Chapter 32: Suffer the Fate of Atlantis
The planet in Jimmy’s dream drew near, rotating into view as the center of the universe. Space and time bent around it, a whirlpool of distorted thoughts and images streaming toward it in curves. He gazed down from far above, his eyes sleepily wandering across the oceans. Suddenly he felt air rushing up on either side of him, and with a lurch of fear he began plummeting toward the surface. The sharp terror of free fall filled his body as he spun faster and faster, the world turning dizzying corkscrews beneath him. Unable to slow his descent, he hurtled toward the waves. They closed over his head in a spray of black beads, and he sank down, paralyzed, pulled into the crushing, airless depths…
The computer alarm sounded. “Proximity alert. Proximity alert. Weapons system grid detected. Course correction recommended.”
Jimmy jolted upright, gasping as he drew in deep breaths. Covered in cold sweat, heart pumping fast, he looked around in confusion. After a moment his deserted senses returned, and he slumped back onto the bean bag chair, holding his hand to his chest as he struggled to slow his breathing.
“I can’t believe I fell asleep. What a horrible dream…”
“Ah, morning sleepyhead,” said Nav. “Glad you enjoyed your nap.”
“I don’t know about enjoyed, but… Hey. Where are we?”
“Just outside P24-505. Welcome to Fort Evil, kiddo.”
Jimmy snapped upright again. “What? We’re there already?”
“See for yourself…”
Jimmy hurried over to the front of the cockpit, where Nav was reclined in the pilot’s chair, absently munching on what looked like strawberries. Nav pointed out the portal, and Jimmy followed the motion with his eyes. The thick glass distorted the space beyond, channeling his vision past the spirals of stellar debris to the tiny blue planet in the distance.
“It doesn’t look like much, does it?” said Nav.
“No, I guess not…”
“But you see that huge circle of rubble around it?”
“That’s the minefield.”
There was a thump behind them, and Nav and Jimmy spun around to see Sheen and Carl on the ground, rubbing their heads.
“What a rush,” whistled Sheen. “I had the craziest dreams.”
“Me too,” said Carl. “I met my future self, and he had blue hair.”
Nav blinked. “Weird.”
“You never know Carl,” yawned Libby, rubbing her eyes, “You could be right. We haven't met your future self yet. Who's to say he doesn't have blue hair?”
She stifled another yawn, and Sheen reached out a hand to help her up.
Jimmy gestured at the portal. “We'll find out soon enough. We’re here, guys. Take a look.”
The other kids rushed up to the control panel and eagerly peered out the window. As they exchanged comments, Jimmy cast a glance back at Cindy where she still lay sleeping on the beanbag chair. Her breaths rose and fell evenly, no trace of anger or defiance in her expression. Her blonde hair had come loose from its ponytail, and her small frame looked strangely delicate amidst the golden tangles. Jimmy’s eyes grew wider as he looked at her.
“She looks…different when she’s sleeping…”
“Hmm?” said Libby.
Jimmy's cheeks colored. “Oh, uh…nothing. I was just saying that someone should probably wake up Cindy.”
“Go for it.”
Jimmy paced over to the sleeping girl; struck by the uncharacteristic gentleness of her slumbering features, he bit his lip. As he reached down to shake her, Cindy's eyes snapped open, and she sprung up and slammed him down against the floor. Pinning him under her own body, she yanked her arm back to punch him, only to stop dead at the last moment.
“N…Neutron?” she blinked.
After the initial shock, Jimmy’s face bunched up in anger. “Of course it’s me!” he yelled. “And what the heck are you doing? Get off!”
Cindy released her hold on him and rapidly backed away, blushing furiously. “I’m sorry... I was having a dream about you, so when I saw you standing over me like that, I just…”
She whirled away to hide her face, and Jimmy propped himself up on one elbow, rubbing his head. “Jeez, that really hurt.”
“I said I was sorry!”
“Then why don’t you try acting like it?”
To Jimmy’s surprise, she offered him her hand. He took it, and she pulled him up off the floor.
She turned away again, this time snatching up her ponytail holder from the bean bag chair. She pulled her hair through it and tightened the knot. He looked down at the ground, red-faced, and shuffled his feet.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Me too,” relented Cindy.
Jimmy gave her an unsure smile. “So…you were having a dream about me? What happened?”
Cindy flushed again, but before she could answer, the conversation was interrupted by a snicker from Nav. Cindy and Jimmy's lovelorn expressions instantly vanished. Libby and the Numerian were whispering conspiratorially, making sure to keep their voices just loud enough so everyone around them could hear.
“Man, you were right, they are cute!” said Nav in a fake whisper. “Look at them shamelessly flirting, oblivious to everybody else in the room!”
“I know, right? I just don’t get it. Why won’t they admit their feelings?”
“Sad, so sad,” said Nav dramatically. “I can feel it now…the pain of unrequited love!” He flipped a thumbs-up in their direction and yelled out, voice full of mock hope. “Don’t worry you two, I’m rootin’ for ya! Remember that! Cindy X Jimmy forever!”
Libby broke into a giggle-fit, and Nav burst out laughing, slapping his chair riotously. A dark cloud simmered around Cindy and Jimmy as they glared over at them.
Cindy gritted her teeth together. “I’ll kill him.”
“Me first,” said Jimmy.
A whoosh of air brought Nav out of hysterics, and he looked over to find Future Libby, Aurora, and April standing inside the sliding doors. Future Libby waved as April adjusted the gun holsters on her hips.
Sheen took the opportunity to make a stupid comment. “Hey look, it’s the posse of looooove!~”
Nav high-fived Sheen. “Right on, man!”
“Well, I’m glad to see that our imminent life and death venture is so hilarious to you,” said Aurora coldly. “Or maybe you’d like to shut up for a minute?”
The room went silent.
“It’s time to get serious. I need you all to concentrate. Understand?” The kids nodded solemnly. Aurora lorded over them, eyes glittering. “Then let’s head down to the cargo bay. The fighters are ready.”
Nav tossed back one more strawberry before joining the rest of the group as they headed down the corridor. Cindy eyed the dirty, peeling walls with disdain, as Sheen pointed enthusiastically at a patch of particularly offensive graffiti.
“Whoa-ho! That word’s a doozy! Not even my crazy cousin Floyd uses that one!”
Carl covered his eyes. "Dad says that’s a no-no word."
“A no-no word?” repeated Sheen. “Carl, you’ve gotta be kidding me! That right there is the spice of life! The second I turn eighteen, every other word that comes out of my mouth is gonna be drippin' swear-sauce!”
Libby rolled her eyes. “I’ll look forward to that…”
Cindy nearly tripped over a piece of junk lying on the floor. “Jeez, Nav, when was the last time you cleaned this heap?”
“You know, I’m not really sure…”
April shrugged. “Nav likes the Shahada to feel homey and lived-in…am I right, dear?”
He winked at her. “You betcha, hotcakes.”
“If by 'homey and lived-in',” snorted Aurora, “you mean 'a complete dump', then ya…”
The doors at the end of the hall swung open upon their approach, and they entered a high-ceilinged room. Scrap metal and pools of oil dotted the floor, and the acrid smell of rubber tires permeated the recycled air. Three small ships awaited them in the center of the room. Although each fighter was a different model, they all shared the same angular, cutting design. They were not much bigger than an average SUV – but their streamlined bodies were a far cry from a clunky land vehicle.
Aurora indicated the ships. “I ran a thorough systems check on all three fighters, and they seem to be perfectly operational. Unfortunately, the one closest to us wasn’t designed to be piloted by an organism with humanoid anatomy. Operating it will be very tricky, so I’ll take that one. April will pilot the second ship, and Nav will take the third.”
“Got it,” said the Numerian.
“Now, for the problem of the antidote…” She motioned to April, who handed her the two glass vials. “Since Lady Jaya took our third copy, one of our teams will have to go in without it. This is a serious disadvantage. To be fair, April and I drew lots earlier. April drew the short straw, so she and Nav will be entering without it and will therefore be employing slightly different tactics. We'll discuss this further once we get to the surface. Everyone clear? Good.”
She slammed her palm down on the hood of the nearest ship, and the hatch swung open. She climbed into the pilot’s seat and began punching buttons as April and Nav headed to their respective stations.
“Jimmy, Goddard, and young Libby, you’re with me,” directed Aurora as she adjusted the controls. “Cindy and my Libby, go with April. Nav, I regret to inform you that you’re stuck with Carl and Sheen. Get on board, everyone…”
“Wait, that’s it?” asked Jimmy. “We’re leaving now? Already?”
“What did you expect? A tearful goodbye party? From this second onward, our operation becomes a ticking time bomb. Now get in the back.”
With some difficulty, the passengers managed to climb into the spaces behind each of the pilots’ chairs. There was very little room to spare; the top of Future Libby’s head almost touched the ceiling as April's hatch lowered and clicked into place. Nav’s star-roof closed with a grinding mechanical noise, sealing a widely smiling Sheen and profusely sweating Carl inside. Aurora stood and yanked her ship’s top down manually. It banged shut, rocking the whole interior and almost unseating Jimmy and Libby in the process. Aurora settled herself into the pilot’s chair, which had clearly been made for a creature with at least one extra pair of arms, if not more. She fished out a trio of headsets and handed two of them to her passengers, then donned the remaining one herself. Adjusting the microphone, she flicked a switch on the earpiece, and all their headsets came online in a rush of static.
“Testing, one, two, three…Can everyone hear me?”
April’s voice crackled in her ear. “Affirmative.”
“Loud and clear,” said Nav.
“All right. We’ll be using these subspace links to communicate between ships…”
Sheen broke over the comm. link. “Testing, one, two, three, testing! Ca-caw! I repeat, ca-caaaaw!”
Aurora winced. “Sheen, we’re all on this channel, so try to keep your comments to yourself.”
She slid the seat forward and placed her feet inside two compartments under the dashboard, then grabbed hold of what looked like dual handbrakes. She leaned backward in the chair and yanked them all the way back, and the ship’s engine roared to life.
“OK everyone, strap in. Unfortunately, it’ll be impossible for me to steer this ship and control weapons at the same time with only two arms, so April, I’ll need you to cover me. I’ll just have to rely on maneuverability to avoid the seeker drones and other weapons. Oh, and Nav? Your right auxiliary thruster sticks for some reason, so be mindful of that.”
“Yup, I just noticed that. I’ll compensate.”
“Are there any questions?”
Sheen’s voice cut in yet again. “Are we gonna have code names or something? If so, I call 'el hombre morado', and I vote 'gangstress of sass' for Libby.”
“Ooh, can I be Captain Kirk?” piped in Nav. “Hans Solo? Heck, I’ll even settle for Captain Janeway…”
“You can call yourself Attila the Hun for all I care! We’re wasting time! April, open the bay doors!”
“Way ahead of you. I started the opening sequence. T minus ten till deployment…”
“Status?” asked Aurora.
“All systems go,” replied Nav.
April counted down. “T minus five seconds…four…three…”
“All Systems check out. Buckle your seat belts, ladies and gents…”
The cargo bay filled with a phenomenal creaking sound as the bay doors shuddered open. The room popped and hissed as it decompressed.
“Contact,” said Aurora.
The floor dropped out beneath them, and the three ships plummeted downward into open space. Aurora jammed the thruster forward, and the ship streaked off, leaving a trail of glittering exhaust in its wake. April and Nav’s ships fell into formation behind it, the prow of the Shahada quickly shrinking behind them.
“Successful takeoff achieved. Approximately two minutes until we reach the outer minefield. April, can you scan for any anomalies?”
“Roger that. Scanning…”
“Tell Roger I said he looks fat in those pants,” crackled Nav's voice.
A moment or two later, a data bit appeared on all their screens, showing a slightly thinner patch in the giant cloud of mines.
“The elliptical shape of the planet has caused a gravity anomaly at five degrees on the ecliptic. We should exploit it,” recommended April.
“…For those of us who don’t feel like using our brains today?” asked Nav.
“There is a section of the minefield that will be easier to navigate. We should go that way.”
“I knew that, I was just testing you.”
The space up ahead wore a necklace of mines; they glistened in the cold of space like dew on a spider’s web. The mines spun gently, waiting for trespassers brave or stupid enough to wake them from their slumber. As the field grew closer, Aurora reached under her seat and pulled out her silver mask. Without taking her eyes off her flight path, she handed the mask back to Jimmy, who accepted it quizzically.
“Why am I…?”
“Hold onto this until we reach the surface. I can’t wear it while I’m piloting.”
“Um. …OK…” He passed it off to Libby, who tucked it into the space beside her seat.
“Minefield penetration in T minus six,” Aurora informed the others. “Flight pattern Theta, I’ll take lead. Clear?”
“Clear!” said Nav and April.
“Hold onto your collective butts…” added the Numerian.
“Holding!” said Carl.
Immediately ahead, the minefield was a beaded curtain, a vertical partition dividing the nothingness.
Aurora’s ship crossed the threshold of the minefield. At the precise moment of entry, she tapped the main throttle, throwing the ship into a corkscrew. The wings swung round, zipping through the geometry of the field in dizzying elegance. April and Nav copied the maneuver a moment later and rolled in opposite directions, spreading the three ships out across the field. The pilots evened out their course, their passengers feeling a bit woozy from the speed of the movement.
Aurora adjusted her headset. “Successful entry. What’s your status?”
“All systems go,” confirmed April.
“Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap!” shouted Nav. “I’ve got two mines tailing me…”
April slammed on the brakes, stopping so abruptly that the nose flipped up, forcing the whole ship into a 360 degree backflip. Cindy and Future Libby smacked into each other as Nav’s ship rocketed past. With two perfectly timed shots, April blasted the mines trailing Nav, and they burst into a confetti-like sprinkle of soundless explosions. She took out a few more in front of Aurora, then shifted her thruster forward, streaking ahead at maximum speed until she broke even with Nav’s ship.
“Hot damn, that was a sexy move!” admired Nav. “What a shot!”
In the back of April’s fighter, Future Libby covered her mouth, her face greenish with nausea. “Ugh…I think I’m gonna be sick…”
Cindy scooted away. “Not in here you’re not!”
“Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth,” instructed April. “It helps with the motion sickness.”
Future Libby folded her legs under her, assumed a meditative stance, and slowly calmed her breathing. Her steady, evenly-spaced breaths echoed over the comm. link, and Sheen burst out laughing at the sound.
“Hey Libbalicious, wanna do me a favor? Say 'I am your father' in a really sinister voice, OK?”
Nav cracked up, and their laughter mingled together in grating cacophony. Carl joined in a moment later, chuckling uncertainly.
“I don’t believe it!” said Cindy. “Here I am in an alternate universe, out in space, in the middle of a life and death situation, and I’m STILL surrounded by morons!”
“They’re a pan-universal constant, believe me,” said Aurora dryly.
A red light started to flicker on her dashboard, and her wry smile vanished. “What the…?” A diagram popped up on the display, showing a net-like lattice of mines tightening in around their position. “Nav, April, are you reading this? Something weird is going on. There seems to be a net movement of the mines toward our position…”
“Ya, I see it too,” said Nav. “It’s like the individual mines are behaving under the constraints of some kind of collective programming. It’s the freakiest thing ever. Any ideas?”
“We should proceed ahead at max speed and clear the field – it’ll call for some tight maneuvers, but we can do it…”
Jimmy leaned forward earnestly. “No! We need to split up. The field is probably set up to gravitate toward our collective magnetic signature. If we fan out, the mines will be pulled in three directions, and the field will be easier to traverse.”
“April?” asked Aurora uncertainly.
The three fighters broke formation and diverged, heading off in opposite directions. Like a flock of birds changing direction in unison, the mines split into three sections and trailed after them. April took a few potshots at the cloud closing in around Nav, and the resulting explosions threw Sheen and Carl from their seats. A panel on the dashboard overloaded from the energy discharge and blew out, sending a fountain of sparks popping onto Nav’s lap. He lifted his leg and slammed his boot against the panel, containing the shower.
“Hey, take it easy April! The mines are too close to the ship for you to go all trigger-happy! Your weapons fire could fry the essential systems!”
“You are not going to have any essential systems LEFT to fry if you do not lose those mines!”
“What do you think I’m doing?” he yelled accusingly. “Painting my fingernails? I’m TRYING to lose them! My damn auxiliary thruster is on the fritz!”
The computer flickered on a second later with the following message: Gravitational anomaly detected. Position indeterminate. Identification indeterminate. Likelihood of black hole is 80%. Evasive action recommended.
“Crap!” shouted Nav. “As if we didn’t have enough to deal with! The computer can’t locate the black hole, and I’m about to get blown to kingdom-come!”
“Aurora, do something!” cried April.
Aurora rolled her ship. Jimmy and Libby clung to one another in nauseous terror as the vessel careened sideways, passing only a few meters over the top of April’s ship – and stealing a large number of April’s mines along the way. Aurora continued to spin to the right, heading for Nav and the boys. Their flight paths intersected, and Aurora yanked her ship clear at the last minute, slamming her cloud of mines into Nav’s. They collided and were obliterated in a terrific explosion of silent, blinding light. As the light traveled outward, some of it got caught up in the black hole’s gravitational field, and it spiraled downward into oblivion. Nav and Aurora swerved wide to avoid the tiny event horizon, and the three ships cruised past together, the number of mines in proximity to their vessels now greatly reduced.
“Spectacular, Aurora!” cheered Future Libby. “That was amazin’!”
“I’ll say!” agreed Nav. “You just saved my lily-white arse! When this is over, I am so getting a tattoo of your face on my face…”
Libby held her stomach, hiccuping queasily. “You wouldn’t think it was so 'spectacular' if you were in my place right now…”
Jimmy's face was equally ashen. “Really, Aurora…is there any way to make this flight LESS like a rollercoaster? I feel like my insides are being put through a blender.”
“Just be thankful that we have inertial dampeners, or you’d probably have bloody noses right now.”
Libby held her nose. “Charming…”
The group proceeded onward, trails of dust glittering off the exhaust in their wake. April took out a few more mines along the way, and Nav flipped the bird out the side window.
“Kiss my ass, minefield! Woohoohoo!”
“Haha!” laughed Sheen. “I get to ride in a crazy spaceship AND hear swear words! This day just got awesome!”
“Nav, pay attention!” called out Aurora. “The field is contracting again!”
“Don’t worry about it! We’re almost through, see?”
Sure enough, the end of the minefield was visible up ahead. Aurora squinted into the distance, then breathed in sharply.
“What is it, Aurora?” asked Jimmy.
“We’ve got a problem…”
The computer flashed a 3-D image of their position, and then rotated to show their trajectory. At the edge of the minefield, hundreds of tiny energy signatures zipped about erratically, dipping, rising, and doubling back on themselves.
Nav frowned. “Aurora, what the hell are those?”
“Seeker drones…but there’s way more of them than there were three years ago.”
“There’s no way we can make it through that!” he exclaimed. “We’d be toast as soon as we left the minefield.”
“We have another problem,” said April. “The mines are closing in again. If we slow our course, I’m not sure we’ll be able to evade them.”
Aurora’s grip tightened on the chair’s dual thrusters, anger and shame coloring her cheeks. “Damn it, I miscalculated! I didn’t expect there to be such a large increase in the number of drones. He must have tightened the barrier…”
“We have 120 seconds Aurora,” said April coolly. “What do you want us to do?”
She considered, her face drawn tight in thought. “If we could just get through the first line of seekers, we might be able to make it. The seeker drones work by locking onto your heat signal. If we could distract them somehow, we could pass through. Unfortunately it would take quite a bit of energy to lure them away from our position…and short of a suicide mission, I can’t think of any way to generate that kind of heat.”
“Wait a minute,” broke in Jimmy. “Did you say ‘suicide mission’?”
“Let’s not even consider that option just yet…”
“No, no, you don’t understand! I just had an idea. What if I sent Goddard ahead of us and had him ‘play dead’? The resulting explosion should produce enough energy to overshadow our own heat signatures. We’d be able to get through the seeker drone barrier, provided we move quickly enough.”
Aurora snapped her fingers. “That would work! Ah man, and it wouldn’t be the first time that little trick has saved our necks …But are you sure you’re willing to risk Goddard like that? He could easily be destroyed, and losing him now could jeopardize the rest of our mission.”
“I understand the risk,” he said. “But this is our only option. Goddard, you’d be willing to do this for me, right boy?” He looked over his shoulder at his pet, who whimpered in the affirmative. “All right. You know what to do, right? Make sure to wait until we’ve reached the threshold of the field. As soon as we’re through, reassemble and meet us down on the planet.”
Jimmy reached out and petted him affectionately. “All right, Aurora, how do we deploy him?”
“Have him crawl into the back. I’ll seal it off and open the hatch.”
Jimmy nudged Goddard, who shuffled into the tiny compartment behind the seats, tail between his legs. Aurora opened a panel on the side of the cockpit and punched a purple button, and a sliding pane whooshed down, releasing Goddard. He floated directionless for a moment, disoriented, and nearly collided with a wayward mine. Jimmy pressed himself against the glass, shouting out a useless warning.
“Goddard, look out!”
At the last second, Goddard righted himself and avoided the danger. Changing direction, he zipped out of the belly of the minefield and toward the lines of zigzagging seeker drones.
“30 seconds…” came April’s voice.
“Wait!” yelped Nav. “What the heck is going on? You've totally lost me!”
“Stay your course!” ordered Aurora. “Just keep your current heading.”
“All right, but if I end up with a missile up my ass, it’s your fault…”
The three ships cruised toward the end of the field, with Goddard flying just ahead. He increased his speed, thrusters vivid against the velvety black backdrop. He veered off far to the right as the edge of the minefield grew nearer. Jimmy shut his eyes tight, and Goddard shot out of the cloud of mines, exploding into a hundred pieces in a flash of heat and light. Instantly, a horde of seeker drones changed direction and headed toward the disturbance, leaving a gap just big enough to permit the entry of a few small ships. The fighters streaked past, clearing the front line and hurtling toward the planet at breakneck speed. The drones detected their presence a moment later, and with eerie synchronization, reversed direction and pursued their new quarry.
“Maximum speed ahead!” cried Aurora hoarsely. “We have to outrun them!”
She slammed the thruster into a higher gear with her foot, while simultaneously reaching up and yanking open a panel on the roof of the cockpit. She grabbed at a mass of tangled blue and red cords, and, climbing precariously onto the arms of her chair, hot-wired a few of the cables together using her green fire. She dropped back down and jammed the thruster all the way forward, and sparks spouted from the roof. She gritted her teeth, and the ship rocketed forward at a bone-jarring pace, the hull straining under the increased speed.
April’s frantic voice crackled over the comm. link as Aurora pushed the craft to its limit. “Aurora, what are you doing? Did you just bypass your ship's limiter grid? You will burn out your engines! These things cannot sustain that level of energy output!”
“It’ll hold! We just have to make it to the atmosphere where the seeker drones can’t follow!”
April shot her plasma weapons in a fan pattern, wiping out the line of drones approaching their position. “What about our escape?” she yelled into her headpiece. “Shouldn’t we be preserving the integrity of our ships so we can get away afterward?”
“Survival is our main priority right now! There won’t BE an afterward if we don’t get down to the surface. Now hot-wire your damn engines!”
There was a moment of static over the headphones, and then both Nav and April’s ships sputtered forward, careening toward the exosphere alongside Aurora’s. Jimmy looked back toward the minefield, anxiously searching the debris for signs of Goddard.
“It’s not working, Aurora!” bellowed Nav. “I’ve got a conga line of these suckers a mile long behind me!”
“Shut up and go faster!” she yelled, eyes shut tight.
“My ship isn’t as fast as yours, numbskull! The auxiliary thruster is busted, remember? I can’t keep up!”
Sheen held tight to the chair, hair standing on end from the stray electrical charges spit out by the engines. “Ah man, we’re about to be turned into chunky salsa…AGAIN!”
“More like sub-atomic space toast,” said Nav. “…not that we’d be able to tell the difference…”
As the drones closed the gap, Aurora twisted around to look at the kids, flying blind. “Guys, hold on tight. We’re about to hit the atmosphere, and with this angle of descent, it’s gonna be rough.”
“Um…could you maybe…look where you’re going please?” quaked Libby.
Aurora grabbed the controls and aimed the fighter toward the wispy outer vestiges of atmosphere.
“We should slow down or change direction!” insisted April. “At this speed, we could burn up in the mesosphere!”
“Negative! Hit it straight on…the drones will burn up before we do! Besides, if we deviate too much from our current course, the Half Life will be more likely to detect us. I don’t see it now, so it’s probably on the other side of the planet. We should…”
At that moment, a ray of blue energy pierced the hull of Aurora’s ship, blowing off the right wing and flooding the cockpit with plumes of super-heated smoke.
“AURORA!” screamed Future Libby.
“Aurora!” gasped Nav, his voice panicked. “Holy shit, are you OK?”
Inside the damaged vessel, Aurora pulled herself up, shoulder muscles straining as she coughed on the fumes. She wiped a blob of engine grease from her cheek, leaving behind an unsightly smear. She squinted back at her two passengers, who were hacking on smoke heavy with toxic fumes and the odor of burnt electronics. She spat out blood, then turned to glare out her cracked front portal.
“I’m fine,” she said in a low voice. “Don’t worry about me.”
“…I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming…” she murmured breathlessly.
The Half Life rose over the shining curve of the planet, menacing and terrible in its perfection. Its atom-embossed fuselage glinted in the light of the distant sun, and Aurora stared it down, fury burning in her eyes, as if the force of her anger alone could halt its approach. She slammed her fist down on the control panel, which fizzled weakly as the crippled ship plummeted toward the planet below. She screamed at the Half Life, sending chills down Jimmy and Libby’s spines.
“Well, what are you waiting for! Go on, I dare you! Shoot me! Shoot me out of the sky! Do it!”
The Half Life hovered motionless, its silence made all the more eerie by the intensity of Aurora’s screams. It began charging its main weapons, but before it could release the killing shot, the atmosphere of the planet roared up on all sides of them, engulfing the fighters in a blazing cocoon. Aurora’s ship rattled uncontrollably as friction ripped off bits of the hull; they floated off elegantly, handfuls of spangled dust thrown to the wind. The sensation of free fall filled up their veins like a creeping tar, and Future Libby let loose an irrational, terrified scream.
“Stoooop! Make it stop!”
They continued to spiral downward. Aurora searched the cockpit frantically, tossing aside ruined bits of plastic and metal as she dug around. “Eject…eject…where’s the eject? Where is it? …Ah!”
She slammed her palm down on the flat button, but the system didn’t respond. Instead, the computer flickered on and issued a garbled, pathetic warning:
“What the?…work, damn you!” She pounded on the button a few times more, but to no avail. “OK, this is bad. This is very bad. We need to get out of this heap, NOW. It’s gonna crash, no question.”
April and Nav zoomed up alongside her, reverse thrusters slowing their entry.
“Aurora, abandon ship!” called April. “There is breathable atmosphere now.”
“I know, I’m trying!” she returned desperately. “But the eject pod isn’t working, and we can’t jump from this height…”
“I could try to catch you on my ship…”
“You’ve been watching too many bad action movies, Nav! We’d end up splattered against your windshield. No, no…that wouldn’t work…aaah, Neutron, now would be a really good time for a brilliant idea on your end!”
Jimmy blanched, but then something outside the ship caught his attention, and he broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
“Look!” He pointed out the window past the smoldering wing. There, newly reassembled and completely unharmed, was Goddard, zipping airily through the tiered white clouds.
“Goddard!” exclaimed Libby.
Aurora grabbed hold of her seat. “Neutron, could Goddard carry the three of us down to the ocean’s surface?”
“My thoughts exactly! Give me the radio – I’ll try to reconfigure it and hail his frequency.”
“No time! Besides, I have a simpler idea…”
Aurora closed her eyes, and torrents of energy spilled down her arms and coalesced around her fingers. She swung her fists upward, blasting a hole in the roof of the ship. Chunks of molten metal flew off, and instantly a river of clawing air burst into the cockpit. She threw off her headset and vaulted into the back seat, pulling the two kids close to her.
“Hold onto my waist!”
They obeyed, and she grabbed hold of the fractured edge and hoisted herself up, hair whipping in the roaring wind. She helped up Jimmy and Libby behind her and, crouching perilously on the rooftop, waved to Goddard.
Jimmy shouted to his pet. “Goddard! Execute rescue maneuver delta delta seven!”
The whole world plunged past them as the robot canine veered in their direction. The streaming air cut lines around Aurora’s blue space suit, her ponytail standing straight on end. As he approached, Goddard’s back compartment opened up and transformed into a long panel. He pulled up alongside the doomed craft, and Aurora yanked Jimmy and Libby from their perch and placed them onto Goddard’s back. Eyes shut tight against the tugging air, they gripped the edge of their seat until their knuckles ached. Aurora tumbled forward onto Goddard, and he swerved away from the burning fighter, gradually slowing the pace of their descent.
“Goddard, fly up!” shouted Aurora.
The fighter plummeted seaward, smoke pouring from the remains of its right wing. Aurora gazed down past her feet, watching in grim silence as the craft screeched to its death. It slammed into the water and catapulted sideways, skipping across the surface in a maelstrom of smoke, fire, and cascading spray. At last it skittered to a stop, and a mushroom cloud of dark fire burst out over the twisted remains.
“That was way, way too close…” exhaled Jimmy shakily.
The raging fire began to die down, and Goddard and the two ships descended to sea level. They shifted the fighters into low power, hovering a few feet above the waves. Aurora pulled up alongside, and Nav retracted his rooftop. He chucked his headset over his shoulder, smacking Carl in the face. He hopped out of the pilot’s seat and ran across the wing to meet her, exhilaration and terror on his face.
“Holy buckets of bullshit, Aurora! When that plasma beam hit you, I thought you were a goner for sure!” He spread his arms for a hug, but when she didn’t oblige, he reached out and rubbed Goddard’s head, smiling gratefully. “Good thing you were there, eh, tinny? That would not have been a pleasant way for our intrepid heroine to go.”
Aurora handed Libby and Jimmy over to Nav, who plunked them unceremoniously onto the wing beside him. April unbuckled her safety belt and helped Future Libby and Cindy extricate themselves from the backseat. April stood and stretched, bouncing a little to get her blood flowing again.
“That was exciting, wasn’t it? And I am very glad you are unharmed, Aurora.”
Future Libby groaned, stumbling out onto the wing of the ship. “Ugh. I’ve never felt so sick in my life…”
“Considering you didn’t blow chunks,” said Nav, “I’d say you did incredibly well for a first timer.”
Sheen leaped from his chair, clawed his way out of the cockpit, and darted up behind Nav. “That was WICKED! I feel just like I did that time I got stuck upside down for five hours on the Bat Outta Heck ride at Retroland!” He jumped up and down in place beside Nav, his orange Ultralord spacesuit sequined with reflections from the water. He tugged on the tall man’s gray coat, changing topics in an instant. “Hey Nav…how the heck are you gonna swim in that DRESS?”
Nav looked down at his trench coat. “Ya know, you’ve got a point. This thing would be kind of cumbersome underwater. Well, I guess there’s only one thing to do. Ladies, you might want to avert your eyes…”
He reached down and dramatically ripped off the bottom half of the garment, and the tearing noise echoed out over the open ocean. He held the torn segment aloft like a triumphant banner, then chucked it to the side. It fluttered to the water’s surface, before sinking into darkness amid a host of bubbles. He planted his hands on his hips, superhero-style, his giant studded boots shining in the sun.
Future Libby giggle-snorted noisily, punch-drunk on adrenaline and motion sickness. “Nice boots! And are those…space chaps?”
Nav slapped his thighs, then tugged on the pair of chaps layered over his normal pants. “Sort of, but not exactly. More like a leg-length gun holster, or a body-hugging storage compartment…” He slid his hand down his leg, yanking out knives, tools, and baubles from hidden pockets in the leathery fabric. “Perfect for stashing stolen items!” A couple of shiny coins seemed to jump out of nowhere into his hand, and he flashed them at Cindy and Libby. “Here is the money you lovely girls thought you stole from me.” Their surprise gave way to embarrassed blushes, and in a flash Nav tossed the coins into the air, caught them, and rolled them through his fingers. He closed his fists, and in an instant, they were gone. “I’m a walking bank vault. I never lose stuff this way…”
Aurora, who had up until that moment been standing quietly on Goddard, reached down and touched his metal ear. “Speaking of losing stuff…Goddard, would you please take me closer to the wreckage?”
Goddard yipped in response, then sped away with Aurora balanced in a low crouch on his back.
“Wait,” called April. “Aurora! Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back in a minute!”
Goddard neared the smoldering Sargasso. Patches of oil and engine fluid still burned on the surface of the water, sending up plumes of smoke into the air. He flew lower, and Aurora squinted into the metallic flotsam, searching. At last she spotted her target, and Goddard brought her down. She leaned over and scooped her silver mask from among a tangle of sparking wires. The force of the explosion had ripped the mask in two, leaving only the lower portion intact. She barely noticed as Nav and April, back behind the wheels of their respective ships, pulled up alongside her.
“What is it?” asked Jimmy.
She turned to them, fitting the mask onto her face as she did so. While her nose and most of her mouth were safely hidden, the damage left the upper half of her face uncovered.
Nav let out a sympathetic whistle. “That sucks, Aurora. On the bright side, now you look like a crazy badass space ninja. Or maybe a psychotic surgeon. Either way, I dig.”
Aurora turned away, neurotically combing her fingers through her bangs. “You don’t get it! The whole point of the mask is to hide my face. How can I…without the whole thing…” Goddard whimpered a little, and the others merely waited for her to regain control. At last she clicked back into her normal steely posture. “Set the ship’s coordinates to 35 degrees, 12 minutes, 30 seconds North by 123 degrees, 2 minutes, 18 seconds West. That’s where his base is.”
April punched in the coordinates, then called out to Aurora. “We’re actually very close already. We can make it there in about 2 minutes at low propulsion.”
“I was afraid of that. At that distance, he probably detected us when my ship crashed.”
“What should we do?”
“It doesn’t matter. We should proceed according to plan.”
“Copy that.” Nav kicked the thruster forward, and his ship zoomed off like a speedboat, churning the waves beneath him into a frenzy of bubbling white-caps. April and Goddard followed him, the cool sea breeze blowing pleasantly over them. The air was fresh and salty, the sun sparkled off the clean water, and from a distance the whole scene seemed to fit perfectly with the image of a youthful summer outing.
Nav leaned back, bobbing his head. “Check me out, cruisin’ in my ride, pickin’ up chicks…”
“Man, you really HAVE been watching too many movies…” said Cindy.
“It's not my fault that Earth culture is awesome.”
The navigational computer pinged to signal their arrival at their destination, and the ships slowed to a halt. April switched off her vital systems, leaving only a low-energy hover protocol online. Nav copied her action, then hoisted Libby, Jimmy, Sheen, and Carl from the back seat. He clambered up onto the nose of the ship, hooting enthusiastically.
“All right! Are you guys ready to GET WET?”
“ …Nav, your innuendo does not impress anyone,” said April.
“Um, that wasn’t meant to be innuendo…”
Aurora jumped off Goddard and landed on Nav’s ship, and the mechanical canine folded back into his original shape and touched down beside her. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted to summon the others.
“All right, everyone gather round!”
April stomped out onto the hood of her fighter, motioning for Future Libby and Cindy to follow. The two girls climbed over the front seat and joined April, who shocked the lot of them by grabbing Cindy, hoisting her into the air, and pitching her across the gap between the two ships.
Cindy squealed as she sailed in a wide arc, legs pumping furiously. Like a falling cat, she twisted to change her trajectory, only to plow face-first into Nav’s waiting arms. She reeled back and gasped for air, her cheeks burning with surprise and anger. She scowled up at Nav, who responded by cuddling her obnoxiously. She squirmed, and he laughed at her annoyance.
“Put her down, Nav, or I’ll put you down,” said Aurora sternly.
Still smiling, he plunked a red-faced Cindy down. She attempted to straighten her disheveled hair before leveling a death glare at Jimmy, who laughed nervously and inched away a couple of steps.
April turned to Future Libby. “All right, up we go…”
Future Libby stepped back, waving the other woman away. “I uh…I’d really rather not be thrown, thanks…”
“All right then. I will carry you.”
April scooped up the smaller woman, who squeaked and wrapped her arms tight around the Gorlock’s neck. April backed up a few feet, then took a running jump off the tip of the nose. She barreled through the air and thumped loudly onto the other ship’s fuselage, leaving a dent in the metal beneath her feet. April released Future Libby, who quickly pulled down her skirt, which had migrated north during the course of the jump.
Nav blinked. “That was...kind of hot.”
The others chose not to comment on April’s mode of transport, and instead clustered around Aurora. She pulled out her vial of antidote, and Cindy produced the kids’ copy.
“OK. We have two chances to make this work. Once we’re inside the base, things will get very dangerous. You kids need to stick together, and if possible, remain undetected. I’d rather not have you engage in combat unless absolutely necessary. If you encounter the Dictator, use the antidote – but make sure to wait until you have a clean shot, or he could catch onto our whole plan. Nav and April, your prerogative will be to cause as much destruction as you can.”
Nav and April grinned at each other in fiendish delight, and the latter cocked one of her weapons.
“Keep the guard bots busy,” continued Aurora, “and take out as much of the weapons arsenal as you can. Libby will be with me, because otherwise I’d spend the whole time worrying about her. Now, Jimmy, where is the air gum?”
Jimmy removed a handful of the gum from Goddard’s back compartment, then took out another set of pieces from his pocket. He handed them out to the group. “Once you start chewing, you will be able to breathe and talk underwater as well as tolerate extreme pressure. The effect will last between 15 and 20 minutes, so make sure to get onto dry land before then.”
Aurora nodded at Jimmy. “OK guys, this is it. Say a prayer, close your eyes, and down the hatch…”
She popped the gum into her mouth, and the others did the same. After a couple of seconds, the world took on a fuzzy, lightweight quality, and their movements seemed to come in slow motion. Aurora gestured at the water, fitting her mask over her face as she did so. April, Nav, Aurora, Future Libby, and the kids walked in unison to the edge of the ship. Lined up side by side, they stood like a row of game pieces against a cheery sky. Without another word, they all jumped, and the sickeningly warm water closed over their heads and sealed out the sunlit world above.
XOXOXO to AsheWolfie05 and Keirin for the pics of Nav!