Alison brushed back her short, sandy blonde hair with one hand and pulled a tight hood overtop, before fitting the helmet snugly over her head. “All set, boys?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” Hawthorne’s voice was tinny in her ear, coming through the speaker on their communication channel. Through the visor of her helmet, she could see him doing a strange little dance as he finished strapping together the exoskeleton.
Tom Warren and Kieran Macready sat on the bench opposite her, already prepared and strapping themselves in. It was impossible to tell who was who when they wore their helmets; only the names etched on the breastplates of their matching armour made it possible for her to tell them apart.
“I’ve set the course for Sarkoth’s main city and port, ma’am,” Oakes said from the cockpit. “H’Krin, looks like. Strap in. It won’t be an easy ride once we’ve entered the atmosphere.”
Hawthorne grabbed her elbow to steady her as the shuttle lifted off the ground with a whirr. “Better have a seat, Commander,” he said, his voice in her ear and his grin visible behind their helmets. Alison laughed and settled on the bench between him and Macready.
“At least he can’t pinch your bum in these suits, eh, ma’am?” Macready teased. Hawthorne growled and lunged over to smack him, but Alison sat between them and shoved his shoulder before he could strike.
“Hormones, boys,” she scolded, mocking. “Keep yourselves in check. I doubt the beren like naughty humans.”
The men—Oakes included—burst out laughing at that, and Alison grinned, satisfied with her words.
With a shuddering groan, the shuttle eased out of the hangar and into empty space, nose pointed toward the dismal orange and grey orb hanging ahead of them. Sarkoth, a toxic world of desert and inhospitable mountains, with perpetual storms and winds no man could withstand.
From all she had heard about the beren, Alison thought they picked a suitable planet to make their own.
The shuttle skimmed over loose sands whipped into a frenzy by winds going three hundred kilometres an hour, and grey mountains made jagged by thousands of years of erosion. Several times the shuttle was rocked by pelting wind and sand, and rocks wrenched from the mountainside, but the shields remained strong and they hovered across the surface.
“GPS says we’re getting close,” Oakes said after they passed through the worst of the storm. “But I don’t see anything that looks like a city.”
“You can see anything at all in this shitstorm?” Warren asked from Macready’s left.
“Kind of hard to miss a whole city,” replied Oakes, voice dry. “Any thoughts, Commander?”
Alison unbuckled her straps and padded to the cockpit. The view shimmered with a bluish sheen as the odd rock was dislodged in the wind and spun toward the shuttle, deflected by the shields, but ahead of them was only sand and rocks. She frowned and slipped into the co-pilot’s chair. “I have no idea what this could be,” she said with a scowl. “But the nav says there’s a city up ahead. Keep following the map.”
Alison retreated to the rear of the shuttle. “No touching or pinching or grabbing,” she said, hand on Oakes’ seat. “Keep your oxygen level at the right amount,” she added, giving Macready a pointed look. He laughed, self-conscious. “If you grab my bum or squeeze my breasts during any of this, Sean,” she said, knowing already that Hawthorne would do something to stir up the mission, “you’ll be reporting to Representative Lang. He’ll send you straight to the council of the Concord for assaulting your commanding officer.”
His chuckle was low in her ear. “You know me too well, Commander.”
“Warren,” she said, ignoring Hawthorne, “you just do what you do.”
“What, he doesn’t get a scolding?”
“He never does anything stupid,” she retorted. “Next time he oversets his oxygen and blacks out or molests me during a diplomatic mission, he’ll get warnings just like you two.”
“Come on, you have to admit that was pretty funny,” Hawthorne said as he stood from the bench. “Did you see Representative Galeg’s face? I thought he might burst a blood vessel.”
Warren and Macready snickered, and Alison fought back the bubbles of laughter rising up in her own lungs. It had been funny, but that wasn’t the point. “Sneaking up behind me and grinding me in front of the stuffiest aliens in the galaxy wasn’t the best idea, Lieutenant. You’re lucky the eragi had already joined the Concord.”
She couldn’t see, but she had a feeling Hawthorne winked. “It was worth it, Commander.”
“I found the city, Commander.”
That was enough to distract her from her team’s sordid past. Turning, she stepped once more into the cockpit and squinted. It still looked like a sea of hot orange sand to her.
Then something shimmered and flickered as they approached, and her jaw dropped. A huge dome danced into view, just at the edges of her vision at first, and the sand bounced off, leaving the interior intact. The ground beneath the dome shuddered and began to open, parting by three large blades.
The shuttle communicator came to life with static, then a voice said, “Welcome to H’Krin, Commander Vaughn. You’re late.”