“Now.” And they were in darkspace. Roman kicked up his engines to the fastest speed the Claws could handle, then wrapped both hands around his flight stick and closed his eyes.
He focused on the beacon—the bright nima flare pulsing in the darkness. He fixed the Dark World in his mind, its pulsing draw sending out currents like a whirlpool, trying to pull everything in. He felt the space around him like a map, read its eddies and currents and folds. Roman could feel farther than any scout in the fleet; he could read darkspace better. He could see hops and skips no one else could.
He saw them now. Node to node to node, cutting across and through. In realspace, the only to cross a distance in a shorter time was to move faster. In darkspace, there were shortcuts if you knew how to find them.
The easy path, the obvious current, would take hours. If these ships had demons on their hulls, they didn’t have hours.
Roman flew with his eyes closed, his other sense open, trusting the ship’s AI to keep him out of any trouble he couldn’t see.
His ship twisted and spun as Roman dove into currents and through cracks only he was sensitive enough to find. “You trying to lose us, Ro?” Nari asked, laughter in her voice. This was the kind of wild flight every pilot in the pack lived for.
Another twist, a dive, a sharp turn to go wide around a ripple of space that would have added a loop of hours. He crested a wave, dove through the trough—
And emerged into chaos.
According to the cockpit computer, flight time had been under eight minutes. All together, it had been barely more than twenty since Roman and Andreas had gotten their call. A phenomenal response time; no other scout could have gotten the squadron here faster.
They still might be too late. Three passenger ships huddled together—one at the sort of odd angle that meant they’d lost their engines. All around, like a storm-cloud made of nightmares, a swarm.
When the demons made it into the real world, they were locked into bodies and substance that, while still flexible and changeable, had to at least exist. In darkspace—their home territory—no such rules applied.
Darkness surrounded the ships, roiling and twisting, transparent in some places, open in others, but constantly in motion. It erupted into tentacles of claws and walls of teeth that sank into bits of hull and ripped them apart. From here, Roman couldn’t tell if any of the passenger ships had yet been breached.
He pulled up, getting out of the way of the fighters. Nari was in charge now, and she called for an attack formation. Roman counted twenty-one ships. Three had fallen out on the way here. Andreas would be with them. He’d get them here.
As they slipped into attack mode, the claws that gave the fighting ships their names extended—an array of nima-forged blades reaching from the nose and wings of each. They’d rip right through the demons.
That wasn’t the squadron’s only trick. Four ships broke off from the group and formed their own diamond. Lines of energy grew between them, tenuous at first, then growing and spreading until a web of fire connected the four. The squadron’s akashics, working together. Once the rest of the group cleared a path, they’d move in to surround the civilian ships, keeping the demons at bay while the rest of the squadron fought.
The demons were redirecting their attentions towards the attackers. The cloud shattered and changed. A swarm that size was hundreds of demons working together. Hundreds of demons ready to fight.
Clusters of three and four demons merged into creatures of tentacles and teeth, each one larger than any two Wolf Claws. Other stayed small, shadowy clouds that skimmed along the fighters, ready to ooze into any gap. Still others transformed into a fighting form Roman had seen too often—a nightmare blend of squid and spider with razor claws and a shroud of wings.
Roman’s Fang wasn’t designed to fight, so he skirted wide until a break in the demon line gave him a clear shot in, to the passenger ships.
Once he got within hailing range, he sent, “This is Wolf Scout Hayashi Roman. What is your status?”
Each ship checked in. As he’d suspected, the one had serious damage to engines and navigation. The other two reported exterior damage, but no systems crippled. None of them believed themselves to be breached.
Roman wasn’t so sure. But that wasn’t an argument worth having at this time.
Andreas and the three missing Claws zoomed into view. The Claws joined their formation. Andreas aimed towards Roman and the civilian ships. Andreas talked to the captains, his tone soothing and patient as he walked them through what the next few hours would bring. Everything was under control.
Roman felt it before he saw it, his senses still wide open to darkspace and its energies. A demon sliding over the hull of the near ship. The demon was pressed flat, nearly transparent, an oozing pool of malevolent energy looking for a way in. It was moving towards the crippled engines, where it would probably find one.
If it got inside, it would tear through civilians like a cat with a pile of tissues. Or even worse, it would creep through people who lacked the adaptations to see through its illusions and leave bits of itself inside them. Tiny bombs of corruption to try to slip past the Wolf akashics and empaths who would be checking every passenger once this battle was ended.
Roman looked around. There were no Claws close enough. Andreas had docked with the lead ship, probably had left his Fang. Which left Roman on his own.
“Get us close and hold,” Roman said to his ship, releasing controls to the AI. “And tell Nari I need help.”
He unstrapped from his seat, grabbed his sword, and popped the hatch. As his Fang veered in close, Roman launched himself towards the passenger ship, sword held forward as his suit jets kicked in.
The demon saw his approach and reared up, its liquid form coalescing into a writhing mass of razor-edged tentacles.
Roman had its attention. Good news for the civilians. Not so great for him. In darkspace, the demons had every advantage. Faster, more maneuverable, and all this demon had to do was damage Roman’s suit to cause him serious trouble.
But Roman had played this game. He knew this dance. All he needed was to buy time.
A tentacle whipped towards him and Roman threw himself back. The jets of his suit responded to the movement, shooting him out of reach. Roman kept his sword up, but experience-honed reflexes kept it still. Nothing had come close enough for him to catch. If he did his job right, nothing would.
Roman spun and dove again, another arc over the demon, another twist and dodge when the demon struck at the space where he’d just been.
Roman had its attention, but it still clung to the ship, with claws sunk deep into metal. One good rip and it could be inside. He needed to get it away. He needed to convince the demon that he was better prey. Failing that, he needed to piss it off.
Neither of those things would happen at a safe distance.
Roman’s etheric gift was weak, a candle’s flicker next to the roaring bonfire of his hikmaic adaptation, but if he focused, in short bursts, it was enough.
Roman reached deep for the nima in his blood, whispered them to silence. Nothing. We’re nothing. In darkspace, this was harder. In darkspace, there were no nima but the ones inside him. But he felt it, a sensation of dimming, of becoming…quiet.
The demon pulled back and in, its center mass leaning back and forth as it sought him. Roman watched for an opening. He’d have one chance, one strike before the demon knew he was there. He had to make it count.
There. A gap in the tentacles. He could dive in and…
Roman was in motion before he finished the thought. He spun in, dodging between the writhing black protrusions, sword up to strike.
A misjudged tentacle brushed his thigh. The demon twitched. Black tendrils whipped around, so much like…like…
Braids. Long black braids. Wrapped around him. Holding him.
A whisper in his ear. Teeth against his skin.
Nari’s voice broke Roman’s paralysis and he kicked back, spinning away as her Claw slammed into the demon. The ship’s blades sliced through it, and Roman heard its scream, as much inside his head as outside.
Momentum carried ship and demon on, skimming over the passenger ship until Nari pulled up, the demon still writhing on her nose. Her voice in his ear. “You all right?”
“Fine.” Physically, at least, it was true. “Thanks for the assist.”