mackemann!” He looked around.
Mackemann, still strapped into the commander’s seat, met Paul’s eyes. His face was twisted with agony above the tree-branch that protruded from his chest.
“Oh, God,” Paul murmured. He stumbled aft through the water. He had to climb up on the seat’s frame to reach Mackemann’s harness release. When he popped it, Mackemann fell, loose-limbed, right on top of him. Paul, not quite ready for the man’s weight, staggered and fell to his knees. The water rose to Paul’s chest, and threatened to pull him under. At the last moment, though, Paul got a grip on a support strut of the command seat and pulled himself up, with Mackemann over his shoulder.
Somehow Paul got himself and Mackemann out of the cockpit and into the water. The backwater was warm, and rose to Paul’s waist. The current was not strong. Paul slogged ashore.
The scoutship had scythed its way through the trees; the ship’s track was marked by plowed earth, scored tree trunks, and at least two fallen trees. The broken-off air-foil tips and other debris from the ship smoldered in the underbrush. Leaves and torn vegetation still swirled in the air.
Paul had no time to study the destruction, though. He laid Mackemann on the ground, in one of the ship’s plowed furrows, and leaned over him. Blood seeped from around the branch in his chest; some of Mackemann’s blood now stained the shoulder of Paul’s spacesuit. Paul removed the commander’s helmet. Mackemann gasped in pain, but he met Paul’s gaze. “Go…pull…Jasper,” Mackemann managed.
“HEY!” Jasper yelled. “Haven’t you forgotten something?”
Paul stood and ran back to the ship. Flames now roared out it’s stern. Paul could feel their heat. He clambered back into the cockpit and pulled the emergency handle on the AI hardware compartment. The compartment hatch unlatched; Paul lifted it off and threw it aside.
Inside the compartment were the AI’s memory cells and processors; below was an inner compartment. Paul pulled its cover. Inside was a small ovoid, slightly larger than a football—the transport unit. A small bank of status lights burned green at one end; in the middle of the surface was a blue-glowing sensor eye.
“About damn time,” Jasper said; when he spoke the status lights flickered. “Get me the hell out of here.”
“Keep your circuits on,” Paul muttered. He disconnected the data and external power links. The moment he did the main AI cells flashed violent activity on all their lights. In the midst of everything, Paul wondered if that meant that there was a stay-behind Jasper, now frantically entrapped in the ship’s circuits, or a newborn AI, confused and unsure what was going on. Either thought was horrible, but Paul could only attend to the business he had now, literally, in hand.
“Come on, move it,” Jasper said. “That fire is creeping closer to the auxiliary battery stacks—when those catch fire they’ll explode.”
“I know, I know,” Paul said, through gritted teeth. The fire was closer, both outside and inside the ship; Paul could feel its heat pulsing through the bulkhead of the AI compartment. He released one, then two of the three clamps holding the transport unit. The third, behind the unit, seemed jammed; his fingers slipped and could not get a grip on the nut holding down the attaching rod.
“You do realize that we are both about to fry here, right?” Jasper said.
“Oh, shut up,” Paul snapped. He shifted his position, put his shoulder into the compartment, and got proper grip on the locking nut and freed it. His shoulder felt singed where it had contacted the bulkhead, even through his suit.
He stood and lifted the transport unit out of the compartment. “The carrying sling, get the carrying sling, you moron, unless you want to cradle me in your arms the whole way,” Jasper said. Paul stopped. Another small sub-compartment held tools, and a fabric shoulder-sling for the transport unit. Paul grabbed that last item, nearly burning his fingers this time, and then he waded back toward shore. The flames in the stern were now five meters high and had burned through the ship’s skin amidships.
Paul laid Jasper and the sling down by Mackemann, then turned back toward the ship. “What the hell are you doing?” Jasper said.
“Survival packs,” Paul yelled. He had to hold a hand up to ward off the heat. He reached the cockpit. The survival packs were where Mackemann had racked them. Paul released the catches on the first and snatched it out. Something in the lower deck of the ship started hissing and popping, and Paul turned and ran.
He reached Mackemann. They were much too close to the ship. Jasper went into the sling, the sling over Paul’s shoulder. Paul picked up Mackemann and heaved him over his other shoulder. The man groaned; Paul was sure it would have been a scream of pain for any other man in his state.
Somehow Paul managed to pick up the survival pack with the hand that wasn’t steadying Mackemann. With his knees threatening to buckle, Paul set off at the best run through the trees that he could manage, which wasn’t much better than a slow jog.
Ten meters, twenty—he circled around a huge tree with roots that threatened to trip him—thirty. The roar of the fire behind him grew louder.
“Get down, get down!” Jasper yelled from the sling. “It’s going to blow!”
Paul threw Mackemann down in the lee of a large tree root, and threw himself down on the commander. There was a soft whump and then a sharp crack, and the air compressed horribly around them. The pressure threatened to burst his eardrums, and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.
The shock-wave passed. Paul kept his head down for another couple of moments, until he was sure things had stopped falling. Only then did he look up over the root
The scout ship was flame from one end to another. A gaping hole had been blown in the starboard side. The cockpit collapsed into the deck below and all Paul could see was fire. The smoke rose up black and solid, like an ink mark drawn to point to the ship’s position.
“It’s gone,” Jasper said.
Next episode: Unpleasant Surprises