Slowed by damage to the ship and injuries to the crew, Imoen led the way towards the starboard side of the ship. The crew had to pick their way through broken conduits and shattered support beams, all consequences of the sheer amounts of energy poured into that final battle. The power unleashed in that battle severely compromised already damaged systems and now they had to get past the remains.
Broken metal and ceramics weren’t the only obstacles in their path. Three times they came across a small knot of the ship’s former crew sprawled out on the deck. The bodies lay twisted and tangled, limbs akimbo. But for the tortured look of their bodies, their faces all shared the same expression. Smiles. Tranquil smiles.
They had found peace at last.
Now all there was left was to ensure that they did not join them in that final, restful peace.
“Seven minutes,” Nalia intoned, her voice getting stronger as the signal improved.
Bran grimaced, and not just from the pain returning to his wounded leg. It was the countdown. Hearing Nalia’s voice had been like the sweetest music in the universe. Now, as it spelled impending nuclear armageddon, it lacked that same wonderful quality. “Understood, Nalia. Status on the Big E?
“Getting her lined up now. Flying the Gorion and the shuttle is a bit of a trick. Should have her locked and burning in less than 30.”
“Good. We’re just one compartment away.” Bran replied as he and Jaheira hobbled forward.
Imoen, who’d taken point came to the last hatchway. She gave it a quick once over and frowned at the amount of carbon scoring around the hatch controls and the door. “In fact Nals, we’re at the hatch now. Just a button push away.”
With less confidence than her voice showed, she stabbed the open button. The panel lit up and beeped and hydraulics whined. A smile just started to form on her lips as a thick cloud of black smoke started pouring out from the wall. Cursing especially creatively, she pulled her multitool from her belt and jimmied open the panel.
“What’s wrong?” asked a multitude of concerned voices both near and far.
“This frelling piece of dren panel is what’s wrong! The whole frelling thing just melted down. Blew the hydraulics!”
“That figures,” observed Valygar dryly.
“How long to cut through?” Bran grumbled.
Imoen, already reaching for her torch said darkly, “Too long.”
“Ahh, but Minsc has his cutting tool! Larry and Minsc will teach this door that getting in Minsc’s way when he wants to go home means two big bootfulls of buttkicking! Friend Valygar, I will need you to hold Mazzy because Larry needs both hands.” Not waiting for a reply, he gently thrust Mazzy into Valygar’s hands, ignoring both of their protests. Then, unlimbering Larry, he took aim at the door. “Tricksie little Imoen? Larry is a little low on power, so Minsc is turning him way up. So that Imoen is not taught the door’s lesson, she should move.”
“Right you are,” she said quickly stepping aside.
A loud boom resounded through the corridor and a loose ceiling panel dropped to the deck with a clatter. “What the hell was that?”
“Sorry about that,” Nalia replied, voice tinged with embarrassment and annoyance. “Landing was a little rough, but the Big E is down. Working on the sleeve now. How long for you to get through the door?”
Imoen stepped out of the way just as the sentient field artillery piece began to hum. “Minsc and Larry are taking care of the door now!” he boomed happily.
Bran waved his hand and interjected quickly, “Minsc, just enough…”
Lilarcor’s maniacal, wordless cackle cut off Bran before he could finish. The disruptor spat coherent energy at the hatch, striking home dead center. The beam wavered and crackled, a sure sign of the compensator’s overuse and the low charge remaining.
Whatever power was left certainly proved enough.
The door flared white before blowing apart as the beam smashed the metal’s molecular bonds like so many sledgehammers on a fine china cup. Chunks of dissociating metal flew inwards with a terrible boom and secondary explosions followed as whatever was beyond got a massive dose of high energy.
Smoke billowing out of the door, Bran finally finished his sentence. “For the door.”
Minsc shrugged. “Oops. I think Larry was a little too excited.”
“Yeah, maybe just a bit. Immy?”
Imoen slipped inside. A number of small fires crackled around the room. What had been an electrical shop was now a pile of smoldering electronic bits. “He’s right. The door is open. And it’s over there. And there. And I think that’s a bit of it there. Yup. Wow. I’ve never seen part of a door go right through molecular welding platform. Nice work Minsc.”
“When Minsc and Larry open something, it stays open. Oh, also Boo too.”
An actinic flare lit up the smoke. Showers of sparks spewed from the far wall and part of what had been a wall panel fell, revealing burning metal and circuitry. “Burners are nearly through,” Nalia announced. “Make sure to stand clear!”
Imoen danced back and the others flattened themselves against the wall. Cutting through hull plating was difficult enough, but moving it by hand was near impossible. A set of hydraulic rams were mounted in the docking sleeve to knock the cut pieces of hull away. Now, they could be set for variable power, to just knock in the metal or send it flying. The first option was more friendly. The second was when you were stopping by uninvited. Now, Nalia likely set the rams for a more neighborly setting, but computers being computers, one didn’t want to be standing in the way of a few hundred kilos of metal.
A wave of smoke and sparks blew out of the open hatch, followed quickly by a loud, resounding metallic thud. Imoen poked her head around the hatchway. A large chunk of hull sat in the middle of the compartment, smoking and sizzling. White hot metal edged a squarish gap in the wall, plinking away as superheated metal rapidly cooled.
“Our ride is here!” Imoen crowed. “And I don’t know about you, but I want off.”
“You are not the only one, Imoen,” Jaheira said tiredly.
“Agreed. Let’s blow this pop stand,” Bran waved the others forward. “V, get us ready to fly. Nalia, how much time do we have?”
“Five minutes thirty seconds. Speed would be appreciated!”
“You heard the woman, let’s go!”
Valygar led the way, working the airlock controls. He reached in and grabbed the null grav bars and swung himself inside. The shuttle’s lock had its artificial gravity offline so that boardings could be done from any angle. He pulled himself forward and headed through the hatch for the rest of the shuttle and raced for the cockpit. One by one, the rest of the crew made it in, some with more help than others. Minsc had to hand Mazzy forward, and Jaheira needed Minsc’s assistance with the grab handles. Bran was the last one in.
The Doc and Minsc were getting Mazzy strapped in on a bench while Jaheira collapsed in the nearest chair. As soon as he was inside, he tossed on last look through the smoking, billowing wreck that was the Helios. It had nearly been his grave and it felt decidedly strange to be leaving it alive.
But he was alive.
He slammed the seal button for the airlock. “Airlock sealed! Green for sleeve disengage.”
“Understood. Disengaging sleeve now,” Imoen replied from the command deck as Minsc helped Bran to a seat and strapped him in.
There was a loud thud and the whir of hydraulics as the Big E pulled free of the hull of the Helios. Thrusters hissed as the shuttle pushed far enough away that she could safely use her main drive.
“So, we’re actually going to make it?” Imoen asked as she retracted the rest of the sleeve.
“Yes,” Valygar said as he worked the control yoke and throttled up the main drive.
“We better. Because if we don’t, I’m never talking to you again.”
“That doesn’t seem like much of an incentive,” he said with a grin as he plotted their intercept with the Gorion. Checking the displays, he poured on as much speed as he dared, sending the shuttle blazing across the gulf between the Helios and the Gorion. Her thrusters ran hot enough to leave bright blue plumes of burning plasma in their wake. He constantly checked the displays, needing to time their deceleration perfectly. Too soon and they wouldn’t get onboard before the Helios went critical but too late and he’d turn the shuttle into a ballistic missile, tearing through the Gorion.
“Valygar, not to be a bother, but those reactors are getting a bit… supercritical,” Nalia said over the comms.
“I am aware,” Valygar replied as the warm, inviting glow of the Gorion’s shuttle bay grew larger in his viewscreen. “Please transfer tractor control to the shuttle.”
“Imoen, on my mark, I want you to engage all starboard tractors to pull us in.”
“Might tear the shuttle apart.”
“I am aware of that. It’s the only way that doesn’t involve this shuttle smashing through the Gorion and killing us.”
“That would be bad.”
“Yes. It would.”
It was cutting it close, but time was in short supply. “Now Imoen! Engage tractors!” As she powered up the tractors, he threw the engine into full reverse and fired off the forward thrusters. The shuttle shuddered and rattled with the terrific shift in acceleration. The drive keened and displays across the board shot into yellow and red. More flared into red as the ship’s cargo tractors gripped the shuttle, pulling her in while bleeding her speed.
Shuttle bucking wildly under all the competing stresses, Valygar kept her lined up with the bay. “Ten seconds! Brace for impact!”
In the passenger bay, the others tightened their restraints and held on.
Speed sloughed off. It was going to work.
The shuttle passed the bay doors and Valygar killed the main drive. Firing off the maneuvering thrusters, he killed the last of their relatively velocity and dropped the shuttle to the deck. She bounced hard once and the landing struts groaned, but she was down.
Letting go of the control yoke, Valygar leaned back in his chair and smiled. Imoen turned and grinned. “You’re one point two meters off the landing circle.”
“Your criticism is noted.”
“But we made it. We freaking made it!”
“I told you we would. Remember, the crazier your brother’s plans, the more likely we survive.”
She turned to face him. “No, I meant we survived your flying. That’s a minor miracle.”
“Big E, this Gorion control,” Nalia announced cheerfully. “Welcome back. Pressurizing bay now.”
“Roger that Nalia.” Valygar powered the shuttle down and headed for the passenger compartment with Imoen hot on his heels.
The others were already up. Minsc had Mazzy in his arms while Aerie assisted Jaheira. Bran already had the ramp down. “Doc, get the wounded to Medbay. We’ll … get us the hell out of here.”
“Captain,” Aerie said. “You’re wounded.”
“You’ve got two patients ahead of me. I’ll be on the bridge. Valygar, Im, let’s go!”
The Helios escapees hustled as quickly as they could onto the flight deck. Aerie pointed Minsc to an antigrav cart for Jaheira and Mazzy while the others ran, or in Bran’s case, hopped very fast, for the hatch.
The lift spilled Bran, Valygar and Imoen out onto A Deck. Imoen at the lead, they hurried down the corridor for the heavy double doors of the bridge. Imoen checked her wristcomp. “Just a little over a minute thirty. Good thing Nalia’s got…”
In mid-sentence, the bridge doors opened. In mid-stride, Imoen came to a screeching halt. Right behind her, both men pulled up hard, Bran grunting as a fresh spear of pain when through his wounded leg.
They stopped because all three of them now stared down the business end of a BlastTech P550 heavy laser carbine, currently braced against Nalia’s shoulder. The engineer sat facing them from the Operations station. The carbine itself was enough of a shock on its own, but it wasn’t the only surprise.
Their slightly built engineer wore full tactical armor over her green jumpsuit. Two bandoliers of grenades hung across her chest and she had two pulse pistols at her hips. Another two pistols and both of the Gorion’s Falcon flechette throwers rested within easy reach. Capping off the incongruous image was the thick white bandage wrapped around her auburn hair.
From under the heavy bandage, a set of blue eyes narrowed.
“A big freaking gun?” Imoen finished, blinking hard and finally regaining the power of speech.
“The three of you look like Hell. You actually are alive, correct?” Nalia said, the barrel never wavering.
“Considering just how much pain I’m in right now,” Bran said, pushing himself forward. “The answer to that question is yes. Now, care to lower the heavy so we can get back to not getting blown up?”
Nalia scanned their faces for a moment, then safed the carbine and leaned it against a console. Standing, she said, “After those things nearly got me, I mean nearly got on board, I’ve just been… a little cautious. Even if you guys did show up as biosigns.”
Bran nodded. “I think we’re all more than a bit jumpy. Dead guys walking is enough to get on anyone’s nerves. Seriously. But Aerie solved the problem.” He sat down in his command chair heavily. “Somehow.”
“That’s good. That’s really, really good,” Nalia said, voice shaking with relief, turning back to the Ops station while Valygar took over Navigation and Imoen slid into the empty Tactical seat.
“Yeah. V, how we doing?”
“Drives at full accel, course 250 by 20. Making best speed for safe distance.” He checked his board. “We should clear safe distance.”
“Confirmed,” Imoen said from the Tactical station. “Just in case, shields are up.”
“Good idea. So, Nalia, what the hell happened?”
Nalia half turned in her chair, and her face pale. “I’m still not entirely sure. They somehow circumvented the security systems on the gantry.”
“That’s impossible!” Imoen interjected.
“Maybe, but they still did it. The vids never worked that well, so I didn’t even see em. But I did get a lock warning light on the board. So, I grabbed my tools and went to go check. I know, I should have signaled you, but you’d gone off comms. And well, I didn’t really expect trouble. So, when I opened the hatch doors and found myself face to face with .. well… those things…”
She trembled. “They nearly got me. They jumped me and I just managed to slam the hatch shut. Barely made it back to the Gorion.”
“And the gantry?”
“The explosive bolts? Failed. Completely. They were through the other hatch and were cutting on ours. They were going to get in. So… I did the only thing I could. I broke away, fired up the drives at full accel. Snapped the gantry corridor and sucked those… things into space, I guess.”
“And the head?” Bran asked.
“The shift… the compensators couldn’t handle it. I got pitched into a console. Knocked me out. Still not sure how long I was out. But when I came to, I bandaged myself up and came back for you guys.”
“And we are glad you did,” Bran said with a smile.
“Definitely,” Valygar said. “And we’re all glad you are okay.”
“Yeah. Seriously Nals. But why the Minsc Overload special on the hardware?”
“If you nearly got your face chomped and all you had was a spanner, you’d make sure you didn’t have that problem again,” Nalia said defensively.
“A fair point,” said Valygar.
“Still, good thing Minsc isn’t here,” Bran said with a chuckle. “He’d be in love.”
“Little Nalia with a hero’s cornucopia of buttkicking!! Minsc is so proud, now we just need to get her own mighty companion like you Boo!” Imoen boomed in a passable imitation of their enthusiastic gunner.
“Great,” Nalia said, cheeks flushing.
“Just teasing Nalia,” Imoen said with a chuckle. “It’s not every day you get drawed down on by a one woman army.”
“Helios reactors reaching critical mass,” Nalia groused, desperate for a distraction.
“On screen,” Bran said with a nod.
Nalia punched a few keys and the viewer flared to life. The battered hulk of the Helios hung in the middle of the black, slowly shrinking into the distance.
“Are we clear?” Bran asked.
“It’ll be a bit bumpy, but we’re clear,” Imoen said.
“There she goes,” Nalia reported.
A small blossom of white burst from amidships. Another followed, then another as overheated power conduits exploded and tore holes in the ancient wreck. The ship twisted and rolled as a huge plume of a fuel tank cooking off tore out of her starboard aft quarter.
What could have been their grave made a half rotation, spun by the explosive force. Other than a few plumes of burning atmosphere flared into space, the Helios was still and calm.
Then, with a suddenness, the Helios lived up to her namesake. Her fusion reactors failed as one and she flared a bright white as the forces of the suns burst free from their aging containment. The screen darkened as nuclear fire consumed the ship and spread out into the black like wildfire.
The blast wave surged towards the Gorion, a roiling mass of blue, white and purple. The converted cargo ship strained forward, her drives running flat out. The two raced, but the wave finally caught up to the ship, washing over her shields. The energy fields flared brightly and the ship shuddered, but much of the fire had burnt itself out and left the Gorion unburnt.
Sighing heavily, Bran sagged into his command chair. “We made it.”
“Yes sir.” Valygar said with nod, already backing down the drive power.
“We really did,” sighed Imoen, leaning back in her chair.
“Yeah. That was close,” Nalia said.
“You can say that again,” Bran said wearily. “Now, we’ve got wounded and damage to tend to. At your earliest convenience, get us the hell out of here.”
“Durton’s Star. We’re going to need a friend’s help, and he’s the closest one.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in Medbay.”
Wearily, he stood and limped off the bridge, ignoring the confused look from Nalia. He saw Imoen lean in, most likely to explain. He just didn’t have the energy to.
They’d escaped. Again. But this time at such a price.