Broken SkiesOnly now did Austin realize that he should’ve swarmed the debris field first. Instead, he and the other commanders had been so distracted by the saucer now descending towards the surface of Amargosa that they did not give the debris a second thought.

“Kinetic weapons detonating on surface,” said Golder. “Do not appear to have hit a populated area.”

Like any population down there is ours, thought Austin. Before he could respond, he watched the conning tower of the Ban Ki-moon explode. More explosions began ripping the ship apart. The Ban Ki-moon was a Wilson-class starship, second only to the Olympus Mons class. “Concentrate all our fire on that saucer.”

Watching the window, Austin could see the other ships firing at the alien craft. To his horror, he saw that the bulky troop transports could not get to the center of the flotilla in time. They had ridden on the outside with the intention of landing, their captains wanting nothing in the way when they began their descent. Before the Marineris could fire back, the troop carrier Montgomery blossomed into a huge fireball.

“How many troops were a board that ship?” said Austin.

“Eleven hundred, sir,” said Golder.

An explosion rocked the ship.

“Are the particle beams online?” shouted Austin over the noise of the alarm klaxon.

The ensign who had noticed Arcanum and Lansdorp looked back at Austin, his face deathly pale. “They are, sir. But dorsal canons five and seven are disabled.”

It was a hell of a time for Austin to remember a seminar he went to two weeks earlier. A scientist from Cybercommand boldly predicted that shipboard force fields would be standard equipment within five years. He wished he hadn’t remembered that. Five years is a long wait when somebody was blowing your ship up around you. “Can we turn on our attackers?”

“We’re still in free-fall,” said Golder. “We can yaw toward them, but not reverse course.”

The aliens had two smaller ships that reminded Austin of an aquatic predator he once saw, sleek and shark-like. And like that alien predator, these ships could weave on invisible currents, probably magnetic or some sort of grav manipulation, to dodge its prey’s defenses while closing the distance. These two ships maneuvered around the struggling Mercury as it tried to increase velocity and raise its orbit.

“Send our pursuer a rod from the aft tubes,” said Austin. “Can we hit those two aliens with beams?”

“Out of range,” said Golder, “and not without risking damage to the Mercury.”

“Thrusters ahead. I want to get at least one of…”

A brilliant flash filled the window. The view shifted to where the remains of the troop carrier Wellington sparkled out of existence. Nearby, the Petraeus took a pounding from lances of energy slicing its hull open.

“Where’s the Ban Ki-moon?” said Austin.

“Already entered the atmosphere,” said Golder. A quick switch showed the capital ship already glowing with friction and trailing smoke. That meant there was a serious fire in her engine compartment. It also meant that section of the ship was venting atmosphere at an alarming rate. “They’ve entered LOS. Last message from her acting captain was that he was going to try to ditch the ship in the ocean.”

“What’s left?”

“The Rasmussen, the Bonaparte, the Etrusca, and the Zephyr. And us.”

“Order them to disengage,” said Austin, “and get to a higher orbit. Tell them to key in on one of Tian’s hypergates. We’re falling back.”

“Sir?” Golder’s eyes looked wild. “We can’t just…”

“We were beat before we even had a chance to get a shot off,” said Austin. “And we lost the Ban Ki-moon already. I’m not about to lose any more ships.” As he said this, a new and larger explosion rocked the Marineris.

“Sir,” said Golder, “they’re using energy weapons on us. They’re burning their way through our hull.”

“Can we see the ship that’s firing on us?”

“Directly above and twenty degrees aft, sir.”

“Release all kinetic weapons,” said Austin. “Keep firing until the other ships are away.”

“Sir,” said Golder, “I’ve leveled our descent. We can decelerate to meet our pursuers.”

“Do it!”

Out in the black of space, the Marineris braked to move on a relative course towards its attacker, an illusion since the ship could only slow in orbit, not reverse course. In the distance four holes in space opened up, glowing a sickening white. With alien ships firing upon them, the Compact vessels moved into their wormholes and disappeared. The Marineris came within less than a thousand meters of hitting its attacker. As it did, several rods from God tore into the aliens’ hull. Fire blossomed along its surface, mirroring the sparks from the Marineris’s rail guns.

As the Valles Marineris climbed into a higher orbit, the alien attackers hung on like wolves downing a wounded antelope. Even the sight of the Marineris‘s wormhole opening up did not stop them.

Despite the energy weapons fire, thrusters of the Marineris flared once. The huge starship, wounded and trailing debris behind it, disappeared into the white vortex.

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