Sester felt like the filling in a sandwich between the muscled slices of Argus and Lt. Dain. He jiggled around, trying to elbow himself some more room. This was highly inconvenient considering it was his observer craft. The only one who didn't feel the squish was Jenna, but only because she was the pilot.
Avon didn't seem to have any problems. There was plenty of space on both sides of him. Either they deferred to him because of his disabilities, no one dared mess with him or because of the judicious use of his dragon-handled cane, its red eyes seemed to spit out fire in the dim interior light of the ship.
An uncomfortable bulge pressed hard against Sester's hip. He looked down. "Don't I get a weapon?"
Argus growled, "Why?"
"In case someone tries to shoot me?"
"As I said, why should I give you a weapon?"
Sester smiled. "Then I'll be sticking to you like an adhesive."
Argus snarled in irritation. He wanted Sester to stay close so he could keep an eye on the slippery, devious man but it was also the last thing he wanted.
Jenna relished the body-supporting perfection of the flight seat. After the obviously non-human-friendly design of the Liberator and the Justice's chairs, this felt like a luxury. The controls were positioned for easy access and reading.
Beyond the viewscreen, the planet loomed large, like a swirling, seething mass.
Avon couldn't see what she was doing but he could hear her motions, the confident presses on the keys, the experience in her voice, and the edge of excitement contained. All around him was the rustle of activity and the quickening breaths responding to the roar of the winds outside. His own heart beat a little faster but his breathing was calm.
"Shields to maximum." Jenna pressed several buttons and checked the readings. There was a flash across the viewscreen as the energy field was strengthened.
She hoped this worked for Avon's sake as much as for Rane and the people back on Athol. "Manual landing controls online." There was no way the ship's computers would be able to handle the complexities of this kind of orbital entry. It needed a human touch. She flipped a switch, flexed her fingers and placed them around the stick control. "Hang onto something; this is going to get bumpy."
Everyone was strapped in but it wouldn't hurt to have extra support. Those wind readings were something fierce and the energy spikes didn't bear thinking about.
Sester looked at Argus's thickly muscled arms, they looked very solid but a warning growl made him smile and sit back. At times, the man and the wolf acted seamlessly together, like one creature. He wondered if they were aware of this.
Our enemies are working on Tingash. His Master's voice intruded on his memories.
When the Guildmaster made that kind of statement, there was no point in questioning it. He said it because it was true, beyond the shadow of a psychostrategist's doubt. It was better than fact.
Sester touched the rounded edge of the flight panel with light speculative strokes. "Do we know what they're doing there, sir?"
Venner told him the details the Guild agents had been able to obtain and the resultant strategic analysis.
The light of the vidscreen threw mysterious shadows across the cockpit walls.
"They must be stopped, Charles. Our enemies must not have this advantage. And while you're at it…" he let the words trail off suggestively.
"I'm disappointed in you. When did you lose the ability to hide your loyalties?"
Sester was careful not to react. "I don't know what you mean, sir."
"Don't lie to me." There was no rising of the voice in anger or lowering in menace. It was a command by someone who knew him better than himself.
Sester's heart almost stopped. His head bowed.
Energy spikes, like jagged flames ripping the skies, rocked the ship with a violent crack. Inside, it felt like being inside an ancient rocket tumbling blindly towards the ground. They could barely hear each other shouting above the booms and crashes.
Argus leaned forward and shouted, "Jenna! How are we doing?"
Jenna dared not take her eyes off the navigation screens but she turned her head slightly to say behind her, "Believe it or not, we're still on course!" Due to her superb piloting skills, of course.
"How much longer?" he yelled as Sester crushed into him.
"Another 30 minutes!"
"Do your best!"
"Don't worry, I plan to!"
Sester glanced sideways at the burly man. Argus's face was alert, focussed and calm, like an immovable rock. He was the kind of man you could depend on to have your back, to never leave you to die alone. A man of violence but also one of integrity and humanity. He wasn't dumb, only stubbornly straightforward. A man whose soul was tortured because of something that had been done to him.
He wondered when it would start for him.
Sester blinked and faced front again. His Master's words haunted him. He wished he could help but he had his own mission, he could only hope that they would all survive.
The winds howled outside, promising excitement and deadly dangers for any who would brave the storms.
Come out. Come out and play.
A wolf howled in response, a creature who bowed to no one, not even the forces of nature. Beautiful amber eyes blinked. A soft muzzle against his cheek. The wet nose tickling…
Argus shook himself and looked around startled.
Wolf. Are you there?
One is here. It sounded disgruntled.
Did you…see that? Were you dreaming it?
The creature's bright glowing eyes opened in the shadows of his mind. It is one's mate.
An explosion threw them all forward. Alarms went off and several side control panels lit up red. In one sweep, Jenna flipped all the buttons upwards and began pressing other ones, all the while trying to keep her grip on the control stick. Her fingers flew over the panels.
Avon gasped at the unexpected force of the double straps pressing painfully hard along the length of his chest. He hated not being able to see what was going on. He yelled above the din. "What the hell was that?"
At the same time, Argus had crashed into the back of Jenna's flight chair. "What's wrong?" he shouted.
"We've lost the port drive engine!" Another explosion threw them all sideways. The cane flew out of Avon's hands, barely missing the back of Jenna's head. His breathing was ragged now, not because of the sensation of being thrown about like a sack of un-dehydrated potatoes, but the eerie memories, surfacing an an inopportune moment, of too many ships that threatened to end his life.
Jenna shouted, "There go the stabilizing engines!" How could that happen? she thought to herself, but there was no time for answers, barely enough time to keep them all alive. At least for a few more minutes.
"Can you land us?" asked Argus. His mind was racing but composed, quickly sifting through all available resources, trying to find solutions. He was born to face danger and crush it beneath his powerful hands.
"Not a chance! Not without the stabilizing engines!"
Avon leaned towards them and shouted above the noise. "I could try to fix them!"
Sometimes Argus wondered if Avon remembered he was blind.
"Not unless you have a couple of hours!" Jenna had to hold the control stick in both hands to keep the ship from shaking apart.
Sester shouted, "We'll have to abandon ship! There are four life pods onboard!"
"That’s just as bad! They'll disintegrate on impact! We're too close to the ground!"
Avon said, "If we fire the deceleration engines at 200% the moment they leave the ship, it should slow them down enough!"
"But that'll blow the engines!" shouted Argus.
"We only need a few seconds! We can program it from here and override the pod controls before they go down!"
Jenna said over her shoulder, her body shaking with the effort to keep the control stick under control. "Whatever you do, make it quick!"
Argus clapped Avon on the shoulder, "Do it!"
Avon unstrapped himself from the seat. "Sgt. Harley, I need your eyes!"