The Abyssal Highway
“Laura, I’ve done a complete checkup on the ship,” said Rose as she hopped onto the deck from the floor below, “she’s hurting, but she’s seen worse. No subsystems loss or anything. Would you believe it if I told you she runs better when beaten around a little?”
“I’d believe it if my shit wasn’t all over the place,” Savath bellowed as he emerged from the stairwell.
“Like on your chair?” Olsein snickered.
“Shut up, old man,” Savath squinted his eyes at him, then turned back to Laura, “cargo’s a mess too. Gonna take more than a broom to clean it up.”
“Core status?” Laura asked Rose, ignoring the taller and more brutish constable.
“Fine,” Rose shrugged, “I checked up on all the circuitry and nothing’s wrong.”
“That’s because those assailants weren’t sent to destroy us,” Olsein warned, “I get the distinct feeling those fighters did not come from Suragaa.”
“They weren’t Behraanese Alphawolves,” Darrick added, “judging from the near-spherical shapes of their hulls in the sensor records, they’re not local, not Behraanese, not Nywanese, not even Ophelian.”
“Whoever they were,” Olsein concluded, “they herded us in. Nothing stopping them from chasing us in, and they haven’t. They let us go.”
Laura nodded to Darrick, not responding immediately as she took a good look outside of the tunnel entrance, just metres away. The light from outside shone in only so far.
The Skyreign was parked just at the point where outsiders would not see a glinting golden ship there, yet no further in so that the crew wasn’t diagnosing the ship in pitch darkness.
“I took another good look at the ship myself,” said Elsie, also toting a number of various tools in her hands and various pockets and belts, “I can confirm Roselii’s diagnosis. Aside from minor scoring to the ship’s hull and a few bent lifters, I see no real problem. However, there is something I would like to speak to you about, Captain—in private.”
“No,” Laura said, her emotions and body still and even, as she half-looked at the constable, “No secrets among crew. You can say what you want to say, here, now.”
Janeth just emerged from the stairwell herself, opening her mouth to speak and then halting herself as she clued into a conversation already taking place.
Elsie sighed lightly and nodded a few times subtly, “very well. As I made a pass over the engine room, I came across an odd signature where the beacon is installed. The Behraanese transponder is still there, just in passing. Yet beneath that, in a hidden compartment, was a hardwired, non-removable indicator. It is unique to only one faction in the known Galaxy.”
Laura looked the other half of the way to Elsie.
“The Ophelian Fleet,” Darrick stated from his chair, “I know.”
“Precisely, but—how do you--”
“She was laid down in the berths of the Ophelia, herself,” said Darrick as he stood, his arms crossed, “Captain Arden Bensen, or, “Zodiac,” originally designed her as a luxury yacht, which is why she looks more like a yacht than a military vessel.”
Laura listened. Silently, she listened.
“He changed his mind halfway through the construction. He had his reasons, but, he kept them to himself. So, we reinforced the bulkheads. We added cannon placements and hardpoints between the quarters in middeck. We added a torpedo array in the front hull. There are even hardpoints on the solar arrays and the roof of the cabin, hidden under the hull itself to keep an aesthetic look to the ship instead of making it look like the warship it really is. We included multiple field backups so that the deck was as solid as the rest of the ship and the crew didn’t get sucked out into space from the first hit. Technically, they can draw enough power to keep an atmosphere of a hundred-metre radius around it, but that depends on the power source. We haven’t had a good enough power source for that kind of stunt.”
Laura sat in her chair and listened more.
“An emergency bridge was placed in forward middeck, just in case. A leapdrive was installed, though never tested. The ship’s Noregite hull can harness almost any kind of energy, even though it’s as malleable as gold. There’s a carbon nanoweave mesh laid in between the layers so that the ship will hold its form when hit with ballistics. There’s the separate circuit of field emitters for when the ship won’t hold its form, to keep the air locked in and enemy fire locked out.”
“That sounds like Ophelian thinking,” Olsein added, “backups for backups for backups.”
“Even for Ophelian standards, this project was overkill,” Darrick continued, “Forty tonnes of Noregite went into the production of this vessel. You could buy an entire Behraanese fleet for that much!”
“Forty-one point seven tonnes, to be more accurate,” Elsie corrected, “I calculated that from my scans.”
“Where do you get that much Noregite!?” Laura finally spoke.
“A heist,” Janeth replied quickly, “I remember it well. The noregite was extracted from the planet Noregaa, where Behraan had invaded at one point a long time ago. A year after the Noregite was amassed at Kelvik, it disappeared. All of it, without a trace. Scanners and cameras were all wiped; guards didn’t remember anyone coming in our out. The crime was perfect, so....”
“So?” Laura beckoned the rest of that trail, very patient to let them finish before speaking her own mind.
“So, how could the Behraanese not have noticed that much Noregite poured into a single vessel that was under their own command, just decades later?”
“The ship was plated with Khrynthoss Wood,” Darrick stated, “the ship left the berths fully operational, but not fully completed. They put in a low-grade reactor, sub-par engines, outdated consoles. He Behraanized it very well, without taking too much away from the essence of the ship.”
“Khrynthoss wood doesn’t shrug off a depth scan,” Laura argued, “that much Noregite is obvious even to an adolescent student of science.”
“Such as yourself,” Olsein snickered.
“That’ll be enough, old man,” Laura glared at him.
“Khrynthoss wood is also very enchantable,” Grace said quietly, “it is likely the wood was enchanted to mask the material beneath it. A typical Behraanese engineer wouldn’t even think to look for that. Nor would one believe it if they were told so.”
“Good thinking,” Olsein smiled, “you’re smarter than you lead on, cleric.”
“Knowledge is not a sign of intelligence,” Grace shook her head, “but of experience.”
Olsein looked deeply into her eyes, peering into what was behind them as he hummed, “I’ll bet.”
“Well,” Laura placed her hands on her hips and sighed as she looked to the surface one more time, “one way or another, there’s no hiding the hull now.”
“Hides well from the Giith,” Darrick grinned, “That kept us alive this long.”
“Constable Airstrond mentioned an active Behraanese transponder,” Janeth said at last, “my suggestion is to remove it. The world’s nature to scramble scans does mask the location of your ship, but not your presence. We will fare better if that problem is seen to.”
“That signature was how we found you,” Elsie added, “though there was a second one in Nywan. That was why Saferon had split off to investigate. We’ve yet to hear back.”
“Probably won’t, at this distance,” Darrick replied, “we’re thousands of kilometres away now.”
“Edge mentioned the transponder’s existence before,” Rose said, “he said he tried to remove it, but whoever planted it in there did a really nice job at making the rest of the system depend on it, like it was some kind of killswitch.”
“Yet it was mounted onto an already-hardwired Ophelian transponder,” Janeth replied, “it would seem the Behraanese had the same trouble.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem when underground,” Olsein said.
“Leave it for now,” Laura said aloud as she moved towards the cabin, “or turn it off, if you can. Janeth and Darrick, whenever you’re ready, you may take us in deeper. Rose, see what you can do about the transponder without tripping our electrical systems. Olsein, Elsie, man guns. Savath—grab a broom.”
“Bullshit,” Savath retorted, “I’m a respected constable of the Galactic Council!”
“Rose,” Laura gestured the tip of her forehead towards Savath, Rose quickly gathering the meaning.
“You heard the Captain,” Rose said as she stood in front of him, looking up a good half a metre.
“I heard one little girl tell the policeman to clean her shit up, and then another little girl puff her chest out and try bullying a man twice her--”
The rest of that sentence couldn’t leave his lips fast enough, for those same lips were the first part of his body to contact the deck, as she rapidly placed one arm around his leg, stepped under him and leaped forward. His foot was locked under her folded arm. Before he even knew what happened, he found a solid boot at the base of his neck.
“I didn’t get all that, little boy,” Rose said, swinging back a strand of her long hair hanging in front of her face, “I’m well into my sixties and getting hard of hearing. Won’t you speak up?”
“Anything you say,” said Savath’s squished and bloodied lips.
Olsein couldn’t be heard laughing, but Rose could have sworn he was, somewhere in the background.
The Skyreign precariously descended into the man-made tunnel, one that spanned perhaps fifty metres wide in the general shape of a hexagon. Vigilantly, Darrick scanned the darkness, barely illuminated by the ship’s spotlights and ambient lighting.
Those narrow beams of light betrayed the minute details of the walls surrounding them. The vast blackness was before them. Soon, it was behind them as well.
So as to cause as little echo as possible, and just for good measure when flying in the dark, he slowed the ship to barely more than a crawl, retracted the unnecessary solar sails, and made sure he kept somewhat centred in the path.
“At this rate, we should reach the main tunnel within the hour,” Janeth said.
“This isn’t the main tunnel?” said Laura, her chin rested on her fist.
“I would advise caution,” Janeth continued, looking to Darrick and then to Laura, “this tunnel may be safe haven from most assailants from the surface, but this entrance is no secret to the local tribes, and certainly not to the Pillarians. It is one of their main routes to the surface, however--”
She paused as she slowly rose to her feet and looked beyond the bow, before opening her mouth to speak again, “however, that being the case, we should have had some traffic by now. The fact that we hadn’t....”
“Laura to all hands,” Laura replied as she opened the intercom, “we may run into some trouble up ahead. Don’t get into something you can’t drop in a hurry.”
“I don’t believe we’ll have any trouble,” Janeth shook her head.
Laura rubbed the side of her temple, silently looking at the Queen as she spoke, “just in case.”
<No good on removing the transponder,> Rose announced, <so I just turned it off. I think.>
“Grace,” Laura beckoned over the same intercom, “meet me in my cabin.”
She then stood and straightened out her hair with the brush of her hand, staring at some strands and realizing how much her black hair had grown over the months. Then, she nodded to Janeth and Darrick, “carry on.”
The dull throb in Laura’s temples quickly became doubly so as she planted herself on the long couch at the far end of the room, vigorously rubbing the sides of her head.
“Captain?” said Grace as she quietly opened, passed through and closed the cabin door.
“I have this awful headache,” Laura groaned.
Grace sat next to Laura, and smirked as she said, “what you are feeling is no simple headache.”
“I think I know what I’m feeling!”
“Yes! I feel like I’ve been statified at point blank!”
“Do you realize why?”
“That’s not the point!”
Grace stared silently.
“Why do you think, then?” Laura said at last.
“I think you know, better than I do,” Grace maintained that simple smile, “this isn’t some mere headache, is it. There’s more.”
Laura then sighed, looking to the cleric, knowing the answer all too well. “Yes. There’s more.”
“It’s your premonitions,” Grace said evenly, “your telekinesis. I know you manipulated the controls in Haren’s ship, just before that attack. I know you predicted danger at the garage, which in turned saved our lives as well. And I know, from what you said out there, that there is indeed trouble ahead. You would not have said it were it not true.”
Laura only listened, her sole form of acknowledgement.
“You have a gift. It takes years for a person to reach the potential you have,” said Grace, “indeed, I may never reach that point myself—but that is not my way. I do not read the minds of others. I heal their bodies—and minds too, at times, I suppose.”
“I just want the headaches to go away, that’s all,” Laura shook her head, “I didn’t ask for this, it just—happened. It happened and I haven’t been able to rest since. I’m just looking for—some peace.”
“Laura,” Grace spoke up, “I feel you haven’t been able to rest for a long, long time. You need to make a choice. You are going through a change, one that will reshape your mind, body and, in time, your environment. You may choose to pursue it and learn to master and control your newly found abilities. Alternatively, you may choose to stifle them, and live out your life like a normal person. However, the headaches will not dissipate until you choose. Allowing your abilities--your inner psyche--to surface as they please will only worsen the headaches you’re having. With enough delay, it could be disabling.”
“Please tell me there’s something you can give me,” Laura said.
“Yes,” Grace stood, “I can give you an order as your doctor. Decide, and your headaches should go away. Do not procrastinate on this.”
With that, she returned to the deck.
It wasn’t the answer Laura was looking for. But it was an answer.
“Take a right,” said Janeth to Darrick, “Pillars should be another three thousand kilometres down. This highway leads right to it.”
“Right,” said Darrick as he slowed the ship to make the corner, keeping half an eye on the sensors.
The main highway was far greater in size than the smaller one, but maintained that hexagonal shape. It was dotted with numerous other tunnels, albeit closed or caved in. The material was the stone, shaped, carved and hardened. Numerous light fixtures were placed nearly everywhere from ground to ceiling, none of which were functional. Dust was completely absent, and the only other signs of life were the derelict vehicles strewn about on the highway floor, sized from small one-person wheeled motorcycles, to ships as large as the Skyreign and often larger.
“Whoever lived on this planet,” said Darrick quietly to himself, “they must have been more advanced than Behraan ever was.”
“Behraan has some very large structures,” said Janeth, “the elevators, for instance, that graze the thinnest layers of atmosphere. I have yet to see such a structure here on Suragaa.”
“Wouldn’t be needed on a planet with such low gravity,” Darrick argued, “thicker atmosphere, lower gravity. Should be able to just use aerodynamic lift all the way up to space, as long as the propulsion is there.”
“That’s inefficient,” Janeth retorted.
“So is building a huge tunnel out of the rock, for thousands of kilometres,” Darrick argued, “but people do it. People here have done it. Why?”
“Well,” Janeth sighed, looking into the blackness of the tunnel, “I’d like to think the people who built this tunnel did it for the same reasons other civilizations have managed similar feats. They could.”