The sound of engine one sputtering on the port side mixed with the scream of engine two trying to compensate for the loss of thrust. Daz caught Jasmine’s eye. There was fear there. More than she’d ever seen.
“Don’t worry!” Daz screamed, her voice barely traveling over the wind howling through the open doors of the craft. “It’s gonna be fine! We just have to stick together. You got it?”
Daz stared at her friend, who seemed to be staring back, but through her rather than at her. Daz gave her a shake as the ship shook beneath their feet. “You got it?!” Daz hollered, hoping to break Jasmine out of her trance.
The motion of the ship broke Jasmine’s petrified gaze and she swallowed and nodded back at Daz quickly. But as Daz glanced up at the control panel in front of the pilot, things didn’t seem so rosy. The whole thing was lit up in red and yellow lights, enough to look like it was on fire. Some of them were flashing, others just glowed a steady warning that all was not right with the world. Daz gave Jasmine’s shoulder another squeeze and, grabbing onto one of the lines above her, began to make her way to the front of the craft.
Another jolt shook the ship as its belly touched against the canopy hurtling by below them. Daz saw an explosion on the starboard side, then black smoke started to pour out of engine two. She plopped herself into the copilot’s seat and looked at the pilot.
Ashea Vyn. Her hourglass figure and pouty lips gave no hint to the fact that she was tough as nails. Ashea turned to look at her friend. The expression on her face sent a chill through Daz. Things were not in good shape.
“What’s going on?” Daz shouted.
“Everyone needs to get their crash suits on, now!” Ashea shouted back as the ship jolted again to one side. She punched three buttons on the panel in quick succession, turning them from red to yellow in the process. “We’re going down!”
“What?” Daz cried, unable to believe what she was hearing. Every single thing they’d learned in preparation for the hunt was that no matter what happened, they were not to touch down. Stabilize the craft. Keep it flying until help arrives. But do not touch down. “Have you called for evac? How did this happen? How did the fire start?”
“Shut up and let me fly this thing!” Ashea shouted back, gripping the stick in between her legs and pulling it hard to the left to avoid one of the massive trees coming at them. Engine two screamed but cooperated, despite the thick black smoke still pouring from it. Once she’d stabilized the ship and they were flying level over the canopy again, Ashea looked at Daz and yelled, “They shot us, can you believe it?”
At first Daz thought she must have misheard. Nobody could shoot at them; there was no one down there but men. Men who’d been living in the forests of Sernon for centuries, men who’d regressed to the point of almost being animals. They wore no clothes, they ran from the Tranquility ships that chased them down, and most important, they did not shoot back. The men down there were good for one thing. Seed.
The motion of the ship as it rocked from side to side terrified her back into reality, and she braced herself against the armrest and the dashboard. A small dot began to blink on the HUD that immediately caught Ashea’s attention. She put an arm across Daz’s chest and shoved her against the seat back, then pointed out the starboard side window.
“There!” she screamed, trying to keep the ship steady with one hand. Daz’s eyes shot in the direction of Ashea’s finger. The dark greens and blues of another Tranquility filled her with an almost ecstatic sense of relief. She looked back to see the five other women in the cabin clutching at anything that was bolted down, trying to keep from getting sucked out of the craft. Only Jasmine looked remotely relieved at the sight of the other Tranquility. That was a good sign. Maybe the two of them could do this.
“Okay. I’m going back. How does this work?” Daz screamed at Ashea.
“Close the doors on one side!” Ashea screamed back, not tearing her eyes from the canopy ahead. “Tear the fabric off of it! There’s a bull’s-eye underneath! Then get the fuck out of the way!” Ashea barked the instructions while struggling to keep the ship righted. Daz didn’t waste any time.
Grabbing hold of one of the lines overhead, she made her way back, grateful for her sea legs as the ship veered from side to side. Once she was at the door, she realized she would have to use both hands to close it. One to unlatch it, the other to slide it shut. She turned around to see Jasmine staring at her, as though she already knew what she had to do. She grabbed one of the railings overhead and with her other hand, she caught Daz’s harness.
There was no time to worry about whether Jasmine would let go if the ship bucked again. Grabbing the door by its massive handle, she turned it up, unlocking the mechanism holding it in place, then gave a massive tug. The force of the thing slamming shut shook the ship to one side, but there she was. Still safe inside. Daz began pulling at the fabric covering the inside of the door. It was easy to tear away and sure enough, underneath was a massive red bull’s-eye. As soon as it was exposed, Daz turned around, grabbed Jasmine, and dove to the floor.
The thunderclap of the massive cannon aboard the other Tranquility reached them a split second before the anchor tore through the bull’s-eye in the door, straight through to the other side of the frame. Daz didn’t wait for further instructions. Though they’d only dealt with this once in training, she’d never been one to think too much. There was no telling how long the ship had left in the air.
Jumping to her feet, she dragged Jasmine with her and clipped her harness onto the line tied to the anchor that extended through empty space and into the ship at their side.
“No! Wait! You’re going to need help with the rest! They’re terrified!” Jasmine screamed.
Daz knew she was right. Looking around at the other girls, she saw that most of them had their eyes squeezed tightly shut and were sobbing, or crying quietly. But there wasn’t time to waste. The ship swayed again and Daz knew what she had to do.
“I’ll be fine!” she yelled and gave Jasmine a massive push. She allowed herself a few seconds to watch her friend falling through the empty sky, until she was caught safely by the hands of the rescuers waiting on the other Tranquility. Once she knew Jasmine was safe, Daz began to pry open the fingers of the other girls and hook their harnesses to the same line. One by one, they flew over the vast chasm, crashing into the waiting arms of the rescuers aboard the other Tranquility.
Daz’s heart was pounding from the effort of pushing the women across the line. She looked up the ship to the pilot’s seat to see Ashea straining at the controls. She looked out the door, across the canopy flying by underfoot and toward the women on the other ship, who were desperately waving at her to clip herself to the line and jump across. Daz gritted her teeth and began to make her way to the cockpit.
“Come on! We’ve gotta go!” she screamed over the noise of the engine that sounded like it was tearing itself apart. When Ashea looked over at her, the blood drained from Daz’s face.
“There’s only one of us getting off this ship. It’s sure as hell not going to be me.”
Daz knew the look Ashea was staring at her with—a look that meant this was an argument she wasn’t winning.
“I can’t let you do this,” Daz said, a sob swelling in her throat.
“Put on a crash suit. Clip onto that line. That’s an order.”
A gust of wind heaved the ship to one side. Daz grabbed at the copilot’s seat to steady herself. Adrenaline shot through her body as she saw the hull of the other Tranquility coming at them through the windshield, but she stifled a scream. The pilot of the other ship saw them just in time and veered hard to starboard to prevent a crash. The engine screamed even louder, tearing at the air as Ashea struggled to right the craft and get it flying level again. “Damn it, Daz! Get out now! I said that’s an order!”
Daz, still clutching the seat with white knuckles, looked at her friend again. There wasn’t a choice to be made. Either they were both going down with the ship, or she was getting off and Ashea was going down. Fighting the tears welling in her eyes, Daz threw open the small compartment behind the copilot’s chair, ripped the orange cord open, and quickly donned the vest that was there, fastening it tightly around her waist and chest.
“I’m coming back to get you,” she said to her friend through clenched teeth.
“Get off! Now!” Ashea screamed back at her, still fighting to keep the ship flying straight. There was no more time. Stumbling toward the cabin, Daz clipped herself onto the line, folded her arms tightly across her chest, and jumped.
The explosion that tore through the air behind her propelled her forward with so much force that for a split second she thought she was going to slam into the inside wall of the other Tranquility. But just as quickly, the line she was attached to went taut, then began to pull her toward the ground. The faces of the women standing at the hull doors of the ship went white. Daz saw the arm extend and punch the red release button just below the line she was attached to, but she couldn’t believe it at first. Only when she saw the end of the line falling toward her and felt the pull of gravity as she began her descent did her body react.
Grasping desperately at the front of the vest she’d put on seconds before, Daz located the orange bulb. Just before she hit the branches of the canopy, the crash suit inflated around her, forming a thick protective barrier. The last thing she felt was the thud of hitting the ground. Then everything went black.