The Gravity of the Situation
The remainder of the search for a working airlock for the Engineering decks proved uneventful if longer than anticipated. The problem came from the severity of the damage to the hull along the lower aft sections of the Helios. The crew found themselves detouring around large gaps in the hull. Many of them seemed to be from nebular damage, the gasses and materials having eaten through the armor and hull plating over the centuries. One particular gap in the plate around O Deck had to be from a meteoroid by the damage pattern.
However, not all of the damage could be so explained. Some of the hull breaches puckered outward, armor and hull plates twisted by what seemed to be explosions. Bran’s initial choice for an egress point, the No. 6 airlock on Q Deck, had been completely wiped away by an explosion that laid the deck open to a depth of at least 20 meters.
Finally the crew reached an intact and working airlock, this one opening onto R Deck. Leading the charge himself, Bran breached the lock with practiced precision. Darting forward, ready to sweep any lurking fallen crewmember with lethal fire, he found the lock prep room unoccupied. Their boarding unopposed, the crew of the Gorion found themselves back in a pressurized part of the ship.
“We’re baaack,” Imoen said softly, sweeping the battered corridor beyond the airlock chamber with her Krobler.
“Little Immy is right! We are back! Do you hear that Evil! Minsc and Boo and Larry are back! It is time to clean up your shavings and make sure your underpants are clean in time for your buttkickings!” Minsc boomed.
“At least that was only over the guard channel,” Jaheira said quickly, hiding a small wince.
“Enthusiasm counts for something. But hearing would count for more,” Bran replied, shaking his head to clear the ringing.
“Agreed,” Jaheira replied. “But this is price we pay for having such a boisterous crewmate.”
“And for giving him a radio,” Bran added, flashing a small smile at Jaheira.
She arched her eyebrow, but smiled back nonetheless. “Indeed.”
His grin widened at Jaheira before turning his attention to the rest of his crew. “Alright people. We have no idea how long it’s going to take our undead friends to realize we’re no longer hanging out on the bridge. I’m hoping most of them are waiting up on C Deck, but I have a feeling that gambling on that would be less than wise.”
“Considering the abilities they showed tracking myself and my remaining crewmen down,” Fentan interjected as she strapped her oversized pressure suit onto her back and unlimbered her liberated multibarrel, “Such an assumption could prove dangerous.”
“They do seem well informed,” Valygar said darkly.
“No crap,” Imoen added sourly.
“Well, that’s why speed is going to be our best defense,” Bran said. “Well, that and the heavy containment doors of the engineering section.”
“If those are still intact,” Valygar added.
“V Man, you are still the most cheerful man I’ve ever met.”
“I am a font of ebullient joy.”
“If that’s the case, then we are so frelling doomed,” Imoen deadpanned.
“If speed is our best defense, perhaps we should actually use it?” Jaheira said archly.
“Good point,” Bran replied, feeling mildly annoyed but at the same time relieved that his crew’s sense of humor was intact. “As my wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, brilliant…”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Jaheira quipped. “Just not now.”
“Right. As I was saying…” He flashed her a grin while his crew chuckled. “The plan is simple. Rapid assault configuration for speed rush to Engineering access on,” he checked the schematics on his suit display. “R Deck, Section 320 D. Imoen, you have point.”
“Bran, my suit sensors are still screwy,” Imoen replied with a hint of chagrin. “I think I’ve got most of the base level systems up and running, but I’m not sure how reliable they are. And if they’ve laid any traps… I mean, I’m sure I’d spot them but…”
“Right,” Bran replied without showing a hint of the grimace that he felt. The damage to his sister’s suit and its extensive sensor suite was going to be a problem. “Alright, V Man, you up to point?”
He rested one of his Katanas against his shoulder. “Old times, sir.”
“Then let’s roll out.”
“Roger that,” the dark skinned navigator replied. He slunk forward with Imoen hot on his heels. Minsc took up the sweep slot and he slid in right behind the big man. The Doctor and Fentan followed with Jaheira taking up her usual rear guard.
Just a few minutes and a little luck should get them to Engineering. And then…
Then they’d see what they could see.
Their rapid advance swept forward quickly but unfortunately not very far. The severe damage elsewhere extended to this section of the ship as well. Just a few dozen meters from their ingress point that damage quickly and dramatically made itself very evident.
“That is… not good.” Valygar said, demonstrating his keen gift for understatement.
Five meters in front of him the deckplates changed from simply warped to something that looked like they came from the workshop of a metal sculptor on one of the more interesting psychotropic drugs. The kind of drugs that left the user screaming about how the pink elephants were attempting to eat their souls. With a lovely side of roast poetry. Adding to the joyfully surreal effect were the broken bits of metal and debris oscillating up and down in mid air, sure signs that the grav plating had suffered remarkable damage as well.
“No. That is far from good,” Bran said flatly.
“At least we stopped for a full lunch first,” Imoen said mock cheerfully. “That should make that experience even more fun.
“Perhaps we should just return to the airlock and seek another ingress point?” Jaheira suggested.
“Agreed,” Fentan said, looking more than a little green around the gills.
“We could be searching for some time,” Bran said. “We saw how bad the hull damage. There’s no guarantee we can find an intact and working airlock that’s even remotely close to an Engineering access point. Especially one that’s unguarded. And plus… the damaged decking is only…”
“Twelve happy fun exciting meters across,” Imoen said without a trace of any of those emotions.
“I know. But this chunk of decking,” Bran gestured at the twisted plating, “is currently the best option.”
“You know, I liked it better when the options were strawberry daiquiris or massages from Sven the Hottie Masseur. Or Option C. Both,” Imoen groused.
Bran chuckled. “Life is so unfair, isn’t it, Immy?”
“Yes,” she groaned melodramatically. “I’ve been telling you that for years.”
“Well, it’s about to get worse. You’re the lightest of us all,” Bran said, ignoring the fact that the Doctor was. But Aerie’s skills and suit weren’t up to scout work. “And someone’s going to need to check the deck plates for weak spots…”
“You know, Bran Flake, there are times I sorely regret the fluke of chance and genetics that made you my brother. Because if you weren’t, I’d just make rude gestures at you and tell you to take the Long Leap without a pressure suit.” She made a number of rude gestures at him. “So, I’m just going to have to live with just doing one of the two.”
“So eloquent, my sister,” Bran deadpanned. “Now, if we’re done with the cheap theatrics…”
“This is Imoen. That will never happen,” Valygar quipped.
“They are not cheap,” Imoen interjected.
"Sometimes it feels like I am den mother for a bunch of children with guns," Jaheira groaned.
“Does that make you a pedophile dear?” Bran asked, grinning.
“No. They are children. You are simply an idiot.”
“Ah,” he replied, grinning. “Either way… Imoen. You’ve got lead. V Man, back her up.”
Imoen turned and fired off her version of the salute; the long raspberry. After demonstrating her deep, abiding respect for her commander, she brought her Krobler up and started picking her way over the warped plating. Step by step she worked her way further down the damaged corridor. About a third of the way down, she stopped, swaying slightly. Sounding only slightly discomfited, she reported back, “Well, this is a lovely little dandy.”
“What’s up?” Bran replied.
“Well, the grav distortions are really fun and getting worse. Probably a .3 G variance, which is doing great things for the digestion. Urk.” She audibly swallowed. “But that’s only part of it. The next two meters of deck are real bad. Looks like Engineering really took a nap. I can see through to the next deck. Starboard side is still appears sound, but it’s not great.”
“Doable, but we’re going to have to be careful. Single transfer, lightest to heaviest. Definitely deploy tethers.”
“I’m moving forward.”
Before he could even make the order, his crew were rigging themselves up. He linked up Valygar and Minsc as the others rigged themselves into a safety line. By the time they finished, Imoen was back over the comms. “The grav distortions start to peter out once you’re past the bad section. And the corridor looks pretty solid past here. Not reading any movement.”
“Alright. Let’s move people. Doc? You’re next.”
One by one, Bran watched his crew pick their way through the damaged deck. Doc Aerie swayed her way over, the gravity distortions obviously playing havoc with her sense of balance. Imoen had to help her over, but she seemed to recover quickly. Fentan made it over with some troubles of her own, bending over double as a grav distortion got to her. Jaheira picked her way over with a minimum of trouble, or at least showing only a minimum. Not that she’d ever show any sign of distress. Valygar headed out next, working the damaged deck carefully. As he crossed the most treacherous section a few ominous creaks filled the space, but he made it over safely.
Looking back at Minsc, he gave the big gunner a thumbs up. “See you on the other side, Minsc.”
“Of course Captain Bran! No deck will stop us!”
“Just watch yourself, big guy,” Bran said, clapping the big man on the shoulder and beginning his own journey over the damaged deck. It only took a few steps into the damaged section to feel the telltales of an unstable gravity field. Vertigo and nausea crept in as his body began to seemingly shift weight. The farther he went, the worse it got. As he approached the shattered section of deck the effect was becoming far more pronounced and harder to ignore. Especially when adding in the ragged effect of the ‘ground’.
Holes gaped in the surface, some clear to the next deck. Ragged, damaged metal creaked as he worked over the sections that seemed the most stable. He placed one foot on a section of plate that seemed stable and he felt a different sudden sinking sensation in his stomach. The ancient metal buckled and his foot started to slip. Lurching backwards, he got his foot clear as a foot sized chunk of metal cracked off and crunched into utility spaces between the decks. “Way too close,” Bran breathed.
“Oh by the way, bro? Watch your step.”
“Thanks sis. Remind me to give you a raise for that brilliant observation.”
“I get paid?”
“Perhaps we should allow Bran to concentrate on making it across the deck?” Jaheira chided.
He shook his head at the two women and immediately regretted it. His head shake compounded the distortion effects and his stomach roiled with nausea. Giving it a moment to pass, he carefully began to pick his way across again. He carefully placed each foot, using his eyes and his sensors to chose the spots least likely to collapse on him. Even then, there were some very hairy places. The damage was spectacular.
He wondered what it was that had done so much damage, if it was warped from the initial experiment or from later on. Not that it really mattered, but he had to give his brain something to mull other than the potential unhappy consequences of plunging through the decking and the support equipment below. Because it was far better to consider what had done this than consider the potential of a jagged support beam in the groin. For a great many reasons.
Finally, the deck started to improve. He could step more confidently. Not completely, because Mr. Murphy was always waiting for the unwary. Still, it was an improvement. He flashed a smile at his waiting crew.
He missed Jaheira’s answering smile. There was a sudden start behind her. Aerie stiffened suddenly and he saw her eyes go wide as saucers. They flicked around as if searching for something, the kind of searching you do when the small hairs on the back of your neck are standing on end and your brain is screaming danger while your senses report all clear.
Their eyes met and he nearly stumbled. Aerie’s aqua blue eyes were wide with terror. Not fear but pure unadulterated terror. She pleaded with him and a tendril of that crushing horror slammed him full in the face. He staggered, mind reeling from the assault. He heard Jaheira and Immy call out his name as he clutched at his head with his free hand.
It was terrible, this all encompassing horror. It made him want to run, to hide, to dig a hole and pull the earth in over him. And for a second time, that terrible sound began again, that strange unearthly screech that threatened to explode his mind. He fought his swirling stomach and buckling knees. But there were other shouts now beyond the mind knifing sound. The voices of his crew, frightened and surprised.
Fighting it, he managed to raise his head and was greeted by a horrifying sight. Aerie had managed to rip her helmet off and was thrashing like a madwoman. Jaheira, Imoen and Valygar were trying to hold her, but she was fighting with a strength he couldn’t believe. A stiff arm sent Jaheira stumbling to the deck and kick doubled over Valygar. Mazzy tried to tackle her feet and received another foot to the face for her trouble.
He lurched forward, limbs leaden from the assault smashing his mind. Aerie grabbed Immy’s arm and flipped her right into Valygar, sending both crashing to the deck. Minsc bellowed something from behind him. The deckplates trembled under him as the massive gunner charged forward.
Free of her attackers, Aerie charged. But not him. The wall of the corridor. Hands clutching at her head, she lowered her head and hurled herself at the unyielding metal. She bounced off and collapsed to the deck.
As soon as she hit the deck, the unearthly pressure lifted from his mind and the terrible screech died. He straightened, trying to comprehend what just happened. Jaheira was already rushing to the fallen doctor’s side. He took a step forward and then another screech burst against his ears. But this one was familiar. The tearing of metal.
He spun just in time to see Minsc plunge through the deck. In his blind charge, he must have put a foot wrong and the warped decking just couldn’t hold his weight. He bellowed wordlessly as he sank to his chest, the barrel of Lilarcor sticking up at a strange angle.
“What the hell is going on?” Bran demanded, not sure if he was directing it at any of his crew or just the universe in general.
“Minsc and Boo are stuck! What is wrong with Little Aerie? Minsc must help her!” The big man struggled against the collapsing deck, only managing to make him slide further down.
“Minsc! Don’t move! That whole section is ready to go at any moment! Hold!” Bran ordered.
“Captain Bran!” the bigger gunner pleaded. “I am Little Aerie’s Protector! She needs me!”
“Jaheira’s with her, she’ll take care…” His voice trailed as he turned to look at Jaheira. His X.O. was, in fact, crouched over the inert form of Aerie. Valygar and Imoen were hovering next to her. Mazzy looked rather dazed as she staunched a bloody nose. However, that’s not what caught his attention.
No, that was the phalanx of armored marines advancing on their position. Undead armored marines. The sheer shock of seeing the marines nearly froze him. Their sensors should have given them some sort of warning. He hadn’t seen one, but would he have noticed? Aerie was going mad right in front of him. An excellent distraction, if there was ever one.
However it had happened, now was not the time to do a thorough analysis. They were knee deep in shit and sinking fast and he was the only one facing the right direction. Firing as he brought his Bladesinger up, he shouted, “Squad! Six incoming tangos dead ahead!”
His crew scrambled for weapons as the marines realized their surprise had been blown.
Battle was joined.
And once again, Mr. Murphy proved he was a cast iron bitch.