[Submitted with cover art]Novaihana wiped the sweat off her forehead. After the last lizard attackthe United Earth Defense Ship Griffin was no longer space worthy. Lifesupport was barely running and it was all Chief Engineer Brocks could do tokeep it going.
"But hopefully, Brocks won't have to worry about it much longer," Novaihanathought as she keyed the displays. The displays flickered and the data poolgrew as the Griffen's sensors came closer to the gas giant and the strangering world construct that orbited it. Some 10,000 miles in diameter, thering world was the only body in the system that responded to the Griffin'spleas for a humanoid friendly habitat.
For 3 days now the Griffin had been decelerating towards the constructafter fleeing the Covenant battleships that had almost torn the Griffin inhalf. For 3 days the 1800 odd crew members that kept Griffin alive hadstruggled, first to escape the Covenant, then to keep the Griffin together.It had been a trying experience. With the life support not workingperfectly, the air was laced with noxious vapors, and the humidity had risentill it dripped from the ceiling continuously. Sleep in the cabins was nolonger possible, the sheets were soaked, and the stink of 1800 bodies inclose proximity without any cleaning for 3 days was a torture Novaihanacould not have possibly imagined till now.
"Sensors indicate life forms on the ringworld sir." This curt statementcame from Novaihana's second in command from the right extreme of thebridge. He was of average height, dark hair that lightened up at the endsand a rich baritone that managed to penetrate the humidity and reverberateamongst the steel plating around her. His clipped attitude came from alifetime of hard enforced self-discipline that responded strongly to hissense of duty. Novaihana knew that underneath that easy steel of his dutynature, Theo could be stimulated to joke, to laugh, and even to love. Lovingwas hard these past few days though, so much heat, so much humidity, onlybrought revulsion at the thought of another's touch.
"What kind of life forms?" asked Novaihana.
"Covenant mainly, though there is a scattering of other life forms that areuncatalogued, we're too far away to be sure, but the scanners are notpicking up much in the line of sentient brain patterns except in theCovenant." This was said indifferently, as if Theo had expected it allalong. Novaihana expected nothing less from him.
She allowed herself a small sigh, barely noticeable except by those mostintimate with her, and Theo was not watching.
"How many?" she asked wearily. Days of stress failed to put the edge intoknowing that their enemy was so near.
"Sensors indicate 26 Covenant life forms, all in one central location onthe thirty degree lateral of the Ring world," Theo replied from his post. Novaihana nodded thoughtfully, she should be happy she supposed, that therewere so few of the Covenant to oppose them. But her inner fire, that whichusually blazed so brilliantly like her fiery mane, was now sodden, dirty andsaturated. It was all she could do to pull her face into a small smile, andput some cheerfulness into her voice.
"Good, we'll have some new supplies, and some things to study, should be agrand time," despite the cheerfulness in her voice, the message was clear;26 Covenant meant 26 dead bodies for the few on board scientists to toywith.
James, manning the tactical station smiled tired agreement. He was tired ofthe drinking, sleeping, and breathing his own salty sweat; 26 Covenant werenot going to stand in his way of a breath of fresh air once they reached thesurface of the Ring world.
Novaihana smiled grimly and looked at the chronometer. Almost time forsecond shift to take over, though it would be hard to get much rest.
"Make sure second shift keeps a sharp eye on the situation Theo. Informthem to concentrate their efforts to see if the Ring world has any dangerousdefense systems, I don't want to die before I feel a breeze on my face."
A small smile, that could only be seen in his eyes told Novaihana that Theowould give his all to feel that breeze, cheered her, even as he assured herthe same verbally.
Wearily Novaihana drifted into a dozing state, her eyelids gently resting.One could not sleep, but one could doze, or rather one must doze in order tomaintain sanity and the alertness that was needed to ensure her crew'slives.
Sometime later she became aware of Theo reporting from his station.
"We are within shuttle range of the Ring world, all engines stopped."
Novaihana brought herself fully alert, stretching a little to ease the kinksthat came from resting in the captain's chair.
"Tell Jamerson and Hendricks to ready their platoons, I want them to dealwith our little welcoming committee down there."
"Aye sir." James was deftly relaying the orders to the platoon leaders."They say they've long been waiting for this sir. And Jamerson says he'lllet you know what the fresh air smells like."
"Tell Jamerson he can go to hell," Novaihana groused, "and if he uses toomuch of the air down there, tell him that he'll spend the rest of his daysinside his battle suit."
"Aye sir." James grinned at the banter between his superior and his friend."Main shuttle bay reports all clear, they're ready to deploy."
"Go ahead," Novaihana replied simply, despite the increased level oftension across the bridge. Quickly James relayed the command.
"Shuttles 4,8,6 and 2 report that they are cleared of the Griffin andbeginning decent to the Ring world. "On screen now." On the main viewer 4shuttles dropped to the curved band that was the ringworld. But Novaihanadirected her attention elsewhere.
"Theo, what's our evacuation procedures looking like?"
"All preparations have mostly been taken care of already. Brocks is in theprocess of ejecting the fusion core, for preparation as a power source whenwe land on the ringworld. She estimates another 28 hours till she gets itfinished, otherwise, all personnel are more than ready."
Novaihana nodded thoughtfully. If everything went well, the assault squadswill have secured the surface within an hour, 3 hours at most, she didn'tlet the possibility of failure enter her mind. Then they would starttransporting everything down to the surface of the Ring world, engines,power plant, computers. Everything was coming down to the surface except forthe self-destruct explosive packages. Those would see use when the lastshuttle left for the Ring world surface.
She sighed quietly, she had commandeered the Griffin for the past 4 years,and no other ship had born her to such exotic places, to such excitingencounters. She knew of many captains who mourned the loss of their shipbecause of their ties with it, to many captains, a ship was a dear andtrusted friend, a lover, a artifact of supreme beauty and power. ToNovaihana though, the ship was to be mourned for the places it could nolonger take her. No longer was the Griffin space worthy, and what used to bethe quiet hum of computers and engines, was now replaced by sudden pops andclangs that foretold a dying ship. She sighed inwardly again and turned tothe task of finalizing the preparations for living on the Ring world.
"Engine core away," Theo said quietly.
Novaihana looked sharply at her second in command and lover, was thatsadness in his voice, was he grieving for the death of the Griffin? But ifhe was, he gave no further sign of it, and Novaihana turned away.
"Well, I guess it's time gentlemen. Shall we go?"
James responded enthusiastically, automating his console and leaping to hisfeet. "I can't wait to take a bath in the waterfall Jamerson found. I'venever smelled dead flesh before, but I'm pretty sure that's what I smelllike, and it's hard to get the ladies' attention when they have to holdtheir nose to look in your direction."
"Aye, I would make a bath an order, except I doubt it'll be necessary,"Novaihana replied agreeably.
The three of them made their way down the now empty decks, down to theshuttle bay nestled in the underside of the Griffin where a lone shuttleawaited them.
"It's so lonely," Novaihana thought as they descended level by level.Pieces of industry were not meant to be abandoned like this, and the emptycorridors of the Griffin reminded her of the stark and ghostly streets ofCanemburg, where the Covenant had irradiated the entire colony. She shiveredand continued her descent.
Brock was waiting for them by the shuttle when they arrived. Her normallybright demeanor was crestfallen, Novaihana knew just how hard it must be forthe chief engineer to abandon her ship.
"You're taking her heart and soul though Brock, her powerful engines willstill be with us, so she won't be gone completely."
"Aye, but my husband's heart cannot replace my husband," Brock answeredwith a crooked smile that quickly faded. "Here," she turned a computerconsole towards Novaihana. Solemnly Novaihana had it identify her and voicedthe self destruction code with a two hour delay timer. Brock did the same,her voice cracking as she said the last four digits. Quietly the four turnedand entered the shuttle and departed from the Griffin's belly for the lasttime.