Chances of making it planetside alive seemed about as close to zero as they could get without actually being zero, and so what? Refugees from the outer planets had suffered under Gan-De’s siege for decades. Whole families—whole lines, unbroken for how many millennia?—eradicated with a single missile. Niko didn’t deserve sparing because of where they’d been born in the system. Quite the opposite. If this was how they died, this was how they died. Gods be with them, here, in the thick of it, where shit actually mattered.
Niko inhaled, letting the last traces of fear wash over them, then dissipate. It had been over a month since this journey had begun, and it had been a crash course in bucking the fuck up. How many consecutive nights had they had fewer than four hours of sleep? How many days of being underfed on the most basic of ration packages? None of that mattered.
Niko booted up one of the offline console computers in charge of sub-auxiliary systems. It was one of three computers they’d need to work on to begin to handle the assault from the Gandesian drones.
They couldn’t flex and move properly while stuck in a chair, so despite the rockiness of the ship as Asala evaded attacks, they undid their harness to work standing up, one foot braced against a control panel wall.
Niko patently refused to look at the various monitors showing the assault, instead trusting Asala to take care of the navigation. She piloted the ship manually, not trusting the ship’s automatic defensive and predictive protocols to plot an effective escape. But for the subtle sheen of sweat over her face, she gave no hint she was fazed by the onslaught of defense drones. She sat with her back straight, shoulders tense enough to stabilize her but not so tight she wasn’t flexible enough to switch between the four joysticks in front of her. She bounced between them with ease.
“Brace for impact,” Asala said suddenly, voice heated. Niko clutched the edges of the console.
The ship took heavy fire on their left, knocking the whole ship off-kilter.
Asala held on to a bar welded to the navigation panel designed for just this reason and otherwise remained secure in her harness. Niko fell leftward, body crashing into the seat they’d been in before. Their head smashed against an edge, and the world split into fragments, the control room into blurred pieces. Ringing in their ears blocked the series of commands Asala was barking out.
Niko blinked open their eyes slowly, trying to see through the bruised throbbing in their head. If they didn’t pull it together, Asala would have to handle this alone, and she needed Niko.
Niko stumbled up. “Get on it!” Asala shouted.
Niko climbed back into their seat, pulling the harness down. It was time to sacrifice flexibility of movement.
They squinted in an attempt to sharpen their waning vision. The scripts were all running properly and Niko began to type again, only there was something slick against the keyboard.
It was blood.
Niko felt their forehead. There was a bleeding gash above their left eyebrow. They swiped the back of their hand against it and kept typing. All security procedures had weaknesses because of the very fact that they were procedures. They were systematized. Even Cynwrig wasn’t so paranoid that she would have had the drones programmed individually. It wouldn’t have been efficient. That meant the drones were networked, and all Niko had to do was breach one. There had to be some sort of communication line between the drones and the command base. That was where the vulnerable point would be. There was only so much you could do to secure a connection like that. Cynwrig’s programmers were probably counting on the fact that the drones would be quick and efficient enough to avoid anyone having time to exploit that weakness.
“We’re going to get battered. I can’t keep them off much longer,” Asala said, biting down on every word.
“Just—I need more time.” They were getting so close. Sweat and blood mingled on their face. The ship rocked back and forth with the incoming blasts. A heavy layer of physical shields kept internal systems safe, but those would give out soon.
Not meaning to, Niko glanced again at the monitors. There were even more drones now.
“Tell me we’re going to make it,” they said, not so ready to die after all. They ran script after script, fingers slick and numb, head pulsing at a blurring intensity.
Leaving it here, like this, the mission not complete—who was that going to help?
“Brace!” Asala yelled as they were hit with another round of fire. It was wearing through the merlidium alloy shields.
Niko’s head swung back and forth on the soft cushion of the headrest, though it didn’t feel particularly soft given the pulsing ache that had taken over their head.
“I need an ETA on...