Sneak Preview: The Fifth Circle Vol. II
Without warning, a tremendous fist of energy struck just below the landing bay and heeled over the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints forty degrees port, and in the hangar, even with .5-g, the tilt took crew off their feet, equipment off traction, and a mass of humanity and machine slid back toward the inner bulkhead. My vision closed to a cone; I braced my knees and dug in hard to the disced PVC decking, hooked a foot around a squat, providential tie-down stanchion, and all I could see was a narrow band of flying bodies, loose EAs, equipment racks, drones, munitions carts, and maglev towing vehicles in a race to their ruin against the inner bulkhead. Sideways lights, blankly staring up into the bay, I saw Shandann take flight in gravity’s pull, and like so many other crew, she impacted on the bulkhead, fly versus windshield, and fell to the deck.
As the ship came slowly back on axis, another bone-bruising impact against our reflector panes heeled the ship again, and a new chessboard of movement emerged: stationary equipment broke free for the first time, others that had cut loose before stopped, but not many, not nearly enough. Far down the bay, a recon fighter spun into the bulkhead and caught fire. Rondor must have seen Shandann go down because she crouched and toed her way down the deck on her silvered boots, light, nearly weightless, agile as a cat. I yelled something about get down or come back and it was lost in screams, twisting metal, collisions, klaxons. Fire retardant fell like soapy rain from overhead vents, which we needed like a third nut because all it did was eliminate much of the deck’s surface purchase. Objects accelerated, people fell. Plus it smelled bad.
So it was with no small WTF I saw Savadaan scramble after her with short strides, keeping his body weight back and directly above his feet; it helped that the ship was slowly rolling back on keel, but the linear track of the heaviest objects—aided by the slippery deck—didn’t slow appreciably and may have, in fact, increased. I got to my knees and wrapped my arms around the stanchion and, with the help of perspective, was able to see his method and his madness.
A small interceptor, not much larger than the Beats Working’s tender, had started a slow rotational descent toward the core bulkhead and was picking up speed. Problem was, the bulkhead was lined with dozens of crew still trying to get upright if they were not badly injured, and the track of the interceptor’s approach wobbled as the deck changed angle, as pockets of friction came and went, tugging here, releasing there; sure as shit it was going to mash anyone who didn’t—or couldn’t—get out of the way. Then, through the overlapping chaos of crew, of equipment, and debris in the landing bay, I saw Rondor. She’d just stood from tending to a fallen crew member and was turning around when her eyes flew wide open, watched her life soar past in curious surprise as the interceptor swung around to crush her against the bay’s bulkhead.
But it didn’t.
And then I heard it, or maybe I was just out of phase, but Savadaan let out a roar that defeated the din. He’d caught the outer starboard landing strut and pivoted so that the craft’s angular momentum accelerated, and instead of hitting Rondor square on, no more than a stubby flight surface clipped the side of her head and she went down in a heap. The interceptor’s rotation tightened further, Savadaan lost his grip, and the tail section swept him along like a janitor’s broom and pinned him firmly to the inner wall. A few breathless moments later, the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints stabilized, and with gravity and a slick deck, several crew pushed the interceptor back, but like Rondor before, Savadaan fell. I ran to their side, already calling, “MT! MT! Get someone over here, now!” And even though I had yet to see a med tech on deck, the retardant nozzles shut off. Yup. Military.
I scanned both: Rondor, gray and unmoving; she was dead or dying. “MT! MT!” Savadaan, however, was on his knees, gasping, #agony. Unable to speak, he warded me away. The impact had fractured his armor, and blood seeped through its shards, dripping wetly to the deck to mingle with the fire retardant in frothy carmine rivulets. All I could think was, Whatever happens, this is one tough motherfucker.
Suddenly Justin and Lisa were there too; I had lost all track of them after the first concussion. “Dad, you OK? What happened?”
“I think so. You guys all right?” They both nodded, and I was about to tell them to find their mom when I felt the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints continue to list to starboard, having failed to stop on keel, and the angle of the deck started to grow. A munitions charging cart, its polymer wheels lubricated and precisely aligned, started rolling toward the electrostatic barrier, which was, except for an invisible environmental curtain, a barrier in name only. Gravity put the same idea into a number of pieces of equipment and, in a shock that quite literally made me jump, unwilling crew as well. The trailer beat them all and flew out the bay at a fairly good rate to be torn down and away by the launch envelope.
“Can’t we stabilize?” I said loudly, hoping as many ears as possible would pick up on the general idea and resolve the question soon, or at least start the request through channels. I said the hell with it, slapped my neck, and sent directly to Olatanthus, “Possible to get this stable? We have wounded and equipment running around like Terminators with their heads cut off.”
“It’s a pendulum effect. Too much mass to stop on the spot without breaking this ship in two. The swings will diminish.”
“If we’re not hit again.”
“Big if. Look outside your launch bay.”
I did. We were down relative about twelve degrees, and the stars were gone, obscured by an enormous matte-black polygon; as the angle deepened, there was nothing but this big-ass Fixture Levy ship that I back-of-napkined was maybe a hundred times the mass of Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Guess Farann miscounted. A number of hexagonal fascia radiated a dull pink, so, to use Rondor’s colorful euphemism, they’d run out of spit but my two bucks was on the probability they were making mucus just as fast as they could hawk it up. A couple hundred of those damned cubes detached from the main craft and took up its flanks as the angle of the deck increased.
The first to go were actually two, a red-clad weapons NCO and a white-uniformed line officer who, thinking themselves in pretty good shape near the launch bay opening during the first port-side list of the ship, were frantically trying to crawl up the deck. As if on an agreed cue, they both lost their footing and slid through the electrostatic barrier into space: burst lungs showed a wispy cloud of vapor, fitful struggles only to be stilled by frozen hypoxia; the launch gravity envelope caught them, and they disappeared as well. Then it got worse.
When our starboard-side AA batteries finally came to life, the Fixture Levy vessel, unable yet to let loose with its big guns, sent a dozen or so of their little brain-filled cubes our way. The spread, perfectly executed, detonated as one above the retrieval bay and most likely took out the reflector pane over our heads, but the damage was even greater than they could imagine: the concussions accelerated the roll, and anything that wasn’t nailed down or close enough to the core bulkhead to hold on to something, anything, began a fun-house slide toward the bay’s opening. A Razorfish, two idled maglev vehicles, carts and parts and ceramic plates and . . . and people. Four, then nine, then . . . I stopped counting.
I’d been holding on to a weapons-compartment dog handle next to Rondor and quickly shifted my hands so I could at least tie her shirt in a crude half-hitch to keep her from moving. Other hands yet held others in much the same way, but there ultimately weren’t enough hands to go around. Another four screaming crew into the cold vacuum of space. Where was the damn blast curtain? Oh hell. Stuck on retrieval. I wanted to throw up. Another detonation and Justin and Lisa fell, sliding feet first on the virtually frictionless deck. I glanced down at Rondor. The color had yet to completely leave her face, so she was closer to dying than dead—and my kids were slipping toward the void. I made my choice, but as I was unwinding my grip on her shirt, Savadaan pushed me back against the wall.
For such an enormous being—at least eight feet tall—he had fine balance and quickness, and the length didn’t hurt either. With the deck at nearly thirty degrees, he leaned forward, took three enormous bounds, and then laid himself out flat in a football move aptly referred to as giving up one’s body. He landed facedown on a rack of ribs that had to be just this side of splintered matchsticks, and slid on the deck for three or four meters, leaving behind a wash of blood copious enough to remain crimson. But he got what he came for: Lisa’s wrist in one mammoth hand and Justin’s in another. Their collective mass moderated their slide even as the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints started to slowly heave back to even, but “moderate” was a relative term, and stopping on their own before they hit the electrostatic barrier didn’t pass the eye test. That damn linear momentum thing. Why did physics always have to be so right all the time?
You can’t imagine how fast this all happened. Solely on Jeff’s instinct, the pure connection of a father and his children that old Titus knew nothing of, I took off at an angle, like a boarder carving a face, and almost stumbled before I got my feet under me. I timed my jump as I came at them from an oblique angle from behind. I got a hand on Savadaan’s calf; shit, the thing was like an iron ingot. We slowed a little, but I didn’t want to drag my toes until I had both hands on him, yet it seemed every time I reached up to grab his other ankle, his leg came up or slewed to the side. The math still wasn’t in our favor, so I sent, Just stay still, you fucker! I’m trying to help! Twice more I made an unsuccessful grab. He was purposefully making me miss! Well, as a dad, one learns tricks when wrestling with kids, so I feinted, grabbed his ankle, earned a muffled grunt. Ah. Broken leg.
Don’t ask me how this happened, because I know the mind works in mysterious ways, mine more mysterious than most, but in an instantaneous free-association I went from bad guys > hurt body parts > broken leg > seared wings > dragon > fly > Titus > stupid > duh> well, at least I got it > about time > breathe > yell. “Wings!” I bellowed. “Wings! Use them! Up and off! Up and off!”
For a fraction of a second I felt the connected weight spike and then Savadaan threw his empty arms out to further brake our slide, while pure white blurred past my left side and a slash of gold and black on the other. I slammed my toes against the deck and with the help of Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints finally coming back toward keel, we stopped maybe one or two meters from the electrostatic barrier. Sound returned in a single thunderclap: the klaxons, the screams, the yelling, a siren. Everything from pinpricks to slabs of pain assaulted me, and I wanted to curl into a ball to nurse all my hurt, yet I refused to let Savadaan go, so my body and mind agreed to disagree at the expense of feeling like I’d just been run over by a tractor trailer rig. But then I turned my attention outside the flag to the Fixture Levy mutha ship, and a different kind of feeling came over me: unmitigated terror. The pink hexagons were glowing brightly, and at about eight thousand kilometers distant, they weren’t going to miss, making me the tip of the arrow, the first to fry. Well, technically Savadaan was ahead of me, but on that scale you get the point.
Funny how time speeds up or slows down when you’re in the midst of crises. When Lisa couldn’t open her wing back in the exercise volume on Yandeenaa’s ship, time had slowed, the game had come to me. How I got from a standing start to lying with Savadaan a scant meter or so from the edge of eternity seemed to happen faster than the posing of the question. So combine time dilation and shit-your-pants fear and it becomes a mental mosquito: you hear it, slap at it to make it go away, but it always comes back, the same persistent little whine, wondering what it will feel like to die. Then into this little buzz, a voice came, like an echo down a long, dark corridor, sourceless, as if reaching to me from distance measured in the death and birth of Multiverses, from time impossibly far away. Mykanna.
“This is their freedom, Titus, and those aware enough are humbled by our sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice?” I questioned in my head. I wasn’t listening or speaking in Language but something more fundamental, far older, if I can say that, that reverberated in the bones of my soul. Then music. The voice of the Multiverse.
“So much . . . ” she answered with a touch of sorrow, “so much you and I have had to give up. It is symmetry. Yet the bargain is equable.”
“What do you mean, equable?”
“We, the both of us, stepped outside of our duty and returning to it, atonement, does not come without cost. Sometimes great cost. That is why they are so thankful.”
“You’ve seen the between, Titus. The dead the Fixture Levy would reap. They choose oblivion and I have brought it with them. Watch!”
I had no idea what to look for, and the ship was so immense, even at eight thousand klicks, all I could see were the forward hexagonal outlines of the Fixture Levy vessel glowing hot pink, the six-sided lines pulsing to a slow, murderous rhythm. Whatever I’m supposed to watch had better happen soon, I thought to myself, or there won’t be anyone left alive to see.