52 WR – Avalon, Carrionspace
“Reinhardt,” Meriana Casterian said, “you’re coming in hot. I see some sections heated up on your starboard. Make sure those bulkheads are closed if you want to hold together during reentry.”
“Roger, Hauptmann Casterian,” came the static-filled reply. “We read you. Safe landing.”
Meri closed her eyes and let out a long and rattling sigh, now that she had closed the comm link. She could do nothing else for them. She didn’t want to accept that, but her Seraphim R was not equipped to do the kind of repairs that the Reinhardt needed to keep it from going down. A controlled crash landing – an oxymoron, if Meri ever heard one – seemed like the best option. She didn’t like that it was considered an option at all by Captain Kuorum, much less considered to be the best option.
The battleship had lit up, the plasma of reentry running along its huge, wedge-shaped hull like a fiery paint. She saw parts of superheating, glowing the brighter orange that revealed where those systems would vaporize and burn away. She could only hope the crew there could get away from those sections, deeper into the vessel to the parts that would be safe.
The first wash of plasma across her viewscreen made Meri realize that she needed to focus on her own reentry. Her Sera-R was in far better condition than the warship. The White Cell flotilla that struck at them hadn’t had any of the Malakim with them and the SAGA space fighters that attacked her hadn’t landed many shots in the first place. Those that landed a hit only scratched the Seraphim armor of her robot. Nonetheless, even a Seraphim couldn’t blindly dive into the atmosphere. If it didn’t burn up, it would hit the ground and smash itself into so many invincible bits on impact.
Her Sera-R’s gravitic propulsion system might be the only way they could get anyone back into orbit. She had an obligation and a duty to see it down.
She adjusted her posture, sitting up straight, and ran through the checklist. She heard the soft whines of mechanical systems through the Sera-R’s frame. The robot was folding its arms and sleek frame up enough to be aerodynamic and able to withstand the force of descending into a gravity well. She felt the Sera-R shake around her and, as reentry always did, found herself worrying. She knew how powerful Seraphim were. She still couldn’t turn off the part of her hindbrain that associated a fiery red glow and violent shaking with impending death, though.
Behind that irrational fear, though, was a perfectly rational one: the White Cell forces they outran wouldn’t ignore them forever.
She knew Hannibal de’Zama. The Commander of the Malakim Special Operations Force had cast his lot in with White Cell, turning the force of Seraphim pilots against the Grand Army. Against Celiose Cole, the savior of the entire Web. She knew the reasons behind that decision, too. He wasn’t an evil man, which was the tragedy of the situation. Good men would fight and kill good men in this civil war, while the rest of the Web of Worlds shook in terror. And she knew that Hannibal would not spare those Malakim who did not fly with him on this mission.
The Reinhardt had more than a White Cell task force coming for it. There were Seraphim coming, too, and that was Meri’s fault. She remembered what Hannibal asked her, when she joined.
“You’re leaving behind your life,” the former Regent of the Esper Union said. It felt strange, at the time, to see the man standing in his office in Albrook, wearing the white and gold of the Grand Army rather than the familiar dark brown and grey of his Esperian uniform. A living legend stood before her, but the raiments of that legend were cast off. “Your nation. Your family. You’re walking away from them.”
“The same as you did, sir,” Meri had said. At the time, she thought it was bold.
The look he gave her had that unreadability, but the ironclad resolve that he was known for. One of those looks that made people follow a man to the grave and beyond. One of those looks that could unite peoples into a nation. Even remembering it, Meri found herself doubting her decision for a moment.
“Maybe. You have a family. A daughter.”
Meri looked at the photograph in her cockpit. A small one, taken ten years ago, when they went on vacation to Maranda. Meriana’s red hair was in a different style and her face had fewer lines, then. Back then, a young girl with the same orange-red hair and the green eyes of her father had been with her. She hugged onto her mother’s arm; she had been nine, then. As many times as Meri thought back to that conversation, she could never remember what words she told Hannibal de’Zama then. She knew that she ultimately said nothing.
His words, though, she could remember as clear as the day he said them. “There are two kinds of people who run away, Casterian. The first are pushed away from everything else, so they run to stay alive. Then there’s people who only know how to run away. We’ll find out which you are.”
She looked at that photo and swallowed, but it didn’t get rid of the lump in her throat. She knew which kind of person she was.
Meri’s eyes drifted back to the view screen. Blue seas and green land were spreading out before her, now, as the Sera-R and Reinhardt came hurtling down for the world below. Avalon, she thought. A world lost to myth; a product of the Carrionese space tradition that never went anywhere. She wondered about what kind of world that this legend was. Then one of the compartments on the battleship gave out, a fireball blossoming from the side. Streamers of flame and wreckage shot from it, along with a plume of black smoke.
She wondered, too, what kind of war they were bringing.