The distant sun finally crept below the last dune off the horizon, and the twin rings of ice and metal became more visible, refracting a dazzling blanket of rainbows across large patches of sand. The azure sky, dominated only momentarily by the reddish golden glow beaming over the faraway ridges, faded into darker and darker shades of blue as a multitude of stars shone through in ways that could never be experienced at any one point on Behraan. With very little to no cloud cover, and no light pollution, nearly the whole galaxy was visible from where the Skyreign had descended.
Sam found something soothing about this brilliant night sky, that he could not even find in the quietest regions on the industrious world of Francesca, from whence he came.
“Six metres off the ground and holding,” Darrick reported. He began to decelerate the vessel to a halt, speaking out the side of his mouth to Olsein, “get the Captain.”
As if already aware of the change in situation, Laura stepped out of the cabin, throwing on her green-on-black navy jacket but not bothering to zip it up, exposing a grey nano-carbonweave top underneath that covered up to her neck.
“Throw the anchors,” She ordered, “determine whether the atmosphere is breathable to Behraanese.”
“If it were,” Olsein stared outward, “I would figure something should be growing.”
“Have you looked at Behraan?” Laura retorted, if lightly.
“I can’t tell until I fix the sensors,” Darrick shook his head.
<Edge here,> came through the intercom, <I can tell you from all the fire that there’s definitely enough oxygen on this planet. Likely higher than that of Behraan, actually. Oh, and there seems to be some small amounts of carbon dioxide and water buildup where the engines caught fire. Another sign of combustion.>
“So you’re telling me we can breathe out here,” Laura confirmed.
<I’m saying if you go out there, don’t breathe more than you’ll have to, or you’ll knock yourself out from hyperoxia. And I’ll laugh at you.>
Laura subtly nodded, “that will do, Edge.”
“Inspection complete,” Rose stepped onto the bridge alongside Miya, “a couple of crates got tossed around in the cargo hold, but we’re in good shape otherwise. It really is just the bow and stern extremities that need seeing to.”
“Well then see to the bow,” Laura stated, “I want this ship operational by daybreak. Walson, get those sensors sorted out.
“Olsein, help Edge. Sam, guard the bridge. Miya, guard the cargo bay door. And if any of you see Grace, tell her to prepare some basic medical equipment for--”
Rose looked deeply into Laura with a suggestive note of sympathy.
“We just about nearly died,” said Rose, “and both Edge and myself are pretty beat up from being tossed around in the descent. And I can see it in every face here, including yours. It’s been a long day, and we’re fatigued, all of us.”
“You suggest we just sit here defenseless all night and hope nothing happens,” Laura assumed, “I suggest the opposite.”
“The ship is hardly defenseless,” Rose crossed her arms, “all the guns are working. We have the torpedo array too if needed. We’re all armed and trained fighters--”
“Save Grace,” Rose noted, gesturing aside, “the fact is, if we work overnight without lighting and without rest, we might as well be defenseless when a threat actually comes along.”
With a long sigh, and the biting of her tongue, Laura finally nodded, “very well. I’m unusually open to alternatives, Roselii.”
“We could make a campfire with all the damaged wood on the hull,” Darrick piped up, “most of it’s burned off anyway.”
“We’re not plucking planks from the hull--”
<Actually,> Edge said through the intercom, <that’s not a bad idea. With the higher oxygen level on this planet, the wood may disintegrate mid-flight since it’s already been scorched, and the ablative’s been seared away. Plus, a campfire does sound like a good way to de-stress.>
“Well what about the ship?” Laura glanced across the bow, “do we just—abandon it on a whim of setting strips of our hull alight for the sheer pleasure of it?”
“Well,” Darrick stood up and stretched, “if it’s any consolation to you, the Skyreign won’t be going anywhere. Even if we were well-rested, the capacitor’s about drained, and we won’t see new energy until that sun hits our sail blades again.”
<Hey, Captain,> Edge cut in again, <been looking at the hull. You know, the one underneath the quaint old wooden planks. You might want to have a look. A bunch of the wood’s already gone aft side. Come see for yourself.>
With some hesitation at first, as she processed that somewhat ambiguous sentence, she then moved swiftly down the stairs, zipping up her coat, without a word to say.
Opening the bay doors via a switchboard just beside it, it was plain to see that Edge was already standing outside, protected by no more than his own jacket. His arms were crossed as his eyes turned upward, analyzing all the damage. But that wasn’t what mattered to Laura. What mattered was that he was plainly outside, standing in the cooling sand, breathing the Suragaan air, and he was perfectly fine. Comfortable, even.
“You don’t know how many protocols you’re breaking right now,” she stepped down the extended ramp in his direction, “stepping onto an uncharted world without testing whether it’s inhabitable; disembarking a vessel without permission--”
She then realized he had not been listening. He still kept his eyes on the stern of the ship, scanning left and right. However, after Laura stepped closer still, she made out what she could not have seen before: a small monocle over his left eye, one designed and intended to measure objects by size, volume, density, temperature, pressure, the current air mixture and so on. And he wasn’t simply crossing his arms: he was taking notes on his electronic armpad, built into his jacket sleeve like a cuff.
Suddenly, he made eye contact with Laura, startling him, “oh, hey Captain, I didn’t see you there. Were you saying something?”
Scoffing, she stepped next to him and forgot the lecture.
It was only then that she noted what he had been noting all this time, for in the place of the broken, burned and decaying wooden planks, parts of the exposed areas revealed hefty, smoothed golden plates; other parts lay gaping open, with parts of internal conduits and pressure distributors jutting outward.
Laura was no engineer, but she did know from training and war games that this was a telltale sign of a complete hull breach.
“We’ve been breathing the air the whole time,” she confirmed.
With that, she looked to him, “that gold plating—how much of the ship is covered in it?”
Edge continued to take notes, and began walking along the starboard side, “by the looks of these scans, I’m thinking the whole hull is made out of the gold, at its most internal structure Outer hull, bulkheads, the whole thing.”
This seemed to trouble the man, and Laura could read the confusion in his face as she followed him in the inspection. “What is it?” she asked.
“I just--” he shook his head, putting his hands on his hips, “I don’t get it. Why would someone go through all the trouble to plank a ship’s exterior and interior with wood and other parts to make a vessel seem like it’s something it’s not?”
“And why Gold of all things?” Laura was puzzled by this fact, “gold isn’t strong at all. It’s too malleable and tears easily.”
“Thought you could tell me,” Edge humphed, “being your ship and all.”
“I inherited it,” Laura replied, “my name was in someone’s will and that’s how it got to me. I don’t know much about it, really.”
Edge looked at Laura, bewildered, thinking of a thousand things to ask or say, but only coming up with, “huh.”
“Captain?” the distinct lighter, more innocent voice of Samuel Good carried easily across the sand as he stepped around the corner with a flashlight in one hand and a lowered plasmar in the other.
“What is it, Sentinel?” she re-assumed her sternness.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” Sam chimed, “Francescan Soldier’s Honour to protect the commanding officer immediate to me.”
“But not Behraan Code,” Laura corrected.
“If you inherit a world, you inherit its customs,” the Sentinel said this with stronger certainty than many other subjects he would speak of, “and anyway, old habits die hard.”
“Very well,” Laura sighed again, “you might as well try to figure this out with us.”
“Figure what out, Captain?”
“The ship’s principal hull is Gold,” Edge answered easily.
Sam’s eyes squinted in on the exposed plating under the remaining wood, taking a few steps closer. Moments later, his eyes widened, “that’s not ordinary gold; it’s Noregite!”
“The same as the sails?” Laura stared sceptically at him, “no, you must be out of your mind. Noregite’s incredibly rare. An alloy, sure. Plating? Possibly. But pure?”
“We could always examine one of the plates and get a metallurgical reading,” Edge suggested, “it can’t hurt to know more about this ship. It seems to have a lot of secrets buried in it. Too bad you couldn’t ask your mysterious benefactor about it.”
With a silent nod, Laura walked away from the two, “I expect everyone to get to work by daybreak, and not a minute later. And if we’re having a campfire, might as well remove all the wood, so we can get to work on the hull—whatever it’s composed of.”
“Hey, Captain,” Edge said, “one more thing. The hull? The wood was masking the gold from my scans. Someone took a lot of special care to cover it up. Wonder why.”
After a few seconds of chewing on the implications, Laura nodded and carried on.
The amount of wood to be stripped off the Skyreign’s hull, once piled up, seemed far greater than Laura had imagined. It would have been enough to build a large house, if it weren’t for the fact that it had been charred so thoroughly and warped beyond use.
The vessel itself, even in the night, seemed to reflect a contorted image of every star in the night sky above them.
Olsein would start the fire, using one of his laser rifles to cut through the lumber, clean to the other side. He did this in three or four spots to accelerate the burn, though it seemed clear to him that the lumber was already quite ready to burn.
With that, he backed away several metres to a safe distance, then sat down in the dune and looked upon it, rifle rested on his lap.
Ejjar took a spot next to him, crossing his arms—largely so he could type more data into his armpad.
“I guess that’s one way to observe a fire,” Olsein commented.
“Thought I’d take notes,” Ejjar replied, “that fire went up pretty quick, even for using that glorified laser pointer of yours. The oxygen levels here are definitely higher than on most other planets. Maybe around the twenty percent mark. Which I don’t get.”
“What’s so weird about that?” asked Olsein.
“Well,” Ejjar shrugged, “something has to produce oxygen. Could be a generator, maybe. But usually it’s vegetation that takes care of oxygen.”
“This world probably used to have vegetation,” Olsein replied, “where we’re sitting right now? Was probably a kilometre or two under water, once upon a time. With that much water, there had to be something living. And that there used to be civilization here is another good indicator.”
“Makes you wonder,” Edge sighed, “what happened to Suragaa Three? Probably something awful.”
“Probably,” Olsein sighed, “and now we’re stuck here.”
With that, he turned his gaze ever so slightly to the right, his eyes locking upon a lone figure, standing atop a dune a few hundred metres away. He knew it was Laura.
There she stood, still, silent in body. But Olsein knew that her mind was neither of those things.
“She’s taking it pretty hard,” Rose said, standing just a metre behind the two men—startling Ejjar.
“Holy crap!” he exclaimed, “way to sneak up on a person!”
“With radar dishes for ears, I figured you knew I was here,” Rose smirked slyly, returning to her view of the lone Captain on the dune.
“Come on, Edge,” Olsein grinned, not looking back but still nodding to acknowledge Rose, “even I heard her coming, and I’m a good five times your age. I should be deaf and dumb by now.”
“Five times my age, my ass,” Edge scoffed, “I’m forty-five.”
“Take a guess,” Olsein shrugged, “I’ll bet that if you can’t guess my age in three guesses, you get to take apart, clean and rebuild all my guns every day for the next eight days.”
Edge raised a brow, “oh yeah? If I get it, you get to be my trusty sidekick for eight days, and do whatever I want.”
“Fine,” Olsein laid back on the sand, “guess.”
Edge took a good, solid look at him, his fingers moving subtly towards his arm comm.
“No cheating,” Olsein almost growled.
“Ah, shit,” Edge laughed nervously, “Well—alright. Sixty-five.”
“What, younger or older?”
“Uh, okay, eighty?”
“Not even close. You know I was in the Noregaan War, right?”
“I’m a mechanic, not a historian,” Edge scoffed, “okay, maybe, a hundred and eighty?”
“Two hundred and sixteen,” Olsein smirked wryly.
“Bullshit,” Edge kicked up some sand in discord, “there is no way on plugging Bentor you’re that old!”
“I’m still here,” Olsein shrugged, “there’s a way.”
Edge could tell, despite the unbelievable news, that Olsein was thoroughly serious. At least he believed he was as old as he said he was.
And he couldn’t argue with that. “Well, fine. One of these days, you’ll have to tell me what that way is.”
Olsein laughed lightly, “yeah. One of these days. You gonna honour the bet? My guns are very dirty.”
“A bet’s a bet,” Edge sighed, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
“You’ll start on the thesium weapons,” Olsein grinned.
Edge shook his head, “I hate working with Thesium.”
“Thesium?” asked Rose, still a few paces behind the two men, onlooking Laura in the distance.
“A type of crystal,” Edge replied, looking over his shoulder, “acts as a capacitor. Holds a huge electrical charge for a long time. No moving parts, no chemicals. Just a casing to stop you from electrocuting yourself. But you can still zap yourself pretty good if you’re not careful.”
Rose raised a brow, looking at Edge as if he was a complete idiot.
“And—you--knew that, didn’t you,” Edge sighed.
“Do you know who Olsein is?” Rose asked, as if knowing the answer, “he’s the epitome of the word, “Veteran.” He’s been fighting longer than you’ve been breathing.”
She then looked to Olsein, who still had kept his eyes forward, towards the fire. “Olsein,” she said, again presuming to know the answer, “I’ll bet your thesium crystals aren’t encased.”
“Nope,” she could hear him grin a little.
“Casing inhibits a good thirty percent of the crystal’s dynamic output,” Rose added.
“Yep. Twenty if you have a good one.”
“So no casings.”
Edge looked at both Rose and Olsein, again in disbelief, and then looked down to his feet, “ah, crap.”
“Where’d you learn so much about thesium weapons?” Olsein asked aloud, still not looking but knowing full well that Rose could hear every word.
“One of these days, I’ll have to tell you,” Rose replied, and he could hear her grinning as she spoke. Then, he could hear her take slow, deliberate footsteps through the sand, back towards the Skyreign, speaking just below a shout, “bright and early!”
As the sun rose, it passed by the crystal ring for the first time of the day, dazzling all beholders with a vibrant array of colour upon the otherwise barren, droughted world. The ring stretched its glimmering length from one end of the horizon to well beyond the other, fading away in the distance.
With the sun came a vast, rich supply of raw energy bombarding the still-extended golden sails, and the then-naked golden hull as well. The Skyreign seemed as if it almost twitched left and right anxiously as it teemed with new life.
With the sun, however, also came the blaring heat, and the reflection from the sand so strong that it could blind one who stared too long.
Laura stepped out of her cabin, wearing entirely unique attire from what the others expected of a Behraanese Captain. It was not the typical jacket and straight pants and combat boots—it was eyeguards, a long, open, flowing red pocketed jacket; a grey formfitting carbonmail shirt; an array of black leather belts across her waist, hips and from shoulder to hip; a utility pouch on her hip; loosely thread sand-coloured carbonmail pants; red leather boots up to just under her knees.
The others found this to be a shock and surprise for Laura’s forceful and strict by-the-book personality, but Rose knew all too well that her respect for the Codes waned the further out they got from Behraan and the longer they were going to be away from it. The flamboyant, adventure-style outfitting was but a small sign of this unlikely disregard. Yet she still wore her badge, the one item she would not compromise on.
She looked just like she did on T’pauzi.
“Dare I ask?” Darrick stood up from the console where he had been working on back-up displays. His expression of disbelief was not unshared, though Olsein’s similar attitude toward code and uniform seemed fully like him and thus was hardly noticed.
“First of all,” Laura sat in her chair, “I hate the uniform. It’s tight, it’s not practical, it dirties easy, and it’s useless in a fight. It doesn’t breathe at all, by the way.”
Sam looked her way once from his turret, then resumed calibrating it—and then spun around in shock. Whether it was disgust, disarmament, despair or otherwise, his jaw dropped to the floor and bounced back against his skull.
Olsein didn’t show any emotion; whether he cared or not was not clear.
“Second of all,” she stretched out, “not everyone takes kindly to Behraan’s colours. We don’t want to attract more attention to ourselves than we have to. I hate publicity. I want you all to find something non-uniform to wear, but keep your badges on you for now.”
Rose knew the routine already, having served in long-term war games as her Second, and was herself equipped in simple flowing black tunic and baggy pants tied down at the ankles. If she had anything else, it was well concealed.
Miya, too, was dressed more for the assassin’s life than that of a cut and copied Behraanese officer. Both ascended the bridge and gave sour looks to those in uniforms as if they were suddenly breaking on-ship code for doing so.
“Third of all,” she leaned to one side, “this is my ship. And my ship has house rules. One of those rules is you make yourselves useful when you’re on shift. That means no sitting around on your turrets when Rose or Edge needs help fixing the ship up—which they do.”
Olsein nodded in agreement, knowing that Behraan Code did not support the proactive as much as he felt it ought to have.
Darrick, however, seemed more intent on completing his own work, or perhaps not even completing that much.
“Having said that,” she stood and crossed her arms, “I do still want at least one crew member watching the bridge at any one time; two if we’re moving. With our sensors knocked out, we have only our eyes and ears to trust until Darrick can give us something better. I want you all looking sharp.
“What is it, Darrick?” Laura noted his concerned face.
“I have to ask about our mission,” he said, “if we intend on bringing back Janeth Sehra, how do we plan on doing that? I’ve been reading the cargo inventory inspection from yesterday, and I checked our stock crate by crate. We don’t have the parts or materials to restore the engines. We also need a new core if we’re going to get out of this planet’s gravity well ever again. Can’t rely on just solar.”
“We’ll have to establish some form of transmitter and receiver,” Rose answered, “I understand most of the dialects of the planet, and should be able to listen in on local chatter, if any.”
“What good will eavesdropping do us?” Olsein leaned against the rails on the port side.
“Not eavesdropping,” Rose retorted, “we can find merchants. Someone out here must have the parts we need, or at least parts we can makeshift into the ship.”
“While that’s true,” Laura leaned on the opposite side of the ship, “we’d be better off trying to salvage parts from the Daunting.”
“There may not be anything left,” Olsein argued, “the atmosphere of this world is much thicker than that of others. Add on the fact that we don’t know where we are, or where anything else is in relevance to us. There are no global positioning relays here, so we would still have--”
<Actually,> Edge cut in via intercom, <I bet a magnetic compass would do just fine. One thing I do remember about Suragaa Three is that it had a much stronger magnetic field. Even a chunk of iron on a string could tell us at least where North is.>
“I think I might have something like that installed in one of my guns,” Olsein noted, “good to have when tracking people down.”
Laura gave the man a sour look from behind her eyeguards.
“Well that might help with my makeshift sensors array,” Darrick replied in her stead, “if you don’t mind parting with that installed compass of yours.”
“I would rather not,” Olsein frowned.
“I would rather you did,” Laura raised a brow.
“Fine, fine,” he scoffed silently, “but as soon as the main sensors are repaired, I will have my compass back. Exactly as I gave it to you.”
With that, he made his way sluggishly to the stairwell.
“Edge,” Laura asked aloud, knowing he would be listening through intercom, “how soon can you get us moving?”
<Well,> he seemed to pause, as if having to think about the answer carefully, <we could move now. Most of the lifters survived landfall. But without our engines, we might be lucky to get two or three hundred kilometres per hour, and that’s assuming we keep two or three metres altitude all the way. As long as we have sun, we have fuel. At least whoever built this ship put a lot of thought into efficiency.>
“I wish they put more into structural integrity,” Laura shook her head, “at any rate, daylight’s burning. We should be moving if we can, as soon as Darrick can incorporate that compass into his array. I hate being stuck in one place for too long.”
<I’m gonna shut off the lower field deflectors,> Edge added, <that’ll let more of the sun in, and more power can be put to lifters. Can’t be too careful.>
“And,” Darrick stretched, “will we be heading for the last sighting of the Daunting when we’re ready?”
“No,” Laura shook her head, “it’s a good idea but Olsein could very well be right. No, we’ll head west and see if we can’t find some trace of Admiral Sehra.”
“Why west?” Olsein asked.
With some hesitation, she hummed, squinted her eyes and leaned forward, “I don’t know. Call it a hunch.”
“A hunch,” Olsein’s hand landed on his hip as if unimpressed.
“We have to run into someone eventually,” she said with a positive undertone—also unexpected of the callous and unkind Captain.
An hour later, Edge came up to the bridge, fatigue still set heavily into his eyes. He squinted as the sun shone mercilessly upon him. Ignoring it, he turned to Laura, “Capacitors are at full, Captain. If we’re gonna move, now’s the time.”
“Have you estimated what kind of speed we could be pushing if we intended to travel overnight?” Laura asked immediately, restless from the day-long minutes.
“If we keep to roughly one hundred kilometres per hour, we might make it through the night,” he hummed, “I’ve already grabbed whatever spare batteries I could from cargo. Without proper readings, though, it’s all speculation. Could last all night. Could drop us the second the sun sets.”
“It’ll have to do,” she stood from her chair, looking forth to Darrick who, in the last half-hour, had been hooking up the compass to his console, “all set?”
“All set,” he repeated, “our current facing is roughly north north-east.”
“Set a course for south west-west,” the Captain ordered, sitting back down, “throttle and set to one hundred kilometres per hour, no more. Throttle when ready.”
The ship whined and groaned from the lifters overworking, but finally planed out once she was high enough off the ground that a number of the lifters could be angled to accelerate. Carefully, he steered the vessel until his nose roughly fit the compass direction of south west-west, and then slowly angled the nose down, controlling the ship as if it were a dynamic-winged aircraft—one that hovered just above the ground. He angled the nose just a little more to the left to correct for wind, and held it there. The vessel was unusually quiet, sailing off the ground with little wake, and was still picking up more and more energy as its sails caught the most they could of the blinding sun.
Behind them, only a pile of ash sat barely in contrast with the sand, a remnant of a night hardly remembered and little more eventful than the fire itself. The ash scattered and dispersed into the rest of the desert with passing winds, the winds that carried the omen of chaos and revolution of times come and gone.
Before them, more ash awaited dispersion.