Elsewhere among the heavens, the NSC Vidar fled, for another struggle unfolded in these private heights. The lone starship took a brilliant orange gleam as it challenged Chiron's upper atmosphere.
Twisted lances forged of black lightning pursued the craft. The tendrils of energy, their course disturbed by the vessel's turbulent wake, slashed past their target. The starship's propulsors burned ever hotter and propelled it faster toward the surface below.
It was like a descent into hell, imprisoned in a burning tomb. A five-point harness arrested Captain Wilkes to the command seat. Blood pressure monitors, designed into the navy flight suit for its vital statistics, now worked in reverse to keep her blood from pooling in her head.
She would've prayed then had she any religious faith, but even as every moment brought her near the cusp of acceleration-induced unconsciousness, her only forethoughts was the Vidar's dire situation and Unit 03.
Like any commander of sound mind and reason, she'd kept her vessel at range and watched as the evolved Locri cannibalized their lesser kin. That was until three evolved bioships lost interest and turned to them. Wilkes gave the order to flee in an instant. Now, as her craft neared the end of its last voyage, she was beginning to regret her impulsive decision.
The three evolved Locri were near, she knew, and many would follow to the surface. That was the other problem. Unit 03 was still down there. Her physiological readings reported heavy injuries before the JAW-1221 restraints had several breaches, then her signal became completely silent.
Was there interference at the surface level? Did the hatchery Unit 03 was supposed to destroy have something to do with it? Had she fallen in battle? Was she worth risking the perilous journey to the surface?
Yes, she convinced herself. She's our chance at surviving the plague.
But in the end Unit 03 was still just one living being! This was one of the rare moments when Captain Wilkes stopped to consider what great advantage Unit 03 gave humanity's struggle against the plague.
"Unit 03," she spoke into the microphone. "Please respond. The evolved bioships are finished and they're coming to the surface. Please respond. Your signal is extremely weak--"
Black lightning flashed past the Vidar, and in a sizzling crack raked through the atmosphere farther beyond the craft, setting clouds swollen and aboil with heat. Worried as she was about the surface, she had more pressing matters.
"Primary reactor coolant is depleted," Weapons Officer Ein Roskva said. "I'm flushing in the reserve tanks. Sensor reading failure. Reactor redline projected within the next five minutes."
"Okay..." Captain Wilkes agreed flatly.
What was there to do? Shunt the reactor and become nothing more than a meteor? She decided this was by far the least trying of her problems.
She focused her attention on the three evolved Locri bioships. While the turbulence of atmospheric re-entry made the Vidar a hard mark, sooner or later they would catch her.
Captain Wilkes knew in her heart that hope runs deep. Even in the last vessel of humanity's interstellar fleet, fleeing toward the last bastion that remained, she still had to try. Hope runs deep.