The Reinhardt was limping.
In a way, many of the crew knew that this day would come. As well as they had done at the game of cat-and-mouse, of running and hiding, of hitting and fading; eventually they knew that they wouldn’t last forever.
Because they were Grand Army soldiers and they knew of Torstensson’s relentlessness. Because they were SAGA officers and they knew of Velasco’s guile.
Also because they knew they were a small part of the Grand Army fleet that seemed alone in its devotion to Celiose Cole – and that devotion made for a poor shield against antipode weapons fire.
Captain Kuorum stood up in his seat. He was just shy of three feet tall, but he cast a long shadow on the bridge of the Reinhardt. Today had, by far, been the worst day of his career with SAGA. He had watched his entire battlegroup wiped out by White Cell traitors, and his own Aquitane-class Battleship (one of the mightiest ships in the Grand Army’s fleet) had been beaten to within an inch of its hull integrity.
He wasn’t ready to give up the fight for Carrionspace yet, but at the moment he had to make a tactical retreat. After all, there’d be no fighting to be had at all if he let White Cell blow up his boat.
“There,” Kuorum said, moving over closer to the helm and pointing at something showing up on the tactical display. “Move us there.”
The navigations officer, a thin-lipped Scandian with greasy, dark hair, arched an eyebrow. “We’re so damaged we can hardly see, and you want to move us into that cloud of gas, dust and debris? Are you mad?”
“No, I’m in command,” Kuorum said, clasping his furry hands behind his back and levelling a glare at his navs officer. “That nebula is our best chance of survival. Another stand-up fight would destroy us; our only hope is to try hiding well enough to give us a chance to effect repairs or signal for reinforcements.”
The helmsman, a young Guardian with hair like cornsilk, trembled as she laid in a course. She’d been thrown from her console during the battle and had banged up her shoulder pretty badly. The captain had tried to make her go to the medbay, but she insisted she was fine, she hadn’t hit her head, and she could continue on duty. Part of her wished she’d listened to the captain, though; she winced in pain from even the simple moving of her hand across the helm controls.
The static on the viewscreen cleared up somewhat as the ship moved closer to its destination. The nebula was a swirl of pinks and violets and indigo against the black expanse of space; impenetrable and enigmatic, betraying the secret of none of its contents as the Reinhardt plodded forward at a pathetic pace.
“I don’t even recall this nebula being on any of our charts,” the Scandian nav officer, a Leutnant named Zdravko, chided. “Not only are we blind, we have no idea what’s in there. For all we know we could run aground on an asteroid and that’d be the end of us anyway.”
“Then at least we’ve deprived White Cell the privelege of finishing us off themselves,” Kuorum said, dismissively. “Steady as she goes, Mister Velasco.”
“Aye, Captain,” said the helmsman. She recoiled briefly as the captain said her name; she was, after all, the daughter of General Victor Velasco, the officer in command of SAGA, who betrayed the Grand Army and sided with Torstensson and Erdeny. She tried her best to focus on the task ahead, but she could feel the eyes of others on the bridge, watching her. Grand Army discipline had kept her safe so far… but how long could that discipline resist the strain of this civil war and keep even Grand Army soldiers civil?
“Hauptmann Casterian,” Kuorum spoke out loud, as if to some disembodied presence, but the smart comms system on the bridge carried his voice across the deep of space and to the comms systems of Meriana Casterian, a Malakim pilot whom the crew of the Reinhardt was fortunate to have on their side. “We’re making for the nebula, but we’re still flying blind. We’re going to need your eyes and ears out there.”
“Aye, Captain,” Meri said, “You want me to scout ahead?”
Kuorum considered his options. He then made what turned out to be the wrong choice.
“No,” he said, “Keep an eye out behind us instead. We’ll need as much warning as possible if we get any pursuers following us in.”
“Roger that,” came Meri’s voice, as the static of the broadcast cut out.
Private Velasco wasn’t sure how quickly it all went down. The Reinhardt could only move at a snail’s pace due to the damage it had sustained, but even so it seemed to all happen so fast. As the ship entered the nebula, she began to buckle, shake and twist violently. Zdravko’s premonition had been eerily spot-on: the ship had cruised into the gravitational influence of a planet (a planet!!!), and without full engine power it wouldn’t have the ability to break free.
“Reinhardt,” came Meri’s voice over the comm again, “If you pull your nose up I can try to help you break out of your descent!”
“Belay that, Hauptmann,” Kuorum replied, “Stay clear and follow us in. We’re going to try and land.”
Zdravko blinked. “Land? You mean crash!”
Private Velasco gulped in a breath. “A controlled crash landing, Leutnant… we drilled for it at the academy.”
Kuorum offered the girl a smile. “I like to think of it as falling with style.” He addressed Meri over the comm: “Hauptmann, you need to trail us to the ground, but keep your Seraphim intact and undamaged at all costs. Your propulsion and weapons systems may be all we have left once we touch ground. Is that understood?”
Meriana was pretty sure she didn’t have to take orders from Kuorum – they were, after all, of parallel rank in the Grand Army, and as Malakim she wasn’t beholden to the SAGA command structure. But this was a crisis, Kuorum was taking charge, and he had the lives of all of those aboard the Reinhardt in his little furry moogle hands.
“Aye, Captain,” Meri said, with deference and a small amount of respect.
The Captain returned to his command chair. He made one last speech on the shipboard intercom, rallied the crew, made sure everyone got to someplace safe. Then he settled in for the ride.
The viewscreen cleared as the ship broke atmo – no more static, just the amazing view of mountains, hills and forests speeding by below them. The last thing Kuorum saw before he flew from his seat and shattered his skull were the forests of Avalon reaching up to greet him as the Reinhardt crashed down.