Chapter 37: Here There Be Dragons
At the advice of Jonathan, the ship did not head North immediately. They flew south, past the Vallus Valor Mountain range. It would add a few days to their travel time, but it might shake any Castalan Corsairs off their trail. Captain Grumm had no intention of advertising their true destination.
The operational ceiling of the Empress of the Sky had never been tested, but with a pressurized hull, they were already topping thirty thousand feet with no issues. There was no way the other airships could follow. Aerathiea did not possess the technology to pressurize an airship. Since the Empress was still crippled without its reactor and main engines, the corsairs could probably outrun them in a straight line race so Captain Grumm was not going to put it to a test. For now, they would remain safely out of reach.
They were going to fly through a few of the mountain ranges that were still treacherous for the Empress, but totally impossible for the Corsairs. The smaller airships would have to go around and try and anticipate the Empress’ destination. By that time, with any luck they would be long gone in the opposite direction. At least it was a plan.
“Permission to enter the bridge, sir?” Kyton said, poking his head through the doorway.
“You don’t need my permission to enter the bridge.” Captain Grumm was distracted by a small handheld device with a wire connected to it, snaking into his shirt. He grimaced at whatever the display told him.
Kyton replied, “Somehow, I feel I do.”
“Stop dwelling on it. We all have secrets, Kyton.” Artemis disconnected the wire from wherever it terminated under his clothes and began rolling it up. “We all have our secrets.”
Kyton nodded to the device in Artemis’s hands, “How are your treatments going anyway?”
“They would have been going fine- if I hadn’t run out of meds over a month ago.” Grumm tossed the little handheld device to Kyton. “Three fifty-seven.”
Kyton swore under his breath. “I thought she had you stabilized? There isn’t anything Weaver can do?”
“She has done all she can do here. If we were still on the outside, we could possibly find what I need at any decent hospital- except the damn stuff does have a shelf life. It was getting harder and harder to find.”
“But you were in remission?”
“Yeah, as long as I was taking the meds, sure. But not here, not now.”
“How long?” Kyton implored.
“A month or two at best. Maybe four- providing I don’t pick up any other infections.” Artemis looked wistfully out the windows at the lush landscape filtering through the clouds. “Being that we are in a totally alien environment.” He looked up at Kyton. “Well, at least, alien to me. I’m not counting on any miracles here.”
“Damn! Please let me know if there is anything I can do.”
“You aren’t getting the ship, Kyton.” Grumm said, off the cuff.
“I know Artie. I don’t even want it now. I have been doing a lot of thinking after you stormed The Mountain to rescue me.”
“Yeah, the Colis Basilicim. Where we just came from.”
“Is that what that place is called?”
“Yeah. It’s basically the Aerathiean version of the Vatican. It’s also called The Holy Keep or The Holy See. Guarded by dozens of Corsairs and thousands of troops. Translated it just means the Kings Mountain Root or something like that. Most people just call it The Mountain. But no force in this world could pull off what this ship just did. You have dumped their theology on its head and unraveled five hundred years of their stinking stranglehold on our world with that stunt. I have been doing a lot of thinking since we arrived. This ship would make someone a god in this world. It’s too much power and it doesn’t belong here. Besides I now have something worth a lot more.”
Grumm cocked his head. “What, pray tell?”
“Knowledge. What I learned in the last ten years on the outside is worth a dozen Empress’s, as long as I have the chance to teach it to others.”
“I’m glad you see it that way. So, what are you going to do?”
Kyton paused before answering and let out a sigh.
“I don’t really know. My brother thing and this whole revelation about the time dilation or shift or whatever it is has changed everything for me. My gut tells me that he isn’t very popular at home, especially if it’s known or suspected that he killed my father. My father was firm, but he was loved by everyone. I know something like forty years have gone by, but I can’t believe that loyalty is totally dead. Even if it appears my brother has things well under control at home, there is going to have to be a fifth column movement somewhere. At the moment, I intend to join them. My knowledge of engineering and everything I have picked up from you will be very handy at getting the upper hand over Daran. Excuse me, Count Harnor.”
“Why not Daran?”
“Artie, my brother is dead to me. He actually died many years earlier when he took his vows to that gods-forsaken religion. So, to me he will always be Count Harnor and no longer Daran Davici.”
“I can completely empathize with you on that, Kyton.”
Kyton paused, “Why don’t you come with me?”
Taken by surprise, Artemis replied, “Come with you?”
“Yeah, you just said that you only have a few months left. Maybe the fresh air would do you some good? I know a great bar back in my home town, providing it’s still there. They serve the absolute best Snog in any province. There is also a chance that we could help.”
“An alcoholic drink that tastes mostly like cinnamon.”
“Sounds lovely. Help how?”
“We have healers that are very skilled.”
“I’m not putting my fate in the hands of any faith healer or medicine men.”
“You do me a disservice Artie. Remember, I am a product of both worlds and learned in both their Arts and Sciences. If I didn’t think it would be at least a possibility, I would never suggest. You just said you are going to die anyway. What harm would it do?”
“I think you would be very surprised at what they can do. They know the healing properties of every medicinal plant in our world. Plus, you would get out and meet some of the people. It would be a much nicer reception than you received from Count Harnor.”
“There is no denying that, however, you haven’t seen these people of yours in over forty years. A lot can change in that amount of time.”
“The answer is still no.”
“But Artie, the scenery. There are places I can show you.”
“I can see them all from the comfort of the ship.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“Still no, Mister Davis. If you are through harassing me, I need you to start the ship on a real day / night cycle. I see it’s seven in the evening by ship time, but, of course, it’s always noon if you look outside. Many people are starting to get out of sync. We need to start a ship wide program to keep everyone on the same schedule.”
“I’ll get right on it.” Kyton was adjusting to his new, more junior position on the ship. Most people didn’t trust him anymore which was to be expected of course. He was still extremely useful but since it was no secret that he would not be staying with the ship, his duties had been reduced and his authority was being replaced with Doctor Peck and Mister Blankenship. Kyton exited the way he came in.
“You know you should consider his offer.” Jules appeared to sit next to the Captain.
“Not you too. Can’t a man die in peace?”
“Not a dying man that won’t listen to good advice.”
“But like you said, a dying man; so what difference does it make?”
“It makes all the difference in the world to the people around you.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are going to find out eventually. Either you are going to tell them or you they are going to learn about it at your funeral. Which version makes you less uncomfortable?”
“Both versions sound equally bad!”
“That may be, but the fact remains that they are going to learn about your condition and that you hid it from them.”
“What would you have me do?”
“Go with Kyton.”
“Where is the logic in that? You want me to just give up and abandon the people that have put trust in me for over two years?”
“No, quite the opposite actually.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you just sit here, in your little bridge, watching the world go by, your body is going to stop functioning in a matter of months and then I… everyone will lose a good man and a good friend. The problem is that they will see a quitter. They will know there was at least an outside chance that something good would come of it. I know nothing about any remedies they might have here for any number of things, but even back home, most medical breakthroughs at first came from some natural plant extract or another. Take penicillin or aspirin for example.”
“But I will still be abandoning my crew.”
“But you will be seen as doing something. You will still be fighting this. Who knows, you might die anyway, but it might just work and you might live. Which version of Artemis Grumm will your crew respect the most? The one that just lied down and waited to die or the one that continued to fight, even if it doesn’t work out?”
Grumm sat there and thought for a minute. “Dammit Jules, who the hell made you so human?” He smiled to himself. It had sounded like something Jonathan would have said.
“Excuse me sir, but there is a situation in the forward observation deck.”
“Sigh… What kind of Situation?”
Liam, Becka, Megan, Marcus, and Carol were all sitting cross-legged around one of the observation lounges, looking down as the ground passed below them. They had been traveling higher than the highest mountain on earth, but around them, there were still peaks towering around them.
“Some of those peaks must be forty thousand feet high,” Rebekah commented casually.
“Forty-two thousand, to be precise.” Jules materialized next to them, also in a cross-legged seated position and proceeded to point out other points of interest. “According to the Grommon, that peak off to starboard is called Callia Varrom. it’s part of the of Vallus Valor mountain range.”
“The Grommon?” replied Rebekah, “Seriously Jules, they do have names you know.” She turned to the other three. “Don’t you think Telami and Leora make a cute couple?”
“Yeah as cute as two Gnomes in a pea pod, I guess,” replied Liam. Rebekah picked up one of the pillows to hit him with. Suddenly, she was transfixed.
“Are you going to throw that or what?” Liam was feigning distress. Rebekah just stood there. Jules suddenly went stiff also. “What?” Liam said again.
A shadow passed very close to the ship. Momentarily the view below was blotted out by something that glinted in the sun. Almost simultaneously, the sun that had been streaming through the side windows was ensconced in shadows and then as quickly bright again. Something had flown past the windows.
Lima said, “Jules, I thought you said they didn’t have any airship that could fly this high?”
“I did, Master Liam, that is not a Castalan airship.”
“Then, what is it?”
The shadow passed by again.
“Would you believe a dragon?” asked the hologram.
“Why in hell didn’t you say something?” yelled Liam. They all backed away from the ornate window below them and crouched, peering over the edge.
The holographic image looked down sheepishly, “Umm… kids, I wouldn’t do that. Please back away from the window. The ship has very few operational sensors looking up. We were always more focused on looking down, even before the…”
Liam cut him off. “When were you going to tell us?”
“I’m sorry sir. I was in the process of informing the Bridge, the instant I saw them. They came out of the sun directly above and moved with frightening speed. I wasn’t configured to scan for them. It won’t happen again; I can assure you!”
“Good” It sounded stupid, but it was all Liam could think to say under the circumstances.
One of the shapes passed slowly along the underside, flanking the ship. One large eyeball slid into view through the large observation window at their feet. Megan jumped back and screamed like she was being disemboweled. The creature below them had to be fifty to sixty feet long. It was scaly, reddish bronze, and had a wingspan close to a hundred feet. Upon seeing the delectable morsels inside what appeared to be merely a thin bubble, the dragon whirled around and rammed the observation window- full on. A small shudder went through the area of the ship they were in, but the window, made of the same miracle material as the rest of the ship, held admirably.
“Oh dear,” said Jules. The dragon wheeled around, gaining more momentum and obviously not learning its lesson, swung around for another strike. It hit the window with considerably more force and this time the glass shuddered and the bare beginning of crack appeared at the apex where the dragon’s head had hit.
Carol looked at the tiny crack and said, “Isn’t this material impervious to everything. It should hold against a dragon, shouldn’t it?” Marcus was eying the attacking beasts as they swung around for another attack. He counted three of the beasts swirling around. They were so fast though, it was hard to keep track.
This time, the attacking dragon changed its strategy. Like the strafing run from a fighter plane, the stream of fire started when it was about a thousand feet back. When the fire touched the glass, it began to glow blue around the fracture and they could see thousands of little micro fractures spreading out from there. It held. But another dragon came wheeling in with exactly the same strategy. They were hunting in packs, adapting and cooperating.
“Kids, I suggest you evacuate the lounge immediately.” Jules’s voice tried to sound authoritative, but it took on a tremor that betrayed his anxiety.
Ignoring the digital butler, Liam looked around for a solution. “Beka, how much power is running through those conduits?” Liam pointed to the ones running across the ceiling.
“They feed air handling equipment about two floors up. Why?”
“Because I’m wondering if our friend out there would like to snack on something with a little more kick.”
Rebekah glanced back out the window at the continuing onslaught. She looked up at the ceiling again, mentally tracing the wire. “Jules, can we live without that air handler on deck five for a few hours? We are running pressurized after all.” Her glance darted to the observation bubble as another dragon was starting where the last had left off. The edges of the fractures were taking on a different, golden hue as they were not being allowed to cool down between assaults. The glass-like Aerolon construction was starting to look like the glass that a glass-blower removes from his kiln.
Jules replied. “I can compensate. It will take out the air handling for about one-twentieth of the ship, but we’ll be ok.”
“That’s all I needed to know.” Before anyone could think about the possibilities, Liam ran across the room, vaulted off a convenient couch and grabbed the conduit with both hands. “Someone toss me a screwdriver or something. Becka, I’m sure you have one?”
Rebekah grabbed her pack that she almost always was carrying and tossed the screwdriver up to Liam. “Jules, please turn off power to that conduit before Bonehead here gets it detached and electrocutes himself.”
“Already on it… done. Power is now off.”
It was a good thing too because Liam had plowed through the connectors in moments flat and was already wrestling a couple dozen feet of high current wiring out of the conduit.
“Here miss Genius. Make yourself useful.” He tossed the end of the wire to Rebekah who immediately wrapped it around the bolts that fastened the ornamental looking observation window to the rest of the ship’s hull. Liam dropped to the floor with the other wire in hand and proceeded to do the same on the other side.
The dragons were getting closer and closer with each circling attack. The glass like Aerolon was glowing white hot. It was a good insulator, but the repeated efforts of the dragons were slowly wearing down the couple of inches that separated the kids from being a nice mid-morning toasted snack. Even from a few feet away, the heat from the observation window was like an October bonfire. The window began to bow outwards from the pressure difference combined with the torture it was receiving from the creatures outside.
“Children, I must insist you leave now.” They didn’t need any more encouragement. They grabbed at each other as they scrambled to the door. The dragons circled again. There was a sustained roar like a freight train barreling through a shopping mall as the window finally gave up. It shattered outwards into a spray of multicolored bursts of light like a fireworks display. As they met the door face, the room exploded. The door flew closed at Jules’ automatic command at the same moment he turned back on the juice, surging hundreds of amps of electricity into the attacking monster. The door slammed, blocking the brunt of the blast but they were thrown to the corridor floor. As the door slammed, Liam got a single glimpse of an apocalyptic event. Completely unfazed by the fire and the loss of pressure, the holographic image of Jules faded out under the sustained glow of dragon fire.