The lights on the dash illuminated one by one. Crackling laces of electricity wound through the system, encircling Vara like a halo. The timer in her mind ticked down another notch as she flipped on the intercom.
“Counting down,” she said into the hovering mouthpiece before her lips.
“Copy,” said Medri.
Even from orbit, the nervousness in his voice chilled her stomach.
Vara clicked the last of the switches. With a shudder, the rockets lining her back rumbled and shook the shuttle pod like a handful of dice.
“10,” she whispered, even though she suspected Medri had his hands full with the other departures.
The clear panel of glass revealed the fading dusk in shades of ochre and amber, tinged with charcoal columns where the mammoth bonfires now raged through once populated cities.
Staring up into the specked stars, Vara worked down to 1 and grasped the plastic armrests. The pod shivered and then vaulted into the air. Streaks of clouds licked the visor as the pod surged through the sky. Momentum pressed her flat against the chair but she kept her eyes open, staring forward at the growing darkness waiting to swallow her whole.
Come on, come on, she urged.
The rockets popped with a transition into secondary thrusters as the horizon curved. The pressure on her chest ebbed as the dome of space greeted her. Her bangs lifted from her sweat stained brow and the dash blazed with her orbital position and the other looming ships. All but one glimmered in sun-dappled silver, all but one was here to help.
She locked eyes on the pearl hued behemoth, dangling upside down like a falling drop of paint about to splatter a pristine floor.
Snapping the intercom, she said, “I’m out.”
“Good. Locking on,” said Medri. “I should have you tucked away before it blows.”
“Just get me out of here,” said Vara as her internal tally rolled on.
Medri’s beam took hold of her pod, swinging the orbital into a docking alignment. The stars smeared for a moment and then Earth spun into view. The orb dangled in the dark, a swirl of cerulean, ivory, viridian, sand and mud. Spewing from the surface shot one pod or ship after another, streaming like poured water into the surrounding space. The planet winked as sunlight gleamed off the atmosphere and then shrank as Medri pulled her toward their waiting vessel.
“I’m sorry,” Vara whispered.
She withdrew the contents of her suit’s breast pocket and stared down at the onyx sliver. The blade-shaped stone filled her palm, weighing her hand down with a feigned density.
“You had to bring it here, didn’t you?”
A surge of power from the behemoth replied.
Vara wrapped her fingers around the sliver. The edges bit into her palm as she squeezed tight.
Out of the viewer, an iridescent ripple cascaded across the behemoth, focusing to a point at the droplet’s peak. The energy pooled, growing brighter and brighter as Vara’s countdown crept toward a finish.
“Right on time,” she said as the behemoth’s beam snapped into existence. The line shot from the ship’s pointed tip straight into the equator, tying one to the other.
Vara lifted her hand, partially shading her eyes against the blinding glow. She settled her gaze on the bulbous ship and her lips coiled into a mirthless smile as the beam intensified, thickening with each passing second.
Around her, the pod shuddered as the docking clamps latched on. Her panel dimmed as their vessel took control.
“Gottcha,” said Medri. “You…” He banged his hand against his communicator as he spoke to someone else nearby. “She wouldn’t have launched without it.”
“Are you sure?” asked a low bass.
Paranoid, Reg? Vara mused.
“She just got out-.”
“Give me that.” The communicator rattled, and Reg’s grumble blasted into her ear. “V? You have it?”
Vara tightened her grip on the sliver as she flicked on her vocals. “Of course I have it.”
“Good.” The mouthpiece bashed again while the two made a second exchange. “Let’s go,” Reg bellowed to the rest of the crew on the main deck.
“Nice,” whispered Medri.
Vara snorted. “We’ll see.” She winced and peeked around her fist. Her arm blocked the first explosion, but chunks of planet blew by in a flawless ring of debris. She settled her gaze on the droplet behemoth and the arrow straight beam.
Come on, she urged, rolling the sliver in her hand.
The beam blazed with a final blast and then the behemoth shuddered. Energy surged from the tip and Vara squinted, lowering her hand to watch the last moments unhindered.
A backlash of power surged up the beam, rebounding off the husked remains of the planet. As if struck by a swift blow, the behemoth staggered and fought to stumble away from the surge pushing counter to its fire and stuffing energy back down its muzzle. The power poured into the behemoth’s barrel and the ship swelled like an inflated balloon. As it had done to the now shattered planet, the vessel imploded under its own ammunition. Pearl shards rebounded off of hunks of earth until a pair of shattered circles loomed against the speckled backdrop of space.
That’s what you get for coming after us, Vara whispered. She stowed away the sliver while watching the rings dissipating like ripples in a pond.
“Damn,” said Medri. “Did you see that?”
“Yeah.” Vara glanced up as she unbuckled the belts keeping her strapped to the pod’s chair. The obliterated ship and planet clanked against the pod like pebbled rain.
Medri’s sigh filled the silence. “Reg wants you up here.”
“I figured.” Blowing out a long breath, she yanked off the headset and looped the communicator onto its stand. She hefted out of the seat with a jangle of straps and buckles. Ducking low, she bashed a finger onto the door panel and after a vacuum hiss, exited the pod.
Steel corridors laced with sterilized air greeted her with stretches of artificial sunlight trapped in tubes lining the ceiling. Down either end, the mumbles of conversation and rushing feet echoed.
Standing upright, Vara grasped hold of the corrugated panels overhead, stretching weary muscles and stiffened limbs. The dark interior of the hatch gaped behind her, the maw joined by the tinkling of debris.
Vara released her grasp and sagged into the artificial gravity.
“Come on,” she said, staring at her sneakered feet. “The war’s not over yet.”