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In Fire and Ash

Chapter Three - Shifting Paradigm

The Saratoga coasted through the undulating wormhole at breakneck speed. The ship rattled to her core as she was expelled once again into empty space. Captain Serman let go his white knuckled grip on the railing near his station.

"Comm. Status?" the Captain asked.

"All systems nominal. Hull stable. Everything is in the green, sir", replied the man at the helm.

Serman turned a questioning glance to Lieutenant Leline Aria, his most trusted advisor and closest friend, manning the sensors. "Lieutenant. Anything out there?"

"Yes, sir." She replied, almost bewildered "There's a planet. Class 6 Large Swampworld. High sulfuric levels in the atmosphere, but still breathable. But, sir, there seems to be some sort of ion trail leading to the surface."

The Captain felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. This was where the Admiral had come. He knew it. He could not help but grin with pride for his crew.

"Very well, Lieutenant!" Serman remarked "All ahead full. Bring us into a high orbit and we'll set up..."
"Captain!" Aria interrupted "There's...something approaching. I'm not picking up any energy signals, just a very large object moving in our direction off the starboard."

"Helm. Bring us about. I want to greet our new friends face to face." The Captain ordered.

The Saratoga was not a combat vessel, but had seen its share of battles. If these new visitors were hostile, they would soon find their prey to be quite formidable.

The ensign stationed below looked back at the Captain. "Weapons and shields, sir?"

"Not yet, ensign" the Captain calmly relayed, "Let's see what they want first."

Lieutenant Aria carefully studied her console's readouts as she said "Captain, I'm detecting something strange. These ships appear to be organic in composition."

"Organic?" the Captain pondered. "How can something organic be out..."

"Captain!" the helmsman spouted. "We've got contacts! Lots of contacts! They're closing from all directions!"

"Shields!" the Captain shouted just as the first of the unidentified objects slammed into the hull. "Bring us about! I want to see these damn things with my own eyes!"

As the ship swayed hard to starboard, one of the objects came into view. Captain Serman's widened in awe as the massive lamprey-like monstrosity drifted towards them. He had only heard of Leviathans as a child, never really believing they existed. He watched as the enormous deep blue worm glided through space like a fish in water. The body of the creature radiated and pulsed with pale lights in every shade of blue. The beast's mouth, nearly as large as the Saratoga herself, slowly strained open to reveal the tunnel-like throat from which thousands of small, spearhead-shaped creatures poured forth.

"Captain!" the ensign pleaded, "We need orders!"

Captain Serman was jolted alert as several more of the lampreys struck the ship. "Take us to that planet! We have to get into the atmosphere immediately!"

The ship had only landed on a planet once before, not something Serman wanted to remember. But if they did not land now, there would be nothing left of their ship after these creatures pounded them into oblivion.

"Shields are no good, sir. They're moving through them like they aren't there!" the ensign said. "We're losing power to main systems and hull integrity is at 60%!"

"Weapon systems online, sir. Give me a target." The weapons officer said gruffly.

"No! There are too many! All power to engines, make for that planet, helm!" the Captain blared above the shuddering hall of the ship.

The Saratoga pitched violently as the larger Leviathan moved in to attack. The Captain could only try to hold on as the massive worm brushed along the ship, ripping off pieces of his ship's armoring. Crewmen were thrown across the bridge and explosions obliterated many of the consoles. Fires had sprung up across the entire ship and many crewmembers were attempting to put them out with small extinguishers. Outside, the smaller creatures were tearing into the hull of the ship. Some sectors had reported breaches where the parasites had penetrated the hull, but those maydays cut off abruptly.

The planet was nearly within reach, but the ship would have to make a hurried landing, something the Saratoga was not equipped to do. With the planet drawing near, the landing legs were dropped and more power was sent to the shielding systems. As the ship entered the upper atmosphere of the planet, the Leviathan turned away and the worms attached to the outside peeled off in the intense heat. Everyone struggled to reach their seats as the red alarms were loudly blaring the alert. Outside, massive streams of black smoke poured from the external systems of the ship. Fires had consumed entire areas of the Saratoga and an acrid cloud of smoke had begun to fill the deck.

"Systems are failing all across the boards!" some far away voice announced.

"We're losing control of the helm!" said another echoing voice that sounded a thousand miles away.

"Life support failing!"

"All systems red!"

"The hull is buckling!"

The noise was deafening inside the ship. Fire licked the outside of the Saratoga, tasting its imminent demise. Red, gold and green light flashed across the faces of the men and women of the C.W.S. Saratoga as she broke through the dense cloud cover at a speed far beyond the safety limit. Captain Serman looked at the faces of those with whom he had served for so long. Looked for the last time. Tears streaked from many of them and some were mouthing silent prayer. The Captain turned his eyes one last time to the viewport ahead. The ground rushed to meet the mighty ship and embraced her with unfathomable force.

· * * * * * * * * * *

Airoue had not taken his eyes from the fireball that descended to the surface, perhaps a few miles from their position. It could not have been a normal occurrence; the atmosphere was far too thick to allow any space debris of that size to fall all the way to the ground. Captain Airoue stood at the north end of the clearing the team had found. In the open, the milky rain fell to them unfettered, but it was a small price to pay for getting out of the woods. None of the men could find water pure enough to drink safely. Without water, they would not survive more than another day, not in the muggy climate of this swamp world.
Night began to stretch over the land as the nearby blue star fell behind the mountains. Airoue looked at his watch to see that time passed much more slowly on this planet. Judging by the position of the star during the time they had been on the planet, Airoue guessed night would last almost 60 hours and they had been unfortunate enough to crash just as it approached. Blackness soon loomed over the camp and there was tension between the three different men, each with different proposals.

Martek Cain removed his dirty glasses and began scrubbing at them with a muddy shirt. It produced no results, but cleaning his glasses was a nervous habit that Cain had yet to shake.

"We need to head back to the shuttlecraft. There is a chance someone will find us there. Out here we're as good as dead." Cain's nasal voice sounded as he stared off into the night.

"I'm not goin' back there." Stated Brooks "It ain't safe wanderin' at night."

Airoue looked at the Admiral, moaning half conscious on the ground. "Say we head back. Who's carrying him? I couldn't lift him any more if I wanted to and he'll die if we leave him."

"He's nearly dead anyways." Cain whispered under his breath.

Brooks shot a dangerous look at Cain that could be seen well in the blue light reflecting off of the 3 moons. "He's the Admiral! We can't just leave 'im here!"

Airoue shook his head as he ran a gritty hand through his hair. "We're not leaving the Admiral, there's no debating that." The Captain looked into the shadowed woods for an answer he knew he would not find. "We need to find food and water, that's first priority."

"Aye, sir. But we need sleep first, we'll die of exhaustion if we don't get some rest." Brooks interjected. "To be safe, sir, maybe we should have someone stay awake to keep watch."

Airoue nodded approval. Davidian Brooks was smarter than people gave him credit for. "I'll take first watch. Cain, you can take second." The Captain said.

Cain sniffed and mumbled something under his breath before walking over to a large boulder near the center of the clearing, where he sat down to rest.

Airoue kept watch over his men during the uneventful night. It gave him plenty of time to think. To think about the events that got them here. The Admiral made foolish calls by deciding to waltz into possibly hostile space without properly searching the area or setting up protocol for an ambush. He stood at the front of the bridge with that huge smile on his face, his chest puffed out with pride. When the Sakkra ships appeared behind them in attack formation, the Admiral issued defensive actions. The ships were not ready for an attack and needed more time. It was no surprise that the Saurian ships made short work of the escorts, but the Silicoid battle cruisers waiting nearby, that the Admiral dismissed as strange rocks, were puzzling. Silicoids helping Sakkra was not something even Captain Airoue could have predicted. The Admiral resigned command to the Captain too late. There was nothing Airoue could do but give the order to abandon ship. He caught himself as he realized he was glaring at the writhing man on the ground. Looking down at his watch he noticed his shift was up and went to waken Cain.

"Cain", the Captain said as he approached. "Wake up, it's your shift."

"I'm awake, I'm awake." Cain muttered sleepily. "That bloody old man kept me up with his complaining."

Airoue watched as the lanky bald man walked to his position. The Captain sat down for some rest that he would surely need.

After only a short time, Airoue was awakened by a strange noise behind the rock against which he was sleeping. He pulled himself up to peer over the boulder at the strange crunching noise coming from behind him. What he saw chilled him to the bone.

The Admiral's legs were the last to disappear down the huge gullet of a four-legged animal standing just a few feet from the Captain. The beast stood at least six feet at the shoulders and was as large around as he was tall, covered in short red hair. His hind legs were dwarfed by his massive fore legs, which ended in claws several inches long. The beast had teeth even longer and his glowing yellow eyes rested on either side of his gaping mouth, where the last of Admiral Norvitz vanished in a satisfied gulp.

The lumbering predator turned his eyes directly on Airoue as he stood from behind his rock. He looked to his left to see Cain asleep on the ground.

"Brooks!" the Captain said in a loud whisper.

Brooks opened his eyes and jumped awake immediately, seeing the giant red beast switching his gaze from one man to the other.

Cain, apparently awakened by the noised, bellowed a scream that startled even the creature that had joined them. The beast roared back; a thundering roar that shook the ground and rattled the trees, deep and guttural but at the same time with a penetrating whistle-like sound. Cain clamped his mouth shut with his hands and immediately bolted for the nearby woods leading to unexplored land. Brooks shouted after him as Captain Airoue drew his sidearm. The giant did not follow Brooks or Cain, but instead stared intently at Airoue, who had his gauss pistol aimed directly at the right eye.

In the still, blue lit night on the strange planet, a single shot rang out, followed by a quaking roar that echoed for miles.

Airoue fell back after his companions, leaving the red carnivore reeling in pain and lashing at its missing eye with seriating claws. Airoue caught up with Brooks and Cain as the stout mechanic was trying to hold the smaller man still, his hand over Cain's mouth.

Airoue barely slowed down as he passed the men and said simply "We have to go. Now!"

Brooks let go his grip on Cain and the two men took off after their Captain.

"Sir, where are we going? We'll get lost out here, sir! "Brooks shouted from behind.

Airoue did not bother to look back as he said "Anywhere but here!"

The men continued running through the woods, the resonating screams of the monster behind them. The Admiral was gone and Airoue could not help but feel less burdened. A feeling that made him hate himself.


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