((co-written with Stitcher))
Helmi Alpassi knew that she'd originally been tapped to train into Pilot Roth's personal security detail because Sarge had known she could keep her head when it mattered.
Had known it from the first moment they met, after all.
And if there ever was a moment not to panic, Alpassi, this is fucking it.
"Pilot, Lieutenant Etay," she said calmly, "if you'd come to the front of the house with me now, the shuttle is on approach."
Charles Etay was carrying one of the babies in a safety-capsule. Amieta Invelen had the other. Helmi couldn't tell which was which and really didn't give a shit, so long as the total number of babies equalled two and they were each in the most expensive and sophisticated piece of protective child-transport equipment available in the Cluster. Helmi had picked those capsules herself, after a lot of research.
Finding out they were tested by dropping them out of a second story window with an actual child in them had sealed the deal.
Still, she would have preferred them to be carried by her people, would have preferred all the civilians to be hoisted up and hauled at speed to the assembly point, really.
If speed had been an issue, Pilot's feet wouldn't have touched the ground. But the shuttle won't be here for another three minutes anyway.
And Pilot was prone to panic. Helmi knew that part of her job description was making sure Pilot felt safe, as well as was safe.
So she let Etay carry one of the twins. And she didn't take Pilot's elbow to hurry her along, even when Pilot paused and said something about flowers and the nursery.
"I'll make sure they're packed," Invelen said reassuringly, and Pilot started moving again. Helmi scanned the sky, looking for spikey sansha shapes, saw none, saw ...
It was wrong in a gut-wrenching way, the familiar off-black interstellar dust clouds of New Eden as seen from Debreth at sunset shifted towards an ugly yellow-green, like a gathering storm of forces Helmi didn't want to guess at. The Intel suddenly went from an intellectual threat to a real and immediate one. Adrenaline pulsed her implants to a higher pitch, burning copper on her tongue.
And on the horizon, burning rain. Five stars, moving as stars shouldn't, glowing like a banked furnace in the fading light as they twisted and writhed, shedding speed. Almost hidden behind the wind, the banging of the air as it raged impotently against this supersonic violation swept across the valley, echoing like a distant battle.
Nothing so clean and wholesome as thunder and lightning rode on the winds of this storm.
And the floods it brought were not the kind Debreth was build to withstand.
Implants on her retinas read the friendly, so that's fucking something IFF broadcasts from the falling constellation as it shed the last of its speed in one low looping bank over the river and swept in towards the estate.
A surface-to-orbit shuttle painted in the livery of Re-Awakened Technologies Inc settled in the wide avenue as three of the remaining ships – angular Caldari gunships bristling with weapons - screamed overhead, their hulls bearing a blue starburst on bare gunmetal. The fifth, much larger ship settled in to a relative stop above the Roth estate and the grounds thrummed with the subsonic rumbling of immense graviton pads keeping the staging platform aloft. A percussive blast rattled the windows as explosive bolts blew along its flanks and four humanoid giants, armoured and massive, dropped from the flanks of the the thirty meters to the ground and landed in a blast of pneumatic gas. Within a second their guns and sensors were tracking the skies as they fanned out, covering the grounds.
Only a moment behind them were the ropes, ten of them, and before those ropes had even finished uncoiling to the ground, the first of the troopers was on it, her arrestor hook buzzing harshly as it slowed her descent. She hit the ground and rolled, moving aside with only a heartbeat to spare before the next trooper, and the next after him hit the deck, rolled and bustled to cover, each claiming three drones from the swarm that swept from the dropship's bays. Almost-white painted ceramic hardsuits, each with that blue starburst splash and a mirrored visor covering the face, Kaalakiota assault rifles. Airtight, nanite-proof, damn near bulletproof, but still light and clean-lined enough to allow the soldiers to move with grace and ease in Debreth's low gravity.
The flurry of activity swept towards the little knot of people on the lawn, parted around them, and left them untouched, except for the wind whipping their hair.
One of the troopers, the first one out, jogged towards them, heading unerringly for Pilot Roth. No rank insignia, Helmi noted, just a blue sunburst, and the words Hakatain Dynasty Holdings and A. Sihayha. I.D. confirmation spooled across her retinas and Helmi stopped the instinctive reach for her sidearm before it was more than a flicker of muscles as Captain Hakatain's personal bodyguard tapped the side of her helmet to clear the faceshield, saw a corresponding flicker in the other woman's eyes.
"Captain Roth," the woman said. "Chief Aato Sihahya. Captain Hakatain sends his regards."
Pilot - surreally, given the circumstances - extended her hand and said with a smile, "I'm very pleased to meet you. I hope you had a safe trip?"
"Safe enough, ma'am," Sihahya said, returning the handshake with a gauntlet that could probably have crushed Pilot's hand flat if she wanted. "With your permission, we'll see to the defence of your estate and the town in your absence."
"With my ... " Pilot's voice trailed off, and Helmi suppressed a sigh. One day she'll learn that she's in charge.
Her mouth was open to translate Pilot-speak into marine, one more part of her job, Pilot Roth appreciates your offer and certainly extends all the permissions you need to carry out the protection of the Roth property and surrounding area, when Pilot surprised her.
"Thank you," Pilot Roth said, quietly but clearly. "That would be appreciated. Please do anything you feel required."
One day turns out to be today, Helmi thought, as Sihahya saluted and re-opaqued her visor with a brief nod to Helmi. Either the the Ancestors are with us, or the world is about to end.
"Pilot, we need to be getting you on the shuttle," she said. Invelen was already moving. Helmi herded Pilot and Etay up the ramp as armoured forms set up defensive positions around them, mostly missing the flower-beds.
One baby started wailing, then the other. Pilot tried to comfort them as Invelen secured the capsules but the twins refused to be consoled and their piercing screams were a counterpoint to the rumble of the shuttle engines as it lifted off. Helmi linked her optical implants into the shuttle's external cameras and watched as two of Hakatain's gunships escorted the shuttle into high atmosphere, then stalled into a graceful backwards dive towards Debreth again as the shuttle raced towards its rendezvous with the Feather.
As the gunships shrank to invisibility against the blue-green globe below them, Helmi let the connection fade. Spirits watch over you, she wished the men and women they were leaving behind.
And Ancestors sharpen your aim.