Sana was working late when the call came in, trying to crack the coding in the Ancient computer core. She stumbled over to the communications desk and punched the contact switch. The code showed a military channel and she stifled a snarl of impatience as a trim girl in Naval uniform appeared on the screen.
Two minutes and nine seconds later she was sprinting out of the lab hut and racing for the tents.
“Up!” she yelled, smacking the tent poles with a stick to rouse her colleagues. “Get up!”
“What is the meaning of this, Miss Sana?” Professor Qebetsunef demanded, her translator spilling out the English words even as she spoke the Vasudan.
“Warning from the navy,” she gasped. “Shivans.”
“They won't bother with us, surely?” Dicken growled, but the pilot's face was pale with fear. “They don't care about planets.”
“Heading right for Cestus IV,” Sana assured him. “ETA just under an hour.”
Qebetsunef's face registered horror, although few humans would have known how to interpret the lift of her crest and the fall of her wattles. “Eye of Heru,” she whispered. “Alright! Get...” She paused. “Someone is coming for us; yes?”
“The GTD Grimalkin is in system,” Sana replied. “They say they'll take us off, but they haven't the forces for a stand-up fight with the Shivan fleet.”
The Professor nodded. “Get the core loaded into the shuttle. Leave everything else!”
They worked fast, but the time flew past. Each time anyone looked at their chrono the fear in their eyes grew. The core – large, heavy and awkward – was barely aboard when the first heat-trails flared high above them.
“They're not just coming at the planet,” Dicken realised. “They're coming right at us!”
“It must be the core. No time for personal effects!” Qebetsunef declared. “Into the shuttle; everyone. Dicken; get us off this rock.”
Dicken sprang along the companionway to the cockpit and powered up the systems. Sana ran after him and strapped herself into the navigator's seat as he fired up the engines. “All in and sealed,” she said. “What about the pre-flight?”
The scope flickered, wild and red, as the vast swarm of Shivan vessels swept into radar range. “No time! This is what we used to call a pre-scramble check,” Dicken explained. “If we don't blow up, it's working.” He shook his head. “I just hope that damned core is worth it.”
“They think it is,” Sana noted, tapping the scope.
“Very true.” Dicken cranked the engines up to power. “Beacon?”
“Eighty-eight, thirty-five,” Sana replied, focusing on the navigation display to control her fear. “Distance... one-ninety-five clicks.”
Dicken glanced at the scope; the Shivans were less than fifty clicks back. “This should be interesting,” he declared, and he gunned the thrusters to maximum, kicking in the afterburners as soon as they were clear of the ground.
On the scope, a line of blips moved free of the mass.
“Oh, kruck,” Dicken muttered. “Astaroths. See if you can channel more energy into the engines.”
“But the turret...”
Dicken gave a sharp laugh. “Against Astaroths I'll take the engines over a dirt-sifter in a retrofitted turret any day.”
“If they're after the planet, maybe they'll let us go,” Sana suggested, but she still channelled the weapon power into the engines. “Can we outrun them now?”
“Not a hope. If there's even a chance we have what they want, they'll chase us the long way to Sol.”
“We don't need to race them to the Grimalkin,” he explained. “Just get to them.” He tapped the scope where a set of green dots had appeared at the furthest extent of the radar.
“And will we make it?”
Dicken shrugged. “We'll make it, but the old Ulysses fighters are the only ones we have that can get this low into atmos. They might not be enough.”
“You're a real ray of sunshine, Dicken.”
“Hey; it gives us a chance at least,” he assured her. “I really hope we make it; I want a chance to ask old Qebetsunef what we've really found that's got the Shivans so riled.”
“She said once that the Ancients were like gods and we are but insects,” Sana replied. “She said 'there were giants in the world in those days.'”
Dicken frowned. “That's not Vasudan,” he noted, “it's an old Terran scripture. 'There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.'”
For the first time in their acquaintance, Sana looked impressed. “The Professor said that she thought the Ancients were able to talk to the Shivans, but never understand them. Like parents talk to their children,” she said.
Dicken shook his head. “I'm starting to understand why they don't want us to find out about the Ancients,” he said.
The night sky faded into the black of space as they rose. Laser blasts struck their shields as the first of the Terran fighters appeared, growing rapidly from mere dots.
“Well tough,” Sana declared. “Because I for one intend to know.”