I Hung My Head
I felt the power of death over life I orphaned his children I widowed his wife I beg their forgiveness I wish I was dead. – Sting, "I Hung My Head"
Deck 4, Service Bay
Slipping through the shadow corridors and rooms of the Phoenix, I no longer need the light I carry. I know this place. It is as close as my own mind. I can hear them behind me. I am leading the way, and they are closing in. Soon now, soon we will be in the great bay for these decks. And then, I will run no longer.
Kordieh stopped at last, chest moving like a hellbound piston. He had come as far into the superstructure as his size would permit, so he turned and waited within the main service bay for this set of decks. The space was just high enough for him to crouch in, twice that wide and thrice that long.
He pulled the master detonator from his pocket and consulted its display. All the charges were still in place. He ripped the link from the back of his hand and placed it into a recess in the detonator. Carefully, he wrapped the fingers of his left hand around it, pressing his thumb down slowly on the signal button of the link and holding it there.
“Kordieh!” Darquin appeared at the far end of the small bay and called out. “Kordieh, hold it!”
His quarry whirled, holding his clenched left fist out in front of him. Instinct nailed Darquin’s feet to the deck plates when he saw how tightly Kordieh held his personal link in his fist. As Tianmun came around the corner, Darquin spread his hand out behind himself, signaling her to stay away.
“Yes, the detonator, a deadman switch,” Kordieh said. “Move and I drop it. Shoot me and it’ll fall.”
Darquin’s lips moved, then he tapped his own link. “Security alert, One through Five, evac. Total evac. Now.” He looked back at Kordieh standing in front of him, back to the wall, eyes glistening and wide, trying to form words.
“Kordieh….” He palmed his folded fighting pike. “Look, just deactivate that thing and we can work it out from there. Sounds fair?” Confronted with silence, he grimaced, his thoughts in that moment escaping him before he could stop them. “Kordieh, what the hell is your fraggin’ problem?”
“We are all dead, can’t you see that?” Kordieh said. “We were dead from the moment we entered Vorlon space. The White Star 24 understood. Lucius understood. I understand, so I have to help the rest of you.”
“Kordieh, they were murdered. They weren’t on a freakin’ waiting list, someone else is out here–”
He couldn’t hear Darquin’s reply, lost in quagmire thoughts.
I should, by rights, be up on the decks with my charges. But I must be sure. If I fail this time, I must remain to try again, for these poor fools who do not understand. I am so tired. I have been apart from you too long, Lucius, but I cannot come to you alone. These are my fellows and my friends, and since they do not know enough to die, I must stay behind until they are all on their way --
“We are thirty seconds from reaching the target area. Jump engines are ready, Captain.”
Hale hesitated, resisting the urge to drag a hand back through her hair. Head bowed in thought, the red curtain hid her face, the eyes that belied the assurance of her voice. Those eyes closed just a moment before she lifted her chin.
“Jump,” she ordered.
The hum of the jump engines powering up was almost subliminal at first, and then grew to a soft drone that was carried through every wall and bulkhead in the ship. It couldn’t have been hidden, just as it couldn’t be rushed. The breaths of everyone on the main bridge held in limbo, the ship’s comm channels remained silent, giving no warning of their exit.
They all felt the gentle shifting movement. “What was that?” asked Kordieh.
Instinctively, without thinking, Tianmun answered the question, seeing Darquin’s look and frantic gesture a fraction of a second too late. “We’ve come out of hyperspace.”
Kordieh shrieked, a cry of grief and rage and frustration that seemed to make the whole ship tremble around them.
“No … damn you all …!”
He flung the detonator away, even as Darquin leapt for him.
“There they are…” Hale rose from her seat and paced forward until she was only a handspan behind the Helm. On and past the viewscreen the planet dawned into view, its nightside glittering with a delicate lace of lights trimmed in a whorl of white, blue and gold where it faced into its sun.
“I’d have expected stronger readings on such enormous lifesigns.”
“They’ve employed considerable cloaking technologies, captain,” Kim explained from her post at Science. “We probably wouldn’t have picked anything up, either, but they’re employing some massive device down on the surface. I’m scanning—”
“Jumpgates forming, behind us,” Morgan cut in. “Three.”
They weren’t large bombs, each no larger than a person could cradle in one palm. But they’d been given nests deep with the hollow bones of the Phoenix, where the power conduits ran. Spark to the fuse, the small chain of explosions sent a sharp concussion radiating down through the ship. It tore away words with its silent force and the realization dawned that one second was not enough to stop the roar that would follow.
And it came. It screamed in the rent metal and exploding gasses, surged through the empty corridors. From the first deck down through the third, rosettes of white-hot destruction bloomed over the hull, expanding in a glory of red, white and gold. The wide bubble of the Observatory blew out and shattered in a fiery exhalation. The rooms where they had fought and played, wept and so recently refound joy — gone. The void consumed it, crumpled it, leaving behind twisted blackened bones. The Phoenix reeled wild through space, toward the planet.
Hale felt hands drag at her arm, she wasn’t sure whose, pulling her up from the decking. It was a minute longer before she got her mouth working right. Circuits hissed and sparked around the room, and without a glance she could picture the disaster behind her before she turned to look. It was the war all over again.
“All stop! Damage report!”
Someone swore. Hale automatically looked to the forward viewports again, and her eyes widened huge.
It swept out from the planet, a thin film of light rippling like water with all the fractured colors of winter frost on glass. Well, Hale thought, death was rarely so beautiful.
Then she was on the ground again. Smoke scraped her throat and the heat of a too close fire pulsed beyond sight. It was getting closer quickly though. She could feel it in her tightening skin. Another bomb? The Phoenix…
She started to rise, and all but collapsed again. But it wasn’t for the grinding pain in her leg. Her eyes were fixed down to the ground her hands pushed off from.
Withered fronds of ferns curled around thick gloves and summer dried twigs and pine needles crackled under her palms. Fire fuel. Smudged khaki fabric covered her arms, instead of the coal black of her Ranger’s uniform. The machine-stitched badge of the Park Service replaced the deep aqua stone and silver of her Isil’zha. She was—
“Terry! Damn it, get up and move!” A voice roared and cut Hale right to the heart. She twisted on the brittle ground of that old North American forest and stared at the face of her dead husband. Warren Montgomery loomed out of the smoke, fireman’s axe dangling from one hand, smeared with soot. A dream, Hale’s mind reasoned while her heart wailed.
Rough hands grabbed her arms and wrenched her to her feet and in fine dramatic fashion she nearly toppled them both as she collapsed under a leg that was in no condition for walking. Too bad they had to run. She looked up over his shoulder at the smoke and the glow of fire crackling along the branches.
“What’s your problem, Terry?” Warren growled, puffing with effort.
“Technically speaking? A fractured femur,” she snapped back automatically, and he swore at the firestorm this time.
“Come on, there’s water over–”
“And the camp over the next ridge,” Hale finished, suddenly chilled with shock. She’d spoken these words, nearly sixteen years before. They were fuzzy in her memory, but they sounded right coming out. Then this had to be a dream. A very elaborate, vivid reliving….
She didn’t get out the rest. It was a reliving of those past moments, to be certain, but somehow it was getting harder to force logic to back the idea it was anything so remote as a dream. Then what was it?
It was impossible to think further on it though. They were struggling for their lives down through the hills, with a firestorm licking at their backs and the trap the capricious winds had swung around them trying to close.
They almost fell in the creek before they saw it. Muddy-grey, choked with ash and branches, it ran sluggish. Hardly a wall for their defense. The giant’s around them could make it across by the depth of their roots alone.
It wasn’t the creek they were running to, though. They slogged across, and Hale was half-dropped as Warren scrabbled at one of the survival packs. In a moment silvery fabric was billowing out, and the shelter was being made fast on the wide stretch of gravel. Warren threw the packs in, and then Hale after them, despite her coughed protest that it was a one-man shelter. “It’s meant for one,” he answered as he slid in, zipped and sealed the shelter, “but the other is holed but good. We’ll do, though I’m going to kill Foster when we get back. We’ve got a double share of air and if you’re nice, maybe we might manage not to kill each other.”
“Right, Prince Charming.”
Hale thought she could feel his grin. Maybe it was just as well he hadn’t found a light yet. She’d have probably cried to see it. Muttering under her breath she focused instead on shifting until her broken leg stopped screaming at her.
“Who’s this Valen?” Warren prodded, “Your boyfriend? And another thing, what the hell were you doing jumping off that ridge, Terry? Trying to fly?”
“It’s better than sticking around to play Joan of Arc,” Hale growled. “Or is it the wicked witch? I thought that tree was falling my way– yeah, I know it’s supposed to be a house, not a tree. Shut up and do something useful, will you?” The words came out automatically.
He did it, though. He squirmed about in the dark and pulled out one of the oxygen canisters before they heaved away what little was trapped inside the bubble. He set it near their heads in a slow release and Hale sagged back to listen to its hiss.
“You going to be able to hold out?” he asked a few minutes later, while the temperature rose and they twitched at every vibration in the ground. He didn’t sound nearly as gruff now. Gentle.
“Yeah, I’ll do.” God, how she wanted to move closer, but other memories came. Like the ring that was on his finger and not hers. He still had his first wife, if not for much longer. If this is real, she thought, I can’t botch it. And if it was a dream…. Hale just didn’t want turn the knife in her heart any more that it had already been. He was dead, five years now, in her own time.
“So you think we’re going to survive this, hm?” Warren prompted, just to fill the silence and hold off the fear.
“You sound pretty certain. How’s that?”
“I’m certain because—”
Pain clutched her, a feeling that burst behind her eyes like a flare. Then she was laying on cold decking, pain knifing her side rather than her leg, and the was a moan not far away, if out of sight. Hale lifted her head and blinked dazedly at the bridge of the Phoenix. Others were just beginning to stir out of the same — time distortion? — she’d been hit by.
What had they seen?
Copyright (c) 1998 Jamie Lawson, Joe Medina and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.