Skylost Chronicles Vol. 3: Near Sky
By S. R. Mulrune
Copyright © 2015 S. R. Mulrune
All rights reserved.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your preferred ebook vendor and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
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: December 2015
You can read Mulrune’s blog at:
If you would like to follow Mulrune:
“How were we defeated by such a small team? That’s easy. I controlled the Fireballs through might. Sage led the Earthquakes with something less consistent, but ultimately more powerful: Love.”
Cassia Knight, H.D.S. Crimson Sunset
CHAPTER 3: NEAR SKY
Sage was almost finished cleaning a stack of two dozen tablet chalk boards. The little boards could get so messy as students of various ages practiced lessons in class, with smudges building up to the point where new chalk lines could hardly be discerned. She was going to miss the smudge-covered tablets, the classroom, and the camaraderie among the students.
The Solvang had a single classroom, which was once a medium-sized conference room. The four walls were dominated by large chalk boards. Other than two doors into the room, one faded Empyrean flag pinned above the main board, and a light switch panel, the battered walls were bare steel. Dozens of dented aluminum desks were arranged into small clusters before each wall-mounted chalk board, indicating how each class was divided within the shared room. One supply cabinet was located in each corner of the classroom. The place was well-lit and smelled of stale chalk dust and cleaning solvent.
Zoli, the ship’s purple-haired, eccentric janitor, sped through a stack of one hundred tablet boards. The task of wiping each board with a specialized eraser was monotonous, but Zoli had a way of making it look fun. She did her work in silence, something which Sage was grateful for. They had cleaned the classroom together for more than two hours, without one word said between them.
Sage peeked over her stack of boards to watch Zoli deposit her own finished stacks at the corner of the classroom. Even though they didn’t interact much, she knew she would miss Zoli. She had always admired Zoli’s ability to work hard and fast, but also to look good while doing so.
Zoli took a broom from her cart and spun around in a beautiful dance as she swept the plastic tile floor. Her long, purple ponytail whipped around her elegant, thin frame as she maneuvered between desks. She moved with silent grace in her baggy, blue smock, which was decorated with pins and badges made out of interesting scraps and trash she collected in her duties. Her glossy fingernails shimmered under the classroom’s lights, and she mouthed the words to songs with her burgundy lips, showing off her ability to afford makeup and nail polish. All despite being 15, a full year younger than Sage.
Sage returned to her task to finish the last three tablets. Life was going to resume without her. The students were going to return to class, discuss Sage a bit, and move on with their lives. They’d never know she came in to help Zoli clean the classroom on her final morning. It hurt to think about passing through the system as a memory. She sped through cleaning the last tablet to distract herself from more sad thoughts.
The stack of one hundred tablets in the corner looked almost unchanged when Sage deposited her boards. A painful idea in her head grew until she felt compelled to act against it. She paced to the nearest chalk board, the one that would be used for the medical class in the morning, and the early-learner spelling class in the afternoon. She gripped a piece of chalk and scribbled the first thing that came to mind: I'LL MISS YOU ALL -SAGE MUSTANG
Sage huffed as if a great burden had been lifted. But when she reviewed her heartfelt graffiti, she wondered if it was sufficient to express how much she was going to think of everyone on the Solvang. She clutched the eraser in her free hand and raised it. The corner of the eraser made contact with the top of the A in her first name when a cough stopped her from striking the message from existence.
“It’s beautiful.” Zoli smiled at Sage, an expression enhanced by the lightness of her skin in contrast with the burgundy lipstick, as well as the slender, soft curvature of her face and her iridescent, gold eyes framed by purple eyebrows. “Leave it up.”
Sage blinked and considered her actions. “I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”
Zoli shook her head and her purple hair wagged. “You’re trying to comfort the others.” She chuckled. “That’s all you do. Sometimes I think you have a disorder.”
“You might be right.” Sage set the eraser down but clutched the chalk and pulled it close to her chest as she reviewed the writing. “I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to disturb my grandmother. So it was best to go off and be alone. But here I am, finding a way to help someone again.”
Zoli glanced between Sage and the bottle of disinfectant hanging from her cart. “You saved me ten minutes of work cleaning the desks. And it only took you the better part of half an hour. And your fifteen minutes with the tablet boards saved me two.” She forced a smile when Sage frowned at her. “What I mean is, you’ll go out of your way to be kind. Everyone knows that about you.”
“Maybe it’s a bad thing. I sometimes feel like I’m making people mad.” Sage re-read her chalk board message. “Like I should just get out of the way because no one will like me.”
“Everyone loves you!” Zoli rolled her eyes. Her pupils were apparent in the gesture. The omega-like crescents were otherworldly, especially against the gold iridescence of her irises. “I can’t imagine anyone not liking you.”
Sage sighed and clutched the chalk against her gray blouse. “There were a few people, yesterday.”
Zoli perked her eyebrows. “I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.”
“No.” Sage placed the chalk back on a tray under the board. “There was this man. Okay, he was a handsome monk. And he just kept throwing my mistakes in my face.” She stopped her panicked breaths from taking over. “But I was doing what came naturally! I tried to help an injured man and his starving sons. But that monk basically called me a fool.”
“That was you?” Zoli’s smile vanished and her mouth tightened. “Don’t ever mention any of those details to anyone.” She rubbed her forehead and paced around a cluster of desks. “Okawa’s guards were searching for the intruders. You’re lucky you got out when you did!”
Sage confronted her friend and cast a stern look into Zoli’s strange eyes. “What was happening in there?”
Zoli lifted a finger in front of her pretty lips. Her voice became a dire whisper. “It’s called the ‘Cutback List.’ Food is running low fleet-wide, and accidents are going up. Admiral Jenkins made the decree that any family without an able-bodied worker won’t be fed. You don’t need to know the details. Just that the people you saw were cared for, and it needed to be done in secret.”
Sage’s head spun at the information. People called the military heartless, but such a decree seemed outright tyrannical. She wondered what it meant for the Solvang if the captain was acting in defiance of the order with a hidden hospital. Or worse, if it had anything to do with Okawa’s rebellious streak. “Is Captain Hale working with the Vicarus and her monks to protect the cutback families?”
“Do yourself a favor.” Zoli raised a finger in front of her lips. “Drop that whole subject. And don’t ever bring it up again.”
The purple-haired janitor jerked up and backed away. Her mood shifted to a false jubilant. “See what happened? You wanted to find someplace to think about being Champion, but ended up helping people. Only you could do that, Sage.”
Sage shifted her focus to the chalk board. “That doesn’t mean I don’t annoy people.”
Zoli grabbed her broom and resumed her sweeping. She maneuvered around desks with an efficiency no one else could match, but said nothing.
Sage shrugged in uncertainty. “Am I annoying you?” She did everything she could to be nice to people, but never felt it was good enough. Deep down, she thought it was possible for everyone to dislike her.
“You? Never!” Zoli finished sweeping and went to collect the refuse in a dust pan. “You’re helping me out. If you’ll be so kind as to push my cart to the door, we’ll be able to get out of here before any early teachers arrive for the morning classes.”
Sage did as asked and pushed the equipment cart. The many tools, rags, and devices were collected in neat little bins along with a single trash can. She waited for Zoli to put the broom in a rack next to the trash can and dump the contents of her dustpan, then pushed the cart out the door. She looked around the classroom over her shoulder.
“This isn’t the last time you’ll see this place.” Zoli gave Sage a pat on the back. “Come back to remind all the students you’re still thinking about them.”
The duo moved with the janitor cart through the narrow, dim corridor in the education section of the ship. They reached the aft section of the hall, where a small door to the janitor’s supply room was located. The room reeked of cleaning solvents and was large enough for spare equipment, supply shelves, a work bench, a trio of spare trash cans, and the cart.
“Is it okay if I just sit in here for a while and enjoy the silence?” Sage wrapped her arms around herself.
“Be my guest.” Zoli motioned a hand toward the work bench and assisted Sage with jumping up to the high edge. Then, she jumped up to perch next to Sage. “My morning tasks are done, anyway. So I’ll sit with you.”
Sage thought of everyone she cared about. Her parents were on another ship. Her grandmother was at work. Her friends would all be in class soon, and while she could pop in on them, she didn’t want to disturb the entire classroom to do so. Coach Whitney would also be teaching, so she couldn’t be reached, either. Somehow, Zoli was the perfect companion in the early morning.
“Time for breakfast.” Zoli pulled a tin box over from one of the shelves.
“My family doesn’t have enough credits for me to eat breakfast.” Sage patted her empty pockets.
“It’s fine.” Zoli opened the hinged box, which let out a shrill squeak. She revealed a tiny canister with small holes in the top, and an unusual object. “This is for you.”
Sage was surprised as Zoli placed the object in her hand. It was a lumpy cluster of uneven, ribbed sections, and soft like it was made of dense flesh. The coloration was unlike anything Sage had ever seen, being mostly crimson, with light green stripes and a few splashes of purple. The thing was one third the size of a fist, and she rolled it around in her hands before she asked, “Is this a fruit?”
Zoli nodded. “It’s a tomato. I bought it for you.” She held out the finger-sized canister. “It’s delicious, but it’ll be better if you sprinkle some of this on it.”
“My family talks about tomatoes sometimes.” Sage took the canister and evaluated the entirety of the presentation. “Gran used to have a garden on Earth, and she said her tomato plants would give her buckets full of the things.” She shivered at the magnitude of such an idea.
Zoli also quaked in thought. “She must have been a wealthy woman.” She snapped her head as she considered more. “No, wait. Fruit wasn’t worth a fortune before the Cataclysm.”
“Which brings up a good point.” Sage held the tomato out, as if she would hand it back. “How can you afford things like this? No one can figure you out, Zoli. How do you get the makeup? Or the repair kits for your clothes?”
Zoli pulled her ponytail over her shoulder and ran her fingers through the purple hair, as if it would calm her uneasiness. Her mouth was tight and her body was tense. “The accident did more than change my physical appearance. At first, I thought it was the loss of everyone I loved, the stress of becoming an orphan, the fact I was the only viable survivor of both those ships.” She furrowed her brow and her focus drifted off to a point beyond the walls of the supply room. “But aethergen is a powerful material. The traces of fumes I came into contact with changed my very nature.”
“Are you infused with the Void’s energy?” Sage stared at the janitor with wide eyes. She was glad the word “chimera” didn’t come up.
Zoli nodded. “I don’t need to sleep or eat.” She managed a half grin. “I mean, I can if I want to, and it’s nice to do either.” She stopped fiddling with her hair and the tension faded from her posture. “But I choose not to. It’s amazing what you can afford if you don’t have to worry about food. And if you can get two days’ worth of work out of each day.”
“That’s amazing.” Sage’s mouth hung open for a moment before she caught how impolite she was being.
“It’s boring, mostly.” Zoli evaluated her glossy nails and the decorative pins on her sleeve. “I constantly have to do things to keep busy. I make myself pretty, I explore the ship, and sometimes I even use the gymnasium.”
Sage gasped in realization. “The gremlin that moves the balls around in our cart overnight?”
Zoli grinned. “That’s me.”
“There’s no way.” Sage collected her thoughts as strange instances of misplaced items sprang to mind. “It couldn’t be you. We call them gremlin tracks. And we find them almost everyday!”
“Guilty.” Zoli shrugged. “Did I say sometimes? I mean I use the gymnasium pretty much all the time.” She chuckled to herself. “And I don’t use anyone’s clothes. I just think it’s funny to leave Kioko’s practice uniform inside-out on the hanger. And to put Rose’s shoes on top of the lockers.”
Sage chuckled, as well. “You know, Rose blames Natalia for the shoes every time it happens. And Kioko just puts on the inside-out uniform until Coach Whitney tells her to put it on right.” She sighed at the revelation. “And this whole time, it was you.”
“There’s more pleasantness in life than sadness, as long as you keep your eyes to the light instead of the shadows.” Zoli raised her hand in a mock eating gesture. “Try the tomato. It’s amazing!”
Sage examined the crimson lump and swallowed at the sudden tightness in her throat. “I can’t. This is too expensive. I can’t let you spend this kind of money on me.”
“Too late. I already spent it.” Zoli made the mock eating motion again. “And I bought it specifically for you. Don’t worry about how much I paid.”
Sage raised the fruit and looked at it with great reluctance. “I just can’t. I feel wrong, eating something so expensive.” She looked at the irritated gold eyes staring back at her. “I’ll split it with you.”
“Eat your half first.” Zoli waved a hand at the tomato.
Sage took an investigative peck of the fruit. She knew not to expect anything like the nutrient paste, the mashed larva wafers, or even the costly refried beans. But the exquisite fruit was more than she could imagine, spilling juice onto her tongue that was both sweet and bitter at the same time. Her eyes went wild and she took another small bite while in the middle of chewing the first.
Zoli smiled at the show of enjoyment. “Try sprinkling some of the pepper on it.”
Sage did as suggested and dashed some of the canister’s contents into the exposed tomato flesh. Little black specks rolled out. She took another bite and the whole experience became greater. More juices spilled out of the tomato, but the flavor was enhanced and had a kick to it that she never knew could exist in food. She coughed at the overwhelming intensity of it all, but managed to finish her bite. She dashed more pepper and took a final bite, having only half the tomato in her palm to give to Zoli.
The purple-haired janitor beamed with pride. “I told you, you’d like it. To see that look on your face made it all worth the effort to get this brought in.” She devoured her half of the tomato after encrusting it in pepper. Her face lit up, her eyes rolled, and her breathing deepened as she chewed.
“Thank you.” Sage chewed her final bite much more slowly. She didn’t want the flavors to go away, and wished she could savor them all day. She wiped a drop of juice from her chin and had no shame in licking it from her fingertips. “I appreciate what you did for me. And I’m sorry for being disrespectful in receiving this gift.”
Zoli scoffed. “Who said that was a gift?”
Sage cocked an eyebrow and leaned over in shock. “That was a going away gift, right? I know you’re a huge fan of the team, so it’s touching that you did this for me before I left.”
“That was me sharing in my eccentricity before it happens to you.” Zoli giggled, but the way her face twisted, it looked like she hid great pain. “You’ll get my real gift later. Are your friends doing anything for your final afternoon?”
Sage blinked in confusion. “They’re planning a party.” She spotted the overwhelming pain that Zoli attempted to hide under giggles. “What did you mean about something happening to me?”
Zoli giggled once more, then her face snapped to a deadly serious stare out beyond the supply shelves. “Trace fumes did this to me. Turned me into an abomination. But you’re going to touch that aethergen orb with your hands. I know you’ll be careful enough to keep it from incinerating you, but it’s still going to change you. Permanently. Irreparably.”
“No Champion has ever come back with purple hair or gold eyes.” Sage attempted to comfort Zoli with a forced smile, but failed at the expression. “You’re a unique gem, Zoli.” She paused to consider whether it was safe to bring up the accident where a refinery ship crashed into Zoli’s home ship, destroying both vessels and killing both crews. “Is it okay to discuss the Enkidu?”
Zoli narrowed her eyes and huffed. “No.” She calmed her quiet rage and turned to Sage with a deadpan expression. “I’m sorry to bring down the mood. I just needed you to know that you’re going to be a freak when you return. You won’t be a chimera, but everyone who’s ever touched an orb has been changed.”
Both girls were silent, as if reacting to a cold poison. The label “chimera” had been spoken aloud and it disturbed them both as if it was a toxic word.
Zoli broke the silence. “There’s a library on the Columbia. If you get any breaks from your training, do some research. Maybe you’ll discover something about the Champions who returned. They all came back with something wrong with them.” Her eyes quaked, as if she fought a sadness within herself.
“Thanks for the warning.” Sage huffed in thought. The beautiful, purple-haired janitor seemed so different with the revelation about her personality. All the goofy theatrics and prettying-up were attempts to hide the pain. She placed a hand on Zoli’s knee. “I can’t imagine how much it must hurt to be orphaned. But you have a family right here on the Solvang.”
Zoli put both her hands upon Sage’s and squeezed. “That part I’ve learned to deal with. It’s why I make sure to clean the gym when you’re all practicing. I consider the Earthquakes my new family.” Her lips quivered like something stirred in her mind. She stared Sage in the eyes with deep concern. “It’s the secrecy that cuts at me. If your transformations are anything more than a lack of need for sleep or food.” Her face went deadly serious. She whispered, “Do not mention them. To anyone.”
“I appreciate your advice.” Sage slid off the edge of the work bench and went for the door, but she never turned her back on Zoli. “And I’ll always be grateful you were there on the sidelines. I wish we’d talked more and been better friends.”
“Sorry for being a downer.” Zoli hopped off the work bench and shook Sage’s hand. “But don’t close yourself off in secret like I have. Don’t be a friend from a distance. You’re more bold than I could ever be.” She motioned to the door. “Go out there and face our people. The congratulations, the smiles, the handshakes.”
“It makes me a bit nervous to think about.” Sage wrapped her arms around herself and guffawed. “But I’ll do that. Tons of fake smiling and handshakes and hugs. All until it’s time for whatever the team has planned for me.”
“Enjoy your gift.” Zoli grinned and flicked a gesture that was half-salute, half-wave. She opened the door for Sage and they both stepped past the threshold.
Sage furrowed her brow in confusion and glanced at the small canister of pepper back on the work bench. “I already did.”
Zoli’s grin turned impish. “The tomato wasn’t a gift, remember? It was more like a last meal. You’ll know my gift when you see it. It’s not anywhere near as ephemeral as a tomato.”
“Do you mean it’s a gift that’ll last forever?” Sage grinned in response to Zoli’s playful silence. “Goodbye, Zoli.” She hugged her friend.
Zoli patted the Champion on the back. “Goodbye, Sage.” She broke the hug and closed the supply room door, making a point of walking in the opposite direction.
Sage took in the comfort of quiet and darkness, happy to be away from glad handing the crowds she encountered while walking the ship’s decks. Though she would have to fake her smile, she was happy to soon be in the presence of her friends.
The team wanted to celebrate their last day together and give Sage a proper sendoff. Though she was honored when she discovered their plans, she had to fake a smile in order to avoid being rude. There was little opportunity to work on it, with them in the next room as they made preparations for the party. She practiced anyway, breathing in the cafeteria’s bland scents of nutrient paste, plastic water basins, and bleach.
The Solvang’s cafeteria was able to feed 1,000 people at a time, but it was built for 500. Rails leading to four serving counters were the only break in the array of long, narrow tables and bench seats, all cramped into the low-ceiling room. Cracked plastic tiles littered the place, with many missing pieces giving way to the steel floor below. Tiny magnets held up little hearts made of string above some of the tables, which were remnants of the recent Cupid Renewal Festival. Chalk boards for announcements and chipped paintings of strange towers with propellors were the only things that decorated the walls.
The place would’ve been well-lit, were the lights on. One light was on above the team table, allowing the rest of the room to fall into shadow. Sage sat at her favored far end of the table with Coach Whitney by her side. They both occupied the edge of the light, where it fell off into shadow. Light leaked through the main kitchen door, hinting at the excited activity of extra people in the kitchen who worked on a much different project than the crew dinner which the cooks were already preparing. Giggles and shouts of joy with young voices traveled beyond the door and echoed within the cafeteria. The happiness in the kitchen was in contrast to the cafeteria, where the coach and team captain sat quietly in their gray outfits.
“I’m glad you’re spending your final two hours with us.” Whitney leaned over the table and folded her hands in front of her face to hide a frown.
Sage practiced her delighted looks and posture, though her face and body were strained from the hero facade she spent all day wearing. “I’m glad I only have to keep this up a little while longer. But I wish I could stay here with the team for more than a couple hours.”
“Knock off that regal poise thing.” Whitney shook her shoulders. “Loosen up. Just be natural in front of your team.”
“I can’t.” Sage rapped the rusted table with her fingers. “I tried being me when my face got too tired, somewhere around noon. People around me noticed I was just a girl. They cried. It caused me to cry. So I went back to acting like a hero. I have to look like I’m proud to go into the Void, or else people will feel sorry for me.”
Whitney leaned back and examined her team captain. “You don’t think the others can hold it together?”
Sage sighed. “I have to make the facade twice as strong for them. They know me so well that I have to try that much harder to appear dauntless. And if they get a hint of any cracks in my armor, they’ll be devastated far more than any of the random people I ran into today.” Her breaths quickened to a panic for a short while. “I owe it to them to look strong.”
“They’ll always support you, no matter what you do or how you act.” Whitney balled her hands into fists to hide her quaking frown. “You know that.”
“I do. But I also can’t stand to see them sad because of me.” Sage folded her hands on the table. “They deserve better. So I’ll give them my strongest facade.”
Long moments of silence passed. Sage fought panic attacks when she thought of her friends. Whitney continued to hide her sadness. Neither was prepared to deal with their final day together with the whole team.
The kitchen door burst open and bright light flooded into the dark cafeteria. Six silhouettes emerged through the glowing threshold and went forth with a spring in their step. The last two carried a tray and a pitcher.
Sage blinked when all the lights flicked on. Everything about the plain, dilapidated cafeteria was visible. Nothing decorated any of the battered tables, a fact that had Sage and her friends jaded about their home. But the Solvang was one of the best factory ships in the fleet, and Sage was proud to call it home. She shed tears of joy when her eyes adjusted and she spotted her teammates.
The girls all wore their faded blue and green, long-sleeved, volleyball uniforms and stomped together in a march rhythm. Their eyes were bright and enthusiastic, a perfect match for their energetic, swinging ponytails. They chanted in perfect synchronization. “Whoosh! What did you hear? Whoosh! What did you hear? No need to run. No need to fear. That’s Sage’s serve rushing past your ear!”
The forward four girls clapped and orbited the team table. The other two, in their altered libero and takraw uniforms, set down a dented cooking tray, a stack of tin cups, and a battered, steaming, tin pitcher full of mint tea. Then the libero and takraw joined the orbit. All six clapped and stomped in rhythmic unison.
Sage examined the makeshift platter and the celebratory meal upon it. A swirl shape had been created with a few dozen crackers and some peanut butter. Her heart skipped at the sight of the decorative food, and the idea that someone had gone through the expense of getting real peanut butter.
The girls stood behind the benches on both sides of the table and stomped quickly. They said Sage’s chant once more and cheered before they all sat.
“I can’t believe this!” Sage’s smile was genuine at first, but had to be faked the more she thought about the looming heartbreak. “Of all the ships in the skies, I have the best teammates in the fleet!”
Evelyn, the short blonde libero in her white uniform with thick green and blue stripes, poured and served the tea. “And we have the best team captain out of all the skyships.” The steam trailed up from each cup and filled the air with a delightful aroma of mint leaves.
“That’s too kind of you.” Sage fought off a blush and wrapped her hands around the warm cup.
“Stop being so modest, Sage.” Yadira, the short takraw in the modified uniform with black stripes, hooted. The darker uniform complemented her tanned skin and black hair. “You’re fleet Champion. After leading us to a league win, you deserve an amazing gift.”
“Like a portal back to Earth that can give you anything you want.” Rose, a copper-haired thirteen-year-old with wide, green eyes, shrugged in embarrassment when everyone gave her a puzzled look. It was a regular occurrence with her, as she was the youngest member of the team and prone to strange outbursts. “Okay, maybe a trip to the Emerald Raindrop, where you can eat apples from trees.”
“I don’t need apples.” Sage beamed with pride, but had to fake the smile portion of her expression. The result was a twitch in the corner of her mouth that she hoped went unnoticed. “I’m happy right here on the Solvang. This is, and will always be, my home. No matter how far away my new duties take me.”
Kioko, the tall girl with amber skin, leaned over on the bench as if to whisper sideways in her usual team joker manner. “Well if the admiral happens to offer you a trip to the Emerald Raindrop and you think about turning it down, I’ll be happy to go in your place. I love apples!”
“Have you ever tasted an apple?” Natalia, the husky brunette and tallest member of the team, poked Kioko with her elbow.
“Um, no. Of course not.” Kioko rubbed her ribs where she’d been poked. “But they look delicious.”
Natalia rolled her eyes. “Have you ever seen an apple?”
“Yes.” Kioko sat upright in defense. “Once. Maybe. Okay, I think it was one of those expensive algae rolls.”
Adriana, firm in her role as big sister of the team, coughed to catch everyone’s attention. “Sage, do you like your cake?”
“It’s pretty!” Sage’s eyes went wide as she examined the crackers and peanut butter.
“You kids and your funny terms.” Whitney folded her arms and chuckled. “Just because it’s festive doesn’t mean it’s a cake.”
“Do you think they’ll send cakes over from the Emerald Raindrop when Sage turns them down?” Kioko wiggled her eyebrows. “Because I’d love to get my hands on more peanut butter.”
“Cakes aren’t made from peanut butter.” Whitney smiled and shook her head. “I think they’re made from dough.”
“Like crackers?” Rose’s eyes lit up.
“So a pile of crackers is a cake?” Kioko pointed at the decorative spiral.
“No.” Whitney made a show of examining the platter. “I was only five when Earth was destroyed, but I’m sure I can spot a cake when I see one.”
“I wish our parents weren’t all so busy.” Natalia eyeballed the object of discussion. “I’m sure one of them knows what we should call this.”
“But all the adults are working.” Rose slumped and frowned. “We don’t get to find out if this is a cake or not.”
“What it is, is beautiful.” Sage’s words stopped the discussion. “Thank you all for this wonderful cake.”
Friendly grins shifted into awkward glances as silence went on more than any could bear. Sage was the most uncomfortable, wondering what positive things to say while her mind was a storm of dread. Some of her thoughts concerned the team’s diligent parents, including her own, and how much she wished they could all be present for the sendoff party. The same party where she couldn’t bring herself to be happy. She considered whether it might be a good thing they were too busy to see her spurious smiles.
“Can we dig in?” Rose wiggled her fingers near the edge of the platter.
Whitney motioned to Sage. “Our Champion should get the first slice of this lovely, um, cake.”
“This is too much.” Sage picked up a pair of crackers with moderate peanut butter spread, not too much or too little.
Whitney took one cracker with the least peanut butter and waved her free hand to signal the girls to dive in. Everyone else snatched at pieces in a chaotic free-for-all. Seconds later, the platter was empty.
“I’m pretty sure when it’s a big event, we’re supposed to toast with grape juice, but that would cost a fortune. So tea is perfect.” Whitney tilted her head to the eldest member of the team. “Adriana, since you organized this party, you should lead the toasts.”
Adriana nodded and held her tin cup high above the table. “Sage, it’s been an honor to play with you during my final season. You were destined for greatness the moment you set foot onto the Earthquakes court.” She sipped her cup and everyone else followed the gesture.
Yadira raised her cup and all eyes locked onto her. “I still remember your first day on the team. You were all talk about becoming the new takraw. Well, you never were very good at aerial kicks, but you sure led the way as an offensive powerhouse. I learned a lot from you.” She chuckled and took a sip.
“The black stripes look good on you.” Sage had trouble taking a drink as part of the toast. The urge to to break down and cry rushed through her mind. She already missed her teammates, even while sitting among them.
Evelyn closed her eyes in concentration for a moment. “None of us have any delusions about the risks you’ll face. If I could somehow take your place down there, I would. But I know we’re all in agreement that you have what it takes to complete your mission. And to return.” Everyone sipped on her lead.
Kioko raised her cup next. “I heard a rumor they want to vote me in as team captain. So, uh.” Her lip trembled. “Okay. All kidding aside.” She blinked, visibly on the threshold of a breakdown. “Come back real soon, okay?” She led the next sip.
“Yeah, come back soon.” Rose inadvertently cut in the order of toasts, but everyone followed her lead when she took a drink of tea.
Natalia attempted to speak three times, but gave up after getting too emotional. She silently led her toast.
Whitney raised her cup slowly, as if fighting regret. “You’ve come a long way since you joined the Earthquakes. You’ve inspired your teammates and given hope to everyone aboard the Solvang. We’re not just some nameless small ship in the fleet. We’re known for greatness, thanks to you. Now, let’s enjoy this fine meal.” She finished the toasts with a final sip, and everyone copied her.
The young women exchanged smiles and devoured the last pieces of the so-called cake in mere seconds.
“Thank you.” Sage leaned back and savored the moment among her friends. “I don’t know how you could afford this meal, but I’m grateful.”
“I asked everyone to use the money they were saving for my party,” Adriana said. “Besides, I never liked celebrating my birthday.”
“But someone did spend a lot on a very special gift.” Yadira put her right arm on the table, wrist up, and prepared to pull back her uniform sleeve. “Zoli heard about how we took the first letters of our names to spell a team nickname. She wanted to do something special for all of us.”
The other girls mirrored Yadira’s arm placement on the table.
“Zoli?” Sage perked up in surprise and confusion at the mention of the ship’s eccentric, purple-haired janitor. She examined all her friends’ fingernails for color. “She didn’t give you any of her nail polish.”
“She did better than that.” Adriana pulled her sleeve away from her wrist and the other five girls followed suit. They all had reddened patches of skin with the phrase NEAR SKY freshly tattooed in the center. “These are a gift from Zoli. We got them yesterday after I came back and told the team about your being declared Champion.”
Adriana locked eyes with Sage. “You’ll always be with us. And we’ll always be together as a team.”
Whitney bolted to her feet and stormed out of the room with a fist in front of her mouth.
Sage watched the door slam behind her coach. “I think this stirred up feelings she has about Heidi.”
“Coach will be fine.” Adriana rubbed the skin around the inflamed part of her wrist. “You’re nothing like Heidi Paris. You’ll come back. You said so. And we know it in our hearts. We’re already planning the Near Sky reunion party.”
Sage let out a nervous laugh. “Don’t overspend on the tea again, okay?” Her fingers trembled around her cup. “Water’s fine.”
“You look scared.” Kioko cocked an eyebrow.
Sage nodded and kept her lips pressed closed.
Kioko’s expression shifted to concern. “Did you ask your mother about voidforms? People say she had to fight some after the Cataclysm.”
Sage sighed. “It’s how she got that scar on her hand.” She shook her head. “But she never talks about the voidforms. Not with me. Not even with my father. When I was little, I tried to learn about her palm and the huge scars on her back. But my questions hurt her so much, she didn’t speak to me for days. I never asked about the scars again. I only found out a little from my father, that she was thrown into the situation and had to fight to survive.”
“There you have it.” Kioko waved a hand through the air as if finishing a magic trick. “Your mother fought voidforms and lived. And she’s always been a civilian, like us. Like you.”
“Civilians back then were better fed.” Rose stared at the crumb-covered platter. “People used to be real strong, and real fat. Now, that’s just the military.”
Kioko nodded in acceptance. “True as that may be, Sage’s mom was never a soldier, right?”
“No. I think she used to be a cook back then.” Sage darted her eyes around. She met Rose’s gaze and said, “And she’s never been fat.”
“Sorry.” Rose covered her frown by pretending to take a sip from her empty cup.
“A cook, not a soldier.” Adriana smiled at the idea. “That means she didn’t have any combat training. And people had no idea how to survive in the Void after the Cataclysm. So that woman pulled off a miracle. And she happens to be your mother.”
Sage cast a confused look at her friends.
Kioko and Adriana looked at each other, then at Sage, as if the answer was obvious.
Adriana extended a hand to gesture at Sage. “Miracles run in families. If your mom survived voidforms, you will, too.”
Kioko simpered. “That’s not what I was getting at. It comes down to training. Cleverness runs in the family. Your mother figured out how to survive on the fly. But you’ll go through military training. You’re going to learn how to use a gun!”
“Even then, it’s all so frightening.” Sage shifted on the bench and tapped the empty cup that had already cooled to room temperature. “I feel like I should run. Every fiber of my being is telling me to run and seek out safety.”
Adriana put her empty cup next to Sage’s. “Running is a good way to stay alive. Do that when you have to.”
“Running will only get you so far.” Kioko set her cup on top of the other two to make a small pyramid. “You’re going to need to fight sometimes.”
“Running or fighting.” Sage worked for a long moment to control her rapid breathing. “I wish those weren’t the only options I had if I ran into a voidform.”
“Maybe you should learn.” Evelyn perked up. She was the best student among the team, always eager to read books and talk about random subjects. “If you run into a voidform, learn from it. After all, it’ll be a manifestation of your fears. In that sense, a voidform is a reflection of your own mind. If you can learn from your enemies, you’ll know more about yourself.”
The room was quiet. Everyone but Sage gave Evelyn a look of agreement.
Evelyn pointed to her forehead. “If you can learn to conquer your own mind, then you can conquer anything.”
Sage reviewed the faces of all the girls, who reflected Evelyn’s confident gaze. “Thank you.”
“You’ll make it.” Adriana pumped a fist in the air. “It’s time for some fun. We’ve planned a three-on-three scrimmage, to demonstrate all we’ve learned under your leadership this season.”
Sage panicked at first, but she was so honored by the gesture, a genuine smile spread across her face. “That would be a wonderful way to say goodbye.”
“We figured as much.” Adriana rubbed her wrist. “Before we hit the court, we need the Near Sky lineup chant.” She looked to Natalia and ordered, “Go for it!”
Natalia shot to her feet and stomped. “Natalia with the N. We’re the best group of friends.”
All the girls shouted in unison, “Near Sky!”
Evelyn stood and stomped. “Evelyn brings the E. Our hearts are pure and free.”
“Adriana makes A. High spirits mark this day.”
“Rose dazzles you with R. Sisters close, never far.”
Sage stomped and stood, with energetic pride visible in every fiber of her being. “Sage soars in for the S. Loyal pals are the best.”
“Kioko adds the K. We show how wins are made.”
“Yadira closes Y. Test us? Don’t even try.”
All seven girls stomped louder together at the end, their chants in perfect unison. “Near Sky! We are seven strong. We are seven true. Our team may be small. But we’ll still beat you. Near! Sky!” They hopped and let out whoops.
Their stomps and cheers drowned out muffled shouts outside the cafeteria door. Sage thought she heard Whitney’s raised voice, but was so absorbed in the fun of the moment, she ignored the exterior noise.
Adriana smiled. “Sage, are you ready for the greatest scrimmage you’ve ever seen?”
Sage smiled right back. Her heart fluttered with excitement and genuine happiness, all thanks to her friends. “I’ve never been so eager to sit on the sidelines of a volleyball court in my life.”
Adriana reached out to her sides, leading everyone to join hands. “Now, before we hit the court and say goodbye, let’s do one last cheer.”
A ring formed around the table as all the girls locked hands and stomped their feet. First the stomps were muted, then they grew in volume and united in rhythm. The table rattled so much that the dull hum of the ship’s engines was drowned out. Everyone had a victorious smile, including Sage.
Adriana ordered the cheer to begin with a tilt of her chin.
Sage shouted her part as loud as she could. “Whoosh!”
The other six responded as one. “What did you hear?”
“Whoosh!” Sage’s smile became massive.
“What did you hear?”
All seven united for the next section. “No need to run. No need to fear—”
The cafeteria doors burst open, interrupting the cheer. Whitney stomped in with a quintet of baton-wielding soldiers behind her. “She’s not hiding. See? She’s right here with her friends.”
The soldiers wore black uniforms, which marked them as members of Umbra Division, the police of Empyrea. They rushed into the room with calculated, efficient movements, like highly-trained shadows armed with batons. All the patches on their uniforms were subdued, consisting of dark grays, browns, and greens. The Empyrean Guard emblem patches over each of their hearts were at the same moment both patriotic and tyrannical. The patch of a sea-going dragon on each of their left shoulders identified them as being from the Columbia.
They rushed to Sage and stared down at the other girls, making a show of their readiness to tackle anyone who considered resistance. Their stench of sweat, leather, and a mild hint of blood, helped in their overbearing demeanor.
“Can’t you see they’re having a party?” Whitney rubbed her face.
“Champion Sage Mustang will come with us, now.” The soldier’s voice was stern and raspy. Dark green chevrons with rockers on his collar and sleeves denoted his command over the others.
Sage looked around the table to her friends, who were all as confused as she was. She was powerless to resist, and didn’t want to cause a frightening scene in front of the people she cared about.
Whitney burst around the soldiers and placed comforting hands on the Sage’s shoulders. “Everything’s okay. The military’s just moved up your departure time. We don’t get the two hours of celebration we hoped for.”
“I have to leave? Now?” Sage couldn’t control her panicked breaths. She wanted to run more than she ever had in her life. But with all eyes on her, she stood and offered no resistance. Her body was sore from faking a proud poise, but she once again adopted the posture to look as strong as she could for her friends. It was the only honorable choice she had. “Goodbye.”
The girls watched in horror as Sage was led away from the table by the shadowy soldiers. Only two of the soldiers watched over their shoulders for a rear ambush, but the group moved as one unit, with Sage at the center, to the door.
Adriana broke the silence. “Can I get an oo-rah?”
The other girls, and Whitney, joined in. “Oo-rah!” They stomped their feet with the chant.
Adriana stood and watched her friend being led to the doorway. “Can I get an oo-rah?”
The other six stood and stomped. “Oo-rah!”
Adriana joined the others for the final section. “Oo-rah! Oo-rah! Yeah! Go, Sage, go!”
Sage managed to control her breathing as she passed through the threshold. But as she was escorted through the Solvang’s crowded, dim corridors toward the main hangar, she couldn’t control the fear and dread that raged stronger than any storm she could imagine.
RUNIC TANGENT: Skylost’s Inspirational Spark
Emotions are among my prime concerns when writing a story. Before writing a scene, I reflect on what thoughts and feelings a character will experience. It’s my hope that these reactions are reflected by you, dear reader. It’s why I work so hard to be as empathic with my characters as I can.
What did you think of the third chapter of Skylost? Who would you identify with most if you were sitting at the table with the Earthquakes? Which emotions would you experience if you watched a friend taken away to begin an ordeal? I’d like to know what you have to say about the story.*
The third chapter of Skylost was a rough one to write. I spent an hour on the opening paragraphs of the cafeteria scene alone. And when I thought I’d be on a roll, things continued to be rough. The scene with Zoli was also rough to write, but I’ll discuss Zoli in a later Runic Tangent. For now, I’d like to focus more on the final team dinner in the Solvang’s cafeteria.
I packed the whole chapter with essential worldbuilding material, while avoiding anvilicious exposition dumps. And since knowledge of what’s to come makes the Solvang cafeteria scene all the more sadder, I added a heaping dose of foreshadowing.
I’ll be honest: I got emotional when writing the chapter. And I continued to be affected with every pass while editing. Every single pass.
Empathy with suffering characters is the hardest. One tool I use to help get in the right state of mind and boost the correct emotions is an ever-shifting playlist.
What songs went through your mind while reading the chapter? If the cafeteria scene were part of a music video, who do you think the artist singing in the background would be?
As eclectic and varied as my writing playlists can be, two songs in particular were above and beyond the most-played songs while writing the chapter, especially the cafeteria scene. Those were “Run” by Snow Patrol and “Outside” by Calvin Harris, featuring Ellie Goulding.
"Run" is such as obvious song for the chapter. It's sad with hints of hope.*** Hints that almost seem like lies, they're so drowned in the sorrow of the song. There are so many elements that work for the scene, I had to keep replaying the song.
One line in particular, "Even if you cannot hear my voice, I'll be right beside you dear," was what inspired the idea of the Near Sky tattoos.**** I pictured each of the girls intending to always remember the team lineup that included Sage, no matter where their life journeys took them. Through that collective gesture, they would all be united, forever. That's what is running through their minds, anyway. I have something special in mind for the team.
Sage is definitely going through the emotional journey reflected in “Run,” down to trying to stay optimistic on the surface for her friends. It would be going through Whitney’s mind, as well. The others, however, have mixed proximity. Who do you think is the least sad of the bunch? Who do you think is doing the best at hiding their true feelings?
But enough about sorrow. There’s another song on my most-played. One with almost breakup levels of anger. “Outside” is a much less obvious song for the moment, being about someone who has chosen to walk away from a once-good situation that went bad. Alienated, the singer still admires the subject, but their relationship has clearly lost the power that was once there. The song serves two purposes for me.
First is a minor depiction of what’s going on with Near Sky itself. The story follows Sage, so we can only see her intentions, and her faking optimism. But it would be foolish to think she’s the only one in the room faking a smile. Deep down, there’s at least a little resentment from the Earthquakes that Sage is leaving. Coach Whitney showed this back in the first chapter when her opening words to Sage included a warning against hurting the team.
The Earthquakes had a great thing. They won a league season, something that hasn’t happened for seven years. Breaking that up is sure to cause hurt feelings and a little resentment. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions as to how much or how little, and how deep that anger goes. After all, they could never have been a strong team if they didn’t mean it when they said they supported each other.
That’s where the second purpose of the song lies for me. The perspective of Skylost follows Sage through her journey and what’s around her. We see her with her team and can gauge both sets of reactions. But there’s an alternate scene I wanted to keep in mind, one that helped me put into perspective how very much the members of Near Sky care for each other.
It’s possible for anger, and even a little resentment, to exist between people who care about each other. But what about large amounts of hostility? What if there was an alternate group of people where the anger weighed more than the love?
That’s right. There’s another girl on another ship who is dealing with a similar situation. She doesn’t have the love that Near Sky has between them. She doesn’t care enough to fake a smile, and neither do her teammates.
While Sage Mustang acted with quiet dignity when she was pulled away, there’s another girl who thrashed and screamed, not only at the situation, but also at her team. Who is this other girl? Why is she going through a similar situation if she’s not the league Champion?
Her name is Cassia Knight, and she has a good reason to be angry. She and Sage are about to cross paths. But that’s a story for a later chapter. I’ll leave off on that bit of a teaser.
If you haven’t read ahead yet, what do you think is going to happen? What do you think happened to Cassia to send her on a parallel journey to Sage? What would you do if you were accidentally sent on the same journey as Sage?
* You can contact me anytime on Twitter: @Mulrune
If things ever get to a point where I'm asked to do a public reading of Skylost, I think I'll need some tissues to get through the chapter.
*** At least by my interpretation. There are some folks, though rare, who see the song as entirely optimistic.
**** The Near Sky team nickname was developed earlier, however. Also, did you spot the one person who didn’t have a chance to get her tattoo?
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:
If you would like to follow Mulrune:
Sixteen-year-old Sage needs to survive her trip to the Void in one month, or everyone in her home fleet will suffer. But her greatest fear is being alone. How can she protect the future of her civilization when her ordeal requires leaving everyone behind? In this third chapter, Sage prepares to leave the skyship Solvang and meets with her friends. Also includes an author's notes section about music that inspires scenes from Skylost.