The Battle of Charmelle: The Vhaen Project | 13

The mountain side where the hangar sat, open and exposed, shuddered violently. The small ship the crew had hastily constructed teetered on the edge of the gaping mouth peering out into the darkness. The tremors were so violent that the crew had to huddle to maintain corporate balance. Each member found their post with some difficulty, and the captain manned the tiny vessel’s helm.  He made a demonstrative motion with his hand and the tiny craft’s engines whirred in strain against the wind.

 

Buffeted by the icy gale the balloon jittered about until it finally filled with enough aether to hold it’s shape against the torrent.  Up from the cement floor they rose, and through their masks the crew cheered despite the bitter cold.

 

Into the darkness they plunged, leaving the heaving vibrating mass of rock behind them. The wind carried them just a fraction of the way before the steering worked properly.

 

“What now?!” Called brother Luke over the wind.

 

“Watch the ground!!” Vale retorted loudly.

 

“This had better work!” Cedric added, “I don’t want to hit the ground in this thing!”

 

“Don’t hit the ground!” Attica reminded sternly through a scarf wrapped about her neck and face.

 

Within the mountain cavern the scientists and archeologists scrambled as rocks and minor debris clattered around their delicate equipment. Katherine stood at the epicenter with a strained expression on her face. Light shone around her arms as she held on for dear life to the glowing and pulsing box before her. The large projected screen above her had the pinpoint map of the world laid out in detail and certain segments highlighted in bright fluorescent green. They flashed as they continued to glow, the mechanics under and around her pulsed with quickening beats.

 

“Locations pinpointed, opening Sah, Welcome.” The voice echoed overhead.

 

From outside, Brother Luke could see the earth tremble in long lines, like shivering fingers reaching from under the covers of hard bedrock. Lights in the surface quickly illuminated and pulsed in the same quick beats they had under the complex.

 

Rocks cracked and shifted as the surface defaced itself with lights. The power lines, as that was all he could think to call them, were suddenly joined by pinpoint lights all around them. Spider Web like lines appearing like splinters across the surface of the world as far as their eyes could  see. These lights began to disappear almost as quickly as they appeared as the sounds of metal scraping against rock echoed across the frozen stone landscape.

 

“What’s happening?!” Amelia Ruth asked leaning over the edge and looking about frantically, “It’s almost too dark to see!”

 

Rottger grinned and waved his hands excitedly. “Ground opens! Oh…uuuuhhhh…”

 

The pair stood in shock as the sliding plates began to rise towards them, piling one on top of the other.What had been tens of thousands of feet down was now half the distance. The small craft zoomed forward, catching the winds shearing off of the ever encroaching earth below. The fort before them as a lit spire in the darkness grew ever closer in exponential time. As each plate  withdrew the space between the mountain and the far off military encampment grew smaller.

 

The warships encircling the high tower in the cold air suddenly were joined by a host of other smaller ships. Some fled, unsure of what was going on, disappearing behind the cliff face; and others came to the aid of the largest ship, manning them more fully, and even bringing lighter weighted crafts with guns blazing to light the fort up with hull mounted spot lights.

 

Cedric made a noise that was less than pleased, but onward they sped.

 

“Looks like the Order didn’t know the surface of the world could move either!” Luthiem cried as a small shipped whizzed past them unaware of their presence.

Javert had his long rifle in his hands, steadied on his target, the back of the small craft’s engine. A hand came up from beneath him and took the sight from him.

 

“Let’s keep it that way, shall we?” Amarante chided softly. “I’m sure there will be plenty to shoot at in the fort itself.”

 

Javert made a slightly irritated face but nodded to her.

 

Attica half leant over the edge of the bow made a displeased face, “How far is it to the fort?!”

 

“Another four miles at most! Why!?” Cedric called back.

 

“We’re losing pieces!!”

 

The underbow was breaking apart in the cold wind. Ice accumulated upon its surface and broke away as the weight grew too much to bear.

 

“Look out!” Audra cried as the ship veered  out of the path of another small vessel.

 

The whole deck lurched, sending everyone scrambling for hand holds and bracing for the backwards swing. Cedric veered them back on target just as a pivotal piece of the hull broke away, clattering back along the side and out into the darkness.

 

“That’s no good!” Javert called.

 

“We’re losing altitude! Too many holes in the ship!” Audra exclaimed.

 

“Hold on to something!” Cedric ordered as he angled the ship as steeply as he could. The fort was just within reach, but they were falling too fast to make it over the wall. The tiny skiff jumped across the air like a stone across water barely holding together with each bounce.

 

“Seamus!” the captain thundered as the lights of the ships overhead whirled around them, “This next jump give me all that little engine has!”

 

“Aye captain!”

 

The upward swing reached it’s peak and the engine whined in protest as the curve turned down. Like a bullet they fell hard and fast into the aether,  striking with enough intensity that in the following moments the small ship’s hull burst into pieces and sent them hurtling upward and over the wall.

 

With an ear shattering crash, the crew and it’s now disintegrated ship arrived to a scene of utter chaos. Pulling themselves quickly from the rubble, bruised, but numbed by the cold to the pain it brought with it; the group moved to a dark corner to decide the plan of action.

 

The fort was definitely moving. The bedrock beneath them hummed deeply as they stood feeling the vibrations in the soles of their shoes.

 

“That little black box in the cavern packs quite the punch…I’ve never seen an Order military base scramble so fast.” Javert muttered to the captain.

 

“Yeah well, this was just the easy part. Now we find Amelia.”

 

The group broke away from each other, tactically to divide and conquer. Luthiem, however had a separate idea about why they split up…

 

“If one set of us gets caught…the rest can come bail them out.” She whispered to Rottger once the groups were on their ways.

 

“Mmmmmhhh….” he muttered, “Smart.”

 

“Yes, but let’s not get caught.”

 

The companion nodded enthusiastically in agreement.  The pair silently maneuvered their way around a few dark corners until they came upon a small lit area. The soldiers who were there frantically attempted to guard the doors, all the while colored with the pallor of fear and impending doom. Luthiem grinned. This was her favorite kind of game.

 

These people, these men, had stolen their home, and that was not to be forgotten. She motioned for Rottger to stay where he was and silently slipped above him into the rafters. With quiet cat like agility, the clockwork assassin made her way over the awning overlooking the stationed guards.

 

The glint of her smile was all that was visible to Rottger, as he knew where to look. The assassin dropped effortlessly to her feet behind the first man and brushed the tips of his fingers with the lace trim of her sleeve. In fright the man jumped slightly, turning to see what he had touched. The soldier likely never saw the full silhouette of his attacker, as the bladed gauntlet she wore made quick and messy work of his face.

 

To his partner the scene was confusing. He heard the man jump, saw him turn, and the following shower of blood and dark viscera of facial tissue left him agape. The soldier was young, not even nineteen, and he had yet to experience anything remotely like this.

 

Luthiem phased out of the shadows like a mist, and as the young man wiped the blood from his face he began to shake as realization dawned upon him. The glint of red and metal sent him shrinking into the wall, his breaths ragged at first, quickly becoming sobs of fear. The assassin, however, was not moved.

The Battle of Charmelle: The Vhaen Project | 12

 

Amelia sat shivering beneath the mass of the Isabella. A long rifle in her hands,a gift for “volunteering” for the night guard shift; she could see her breath billow out into clouds before her. Absently she hoped Cedric was not as cold as she was and checked her watch.  Almost five hours since the ship had been taken. Admittedly, with the Order mechanics done with the exterior repairs, the ship looked better than ever. The interior was still needing a good bit of work, but the workmen would be toiling through the night to repair that as wel;l as per the orders of their general. Whom, Amelia had surmised, kept new interns and fresh recruits just long enough to teach them to fear their commanders before shipping them off to other bases and forts across the verse.

 

The Isabella hovered over the ground now, still bolted in place, but her antigrav motors were operating at least. The stars above already twinkled in the oncoming darkness. Noises in the courtyard brought her to face an elderly man carrying a heavy load of tools. He hobbled, crooked with age and hard work, as he walked. He had a kind face behind his wrinkles and as he passed Amelia he smiled weakly.

 

“They throw you out into the cold then, have they?”

 

Amelia shook her head gently, “Well, I suppose someone has to do it. Better me than anyone else.”

 

“Good notion, if you ask me.” He grinned toothlessly. “I say, why don’t you come around this way, and stand on the other side of the ship…if you do, I will share my hot chocolate with you.”

 

At first Amelia disliked the forwardness of the older man, it seemed forced, and somewhat creepy…but it was cold and the warm drink sounded very good.

 

“Well…I guess I can’t say no to hot chocolate.”

 

Following the old man around the front bow, the elder brought her to a podium where a large lit panel sat in the center. He pressed a few buttons which clicked and whirred from under the fort. The cobblestone surfacing seemed to shift somewhat, and as she watched, a large palette of wood rose from beneath their feet. Amelia blinked and rubbed her eye a bit. The fort seemed far too old to have that kind of technology in place. Something warm bumped her hand and she looked back at the elderly man who held out a cup of hot drink to her.

 

“I know, seems odd doesn’t it? That fancy sort of stuff all under the fort…Why, I’ve lived here the better part of fifty years, it runs the whole length of this place and more than that in the transport tunnels under the fort in the bedrock.”

 

“You don’t say…” Amelia muttered taking the first drink of the mug. She sniffed it subtly hoping it wasn’t drugged.

 

“You don’t have to worry, Miss.” The workman said at length as he picked up a highly ornate finishing piece from the pile of wood. “I wouldn’t harm someone watching out for their home…”

 

Amelia stiffened internally. “Of course I watch out for my home…I like my job!”

 

He shook his head and smiled again. “Of course you do…As do I. I don’t love living on this rock with all these militant young people, however…Home and family sounds much better to me.”

 

“I can understand that.” She replied drinking from the cup. The older man stepped up onto a small ladder and began to attach the ornaments.

 

“Hideous aren’t they? I never have liked this General Liam’s taste in decoration…too showy.”

 

Amelia nodded her head discreetly. The man went about his work until it started to snow. Nearly the entire front bow of the ship was covered in the ornamental scrollwork the general had ordered, and despite the anti-grav engines work, the ship had begun to tip forward ever so slightly.

 

“She won’t fly straight.” Amelia muttered to herself.

 

“No, and the general was told that…that’s why I only barely attached it. Surely, tomorrow he will order me to remove it…saying I have failed to do my work  properly…” The old man chuckled to himself…”But for now, it is cold and we should move indoors.”

 

“I doubt I should leave my post…” Amelia replied.

 

“Your fellow watchmen have been gone for the better part of the hour. Just here, inside this arch near the heater until the snow stops.”

 

Amelia followed him reluctantly and joined him just far enough inside to feel the heat, but not far enough to lose sight of the ship.

 

The heat from the external generator was comforting, but Amelia had a strange sensation in the floor under her feet. She swore she could feel the earth trembling. She finished her glass, and held the rifle that much closer as she turned her head, a lantern on the far side of the courtyard clattered to the ground. She wasn’t imagining it. The earth was shaking.

 

The Battle of Charmelle: The Vhaen Project | 11

The chamber beneath the complex was lit with bright phosphorescent light. Cables and crates were scattered about with computers and equipment of all sorts set up and monitoring all that went on within the room. Every available man and woman were set to their tasks, and all became even busier as Katherine entered the room.

 

“Miss Tellius, the fore monitors are reading a six and climbing.”

 

“Good.” she nodded to the man and handed him a large rope of cables, “Get the medical team operational as soon as possible. I want this thing operational yesterday.’

 

“Yes, Ma’am!”

 

Vale watched them scrupulously as they carried on with the duties assigned them. Twenty or so men hovered over monitors and wrote meticulous details and minute changes upon reams of paper. Others ran lights farther up into the chamber itself and brought cameras to focus on their target.

 

The small stone box, as Vale had seen before, sat untouched in the center of the grand room. It’s carved surface sat as unmoving as it had for what was likely centuries. He shook his head and laid the parcel he had been given aside. Nearing the object, the doctor looked at it with caution. Pressing his ear to the side he stopped, listening. He plugged his ear on the opposite side and gave it a moment longer. Nothing happened.

 

Pulling away slightly and shaking his head yet again he muttered, “A stone box at the bottom of a mountain, dead children, and a missing world. Stranger things have happened I suppose.” He placed his hand upon the box to stand and a sudden jostle from within the cube quickly gathered his interest.

 

“Something moved?” Luthiem inquired trailing the ever inquisitive Rottger behind her.

 

Vale looked back up and nodded, “I didn’t think it was anything special at first…but now I’m not so sure…”

 

“Still think it’s a bad idea?” She tilted her head to one side and looked at the box.

 

Vale nodded, “I don’t like not knowing…and so little time to really test it.”

 

“It’ll end up being a one shot plan.”

 

“Wait.” Vale stopped, “Why are you both down here?”

 

“Captain’s orders,” She replied, “After what’s on with Amelia, I think his mind says better safe than sorry.”

 

Rottger was standing beside the young woman who had first treated him weeks ago. He asked her questions and pointed to the screens when things changed. Rottger stopped kind of suddenly when he caught sight of the Vhaen and came to investigate. He looked closely at the box and up at his crewmates from his normal stooped position.

 

“Ugghh…magic box?”

 

Luthiem would nod and go back to watching the science teams work.

 

Rottger, unsatisfied with this, eyed the holes where the user’s hands supposedly connected into the system. He looked closely at the dark pits that showed no interior, and looked around sort of quickly. He thrust both hands into the dark voids.

 

The sound that erupted from the normally fairly quiet fellow was so loud and tremulous that the entire party present turned to look.

 

Sitting back from the box five or six feet Rottger held his arms close to himself. After a moment he held them up as if to inspect them, only to find the black virial mass completely engulfing his forearms with an aggressive hiss. The symbiote had so violently rejected the interface it frightened it’s host. As the black mass drained from his arms and back into his body his crew mates helped him to stand.

 

“Magic box…doesn’t like me….” He muttered.

 

“Apparently not.” Luthiem frowned, “What have I told you about touching things that aren’t yours?”

 

Rottger’s arms had returned to normal by this time, and his attention turned to Luthiem’s face. He wanted to answer, opening his mouth in readiness to give her what she aked, but he closed it again rather quickly. “Tacos?”

 

This made the clockwork assassin growl under her breath. “Don’t!”

 

“Oh…right…Don’t”

 

Katherine approached them quickly with a team following closely behind. “If you are staying for the show I suggest you step away from the main platform, here, and stand back near those lights. I don’t want to risk possibly hurting anyone in this test.”

 

“Who is the test subject exactly?” Vale inquired setting Rottger to his feet.

 

The blonde woman stood more erect and looked at her men, “I will be, naturally. This is my project…”

 

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Luthiem asked lightly, “You’ve already lost a great deal to this little expedition.”

 

“You people are quite aggravating, did you know that?” Katherine huffed, “I’ve lost a great deal, so at this point I have the least to lose! My people have families, and friends, and lives to maintain and I would not ask them to pay my price. This mission is no longer one to lead to any discovery, it’s to get out…and that is exactly what we’ll do.” The thin woman came up to the box and looked at it.

 

The Isabellan crewmates moved from the platform and watched from just beyond the line of lights. The pair of medical team members stood with her and administered a small jar of liquid that looked just like what had come from the jars in the rooms in the paths above them. This she took, and she allowed them to take vital signs and the last few measures before wiring her to several of their machines. She thanked them, and they retreated from the platform.

 

Katherine stood with her back to them, dusty, blood spattered, and her form somewhat slackened. Lifting her hands she gently slipped the wedding ring from her finger and set it on the edge of the box before her. The gold glittered in the bright lights. Brother Luke came down quickly to the chamber floor, followed only by the captain.

 

“We’re ready to go.” Luke said quietly, “ The ship is flyable.”

 

“What’s she doin’?” Cedric half whispered eyeing the situation cautiously.

 

Katherine never heard him. Slipping her hands into the box she experienced what felt like the sting of ice water. Her hands groped in the freezing cold for the handles they believed to be there. She sank into the dark up passed her wrists and winced, each inch stinging with the frigid interior–but still nothing. The dark took her to just below the elbow when she finally nodded.

 

“I-I found the handles.”

 

“Heart rate is elevated but stable.” came an announcement from a woman behind them.

 

“They feel metallic…sort of rounded, smooth, like rolled steel. I’m going to take them now.” She took a breath and gripped the metal handles tightly. At once the box responded. The carved stone features lit up from within glowing an ambient gold light. Her form went rigid and every hair on her head seemed to stand on end all at once. The chamber itself shuddered in the bright light, lines and well worn grooves cut into the stone spiderwebbed out into geometric patterns like those on a motherboard.

 

The same marks moved up over her body in a single wave of light, a large round disk opening into a ovular shape and focused upon the woman before it.

 

“It’s looking at her!”

 

“Readings indicate large quantities of noise emanating from within the box.” the woman exclaimed again.

 

The stone around them rumbled gently, “State your name, Citizen.” Every speaker and microphone in the chamber squealed with hateful frequency. All ears rang with the reverberation until finally it came to a silent halt.

 

It took a moment for Katherine to respond, still caught in the electrical current that surged through her body. “Katherine Tellius.”

 

“What is your purpose?”

 

“We just need an escape….”

 

“Your purpose is to seek and enter the Sah, Katherine Tellius. Sensors indicate Sah vehicle eight zero four nine two  is accessible. Will you accept the sponsorship required to take–”the voice stopped a moment and scanned the room with the same gold light. “ One hundred and sixty two passengers?”

 

“We must…recover…”

 

“Affirmative. Scan indicates leadership qualities: proceed? Automated response: confirmed.” The lights that pulsed through the woman’s body intensified making a searing burning sound. She screamed in pain as muscles drew up tightly causing her to contort. Her footing nearly went from under her, but she did not let go. Cedric and Rottger both rushed forward to the aid of their comrade, but found her entrapped within a localized force field.

 

“Do not engage citizen, your child is unharmed. The selection process is here for your betterment.”

 

When the light dissipated back into the box, the simulated eye blinked slowly. “You have been selected for the Sah, welcome Citizen. May your time under the dark sun, and in the cold be left far behind. ”

 

The entire room began to shake the lights draining from the walls and floor.Each light returned to the floor around the central pedestal. A screen large and curved appeared before them in the dust filled air, displaying what could only be described as a language processing at a high rate of speed. After just seconds the text vanished and a bright flash of light brought a new image to the projected screen. The entire world appeared in what could be described as a stylized topographical map.

 

Katherine was far more relaxed now as the pain had seemingly subsided. Dark green trails left by the searing currents adorned arms and neck like the paths of a river. She was focused on the screen above them.

 

“Captain, I understand what this machine is now…” She turned her head only slightly. “The Vhaen is a vehicle for a program…uploading software to use the Sah…it’s not a transport–”

 

Vale stepped forward quickly, “It’s a machine! The entire world is a machine!”

 

Katherine continued, “The world is surrounded by a shell…and this…is the key to crack it.”

 

The cryptic language written on the screen flashed a variety of points and pinpointed a great number of places on the map.

 

“A shell?” The captain asked looking at the box scrupulously.”What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“The entire world surface is segmented, like tectonic plates, but higher in the strata.” Vale replied quickly. “The undergirding is made,” He was breathing heavily in excitement, “It’s like a giant spiderweb! Each piece interlocking and able to slide against itself! Networked by a single mind! That;s what this little box is for! It’s a geographical decorator and protector all at once! I mean, I suppose, it could be used for a transport too! But…wait…why would something–”

 

“That’s great an’ all, but what does it do to the mind powering it?” Luke muttered cutting the doctor short. He motioned as if to emphasize his statement to Katherine who slightly slumped.

 

“Get to your ship, Captain.” She replied finally making eye contact with them. “This will work…”

 

“What will work!?” Luke asked with his hands in the air.

 

The walls of the chamber began to quiver slightly as the blonde woman turned back to the map above her and fixed her eyes upon the point underneath the fort. Cedric and Vale quickly left the chamber, pulling Luke, Luthiem, and Rottger along with them.

 

The Battle of Charmelle: The Vhaen Project | 10

Within the hour soldiers were replaced by mechanics and engineers of a variety of shapes and sizes. Hundreds of hands worked all at once to repair and recreate the integrity of the hull and engine. So far, as Amelia could gather, the repair crew had not been into the living quarters areas of the ship. She peered from a vent in the siding to watch them closely. It was becoming apparent, at the rate they were repairing the ship they would find her. But how to get out now? She was surrounded by low class orderlies and two dozen technical officers.

 

Well…there was always that.

 

She twitched her nose in thought. There seemed no other way.

 

She came crawling from her hiding space leaving the radio behind. Standing to her feet she could hardly resist the urge to stretch. Too many hours on the hard floor and running adrenaline had left her stiff. But as it was for her, the stiffness in her joints left quickly and painlessly obeyed. This would be about speed and accuracy.

 

The woman, pistol in hand, made her way to the engine rooms with quick steps. Avoiding working crew was not easy; yet, for half a moment, she paused watching a group meticulously clean a section of the engine within an inch of it’s life.

 

“It’s never going to look that way again.” She thought to herself as she came to a large stack of boxes. The case was now, to scale them, and reach the air ducts above them all, and clear the ship without anyone noticing. She readied herself to make the jump when a woman came around the corner looking greatly confused.

 

“Um, excuse me, Lieutenant…do you happen to know the way to the…main deck?” She was young, and completely oblivious to who she was even talking to but the pin on Amelia’s lapel was certainly one of rank. She stood waiting for an answer and Amelia sort of gave a glance around.

 

‘Sure…it’s up that way to the right.”

 

“Oh thank you, Mam! I’m new and I really can’t make heads or tails of ships.”

 

An idea occurred to Amelia in a flash. “Actually, did you say the main deck? That’s a completely different route, my apologies. Come this way, I’ll show you.”

 

Indifferently, and still grateful, the young woman followed Amelia without a second thought down a back hallway and into the area where the quarters were located.

 

“My, this ship has seen better days.”

 

“Well, looks like these fellows are fixing it up right aren’t they? Right in through here.”

The young woman nodded and turned into the room Amelia held open for her. The door shut behind them quietly and not a sound emanated from it.

 

After a few minutes Amelia emerged wearing the uniform so common to the military. Short black jacket with red piping and adornments and silver metallic accents. Amelia pulled the cap briskly over her head and took a deep breath wiping her hands on her new pristinely pressed pants. She turned and locked the door with her personal master key and pressed it close to her skin in her shirt.

 

Making her way back to the engine room the pethera of workers glanced at her and never even blinked.

 

“Ay! Missy, take these plans to Captain Michaels. You know, the fellow who follows the general everywhere.” The large man handed her a set of blueprints and looked back to his task. Amelia took it with a measure of confidence and nodded to him.

 

“Sure. Back out this way right?”

 

The large man nodded. “Just out that way and to the left.”

 

With a quick nod the captain’s wife went out the way she had been instructed. The cold evening air struck her face with a briskness she had not expected. Hurrying down the steps, she huddled into the thin jacket the young woman had worn. Amelia pressed into the doorway of the nearest building. Hanging in the stoop were thick fur lined jackets, to which she helped herself. The sun was just beginning to set, and the shadows were growing long. It would likely snow, and the longer both she and the ship remained in this place, the closer they came to being uncovered or worse.