An excerpt from Pawns (The Wielders of Arantha, Book1) by Patrick Hodges
The old woman lay on her bed, motionless, staring up at the ceiling of the only home she’d ever known. She was born in this room. She would die there too.
She’d laid her withered hands upon the Stone one last time the day before, feeling the surge of warm, familiar energy as it coursed through her frail body. Her mind beheld an array of familiar images: the past, present and future of her people, a history she helped shape. As the feeling of unity with Arantha began to subside, she felt suffused with a tremendous sense of inner peace. Her work finished, she would soon be welcomed into Arantha’s waiting arms.
For her people, the road ahead would be difficult. Their isolated way of life, the path Arantha put them on centuries ago, would end. The chain of events she’d set in motion with her final order would see to that. And it would be up to her daughter Kelia, as her successor, to discover a new path for them. New enemies would arise, as would new allies. She saw them all, time and time again, in her mind’s eye: the dark twins, the northern mage, the painted woman from the Above.
One last, lingering doubt crept through the old woman’s mind. She’d prepared Kelia for her role as Protectress her entire life, and though Kelia didn’t possess her mother’s level of foresight, her elemental abilities were unequaled. She was a strong leader, well-respected, and wise beyond her years. But would it be enough?
It has to be, she thought with a regretful sigh. To fail would mean oblivion for my people, and for all of Elystra.
Her vision darkened, a curtain of blackness that stole her sight one inch at a time. Her breath became ragged, and she felt her heart beat for the final time.
As her spirit left her body, her final thought was a silent prayer:
Arantha, watch over them.
Maeve blinked back tears as the Talon powered through Earth’s atmosphere. They’d evaded the Jegg’s ground-based weapons, but that was merely the first line of defense.
Once they hit open space, their problems increased exponentially. She didn’t have to look at the sensors to confirm the Jegg ships were following them. The Talon was the first Earth ship to be airborne in five years. Even though the hull was black and silver, it may as well have been pink and yellow with a huge bull’s-eye painted on it.
For eighteen months, they’d planned this mission. With the help of his contacts in the Underground, Richard not only restored a junked Space Corps cargo ship but somehow combined a Jegg quantigraphic rift drive with a Terran supralight engine. Two completely different technologies, and he miraculously got them to speak the same language. This brilliant engineer, the man she fell in love and had a son with, was the key factor in the Underground’s last-ditch effort to find a way to escape the alien conquerors who had subjugated the human race.
They’d celebrated last night, the ten of them: Maeve, Richard, their fourteen-year-old son Davin, Richard’s protégé Gaspar, and the entire team that toiled in utmost secrecy to get this bucket off the ground. The mood was ebullient, as it seemed their mission would finally commence.
Mission! Maeve snorted as the ship burst through the stratosphere and out into open space. A Hail Mary is what it is. We’re hanging our last hope on the word of a shimmering alien being and praying there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Brushing strands of her purple, shoulder-length hair away from her face, she cast a sidelong glance at the copilot’s chair. Seeing its emptiness, a tear escaped her violet eyes.
My husband is dead.
So are Manny, Kacy, Calvin, Ji-Yan, Suri, and Mahesh.
She chided herself. Now was not the time for these thoughts. They threw her adrenaline rush out of whack and disrupted the concentration she badly needed right now. There were still three lives to save, including her own. Fighting down her emotions, she called upon the piloting skills she spent fifteen years in the Space Corps sharpening.
Jegg fighters were nearly impossible to detect unless they were right in front of you, one of the reasons the Terran Defense Forces had been so helpless against them. Gaspar increased the sensors’ capabilities just enough for them to know fighters were in pursuit. Judging from the number of explosions detonating near the ship, causing it to rock back and forth like a kayak on white-water rapids, there had to be at least three of them.
Regaining her focus, Maeve banked sharply to the right and fired the sublight thrusters, making a beeline for the Asteroid Belt. Once they cleared that, and the Jegg dampening field that effectively rendered supralight technology inoperable, they could engage their makeshift QRD and be out of the Terran system in the blink of an eye.
The pursuing Jegg fighters increased their speed. They were gaining.
Maeve flipped a switch on her panel. “Gaspar!” she shouted. “I don’t think they’re gonna let us go without a fight!”
“Oh, ya think?” came a frazzled voice from the other end of the intercom.
“Any ideas?” Maeve asked. She pushed the steering column forward a few inches, and the Talon increased its speed. The vibrations intensified, as if the ship was about to fly apart at the seams.
“Hold on a sec,” Gaspar said, pausing briefly. “I’ve got four canisters of D34Z ready to jettison. Let me know when to detonate. Maybe we can take a few of ‘em out.”
She checked the sensors, which indicated five Jegg fighters in hot pursuit. “Stand by!”
The Belt loomed in front of them, millions of rocks that had floated in space between Mars and Jupiter for eons. A few more seconds, and they could lose themselves within it. Or die a fiery death.
Davin burst through the cockpit door, threw himself into the copilot’s chair, and fastened his safety belt. “Anytime you want to get us out of here, Mom . . .” Sweat and grime caked his freckled face and curly red hair, but his eyes shone with fierce determination.
She returned her gaze to the viewport, gripping her controls even tighter. “Don’t start, kiddo, we’re in some deep-level shite here. Where’ve you been?”
“Helping Gaspar load the canisters into the airlock. Let’s blow this pop stand and go, okay?”
“Roger that,” she said as another explosion rocked the ship. Into the intercom, she yelled, “G! Eject the first three canisters . . . now!”
The sound of a metal hatch clanging open echoed through the ship, followed by a whoosh of compressed air as three large, yellow containers shot from the airlock, one after the other. She followed their trajectories on the scanner, watching as the Jegg fighters pressed in.
“Detonate on my mark!”
Seconds ticked off as the enemy ships drew ever closer.
A huge explosion violently rocked the Talon again. A control panel behind Davin sparked and began to smoke. He unhooked himself, leaped out of the chair, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and sprayed the panel with fire-suppressing foam.
Maeve checked her scanner again. Where before there were five faint blips following them, there were now only three, and one was falling behind, obviously crippled.
She allowed herself a smile. “Three down! Well done, G!”
“Major?” came Gaspar’s voice, laced with desperation. “We have a big problem!”
“The quantigraphic rift drive is offline! That last explosion blew the containment field!”
Oh, shite. Not good. “Can you restore it?”
“Assuming the manifold stabilizer isn’t fried, yes.”
Maeve gulped. “Be careful, G.”
“You got it. Give me two minutes.”
“No promises.” Maeve executed a barrel-roll, evading the maelstrom of rocks that seemed to fill nearly every square inch of the window. The two remaining Jegg fighters were still right behind them, firing in a continuous barrage.
Just then, a crazy idea came to her. “Dav, is that fourth canister ready to go?”
Davin, back in his chair, checked the panel in front of him. “Locked and loaded.”
“Perfect!” She pulled back on the controls, banking upward and narrowly missing a huge, jagged asteroid. It was impossible, but Maeve swore she felt the wind of it going by.
One of the pursuing fighters wasn’t so lucky. It tried to veer off at the last second, but it was too late. The asteroid clipped its starboard thruster, and it spun out of control until it crashed in a fiery conflagration on another enormous rock.
“One more down!” yelled Davin.
The last remaining fighter bore down on them, firing salvo after salvo. The Talon rocked again, and sparks poured from another control panel.
Maeve activated the intercom again. “G, we gotta go! Is the containment field back up?”
“Yeah!” came Gaspar’s voice. “Thirty seconds to power up the jump!”
“Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen,” Maeve instructed, banking hard left again. “We eject the final canister, and detonate it at point-blank range just as we make the jump.”
“Are you crazy?” Gaspar sounded frantic. “The hull’s already been weakened! You detonate that close, it’ll tear right through us!”
Maeve sighed. “The Jegg’s long-range scanners will think we were destroyed. It’s our only hope right now.”
“No time, G! Prepare to eject! Twenty-second countdown till jump, mark! Get yourself to safety!”
“On my way,” he said, and the intercom cut off.
Maeve and Davin both held their breath.
The Talon twirled around another flying asteroid. They’d cleared the Belt.
Another clang, followed by another whoosh.
Maeve’s thumb hovered over a button that read ‘QRD – Engage’.
“Detonate!” she shouted.
The screen displaying the ship’s rear sensor array flashed fiery orange and red.
Half a second later, Maeve pressed the button. “Mark! Hang on, Dav!”
A whir of built-up energy filled their ears as the quantigraphic rift drive powered up. The control panel on Maeve’s left erupted in a shower of sparks, and she felt an intense burning sensation on her arm.
Her mouth opened in a silent scream as an energy field enveloped the Talon.
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