Iro and Roret hurried through the halls as quickly as they could, both carrying heavy tool bags. Iro’s even more heavy for the sword hidden within. He hadn’t taken it out of the bag for weeks now, but couldn’t bring himself to leave it behind each day. He needed it close. It was the last part of his sister, the last reminder of his dead dream. It was the only thing that provided him with any comfort. They scooted past another couple of techs working on a bulkhead that had ripped itself apart. The two women had a welding torch, but it was sputtering, too low on fuel to maintain a good flame.
Roret had been right, the deceleration was worse. The Courage was tearing itself apart, and it wasn’t the first ship. They’d already lost the Broken Mirror, its people scattering throughout the remaining ships.
“Stop running,” shouted the older of the two women working on the bulkhead.
“Can’t,” Roret shouted.
“They need us at the Hopper pods,” Iro added.
Two of the Hopper pods were malfunctioning. That was on top of bays three and five, which had already been shut down and cannibalised for parts. They barely had enough Hoppers to fill two squads, but that didn’t matter if they didn’t have the pods to launch them onto the titan when they arrived.
The halls were filled with people. Mostly techs and ships officers all going about their jobs. There was an air of excitement in the atmosphere. Five years floating about in the dark, twenty-eight days of full speed travel, and now they were finally here. Iro passed a window on the outer bulkhead wall and slowed to a stop. He took a few steps back and pressed his face to the glass, staring at the titan.
It was massive. Beyond massive. A scale of huge he had never thought would be possible. It seemed longer and thinner than the old titan, though Iro had to admit that might be another trick of scale. It had four wings around the central body, each one jutting out from the titan, two on each side. Its tail branched out into six thinner lengths, each one longer than the main body of the titan. Then, each of the six tails spread out into a luminescent solar sail. Iro knew enough to assume that was how it collected the energy it needed to keep going, swimming through space as it did. But the old titan didn’t have a solar sail, and they had no idea how it generated its power, nor produced its fuel. Everything they knew about titans was nothing but conjecture. No one had an idea where they came from or what their purpose was. Or who had originally built them. All the people of the Home Fleet knew, was that titans existed, and without them they would all be dead.
“Come on,” Roret said. He had realised Iro had stopped and ran back.
“Look!” Iro said, stabbing a finger at the glass window.
Roret pressed in close, his cheek cool and sticky when pressed against Iro’s own. They both stared out the window. “Is it bigger than the old titan?” Roret asked.
“I think so.” They were still hours away and already it dominated the view.
“Scrap.” The both fell silent for a few seconds. “Now come on. If we don’t get the pods working before the fleet gets there, they’ll make us get out and push the damned things.” Roret grabbed hold of Iro’s arm and tugged him away from the window.
The pods were scrapped. Iro and Roret had spent half an hour diagnosing all five of them, and only two were fully functioning. The other three were in various states of being scrapped, all of which stopped them from doing what they needed to. That left them with only two functioning pod bays, and eight functioning pods between them. It also left the Courage in the rare situation of having too many Hoppers for the working pods. Though Iro had to admit that was only because they were sending the trainees. He shuddered at the thought of having to tell Cali or Mia they were grounded due to lack of parts. He couldn’t imagine getting out of that conversation without at least a broken arm.
“Whoever did the last diagnostic was an idiot,” Roret said. “Two malfunctioning pods is scrap. It’s clearly three.”
Iro stalked over to the bay entrance and looked at the paper pinned beside the wall. “Last diagnostic was run ten days ago by Chief Brene. I’m not saying you’re wrong, Ror. I just wouldn’t go insulting him to his face.”
“Good job he isn’t here then, because he’s a scrapping idiot!”
Iro looked over the list of problems again. Pods two, three, and five weren’t working. Pod two’s life support was down. Given that the trip over to the titan would take a few minutes at least, that meant whoever tried to use it would both freeze to death and suffocate long before they arrived. Pod three’s thruster line was scrapped, so it couldn’t manoeuvre. Pod five’s hydraulics were down so the doors wouldn’t open or shut, and its navigation controls looked like someone had breathed flame on them.
“How many pods do we need?” Iro asked.
“Four,” Roret said.
Four, or one of them had to explain to a trainee they weren’t allowed to go on the first Hop to the new titan. Literally the one thing they had been training for all their entire lives. Iro decided getting out and pushing the pod would probably be preferable.
“Let’s shut down two, use the parts to get three and five working. We’ll have to hope they find the new parts to fix them while on the titan.” With a plan in place, they set about working. It took a couple of hours to strip down two, and get three working. They were still working on five when the trainees and Master Tannow marched into the pod bay.
“Stay close and stay together,” the old master was saying. “Remember, there’s nothing stronger than a group of Enhancers who trust each other.”
Iro poked his head out of pod five’s door to see Master Tannow in full titan-forged armour. It was an old suit, and it strained around his mid-section, but at least it was a full suit. He also had an axe with a head the size of Iro’s torso strapped to his back. “I thought you didn’t Hop anymore, Master,” Iro said.
Cali and Mia skipped around the old master, one either side of him, and advanced on Iro. “Oh look, sis. It’s Talentless.” Cali said. Her suit of titan-forged armour was missing a vambrace and both pauldrons. She had a couple of thin knives strapped to her hip.
Mia stalked up to Iro and punched him hard in the arm before he could back away. He staggered back, crying out, then the aching numbness turned the pain into agony. “I’m not getting in that pod, if he’s been working on it. It’ll blow up half way to the titan.” Her suit of armour was cracked down the chest plate, held together by fraying strips of tape. A hefty two handed hammer sat strapped to her back.
“At least being blown up would improve your looks,” Iro said quietly.
Not quietly enough, apparently. Mia turned on him, raising a fist, a snarl on her face.
“Enough, Mia,” Master Tannow said. “If you kill our tech, who will fix the pod?”
“I’m not going in that one,” she snapped.
Mia turned back to Iro and pushed him hard enough in the chest, he stumbled back against the pod door. “Fix it right or I’ll feed you to the void.”
Iro heard a thunk from inside the pod, and Roret’s head popped up out of the open hatch in the floor. “Is the door closed yet.”
“Nope,” Iro said, backing away from Mia.
Roret disappeared back into the hatch. “What about…” Iro heard a clunk. Nothing happened. “No, that’s not it. Hand me the hydrospanner.”
Iro inched out of the pod door. Mia was still glaring at him, close enough to lash out and punch him again. He hefted his toolbag from the floor and dropped it inside, close enough for Roret to reach. He noticed Dobi leaning against the door of pod two.
“Not that one,” Iro said pointing. Mia made a lunge for his hand and he pulled it back quickly. “Pod two is down.”
Dobi didn’t even look at Iro as he pushed away from the door and sauntered forward to lean against pod three’s door, staring into the cockpit. His armour was dented, scratched, clearly cobbled together from different sets, and none of it seemed to fit right. A pair of titan-forged gauntlets with spikes on the knuckles dangled from his belt hooks.
“What are those lights off the front wing?” Dobi asked, nodding into the pod.
Master Tannow’s face twisted like he’d found a rat in his algae. “It’s another fleet.”
“What?” Iro said, unable to keep the surprise from his voice. Mia spun about to stare at the old master, and Cali’s mouth hung open. Only Dobi didn’t seem to care.
“Another fleet has already staked a claim on the titan,” Master Tannow said. “That’s as much as we know, and it doesn’t matter. We’re here now and we can’t turn around.”
Iro nodded. “Nowhere to go and not enough fuel to get there.”
Master Tannow sat on the bench and buried his head in his hands. “Not enough fuel to get here. We’re running on fumes already. It’s amazing the lights are still on.”
“Haven’t we contacted them to make sure they’re friendly?” Cali asked. Iro thought he detected a quiver in her voice and saw her patting the knives strapped to her belt.
“We can’t,” Iro said. “Our comms barely make it past the fleet.”
Master Tannow nodded, head still in hands. “We don’t even know if they’re human. What sort of tech they use, nor what comm channels they have. Without flying in close and waving out the window at them, we have no way of communicating. And again, it doesn’t matter. We have nowhere else to go.” He looked tired, or maybe scared. “They’re on the front starboard wing, so we’re heading to the rear larboard wing. As far away from them as possible. That’s a whole lot of space between us.”
“What if they’ve already scavenged that wing?” Cali asked.
Dobi snorted but said nothing.
Master Tannow sighed. “The Home Fleet was attached to titan 01 for twenty-two generations. We never even made it past the sixth level. That means we barely even searched the outer skin of the one wing, let alone ventured into the main body of the titan. And we never needed to. Everything we needed, we took from the outer levels of that one wing.
“That other fleet is roughly the same size as ours, maybe a little bigger. This titan is big enough for both fleets and then a dozen more. We’ll be fine.”
The general alarm bleated throughout the ship. A moment after it fell quiet, Captain Fuwagowa’s voice sounded across the main comm speakers. “The fleet is beginning its approach. Hoppers, prepare to launch. We only have one shot at this.”
The speakers fell silent. Iro held his breath, waiting for something else to happen. After a few seconds, Master Tannow took his head out of his hands and hauled himself to his feet.
“OK, trainees, assemble.” Dobi, Mia, and Cali all jumped to attention, standing before Master Tannow. Iro stared at them. Even in patchwork armour, they looked a formidable bunch.
“This is a large scale joint Hop,” Master Tannow said. “That means Hoppers from all over the fleet are assembling at the landing zone. No official squads have been organised, which means we are a squad. You watch each other’s backs. Protect each other. We are Enhancers. Leave the fighting to the Strikers and Vanguards wherever possible, but keep your weapons at hand.”
He paced, and Iro saw sweat trickling down his brow. Even before titan 01 exploded, Master Tannow hadn’t Hopped for years. Iro wasn’t sure why, but the old master had retired. He didn’t look excited to be coming out of retirement.
“Landing zone is the thruster control. I’ll do the flying, your pods will be set to follow the leader.” He stopped pacing and stared down at Dobi. The other boy wasn’t much shorter than Master Tannow. “Fuel is the mission critical resource here.”
“Not food?” Iro clamped his mouth shut too late. The words were already out. All eyes turned his way. They ranged from condescending to outright hostile. Iro lowered his head and backed up a step into pod five.
“Not food,” Master Tannow growled, moving to stand in front of Cali. “We have all the algae we want and the means to grow it. But without fuel, the fleet is dead. We expended everything to get here. So much, this is a one way trip.”
“What?” Mia said. She looked at her sister, and then back to the master. “What do you mean one way?”
Iro had wondered about that. During their diagnostics, he and Roret had noticed that there wasn’t enough fuel in the pods. They could manage a short trip at best, and once they were on the titan, they weren’t coming back. He had assumed they would be fuelled up before they left. The fuel pellets were handled by ships officers, not trusted to tech grunts like them.
Master Tannow stepped infant of Mia. “Scared, trainee?”
Iro saw Mia gulp. “No. I just… How do we get back?”
Master Tannow leaned down toward her. “Why do you think we think we’re going to thruster control, trainee?” He shook his head slowly. “Fuel is the mission critical resource,” he repeated. “Every Hopper down there is going to be looking for fuel pellets. We find some, fill the pods cargo holds, fill the engine, and get back to the Courage before she goes dark.
“It’s going to be chaos down there,” Master Tannow continued. He straightened up and walked back to the head of the line. “There will be Hoppers from other ships everywhere. We don’t know what sort of monsters or traps we’re likely to encounter. This is a whole new titan. But if the wing hasn’t been scavenged, then you can expect it to be crawling.”
He paused and looked over his trainees one last time. “Stay close. Watch each others’ backs. Courage!”
“Courage,” Dobi, Mia, and Cali said together with little enthusiasm.
Master Tannow nodded and stared at pod one. His eyes took on a glazed look for a few moments, then he shook his head. “Dobi in three. Cali in four. Mia in five.”
“What?” Mia all but shouted. “I’m not getting in that one. If useless here has been touching it, it’ll probably blow up half way to the titan.”
“Wouldn’t worry about that,” Roret said, climbing out of the hatch, spanner in hand. “If I can’t get the door working, you won’t even leave the bay.” He squeezed past Iro, still loitering at the pod door. The cockpits were barely big enough for one person, and Iro’s tool bag took up a bit of space itself. Roret pulled open the panel underneath the pod controls and frowned at whatever he saw.
“See,” Mia said. “I…”
“Get in the pod, trainee,” Master Tannow shouted. “We launch in thirty seconds.”
Iro glanced out the pod window. All he could see now was the titan. It was beyond massive.
Mia stepped into the pod, tripped on Iro’s tool bag, then caught herself on the seat, and gave Iro a solid push. He stumbled back, hip bouncing off the controls, head hitting the outer bulkhead.
“Get out of my pod, useless,” Mia snarled at him.
“I’m trying,” Iro snapped back, already trying to squeeze around Mia as she tried to manoeuvre herself into the seat. “But you take up so much room.”
“What the scrap did you just say?”
“Only that you clearly love algae a bit too much.”
Mia grabbed Iro by his collar and slammed him against the pod wall, lifting him off his feet. He instantly reevaluated his position. She was all muscle and scarier than he gave her credit for. A few strands of dark hair wafted infront of her face and she blew them away, still glaring at Iro.
“Ten seconds,” Master Tannow’s voice was tinny over the pod comms.
“Is the door closed yet?” Roret asked. He sounded like his head was inside the wall.
“Not yet,” Iro’s voice trembled. He held up his hands as non-threateningly as he could and smiled down at the girl pinning him to the wall.
“Get out of my pod,” Mia hissed each word carefully.
“I can’t. You’re holding me here,” Iro said slowly as if speaking to a child.
With her free hand, Mia punched Iro in the stomach. He doubled over, the air driven from his lungs. She wasn’t even enhanced, but Mia hit like the hammer she carried on her back.
“How about now?” Roret shouted.
“Nope,” Iro wheezed.
“Launch,” Master Tannow said. The pod bay rumbled as pods one, three, and four detached from the Courage and rocketed toward the titan.
Mia dropped Iro to sprawl on the cluttered floor of the pod. She turned to the window and pressed her face against it, watching the other pods go. “No!” she cried. “You can’t go without me, Cali.” She turned to Iro, face like a sparking wire. “My sister is down there alone because of you.”
Iro thought about arguing that Cali wasn’t down there yet and she wouldn’t be alone at all, but would actually be surrounded by the largest collection of Hoppers the Home Fleet had ever assembled. But he was still struggling to draw enough breath for one word, let alone twenty-two of them.
“Now?” Roret asked, voice muffled by the bulkhead.
“Nope.” Iro attempted to get back to his feet, but there wasn’t enough room in the pod. He bumped against Mia and she kneed him in the side. He gasped, smacking against the chair, and collapsed again.
“Get out!” Mia snarled.
“Maybe if you stopped hitting me,” Iro suggested. She tried to kick him again, but could barely shuffle her feet in the limited space, so ended up just nudging his leg.
“I think the hydraulics tube has come loose again,” Roret shouted. “Can you secure it?”
Iro crawled on elbows and knees to the service hatch and peered into it. It was a tiny space, he had no idea how Roret had fit inside with space to work. Sure enough, the hydraulics tube was dangling, unconnected. He plugged it in, twisted it to lock it. It flopped free again. The locking screw had been stripped.
“Mia, can you hand me the silver tape?” Iro asked, flailing a hand back at her. “Top of my bag.”
Mia grumbled something, nudged him again a couple of times, and then he heard her rifling through his bag. A moment later, the roll of tape was shoved into his hand, and Iro plugged the hydraulics tube back in and started wrapping tape around it.
“Why do you have a sword in here?” Mia asked.
Iro froze. “Get out of my bag!” He flipped around onto his back. Mia stepped on his chest, pinning him to the floor, and picked Neya’s sword out of his tool bag.
“What does a tech need with a sword?” Mia asked. Iro tried to sit up, but she pressed down on his chest, slamming him back to the floor. “A chipped old piece of scrap.” She smiled viciously at him. “Don’t tell me you still want to be a Hopper, useless. You got no talent.”
“Put it back,” Iro wheezed.
Roret cheered. “I got it!” The pod door slammed shut.
Mia’s eyes went wide, a grin splitting her face. She dropped Neya’s sword back in Iro’s bag and scrambled for the chair. There wasn’t enough room in the pod with both of them cluttering it up, and she shoved Iro hard with her feet. “Get out.”
Iro scrambled to the pod door and pulled himself up. He hit the controls to open it. Nothing happened. He pressed the button again. Still nothing. Roret shouted something, but with the pod door closed, Iro couldn’t hear what.
Suddenly the pod shook violently. Iro was thrown back to land in Mia’s lap and they both squeaked in alarm. Out of the window, Iro saw the black void. Then the titan swung into view as the pod rocketed towards the wing.