Skylost Chronicles Vol. 1: Girl of Hope
By S. R. Mulrune
Copyright © 2015 S. R. Mulrune
All rights reserved.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
First eBook Edition: November 2015
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“We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking this is survival. But we never stop to consider that we all dangle on the precipice of extinction.”
Admiral Benedict Jenkins, H.D.S. Monarch Wing
CHAPTER 1: GIRL OF HOPE
Sage relished the last moments of peace before the chaos began. She returned everyone’s smiles, happy to have earned extra supplies for the people of her home ship. But the more she had to see the smiles of her friends, the less genuine she became. The problem she couldn’t get over was that the upcoming journey would require her to leave everyone behind.
She wanted to avoid the idea of saying goodbye. She feared being alone. She dreaded how her duties as fleet Champion would change her life. That was, if she was to be Champion of Empyrea. She was one of two selectees, but the comfort of thinking she could escape selection was over.
There was no place to hide in the ship’s small, metal gymnasium, with only enough space to house a volleyball court and a few rows of benches on one side. The air was thick with the scent of worn-out shoes, old benches, and sweat. Though small for a gym, it was a rarity of space for the factory skyship Solvang, where most corridors and rooms were cramped. Only warehouses and tractor causeways were spacious. The Solvang was also a rarity among the civilian ships, in that it had a large enough population to sustain an athletic program. Other factory ships gave up their gyms to use as extra warehouses.
Sage considered the possibility of fleeing the room, since she was the first player to come in for a meeting with her coach. But she summoned the courage to stand in place, stare out at the scratched and rusted metal walls, and make desperate attempts to calm her breaths.
Every time she thought of something to say to each of her friends, memories welled up and she went into a small panic. The echo of each tiny sound was of little help when it forced her to hear how panicked her breaths had become.
“I’m terrified I’ll never see my friends again.” Sage was surprised by her admission, but also comforted by venting the thought. The slight echo in the room helped solidify her acceptance of the words.
Coach Whitney huffed and nodded a few feet away, the only other person in the gym who waited for the team to arrive for a meeting. The lean, athletic woman patted Sage on the back, then closed her eyes and pressed a fist up to her mouth to cover her saddened expression. Her auburn, short-cropped hair would have allowed her entire face to be seen otherwise. She wore a gray blouse and pants, the same as Sage, and almost everyone else on the ship.
Sage fought against a storm of emotions when she looked at her coach. There was a seven-year age difference between the two, but Whitney had played with the only other Champion to have come from their ship. If anyone knew what was in store for her friends, it would be the coach. She wanted to comfort the twenty-three-year-old woman beside her, but felt like it would seem disrespectful to try. So she stood in place and listened to the mild background hum of the skyship’s flight engines.
Whitney blinked away her tears and sighed. “Promise me you’ll make it back. Don’t do to your team what Forty-Five did to mine.”
Sage tapped her feet on the floor’s rusted metal panels. It hurt to think of the former Champion, a girl who could’ve grown into a strong factory worker, as nothing but a season number. But she knew how much pain Whitney went through to even think about her. “The Void took Heidi. It won’t take me.”
Together, the coach and team captain turned their attention to a plaque over the gymnasium doors. The plaque featured a faded photograph of a brunette girl at the prime of her life, a picture taken on one of the last color sheets of film in the fleet. It was the only portrait of the girl, as even her parents had been unable to afford to have a print made from the negative. A brass plate under the picture identified her as Heidi Paris, Champion, Season XLV. Everyone revered Heidi for her accomplishment, for being a daughter of workers, not a daughter of soldiers, who was chosen to go to the Void.
Whitney looked away from the picture and brought her free hand up to hide more of her face. Her voice became a hiss when she spoke. “Empyrea’s traditions killed Forty-Five. The tyrants feed girls like you to the nightmares in order to keep the fleet alive.” Whitney was low-key about her beliefs, but everyone knew she, her husband, and her father-in-law were the biggest dissidents on the ship. She hated the military dictatorship that held dominion over the entire Empyrean Fleet. “They should send down actual soldiers.” She narrowed her eyes. “Their claims of needing seasonal Champions are hollow excuses to keep us from rebelling.”
“Someone has to rise up as the people’s Champion and save humanity.” Sage shivered at the idea. “I never dreamed it would be my turn.” She considered the burden of having all quarter-million people depending on her. “But whatever happens to me—”
“Don’t talk like that.” Whitney slammed her hands on her hips and gave Sage a solemn look. “Only consider your return. Dying down in the Void isn’t an option. Make hope glow in your heart and use it as a beacon against the nightmares.”
The team captain exchanged a long and painful stare with her coach. Both fought tears. Sage wondered if Whitney was as happy as her that no one else was in the gymnasium. Not that there was much of a chance of random passersby. All the adults were too busy with work and the ship’s security ignored safe areas like the classrooms and gym. That meant only other members of the volleyball team might intrude. Which was why Whitney and Sage met early.
“Is your father-in-law going to conduct the ceremony?” Sage’s throat tightened with dread.
Whitney shook her head. “Captain Hale isn’t a monster.” She pulled a bundle of red fabric from her pants pocket. “I told him this should be a small, private ceremony. No audience. No mixture of applause and gasps echoing around us.” She extended her hand with the palm-sized bundle. “He agreed. And my being his daughter-in-law had nothing to do with it.” Her mouth tensed for a moment. “I think you should see it before the team. To take away the burden of having all their eyes upon you. I know you’ll agree.”
Sage nodded and stared at the fabric bundle. She was grateful to escape the pressure of having her friends present for the moment of reckoning. She was free of any possible judgment of her reaction to the league judges’ decision. However, she wanted the support of her friends.
Whitney took a deep breath and tensed her jaw before she began. “Sage Mustang, your diligent leadership and cunning use of unconventional tactics brought the Earthquakes to a league win. It’s my great honor, as ship’s representative of the H.D.S. Solvang, to deliver this judgment from the Empyrean Volleyball League.”
Sage reached out for the bundle and forced herself to wrap her fingers around it. The bundle was just fabric with a coin inside, but it felt heavy to Sage, as if it was a lead brick.
“Go on,” Whitney said. She tilted her chin in support and pushed up with her palm. “You led your team to a season victory. You defeated swarms of military brats to get here, to this moment. Don’t let this package defeat you. It’s just a disc made of worthless gold.”
Sage clutched the bundle and brought it up to her chest in both hands. The sensation that it was a lead brick swept away, and she knew it was only a piece of metal. She recalled her parents and her grandmother telling stories of a time before the Cataclysm, when gold was considered valuable.
Sage quelled trembles that threatened to rattle her hands. “Is it too late to forfeit the tie?” She thought of the other girl up for selection, a fierce soldier’s daughter who Sage remembered most for baring her teeth during every play.
Whitney’s eyes glistened as she reviewed her team captain. “That would mean dumping the burden on, what was her name, Cassia, right? If you had the power to seal her fate in order to protect yourself, would you?”
Sage pulled the bundle closer to her chest, until her fingertips pressed against her tattered gray blouse and she could feel her racing heartbeat. She closed her eyes and recalled moments of Cassia snarling on the volleyball court. “To be honest, if I was given that ability.” Sage’s heart raced faster and her breath stuttered at her decision. “If the judging council gave me the ability to choose.” She opened her eyes and had to blink away the tears.
“The whole team knows what you’d say.” Whitney put a hand on Sage’s shoulder. “You’d select yourself to go down to the Void, to allow Cassia to live the rest of her life among her friends.” She made an expression that was half-grin, half-wince. “You’re too kind for your own good.”
Sage pressed the bundle harder against herself. She took a long moment to collect her thoughts. “Maybe fate won’t play out the way I’d want it. Maybe I get to be Reserve Champion.” Her mind quaked at the thought, of entering the same training regiment as the Champion, only to sit on a bench and wait as a substitute for word of the Champion’s death.
“You’re the most honorable young woman I’ve ever met.” Whitney squeezed the hand on Sage’s shoulder. “Every time I look at you, I see the greatness of our people. No matter what that coin shows you, you’ll always be remembered for your greatness by the populace of the Solvang.”
“Thank you.” Sage’s gratitude was muffled as she rushed forth to hug her coach. They embraced until both of their panicked breaths calmed. “Coach, this isn’t the end.”
Whitney broke away and hid a sob with her fist. “You’re right, this is the beginning for you. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
Sage brought the bundle before herself in both hands and examined the fancy, red fabric. The high thread-count and soft feel were unlike any of the worn-out fabric on the Solvang. It became the most valuable belonging she owned. She might be able to trade it for an expensive meal for her family. Fried fish seemed like a wonderful final dinner to have with her parents and grandmother.
The importance of family rushed through Sage’s mind. She wished they didn’t have to work late into the night. There was no way to have them present when she opened the bundle, even though it was them she most wanted present for the moment.
Sage perked up from her thoughts. “Can you call in a favor with Captain Hale? If my portrait ends up on the wall next to Heidi, please get a copy of the picture for my grandmother. The only pictures she has are from Earth, when my father was little. It would mean so much to her to have my picture.”
“Consider it done.” Whitney motioned for her team captain to open the bundle. “Stop delaying. Do you really want your friends to show up and witness this moment?”
Sage pulled the edges of the fancy fabric. The folds came undone in a simple pattern of square and triangle creases that draped over her hands. A gold disc was in the center and shimmered under the gymnasium lights. Letters were stamped into the disc so that it made an unmistakable declaration to Sage: CHAMPION, SEASON LXXII.
Sage’s heart raced and her knees shook. Her hands trembled enough to risk dropping the coin. She quelled a scream, fought off the need to sob, then stuffed the coin and red fabric in her pocket. She didn’t want anyone else to see the proof that the league judges had sent.
Whitney rubbed her hands across her face. “I’m so sorry.” Her voice was hoarse with dread. “This isn’t right. You, of all people, don’t deserve this. It isn’t right for them to send you to the Void!”
“I’ll have a month to train for my ordeal.” Sage peered at the gymnasium door. The room felt alien with her new perspective, but at the same time comfortable without extra people around. “They’ll teach me to use a sword and a gun.” She let out a nervous chuckle at the idea of using weaponry. “They’ll guide me in controlling my fears. The Void won’t have anything to use against me.”
“That’s what Forty-Five thought.” Whitney’s expression was bitter. “Do you know how she died?”
Sage nodded. “She protected an extraction shuttle from a swarm of voidforms. Her actions saved the shuttle, and all of the Empyrean Fleet. It’s why she’s a hero.” Her skin crawled at the idea of voidforms, shape-shifting monsters that existed only to kill. The very things she was going to face. She, not Cassia.
“A sweet lie.” Whitney’s bitter expression worsened as she shook her head. A tear rolled down her right cheek and she brought her fists back up to block her face. “She brought her orb to an extraction shuttle. But that Void energy is pure evil. She left her hand on it for a split second too long. The shuttle pilot watched as she was incinerated on the spot.”
“I’ll take that as a lesson.” Sage fought against rapid breaths. It was bad enough the Void had the ability to turn fears into physical threats, but the deadliest encounter she would face was going to be with the aethergen orb. The very thing she would be tasked with collecting as Champion. “No holding or pushing that orb. I’ll only strike it.”
“See that you do.” Whitney coughed to collect herself. She slowly put her hands at her side. “At least you have youth working in your favor. You’re a few months younger than Forty-Five was, so maybe it’s true that you’ll have less fears built up in that head of yours.”
Fears were a driving force in the Void. If someone was afraid of machines, the Void and its voidforms would become deadly machinery. If a person had a phobia of spiders, the voidforms would become colossal arachnids. If an individual was scared of dragons, the shapeshifting Void would manifest those otherwise mythical creatures. It’s why Sage would be sent alone, to face the fears of a single person, rather than the collected worst fears of a whole squad. She made a mental review of the things that scared her.
Sage’s breath went irregular for a moment. “I haven’t shared this with anyone, but being alone is my greatest fear.”
Whitney allowed the hint of a smile to form on her lips. “If that’s the case, the Void will be wide open. No monsters. Just a big, empty path for our monophobic Champion.” She smiled and patted Sage on the back. But it was obvious her smile was as fake as the one Sage returned.
Sage made several attempts to talk, but had to calm her fast breaths to do so. “I’m going to be alone on this journey,” she said at last. “I’m going to be down there with no one at my side. Even if there aren’t monsters, there will only be me. It’ll be the worst time of my life.”
Whitney’s face went deadpan. “But it won’t be the end of your life.”
The hinges on the gymnasium’s double doors creaked as they opened for a lone figure to walk in on the coach and team captain. She wore gray and was the same height and lithe build as Sage, but her skin was dark bronze and her black hair was worn in a shoulder-length bob. Her face was serious, but her large, brown eyes were friendly and supportive as she locked her gaze on Sage.
Whitney put her arms akimbo. “Adriana, can you wait outside a few minutes?”
The girl rushed past the coach and right to Sage, fixated on her team captain the entire time. “You did this without us, didn’t you?” She wrapped her arms around Sage and cradled the captain’s face against her shoulder. “You’re going to be okay.”
Sage always felt embarrassed on the rare times that Adriana went into surrogate big sister mode with her. Adriana was the oldest member of the team, and acted like a protector among them.
Sage accepted the gesture of kindness. “But you don’t know what the coin said.”
“I don’t need to see that coin.” Adriana wrapped her arms more tightly around Sage. “I saw your face. That told me exactly what I need to know.”
“You’re crushing me.” Sage wheezed for a moment after being released. She grinned in a genuine show of gratitude, but only for a split second. She was no longer alone with her coach, and word would get out. From that moment onward, she would need to wear a hero facade. Everyone would be watching her and passing judgment. Could she act like a Champion? Sound like one? Look like one?
Adriana gazed at her friend. “Champion Sage Mustang. How does it feel?”
“It wasn’t so bad when Coach Whitney and I were joking about monophobia.” Sage returned Adriana’s gaze. “But now that you know, and now that I know all three-thousand people on the ship are going to know?” She patted her own chest. “It’s like I’m being crushed so much that time’s crawling to a standstill. I can feel each heartbeat about to explode. Every breath is like a wave crashing through me.”
“You can make the announcement,” Whitney said to Sage. “You can choose the words. I won’t interfere with the way you want to let this out to the people you care about.”
Sage shook and huffed in panic.
Adriana’s face softened to show her concern. “It’s not something you absorb and recite to your friends in an instant. ‘Hey everyone, I’m being sent on a deadly ordeal for the good of humanity. So long and thanks for the cheers.’ No, you need to escape, don’t you? You need to find a quiet place to take this in.”
“Sage, you can’t run away and hide from this.” Whitney’s face was stern. “You have little more than twenty-four hours until soldiers from the Columbia come to take you to your training. You need to spend these precious hours saying goodbye. Not hiding somewhere.”
Adriana folded her arms and cast a furious glare at her coach. “Respectfully, Whitney, you’re wrong.” She snapped her focus to her friend. “Sage, find a way to take this in. But do it in your own way. If you need to reflect somewhere peaceful, so be it. If you decide you want to remain here and talk to all of us at once, we’ll support you. Which would you rather do?”
Whitney put a fist against her face to hide her trembling mouth. Adriana blinked to keep the tears away.
Sage spun toward the doors and rushed out of the gym.
Sage hoped to make her way to the lower decks of the ship in quiet, but abandoned the idea when she reached the lateral causeway. The path around the old furniture factories was supposed to be desolate and easy to sneak through, where one could be accompanied by the old scents of dust and wood that hung in the air even so many years after shutdown. But the dozen children who pulled rickshaws filled with scrap metal drowned out the peace.
She had to stand taller and wear a grin, even though all the rushing children paid no direct attention to her. When she performed a cheerful wave, the youth, which looked to be underfed ten-year-olds, perked up and moved faster. She wondered for a moment if they regarded her as their Champion, or if they feared she might be a taskmaster. The cramped causeway was barely large enough for the children and their carts, and she felt bad every time one of them sidestepped in order to squeeze out enough room for her to pass.
The children with their rickshaws rushed by, from the port side with an empty carriage, and back from starboard with a stack of metal pipes and sheets. She aimed to move beyond whatever was keeping them busy, and paced along the causeway until she passed the shelf factory. Then she passed the desk factory. Then she passed the chair factory and the unusual smell of tanning oils that she could never get used to. Half the length of the nineteenth deck, and the children worked without end.
The causeway reached a large garage at the backs of the abandoned table and floor panel factories. It was an unremarkable area of the ship, half the size of the gym, with no equipment or supplies after years of disuse. Except that morning, when a pile of scrap metal laid in the center of the garage, along with a web of wires that networked across the floor from a central point, where a giant mechanical box towered over the one adult in the room.
Sage recognized the man and did her best to hide that she was startled. “Foreman Rogers? Good morning.”
The thirty-year-old man with a deep gaze broke his attention away from the mechanical box he inspected. He wore a gray worker’s outfit and cradled a large battery canister in his arms while he looked at Sage with an equal amount of badly-hidden shock. “Good. G-good morning.” He snapped to attention when he bumped open a panel on the side of the giant box that stood more than a foot over his head. “Did you come down here to volunteer?”
“I wish I had the time!” Sage shuffled sideways, hoping she could avoid the conversation. “But I’m not sure what job you’re all up to.”
“Better off that way.” Rogers winced and ducked sideways when a pair of children raced by with overloaded rickshaws. “No racing!”
Sage worried for a split second when she saw how scared the foreman looked at almost being hit. “Need help with that battery?” She craned her neck to see the top of the mechanical box. “My friend Adriana knows more about generators than I do, but I’m sure I could help lift that.”
“No problem here.” Rogers strained to lift the chest-sized battery canister into place to slide it into a socket in the generator’s side. “Besides, for safety’s sake, I need to take care of this one.” His face scrunched as if he’d said too much. But his self-review ended when two boys and four girls raced into the room to load up their carts. Fear overcame him when they rushed past. “No racing! No going close to me! You must remember that!”
Sage’s pulse chilled at what she was able to put together. There was one source of energy dangerous enough to cause so much concern. “Is that an aethergen canister?”
Rogers’ face went grim. “Only a single molecule in this one. But it’ll provide a bounty of power for months. Enough for three floors worth of equipment.” He chuckled away his nervousness. “Mighty powerful, and mighty dangerous.”
Sage shuffled sideways, hoping to break away from the discussion. But her curiosity forced her to keep talking. “Is Captain Hale reinstating the old factories down here? That would be a lot of jobs.”
Rogers smirked for a split second before he winced and pushed the canister into the generator. “On the nose. And the jobs start with these kids.”
Sage nodded and examined the youth who rushed in and out of the room. “I don’t recognize any of them. They’re not from the Solvang, are they?”
Rogers shook his head and eased his shoulders to make the final push. “All transfers from around the fleet. New jobs means a need for more people. Expect to see a lot of new faces.”
“I wish I had time to meet everyone.” Sage fought a small panic attack. She didn’t want to say anything about the coin in her pocket.
Rogers grunted before he talked. “Have you heard from the judges about whether or not you’re the Champion?”
“Actually, I—” Sage backed away from a speeding rickshaw just in time to keep her feet from being run over.
The racer’s opponent, a young boy with a full cart, lost control when he tripped over a tangle of wires near the generator. His cart bounced and swung loose in his grip before the metal frame slammed into the back of Rogers’ leg.
The foreman roared in pain and fell backwards. He had almost finished loading the battery, but it fell out and landed partially on his chest while one rounded corner clanked against the rusted floor. The huge battery hissed and a thin trail of steam shot out of its top seam. The deadly hot trickle scorched right through the man’s pants and caused him to howl in pain before he fully settled from his fall.
Sage lurched forward, instinctively wanting to rush in, but her better judgment forced her to stand back and assess the situation. She was glad she did when the battery canister rolled off Rogers’ chest. Small pools of hot water formed near the foreman’s legs, but the device went on to burn his hands and feet on its next couple rotations. She realized it could have been her who was burned had she rushed in.
“Evacuate the room!” Rogers struggled to control the rolling canister as best he could with his reddened, blistered hands. The battery’s hiss grew louder and a second jet of steam shot out near the first, burning his arms and hitting him across his cheek and nose. He howled again, but pinned the canister under his body. “Evacuate and seal off the garage! Now!”
The eight children in the room, including the boy who’s cart caused the accident, milled in a state of shock until the second order. Then they ran to the door to the lateral causeway without looking back.
Sage approached the foreman with cautious urgency. She made sure she could see Rogers had a secure grip on the battery canister before she moved closer to the danger. She examined him more, and found his eyes were swollen shut from the massive burn on his face. “Is there a way to shut this off?”
Rogers shook his head a little. “It’s an aethergen containment breech. You can’t shut it off. And you don’t have enough time to figure out how to close the emergency lock.” He fought a shiver. “This whole room’s going to be an inferno. Get out of here!”
Sage maneuvered around the canister and ripped it free from the foreman’s weakened hands. It was far heavier than she expected, being almost solid metal to house multiple levels of containment systems.
“The emergency lock is probably busted.” Rogers grasped at the air, unable to see. “If the automatic barriers didn’t engage, the whole thing is probably damaged. This is the price we pay for messing with aethergen as a fuel.” He flung his arms through the air. “Leave. Now!”
Sage dragged the heavy canister toward a mechanic’s trench at the edge of the garage. The divots in the metal floor panels and the thick wires caused the device to rattle and bounce as she dragged it past. A pair of steam jets joined the first two and almost scorched her hands.
A disembodied whisper of broken syllables sounded out.
Sage glanced back at Rogers for a moment, but found he was still on the ground, protesting with his arms outstretched. The whispers continued, not from Rogers or from anywhere else in the room, but seemingly from somewhere near her own hands. She continued her charge toward the trench against the mighty weight of the device. When she looked down at it, the whispers grew louder.
“Rifice,” the disembodied voice said in a whisper that sounded like a frightened child.
Sage finished the journey across the garage floor and swung the battery into the trench. Another jet of steam emerged and shot out near her gray slipper. The heat was intense, but missed her by inches, enough to keep from burning her feet.
“Sacrifice,” the whisper said among its cacophony of broken syllables.
Sage rushed to a nearby control panel on the wall and punched a large, yellow button. A pair of mechanical doors shut over the trench and sealed the accident for the time being. She sighed and regarded her small victory.
The whispers faded and finally went away with the final booming clang of the trench doors.
Rogers was standing when Sage came to his side. He huffed in frustration. “Any last words, dear girl?”
“We’re not dying today.” Sage wrapped her arms around the foreman and led him toward the causeway door. “I bought us enough time to get out. How well can you walk?”
Rogers limped under Sage’s guidance. “Not well.” He fumbled to get his swollen toes past a tangle of wires. He groaned and forced his left eye open against the pain of his burned face. “We’ll live. Thank you!”
The room heated up to sweltering within the minute it took for the two to cross the garage and reach the causeway door.
“The dangers of aethergen,” Rogers said with a chuckle. “And to think, you might have to go down and deal with a raw orb of that terrible stuff.” He leaned in to see a control panel on the other side of the doorway, pressing the correct buttons to seal the room. “Which reminds me. Have you heard from the judges yet?”
Sage searched for the best way to avoid lying to the man. “It’s like the whole ship is waiting for the league’s decision about me.”
Rogers limped away from the sealed doorway to begin a slow trek through the causeway. “They’ll let you know soon enough. I’ll bet they name you Champion.” He grunted in a mixture of thought and pain when he declined Sage’s offer to help him walk. “You’re a strong young woman. The league is right to use volleyball to find Champions. You’re fit, agile, and know how to take control in an instant. I can’t say the same for the other little ones in the fleet.”
A pair of children lingered in the causeway ahead. They perked to attention when they spotted Rogers and Sage.
Rogers pointed a blistered hand at the youth. “You two, go to the comm station on Deck Seventeen and call for a hazard team to clean up this mess.”
The children bowed in response, then scooted through the narrow passageway, their tiny feet echoing against the metal.
Rogers forced his left eye open a little more to return Sage’s stare. “Don’t be so concerned. The kids got to safety. I’m fine.” He chuckled and grunted in thought. “Of course, safe and fine are relative. Look where we are.” He raised his burned face to gaze at the low ceiling panels of the causeway. “Some people used to say the Void is nothing but the Earth’s ghost, and we’re trapped inside it.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Sage grinned at the absurdity of the idea. “Everyone knows the Void is an alternate universe with its own physics.”
Rogers shifted and he let out a painful wheeze. “Is that what they teach you in the classrooms?” He limped along without help, adapting to the situation with each step. “The Cypress War was fought because so few people believed what you call common knowledge.”
Sage did her best to quell her anger. “The Cypress War was started by people who couldn’t face the fact Earth was lost. They wanted desperately to build a portal to a world that was gone.”
Rogers opened his left eye all the way, save for a puffy eyelid. “The classroom facts you’ve been taught? Probably as bogus as the ghost beliefs. I’m sure you’ve heard the theory that there are multiple Earths out there, and the Void is nothing more than the empty veil between them.”
“Of course I’ve heard of that theory.” Sage wanted to leave the foreman be, knowing that he was safe. “As long as we’re throwing out odd beliefs, I’ve also heard the theory that this is the surface of another planet, or the one that says the Void is actually Earth after a disaster transformed it.”
Rogers huffed and shook his head. “I wasn’t old enough to fight in the Cypress War, but I’m old enough to remember walking on Earth. And I’m certain this Void, this terrible place, is in no way a planet. Especially not Earth.”
A long moment of uneasy quiet passed as the two glared at each other.
“I didn’t mean to insult your beliefs,” Sage said. “I’m sorry.” She wondered which of the wild theories the foreman believed in, but didn’t care to push the conversation into offense.
Rogers nodded. His face turned a deeper red in the interim, almost giving him a furious look. “Likewise.”
The foreman used his wrist to pat the girl on the shoulder. “You’ll probably be the next Champion. So you’ll have to go down there to retrieve more aethergen. Just so we have the needed fuel to keep living this way of life. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing here, our way of life depends on Champions like you. So thank you, for saving me and for your future duties in protecting us all.”
“You needed help. It was the only choice.” Sage again wanted to sidestep to avoid the conversation. After seeing how dangerous a microscopic particle of the material could be, she wanted to push her Champion duties out of mind for as long as she could.
“Helping people isn’t the only choice.” Rogers waved a hand out to the causeway as he approached a stairwell. “The others chose to watch or run, as people usually do. Your choice was to help even though you could’ve been killed. You’re a good person. So good it’s a problem.”
Sage furrowed her brow in confusion. While she wanted to escape the situation, she didn’t like the insinuation that she was a nuisance.
Rogers huffed in thought before he placed his hand on a stairwell. “People don’t just wander down here. You’re up to something. I’m up to something, too. There’s about to be an investigation. You don’t want to get caught up in it. And I don’t feel like digging into what you’re up to. So let’s do each other a favor and go on as if we never crossed paths.”
Sage nodded in cold silence. Panic overtook the back of her mind as she considered what type of operation was going on.
Rogers went up the first steps of the stairwell. “You probably weren’t going to admit to anyone you came down to the abandoned decks. So this is one more thing to omit. Enjoy wherever you’re going.”
“May your recovery be quick.” Sage went on the downward steps of the stairwell.
Rogers chuckled. “As bad as the burns are, they’re the least of my worries. I get to have some long talks with Vice Captain Okawa.”
Sage patted the coin in her pocket as she continued her journey to the lower decks. The cold echo of the stairwell was somehow lonely and comforting at the same time.
The smell of fresh rain and wet metal pleased Sage. A gap in the broken doors of the old drone hangar was the only way she was able to see outside the Solvang. Wind raced in and water drops continued to fly through the gap, even though the skyship had passed through the worst of the storm. The gorgeous, yet deadly, view was the whole reason she would sneak down to the twentieth deck on bad days. But on her last day aboard the Solvang, not even the brilliant glow from outside could cheer her up.
Glowing red and orange storm clouds swirled in a vortex that reached up and into the Terminus, the aerial realm above the Void that was safe, aside from the frequent storms. Out of view, below the glowing clouds, was the hideous, shapeshifting landscape of the Void. Sage was grateful not to have to look at the horrid ground. Instead, she gazed out to the scattered skyships of the Empyrean Fleet. Bright yellow and green points of light, from the flight engines of distant skyships, dangled and danced in the colorful sky.
Three ships flew close enough to make out their design, but not close enough to identify by name through the hazy atmosphere of the Terminus. One was a saucer-shaped mining ship, Savannah-class. Another was a stark, angular, military gunboat, Valkyrie-class. Beyond them was one of the unusual, tall, angelfish-shaped vessels, Pleiades-class, a factory skyship just like the Solvang. The three nearby skyships shined in the glowing storm and flickered with blue reflections when lightning struck inside the clouds below.
Sage considered how more than two-hundred thousand people were out in the distance, all depending on her to find an energy orb to fuel the fleet. There were countless faces who would soon know her as their Champion, the 72nd in a long line of sacrifices for the greater good. But most Champions were the daughters of soldiers, fierce girls who usually survived their first trips to the Void. There had only been six civilian-born Champions in the history of the Empyrean Volleyball League, and all of them perished in their first trip.
If history provided a lesson, Sage was sure to meet her fate in the Void. The Reserve Champion, Cassia, would then complete the mission from wherever Sage died with the aethergen orb. The hair on the back of Sage’s neck bristled at the thought of such a chain of events. She couldn’t bear the sight of the ships any longer, and turned her attention to the empty hangar behind the broken doors.
The hangar itself had no power for lighting or heat, since it was located on one of the condemned decks of the Solvang. The lower third of the tall, wedge-like skyship was battered beyond the point of safe operation, the result of being airborne in the dangers of the Terminus without landing for repair in more than 18 years. The hangar, like many portions of the condemned decks, was exposed to the elements and lit by the glow of cloudlight from outside.
The former drone storage room smelled of ionized water from the storm. Numerous puddles were littered across the compact room, which was half the size of the gymnasium. Sage never saw any of the repair drones that were supposed to have been housed in the hangar. They were lost 18 years ago, shortly after the Cataclysm, like so many things the elders spoke of. Sage pondered the foreign concepts, such as computers, pets, the sun, and life outside a skyship, which had been lost to time.
Sage tapped her soaked shoes at the edge of a large puddle and wondered if she would be similarly discarded. After all, Heidi had become another item in the ever-growing list of losses.
“How are things going?” Adriana emerged from the darkness of the unlit far side of the hangar, a place where the encroaching cloudlight didn’t reach.
Sage couldn’t decide if she wanted to call her friend over or yell at her to go away. So she stared toward the shadows.
The curiosity on Adriana’s face shifted to warmth. “I’ll always call you Sage. And I won’t allow anyone to call you by a number. Especially not Coach Whitney.”
Sage patted the outside of her pocket that contained the coin and fabric. “Seventy-Two isn’t such a terrible number.”
“Just seventy-two Champions in the eighteen-year history of Empyrea. It’s an honored group to be part of.” Adriana pointed to the view of the skyships through the broken hangar doors. “All these ships, and we’ve only needed seventy-two orbs to power us.”
“The aethergen is too powerful.” Sage quelled a chill that kicked in when she looked at the tiny dots of yellow and green light. “I don’t look forward to encountering an orb in all its raw malevolence.”
“You’re coming back.” Adriana approached her friend and put an arm around her shoulders. “Plenty of Champions make it back. Even the ones who run into those rare energy-shooting voidforms.”
“Those are always daughters of soldiers.” Sage scowled at a nearby puddle that vibrated with the rumble of the ship’s flight engines. “We know what happens to daughters of workers.”
“Then just act like a soldier when you meet a voidform. Look, it’s easy.” Adriana stiffened her body, goose-stepped in circles, and saluted. She added shouts of “that’s my food” and “work harder, you ugly civilians” before she broke out into laughter.
“Wow, I thought you were a real colonel for a moment.” Sage chuckled to relieve her worries and shift back to her serious thoughts. “Do you remember Cassia, from the league finals?”
Adriana grinned. “Captain of the Crimson Sunset Fireballs? How could I forget her? Worst sport I’ve ever seen on the court.”
Sage smirked at the evaluation. “At the end of the game, when the judges announced they needed to deliberate on who would become Champion, she came up to me. I’ll always remember how she looked like she wanted to bite me. But she just said, ‘You’ll stay down there.’”
“I wouldn’t take anything that lunatic said as prophetic.” Adriana rolled her eyes. “Besides, that ‘stay down there’ line? She said it every time one of us fell. She’s just a jerk.”
“Do you really believe I’ll make it back from that?” Sage waved a hand to the glowing storm clouds outside the broken doors. “All of us are safe in the Terminus only because of the protection the skyships provide. The Void is deadly, and far below these safe walls. Every time I think about going down there, I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive the ordeal.”
Adriana scoffed. “The league judges wanted to select a daughter of the military as Champion, even if it was obvious that you, civilian-born Sage Mustang, were the correct choice as the winning team’s captain. They were even willing to stand accusations of corruption by doing that stunt with the so-called tie and claim of a need for deliberation. And even then, they were forced to admit you not only showed the athleticism, but the fortitude and integrity needed to complete a trip to the Void. Sage, there’s no question you’ll make it back.”
“Thanks for the support.” Sage sighed.
Adriana paced around Sage in a circle to break the uncomfortable silence that overcame them. She stomped through a puddle in front of her friend and simpered. “I can’t believe I’m here with the Champion of Empyrea.”
“I can’t believe it, either.” Sage quelled a shiver. “I never dreamed of becoming the Earthquakes’ team captain, of leading us to season finals, or becoming Champion. It just happened through sheer force of will.”
Adriana lifted an eyebrow. “Do you ever wish you could go back to class and become a medic like you wanted?”
Sage cast a confused look for a moment. “Every second. But now I have a new duty.” She pulled the coin out of her pocket and rotated it through her fingers before she put it back. “I can’t ever go back to being a regular daughter of workers. There’s no returning to class and hoping to escape this ship by becoming a medic.”
Adriana lowered her eyebrow and resumed her walk around Sage. “Well, you still get to leave the ship. So maybe being Champion has some upsides.”
“All the fresh air I could want.” Sage gazed up at the rust patterns in the ceiling panels. “All for me. All alone in the Void. Lucky me.”
“I envy you,” Adriana said. “I want off the ship, too. But I’m failing my shipping management classes. I’ll be lucky to get a job as an inventory clerk. Right here. Forever.”
“The Solvang isn’t so bad.” Sage brought her eyes down from her gaze to face Adriana. “It has you. And Natalia, Evelyn, Rose, Kioko, Yadira, Whitney, and even Zoli. It’s provided a place for us all to become friends. It’s a place our parents have been able to watch us grow up in safety, unlike the gunboats or harvesting craft.”
“You have a point.” Adriana nodded.
“But now my parents have to witness something new happen to me.” Sage thought of her family. “Of all the people to talk to, I want to tell them and my grandmother the news first. It’s just that they’re so busy with work. I won’t see them until they get home late tonight. It’s going to break them.”
“I’ll be here for you. We’ll all be here for you.” Adriana’s eyes widened with sincerity. “The whole team is ready to support you with anything you need.”
“I appreciate that.” Sage sighed in thought. “But I don’t know what I need. Maybe more time to think.”
“That’s fine. Think all you need to.” Adriana gazed past her friend to the cloudlight beyond the broken hangar doors. “But I’m going with you.”
“You can’t come with me.” Sage tensed up.
“Not to the Void.” Adriana shrugged. “I mean, wherever you’re going next. I know you hate being alone, so I’ll accompany you. But you also want peace, so I’m willing to simply be there and not say anything.”
Sage gave her friend a hug. “That’s exactly what I need.” She released the embrace and went through ideas for a moment. The serenity of the condemned lower decks came to mind. “I noticed security was light on the way down here.”
“Light? More like nonexistent.” Adriana furrowed her brow. “It’s so unusual to not see any of Okawa’s goons.”
“Our gain.” Sage showed a brief hint of excitement on her face. “There’s a few warehouses on deck twenty-three, one of them with an unlocked door that I’ve explored twice. Feel like making the trip down?”
“Lead the way, Champion.” Adriana met her friend’s flicker of a grin with her own enthusiastic smile.
The two left the drone hangar, red light on their backs, and shadows before them.
RUNIC TANGENT: Dream Destinations
Welcome to the author’s notes, dear traveler!
We all have someplace we’d like to visit. Whether near or far, perhaps it’s a dream vacation, or maybe a place to move to someday. What is the one place you’d most like to go to?*
What’s the dream destination Sage Mustang would like to go to? If you thought it might be a place on Earth, I’m sorry to say that’s not the case. The first chapter of Skylost makes it clear Earth is long gone and people live on skyships. One would think that, naturally, such a confined person would want to run through an open field and watch the clouds soar over hills on the distant horizon.
You want to know something peculiar? That’s Earthborn thinking. Of course someone born on Earth is going to think of the many wonderful sights and places on our little blue orb. And if it went away, it would be sorely missed! But what about someone who never knew Earth?
Sage was born in the Void, making her Voidborn. She doesn’t miss Earth, even though she’s heard of it. With books and pictures being a rarity in Empyrea, there isn’t much to hang on to for the Voidborn. But if there was a place she could go to on Earth, she’d visit one of the former homes of her family. Her mother was from Santa Maria, California. Her father and grandmother were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Either of those locales would work for her, but she wouldn’t be too excited about it.
Most people in Empyrea have dream destinations located within the fleet, including the Earthborn. For instance, Sage’s parents both dream of making a pilgrimage to the H.D.S. Kokopelli, a church ship that holds artifacts from Earth.*** It even has a large container of dirt where the faithful can walk upon soil from the lost planet.
Sage, and her friends, have a much different vacation spot. That would be the agriculture ship, the H.D.S. Emerald Raindrop. It has ponds, orchards, and live animals. Visitors are able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables harvested within the same hour. This is of massive importance to an impoverished working class that rarely sees anything other than processed paste and wafers.
Another favorite place is one Sage has already been to, but loves anyway, the H.D.S. Arlington. The massive ship was built as a mega carrier and converted into a training center and sports facility. It hosts the final bracket of the Empyrean Volleyball League every season, which comes up every three months.**** Sage has been there once, and loved every minute of it.
Sage has no desire to go to the surface of the Void. Few people want to go down there, save for the truly bizarre.***** From Sage’s point of view, the Void’s surface is similar to Earth, and it’s only made worse by Earthborn desperate to walk on terrain who make a similar comparison. Those comparisons further confuse Sage’s understanding of both places, which is understandable for a Voidborn.
What type of ship would you want to be aboard if you were to visit Empyrea? What part of your hometown would you show Sage if she were to come to Earth? I’m interested in hearing your feedback.*
Let me know on Twitter:
The Empyrean Fleet has been around for more than 18 years, and Sage is 16 years old. This tidbit might be of more importance in the story than just a passing math quirk. Hint: I try to avoid math when I can.
*** To us, the main vault would look more like a second-hand store. To the people of Empyrea, it’s a room of cherished memories.
**** Four seasons a year makes for a lot of ordeals for young Champions.
***** Yes, that’s a hint. There’s a character who genuinely wants to go down there. But since I won’t divulge her name just yet, let’s call her by the moniker #BEAST. And since that reference comes up only once, here in this note, it was totally worth coming up with a nickname for her.
Thank you for reading this ebook. If you enjoyed the read, please support the author by writing a review.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S. R. Mulrune lives in California and has always had a passion for writing. He currently has two novels in the works, Skylost and Paladin 13, along with a swarm of tie-in short stories and flash fiction pieces. A former newspaper editor and reporter, Mulrune has enjoyed the transition to creative fiction writing. His other interests include gardening, gourmet cooking, and gaming.
You can read Mulrune’s blog at:
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A post-apocalyptic airship society sends young women into a nightmarish landscape to collect power sources for the fleet. Sixteen-year-old Sage Mustang has been chosen as the latest of such sacrifices. She's determined to survive her ordeal and work to improve the fleet, if she isn't stopped by barriers like friends, the military, a flirty soldier, and a handsome monk. In this first chapter, Sage deals with the news of her Championship. Also includes an author's notes section about travel within the Empyrean Fleet.