Breakout
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I woke up at about midnight, having completely forgotten ever falling asleep. Miri was out of the room, and Quinn was sleeping comfortably, curled into the fetal position on top of his desk. I was still coming down, judging by all the little helical patterns in the corner of my vision, thus proving once and for all that space drugs make Earth drugs look weak. I had to lean on the wall to stand up, and it took me a minute to decide whether it was a good idea to wake him up. Eventually, my better judgement kicked in, and I fumbled my way back to my own room to get a full night’s sleep. 

They started moving people into the bunkers the next day, as it started becoming clear that help wouldn’t be arriving in a timely manner. There were a series of planet-wide votes, conducted by the entire population, about who would get highest priority. The first to go were families with children under the age of twelve, or the equivalent for species with different aging cycles. It was mostly orderly, though I definitely overheard a few arguments about if that was the right order. Still, the sight of people moving in the dozens, taking what things they thought they could fit, entire families being silently escorted down into the lowest levels of the autoplex… it only emphasized the tension that filled the planet like fog. 

That evening, I went outside and looked up into the darkness. I’ll never forget what I saw there. It was like the entire night sky was swarming with fireflies. I couldn’t stand to look at it for more than a few seconds. 

I was woken up the next morning, just before dawn, by a sound of rolling thunder that shook the entire autoplex. There was no way I was going to fall back asleep after that, especially as the full story came in through the little walkie-talkie terminal on my bedside table over the next several minutes. An assault battlecruiser of the Order fleet, the Bloody Styx, had been critically damaged by defensive emplacements, and decided to spend its final minutes crashing into the ocean at orbital velocity. The impact had been almost five hundred miles from my room, and still made dust fall off the walls. By mid-morning impacts like that, either from de-orbiting wreckage or stray missile fire, had become an almost hourly occurrence. 

But, despite everything, I continued living. I kept studying Democratic Emissarine, enough to finally learn the title of the book Ralv had given me: Remrion’s Ring. I drew, more art of my old characters as well as confused images from my unsettling nightmares of icy cold and bleeding machinery. I spent as much time with Miri and Quinn and Dr. Erobosh as I could stand, talking and reminiscing and wondering about a future that was almost certainly not coming. 

My parents vanished from my life at the same time the invasion started. Stellina looked like she was spending every waking moment stewing in a hot miasma of anger. She tried not to let it spill out at me or my friends, but it was obvious just from the way she looked at people when they passed by, and the way she glared at the terminals like they had insulted her personally. The one time I tried to talk to her, we only managed three minutes of conversation before she snapped at me over something trivial, which was when I decided it would be best to leave.

For all that Stellina was a mess… Arana was worse. She was exhausted, with red eyes and hair a complete mess, listless and barely even awake enough to recognize my presence. She still tried, with a word or a smile, but it was obvious that every second she was talking to me was a second she wasn’t sleeping, which was really what she should have been doing. I tried to imagine what she must have been going through, knowing the exact balance of victory or defeat at any given moment, making dozens of decisions each hour, each of which could save or doom hundreds of lives; but I couldn’t. And she wasn’t even the most important person in this battle, or the hardest-pressed. It had been weeks since I’d wanted to actually give her a hug, but my pride wouldn’t let me. 

There was one moment that I remember all too clearly, on the third day of the siege. I was sitting in a Thai restaurant, face leaned up against the window, looking out at the plume of smoke rising from a distant forest fire. Somehow, the meanderings of my thoughts lead me to posing a single question to myself: would I ever bring myself to forgive Arana, or would I die angry?

Once they’d evacuated all of the families with younger kids, there was another vote, and another segment of people was slowly relocated into the vast defensive network under the surface of the planet. There was an understanding, one which was communicated more than said, that Arana would never evacuate, which meant that the rest of us wouldn’t either. Dr. Erobosh, as a middle-aged man with no family, didn’t have the votes behind him to be prioritized, but Miri and Quinn could have gone, especially if they followed the plan put forward where Quinn pretended to be her boyfriend. They refused to take either option. We were going down together. 

There weren’t many updates about the battle, presumably for security reasons, but you could kind of tell that it wasn’t going great. Every night, the movement and flashing in the night sky grew more intense, until even at night the whole forest was lit up like a full moon on a cloudless night. Crashing fragments of spacecraft and stray missiles fell on New Malagasy like shooting stars, until I almost got used to being interrupted by the crack of duranite breaking the sound barrier. When the first report came in of a successful attack on the planet’s surface, a series of high-energy laser blasts that annihilated a key industrial autoplex hundreds of miles to the north, it took me a few seconds to realize the sheer magnitude of what that meant. There was a death toll, a four-digit number that I stared at, trying to make myself numb to it and failing completely. It hurt, and it didn’t stop hurting for a while. 

The only upside to this stretch of time was that I could actually start feeling good about my body again. The falthrranta had begun to reverse, and my voice had, thankfully, stopped cracking. Even before any of my features actually changed, I felt like the person in the mirror was really, truly me. 

Something else changed, though, the day after that attack. To me, that day felt the same as all the one before, except with a slightly increased high-water mark of hopelessness. The same couldn’t be said for Arana. She ran into me while I was curled up on a public table overlooking the central atrium, with my sketchbook and a box of drone-delivered breakfast. Almost instantly I could tell that something had changed about her; determination and renewal wafted off of her like a pheromone. That wasn’t to say that she wasn’t still running on power naps and caffeine, but when I looked up at her, she was actually smiling and not hanging her head. 

“Arana? What’s going on?” I said.

She stopped in her tracks, and I realized that she probably hadn’t noticed me. “Hmm?”

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” she said. “You’re fine, Cathy.”

“And so are you! You haven’t looked this alright in over a week,” I said. “Something’s going on.”

Arana laughed, though it was a bit hollow. “I’d always heard that Emissaries were perceptive, but I didn’t realize you were this good. I smell happier, don’t I?”

“What? No, you just look…” I suddenly became weirdly self-aware, because when I actually focused on Arana’s appearance I realized that she looked just as tired as she had before. Yet I knew that she was feeling better. Had I actually noticed her emotions via smell?

“Let’s just say the situation has changed for the better,” she said wearily. “Maybe. Possibly. I’ll tell you more when I’m sure about it. Now, I’m really busy, so I need to go.”

I grimaced. Even now she barely had any time for me. “Bye.”

Another couple of days passed by. More casualty reports, more sonic booms, more plumes of smoke and flashing lights up in the sky. I had never expected that a space battle could last so long with so little happening to the people down on the surface. At least when the drop ships arrived and started disgorging spectrademons and cambions by the million, I could do something. The quiet before the storm really is the worst. 

It was the ninth day after the beginning of the siege when I got the message on my Ariel. It was a short and simple one, asking me to go to the briefing room in the government offices; the same one where I’d initially learned about General Dark’s ultimatum. I had nothing better to do, so I followed the summons. On the elevator up, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Miri and Dr. Erobosh, and after a few seconds we realized that all three of us had gotten the same message.

The energy around the central offices had changed from frantic anxiety to the same resigned exhaustion that had been plaguing Arana. Security was a lot higher as well; we had to spend ten minutes waiting around while a bunch of guards checked who we really were, during which time Quinn and Stellina arrived as well. Eventually the message came down that we were the ones who had gotten the planet into this mess to begin with, and we were let through. 

Governor Morales and Brigadier-General Lorenz were there waiting for us, as was Arana. They watched us enter with steely expressions and stiff body language, and once we were all in, Lorenz made sure to shut the door. They greeted us with wordless nods, and then let the silence last about twice as long as it should have while we automatically arranged ourselves around the central display. 

“I’m just going to cut to the chase,” said the Governor. “We brought you here because, with the gracious assistance of retired Admiral Karus, we have come up with a plan for getting you off the planet and out of the Order’s hands.”

“You’re joking, right?” asked Quinn. “Otherwise that would mean that a government did something useful, and that just offends my communist sensibilities.”

“We are communist,” said the Governor in a deadpan.

“Mmm, more socialist, really,” said Arana. “An important distinction.”

“Can we cut it with the political science and get to the part where we don’t die, please?” Miri said, folding her arms. 

After a brief moment of awkward silence, Lorenz turned on the holo-display and took charge. “Our main problem right now is the fact that the planet is completely surrounded by a few thousand angry warships, all equipped with top of the line sensors and enough weaponry to kill us all,” ze said, gesturing at the holo-display. It showed a zoomed-out view of the planet, with hundreds of multicolored dots representing various ships. “But it isn’t as though they can build a fence around the whole planet. This means that, hypothetically, the cordon can be overwhelmed through sheer volume of targets, sort of like a laser defense grid writ large.”

Quinn smiled. “Oh, so you’re going to throw bodies their way until you can overwhelm them through sheer numbers? Now that, that sounds more like it.”

“If by ‘throw bodies their way’, you mean ‘use a network of Q-comms and encrypted tight beam lasers to coordinate every single civilian and military vessel we have such that they will all make their move within a single fifteen-minute window’,” said Arana, glaring at Quinn. “If that is what you were implying, then yes.”

“The enemy will be forced to make a choice, essentially,” said Lorenz, quickly positioning zirself in between Quinn and Arana. “Either they can focus fire on some segment of the combined fleet, allowing the remaining three-fifths or so to get out unharmed; or they spread their focus out, making them highly vulnerable to our return fire.”

“Are you using refugee ships as… decoys?” said Miri.

Governor Morales shook her head sadly. “We don’t have a choice. It’s not as though we have anywhere near the firepower to defend the civilian ships in any conventional way, or at all. Besides, the Order’s not going to spare them if they stay behind, anyway.”

“If it soothes your conscience, the only people on those refugee ships will be people who volunteered to be there,” Lorenz added. 

Xara stepped forward and leaned his arms on the edge of the holo-display, his brow furrowing as he followed the clusters of dots. There was obviously some kind of information to be gleaned from them, even if I had no idea how. “Alright, but how does this help us? Helium Glider is the primary target of the attack, so the moment we enter orbit they’ll zero in on our signature and send a patrol boat to take care of us.”

Arana looked weirdly contrite. “Dr. Erobosh, do you remember when I asked you for the schematics of the Helium Glider’s hull?” 

“Yes, and it took fifteen minutes of begging and pleading while I tried to get you to explain why you wanted them,” he said. 

“Well, with those schematics which you gave me — of your own free will — we were able to modify twelve other shuttles of a similar model so as to be completely identical to the Helium Glider,” said Arana. “And before you ask, Miri, all of the decoys are being run by hand-picked groups of naval officers.”

Xara leaned back against the edge of the holo-display, this time focusing intently on the middle distance. “We’ll have to turn off the modifications I made to the engine, eliminate the Erobosh vortexing, release the Raiso lock, all of that. Otherwise they’ll be able to tell which one has the best thrust.”

“Can you do that?” said Arana, sounding slightly confused. 

Xara didn’t even look at her. “Of course I can. I’m not stupid.”

“It’s like… newborn sea turtles fleeing to the ocean,” I said. “And we’re the sea turtles, and also the seagulls have nuclear missiles and gigawatt blaster cannons.”

“That’s a terrible metaphor, Cathy,” said Miri. “But I can’t think of a better one, so sure. Operation Baby Sea Turtle it is.”

“We were going with Operation Lucidity,” added Lorenz, “but if you want to call it that amongst yourselves, I can’t stop you.”

“When is it?” I asked.

Arana shook her head. “Classified. Nobody except a select few know the exact day, and even the time has only been narrowed down to an eight-hour window so that people have time to sleep. It’s to prevent security leaks.”

“Then how are we supposed to be ready?” Miri’s arms hadn’t unfolded the entire time. She trusted the leadership even less than Quinn. 

“Prepare now, and be ready to get into position on twenty minutes’ notice,” said Governor Morales. 

“I can tell you what being ready looks like,” said Arana. “That’s not classified.”

“This plan is completely insane,” I said with a chitter, fingering at the waterspindle hanging over my chest. “But it’s better than staying here.”

“See?” said Lorenz, gesturing my way but speaking to the Governor. “Catherine has the spirit!”

I tried not to look too pleased that ze had used my new name while we left the offices. It had been a while since I had something truly interesting to look forward to. Interesting, but terrifying.

I don’t think I need to describe how the next few days went. It was the feeling sort of like when you have a huge test coming up, but also one which you’ve studied so well for that you almost can’t imagine it going poorly. I hadn’t had the chance to accumulate much excess baggage in New Malagasy; even with the extra sets of clothes and new sketchbooks and free-fall pencils, everything I could bring with me fit into a single self-organizing suitcase, or else comfortably around my neck in the case of the water spindle. 

Once everything was packed up, it turned into a long waiting game, the kind that elevates your heart rate for hours and hours on end until you just feel like you need to collapse, despite the fact that nothing’s actually happened. It sucked. It sucked even worse because of the constant reminders of danger; the thunder of impacts and the steady trickle of casualty reports. When the signal came, I and my entire family would be charging toward that.

I don’t know when or how the Helium Glider had been transferred from being docked with the Lance of Croatoan in orbit, to sitting in a remote landing pad on the surface, but it had very evidently happened. That was the other part of “readiness”;  no more would we have the safety of the autoplex, whatever that was worth. Instead, we took a nice long car ride out into the middle of nowhere, a lake secluded between two ridges of hills and ringed with launch infrastructure. The entire intervening two hundred miles, a trip of an hour and a half, had been almost entirely bereft of human habitation. 

There was nothing to do at the launch site, either, none of the vibrance of the autoplex. I was basically forced to either sit in my room and sketch or practice Emissarine all day, or pace back and forth in the open areas and try to think about anything but what was about to go down. When the signal did come, it was almost a relief. 

It was a simple thing, a quick beep on those little terminals that had so far been a source of constant anxiety. When I impulsively took a look at mine, I found the screen dominated by a single phrase in block text. 

“Cry ‘havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war.”

And then everything turned into complete chaos. People were running around, grabbing whatever they suddenly remembered needing to bring, drinking the last cups of coffee and straightening out their uniforms. I had my suitcase in all four arms before the pings of all the terminals could finish echoing around the lake, and instead of bothering to run, I just jumped, leaping up and over the intervening crowds of naval officers and other evacuating families. That didn’t stop me from getting bowled over by at least two Sunder, though both apologized profusely.

I was the second to arrive at Helium Glider, after Arana, who had the benefit of knowing when the signal would be sent out before it happened. The other four showed up in various states of preparedness over the next five minutes. During the waiting time, I noticed that the Helium Glider was launching right next to one of its duplicates. There were half a dozen Liberates in naval uniform waiting around a shuttle that made for a very convincing copy. I waved at them just before Stellina arrived and we all took the elevator into the hab deck. One of them waved back. 

I dropped off my bag in my cabin, a cabin which had almost become unfamiliar after a week and a half on spacious New Malagasy. From there, it was up to that familiar command deck, where I strapped myself into one of the acceleration couches as quickly as I could. Xara, Stellina, and Helium were all engaged in a rapid-fire exchange of engineering jargon that I had absolutely no chance of parsing, but which essentially boiled down to “Is everything ready to haul ass?”

It was, and within about two minutes everybody was strapped in. The holo-display showed a rough map of the outside, as well as a ticking clock. At precisely 2:13, New Malagasy time, we all heard a rumble through the hull, followed by another and another and another, as all the other ships around us, shuttles and light freighters and skiffs alike, roared to life near-simultaneously. Stellina clicked a switch as all of the external noises were drowned out by the all-consuming noise of the Helium Glider coming to life, a noise that felt like being crushed, and the actual crushing pressure of the ship accelerating as quickly as its engines could push it. 

Any thoughts of what was ahead of us were rapidly driven out by the overwhelming sensation of liftoff. For all that the lead-up had been a huge mess, the launch itself was essentially business as usual. Having done it three times before, it was no longer quite surprising. Even the brief moment of freefall as the engines switched over ceased to be terrifying. 

The first sign that this was anything different from normal was when the acceleration didn’t stop, even once I was absolutely sure that we should have been in orbit. Speaking was difficult, but I slowly managed to creak out a question. 

“What’s going on?”

“Can’t slow down, not yet,” said Stellina. Even she was clearly struggling with the g-forces. 

“Why…”

Helium’s chipper, high-pitched voice came on over the intercom. “High-density missile fire detected. Take evasive action?”

“Yes!” said Xara. Before the words were even finished leaving his mouth, the entire ship rocked, and gravity suddenly shifted to an angle, throwing me against the straps and buckles holding me on the couch until I was sure that my carapace would break. Then it shifted to the other side, uncomfortably crushing one of my lower arms, again right to the brink of injury, before snapping back to normal.

“I thought… they didn’t know it was us?”

“They don’t,” said Xara.

“Random impulse fire at a moving target,” said Stellina. “Might be automatic, even.”

After that, we all went quiet again. I don’t know how long we kept up that same pace; given that I spent the entire time feeling like I was being crushed under hundreds of pounds of weight, it was almost certainly a lot less time than it felt like it was. Soon, even breathing became exhausting, and I struggled to maintain consciousness. Just when the edges of my vision started going dark, Stellina slammed down on a button, and the weight released all at once. I felt, for the most part, like I was sitting on Earth or some other planet with normal gravity.

“Holy shit!” I said, as soon as I regained feeling in my mandibles. “Try not to accelerate us all to death next time, please!”

Xara stretched out his shoulder. “Would you rather we have been vaporized by a missile and/or blaster assault?” 

“What he means,” Arana said with a glare, “is that the high acceleration was necessary to minimize the danger to us. Higher acceleration means greater uncertainty about our position, and less time passing through the densest part of the Order’s blockade.”

After the third time, I’d had enough practice getting out of the acceleration couch to not faceplant on the floor, which was good because I’m fairly sure that my carapace wouldn’t have been able to handle it. “Something feels wrong with the gravity in here,” I said. “Heh. It’s been too long since I was on a ship.”

“No, that’s not just you,” said Xara. “We’re accelerating at 1.3 gees instead of one; the better to get out of here in a timely manner”

“That had better have been worth it,” said Quinn, sounding very sore in his voice alone. “I bruise easily.”

“Are we safe?” asked Miri.

“Helium, show us a representation of the fight’s current progress. Scale to… ninety-five percent encompassment.”

“Yes, yes, right away Dr. Erobosh!” Helium’s voice sounded a little weird, wavering and reedy, like Xara’s orders were a terrible revelation about her aunt’s illness. 

There were a couple of seconds of lag before the map showed up. It was, to put it lightly, total chaos, with hundreds of little dots scattered around, all seeming perfectly still and suspended. Most of them were clustered up in the center of the map, around a translucent sphere about nine inches in diameter. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the dots represented ships, and the sphere was New Malagasy, but beyond that I had no clue what any of it meant.

“Mark Order vessels in orange, friendlies in purple, and our own position in… green,” Xara added. The changes took less than a moment, and it took easily several seconds for me to find the single green dot, which was about two feet out from the planet, on a map seven and a half feet across. 

“Holy crap, that’s complicated,” said Quinn. “You’re going to have to decipher that for us.”

Xara waved him off. “Give me a moment, this isn’t trivial for me either.”

The command deck fell silent while Xara and Arana both stared deeply into the diagram, like a seer into a crystal ball. It was only by staring very, very hard at our own green dot that I realized that this was a real-time map, not just a snapshot. Our dot was moving, very slowly, maybe a quarter of an inch every ten seconds. 

Arana was the first one to break the silence. “Helium, do you know the locations of the eleven decoys? Mark them in green as well.”

“Only ten decoys detected,” said Helium, as the dots changed color.

“Shit,” she said. Then, several seconds later, “Shit.”

“What is it?” I asked. 

“The situation is evolving rapidly. But it looks as though the deception worked. If you look there and there,” she pointed toward two areas that held no significance to me whatsoever, “you can tell that some of them are still trying to get into the right positions. There might even be some amount of decision paralysis going on; though I have to compliment them, the Collective could hardly do better with such a surprise.”

“So we’re safe?” Miri sounded equal parts desperate and hopeful.

“Probably.” Arana sounded a little distant. 

“What do you make of that cluster of cruisers?” Xara said, pointing at another area with no significance to me whatsoever. “They’re making a sharp turn, but I see no reason for it.”

Arana’s eyes shot over to where Xara was pointing. A few seconds later, her jaw dropped. “Oh. So that’s what they’re doing.”

“Mom, please explain for the rest of us. I’m getting a little worried.”

“I think General Dark has made his decision. They’re focusing fire on certain areas and letting others go. It’s clever, I think: better to let some of the survivors escape, than to run about like a rooster with its head cut off and leave yourself vulnerable to counterattacks.”

Miri furrowed her brow, saying, “How do you know?”

“All militaries are predictable to a degree; after all, there’s only so many maneuvers that the physics of the battlefield will allow you to make. It’s in the wiggle room and the edge cases that deception comes into play. Especially given that the Order’s military expertise arises from the same root source as the Collective’s, and the fact that I spent seven years fighting them, I think I can tell when they’re gearing up for something sneaky.”

Miri blinked a couple of times, not having expected that much detail. “So what does that mean for us?”

“It means that this just turned into a roll of the dice,” said Stellina. “If the Order decides to let us go, it’s basically free sailing from here on out. If they decide to not let us go, they can concentrate so much fire that we’re completely fucked.”

“Dr. Erobosh, my simulations have shown something that you might want to know about,” said Helium. She sounded even more scared than before, which was really something coming from an AI. 

“Tell me, Helium.”

“Many Order battlecruisers have altered course to enter an intercept trajectory with our decoys, and are gaining.”

“Which ones?” said Arana.

“These,” said Helium, and four of the green dots on the map were suddenly surrounded by translucent red shells. 

Arana did her scanning the battlefield schtick again, this time concentrating so intensely that I could see her jaw clench and her eyes stop blinking. Finally, she sighed, leaning back and rubbing at her temples. “They’ve caught on to our trick,” she said, suddenly very tired. “They don’t know which skiff is the real one, yet, but if I’m reading the situation right… I think they’re taking them down one at a time until they guess right.”

Welp, now that our brief vacation into stoner comedy is done, it's right back to your regularly-scheduled high-tension war drama! I bet you had almost forgotten that every single one of the characters was in mortal peril. And if you want to see more mortal peril, and maybe even the end of the mortal peril, who knows, then you can click the link below and support me on Patreon, where for only $3 a month you can unlock the next two chapters early, as well as gain access to my exclusive patron discord! I also have a series of exclusive short stories available at the $5 level, with more on the way. If not, I'll see you in two weeks for Chapter 27: Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan.

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