|Garret banked hard port and his Raptor shook again. Thank the gods they build them tough, his mind quipped as he reversed his roll and went relative vertical. Opening his throttles and screaming himself hoarse as the multiple gravities of the maneuver crushed him into the command couch. A guttural roar answered his on the fighter’s intercom, his RIO bellowing her displeasure almost as loudly as he was.
Pulling out, he cut throttle and flipped the sleek jet end for end. Opening his greeting to the enemy that had been dogging them for nearly five minutes with a spray of laser fire, he carefully lined the fighter up in his sights as it closed. The advantage of having longer ranged weapons was the ability to take that extra half a second, he smiled grimly. His finger stroked the firing stud under his thumb and the raptor bucked.
Simultaneously, a streak of near molten, heavily fractured steel rod shot from the muzzle under the bow, and lightning arced across half of his control panels. The ship jolted again as something exploded and they went into a flat spin. Grunting as the force yanked him around the cockpit, he scrabbled for the controls. Have to stop the spin, he thought as he heard a muffled roar from the back seat. I’ll black out and the cat will puke if I don’t.
Wrenching the controls around Garret slowed the spin and looked at the remaining screens. They had lost a wing tank, the other was still venting, and something was wrong with the huge belly mounted mass driver. Prolly to a slug in all that maneuvering, he thought, flipping the doors open and stabbing fingers at the three buttons he had armed. He felt a trio of thuds, and watched as the wing tank that was still venting corkscrewed off into the black.
“Report.” He called in a flat tone as he finished stopping their spin.
The wreckage of the enemy fighter slid past. He could see the creature that was flying scrabbling at his controls behind the canopy and he felt a pang of regret. The planet was coming up fast and the fighter was missing an engine and half a wing. It would be an unpleasant and quick burn in. As he watched, his finally saw the escape pod jettison, flaring out for re-entry and the crash that would follow.
“It’s bad Garret.” his RIO growled behind him. “Mass Driver let go of the cap when you fired it, fried about ninety percent of our electronics. Radar is out, radio, and targeting as well.”
“Can we still fly?” Garret asked casually, his eyes drifting to the two mirrors mounted on the canopy.
They were drifting toward the planet and the same entry zone as the enemy with startling speed. He worked the controls carefully, giving them a little burn and adjusting their decent to one that would more closely resemble orbital re-entry as opposed to a stone hitting the surface of a pond. If they had enough they could even slingshot and head back toward the fleet. And what, hope for a rescue from a passing retrieval ship, with no radio to call them, he chided himself.
“You managed to save ten minutes of fuel with the jettison of the externals, that would be the limit of flight time.” his RIO said. “our distress beacon seems to be functional, our laser batteries are all messed up, we only have one of the four remaining.”
“Launch it, Ferris” he ordered, feeling the pop as the distress beacon jettisoned as well, spinning off above their flight path. That would get the fleet’s attention and they would come pick them up, though he was beginning to think it would be from the surface of the planet below. Glancing in his mirrors again he grimaced. It was getting way to close.
“Ferris, fast calc.” he snapped. “Do we have enough fuel to achieve a stable orbit?”
“Don’t think so.” The cat said. “Decaying at best, twenty, maybe twenty two orbits before we sank into the atmosphere.”
“And certainly not enough to ellipse it and pull out of its gravity on the other side.” Garret said. “All right, kick the tires and light the fires, Ferris, prep for orbital transfer.”
The fighter bucked when the twin drive flares finished the ignition sequence and raw flame spewed into the black. Advancing the throttles, Garret swung the nose of the fighter away from the planet and arrested some of their decent before he flipped it all the way over and accelerated into the circuit. Funny, he thought, but if you aren’t going fast enough when you hit, you burn as well. After nearly two minutes, Ferris called time and he shut the engines down. And now we wait, he mused.
It took nearly an hour and a half for the first orbit, and Ferris was navigating their entry the entire time. There was something soothing about the cat’s voice when she was calculating trajectory and velocity. It was halfway between purr and growl, as she muttered to herself behind him. The race had been discovered by some colony on the rim of known space. They had been aggressive at first, but came to grips with the fact that they were not alone almost faster than mankind had.
“Captain Garret.” She finally purred. “We have one chance for this, so try to show some skill at not getting us killed.”
“And what do you call all that I just did?” Garret shot back, waving his hand in the air as she chuckled.
“I will require full burn for fifty-five seconds to stabilize our decent enough for us to achieve the apogee we require to reach our designated landing zone.” she said as smoothly as if he had never spoken. “This will leave about four minutes of maneuvering thrust once we get into the lower atmosphere, so you won’t get a second pass at the field.”
“What kind of field?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“Mountain meadow.” she said. “Fairly even ground, as much as I can tell from here, and a fair uphill slant to help stop our forward roll.”
“Give me power for the burn when you want it.” Garret said, his gut sinking. “And I want power three minutes to the LZ.”
“Having power to reach it at four minutes out would be optimal.” Ferris said softly. “At three minutes, you may end up having to burn more fuel to get back up to landing altitude.”
“I’ll make it in.” he snapped. “That isn’t the problem honey. I want to stop before we eat up to much ‘Mountain Meadow’!”
“Alright, Captain.” Ferris acquiesced. “The engines are still primed, if you can give me full burn in fifteen seconds… Mark!”
“Fifteen seconds, Aye.” Garret called, hands slipping automatically to the controls as the words rolled out of his mouth.
“Ten…” she called, her voice close in his headset. “Five… Four… Three… Ready… Steady… Mark!”
His hand slammed the throttles open and he felt the Raptor leap. She groaned and complained around him, the sudden leap beginning to shudder and shake. Careful to keep the nose pointed straight ahead, he watched the clock in the dash. Every other fucking thing on my crate burns out, he thought darkly, seconds ticking by, but the damn clock is still keeping time. At forty five seconds, Ferris called the ten second mark, then the countdown again. When she reached the stopping mark, he hesitated a second and a half and then cut throttle.
For another hour they drifted, then the first eddy of atmosphere made the raptor shudder slightly. Sitting up from the slouch he had assumed, Garret once again took the controls. With a quick but calculated movement in one of the lulls, he rolled the fighter over, putting her canopy up and then he closed the shields over them. After that the raptor shook as the atmosphere claimed her. He had no screens to speak of, but he had one screen that could display his horizon and his altitude. Careful to keep her nose at the right angle, they tore into the stratosphere. Like a pretty, pretty lawn dart, he thought darkly as the descended.
Once they were down into the thicker atmosphere and slowing down considerably he reopened the shields and looked around. A brilliant blue sky stood bold overhead, and vast stretches of white cloud billowed below. Through the clouds he could see ocean, and the some mountains in the distance, rising out of the water. He idly wondered at the peaceful beauty of it in the low groaning of the wind around them. And here he was thundering in to claim the world on which neither man nor cat had set foot or paw.
“We’ll fix that in about ten minutes.” he muttered, checking his deceleration in comparison to the amount of altitude he was losing. “ETA to LZ?” he called.
“Five minutes.” Ferris snapped. “Ignition in two, how is our altitude?”
“We are buster speed to make the field, air is thicker.” Garret snapped back. “Give me ignition now.”
“Roger.” She said, and he felt the immediate thump through the frame.
He eased the throttles open to a bare ten percent and prayed. Maneuvering fuel was calculated at twenty five percent throttle, which meant his four minutes should last him almost ten, but with the thicker air he was feeling in the shudders of the fighter, that was going to be more like eight. Three minutes of emergency reserve at twenty five percent, he thought, or forty five seconds at full power.
“We are going to have forty seconds of full power when we get close!” Garret yelled over the rattle of the fighter. “Hold on to your ass with both paws!”
“Holding.” Ferris snarled.
He knew she hated rough landings, and really, he wasn’t fond of them either, but there was no helping this one. As they came round a little spire on final he groaned. The meadow was almost a thousand feet above them and almost out of reach. Pray forty seconds is enough, boyo, he thought, shoving the throttle home. The ship screamed and shook as he lifted the nose and climbed, accelerating toward safety.
As they were closing with the edge of the trees at the lower end of the field, he slapped the gear controls, felt them snap out into position and then the drive flairs sputtered. He sucked in a breath and held it, flicking the afterburner switch a couple of times and getting one last puff before they died. Slipping in, he saw the trees coming up to him too fast and swore silently. The first tree top shattered over a wing, the next ripped open the hull along one of the engines and from the tugging wrench, he guessed it had relieved them of a main gear on that side.
The crashing noise around him was utterly amazing as they tore up the edge of the woods and then as fast as it started there was silence. Time seemed to slow as he realized they had no wings left and were nothing more than a seventy five foot long dart about to plant into some strange meadow on some strange planet. Good thing we got the emergency beacon off, he pondered as the green rushed up to meet them. The sound when they hit was even worse.
When Garret woke it was dark all around him, and he could hear faint breathing and static. With a groan he tried to move and found he was still in his seat. Feeling for the canopy, he sighed when he found it. He vaguely remembered seeing the re-entry shields close as they hit and realized the dark was because it had managed to snap shut over them. The breathing over the suit radio was slow and steady and the static in his ear was pulsing with it.
“Ferris?” he called. “Hey Ferris… You alive?”
“Yes.” She groaned. “Unfortunately I am.”
Behind him, he heard rustling and he felt around himself again. They were on their side, but they might have dirt heaped against the canopy so that was a risk. He didn’t seem to have broken anything which was a definite plus, and he hadn’t heard her yowl yet, so he assumed she was alright. He heard her buckle unfasten and he followed suit. Scrambling around in the tight space Garret found the canopy releases and grinned.
“Is your suit sealed?” he called.
“Yes.” Ferris answered.
“I’m gonna pop her open.” He said.
“Alright.” Ferris replied, crunching down to get clear.
He pulled the levers and he heard the muffled crump of the explosive bolts and saw light flash along the top edge of their little prison. Shuffling around again, he got his feet on the canopy with his back in the seat and pushed. The crack widened, but not enough. He heard Ferris rearranging herself to help and waited, pushing with her. For half an hour they worked, pushing the canopy against the dirt that held it in place and then trying to lift it over the side, till finally, Ferris got her end to move.
With a howl of delight, she wrenched it out of the way, and tossed it over then side of the pilot’s compartment. Looking around Garret grinned up at her from where he sat, crouched in his seat. He had to respect the power and grace of the cats, and this was one time he was going to mark down in the books as a point to remember. As he scrambled out and took a look himself, she reached back in and retrieved their emergency kits from the little storage compartment, shouldering one and holding the other out to him. Taking it, he pulled the straps out and slung the pack.
“I’m showing five hours left on our air.” he said. “You think command knew what they were saying when they told us the atmosphere was breathable?”
“I’ll check.” She said, pulling her pack back off.
Opening the top, she rummaged around and found the pack of toxin sniffers. Cracking one open, she pulled it open and they watched it. The faint blue of the strip darkened a few shades before it turned slowly to a rich green. Ferris looked up at him with her eyebrows arched up in question. Green meant the air was good, but he had never seen it turn that dark in his life and from the look she was giving him neither had she.
“Well, let’s crack our helmets and get a lung full while we can.” he said.
Settling his rifle onto its sling he reached for the clasps and released his helmet from his suit, setting it on the side of the fighter. Taking a deep breath, he nearly sank to his knees and kissed the ground. The air was sweet, and the soft chatter and chirr of wildlife was everywhere around them. He looked back at the woods and saw a bird of some kind flit through the trees and he smiled, remembering his Rocky Mountain childhood. Remembering the bears and wildcats of that area brought him up short.
Pulling his heavy hand blaster out, he chambered a round and replaced it in the holster, snapping it back down. He glanced over and watched her do the same. Going back in, she fished out the case at the bottom and setting it on the mound of dirt, she cracked it open. Slipping a magazine into one of the rifles, she charged it and handed the weapon to him, safety on. Repeating the process she readied her own rifle and then retrieved the two belts with their five magazine pouches on them.
She handed him a belt, slinging her rifle and securing her own around her hips as he scanned the edges of the meadow. He settled his rifle across the mound of dirt and secured his own belt, before he cradled the weapon and turned to look the other direction. The trees were similar to the evergreens of earth, but something was definitely off. The little blue and pink flowers that dotted the meadows brought memories of hunting with his father in the Rocky Mountains, but again something was different.
Stepping out of the sheltered area of their cockpit, he went over and squatted down to look closer. He grinned as he saw one of the differences. The flowers only had three petals, instead of four or six like the meadow flowers back home. Standing as Ferris stepped up next to him, he turned back and looked at the crumpled, smoking wreck. If they stayed here, anything would be able to track them, But if they went too far, the rescue team would never find them in the raw wilderness.
Stopping, he made a slow turn, looking carefully again at his surroundings. Raw, untouched wilderness, thicker air, he thought, we are truly alone here. When he finished his turn, he looked at Ferris standing beside him. The cats had signed on as allied forces six months before, asking help from the humans in the ongoing war they had with another race. The humans had offered it, and the war had erupted.
“No one colonized here.” He said softly.
“No, though it has some considerable value to both our people.” She answered.
“I mean, no one.” Garret said turning to her. “Not you, not us, not even the damn lizards.” He went on. “I don’t think there is advanced life on this rock… animals, maybe… I hope.”
“The richer air, and the verdant plant life, untouched?” she asked, peering around again.
“Exactly.” Garret said. “Then again, we are here… and so are a couple of lizards, if they survived their wreck.”
“I saw their fighter.” Ferris said, looking around again with a cautious eye. “It was torn asunder.”
“Absolutely tore to shit, hon.” He said, wishing she would try to use some colloquial in her speech. “And I saw them manage to punch out before they hit. Where did we come in, relational to our fight?”
“They would be over there, somewhere.” She said, gesturing past a few mountains. “If they survived, which I doubt.”
“Still…” Garret said. “Chance is there, I don’t know how long we were out, but standing on top of this old smoke signal isn’t the wisest I think.”
“There.” Ferris said, pointing to the uppermost point of the meadow. “There are rocks there, and trees.” She said. “We can build shelter, secure a spot to watch the wreck, and have running water.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Garret agreed.
As they moved off, she took the lead and he let her. She was a born huntress and her race was known for considerable strength and agility, much like the earthen felines they resembled. He grinned as he followed her, watching as her hips swayed with her gait. Garret had fancied his RIO for some time, but he was her superior officer, so he allowed himself nothing more than looking. That and the rest of the squadron, human and cat alike frowned on intermingling on that level.
Might be nice to curl up with on a cold night though, he thought with a sigh. Fifteen minutes later they got to the stream and walked along its bank a little ways. He squatted and looked around. There was enough tumbled stone in the creek bed to make a small mansion if he had mortar, but the cliff behind had something better. Shale will do very nicely, he thought with a grin.
“Ferris.” He called softly, falling into his old habits of hunting.
He pointed to the hillside when she turned and looked at him. Her eyes flicked across it for a moment, locating some of the choicer chunks and slides and then back to him. Nodding, she turned back to the creek and meadow, slowly looking over every detail and sniffing the air as she did. A soft chirr from her caught his attention and he looked back over at her. She used hand signals to tell him they should continue upstream a ways before they picked a spot, and he smiled and nodded, standing back up and following her.
They slowly picked their way along the bank of the creek till they found a spot to fjord and crossed. On the side closer to the hill, the trees came farther down the meadow and she made for them gradually. Garret watched her closely as she sniffed about and scanned the area back and forth. Nearly an hour passed as she picked her way along, and then she pointed to a spot back off the creek a little way. There was a little opening in the trees, and a depression in the wall of shale. Not quite a cave, but certainly the starts of helping them stay out of the elements.
Turning he looked back and realized they were at the very apex of the meadow, across the stream from their wreck. Raising his rifle, he sighted in on the shrapnel and thumbed the ranging device. Five hundred meters, he thought, it’s a good thing I made the squadron’s rifle team. Looking back around himself, he realized there were less slides of shale, and the trees clung to the slop above her chosen spot all the way to the top. Gonna have to pack the entire damn wall, his mind chattered on at him.
“It is the best spot to watch our crash, build a defense and hold our position.” Ferris said softly, stepping back past him. “How long do you think till command comes and gets us?”
“Few days.” Garret answered easily. “At worst, a few weeks.”
“We will need to hunt if it is going to be a few weeks.” she said, a grin on her muzzle. “I could handle that, I think.”
“Hell, Ferris.” Garret chuckled. “We been about six months overdue for a little R’n’R.”
“That we have.” She agreed, turning her smile back to him. “I find I am actually hoping for the few weeks.”
“Fuck.” He swore, looking up at the vibrant blue sky. “So am I.”
“Shelter?” Ferris asked, gesturing to the shallow indentation in the wall. “I can start gathering stone if you want to get some small logs for a frame.”
“Sounds good to me.” he said with a grin, glancing down at the bulky pressure suit. “But I am ditching this first.” he added.
“Point.” Ferris replied, walking back into the little clearing and setting her pack down.
Joining her, he did the same, leaning his rifle against a tree with hers. Helping her unfasten her suit, he grinned. The body stocking they wore under the pressure suit was snug and left little to the imagination, though, she had managed to this point to never let him see her in just that. When she turned to help him out of his suit, he stood there for a moment, looking at her, his jaw hanging. In that moment he understood why all of the female cats on ship wore loose shirts. Mentally he kicked himself, and snapped his jaw shut when she grinned, her golden eyes sparkling at him.
Turning he let her help him out of his suit, squatting and fishing his jumpsuit and boots out of his pack. He didn’t want to let her see what the thought of her was doing to him as he shifted a bit and shrugged into the clothing. Using the excuse of fastening the front of his suit up, he adjusted and then turned back around. She was still standing there in her body stocking, her bare paws in the grass, looking at him questioningly.
“Never occurred to me your kind would… ahh…” he stammered, averting his eyes from her sleek form. “Have more breasts than us.” he finished, blushing.
“Ah.” She said softly looking down at her front. “I see.” she said, smoothing the body stocking down against herself as she turned.
He could see the rough little lumps of eight nipples, set in four pairs and the first two sets were set on compact little breasts. She wasn’t greatly endowed, but he had never seen a cat that was. As he watched, she stooped and shuffled through her own pack, her ears and tail drooping a little as she dragged her own jumpsuit and boots out. Shit son, his mind babbled at him, you hurt the poor girl’s feelings… Yeah, but what the hell am I supposed to do about that now? He asked himself.
“Uh… Ferris…” he stammered. “I don’t wanna give you the wrong idea here or anything… but… uhh…”
“It’s alright, Captain.” She said, straightening up and pulling on her jump suit in one fluid motion. “We are different species, I understand that I wouldn’t appeal to a male of your kind.”
“Oh.” He said, startled. “It isn’t that at all, Ferris.”
“What then?” she asked turning to him, all business.
“Umm…” he faltered again. You moron, he thought, you always were useless with the sweet talk. “Shit, I have thought you were beautiful as hell from the moment they assigned you too me.” He blurted. “It’s just that I am your superior and they would frown on it, and fuck, I don’t even want to think what the squadron would say.”
“Oh.” She said, suddenly shy, her eyes zeroing in on the toes of the boots she was holding. “I best get that stone for the shelter.” She said suddenly.
Slipping her boots on, she zipped them up and turned, trotting a few steps away from camp before she froze. Looking embarrassed she turned around and returned, scooping up her rifle and looking everywhere but at him. With a sigh, she finally forced her eyes up to meet his and his heart melted at the uncertain innocence there. For a few seconds they stood, their gazes locked, and then a bird chirped and the spell broke. Her eyes slid to the toes of her boots and Garret looked off at the trees.
“I best get some loges cut and strung up.” Garret said. “Why don’t you see what you can get for stone, and we can talk after the sun goes down.”
“Right.” She said.
Slinging her rifle she started off, and after a couple steps, her old sashay slipped back into her stride, then seemed to gain a little sway as she glanced back at him. He grinned at her and then grabbed the hatchet from his pack. Diving into the work of the frame for their shelter, he started carefully selecting trees and marking them before he finally took to cutting them down and hacking the branches off. They weren’t to dissimilar from the trees of his home, once he started to work, he found he was faster than he had thought.
Digging little pits, he sank the front corner posts of the shelter into the ground, and bracing them up, he began to build a little cube of poles. By the time she came back, dragging a makeshift travois full of slate, he had a little twelve foot by twelve foot frame done and a half dozen poles on the roof. Grinning at her as she looked it over, Garret waited for her judgment of his skill at building a shelter. Turning to him, her eyes sparkled.
“It looks good.” Ferris said. “I found a spot with lots of fair sized chunks of slate, but it will take some time to get them over here and the sun is getting low.”
“Good point.” Garret said, glancing at the sun.
It had traveled a goodly way, and he was rather tired after everything that had happened. Tossing his hatchet down next to the pile of logs, he flopped on the ground and then laid back with a grunt. As he lay there, he heard her set the travois down and pad over. Looking down at him, she smiled, and he couldn’t help but grin back. It was going to be a good vacation, and he hoped they took their time picking him up of this rather lush patch of ground.
After a few moments he sat back up and hooked his pack over. Digging through it, he found the thermal blanket and the little silvery emergency tent, tossing them into the shelter area and digging deeper. Pulling out a ration bar, he opened the foil and took a bite, his eyes travelling back to Ferris. She had strode over and retrieved her own pack, and was unloading it onto the shelter floor like a huge kitten. Sorting through the pile, she tossed her blanket and tent over with his, and picked out one of her own ration bars before coming over and flopping down next to him.
They ate in silence, watching the blue sky turn slowly to indigo as the few light clouds turned purple and pink. Stars began to wink on and he grinned. It was going to be a clear, beautiful night. A distant thought ricocheted through a back corner of his head and his grin got a little bigger as he glanced at the tawny, lithe body stretched out next to him, her eyes looking at the stars above. A clear night is a cold night, he thought happily.