One week ago...
Dahlia had to admit, being behind the Saint Nazaire's wheel made her a lot more nervous than merely piloting the heavy vessel. When Cortes had left, taking Mila, on his undisclosed mission, he had left Dahlia in charge of the Saint Nazaire. It had been a bit of a learning curve. But it was nothing she couldn't handle. In truth, she had been becoming more and more frustrated with the task of simply being the ship's pilot. She was good at flying the Saint Nazaire. She knew that. Even Mahad had, begrudgingly, told her he thought she flew it better than he could. Of course, that being because he was more apt with a sleek, well balanced vessel, or so he'd proclaimed. Dahlia had simply rolled her eyes and smiled. Whilst there was still that cocky arrogance to him, things like admitting her aptitude for piloting the Saint Nazaire were dished out with almost as much frequency as his crowing about his own accomplishments. Mahad had grown up and, thankfully, learnt a few things.
But Mahad had his own ship. It may have been small, but it was his, and he was perfectly happy to be in full command of that vessel. Wayan had the ever growing fleet of Mosquitoes at his command. And Cortes still had her stuck piloting the Saint Nazaire! Dahlia had tried to see the positive side, but had only grown more frustrated. She'd told Mahad as much.
"So tell him you want a promotion," Mahad had told her with a shrug, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. "You'd make a good captain - you're bossy enough."
She'd thought about it, she'd planned to, and then Cortes had told her he needed her to captain the Saint Nazaire in his absence. And then he'd proceeded to download on her, for a full half hour, instructions about what she should do in case something went wrong, not to overtax the engines, and basically not to scratch one inch of his precious ship. If she'd initially thought he was putting her in charge because he trusted her, that had about scrapped any thought of that. In short, she'd ended up chickening out.
At least, she admitted to herself, she would now be able to prove how well she could captain a ship in practice. Perhaps that would put her in a better position to find something more interesting to do, if not for Cortes, then surely one of the other pirate captains would notice.
And she now had an opportunity to prove that worth, or to find out if she was completely unsuited for this sort of responsibility. Dahlia swallowed, and shook her head. No, she couldn't think about it like that. This was an important mission. She needed to concentrate on it, not how it could benefit her.
The Saint Nazaire floated lazily, flanking the slightly larger Leviathan.
"Anything on your scanners, Dahlia?" Iziel's voice came over the inter-ship communications. The older woman had command of this particular mission, and Dahlia had to admit her presence made her just a little bit calmer.
"Nothing as yet," she replied.
"Wait..." Behind her at the central console, Cheng tensed as a blip made itself known on his equipment. Then he relaxed. "Nope, just Mahad."
Cheng had grown so much Dahlia still found herself doing a double take whenever he walked into a room. He was not overly tall, but he had certainly shot up and his voice had deepened with age. Though he spent most of his time, still, in front of a computer he managed to maintain a lean fitness. Coupled with the fierce look he got whenever he encountered a system that gave him some challenge to hack, and evidenced by the conversations Dahlia had overheard amongst the younger girls on Puerto Angel, he was more in demand than he seemed to realise. What helped his case, in Dahlia's opinion, was that he didn't seem to have a clue about this. Having put up with Mahad's forced bravado in his younger days, Dahlia could see how this complete lack of comprehension on Cheng's part held an appeal. He was more likely to complain about the fact he struggled to grow a beard then to embellish his perceived strengths.
Dahlia glanced over her shoulder, catching him frowning in a moment of concentration.
"He's coming in pretty fast..."
"Dahlia, Iziel," Mahad's voice crackled over the communications at that very moment. Even with the static, Dahlia could hear the note of excited apprehension in his voice. Something had him spooked, and he probably wanted to shoot it.
"Mahad," Iziel's voice came through. "What have you found?"
"The reports we received were dead right. The Sphere is testing something out here. I've found what looks like a base of operations. They had a half dozen new ships parked up - can't wait to fight them. And looks like they've got some sort of new Brig."
"Didn't blast them right out of the sky then?" Iziel asked.
"No," Mahad growled. "We can do much more damage with the warships. And our seijins. That Brig thing was putting out some pretty powerful blasts, nearly took out my left engine..."
"Wait, Mahad, they saw you?" Dahlia asked.
"Well, yeah. I mean, I needed to see what they were doing; I had to get in close. Also, that might be important, meant to mention that... think they're following me."
"Mahad!" Dahlia snapped. "If they've got new ships..."
"They're prototypes. They've probably got all sorts of faults..."
"I seem to remember the original Hyperion was a prototype, Mahad."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Iziel cut in over the top. "Relax, Dahlia. Just because you're captaining his ship doesn't mean you've got to jump at shadows like our good friend Cortes. We'll cut down as many as we can, and if we run into trouble, we bolt. Even if we don't make a sizable dent in them we'll be bound to learn something about their capabilities."
"Alright," Dahlia admitted begrudgingly. "I think we can manage that." This was, after all, her chance to prove herself. She couldn't do that by turning tail and running.
"Awesome," said Mahad. She could practically hear him grinning over the channel. "We'll take them, Dahlia, don't worry sweetheart."
"That's captain to you, Mahad."
"I know, I know. Hey, and send Lena over. I'll double back and we can do a bit of damage before you lot catch up."
"I'll get her," Cheng stood up and left the bridge.
Dahlia drew in a deep breath. She hoped they were doing the right thing. But then there was only one way to find out.
* * *
Lena was pacing the floor of Cortes' cabin when Cheng threw open the door.
"Lena, Mahad's found the Sphere. They've got new ships or something; he thinks he'll need your help."
Lena let out a sigh. "Finally!" It was a sunny day and that always seemed to make her itch for something to do. Whilst she didn't find it as exciting to blast Sphere ships out of the sky as her brother, doing so certainly fit the bill for releasing the energy building up within her. It seemed that as her power steadily grew, so did the urge to use it. She had never craved the enormous energy that at times seemed to course within her, but so far she had managed to keep herself from anything resembling the atrocities she had seen Oslo perpetuate. What she could do with those powers was to help the resistance, to help people, and so far this had more than satisfied her.
"Come on, you two. Mahad needs our help."
'You two' were Jared and Horatio, two seijins who Lena was currently tutoring and who had agreed to come on this mission for the experience. Horatio was somewhere in his forties, blond with a thick bushy mustache. He had somehow managed to hide himself away from the Sphere for years, and when the resistance had grown in strength he had joined. It'd taken him about six months to approach Mila and let her know he was a seijin. He wasn't overly powerful, but steady and consistent with what power he did have. He stood to his feet as Lena spoke. "I've been waiting long enough to blast some of those bastards out of the sky."
Jared was eighteen, wiry and jittery, and had the potential to become a fairly powerful seijin, should he be able to concentrate on anything Lena tried to teach him. He was currently pawing through Cortes' bookcase. "Give me one second," he said. "I heard a rumour the captain keeps an alcohol stash in here... somewhere..."
"He does," said Cheng with a sigh. "Or rather, he did. He's moved it. And if you go digging into it, he'll know, trust me on this. In fact he'll probably blame me."
"Jared!" Lena barked at him.
Two books clattered to the ground. "Sorry, sorry, coming..."
The whine of an approaching engine drew their attention. Outside, Mahad's ship pulled up. Modeled off the Hyperion, it was almost the spitting image of that ship. Mahad was always tinkering with it, complaining it wasn't anything like the original. He'd even gone as far as to ask the resistance's engineers for assistance, despite which, he still was convinced it just wasn't quite right. The ship was solid red, with a very deliberate plastering of the rebel logo on its hull, rather than the Sphere's which had still been present on its predecessor.
The hatch hissed open. "Come on!" Mahad shouted. "I haven't got all day."
Docking was not required. Lena stepped out through the cabin doors and sent herself sailing across the gap easily. She slipped into the seat beside Mahad and flashed him a grin.
Horatio and Jared followed suit, a little less confidently. Lena could see Mahad watching them with a slight smirk on his face, his hand hovering over the ship's control stick. "Mahad..." she said.
He pulled his hands back. "I wasn't going to do anything."
As soon as everyone was on board, Mahad shot away. "Dahlia, Iziel," he said into the comms. "We'll engage as soon as we reach them, but we're counting on you for backup, so don't be far behind." That done, he pushed the throttle to full power.
Lena glanced across at her brother. He was excited, that was a given. But he stared ahead with a steely determination and concentration that indicated he was seriously focused on the upcoming battle, more so than he usually was. "Mahad..." Lena asked tentatively. "Why didn't you just take out the Sphere ships by yourself? It's not like you to come looking for backup."
"You'll see in a minute," her brother replied, sparing her only a brief glance. "It wasn't the ships, though they might be a bit of problem as well. This Brig thing they were trying out attacked me. I swear if that shot had landed I wouldn't be here now." He drew in a breath. "Taking down that thing needs a seijin."
"Well, you've got three now."
Mahad grinned at her. "Exactly. So, if they want to have a little field exercise, I say we give it to them."
"Fine by me."
Mahad's console let out a chirp.
"What's that mean?" Jared asked, shifting nervously in his seat.
Mahad waved a hand dismissively. "Yeah, it does that. It's not important. It just means... that!"
Out of the clouds ahead a dark grey ship burst forth. Mahad tipped the control stick, and they slipped past by centimeters. Mahad pulled them back around. Facing them was a ship that was almost an exact mirror image of the Hyperion. It was a dark solid grey. Lena wasn't sure, but she thought its engines may have been a tad beefier looking - Mahad would be able to tell for certain. It bore the Sphere emblem, outlined in red.
"Holy crap," said Jared. "They've got your ship, Mahad."
"You going to be able to out-fly them?" Horatio asked.
Mahad's mouth twisted into a frown. "Like I said, I'm not worried about the ships."
The enemy ship made no move, and neither did Mahad. His console blipped at him again, and then out of the clouds another half dozen Hyperion look-a-likes drifted into view and surrounded them.
Lena swallowed. She knew her brother got some crazy ideas sometimes, but to just sit there was insane. "Mahad..."
"Wait for it," said Mahad. The corner of his mouth had begun to twitch upwards. "They're here for tests. They want to test their biggest weapon, not play target practice... you might want to get out on the hull though, I have a funny feeling..." He opened the hatch, and Lena slipped out. She was less worried about Mahad making an impetuous move with the Hyperion - powerful enough now to guide herself through the skies with ease, she was in no danger.
On the ship opposite the hatch hissed open too, and then a Brig stepped out. At least, it looked like it was supposed to be a Brig. It was more solidly built, rather than the almost skeletal appearance of the previous model. This one was broad and bulky like a man in an armoured suit, rather than a spindly machine. It bore a similar colour scheme to the Hyperion-ships. Dark grey, almost black. With a red emblem and a red at its seams that seemed to glow with energy. Lena concentrated on it. Yes, it was a machine. It felt like a Brig. But it also felt different.
At that moment it raised its arm, its metal palm facing towards her. She saw a blue light begin to build.
"Lena!" Mahad shouted.
She needed no further invitation. Lena felt the Hyperion's deck drop below her, the ship darting out of harms way. She shot into the air like a bullet, and felt the power of the blast tear through the fabric of the atmosphere beneath her. Nearby was a bloc, perhaps fifty meters across. Lena landed on this. Seconds later, the Brig-machine landed across from her.
Around them the Hyperion chased its counterparts. Weapons fire lanced the air. Lena ignored all this. That Brig's blast, the one Mahad was scared would knock the Hyperion clear out of the sky, was no ordinary blast. It was nothing that a simple machine could create. Lena had sensed it, in that split second before she had darted out of its way. The blast had been powered by seijin energy.
"What are you!?" she demanded.
"I am the enforcer," the machine replied. It raised its arm again. Seijin energy shot towards her. This time Lena caught it, and felt her whole body tense and tingle. She gasped, so unexpected was the surge, and though intending to fling the shot back at this enforcer, her shot went wide and flew off harmlessly into the sky.
Lena drew in a breath and fought to clear her head. She was far beyond the fainting spells she'd suffered so often when she was younger, when she had overtaxed her powers to breaking point. She had learned not to push herself. But in that moment she felt closer to passing out than she had in years. With a growl she steadier herself. "Okay, lets see how you handle this."
Drawing in the abundant sunlight, she built her own blast and flung it at the enforcer. The energy parted around the enforcer like water; the machine budged not an inch.
Lena balked. What was she supposed to do with this thing? It was playing with her. Mahad was right; it was out on a field test and it had simply incorporated the rebel attack. But she couldn't back down. I need help.
She sent the thought out telepathically. Either Horatio or Jared would hear, assuming Jared wasn't so nervous he'd forgotten everything she'd taught him. Sure enough, within seconds the Hyperion whipped past close, and Jared and Horatio thumped down onto the bloc beside her.
"What's wrong?" Horatio asked. "What is that thing?"
The enforcer waited patiently for their next action.
"It calls itself an enforcer," said Lena, eyeing it warily. "It... we need to blast it together. I just... it seems to be giving a bit of trouble going down."
The three seijins stood shoulder to shoulder. They built a blast before them, a solid wall of light, and the enforcer just stood there. Lena fought down the feeling that this was a really bad idea. "Now!" she shouted.
The blast flung forward. The enforcer caught it, then flung it back, splitting it into a dozen individual balls of concentrated light. Lena ducked and threw up a shield. She could hear the hiss as parts of it dissolved, and she wasn't sure if it was simply from the power of the enforcer's blast, or like her original shot, her shield was having no effect.
"Is everyone okay..." she looked up, and froze as her gaze fell on Horatio. He was staring ahead, blankly, at the enforcer.
The enforcer stared back, and tilted its head slightly to the side.
Horatio looked down, to the spot Lena was already unable to take her eyes off of. A hole the size of a golf ball was burned cleaned through his chest. His shirt smoked, but there was no blood. He swayed, and then fell face first to the surface of the bloc.
"Lena!" said Jared, his voice cracking. He had ducked to the ground to avoid the blast, and now stared at Horatio, shaking; it didn't look like he'd be able to stand.
Lena turned back to the enforcer. "You son of a bitch!" she shouted at the machine as her vision blurred. She planted her feet firmly apart, and gathered in all the sunlight she could muster. Power built along with rage, far more powerful than her first blast, still more powerful than the combined power the three seijins had previously hurled, and flung it at the enforcer. The light was blinding, and this time the enforcer turned its head slightly to the side as if to avoid the glare, but apart from that it barely flinched.
Lena felt her legs sway beneath her. Mahad. Then she sunk down to the grassy surface of the bloc and the world around her faded to black.
* * *
Through the heat of the battle Mahad heard Lena's voice. The ships were tough, but he had already cut down two. The fact they were almost the same as his didn't scare him - he was the one with the experience. He had the advantage. So he thought nothing of swinging around, thinking his sister had finally gotten the best of this new Brig and simply needed a pick up.
The bloc the seijins were fighting on swung into view. Horatio and Lena were down.
"Lena!" Mahad felt his heart rise into his throat. Completely forgetting the circling ships he pulled up next to the bloc and opened the hatch. He remembered at the last moment, and it was everything he could do to keep himself firmly planted in his seat, where he could access the controls, the weapons, if needed. "Jared, what happened?"
Jared was kneeling at Lena's side, visibly shaking. He heaved her limp body into her arms. "She's.. she's okay. Horatio's dead..." he swallowed.
Mahad glanced at the dark, bulky Brig. It was standing there motionless, but it looked unharmed. He risked looking back at Lena and Jared. "Get... get her back in here." He didn't know what had happened. He hadn't been paying attention to them, instead concentrating on fighting the ships, enjoying it. Whilst this had happened! Why hadn't he kept an eye on them?!
Under seijin energy Jared heaved himself and Lena into the cockpit, where he promptly collapsed on the floor and started to sob.
Mahad stole one last glance at the Brig. He could try blasting it, but if Lena hadn't scratched it so what could he possibly do? Horatio was still there, but then the machine raised its hand and energy began to build within its palm.
"Damn it..." Mahad pulled the Hyperion away, threatening to snap the hatch off due to the sudden acceleration. He only barely got this closed before it was damaged. The Sphere ships were following; he didn't know where the Brig was.
Before him, the bulk of two rebel warships parted the clouds. "Not now! Turn around!" Neither the Leviathan or Saint Nazaire responded. Mahad growled in frustration before realising it was because he hadn't activated the communications. He slammed a hand on the console and opened a channel. "Dahlia, Iziel! Turn around!"
"What the hell's going on, Mahad. I didn't come all the way out here to..."
"Iziel, Lena couldn't beat that thing! You will lose both ships if we don't turn around!"
"Nonsense, you just need a bit more firepower." The Leviathan surged forward and opened fire on the Sphere vessels. They darted away with every bit of speed the Hyperion was capable of mustering. "Seriously Mahad, what's gotten into you? These are basically your ship, you should be able to..."
One of the ships darted around behind the Leviathan. It's hatch opened.
"Back out!" Mahad shouted into the radio. His heart was pounding, Iziel was going to get herself killed, if she would just listen to him... for the briefest of moments, it crossed Mahad's mind that this was how he use to make Cortes feel.
The Brig stepped out and fired a blast of energy. It hit the Leviathan's shields with a hiss. Under the concentrated blast the Leviathan's shields quickly failed, but only at the exact point of impact. There was a hole in their defence, perhaps only a few meters wide. The Brig sent multiple balls of energy through this hole. Once beyond the shields the balls of light darted about, as if looking for specific targets, before punching into the hull at several different points.
The Leviathan let out a groan and its engines fell silent. It began to list to the side, streams of smoke escaping from its hull. The shields flickered and fell completely.
And then the Brig lowered its arm and halted its attack. It turned its attention to the Saint Nazaire.
Mahad felt his stomach drop. "No, Dahlia!"
Again, the Brig opened a hole in the shields, but this time only fired a few balls of light. They impacted various points in the Saint Nazaire's hull, but did not cause the same drastic failures they had on the Leviathan. The Saint Nazaire was smoking from two places, but its engines still ran.
Mahad slapped a hand on the console. "Dahlia, are you alright?" No response. "Dahlia!"
"It's okay, Mahad, I'm fine," Her voice finally came through and Mahad let out a huff of air, hanging his head in relief. "They've taken out weapons, half of the computers, but nothing critical... but Iziel, you need to check she's..."
"You have ten minutes to vacate the area," A new voice broke over the communications system. Mechanical, measured, but nowhere near as passive as the Brigs they were used to. Mahad didn't know how, but he immediately realised it was the Sphere's new machine that addressed them. "Be sure to inform your resistance of the new developments you have witnessed here today. Both the enforcer and Hyperion class vessels will shortly be deployed to halt your continued unwillingness to participate in, and direct opposition to, the future of Skyland."
"They're... they're letting us go?" Jared said, his voice quivering.
Mahad glanced over his shoulder. Lena was beginning to stir. Thank God. He swallowed hard. "Yeah. Looks like we're the messengers."