I had nothing left to do except wait for night while sitting in the cockpit and monitoring stuff– now that we were full of wounded soldiers, I needed to keep an eye on the climate control– when the short-range infantry comm that the lieutenant lent us crackled to life.
“Captain, we have one more item coming out to you.”
We already had everyone who was going on board, but now I could see a pair of soldiers carrying a crate across the field from the shelter. I raised my eyebrow and was about to ask for details when PTO Joss entered the cockpit.
She told me, “It is the Ondo’s request, Captain. To carry an item to friendly territory for transport back to Ondo homeworld.”
“What is it?”
She frowned and seem to lose focus. I realized she was conversing with the Ondo using her mental powers.
They say that Zindavoor can only communicate with others who are capable of mental communication. They can only read emotions and stuff from regular humans. They can’t read our minds. But it is still a little unnerving when one of them start doing psychic stuff in front of you.
“The Ondo describes the item as… to use best word, ‘egg’ is probably it.”
“It laid an egg?”
Here I though fungi reproduced using spores.
“It is not quite the same, Captain. Normal reproduction is different, but this is…” she paused and thought for a bit. “To describe best, it is like a backup copy. The Ondo has put all its memories and skills into a small piece of itself. It is capable of growing into new Ondo. It is not same Ondo, but new individual that will someday be able to remember this one’s life and knowledge, once it grows up.”
“And it just happened to lay one?”
She shook her head. “No. It is purposeful act. It is preparing to die and is leaving a legacy. It believes the line cannot hold, and its position will be overrun soon.”
“Can’t it retreat?”
“Its movement is too slow, and no vehicle large enough to carry it is available.”
“Can we evacuate it?”
She paused again, then nodded, “It confirms that it is possible we could carry a survivable portion of it. But it will not abandon the humans that need it to cover their retreat. Two entire companies seems to be surrounded here, not just Humphries’ platoon.”
I wondered about a being sacrificing itself for the lives of soldiers alien to it. It was a humbling thought. “I guess its race has concepts like courage and sacrifice too.”
They say not all species think in concepts we would recognize that way. And that the Zindavoor can work together with us because they do.
“It did not mention the subject to this soldier, but… to suspect the captain is correct.”
We had been planning on only using the side hatch now that the wounded were inside, but that crate would not fit. I opened the clamshell doors and lowered the ramp.
I had the monitor on, showing the soldiers climbing the ramp, when an explosion rocked the lander. Between us and the shelter, a plume of soil rose into the air, and the concussion knocked the soldiers off their feet. I had already fed the pre-chargers and raised the weapon system power bus to active voltage, so all I had to do was slap the control that raised our shield. Across the field, I could see the shelter’s shields coming up as well.
“Crap!” I yelled as I did it. “They noticed us!”
The Enemy had not been wasting ammunition on a lander that was downed already. But once they saw activity at the lander, we stopped being dead, uninteresting metal.
The automated point defense had been running since I first brought the computer on line. According to the report now coming back from it into my nerveware, the system had seen an incoming shell perfectly targeted on us and it had taken the deflection shot, literally shooting the shell to make it fall short.
This wasn’t deep space. At surface artillery range, a deflection shot has only about a seventy five percent chance of working. In other words, we had just dodged a one in four chance of being destroyed on the ground. The sweat broke out on my back as more shells came in.
As a shell got through the PD fire, impacting the active shield, I turned into a small tornado of activity, bringing flight systems online, managing the startup of the jets, running through mental checklists I was making up on the fly because I had no idea where Farley kept his physical ones. Through the corner of my head, I kept watch as the two soldiers secured the crate and ran it the rest of the way into the spacecraft.
I got on the PA. “All hands, all passengers, get ready for departure. Red, I need an immediate report; are all stretchers and patients strapped down and ready for flight?”
Behind me, the PTO said, “To head back to position. Do not wait on me to strap in.”
Red reported “Cap, all patients and passengers are secure. Segers is getting into his couch. What about these soldiers and their crate?”
I could barely hear her voice on the intercom over the sound of another shell hitting us and the noise of the point defense trying to prevent any more from getting direct hits that had a chance to punch through. The lander was rocking with the impacts.
‘Segers’ was PO2C Segers, Farley’s gunner’s mate, the guy in charge of the lander’s weapons.
I was busy managing other things, so I didn’t bother switching the channel. I just answered across the PA. “Secure the crate for travel. Find a spot for the soldiers to strap in or take hold. They’re coming with us. I’m closing up.”
I had long since begun buttoning the craft up, so the assault ramp had already started closing up, well before I mentioned it.
Lieutenant Humphries’ voice came across the short-range gear. “Captain, I have men on board. I see you’re sealing up?”
“They’re coming with us, lieutenant. I can’t stay and I can’t send them outside in that,” I answered. “Relay to our side that we’re coming now.”
“Cap, we’re all set,” Red commed.
“We can’t return fire, Captain,” Segers said. “I have a plot on their position, but I need a little altitude to clear the terrain.”
Humphries messaged, “The Road Kings are headed in to fly cover. Good luck.”
I opened the throttles for both the belly jets and propulsion. The lift I received was nothing like a standard Dragon. It was slow and ponderous, and I immediately knew why Farley had been shot down.
“Who designed this turkey, Chief?” I yelled over my shoulder. “It handles like an underpowered bathtub!”
As we waddled off the ground, the tall coral-trees at the edge of the cleared ground marched steadily closer. I heaved back on the stick trying to get the thing to nose up, to give me just a little more lift by pointing the main jet downward. Somewhere in the last twenty meters or so, my tail finally rose high enough to clear the coral-tree tops.
But I couldn’t climb any higher. Somewhere out there was the repeating anti-aircraft cannon that had nailed Molly to put her in this predicament in the first place. I had to stay under its sights. As Segers did his best to take out our tormentors, I turned for the airfield I had chosen.
Then my heart sank just a little as I saw, to my nine o’clock, an alien aircraft skimming the foliage, heading my direction. I could see the sparkly light of some form of weapon firing on us. It hadn’t hit us yet, but it was just a matter of time.
“Segers! Ten O’clock!”
Segers rotated his turret to begin thundering away at them with his ion projector. Molly was steadily picking up speed and it felt like I was actually getting some lift from my wings. I hoped so, because belly jets are designed for a high power-to-mass ratio, not for efficiency. Every second I needed to continue using their thrust to stay in the air, I was losing precious propellant.
And now I would be wasting more trying to outmaneuver an enemy.