Citizens and crew flowed past Merlin, scrambling for their pods and sealing in. Within the span of thirty seconds (A record for a drill! Merlin’s memory informed him helpfully, except this wasn’t a drill), almost everyone had gained the dubious protection of suspended animation, their shouts replaced by gas hissing on all sides.
His mother grabbed his hand as he turned away from his open pod toward the sound of rending metal. She clung, desperate. “Merlin, dearheart, I meant to tell you sooner.”
The lights flickered and dimmed, and the Ealdor’s core stepped to a higher pitch. The ship reported the first hull breach with a wail of sirens.
They were in the dark for a brief moment before the emergency lights came on, glowing pale red through the flesh of the bulkheads. It illuminated the three of them still standing exposed after everyone else had sensibly cocooned themselves. Merlin, his mother, and Will. The scent of antiseptic and rotting plant matter filled the long, low chamber.
“Sooner. Later. Doesn’t matter now, does it?” Merlin snapped, pulling free of his mother’s grasp. Potential began to gather beneath his skin. Cursing, he lifted his hands, palms out, to warn her away. Another ragged, wet rip filled the air and all three of them flinched.
Recovering first, Merlin said, “My father’s on the bridge. I have to go.”
Merlin shook his head at his mother’s outstretched hand, shoving down a bubble of fear that threatened his fragile control. The engines whined, their distress telegraphing into a cyclical thump that shuddered through the ship.
Hunith cursed under her breath, steadied by Will’s hand on her elbow. “Will, say something.”
“The ship’s breaking up already and we don’t know how long it’ll be until they’ve eaten their fill. Explosive decompression’s not a good look on anyone, mate.”
Merlin couldn’t keep the snarl out of his voice. “This isn’t a discussion. We don’t have time for a discussion.”
Will, being Will, rocked forward and grabbed onto Merlin’s arm. The pod bay echoed with the rumble of magic just barely under control. Both of them flinched, but Will hung on. “Leash it before it gets away from you.”
Magic skittered beneath Merlin’s skin like heat-lightning. Growling low in his throat, an inhuman warning that Will ignored completely, he shook Will off and backed away from both of them. He had to get out of here before he lost it completely and his power flayed flesh from tech.
“You’ll finish what they started,” his mother said. “You’d hate yourself if that happened.”
Dragging his fingers through his hair in frustration, Merlin paced away, halting just before the airlock. He couldn’t stay here and risk losing control. He also couldn’t leave the two of them, not with the void rushing in every time one of the attacking ships tore another strip from the hull. He was so frustrated he was seriously, seriously contemplating hoisting both of them into their pods and locking them in just so he didn’t have to deal with this when his father was on the bridge. “I’ll be fine.”
Without warning, artificial gravity gave out. In one smooth, reflexive motion, Merlin turned and grabbed his mother’s hand, directing the power beneath his skin downward. His feet remained firmly on deck. Everyone and everything else drifted upward, weightless.
All around them, tools and cargo shifted in their nets. The pods groaned in their cradles. The Ealdor’s core whined again, distress shading into pain. When the ship rocked under another assault, Merlin was the only one to feel the shockwave that travelled through the floor.
His grip tightened on his mother’s hand as he dragged her down, trying to ignore the look she was giving him. Her hair was just turning grey, the lines around her eyes a mixture of laughter and sorrow and her coveralls were loose, the sign of too much weight lost too quickly. Worry painted across her expression, she looked older, frailer.
Her silent pleading made his stomach writhe. He let out his breath and looked away, anchoring her boots to the deck.
She was right. He knew she was right. Knowing who and where his father was changed nothing. The man had been dead for him yesterday. He’d be dead for him tomorrow. The pods were the best chance of survival.
Even so. Looking back at her, he shook his head. Her eyes teared and she gave him a small nod, squeezing his hand before she released him. Without further protest, she busied herself in activating her pod, flipping switches and checking gauges before moving to Will’s and repeating the process.
Will spun near the ceiling, less graceful in zero-g than Hunith. Merlin stretched out his hand and caught him with a momentary arc of raw power. Golden lightning crackled visibly across his friend’s skin and reported every implant and embedded technology with a spark of corresponding pinpricks against Merlin’s palm. Will winced, feeling his own version of the same pain.
Merlin’s control faltered.
Before it could break, he yanked Will to the floor. His friend landed hard and went down on one knee, glancing apprehensively at the other pods. Merlin nearly snarled again to tell Will to cut the protectiveness shtick. The pods were all closed, their occupants suspended. No-one had seen Merlin’s magic and right now it didn’t matter if they had. Eighteen years of (sort-of) secrecy would be pretty pointless when the wretched Glatissant finished pulling the Ealdor apart and cracked the pods for their juicy, human contents.
Will staggered upright and seized him, digging his fingers into Merlin’s wrist. “Don’t be an ass.” Will spoke low, glancing over his shoulder at Hunith as she performed the final check for two pods. “How would your mum go losing both of you?”
It was a low blow. Merlin did snarl, then, and the pods shivered in their cradles.
Will’s grip tightened. Merlin winced at his strength. They were no longer the same height, Merlin passing Will only a handful of years ago, but they had grown up a matched set. They had raced through busy corridors, climbed the trellises in the biosphere, and counted the minutes between each beat of the Ealdor’s living heart while they ate stolen sweets from the commissary. It was for the desperate worry in Will’s eyes that Merlin tried to explain as he peeled his wrist free. “Right now, my father could still be alive. Don’t I have a responsibility to do whatever I can to help? I don’t want to-” The hull breach siren started up again, louder than before. Merlin’s voice roughened with frustration. “I don’t want to just go to sleep and know that I could have done something.”
They stared at each other until the shockwave of a distant explosion almost dislodged them both.
“Sod off, then,” Will said, finally, though his heart wasn’t in it. He tried again, rasping out a, “You’re wasting time.” His attempt at gruff was undermined by the squeak he gave when Hunith pulled him into a tight hug and shoved him towards his pod.
“Love you too, Will,” Merlin said, following his progress, waiting until the seal on his friend’s pod lit with the sequence that said he was safe for now.
Hunith wrapped Merlin in a hug that lasted just long enough for her to brush a kiss to his temple before she shoved him at the door. “Get going. You ran out of time long past. Don’t get bitten.”
Out of the pod room and down the corridor, Merlin ran. He gave his magic rein, fastening himself to the deck and keeping floating debris from hitting him in the head. His control was as fragile as ever, threatened by panic and instability, but as he ran across ichor-slick decks where the green fluid made footing treacherous, he found himself on the very edge of laughter. Scrambling past gaping holes in the bulkheads that sparked and spat oil, protected within a solid bubble of his own power, a small part of him was horrified that he could enjoy anything while the Ealdor was destroyed around him. As the magic that lived beneath his skin flooded into the bulkheads, however, the greater part of him revelled. He allowed himself a feral grin and loosed his magic to the very edge of his control.
Clambering through a half-blocked airlock, Merlin sunk his power deep into the metal and protein framework that surrounded him to stabilise his flight and give him a sense of how much time he had left. He could feel the interwoven biotech as a wash of pain sharp and sweet enough to be pleasure. Shrugging off the sensation, he felt for the hull breaches. As he did, the vast, warm presence of the Ealdor’s ghost filled his senses.
The ghost was too concerned with protecting his human cargo to register the pain Merlin’s magic was causing them both. He did not acknowledge Merlin, concentrating instead on fending a Glatissant devourer - half carrier ship, half hungry leviathan - from his hull with a wash of acid. Merlin didn’t expect him to respond, not really. For all the time that he’d spent working on the Ealdor as he learnt how to repair him, they had never become friends.
Merlin, extending his senses as far as he could and holding them there, felt something unlock within his chest as he sought a safe route upwards. It was a painful tearing, ripping sensation, and he stumbled, knees hitting the deck hard enough to bruise, hand sinking into the skin of the bulkhead. The Ealdor was overwarm beneath his palm, the wall sticky with sweat.
“Hang on, hang on,” Merlin muttered to the wall, clambering to his feet and throwing himself forward almost before he found his balance. The pain of keeping his magic spread throughout the ship retreated until his skin merely tingled, like a limb waking after too long asleep.
He had a clear shot to the bridge, but only just. The Glatissant devourers had latched on to the Ealdor near its stern, half a ship away from where the Captain and her officers were making their last stand, but the breaches had been widened and filled with swarming, alien beasts. The Glatissant soldiers’ eerie calls rattled down the corridors, the overlapped armour of their exoskeletons rubbing together. They sounded like nothing so much as a pack of hounds barking and snarling as it tracked its prey.
Dragging himself upwards in the increasing heat, Merlin began to fear the cold that would mean he’d get to figure out just how well magic did against the vacuum of space. Every bark and scrape that echoed towards him caused his magic to flare. Even his extended senses could not get an accurate count of the Glatissant, but each that registered against his magic meant another set of jaws, another chance to be bitten without hope of recovery. He found himself trailing a goodly number of sharp or heavy objects, all floating at the ready, as the distant baying of the Glatissant became a little less distant.
The Ealdor screamed blue murder into Merlin’s mind just as he reached the door to the bridge, a wordless cry that only increased in volume as he felt the ship rock. It flooded his thoughts, nearly sent him to his knees, and the pain in it had him near-tears in sympathy. The Glatissant had latched another devourer onto the Ealdor and ripped through the bow. There were too many devourers for a normal swarm just counting the ones he could feel already feeding.
Merlin clapped his hands over his ears and hit the activation panel for the bridge door with his elbow.
Even the sudden howl of air bleeding down broken corridors and into space was no match for the keen of a dying ghost. Covering his ears was pointless. Merlin dropped his hands and stared at the door. Basic operating procedure trickled back to him past the noise of the ghost in his head.
Hostiles in the ship: the door would seal.
A hull breach: the door would seal.
The Ealdor’s pain projected to anyone with an ounce of magic ability within half a lightyear: the door would seal.
The last was not, perhaps, basic operating procedure, but wrapping his mind around the obstacle was harder than it should be. His magic flared and failed to do anything useful with the Ealdor’s cries scrambling his wits. He was just about to try knocking to see if anyone would let him in when the rattle-bark of one of the Glatissant creatures heralded its appearance around a bend in the corridor. It halted when it ‘saw’ Merlin and his cloud of impromptu weaponry floating just behind.
The Bestes Glatissant were armoured creatures with slick exoskeletons of brilliant acid yellow spotted with black, violet, and blood red. In a group, the spots would make their numbers harder to determine. Alone - like this one - it made the creature look like an artist on a bad trip’s idea of an absolutely massive spotted cat. It had a hood that it flared when it drew near, its gripping claws ripping easily into the sweating deck. Welling ichor resolved into small floating globules that clung to its exoskeleton.
Merlin took a step back and had a moment to wonder why the floating ichor was suddenly sucked down the hallway before he felt the cold. He beat back a flare of panic and drew his magic outward to sheath his body, preserving heat and air. Half his collected projectiles went the way of the ichor as decompression caught up with him. His heart skipped a beat when he attempted to breathe just as the spell took hold. He tasted the void upon his lips along with his stuttering lungful of oxygen.
The Glatissant remained unmoved both by the rush of air and the debris that bounced from its spotted exoskeleton. It began to approach, claws sinking into the deck, giving it the semblance of gravity. It’s teeth glinted red, reflecting the emergency lights.
Merlin didn’t hesitate, not with the jaws of death assured stalking toward him. Fear eliminating whatever finesse he might have had, he threw his entire floating collection at the creature in one speeding mass. He held little hope for the tactic; the debris flying past on all sides did not seemed to slow it. Panic spiked again even as he let his collected mass of metal and bone fly at his target.
He stayed in the corridor only long enough to hear a crunch and an alien shriek of pain before he threw himself bodily through the closed bridge door.