“Great.” Ami heard the pilot say. “This planet is going through a storm cycle. It’s going to be a rough atmospheric entry. Brace yourself.” Ami sucked in air and held onto the straps at her side.
The ship lurched as it entered the planet’s atmosphere and Ami’s guards placed their arms in front of her to keep her in place. With an annoyed glance, she chastised them but when the transport rocked again, their arms were in place.
“We’re below the clouds, my Lady. You might want to take a look,” the pilot said. Her voice sounded a bit shaky and urgent so Ami rose from her seat and crossed the aisle to the window. Her eyes widened.
Amidst the crashing waves on the only bit of dry land that peaked over the water was a crashed ship, with burnt holes on the hull where the insignia of the Grand Irawo used to be. Ami’s initial thought was that the lightning storm had caught the ship upon entry but as her own transport descended, she saw that the holes were much too large to have been individual strikes of lightning. She curled her pink lips in a frown.
The ship had been shot down.
“We’re stepping out,” Ami said to her guards. She pulled a latch, opening the transport door. The rain spattered against her helmet and visor as she dropped from her transport and landed on the fallen vessel. After briefly taking in her surroundings, Ami held out her hand and let her suit scan the outside of the ship when she approached the holes in the hull. “What do you see?”
“Looks like…heated plasma damage. It could be a large strike of lightning but the signature isn’t registering as natural.” Ami’s pilot paused and the Ahosi looked up at her ship.
“Sorry,” she replied. “Just looking at the readings, my Lady. They appear to be consistent with energy weapons that we’ve seen on black-market fighters.”
Ami nodded. Pirates were a common problem in uncivilized space, which was primarily the reason that religious expeditions were accompanied by guards. But even pirates respected the Irawos enough to offer them passage through the warp zones. For pirates to be bold and disrespectful enough to shoot down a ship…
“I’m going to inspect the inside of the ship and see if there are any survivors.” Ami gestured to her guards and dropped through the burnt metal hole.
Her boots let out a small rocket blast that slowed her descent and Ami heard her followers land behind her.
“My Lady,” one said.
The metal walls of the ship creaked and Ami heard the waves crashing against it. The sounds echoed and Ami felt like something was crawling up her spine.
“Should I use a heat scanner? Might save us a trek through a sinking ship.”
Ami nodded. The sounds of whining metal alone were enough to make her want to leave. “Sure. Make sure the radius is at least five hundred feet per scanner.”
“Yes, my Lady,” the guard replied, releasing three small, spherical machines from her gauntlet. Ami watched the machines hover and disperse after the guard put in a few codes. The beeping scans faded into the distance until the only sound Ami could hear were the waves and rain. The noisy water was unnerving so Ami turned to her three companions.
“We didn’t speak much on the transport and I like to make it a point of knowing my crew.” She looked at the guard that released the scanners. “What about you?”
“My Lady,” she said, saluting with a fist to her chest insignia. Ami waved her hand and chuckled.
“Not so formal. Just a little introduction.”
The guard shifted awkwardly. “Oh…I’m sorry. Uh, my name is Zabi.” Ami nodded and the next two guards answered her silent question.
“Khozi,” the taller of the two said.
“Noku.” The shorter woman’s whisper barely registered in Ami’s visor. The Ahosi regarded the three women in her presence. She had read their names in passing when Kalare had first begun assembling a crew for the S’ofo so she knew of their combat history and that they were all at least five years her senior, a requirement to serve aboard an Ahosi’s ship. Ami had always felt odd giving orders to people older than she was, though since times were as lean as they were, she had little choice in the matter.
After giving out their names, the three guards stood in silence awaiting Ami’s orders. The Ahosi shifted slightly but nervously. She had intended to break the tension and the ominous ambiance of the creaking metal and the beeping of the scanner as it delved deep into the bowels of the crashed ship. Instead, she found herself at a loss, trapped within the confines of her own anxious mind.
“My Lady,” Zabi asked. “If I may ask a question? About the mission?” While it was the last thing Ami wanted to talk about, she took it in stride.
Zabi dipped her head. “I’m saying this with all due respect, but…what are we going to do if the Grand Irawo isn’t found?” Ami’s brows must’ve instinctually furrowed because Zabi quickly continued. “I do realize that it’s imperative that she is found and, with the grace of Nimra, found unharmed but my Lady, I’ve been in this situation before.”
“I understand your concerns,” Aminare replied with a sigh. “Believe me, I do. But, right now, we can only be concerned with what is presently before us rather than some unknown possibility ahead.”
“I guess that would be a matter for the Far-Seeing Ekun Alheni,” Khozi said playfully. Ami nodded and looked back at Zabi.
“Sister, I’ve prayed that we are guided to our missing leader. With Nimra’s guidance, we will find her.” Zabi stared back at Ami and then finally blinked.
“Sometimes, prayers aren’t enough.”
This time, Ami knew that her face twisted, not in anger at Zabi in particular, but in frustration at her circumstance. She tried not to allow her guards to see that her mood had swung downward but the older women seemed to pick up on it almost immediately. Zabi looked as if she were going to say something but Ami’s ears began to ring and a voice called out to her.
“Lady Aminare!” Ami pressed her finger to her helm. It was Kalare.
“Kalare, what is it?” There was static and Ami looked to her guards, pointing up towards the burnt hole they had entered. Her rocket boots propelled her upward and when Ami landed, she tried to contact Kalare again. Then, she heard an explosion above her. When she looked up, she saw a fiery plume lighting up the dark grey sky. Ami’s mouth dropped and she tried to contact her captain again. “Kalare! Come in!”
“We’re all right, my Lady!”
“What is going on up there?”
“Three unmarked dreadnoughts came out of warp and started to attack us. We fired the ship’s particle beam cannon as an opener and took out one of them. We’re engaged with the other two and waiting for the cannon to recharge, but-”
There was another explosion in the sky and fire spread through the atmosphere. The Ahosi’s eyes widened and she turned to her guards.
“We’ve been ambushed,” she said. She pressed a few command keys on her gauntlet, summoning the transport. “And we’re going up there to help.”
“What about survivors of the crash, my Lady? The Grand Irawo…”
“Isn’t here.” There was a few seconds delay before the transport ship lowered through the clouds and the door hissed open. Ami and her guards hastened onto the ship as the sky above rumbled with fire and thunder. The Ahosi raced to the cockpit and Shaula’s worried gaze met her.
“My Lady,” she said.
Without another word, Shaula lifted the transport ship into the air and rocketed up into the grey clouds that grew black as they exited the planet’s atmosphere. Ami stared through the front window as the dark expanse of space opened up to her. Her mouth dropped, hidden by her helmet.
The flaming remains of one of the vessels accompanying the S’ofo floated slowly in the vacuum while Ami’s flagship was surrounded by two capital ships twice her size, with missile and laser fire coming from them both. The larger of the ships possessing a massive red stripe down its starboard while the smaller was covered in black markings, highlighted by the light of the star system’s sun. The ships seemed to be pressing in closer as if they were going to crush the S’ofo between them.
“Kalare!” Ami called out into her comms. There was static for a few moments.
“My…dy?” was the muddled response.
Goddess, have mercy. “You need to descend quickly and enter warp space. Get out of here!”
“…ot with…you, Ahosi.” Amimare furrowed her brows, before looking at Shaula. The transport ship pilot gulped and Ami pressed her comms.
“This isn’t a debate, it’s an order. Open up your hatch to receive my transport and prepare for warp. Immediately, Captain.”
Ami nodded and sighed softly. Her mind raced as she looked over the two marked ships. In this dark vector of space, the only thing she could think of was pirates. Had these been the same vessels that shot down the Grand Irawo’s ship? If so, this had been a trap all along. Regardless, one fact still remained. Ami’s people needed to escape and they wouldn’t have time with ships as massive as these clamping down on the S’ofo even if Kalare heeded Ami’s orders. They would need a distraction. And Ami needed answers.
“Are there any escape pods onboard?” Shaula stared up at her.
“Only one, my Lady. It steers and has thrusters.” She paused. “We won’t be able to all fit in it, though.”
“We won’t need to.” Ami sighed softly. “I’m going to buy you time. Pilot above the ship with the red stripe and after I release the escape pod, get to the S’ofo as fast as possible.” She turned and left the cockpit, following markings in the corridor to the escape pod. Zabi, Khazi and Noku looked up at her as she passed, bracing themselves as the ship lifted into the air.
“Lady Amimare, what are you doing?” Zabi asked. Ami unlocked the escape pod doors and turned to her guards.
“I’m going to destroy one of those ships and give you enough time to escape. I order you to protect the S’ofo and all those aboard with your lives.” She placed her fist on her chest. “The Fire of Nimra be upon you.” Her guards bowed.
“And the light of her power guide you,” they said in unison.
The escape pod doors closed behind Ami and when the alarm indicated that she was inside, Shaula released the latch. The escape pod floated away and Ami watched the transport ship suddenly dip towards the S’ofo between the gaps of the two pirate ships. Ami guided her pod upward with its thrusters before letting it float in space as she called upon the power of the war goddess. A swirling, fiery aura surrounded her, filling the ship with energy so hot that it nearly melted the interior of the escape pod. It was all Ami needed.
Fueled by the power of Nimra, Ami sharply turned the escape pod and engaged the thrusters as the pod dropped. Ami’s mode of transport began to turn like a top and she disengaged the thrusters until she was just upon the ship with the red stripe. When she was close, Ami pushed down on the thrusters. She manipulated the aura around her body to the outside of the pod, sharpening it to a bladed point.
The impact was loud and hard, nearly ripping Amimare from her seat. Her safety lock restrained her, only slightly tickling her shoulders. Outside, the Ahosi heard blaring alarms of the ship she had plowed into as well as guttural shouts in a language she didn’t recognize. She listened and waited in silence as the voices grew closer and the feet stomping toward her began to crescendo. Then, they stopped. Ami heard the chatter outside of the pod and a metallic tap against the door. The Ahosi gritted her teeth and focused her aura to her feet.
The pod door floor off of its hinges and Ami heard the splatter of bone and metal. When she exited the pod, hunched creatures garbed in black quickly fell upon her, laser rifles in hand. The Ahosi’s eyes flashed scarlet red and she drew her own pistol from her belt. She was down the corridor in a blink of an eye, yellow lasers whizzing past her head seemingly in slow motion. Her first shot buried into the chest of one of the creatures and her second caused another’s head to pop.
The two remaining members of the welcoming party turned to flee with one pressing an alarm to alert the ship but Ami darted in between them and shot them both down where they stood. Her pistol smoked in her hand and the Ahosi sighed softly. More creatures filed into the hallway, aiming their weapons at her as they stood in formation. The Ahosi stepped forward and heard the weapons prime. Before she could make another move, she saw another figure step in between the black armored creatures, dressed in all-white apart from a sapphire blue mask and cape that flowed behind them. The faint impression of an eagle was sketched on the person’s chest. She recognized it from her studies of ancient texts from Manzil.
It was the sigil of the Corrupter.
Alheni – a rank amongst the Yangin priestesses, women of the Churches of Ekun and Kiniun.