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SECOND PLACE WINNER — Submission by By Bryan Ericson

Heavy Weighs History's Burden (working title) — Part 3 of 3

Reilley awoke and sat up quickly. The Master Spy turned away from his data unit to look at him. "What's wrong?" Reilley gasped.

"We have entered orbit," the Master Spy informed him. "There is nothing of concern."

"Something is different," Reilley said. He shook his head, tried to clear his mind. "Different."

The Master Spy looked at him for a moment longer, then waved him closer. "I have found a means to travel to the surface," he said. "Look."

His display showed a view from outside the battleship. A wide belt of orbital factories encircled a blue-green planet. "Here," the Darlok pointed to a tiny portion of the ring. The display zoomed in, and as they watched, a square detached itself from the ring and began to descend toward the planet's surface. As the gap between the square and the ring widened, Reilley noticed a narrow thread that connected the two. His eyes followed its line, and he saw that the thread continued down past the square into the atmosphere.

"A space elevator," he whispered. His ears popped, and he swallowed to clear them.

"The Antaran fleet is three days away," the Master Spy said. "We will hide among the factories and ride the elevator down on its next trip."

"Next trip," Reilley mumbled. "When?"

"In eighteen hours," the Master Spy said. "I began collecting information when we entered Draconis' dataspace. I have learned much."

Reilley's ears popped again. He began to yawn to equalize the pressure, and a dagger of suspicion stabbed at him as he became conscious of his actions.

"Get your helmet on!" he shouted. He whirled and jammed his helmet over his head. He twisted it into place as the hatch in the side of the patrol craft exploded outward. The rush of air through the hole pulled him off balance, but when he straightened he saw two armored Elerians swing through the airlock, weapons raised toward them.

He turned to look at his master, and saw the Darlok pointing the cutting laser at his waist. His face had changed; his skin was blue, he had striking blue eyes framed inside his faceplate. As Reilley watched, the Darlok's skin writhed and his nose shrank into position. He had become an Elerian.

The Darlok half-turned towards the Elerians and raised his free hand to the height of his chest. He signed to the Elerians, a complex language advanced far beyond the basic signs Reilley knew. The Elerians relaxed inside their armor and they turned their full attention to Reilley. The Master Spy swung the cutting laser around and burned a hole through the first Elerian's chest. She collapsed and the second rounded her weapon towards him, but the Master Spy slashed the beam across her waist. Black smoke poured from the burn as she fell away.

"How were you aware of their presence?" the Master Spy demanded through a comm channel.

"The air pressure in the ship. It changed," Reilley said. "I felt it."

The Master Spy tapped commands into his data unit. "Data has been concealed from me," he said. "Our presence was suspected, but our minds could not be seen. Only two were sent, but more will soon arrive. Come!"

The Master Spy ducked through the airlock, and Reilley followed. The Master Spy continued tapping commands into his data unit as they jumped from the patrol craft and ran towards the outer bulkhead. Ahead of them, the massive space door began to rise. Bright sunlight filled the bay. The Master Spy must have nearly complete control of the ship's computer, Reilley realized.

A bulkhead in front of them exploded into shrapnel, and an Elerian voice shouted to him from his helmet's speakers. He skidded to a halt, placed his hands atop his helmet, and turned. A handful of Elerians stood across the bay. Each held a heavy projectile weapon, pointed directly at them. Underneath the patrol boat, the energy weapon spun towards the Elerians and fired. They dove to avoid the blast, but the beam disintegrated the bulkhead behind them. They were enveloped in a billowing cloud of metallic vapor.

Reilley stared for a moment. Metal glowed red, then white, then began to melt and run. He turned and raced to the edge of the bay.

"I have plotted a course to the elevator," the Master Spy said, data unit raised. Reilley withdrew his own unit, and data jumped between the two.

Before them loomed Draconis, huge and bright. Its surface was mottled with blue and green, wrapped in streaks of white cloud. Much closer hung the broad belt of industry. The Master Spy thrust a finger at a point on the ring. "There!" he commanded. He stepped back, ran forwards, and leaped out into the void. He fired his thrusters and fell towards the planet.

Reilley watched for a moment, stepped backwards, prepared to jump. The deck of the battleship heaved, and the gravity and lights disappeared simultaneously. An explosion of burning gases flung him sideways against the edge of the space door and hurled him into space. The collision robbed him of his breath. Alarms inside his suit screamed for attention, but he switched them off. He drifted, gasping inside his suit. Another explosion sheathed him in fire, and the sudden heat forced him into movement. He loaded the Master Spy's program into his suit and activated his thrusters. A minor gravity asserted itself within his suit, and the battleship fell away behind him.

The Master Spy was invisible ahead of him. Reilley hoped he would be able to find him in the dark. He took a deep breath and tried to relax himself. Breathe, in and out, breathe. His head throbbed from the impact and he wished he could touch it through his helmet. He blew out his breath and his viewplate fogged. Odd, he thought. He twisted his head and to look behind him at the shrinking battleship. A tiny, periodic jet of burning gas marked the bay he had escaped from, but it looked otherwise undamaged from this distance. He returned his attention ahead of him. The dark, empty silence of space struck him all at once: he was far from his home, and held no hope of return. Reilley looked at the mottled blue-green surface of Draconis, and realized he would die there, alone.

He held his breath, and the immense silence around him was complete. A random thought in the back of his mind eluded him, and he focused his attention on it. He blew out his breath and realized he did not hear its echo. His rebreather was not working.

Reilley twisted his arm behind him and knocked his fist against the rebreather unit. Nothing. He turned the suit's diagnosis system back on, saw that almost all systems located near the rebreather unit were down. Damn. He patted a pouch and felt the emergency tank, good for about twenty minutes of air. Nowhere near enough time for the space elevator to return. And soon, every craft in orbit would be alerted to his presence.

Panic threatened to wash him away. He thrashed his arms, tried to beat the rebreather into working again. Draconis was huge before him, and he was falling, faster and faster as he thrust down towards it. His breath came in huge gulps, he swallowed air like water. He had to calm down, preserve the precious air left in his suit. Slowly, breathe slowly, but it was no use, he sucked in great ragged gasps.

Ahead of him, the orbital ring flared into orange light. Reilley threw his hands across his face, expected to feel the blazing heat of an energy beam. The moment passed, then another, and he lowered his hands. The light faded, and ahead of him, for just a moment, tiny, he saw the Master Spy, falling towards the ring ahead of him. He bent and peered between his feet in time to see the battleship behind him break apart. The explosion had sloughed away huge sections of armor plating like old, dry snakeskin, and now the battleship lay exposed to open space, naked and dying. Secondary explosions sent small parts of it flying away into space. It began to yaw, trailing burning embers behind it. Reilley watched, fascinated. The explosions began to die down, and he saw arcs of blue plasma flame appear as smaller ships rushed to its aid.

Part of his mind noted that his breath had slowed. That same part of him also noted that the air in his suit had become stale. Soon, he would have to use his emergency bottle. He straightened out and looked ahead of him. The ring of industry was larger, and he found that if he watched closely, he could see it grow. Where was the Master Spy? He had to risk communication.

He opened a channel on the lowest power setting and said, "Where are you, master?"

Static blasted back at him. He strained to hear through it, "I am slowing above the ring."

"My rebreather is damaged. I can't wait on the ring." He peered downwards, tried to pick out the Master Spy in the darkness. Beyond the ring, Draconis was dazzling. He searched near the elevator's gap in the ring.

The Master Spy said nothing for a long time. Then, "Perhaps the orbital factories will have available oxygen...". Even through the bursts of static, Reilley heard the doubt in his voice. He squinted down into the growing brightness. Far, far away, speeding towards the planet's surface, he could make out the tiny dot of the space elevator on its long tether. A plan began to form in his mind.

"No, they won't," he said. "But I can ride the elevator down."

The Master Spy said nothing. Reilley imagined him tapping on his data unit. The air in his suit was almost unbreathable. He withdrew his emergency bottle and jammed it into the socket on his chest. Fresh oxygen flooded his suit, and he took a deep breath. A filter whirred to life, began to scrub the carbon dioxide from the air in his suit. He waited. The orbital ring was growing quickly. It was now a wide band across the planet in the background. "There are too many variables," the Master Spy finally told him. He must be close; there was little static. "It would be a great risk."

"There's no other choice," Reilley told him. He found his tension had disappeared. He focused on the tiny bead hanging on the wispy thread below him. "No choice," he repeated. He took over control of his thrusters from the program and pushed them to full power.

"I will follow," the Master Spy said. He voice was perfectly clear over the comm channel, and then Reilley saw him, not five meters away. He suddenly appeared in the starlight and then was gone. Reilley turned to look, but the Master Spy was already lost in the darkness.

Ahead of him, the ring obscured most of Draconis. He could begin to pick out features: boxy robotic factories, antennae, docking clamps. The gap had looked huge in comparison with the ring, but up close, Reilley realized that it was tiny. A pinhole in a ribbon or even smaller. It occurred to him what would happen if he missed the gap and hit the surface of the ring instead.

The gap began to expand quickly. Through it, Reilley could see the whorl of a huge storm as it made its stately way across a bright blue sea. Features on the ring blurred past beneath him as he plummeted towards the growing gap. The surface came up, and for a splinter of a second Reilley thought he would hit, then he passed through the gap. The ring flashed up past him and he was dazzled by the brightness of Draconis. The underside of the ring was lit by the glare of the planet. He saw the cable, no longer a wisp of thread but a huge black twisted braid, thicker than he was tall. It was fastened to the orbital ring by a titanic socket. He traced its path down. The space elevator was there, closer, but still far away.

The cable bowed out beneath him in a long arc. It flew upwards past him at a terrifying speed, and Reilley began to wonder how fast the elevator was descending. If he was falling too quickly when he reached it, landing on it would have the same effect as hitting the ring. But if he began to slow too early, he would be out of air by the time he reached it. How long ago had he started he emergency tank? Five minutes? In seemed days had passed. He tried to concentrate. The elevator could move very quickly in space, but would have to slow as it entered the atmosphere. When would that be? Too many variables, the Master Spy had said. He shrugged inside his suit and turned his thrusters down to half power. He rolled onto his stomach and used the thrusters to stay close to the cable, content to simply fall.

Draconis was a wide disk beneath him. He could see continents and mountain ranges and wide, grassy plains. A huge river delta that must cover hundreds of kilometers emptied into a shallow sea. Farther away, a sharp-edged line of darkness veiled the planet as evening approached. He began to relax and enjoy the view. He wondered how the Master Spy had fared. He twisted to look above him, but could see nothing.

Reilley became aware he had entered the atmosphere when he noticed a thin whistle from outside his suit. He looked down; the space elevator was closer, and he was falling towards it at an alarming speed. He pointed his thrusters downward and kicked them back up to full power. The sound of the air rushing past grew louder and deeper. Loose fabric on his suit began to flap in the wind. The interior of his suit became warmer.

Gravity began to tug at him, stronger than the mild forces his thrusters asserted on him. Buffeted by the thin air, Reilley began to have trouble keeping his balance. He moved closer to and farther away from the cable. The elevator below him was larger, getting close. He was falling towards it much too quickly. The air in his suit began to taste stale.

The sound outside his suit grew to a roar. Reilley wobbled back and forth, struggled to maintain his tenuous balance. He fell stomach-first, arms and legs splayed out. In another lifetime, during training, he had once made an orbital jump, but he had not entered the atmosphere at this speed, and he'd had real maneuvering rockets. The heat in his suit grew until it became uncomfortable, and he began to sweat.

The space elevator approached him quickly. He concentrated on staying above it, but he passed through a pocket of turbulence that made him lose his balance. He twisted, overcompensated, and tumbled over and away from the cable. He spun through the air. The sudden change in gravity disoriented him. He kicked his legs and waved his arms, struggled for balance against the empty air. He fought himself as he fell; the sight of the open planet beneath him took his breath away and made his stomach leap up into his throat. Reilley forced his arms and legs into position and he stabilized.

He lifted his head; the elevator was only slightly below him. In moments, he would pass it, and there would be nothing to stop his fall. He aimed his thrusters behind him, shifted his arms, and strained towards the blackened cube. His suit became hotter, and it began to burn him where it touched his skin. Acid sweat dripped into his eyes. The elevator was close enough for Reilley to see handholds on its sides. He was above it, but still falling much too fast. The near edge approached, and he prepared for the impact. At the final moment, he flipped himself over and curled into a ball. He crossed over the edge hit the top of the elevator.

He was struck by a gigantic hammer. The life support unit on his back was crushed. He was stunned, and distantly noticed he could not breathe. He opened his eyes and found himself falling, whirling away from the elevator again. He had bounced off the top and was spinning away again into open air. It seemed to him that he swam in a dream. He struggled to right himself and aimed back at the elevator. His thrusters were no longer working. The rush of air around him was thunder, and the stale air seemed to have disappeared from suit as he gasped for breath; it must have torn in the collision.

He flew again at the elevator. He passed below its top and collided with the side. He grabbed for a handhold and pulled himself onto it, clung with the final remaining fraction of his strength. The wind buffeted him against the side of the elevator, and he pulled himself up, hand over distant hand, to the top. He climbed up onto the top of the elevator and fell down behind a small metal structure.

Reilley blinked his eyes. Far away, he saw black columns in the air, ending in fiery red balls. He stared at the columns for a moment, then realized that it was wreckage from the battleship, burning up as it fell towards Draconis. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe the thin, frigid air that escaped into his suit.

He passed in and out of consciousness. At one time, he recalled seeing a figure diving through the air towards the elevator. The figure passed over edge and rolled to a halt close to him. The Master Spy crouched and shuffled over, sat down next to him and began to inspect him. Another time, he opened his eyes and saw that he was much closer to the surface. The sun was a bright red ball above the planet. In the foreground, he saw black vertical bars reaching up to space; wreckage was still falling from high above. He turned his head upwards and saw cable stretch up to vanishing towards the bright band of factories far above. He closed his eyes.

Some time later, Reilley awoke. The Master Spy shook him one last time and asked, "Are you able to move?"

The air was thick, warm, and damp. A heavy fog swirled in the night, and the band of industry was nothing more than a dim glow overhead. The elevator shook and rumbled in its traversal of the cable. Reilley sat up, swayed for a moment. His helmet was gone, and he drew in a deep breath of the wet air. It smelled of springtime. "I think so," he rasped. He cleared his throat. "Yes." He felt as if every part of his body had been pummeled, but as he stretched his arms, the fresh air lent him a new strength.

The Master Spy pulled him to his feet. "We must prepare," he said. They each helped the other strip off their space suits. Reilley marveled at the damage his suit had sustained. It was black and burned, melted, crushed, and torn in several places. They pulled intricate cloth robes from pouches and draped them over their shoulders. Reilley withdrew a small bottle of pills, shook one into his hand, and swallowed it. His skin darkened and acquired a blue hue. They pressed their suits into cloth bags and crept to the edge of the space elevator.

The elevator shook and began to slow. Bright lights shining through the fog below showed them the elevator would descend into a narrow pit beneath the ground. They saw no Elerians in the fog. They waited until they were near the surface, and jumped from the top of the elevator to the apron around the pit. Reilley and the Master Spy crouched in the dark, breath held, waiting for an Elerian voice to shout a warning. No one appeared. The elevator gave a final rumble and a loud metallic clang reached the spies as it locked into place. From far below, soft voices drifted up to them, but the night above ground was silent. They nodded to each other, slung their bags over their shoulders, and disappeared into the swirling darkness.


[ THE END...   Back to the Beginning of the Story ]

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