“Slow down,” said Janeth to Darrick at the console of the Skyreign.
“Why?” asked Darrick, glancing around for some form of obstacle or danger.
“Because we’re here,” she said, “best call the crew up here.”
Darrick eased the throttle back, carefully so as to not upset the damaged lifters. He flicked the intercom on and spoke, “Alright, everyone. Come on up. We’re here. Apparently.”
“I would think you to be more excited to see such a wondrous vessel,” Janeth frowned.
“These last few days have been excitement enough,” Darrick shook his head.
Laura was the first to arise—for a change. She moved swiftly forth, her black bandages no longer encumbering her healed skin. She looked over the rail as the ship came to a soft halt, scanning the darkness of the highway and stating, “I don’t see it.”
“That’s the idea,” said Janeth, “you don’t see it. Nobody has seen it in a very long time, save for myself. I hope.”
“You sure the waypoints are right?” asked Darrick, checking his sensors again and again.
“Adamant,” Janeth said sternly, “this is the place. Took a little longer than I predicted, but nonetheless here it is. Now just let me outside and I’ll get the door.”
Rose then ascended, if slowly, clutching her ribs on one side, saying weakly yet firmly, “let’s see this.”
Savath and Elsie then ascended, followed shortly by Olsein. Grace, being the last to make it to the deck, seemed the most lost in thought of them all. Laura studied her—then noticed Olsein doing the same thing.
Janeth then descended the stairs and exited the ship, stepping onto the hard stone floor of the ancient highway. She walked without a flashlight, and so quickly disappeared into the darkness.
“Crazy old woman,” said Olsein.
“I hear that,” added Savath.
“I still can’t get past the bald thing,” Rose said with a faint grin.
Olsein only humphed.
Grace stared silently into the darkness, to where Janeth disappeared, and beyond.
There was something in and beyond that darkness that called to her. She couldn’t place how exactly, but she had an idea. She felt the back of her head, weaving her fingers through her blonde hair to find the bulge where her implant was, and was reminded of another time, a time before her days as a healer.
“You alright, Grace?” asked Laura.
Grace seemed startled, yanking her hand away and down to her side, “Yes, sure, fine. Thank you. How are you?”
Laura shrugged, “I’m alright. I was worried for a while, but I’m alright now. And I know what I need to do next.”
“And, what might that be?” asked Grace.
“I think it’s time,” said Laura as she crossed her arms, “time I spoke with my father.”
Grace said nothing. Her honest smile said everything.
Before long, the silence of the highway was broken by the screeching of metal, perhaps that of massive gears that had not moved in centuries. There was the rumbling of the movement of large objects, that could not be seen, until at the opposite side of the highway, a pillar of light seemed to stretch from floor to ceiling.
That pillar widened and widened, lighting the highway for a great distance, exposing a massive platform behind what appeared to be two folding doors. The doors were made to look exactly like typical side panelling, the same panelling that was seen all the way to and from Pillars.
Finally, after a minute, the pillar stopped expanding. The gateway was fully open.
“Take us in,” said Laura, still looking over the side, “from what I can tell, Janeth is there on the pedestal, waiting on us.”
Darrick slowly turned the vessel about, moseying it over carefully into the new room, and stopping on the pedestal.
Just as the stern came past the gates, they began to close again, heavy metal teeth interlocking at the seams.
Laura looked around, seeing that the room was more than just a room.
It was a shaft, running up—and likely running down.
“This is an elevator,” Laura concluded, “a massive elevator....”
<Deploy the anchors,> said Janeth through her armcomm.
Laura nodded to Darrick and he quickly responded. One of the fore anchors took longer to extend, the mechanism likely damaged from the previous escapade. But perform it did, and the four anchors contacted the metal-plated pedestal, magnetizing to it.
Unlike the rest of the highway, this room seemed to be in near-perfect shape, as if just constructed within the year. The lights remained constant, emanating from the floor, the walls and the pillars upon which the elevator was mounted.
“This place is in amazing shape,” said Elsie, “even if it is just an elevator, for it to be in this condition after so long?”
“Nywan itself is like that,” said Rose, “those towers will probably outlive the next ten generations of Nywanese that live there.”
“If the Ma’guul haven’t conquered them yet,” said Darrick.
Rose shook her head, “I doubt it. Nywan isn’t as well off as Behraan is, but the Nywanese know the city. They know its shortcuts. Its secrets. The Ma’guul don’t. They’d be lucky if Ritana lets them walk away a second time.”
<I’m coming back,> said Janeth, <I suggest getting under deck, just for good measure. Last time I was down here, the elevator dropped in a bit of a hurry.>
“We should be fine up here,” said Laura, looking to Darrick, “check the dampers and artigrav, just in case.”
“All fine, just checked.”
<As you wish,> Janeth said as she approached the ship.
Moments later, Janeth joined the crew still on deck, still standing and looking about.
“What now?” asked Laura.
“Now,” Janeth stepped next to Darrick at the console, “we log in.”
“There’s a database of some kind?” asked Darrick, sceptically, “still functioning after thousands of years?”
“Yes,” Janeth said simply, sitting next to him, “higher bandwidth. If I’m not mistaken, thirty-five gigahertz. Short range, compact frequency.”
Darrick made the necessary adjustments, his brows raising, “that’s a strong signal. Connect to it?”
“Yes,” Janeth said.
Laura stepped closer to watch what they were doing, seeing numerous numbers and fields of information scroll the peripheral screens.
“I can’t read any of this,” Darrick shook his head, “looks like it’s all different languages though.”
“Let me see?” Rose leaned in next to Darrick, albeit carefully, letting some of her weight lean on Darrick’s arm. She began to sift through it, then quickly pointed out one body of text, “here. This is Oasiic, but it’s a very old dialect.”
“Can you read it?” asked Laura.
“I think so,” Rose studied the data intensely, her eyes dotting around the page. Finally, she concluded, “This is a restricted zone, it says. It only lets certain ships in and out. Probably ships of its own age.”
“So how did you get in the first time?” Laura asked Janeth.
“Sheer luck,” Janeth hummed, tapping her chin, “I'm trying to think. I don’t remember doing anything particularly complicated.”
“Does the database recognize transponders?” asked Laura.
“Tried that,” said Darrick, “no response. Doesn’t recognize our signal at all, even though I’m in their database. Must not even know I’m here.”
“Well,” Janeth continued to ponder, “perhaps...I remember the first time all I did was punch in my name.”
“Did that work?” asked Laura.
“It seemed to think I said “Jiinahra.” But yes. It did.
“Try that,” Laura moved towards her chair and sat in it.
Janeth tapped at the keys to the console. She seemed to punch in more letters and numbers than her own name might have required.
“Janeth short for something?” Darrick raised a brow.
As she tapped in the last key, almost immediately, the elevator began to descend, accompanied by the sound of whirring motors acting more to control its descent speed than to actually drive it.
“No,” Janeth shook her head, “but it worked again.”
“Take a seat, everyone,” Laura commanded, "and strap in."
Olsein, the most silent of them all, seemed to pay the most attention to Grace, and Laura noticed this above all. Something was brewing in his mind. Perhaps he was searching for her surface thoughts, or studying her puzzled face. A face that then seemed far older.
Though, as everyone sat down in either the seats or the turrets, Olsein grabbed a turret seat as well.
The pad began to fall faster and faster, the lights in the walls zooming up so fast that they began to blur together for all but Rose, who still saw them for the singular dots they were.
“We must be nearly freefalling!” shouted Darrick.
“Almost!” Janeth said with a grin, “what a rush!”
“Holy shit!” shouted Savath as he looked up, seeing no end to the shaft and all the details of each floor blur together.
“According to sensors, we’ve dropped a full kilometre!” Darrick added.
Laura gripped her seat, wilfully refraining from looking up.
Finally, after a full minute of falling down the shaft, it suddenly decelerated, forcing the crew further into their seats and making the Skyreign glance the floor.
Just moments later, it came to a complete stop, with a set of identical gates to the ones so far above them.
Those gates opened, as slowly and steadily as the first set, exposing only what the light would show.
The massive, cavernous room before them was otherwise completely dark.
What little that light did show was that the room itself was largely empty. If there was something within that room, it was beyond the lighting of the ship and undetected by sensors.
“Is this really it?” asked Laura.
“This is it,” said Janeth, “Spaceport eighty-one.”
“Looks like a big empty room to me,” said Savath.
“Retract the anchors,” said Laura quietly, “and take us in. Slowly.”
“Right,” said Darrick as he complied. That one damaged anchor took its time to retract back into the body of the Skyreign, but it did so just the same. Carefully, he pointed the nose at the door, then nudged the ship forward. He set up the one floodlight to sweep left and right to reveal more about the room.
Behind them, the doors shut once more, and the seams disappeared completely into the wall.
However, this wall differed greatly from that of the highway above them. Laura made out a metallic sheen and structures, what seemed to be walkways, lining the walls on multiple tiers.
Before going far, Darrick yanked back on the yoke to halt the vessel in a hurry, as the floodlight shone on a large glinting object, just in enough time to avoid colliding with it.
“What do you see, Darrick?” said Laura as she stood, “tell me what you see.”
Darrick resumed manual control of the floodlight with a few changes to his left peripheral screen, pointing its beam upon the object. Darrick stood as well, looking down upon his sensors and then back at the object, “gravitic sensors didn’t see that.”
Laura stepped closer to the bow to have a closer look at the object directly in front of, and almost under, the nose of the Skyreign.
Olsein stepped forward and almost gasped, as he said under his breath, “Holy....”
Rose came up as well, and upon seeing it, she did fully gasp, “Holy Kabaiila.”
“Do you see what I see?” asked Elsie.
“Well shit,” said Savath, “that there? I’ve seen one before. Wiped out a whole Behraanese fleet last year. I was there.”
Elsie looked back at Savath, “You never told me that.”
“You never asked.”
“Looks like a fighter,” said Laura, “but what a weird shape. Its wings are all folded up. And are those feet?”
“Looks like a fighter?” said Rose as she looked to her Captain, then back to the fighter, “looks like death. That is, without mistake, an Oasiic ESF-25 Maak-diijel’ta. In Behraanese--”
“Dragonfly,” said Savath as he shuddered, “I hoped I’d never see one of them evil machines again.”
“No machine is evil,” said Grace coldly. Unusually coldly.
“That explains me not detecting them,” said Darrick, “apparently, something about them makes them naturally undetectable. I didn’t know that was the case even when powered down. Oh, the things I could learn from that masterpiece.”
“A masterpiece implies it was created but once,” said Janeth, “if you think that is true, I implore you. Move the light about the room.”
Darrick gave Janeth a long stare, then began to move the floodlight away from the one fighter.
Then spotted another.
“I count eleven,” said Rose in surprise, “eleven.”
“That’s enough firepower to take on pretty much anything out there,” Savath added, “I saw what just one could do. Whoever built these things are—damn maniacs.”
“That’s not the point,” Rose shook her head, “there are eleven.”
“What’s so important about eleven?” asked Laura.
“Well,” said Rose slowly, “according to ancient Oasiic lore, Maak fighters are always grouped into twelves. No more, no less.”
“So—where is number twelve?” said Darrick aloud.
“Exactly,” Rose shook her head, “must have left here at some point. But we saw no sign of it.”
“Nor would we have,” said Janeth.
“Damn thing could have been right behind us the whole time,” said Savath, “and we’d never know. Until it opened up on us.”
“So, this spaceport was Oasiic?” Laura concluded.
“No,” said Rose as she glanced around, “architecture’s all wrong for Oasiians. But influenced? Maybe. A collaboration perhaps.”
“Hey, wait,” said Darrick, his face contorted in confusion, pointing at his sensors screen, “here’s something. Off in the far corner of the room. Larger ship, about our size, not powered.”
“Okay,” said Laura, “you’ve seen ships our size before. Why so startled?”
“Well,” Darrick leaned back, “remember, before we even left Behraan, that we talked about Janeth’s missing ship, the Silverstar?”
Darrick then responded by pointing the spotlight at the corner of the room, reaching perhaps a hundred metres away, to reveal what was indeed a larger ship. A compact vessel, seen from its stern, sporting two engines mounted to each side and a bay door closer to the bottom, with several windows along the side of its gunmetal, silver-striped frame.
“The Silverstar!” said Laura loudly, “the holograms were exacting!”
“And I just figured it out,” said Darrick, looking up to Janeth as she listened, and grinned, “all those waypoints we’ve been following, were those breadcrumbs we picked up from space. But we had no idea where they were going, until now.”
“I didn’t just memorize hundreds of waypoints between two locations thousands of kilometres apart,” Janeth chuckled, “I’m good, but not nearly that good.”
"You knew you would be coming back," Laura concluded.
Janeth nodded, "I prepared for that eventuality. Yes."
“But you know,” Darrick shook his head, “someone else picked up those signals, not just us. The intel was fed to us. You know, you could have led someone else here, right?”
“And how would they have gotten past the scrambling of the sensors?” Janeth argued, “the Giith? The scrambling of those markers themselves, if I wished? And the elevator, at that?”
Darrick shrugged, short of answers.
“Someone found the place,” said Rose, “there’s a whole Maak out there somewhere.”
“Probably the same one I saw last year,” added Savath.
“Those things truly are vicious,” said Rose, “if just one of them decided to show up at Nywan’s doorstep--”
“If the pilot wished to do so,” said Janeth, “he would have done so.”
“Seems clear to me,” Laura began, “that this place isn’t completely a secret. Behraan took Pillars, not Nywan. Behraan had the Hand itself situated over Suragaa. Behraan paid off the Ma’guul to attack Nywan, probably as a means of distraction. I doubt that they would have gone through all this trouble for nothing. There’s something really important to them here, and I doubt it’s just one Dragonfly.”
“Oh, what I would give for one of these,” Rose uttered.
“Okay,” Laura leaned her chin on her fist, “So--if this is Spaceport Eighty-One, the Sacred Vessel should be somewhere in this room. Dragonflies are a lot of things, I gather, but not sacred, right?”
“Damn right,” Savath added.
“Perhaps powering the spaceport would be an ideal place to start,” said Janeth, “we should grab flashlights, power packs and some tools.”
“I’m on the tools,” said Rose, “doubt any of you would understand the language of the computers down here anyway.”
“Anything useful in the Silverstar?” asked Laura.
Janeth shook her head, “after five decades, I doubt it. Behraanese designs were never made to last. But then again, time does seem to have given this place a miss."
"I’ll stay here," said Darrick, "keep watch over the ship. Never know, right?”
“Right,” Laura nodded, “so Rose, our linguist, engineer, martial artist--”
“I get it,” Rose gave her a dirty look, “least you can read minds and make stuff happen. That’s one on me.”
“She sure can,” Olsein hummed, “I think I’ll stay back this time around.”
“I’m sitting this one out,” said Savath, “enough freaky shit happening in the dark for one lifetime.”
"I'll try to keep these boys out of trouble," Elsie added.
“I’d like to come with you,” said Grace, her face filled with conviction.
Janeth gave Grace a strange look from behind, eyeing where she felt her head. Then, she looked about elsewhere as if not noticing.
Laura looked to Grace, opening her mouth to speak. Though, seeing as she would not be swayed, no matter how the argument went, all Laura could do is nod in agreement.
“Four in, four out,” said Darrick, standing, “we’ll keep a tight ship while you’re gone.”
“Sure you will,” Laura smirked as she headed for the door, “alright women. Let’s go.”
As Laura, Janeth, Rose and Grace left in that order, Darrick looked to the remaining crew, shrugging, “cards?”
“Hell, yeah,” Savath nodded in agreement, “been looking to win one of them ruby rings off you.”