Nexus 3, Chapter 11

“I’m not sure about this,” Bill said. He was anxious, anxious enough he was fiddling with his restraints instead of locking them. “If they’re close enough for a firing solution, isn’t slowing up to check their tech just getting them closer to the target?”

“Buckle,” I told him. “We only have a preliminary scan of the atmospheric contents; we could be in for a bumpy landing.”

“Why do you think I took the pilot seat?” he asked, but he did secure his restraint. “I’ve seen your flight scores. There was no way I was letting you or Templeton land.”

I got a copy of his scores pulled up before I realized he was full of crap; he didn’t have access to either of our scores, not as head of engineering. Maybe Dave could have taken a peek, but Bill was blustering. Still, his scores were good, better than mine, and unless Elle spent a while working on her flight skills he was a better choice than her, too. Didn’t mean I had to give him the satisfaction of confirming it, though. “There’s plenty to be learned,” I said. “Like where these were fired from. If they were fired from Earth, a nearer colony, something left in the wake of the Argus or if this is the Nascent. Learning about the tech they’re using could help us deal with a subsequent shot- or even figure out if there’s a way to redirect ourselves to make it harder for them to follow. Regardless, the Nexus is coming back for us- complaining now isn’t going to change that.”

“We could tell them not to bother,” he suggested.

“And murder us?” Elle asked.

“Three people compared to, what, a thousand lives, at this point?”

“Four,” Elle said, touching her belly.

“Even if you gave that order, do you think Haley or Dave would listen to it?” I asked.

“No, and that’s why we shouldn’t have gotten on the shuttle in the first place.”

“Well, we’re on it,” Elle said. “And until we see what they fired at us, we aren’t going to know if this was a fool’s errand, so we need to stow the dissention. Because I’ll remind you, if we spend the trip down with you bitching, he has at least an equal amount of time to ride you on the way back. And incentive to keep it up even back on the ship.”

“Yeah,” Bill said, with a sigh. “Besides, we’re dropping onto an unsurveyed world, and we should be focusing on making whatever plan we can. Example- the spearhead hit with enough mass and speed to cause the equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Looks like the suits should be able to handle the fallout, no pun intended but we should keep an eye on sensors- no reason for us to open any of our systems clogging or overheating. And… goddamnit. Are you sure it’s too early to deploy an ‘I told you so?’”

“What’s the situation?” I asked, leaning to try to be able to better see the instrument panel, because trying to access it through an eyescreen would be tough without knowing which needle in his haystack was irritating him.

“Probes didn’t initially find life on this world. That’s because this species buries itself deep within caves underground, too deep for an atmospheric scan to pick up. But apparently nuking them from space has riled them up. They’re massing.”

“Nope,” Elle said, drawing his attention to several other points, “they’re staging. Maybe it’s an emergency response; presumably they’d have children and elders who wouldn’t be a part of military staging- but it could be both, security forces massing at some locations, disaster shelters in others. That means the odds of resistance go up significantly.”

“Maybe Bill’s right,” I said. “Maybe the cost of whatever we might here learn isn’t worth it.”

“We’ve already paid half that cost by losing some of our head start to stop here in the first place,” Elle said, turning her frustration on me.

“Doesn’t mean we should throw good advantage after bad.”

“I’m not chasing a sunk cost. But stop thinking with your genes, for a second. If it weren’t me, if it weren’t your daughter, it would be worth it, no question. The next one of these spearheads could hit the Nexus if we don’t use this opportunity to figure out how to stop them. It’s a good risk to take, even if you’re not keen on who is being risked.”

“She’s right, Drew,” Bill said.

“Wait, now even you are abandoning your position?” I asked, pointing at Bill. “Is it just a knee-jerk opposition to me?”

“No. She’s right, and persuasive. We’re past the point of no return on this- so we might as well try and get a return on the investments we sunk into it.”

“What’s our situation like?” I asked.

Bill sighed, and shared the environmental scans the ship had managed as we descended. “Atmosphere is thick; think midway between a hearty chicken and a heavy pea soup. Means the atomized particles are going to be denser at the point of impact. It might function as cover, or might get into literally everything and destroy, in order, our suits, our ship, our health, our futures, and any will to restrain ourselves from choking out our glorious leader.”

“So from an environmental standpoint things aren’t rosy. What’s the security sitrep?” I asked.

“Well,” Elle said, in a sing-songy way I remembered from Dalaxia and a handful of other briefings where we were dog-paddling our way up Shit Creek but she really didn’t want to be the one to put a hole in our morale canoe, “we’re up against a massing force of unknown strength, wielding unknown levels of tech. And without a commbox or even a rudimentary way of communicating with them. We don’t know if they’re coming just to see what’s going on, or if they’re going to come at us with the intention of shooting first and letting their gods sort it out. Or if they eat their still-living enemies; or hate-fuck them to death. In other words, you and I are going to cover Bill. He’s going to get whatever scans he can, or carry away whatever pieces he can to pull apart back on the Nexus. Time’s going to be of the essence, because they can probably overtake us through sheer numbers, and all of that ignores that we’re likely going to face more than rocks and sharpened sticks wielded with some degree of magnitude more complicated tactics than children on a playground.”

“And we all still think we should proceed, circumstances be damned?” I asked.

“We should,” Bill said. “And you should both know I sent a message to the Nexus, telling them exactly how fucked this mission is, and that if they don’t hear from us when it’s time to do their gravity-assisted turn to come back for us- that they should assume we’re gone and proceed without us. You’ve got about ten seconds if you want to try to send a competing message out before the dust kills our ability to get a signal out through all the debris.”

“No,” I said. “We finish the mission or they should leave our bodies where we fall.”

Elle gasped. “I can’t believe you’d say that about your daughter,” she said.

“You have never been that kind of woman- or mother.”

“Can you imagine?” she asked, eyeing the munitions cabinets while pulling on her restraints. “It’s taking every last kilo of willpower not to be counting how many shots are in the rifles.”

“You already know.”

“I know. But you count them in case some asshole didn’t refill them.”

“And I bet you’ve counted them since this shuttle last left the Nexus, too. And could probably tell me when both counts happened.”

“I know,” she said, a little deflated. “But it helps calm my nerves.”

“Well, as soon as our pilot tells us it’s safe, I’ll help you count them, okay?” I reached across the aisle between seats along either wall. She had to strain similarly to take hold of the tips of my fingers.

And if you didn’t know her as well as I did, you might not have caught the tiny little hitch in her voice as she said, “Okay,” back.

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