Disclaimer: FF:TSW and its characters are licensed to Square Pictures. This story is mine.
Author's note: Has anyone, as an author, ever gone back over your own works and said to yourself, "Self, I could do better?" Well, I did. Re-reading my own stuff, I did a little revising on "Convergent Paths"; tweaking some things here, shuffling other things there, and in a couple of cases deleted some stuff altogether to make it all flow a bit better. Now, seeing as how Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within fiction has its own section on now (about time, too!), I am re-releasing "Convergent Paths". "Gaia's Gift" will also be here. And the short 3-chapter fic of our favorite couples, Jane/Neil and Eri/Atwood will also be posted here too. Regular readers know what the skinny is with this fiction but it doesn't hurt to re-read an old chestnut, hey? Newbies, enjoy this crossover fic and review if you wish.
Space is a vast and lonely place. But out here, near Mars orbit, it seems a little less so. Perhaps the red planet looming nearby lends weight to this illusion. The heavens are not featureless. Bands of interstellar dust glow blue, magenta and violet with stellar radiation and provide a breathtaking background.
Out among the myriad points of light there is a muted reflection, barely noticeable. As it gets closer we can see that it is a spacecraft, sleek and entirely cloaked in flat black, devoid of any obvious markings. Its forward-swept wings lend it the impression of a bird of prey. It is not alone. Accompanying it is a slightly smaller ship of the same design and color. The two thunder past in tight formation, their passage eerily silent as they accelerate around the far side of Mars and vanish among the stars.
Matt Lanier grinned like a fiend. Being the first test pilot to put the Black Phantom through her paces pleased him no end; his brown eyes flicked between the cockpit window and his instruments. Tilting the stick to port, he swept past an outer buoy that marked the midpoint of the test range and was aiming for the next one when the comm crackled.
"Hey hotshot, slow down! This ain't a space race, you know!"
Lanier's grin widened as he glanced to his left, where the nose of the escorting Super Avenger was just visible.
"Now, Atwood, don't tell me you can't keep up! I upgraded those engines myself. Just open her up a bit more. Tell you what…when we get back I'll buy you a beer, even though you're still a couple of weeks away from legal drinking age."
"Yeah, right. Her Nibs probably won't let me out of her sight long enough–"
"I heard that, pilot." This came from the offset seat behind and slightly above Matt, and he didn't have to peek at the small interior rear-view mirror to know that Captain Cheyenne Broderick was probably glaring out at Atwood's ship with those piercing green eyes of hers. Her towering six-foot three-inch frame had been squeezed into the co-pilot/ECM seat for the past two hours, so she was no doubt a wee bit on the cranky side.
"At the very least you should be sure to secure a private channel before speculating on what your commanding officer thinks."
Pursing his lips as he listened to the exchange, Lanier maintained a poker face and concentrated on his flying. A tone sounded…by the Gods, were they already at the outer marker? The engineers back home had done a bang up job on knocking out this beauty of a ship. Armed to the teeth and outfitted with the most powerful engines yet designed, she was the latest design in heavy space superiority combat craft, designed to take on the escalating alien threat in the Frontier. No wonder the other pilots had lamented loud and long when they hadn't been picked.
Throttling back the engines, he opened up communications to his squad mates in the aft compartment, who were monitoring performance data. "Flight trials are almost complete. Looks like she's passed with flying colors. Hughes, what's the word on your end?"
"All green. There was a slight hiccup in the power systems, but I tweaked the software. Bug's gone now."
A young woman's dulcet voice answered. "Considering we're packing a full weapons load-out, I'd say that this thing is ready to kick some ass. The grease monkeys have done something right for a change."
"You do realize that all information regarding the Black Phantom is being recorded, right? That includes everything you're saying right now."
A muted curse, then: "Ah, damn. Now you tell me…"
Chuckling, Lanier wheeled the ship around and orientated on the distant sunward beacon that marked the test range control station; Mars itself was merely a ruddy speck. "We're good to go, ma'am."
The cockpit's second occupant rolled her head as well as her armored flight suit would allow, trying to work out a neck cramp. "About time," she grumped. "Let's head on home, then. Atwood, follow us in and–"
"Wait!" Lanier raised a hand, his body attitude assuming an focused posture. Broderick, who had worked with Matt long enough to know his mannerisms, did not interrupt. He adjusted something on the dash before him before speaking. "Got something here…a transmission on the emergency channel. It's faint, but I'll put it through."
The frantic voice that came through everyone's commlinks was still scratchy even though it had been filtered and enhanced. "…are under attack! Defenses…eutralized. –ife support systems failing! Do you read! Urgen…requested! X–"
It ended in a burst of static. Broderick clenched a fist. "Pinpoint the source of that signal and hustle!" Then, to the rest of her team: "People, we have a slight change of plans…hope you're up for some action."
Lanier's fingers were a blur over the ship's controls. "Hyperdrive powering up, coordinates locked in."
Broderick contacted the range station and gave them a quick rundown on the situation, forwarding the mayday and requesting for any available interceptors to converge on the coordinates. "Get a fire under your ass and punch it!" she snapped tersely before sealing her helmet's face shield shut. Inertial compensators whined, and as the brutal acceleration shoved her back in her seat and the stars distorted into streaks, she gnawed her lower lip, praying that this situation would be resolved quickly.
The interceptor pilot frantically shoved his stick over, but he was too late. A brilliant green bolt struck his ship broadside and a second later both he and his craft were vaporized in an expanding fireball of incandescent gas and debris. Seeing yet another ship meet a fiery fate, Cheyenne's stomach knotted yet again.
Earlier, they had emerged from their brief jump only to find a drifting debris field, all that remained of a corporate mining outpost that lay on just inside the Sol asteroid belt. Scans had revealed nothing. The next moment, other jump points had formed as two wings of reinforcements arrived and together they began a standard search pattern, Atwood leading one squadron and Broderick's Black Phantom spearheading the second. After almost an hour nothing more was found, and they were preparing to depart when one of the pilots reported a new contact very close by.
"It just appeared, captain. I've never seen anything like it. It's paralleling our course…almost seems to be shadowing us."
"Get back here, Parkes."
That was his last transmission before his ship vanished from the scopes; he had become the first casualty of a cloaked alien vessel, which dropped its camouflage right after claiming its first victim. Almost half a kilometer across, the UFO looked partially organic in nature and launched no support craft of its own. Expectations of a brief scuffle took a turn for the worse when it began to unleash formidable firepower, destroying two more ships and crippling a fourth before the two squadrons could rally and return fire. For all they could throw at it–heavy lasers, phase cannon, permeator missiles and enveloping fusion torpedoes–they made nary a dent.
Another explosion formed a brief sun as a fifth ship took it up its six and bought the farm. Broderick was exasperated. "Shit! Have we done anything to the damn thing at all?" Lanier had already flushed his exterior missile racks but the aliens kept coming. And as if that weren't enough, the update over the hyperwave commlink wasn't exactly encouraging, either: the nearest reinforcements were en route at maximum speed but would not arrive for another hour.
Dammit, what kind of shields are they running? We're like gnats to this thing!
"Superficial damage only, captain...whoops, excuse me..."
Broderick lurched against her flight harness as Lanier corkscrewed into a violent dive. An alien missile flashed by and detonated, its shockwave rocking them and causing Harper to curse a blue streak in the rear bay.
She made a sudden decision and barked an order. "All ships, go under and evasive! You too, Atwood!"
Almost instantly the fighters activated their cloaking generators, winking out from visual and sensor contact alike. The next moment a scintillating sapphire wave swept across the cockpit canopy; the Phantom was now concealed as well. "We have only a few minutes of cloaking available before the genny needs recharging, ma'am."
She nodded, only hearing news with half an ear as she kept a wary eye on their adversary. The UFO had ceased firing and now sat, a monstrous disc, a few kilometers away. Who was running that thing? Ethereals? Grays? An entirely different alien race? All of the remaining interceptor pilots maintained radio silence, but there was no doubt that the bugs were attempting to locate them; she knew that they could not stay hidden forever. Even the nearby asteroid field would offer scant protection, considering the firepower that thing was packing. Trying to remain concealed among rocks the size of flying mountains was almost as lethal as eating a shot from a plasma cannon.
Then an idea formed. "Lanier…get us around their backside. Harper, what's left back there?"
"Checking…hmm…a couple of fusion missiles, phase cannon–well, what have we here?"
"Spit it out, we don't have all day."
The answer held a note of satisfaction. "I'm looking at half a dozen rounds of fusion balls."
"Two minutes' cloaking time remaining," Lanier said softly.
"Load 'em up. Lanier, transfer launcher control and full tactical to me."
"Roger. I'm getting a very strong thermal emissions reading from the aft end. You thinking what I think you're thinking?"
Her HUD glowing now, she grinned wolfishly behind her face shield. "Damn right. If anything the engines should be vulnerable. I'm going to shove a couple of fusion balls right up their butts. If we can immobilize that ship, it ain't going nowhere."
The UFO remained centered in the windscreen as they shuffled laterally around it and Broderick's right hand tightened on her joystick's firing stud. She wasn't certain if what was now seeing through her gun sights were the UFO's engine ports or not, but whatever they were they appeared vulnerable and that was plenty good enough for her. Her earpiece crackled and Harper spoke.
"Fusion balls loaded, launcher ready, captain."
Excellent. "Lanier, the second I fire get some distance between them and us." She peered intently through her targeting sights, green eyes narrowed.
They slowed, stopped…then they were in position. A steady tone sounded in her earpiece. "Got a lock…shots away!" The button slid into its contact point and then she felt a rumble through the floor panels. A split-second later a blue-white sphere of actinic light two meters across arrowed straight for the alien ship, with a second one right behind it. Lanier didn't wait for the fireworks, instead kicking in full reverse and punching the ventral nose thrusters to stand the ship on her stern. He rolled them around and switched to afterburners as they raced out of the detonation zone just as the cloaking generator flat lined.
Eagerly, Broderick switched to the rearward-facing viewer, for she expected to soon see her target drifting helplessly. Well, almost helpless–the bastards still had their weapons, but she could call in some heavily armored frigates to surgically knock out their point defenses.
The moment their cloak dropped, the aliens detected them, wheeling around and lumbering after them. Green fire erupted from several cannon emplacements, and Lanier had to fly an unpredictable pattern indeed to keep his tail feathers from getting scorched. Meanwhile, released from its containment field, the first high-density, ultra-high temperature plasma ball chewed through the UFO's aft shields and partially dissipated. The second one passed through unhindered and impacted directly against the ship, twisting up the gray and green plates and odd tendril-like growths. Gouts of gas and a cloud of fragments trailed the huge craft. It slowed, gunfire dwindling, and Cheyenne cut loose with a whoop. She deactivated her HUD and opened her face shield, exhaling hugely. "All right…all ships, decloak and form up. I want status reports, by the numbers. Assume a pincer formation and flank that UFO at safe distance. Harper and Hughes, you guys still with me?"
A pair of affirmatives eased her mind.
"Atwood? Where are you?"
A worrisome moment of silence, and then a black fighter fell in beside them. Behind it the other Super Avengers and Firestars were sliding into formation as they complied with her orders. "Reporting, captain."
"What's your status?"
"Nothing that can't be hammered out. What now?"
Broderick grinned. "I'm of a mind to call in a cruiser to take it out completely, but I don't feel like hearing the GSC scientists bitch about the wealth of information that got shot up. Besides, something that big has got to be toting a considerable fuel load and you know what our friends use for that. The main drives are down now…after her weapons are disabled it the salvage ships can towed it the nearest base. That should keep both the brass and the lab boys happy. Stand by, I'm going to contact Central Command."
The interceptors split into two groups and positioned themselves on either side of the crippled alien ship, taking the utmost care to stay out of its weapons range. The Firestar that had taken a glancing hit early on during the scuffle was ordered back to base, and as its engines scratched a trail into hyperspace Broderick again turned her full attention to the UFO, which was creeping along at a snail's pace now. She peered closer. Why was it still moving? She frowned and she began to get a nagging sensation something wasn't right here…
"Lanier, what's the reading on that thing?" she asked. The bridge of her nose itched, and she scratched it.
The computer squawked. Lanier checked it and was silent for a moment too long. "This can't be right."
"Power level readings are going up…their mains just went back on-line! Looks like energy is being dumped to the drives. They're preparing for a hyperjump, I'd say."
Broderick clutched her firing controls. "No! We've got to keep them here!" She opened up her command link. "All ships…whoever has any torps left, target anything that looks like a propulsion system! We can't afford to let them!"
The interceptors wove intricate trails and again were met with alien fire. More munitions flew, some exploding upon impact with the shields while other missiles managed to blow destroy more hull plating. In the middle of this madness Lanier skillfully slid and wove towards the UFO's backside again, and Atwood gave supporting fire as Broderick calmly readied another fusion ball round, ignoring the scene outside as it twisted and rolled in a most gut-wrenching manner. She brought her HUD up again and increased pressure on the joystick's button as they entered weapons range. The lock tone filled the cockpit.
"Shot away!" she crowed as the third fusion ball leapt into view, but as she readied number four Lanier gave a shout.
"What the hell…? Hang on!" He wrenched the controls and took the ship into a steep climb that increased everyone's weight by almost two G's, and the captain cursed as her target slid out of her sights.
"All ships, break off! I repeat, disengage!" The tone in his voice vindicated his actions. Broderick switched her tiny screen to aft view, and what she saw made her gasp.
The saucer-shaped craft was now floating before a reddish vortex that swirled like some vast whirlpool. Even as a fiery cauliflower blossomed on the UFO's rear quarter and it began to reel drunkenly, she realized to her dismay that she was looking at a jump point of considerable size. But this was like no entry she had ever witnessed. A corner of her mind noticed with relief that the other ships had already retreated, but her own craft was too close.
Horror grew claws and seized her guts. "Matt! The entry wave backwash! If they jump–!"
"I know!" he gritted, fighting against the sheer acceleration as the Black Phantom arced around and scrambled for an escape vector. A glance at his scope indicated a familiar contact attempting the same maneuver; no doubt Atwood. He slammed the throttles to their stops and the engines howled, voraciously doubling their consumption of the precious Elerium-115 that served as fuel. Use of the hyperdrive to perform a nano-jump was not an option…the few minutes it would take to power up was time that they did not have.
Dark flowers were blooming at the edges of his vision, and dimly he wondered if the aliens were desperate enough to jump with their main engines damaged. He definitely did not want to be around to find out. Abruptly the cockpit lit up with an unbearable brilliance, making Cheyenne cry out in alarm and Matt's first thought was of an explosion; he expected his easy chair to get blown out from beneath him and he tensed involuntarily.
But as things went gray and the rip in the fabric of space dragged them in–both the alien vessel and the pair of human ships alike–destiny had other plans.