Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky. A.E. Housman - A Shropshire Lad
The bubble burst, and the Tiamat and Nebuchadnezzar slewed into slow-space, coming in with drop brutal enough to make Jensen shout, clinging to the emergency hold. The ship herself seemed to scream, a tortured, metallic sound, and the engine noise was amplified by the addition of the Nebuchadnezzar's engine, throbbing in concert. Waves of forcibly restrained almost-panic and nausea flowed through the 'net from Jared, and Jensen reassured him as best he could while struggling to clear the fog of the jump tranq from his own brain.
Jensen wasn't a pilot; wasn't rated to even sit a console in direst emergency, but he knew what was right, and nothing about their paired skip or reentry was right at all. The ship felt off, almost as if she were still half in the bubble, and the thunderous look on Morgan's face, and the increasingly frantic activity from the crew, told Jensen he was right.
"We are re-orienting for skip-out, double check your packs, there's no down-time on this one, people. All sections report ready," com-one said, and Jensen checked his tranq doses automatically, putting the straw of a squeeze-pack to his mouth and swallowing, fast; feeling Jared do the same in the 'net.
"Nebuchadnezzar gave us velocity and probably more than double our mass. Fuck knows if we even hit the right skip-out," Morgan said, and one of the crew - some aux post, third or even lower in the chain of backups and redundancies, and so tucked back practically in the same corner he and Morgan were - looked blearily their way, and then at her boards. A moment later, her eyes went wide and her dark skin took on an ashy pallor.
"Basha. Malaya mbovu." she muttered, her hands dancing over her console, and Jensen looked across the bridge, where main crew was working furiously, tension in every line of every body, barely controlled panic in voices. The Malakim seemed all right, still locked into emergency holds, faceless in their armor. In a weird moment of utter clarity in all the haze and chaos, Jensen noticed that they had all added a wide swipe of five parallel lines, from left shoulder to right hip, in vivid blue-green paint, temporarily unifying them, until they could refit in armor all their own. If they ever can...might not ever get new armor out here….
"What-? What do we do?" Jensen asked, blinking back to Morgan's face, to what he'd said, feeling the tranq washing out of him as his adrenaline rose.
"Fucking nothing. Crew's job," Morgan replied, but he looked as twitchy as Jensen felt. "Two jumps and we're at the Giraffe. The Quo...they'll help us," Morgan said, but he didn't sound as certain as Jensen would have liked. The 'skele was pressing uncomfortably into his spine, his belly, his collarbone, and Jared sent him sympathy, and amusement.
Same when I wore one, damn things never fit right, had to pad it, with a brief flash of tape and rags wound around the glassine struts, someone else's hands smoothing it down. Jaasau-mom, from Jared, and a well of emotion too deep and too wide, opening like a bottomless pit. Jensen recoiled, and Jared shut it down.
Sorry. Can't, just can't, now, Jared-
There was a tortured, groaning noise that reverberated through the hull, and a klaxon that Jensen had only heard once before went off, drowning all the others.
"Hull breach is imminent, section seals engaging on a count of ten. Get where you're going and clear the seals, people," com-one shouted. "Five, four, three, two, seals engaged." There was a thump and a shock, the air seeming to thicken, and Jensen's ears popped. "All sections, report."
Section seals coming down partitioned the ship into smaller, more easily defensible compartments. They were blast-proof and could withstand hard vacuum. If the Nebuchadnezzar did breach them, the chances of explosive decompression were much slimmer.
But not absolute. And ANGEL weapons could burn through any bulkhead, eventually. Jensen had done it himself, on pirate ships and merc ships and Federal ships gone rogue. Once, memorably, on a Stick ship, where they'd been stuck in corridors too narrow for ArchANGEL armor, and had ended up fighting hand to hand through the dark, clotted warren of an alien arcology. The memories of that mission bloomed garishly to life in his head, and Jensen hastily tamped them back down again at a shudder of revulsion and panic from Jared.
Long time ago, not here, not now, it's okay, we're okay
Are they in? Did they breach? I can't get to you, I can't get to you-
"Jared," Jensen said, and Morgan shot him a look.
"He's safe, fuck's sake, don't let him distract you."
"Fuck you, Morrigan, he's not a soldier," Jensen snapped, and You're safe, I'll get to you, Jo boy's are there, you're safe, you're safe
Trust you, okay, safe. Jensen got the distinct impression that Jared was forcing himself to breathe, to let go of his panic or, at the very least, to rein in it. To trust Jensen, and the Jos, and just...hold on.
Hold fast, Jensen thought, flooding the 'net with pride and affection. Want you, need you, us, we, us, us
Love you, too, Jared sent, coupled with a feeling that was breathless and bubbling and warm, so warm.
"You with me, Jensen?" Morgan yelled, strain evident in his voice, and Jensen's eyes opened wide as he pulled himself mostly out of the 'net. The pitch of the engines had changed; the skip array was winding up again, gathering the charge as the ship put everything it had into upping their velocity. Never mind the Nebuchadnezzar had boosted them already, slamming into them other-side.
"We are in count for jump, secure and hold, there will be a course change otherside, people, but we will not shed velocity. Repeat, Tiamat will not shed velocity so brace for hard g and double-check every belt and bind. We'll take her into a star before we'll let Nebuchadnezzar scuttle us," com said.
Jensen took a long, deep breath against the rapidly accumulating g force that was mounting, as the ships fought for way and aimed themselves at the next skip-point. Nebuchadnezzar, at least, wasn't suicidal enough to try and take their jump-acceleration down; the stress of that would rip both ships apart. Just suicidal enough to try and breach their hull mid-transit.
The woman at the aux board had her head cocked, listening, and a wolfish grin suddenly spread across her face. She reached out and flipped a switch, and a sound rang through the ship. A growl, a roar - a word. Tiamat, Tiamat, Tiamat, shouted from every throat of every ANGEL on board, all but drowning out the alarms and klaxons. The crew - what was left of it, seconds and drop-ship command, lifers close to mustering-out and greenies alike - looked shocked for a moment, puzzled, almost. Then Jensen saw a grim smile slide across com-one's face, and Jensen took a deep breath and shouted, Morgan chiming in as if they'd planned it. He could feel Jared doing the same, down and down in the belly of the beast. "Tiamat! Tiamat! Tiamat!" A scream of defiance, an affirmation of life. A rolling, echoing, deafening salute to the ship, her crew, her troops. A promise.
"Shut it down!" Morgan roared, after a long, long moment, his voice booming over a handheld turned to all-channel. "You heard com-one, boys and girls - strap in, sit tight, and get ready to fly!"
"We're in count, skip out in three minutes, all stations report secure." com-one went to all-channel, too, and Jensen could hear every squad reporting in, Kane's voice and Jinx and Five, all the others, and then Raleigh down in the medical wing, hunkering in with Doc and Celeste and the rest. All present, all secure, roll call of every life-spark on board, and that was comfort and affirmation and preparation. All good, all set, all ready-steady and go, go, go.
And not a one of them to know if they would make it to the other side.
Jensen slammed the tranq home, little sting, and felt Jared do the same. He watched the Malakim move in unison, a little shift and re-set, steadying down. He took a deep breath and checked his rifle and then laughed softly, bitterly. He wasn't even an ANGEL, anymore, and yet...here he was, ready to die for his ship and his Angels, the family the Company had handed to him like a toy to a child, and then wrenched away with as little thought.
"No such thing as an ex-ArchANGEL, Quemuel," Morgan said, flashing that pirate grin, and Jensen wondered what had shown on his face, just then.
"Sir, no sir," he sassed back, and then took a deep breath and surrendered to the tranq as space and time and real-not-real warped around them, and the troopships once again skipped out.
Surfacing from the skip this time was like being thrown straight into battle. Alarms were blaring, consoles flaring red across every station, and that klaxon was going again, only this time it wasn't stopping. Jensen blinked and struggled to turn his head, g pressing him tight to the padded bulkhead at an odd and uncomfortable angle. The Tiamat was shaking, resounding to blows somewhere forward and below.
Crew were moving slow, fighting g forces that wanted them immobile, fighting tranq and far too many jumps in a row. Hitting their limit, Jensen thought. Can't keep this up.
Query query query from Jared, more emotion than actual thought, drug-addled and hurting and scared. And trying so damn hard to keep it locked down, keep it at bay.
Hull's breached Jensen sent him, on the heels of the com clicking to life, still on all-channel, echoing a little.
"Breached, we are breached, niner access. All stations report and sit tight, we're are moving for jump, no velocity change, skip-out in fifteen minutes, on my count. Repeat, we are breached, skip-out in fourteen minutes, forty seconds. Nephilim, battle conditions and report any movement at the niner access."
Acknowledgements came back, short and to the point, and Jensen waited, his heart pounding, pounding, for Kane to check in; Kane, Jinx, his Angels. Beside him, Morgan's 'skele creaked, and Jensen looked over at him, a mere shifting of his eyes. Morgan was trying to get his 'skele to move, pushing hydraulics and servos to their limit, fighting the g, recklessly stupid.
"Morgan," Jensen said, and Morgan made a growling sort of noise, the 'skele lurching from one hand-hold to the next.
"Need a...senior down there. Should have...never come up here," Morgan said, his voice coming out choppy and breathless as he pushed g and his own struggling lungs. Jensen wanted to shout at him, wanted to punch him in his stupid, blood-congested, sweating face.
"What I fuckin'...said, you...bastard." Jensen told his 'skele to uncouple from the safety hold and move, crawling in tortured slow-motion across the bulkhead, following Morgan. Just like old times
Be careful be careful, how are you-? Fuck, be safe, Jared thought, and he was trying so hard, and doing so damn good. Greenie, battle-virgin, nothing in his life had ever been like this cluster-fuck of a voyage and he was…
So proud of you, amazing, fucking amazing, one of us, you are, Komanshee, Devil Dog, ANGEL in your blood and bones, Jared The only way Jensen knew to say it, to really say it; 'I love you' were just words, and you could say them to a dock-side whore or a really good mechanic, but bringing him into the line of them all, into the history and the stories….
One of us, Jensen thought, again, and pushed everything, everything he was feeling right at Jared, hard as he could. And got back nothing for the longest beat of his laboring heart, and then…. A flood, a rushing roar, of emotion: delight, and terror, and love, and lust; a soaring, shouting, giddy spiral, that blew through Jensen like a strong wind, and made his eyes go shut as he braced against it, basking in it, just lost, for a moment that was just theirs, just them, just us we you me us us us
"Fucking...hell, move your...ass, Angel!" Morgan shouted, breathless, and Jensen jerked back to here and now, sending Jared what he was doing, hoping he understood. He forced his 'skele forward in Morgan's wake, while the crew fought the ship into line for the next - last - jump, and together they got the din down to something not-deafening, shutting off sirens and getting systems that had gone offline, gone down, switched to first and second and maybe third redundancies.
And still nothing on com from the Nephilim. Jensen clamped down on the gnawing, ice-toothed worry that was stirring in his gut and just moved, hand-hold to hand-hold, the 'skele shaking and whining in protest, Morgan cursing and grunting and moving at a ridiculous crawl, but…. All they could do.
"Nephilim, report," com-one was saying, her lined face set in an emotionless mask, dyed red and blanched white by the flashing lights on her board.
All-channel hissed and warbled, a sudden burst of noise, and then: "Got visual con," Kane said, his voice static-fuzzed and thin with strain, and Jensen felt a flush of hot-cold go over him, relief so profound he felt light-headed for a moment. He felt something similar rebound back at him from Jared, hearing Kane on all-channel; the whole ship, hearing, and waiting.
"Can see...thermal...breach...sion plasma…shit!"
"Clarify all before 'shit', Sariel," com-one said, to a ripple of amusement from bridge crew, from the ship, from Jared, who had managed to get a squeeze-pack to his mouth. The flood of fake-lime in the 'net made Jensen wish he'd done the same.
"They're still...cutting, Kane said, the transmission abruptly clearing, and that went through the ship, as well; shock and dismay. "How in fuck? Thermal confirm, got 'em...fuck. Com, Morgan. Set to...vent. They're still...coming. Set to vent...if we can't-"
"Belay that!" Morgan snarled, and Jensen pushed himself those last few feet, to the lift that sat at the very back of the bridge. The Malakim at the hand-hold there had shifted aside a little, enough to let them both through, and Morgan was already in, working the bulk of the 'skele around, cursing g and the tight quarters.
"I'm on my...way down. Stand fast, Nephilim, weapons...ready."
"Sir," from Kane, and all-channel was picking up noises, now: the high-pitched whine of a fusion-plasma torch, the creak of a meters-thick bulkhead that was being stripped down, layer by layer, until they could just punch right through. They could vent that whole section, if they had to; just blow it, and maybe set off a chain-reaction and blow the Nebuchadnezzar, too, or both ships. If the yaw and pitch of the reaction itself didn't send them into a fatal spin, so much g it killed them all.
Let's not do that, from Jared, thin amusement and you, me, us, love
Let's not, Jensen thought, and finally, fuck, got wedged into the lift with Morgan, who hit the button. The doors hummed shut, and they lurched into motion.
"Four minutes, fifty seconds to skip-out," com said, and Jensen got the squeeze-pack he'd taped to the 'skele to his mouth, just a motion of arm and shoulder, a turn of the head. The fake-lemon taste seemed to burn across his tongue and down his throat, but it was good. It woke him up.
The ship lurched, as if buffeted by a sudden blow, and the lift made a horrible, grinding-metal noise and shimmied to a dead stop, making Morgan and Jensen both stagger. The lights flickered. "What the fuck?" Jensen said, and then all-channel crackled to life, static-ridden and all but overwhelmed by the screech of over-stressed metal.
"Breach... have a...fuck, coming...arms up, arms-!"
"Dominions, repeat, do you have a visual?"
"Don't fucking fire unless they're in the ship," Morgan said, and other voices chimed in, a babble.
"Shut it down, damnit, clear this channel, Dominions! Repeat!" com-one snarled across the channels and the voices went silent, leaving only the sounds of the Tiamat's hull being reduced to scrap and someone - Dominions platoon leader - snapping out orders. Everything was undercut by static, interference from the Nebuchadnezzar and whatever they were using to cut through at the weapon's emplacement. It was one of the most heavily shielded areas of the ship and Jensen didn't know what the hell they were using, to deconstruct that part of the ship. Something big. Something bad.
The lights flickered and the lift jolted once, twice,, then started moving, only emergency lights, red and blue, lighting the small space.
"Com-one, we have...breach...detect...skip engine signature...falling back...defensive…. Dominions reported ended in a squeal of static and another lurch from the ship - the lift - and Jensen stared, wide-eyed, at Morgan.
"What did-? Did they-?"
"Using the skip array to punch through?" Morgan said, and pounded his fist, once, on the bulkhead. "We're gonna fuckin' die here," he said, and the lift juddered to another halt, the doors coming half open. Smoke poured in, tainted with the reek of burnt plastics and ionized glassine. Jensen could see emergency lighting all down the corridor, and then two armored hands gripped the lift doors. With a creak and a squeal of tearing metal, the lift doors were forced open and a Dominion troop stood there, weapons evolving up out of the armor as they stepped back, giving room.
Jensen got out first, closer to the door, and got his rifle slung and ready. Morgan followed, lurching into the corridor wall as the ship bucked under them, and then they were moving down the corridor, Jensen and Morgan both fumbling filter-masks up over their faces, sealing the nanopore edges down and blinking smoke residue out of their eyes. G was oriented differently here, in the gut of the ship, and they fought not to 'fall' back into the lift.
The noise was deafening, the peculiar, bone-rattling hum of the skip array only the thin skin of the ship's hull away. The Angel gestured right, and Jensen and Morgan took up a ready stance there, at the top of the emplacement. Forward, bow-ward, were the weapons control center, the arc of consoles and chairs, the screens that currently showed the Nebuchadnezzar in radar silhouette and on camera screens, digital images breaking up, pixilated as the skip-array blasted interference.
"They're fucking insane, they're going to kill us both. Sargeant! Prepare to fire, on my order."
"Understood, Morrigan," they said, static-hum in Jensen's head from the 'skele's little conduction mic.
"Twenty-five seconds to skip out," com-one said, and Jensen groped for his tranq. Which wasn't there.
"Fuck, fucking hell!"
"Tranq's gone. Must have...got torn loose."
"Fuck," Morgan said, and Jensen looked at him, at the bleakness in his voice. "I don't have a spare, Quemuel."
"I... Okay," Jensen said, and what? Tell tell from Jared. No tranq, block me out, don't listen, won't be good Jensen thought. No tranq, no tranq...every warning and greenie scare-story he'd ever heard about sailing that line, skipping the bubble, rattled in his head. Ugly, hopeless, fatal. His blood was roaring in his head but he couldn't...hear. Not a thing. No, no, no, fuck, no, not like this
"Eleven seconds to skip-out. Ten, nine -
The wall at the top of the emplacement consoles suddenly glowed too bright to look at, and seemed to crumple in slow motion, ionizing into nothing, into sparks and smoke and glittering dust.
"Com-one, we're breached! Vent us! Fire at will! Fire!" Morgan shouted, and Jensen brought his rifle up, the targeting sensor homing in on dim, colossal figures, moving in the glare and smoke. The ANGEL weapons all went off at once, a deafening roar, and the skip-array's noise went out of the audible range into something you only felt, in skin and bone and gut.
Us, us, you, me, us Jensen thought as his finger hit the trigger, and his rifle fired, a solid thump. Didn't matter, now, about the tranq; com was going to vent them, they were all dead. But he didn't want - couldn't have - Jared following him into that, in the 'net. He had to spare him that. Methodically, his finger on the trigger, the rifle blasting and armored figures moving in a stop-and-go hard-g crawl, he pulled himself out of the 'net.
Jensen Faintly, so faintly. Here, I'm here
Don't listen, stop listening, shut me out...goodbye
"...two, one. Skip-out."
Us, you, me, Jens-
Silence, and the blank, black nothing of the Between.
Jensen someone said, and Jensen turned toward the sound, every bone in him aching. Jen, Jensen?
Who? he asked, but his voice was...nothing. A slight vibration in his throat, no sound.
Hey, co-pilot, wake up Sam said, and Jensen opened his eyes. And saw the bright, white walls and ceiling of the Glorianna, the plush couches and chairs in every shade and color. A monitor showed the opening screen of Star Chaser, ships and stars and the Captain, hands on hips, smiling.
Hey, buddy. Thought you were gonna sleep forever. Don't you want to play?
Jensen pushed himself up slowly from the nest in the couch and looked up at Sam, because Jensen was...small. So small. He looked down at thin hands and chewed nails and the uneven cuffs of the sweater Sam had lent him, brought from Earth for their long, long sleep. Sam, you...but you-
Died? I did. I will. Sometime. Ages ago. Not yet.
Jensen squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, but nothing had changed. Sam, I can't...be here. You can't. This isn't-
Jensen, Sam said, and his voice was soft, that little smile he wore when he was teaching something, when he knew Jensen would understand, once he's been shown. Do you know where you are?
Dead, Jensen said. Sam just kept smiling, his eyebrows lifting a little. I'm dead. Aren't I?
No. You're in the Bubble, Jensen. Faster-than. You're skipping the line.
But...nobody can live through that, Jensen said, and Sam reached out and put his big, broad hand on Jensen's thin shoulder. He was warm; his hand was warm, through the sweater.
Who told you that? You need to pay attention, now, Jen. Hear me, co-pilot?
Yessir, Jensen replied, automatic, and then had to clench his hands into fists, tight, to distract himself from the wrenching ache in his heart.
You can't keep coming back here. You're making things worse. Every time, you leave a little more behind. You're going to get stuck here, Jensen.
But...I...what? What do you-?
Every skip, every jump. You keep putting a toe over the edge, you keep going out a little further. You need to let go of us, Jensen, Sam said, and the whole room flickered, for a moment, from white and bright and clean to burned, shattered panels and scorched carpet, something red and black moving on the floor, twisting in agony.
Stop that! Jensen choked, squeezing his eyes shut. He felt something pressing into him, back and hip and shoulder, felt something pinning him like a huge, monstrously heavy paw, stink of burned metal in his nose.
I'm not doing it, Jen. I'm dead, remember? In the future, I died. Jensen opened his eyes and the game room was whole again. It was Sam that was wrong. Sam that smiled at him, and then wavered and went to the red and black thing, skin cracked and peeling away, face swelling, hair gone…. Don't, Jen, come on. Leave it alone.
I don't know...what you mean. I don't, I don't- Jensen couldn't breathe, and Sam's hand slid from his shoulder up into his hair, rubbing gently at the nape of his neck.
You're so scared of us, Jensen. You're so scared of everything you saw, and did. You won't let us go, and you keep remembering us, in the skip. In the Between. It's everywhere, you know? All time, all places. And you need to let us go.
But I...but...I killed them, Jensen whispered, and the game room flickered again. Warped and skipped to the birth labs. For a moment they were bright and clean, orderly, pink and tan and dusky-dark babies in rows, smiling, waving little fists. And then it was dark, and the miasma of rot and infection was in Jensen's nose, and the light was grey and colorless and it was hot. The only sounds were the tiny, whimpering cries of the starving babies, and the sick, wet-stick crack of a neck breaking in Jensen's hand. No, no, no, don't make me, don't!
Jensen, shh, it's okay, Jen. Sam was hugging him, ruffling his hair and rocking him a little, shushing him, and Jensen just held on, tight as he could. After a long moment, Sam set him back, and Jensen risked a look around. It was just the game room, empty, new, untouched. We died, Jensen. And when we die, you just have to let us go. You're the Captain, remember? You did the best you could, and you saved as much of the crew as you could. I'm proud of you, Jen, but you have to stop. You can't stay here, you have to go.
How can you be proud of me, when I did...did that? Jensen asked, and he wasn't little anymore. He was as big as he ever was, almost as big as Sam. Bigger, as he put on his armor and stood up, helmet nearly brushing the ceiling, the 'net humming in his brain, Kane and Sinna and Kee and the rest just there, out of sight, around a corner. Sam looked up at him, so impossible and strange, and he had that same small smile on his face.
The Captain has to make the hardest choices. It wasn't fair, and it won't ever be right. But you'll do the best you can. You did what you had to do, to keep them alive. But someone's waiting for you, Jensen. You need to go, and don't come back. Sam didn't look sad, or angry. Just...happy to see him. Calm, as if none of what had happened - was going to happen - had touched him.
I lost...so much, Jensen whispered, and Sam reached up as high as he could, his hand on the chest plate of the armor, over the designs Sinna had etched. Over Jensen's heart.
But look at what you'll have, Jensen. Look what you found, Sam said, and he flickered again, not to his burnt and dying self, but to something else - to Jared, smiling at him from behind that ridiculous hair, reaching for him, touching the side of his face and how could he do that? Jensen was in his armor, Jensen was in the 'skele, Jensen was down in the guts of the Tiamat, and the whole weapons array was venting into space and taking the Nebuchadnezzar with it, and Jared was half the ship away and gone, impossible, impossible….
"Jensen? C'mon, honey, Jensen, please come back us, me, you, please, please, Jensen, please…."
"Here," Jensen said, his voice ground glass and sand in his throat, his body going from a numb floating to lead-heavy agony, light and sound and smells rushing in, like air into a vacuum, blinding him, deafening him. He made a distressed, wounded noise, drowning.
"There you are, there, fuck, knew you'd come back." Jared was bending over him, arms digging in under Jensen's shoulders and half lifting him, clutching desperately, hurting him. Knew it, here, I'm here, don't go, stay here
"Whe…." Jensen said, and fuck, it hurt. He pushed that, clumsily, through the 'net and Jared squeezed him even tighter for a moment before easing him back down. Pulling a wand out from the wall, he brought it to Jensen's lips, allowing little sips of cool water that were sheer bliss in Jensen’s mouth. Where where where?
"Oh," Jared said, and wiped his face with his palms, sniffing hard. He was a mess; pale and thin, his eyes sunk in bruised-looking sockets. "We're at the Giraffe. The Quo- Fuck, Jensen, you won't believe what happened. The ships, the other Angels...it was bad, it was…." Lights flashing, g crushing the air out of Jared's lungs, breaking his bones, pulping his organs, the Tiamat shaking to pieces around them, alarms, screams, tumbling out of control, sickening, terrifying
"We all almost died, Jensen, and you… They knew, somehow. The Quo saved us."