THE DRACONIC NEBULAE SAGA

(This work was created by Writing Hero @jaidynnnoxiv. He implemented his writing strategy of writing out of order that he mentioned in a post prior to this. Contact him for the rest of it! As always, feel free to share your own stories by contacting me! - (Matt Gorrell)


A Work in Progress

By Jaidynn R. Noxiv


BOOK 1: JUNCTURES


Prologue: Paul (Earthspace, 2342 A.D.)

“Fohr hours, twenty-six minutes, five seconds, and twenty-one point two nanoseconds until the sun explodes.” Paul Vaner lifted his gaze up from the monitor to see the shocked visage of his bunkmate.

“Where in the cosmos are you pulling nanoseconds from?” Jan Ventu asked.

Paul shrugged. “Hey, you asked for a reading.”

“We are literally staring into the void. Annihilation is imminent, and you…,” Jan stuck a thick finger in Paul’s chest for emphasis, “decide to take your sweet time measuring the nanoseconds until it comes‽ How many actual seconds did you just waste? Na-no-sec-onds. Four whole completely unnecessary syllables!”

Paul laughed. “Oh come on, Jan. You just spent a full minute yelling at me for it!” Jan tried to glare back at him, but it didn’t last, and he too gave in to laughter.

“Aw, c’mon, we’ve really got to get back out there,” Jan said, standing up after he regained his composure.

Paul jumped up to follow. He stopped on his way out the door to spare a glance at the wall above his bed, and the pictures of his family that were tacked upon the metal siding.

I’ll be home soon, Grace.

Knowing the time to linger was later, he returned to the task at hand, snatching his helmet from its resting place on a nearby table and donning it as he walked along the ship’s corridors to the secondary starboard airlock.

After checking their spacesuits to ensure the absence of rips or tears, Paul strapped on his lifeline and slammed a button on the wall with his fist. It was probably harder than what wasstrictly necessary, but the button was durable enough that he felt justified in his satisfaction from the excessive force. He felt the familiar rush of oxygen whirling past his body, sucking him forward into the vacuum of outer space. His eyes were greeted with a sight unlike anything that had been seen before. For a thousand years, planetside astronomers looked to the stars in wonder as the vastness of the universe bore witness to the glory of the Lord.

We don’t see that anymore, Paul thought. As he and Jan let themselves be pulled out by the vacuum, his entire field of vision was filled not with the swirling dark void of the cosmic expanse, but with the thicker matte black of spray-painted metal.

That metal was the hallmark of Project Defender, a global quadrillion-dollar campaign to construct a shield of solid metal around the globe capable of absorbing the brunt of the impact from incoming solar flares. The flares were predicted by astronomers based on Jupiter twenty-two years ago, after they had noticed an increase in volatile solar activity with the potential to utterly wipe out life on earth. A coalition formed from the various solar governments decided that they needed to take action, and all of the interplanetary colonists were transferred back to Earth. Now Paul was a part of their solution.

The project was not without complications, however. Far from being a cut-and-dry operation, Deflector came with devastating natural consequences both for Paul’s family and for the rest of the globe. Without the direct effects of sunlight positioned at the precise distance to sustain life, the Earth’s surface grew cold and inhospitable. As a result, massive drilling efforts were introduced to move the populace underground to a depth where they could retain sufficient heat from the planet’s core. After the initial supports were done, Paul and the other astronauts had been recalled from space in a restful month-long rotation to get their families’ dwellings situated.

In addition to the atmospheric changes, Defender’s construction met numerous setbacks as well. Despite its noble purpose to save the world, most people were reluctant to provide the materials necessary, more concerned with enjoying the remaining years of their lives than with the tireless efforts of Paul’s team to extend it. It was to be expected, as draining the world’s entire supply of steel was a steep cost, but the fog of indifference stung all the same. Inevitably, the remaining holdouts surrendered their stockpiles, but not until there were only a few paltry months remaining before the flares struck.

Due to that, Paul found himself still stuck here in space fighting history’s firmest deadline: he, Jan, and countless others drafted and deployed by their home countries. They all had worked double overtime for the last year using the holdouts’ metal to seal the final few gaps in the shield before time ran out for them all. At times Paul felt bitter about the situation, but the momentary flashes faded as fast as they came. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t know what he had signed up for when he entered the Space Force fifteen years ago. This mission was dire, and he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders on a daily basis. Failure was, in the oft-used words, simply not an option. So he did his duty.

Paul shook off his recollections as he and Jan drifted towards the handles of the latest metal repository jettisoned from the Preventrix. They positioned themselves between the repository and the shield, placing their boots firmly against the surface with the aid of their suits’ propulsion jets.

“Mag-seal locked and loaded,” Paul declared.

“Let’s do this. Fohrour more hours and then it’s done. Can you believe it?” Jan pulled the lever to activate the container’s built-in thrusters, and it shot towards the shield.

“Not at all,” Paul replied, “but I’m sure ready for it. It’s been sixteen months since I’ve seen Grace and the kids.”

Jan sighed. “Wish I had a family to get back to. My sister doesn’t have the energy to take care of my sorry butt in addition to those toddlers.”

Paul punched him in the arm. “Jan, you’re always welcome by us. You know that, right?”

Jan smiled. “I may just have to take you up on that, Paul. Sure you can handle being upstaged by my handsome face?”

Paul studied Jan’s playful expression, pretending to consider his widened brown eyes and matching mirthful grin. “Haha, very funny. I won’t look so bad once I get a chance to shave this stubble off!”

They pulled up to the gap that they had been working on for the last week.

“By the way, did you hear the news? This is the last one,” Jan said.

Paul tilted his head, puzzled. “Of course it’s our last one. Didn’t I just tell you that earlier?”

“No, that’s not it,” Jan replied. “This is the last one, period. We fill this, go home, collapse our entry point, and the whole thing is done. The last crew just evacced an hour ago.”

“You’re kidding! That’s great!”

“Yesirree, we are the last astronauts out here before the storm hits. Ain’t that something?”

Paul shrugged as he opened the hatch. “Eh, I’d rather have been on that last ship out.”

“Yeah, who wouldn’t? At least this isn’t down to the wire.”

“Only if we don’t let it be. It’s an hour’s work, call it two tops, and we’ve only got four before we’ve got to be back down to the core. I don’t want to take any chances, and I’m sure the bridge crew doesn’t either.”

Jan sobered up to the point, and they worked in silence after that. When they were about halfway done, he stopped suddenly. Paul turned to look at him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Is it just me, or is the sun getting brighter?”

“Of course it’s getting brighter. The preliminary flares have started. The sun isn’t going to just be calm and then suddenly let out an extinction-level event with no warning.”

Jan grabbed a fresh sheet of metal and started bolting it onto the shield.

“I knew that. I thought the prelims weren’t due for another hour.“

Paul glanced at the chrono on his hud. “Stars, you’re right. They weren’t. Let’s move!” As they increased their pace, the background grew steadily brighter. Paul and Jan doubled their pace and managed to shave their time down to twenty minutes. After securing the final piece, they activated the winch that would pull their lifelines back into the ship.



|/’v’\|


“It’s coming!” Paul shouted for the bridge officers as he raced through the corridors at full speed, slapping his grease-filled palms against the walls in a weak attempt to gain further momentum. His lifeline trailed behind him, forgotten in his rush to alert the crew. That was a mistake, he realized too late as it snapped taut and jerked him violently backwards. As he fell, he saw Mical Reese, the aft sensor officer, rounding the corner of the corridor in front of him. Then everything was black.


|/’v’\|


Paul was jolted back to the waking world by the queasy sensation of several Gs of force pushing him deep into the back of his chair on the bridge. He saw Mical at the pilot’s controls, working furiously to turn the ship around.

“Mical! The flares are coming too early!” he blurted out before Mical noticed that he had come too.

Mical jumped in surprise but didn’t turn to face him. “We know, Paul. Jan warned us.” He glanced to the left and Paul followed his gaze to where their captain, Amy Darkling, stood on the bridge. “Captain, fifteen degrees to starboard!”

“Ten four, Officer. Jettison all equipment on my mark… three… two… one… MARK!”

Mical pulled a lever and warning klaxons blared in the bridge. The captain yanked the steering yoke sharply to the right and Paul felt the ship lurch underneath him.

Mical’s fingers flew across his keyboard in a staccato rhythm, causing the array of screens encircling him to shift positions and rotate around him. The monitors were on tracks that could be rearranged in a multitude of configurations to suit the user’s preferences instantly. Paul didn’t mind his lack of comparable technology at home. He preferred physical labor, and he suspected that he would need a full year of training just to learn how to move those monitors, let alone to read them.

Mical paused his frenzy to direct the captain further. “We have to get through our docking port and close it behind us before the flares hit. Full power to the rear thrusters. We have one shot at this. If we fail…”

Amy didn’t glance up from her own work. “We won’t fail, Mical. We can’t.”

Mical sighed. “I hope you’re right, Captain. Thousands of people in western Brazil depend on it. Twenty kilometers to the dock at a speed of a half kilo per second. Nineteen kilos. Eighteen…”

Paul felt a hand rest on his shoulder and turned to see Jan sitting in the chair next to him. They sat and listened to Mical’s countdown in tangible suspense.

“Sixteen kilos. Close the dock! Fifteen…”

Amy initiated the closing sequence. The dock had a thousand-meter radius, which was five times as large as the ship, and it took three-quarters of a minute to fully close. At the current speed, the Preventrix would make it through with plenty of leeway, and the gate would close behind them as they went.

“Five kilos. Four… Three… Two…”


Chapter 1: Noah (Mission)

Watch the footage again, paying close attention as we advance it frame by frame. Towards the top of the screen we can see the last two members of Delta Force securing the final pieces of the shield. They return to the Preventrix, which now begins to rocket towards Docking Port 17-B. As they return, the closing sequence is activated.

Now suddenly, there is a flash of light to the right! We wait for the flash to subside, and you can see that now the astronauts have mysteriously disappeared! There is no trace; nothing to evidence that they ever existed at all.

Noah slumped lower on his couch as the news anchor continued. He had the broadcast memorized, and the next words echoed in his brain before the monitor could make a sound.

They were never seen again.

These were the saviors of the world, the ones who gambled their lives - and lost - in the race against time to defend Earth.

They were never seen again.”

This was the price that was paid to buy more time for the survivors.

They were never seen again.

These were the words echoing through the last decade - a martyr’s tribute that all of history would remember.

But none of that mattered to Noah. Sure, he was grateful to be alive. He was thankful for their efforts. Yet he stiffened as the anchor continued, grief sweeping him afresh as the names and faces of the heroes flashed on the screen.

Jan Ventu. George Bardochek. Charity Storn. Mical Reese. Amy Darkling.

Paul Vaner.

The names continued to scroll, but Noah Vaner never registered any past the sixth. Noah knew it was selfish, but he would much rather there be a charred gash in western Brazil due to the incomplete shield than this ten-year hole in his heart without his father.

There were countless theories on what had happened to Paul and the Delta Force. Their disappearance was thorough, with no evidence of the twisted and burned fragments one would expect from the thirty-thousand meter long vessel they commanded. Some said they were simply vaporized or smashed to pieces against the shield’s exterior. Other theories were wilder, such as alien abduction. All of them had one thing in common, though: none could ever be proven in the wreckage of the instantaneous and complete destruction of Project Defender.

Most people didn’t even think about it anymore. Once their safety was restored, they quickly forgot what it had cost. They moved on.

But not Noah. He couldn’t. Noah wasn’t most people, because he believed his father was still alive. It was unlikely to say the least, and certainly not a theory that many ascribed to. But he studied the footage of his father’s craft coming straight towards the last remaining gap in the shield, and saw the solar flare impact the ship’s port side. He had hoped with everything in him for over a year that some satellite would locate the ship intact among the minefield of space debris that made up Earth’s new artificial asteroid belt.

But the world did not care to risk any more lives in space after the Shattering, and it certainly would not mount a search-and-rescue operation given the near-impossible odds. So Noah had needed to take matters into his own hands.

He was startled out of his reverie as the door opened unexpectedly, followed by his 15-year-old sister, Lilly. She was breathing heavily from her track meet, and both her light blue tank top and gray and pink striped gym shorts were visibly drenched. Her tawny chestnut hair was mostly pulled back in a messy ponytail that draped over her left shoulder, with several rebellious wisps popping out in various directions, and a few straggling strands stubbornly stayed on the right side of her face as well.

She glanced around as she entered before her gaze alighted on Noah. He could see her blue eyes soften, and she came, as she always did, to fall on the couch and wrap an arm around his shoulder while he watched. It wasn’t the first time she had found him here. . . not by a long shot. He felt his shirt moisten with her sweat, but he didn’t mind. He’d be sweating himself soon enough. Neither spoke until the newscast was finished.

“Did it help?” Lilly asked.

“Always.” Noah’s reply was as rehearsed as her question. He knew Lilly understood why he was here. The recording was his motivation, his call to arms. Whenever he felt like giving up - when a critical test failed, when he couldn’t salvage a part he desperately needed, when he put in long and fruitless hours of work alone in the night - he came to watch it until his resolve hardened once more. Today, he had simply come home tired from a full morning of classes, worn out from the lack of progress of late. He slowly pried himself off the couch and shed his jacket, glancing over his shoulder at his sister.

“To the Garage.”


|/’v’\|


They pulled out their gravboards on their way out of the house, rocketing up through the tunnels to the surface world above and a familiar route through the wastelands. Most families used transporters, but Noah didn’t think it was worth the price. The gravboards could get them anywhere they needed to go in less than ten minutes, and besides, they helped with scrap harvesting. The money that their mother would have used to pay a family port service bill went towards his tools and wiring instead.

Noah and Lilly slipped through the speedways built into the tunnels, curving sideways along the rounded walls to dodge the occasional hover or fellow gravboarder. When Defender was built, the metal protected them from the sun, but it did so a little too well. As a result, Earth’s temperature plummeted, forcing the Vaners and the rest of its denizens to take up residence nearer to the core to survive, moving all the major effects of civilization down with them within the vastly expansive excavated network they now coasted through. In the Shattering, a hailing storm of metal rained down, pounding the surface world until it was barren and uninhabitable.

Though metal continued to crash down from orbit at irregular intervals, Noah still thrilled to the thought of venturing onto the pockmarked surface whenever he had the chance. Despite the large supply of collision-engineered oxygen belowground, he loved to breathe in the pure fresh air above. It had a unique taste to it that no amount of atomic manipulation could replicate. And besides that, there was always a chance they’d find more building materials above.

He yielded to that pull towards the surface now, veering into a narrow tube that sloped upwards in lieu of the simple route through the main passageways. Lilly followed his lead, used to his penchant for switching paths abruptly, and they shot out into the surface as the light gradient around them shifted to a natural glow.

As they entered the open air into a brilliantly clear aquamarine sky, cooled with a greener tinge than the vibrant blue of days past. The change came from the reduction in sunlight, which glowed a darkened orange hue since the Shattering. They glided over dry, desolate, and rocky terrain, the tan crust of the planet littered with craters in a wide range of sizes that stood testament to countless impacts.

As they flew, Noah inverted his board’s polarity and began to float upside-down. Lilly glanced at him, then flew off to the left and cleared the lip of a crater. She fell beneath his line of sight for a moment before she shot upwards, hugging her board tight to her chest and spinning. She stalled, bending backward into the fall as her lithe body raced towards the ground. Her board fired up moments shy of critical impact, and she swerved out of the fall to pull up beside him with a smirk.

“Where’d you learn that one?” he asked.

“Jake taught me yesterday,” she said.

“And he didn’t teach me too?” Noah asked, feigning offense.

“Nah, you were busy welding,” she replied with a wink. A sharp ding sounded from her gauntlet, causing her to pause and glance upwards before yelling, “Skyfall incoming!”

Noah instantly burst into the practiced sequence. Slow the board, crouch down, hide my face, arms cover the head. He flipped a switch on his left gauntlet and waves of light began to pulse out towards the sky. He could see Lilly copying his actions out of the corner of his eye. Moments later, a storm of giant metal sheets hailed down towards them. Their repulsor gauntlets slowed the metal’s descent, and they used the extra time to jet away from the site of its impact. It spawned a new crater with a twenty-meter radius that was surrounded by several scattered smaller craters.

Noah and Lilly slid to a stop and spun around in a reverse drift, cutting back to inspect the crash site. A jagged tower of metal was stuck in the ground that reached seventy meters into the sky, accompanied by a slew of smaller shards as well.

Noah whistled. “That’s a good one,” he said. “You go ahead and get the others while I get started extracting this. Installing the fuel tank can wait: we’ll need all hands on deck with this one.”

Lilly nodded and snapped a lazy salute. “Roger that.” Noah watched her rocket into the distance, then turned his focus to the task at hand.


|/’v’\|

Five minutes later, Noah extinguished his blowtorch and watched as the square meter of steel he had just cut out peeled away from him to fall off of the slab. It hit the ground with a crash, joining ten others. He wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his gauntlet before adjusting his height, directing his board to float upwards and lifting the torch to make another cut.

“Man, that’s a good one!”

Noah lowered his torch and rotated his board to peer into the distance and search for the source of the shout, holding a hand up to shield his eyes from the sunlight. His twenty-year-old friend Jake rocketed towards him, angling his gravboard to slide to a stop on the ground below. He brushed a hand through his wavy brown hair, green eyes shining as he flashed an easy smile, and hooked his thumbs in the chinks that passed for pockets in his burnished black and copper Starball armor.

Noah floated down to land beside him, but he left his board on to hover a few inches above the ground. As he was fairly short, he secretly enjoyed being able to cheat with the gravboard and have the height advantage over his friend for once when he got the chance. Jake had stuck by his side from the beginning, always willing to lend a hand no matter what was needed, and Noah appreciated his friend’s steadfastness more than he could express. They exchanged a familiar and firm handshake, pulling into a hug before staring up at the massive slab of metal once again.

“Biggest one we’ve seen in weeks,” Noah said.

“No kidding,” Jake replied, “we’ll have a real job carting this away before the Archivists or the Junipers catch wind of it. Or worse, the Restoration Committee.”

Noah sighed. Jake was right. They had to work quickly.

“Speaking of carting it, what happened to the others?” he asked.

“Last I checked the Verrins were right behind me,” Jake answered, “but Atari and Trystin weren’t there yet so Lill’s staying behind to comm them at the garage. She’ll bring the hover when she’s done.”

Noah nodded and glanced over his shoulder. “Ah, here come the girls now,” he said, pointing in the direction of two dust trails in the distance.

Jake squinted. “Yep, that’ll be them. I see Leah’s hair.”

Noah chuckled. The dusty silver tint she used was certainly distinctive, and her long bangs and medium-length bob sparkled in the glaring reflections of light on skyfall. She was roughly Noah’s age and height, and they shared several classes at the university. Her sister Zoe, on the other hand, was younger than them all by far at age twelve. She mimicked Leah’s unique style with her own flair: although Zoe left her short brown shag cut in its natural hue, she had added a neon blue highlight streaking down her right bang. Both were dressed functionally, wearing old clothes that bore the unfaded stains of familiarity with a hard day’s work, the image of preparation reinforced by the set of power tools each carried in their belt.

The two girls jetted towards them, skidding their gravboards to a halt a few feet away and flipping them up to catch the edges in their hands. Their abrupt yet well-timed stop sent sand and rocks blasting up in a short-lived dust cloud which subsided immediately before Noah, so that only a solitary stray pebble graced the fabric of his work pants.

“Well, Lill sure wasn’t kidding,” Leah stated, hands on her hips and feet planted as she inspected the towering scrap. “We’ll be at this all afternoon!”

“Aw yeah!” Zoe cried, pumping a fist in the air and leaping back on her board. She fired it up, shooting towards the sky before drifting around the slab in wide, lazy spirals. “Where’re we gonna put this baby?”

Noah turned, gazing up at the monolith. “To be honest, I don’t know yet. We’ve been focusing on the bridge components for a while now, but I think with this much sheer metal we may just have enough to take a segway and finish the ring skeletons.”

Next to him, Jake nodded. “I like it. If we can complete the exterior here, it’ll look polished from the outside, and that progress will motivate us to burn through the technical tasks that much quicker.”

Noah laughed. “I sure hope so. We’ve been at this for ten years. Maybe this’ll finally be the year we take off.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Leah remarked, shrugging. “It's sure come a long way, but there’s still so much left to go.”

She’s right. . . but we can’t think about that. We CAN do this.

“Well, we definitely won’t get anywhere with you all standing around yakking down there! Let’s go, people, this stone ain’t cutting itself!” Zoe called out teasingly.

Noah rolled his eyes, laughing, and resumed his work while Jake began checking the previously cut sheets for severe defects. Leah unhooked a blowtorch from her belt, using it to gesture towards her sister.

“You didn’t even bring a torch, did you?”

“Noooo. . .” Zoe drawled slowly. “But I can still help out! I can. . . um. . . ooh! I’ll be your emotional support! Watch!” She glided to Noah’s side, peering over his shoulder as he hewed into the slab. “That’s it! Beautiful cut! Oh, just a little to the left. . . and there you go, you show that iron who’s boss!”

Noah squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to laugh and skew his angle. “Zoe, that isn’t particularly helpful,” he said.

“What d'ya mean it’s not helpful?” she asked indignantly, her short form bouncing up and down as her feet feathered the alternator on her gravboard.

Leah floated up and punched her in the arm. “Why don’t you give Jake a hand with the sheets?”

“Are you sure?” Zoe asked, tongue in cheek. “Because I’d say it looks to me like my efforts are desperately needed here.”

“You know the drill, Zo’,” Leah scolded. “If you want to cut, don’t leave your torch at home.”

“But I DIDN’T this time! I left it in the GARAGE!” she shot back.

Leah swiped at her, calling “Same diff, off with you!”

Zoe dodged her playful attempt, flicking the fringe of her hair with her hand and sticking her tongue out before complying. Focus somewhat restored, Noah and Leah returned to work.

A few minutes later, they heard a low buzz as Lilly returned, piloting the hoverlift. She parked the flat barge next to Jake and Zoe’s scrap piles.

“What, you aren’t finished yet?” she asked, gazing up at the forty-two meter-tall mass of solid iron remaining.

“Aw, we just couldn’t let you miss the fun, Lill!” Zoe called out.

“Are the other guys coming?” Jake asked.

“Trystin’s en route,” she said, “but Atari’s got stuck with detention again, he’ll meet us at the Garage.”

“What did he do this time?” Leah moaned, rolling her eyes. “That boy, I swear. . .”

“You know, it wasn’t his fault for once,” Lilly said, her tone faltering. “At least, I think it wasn’t. But the chem lab did blow up. . .”

“Let me guess. . . another attempt to rediscover alchemy?” Noah asked, laughing.

“You know, he said he gave up after the ‘Silicon Dioxide Incident’ last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was,” she replied. “Then again, at this point I’m sure Ms. Renesk would rather just assume any anomalies are his fault rather than try to scour the wreckage for evidence that says otherwise.”

“Can’t say I blame her,” came a voice from the other side of the skyfall. “Atari’d be an accident waiting to happen, ‘cept for the fact that he already did, and then some.”

“Trystin! What took you so long?” Noah asked.

“Debate club ran late,” his response echoed off the iron. He stepped out from behind the protruding metal, revealing a boy of a tall and stocky build shrouded in the same black-and-copper speckled armor that Jake wore. He was eighteen years old with a short blond crew cut and deep brown eyes shadowed by thick brows which served to accentuate the sun-weathered tan of his skin. He raised his arm to a flat portion of the metal beside him, pressing his forearm and the palm of his hand against it as he casually leaned into them.

“Man, how’d we get to this beauty before the other gangs?” he asked, gazing up at it.

“It practically fell on us,” Lilly said. “We weren't even planning on harvesting today, just riding to the Garage per usual when the skyfall alerts came on.”

“It’s a stroke of luck we got out from underneath it,” Noah added, wiping sweat off his forehead with his gauntlet and depositing flecks of silt and grease in the process. “Those sensors aren’t always reliable, and it was coming right for us. And for the last time, we aren’t a gang.”

“You keep saying that, but technically by the IRC regs we aren’t legally allowed to gather this metal,” Trystin shook his head. “Well, what are y’all standin’ around for? Jake and I sure don’t have all day. We’ve got the Qualifier tonight, and we’d better get goin’ if we’re gonna get this load back before then!”

“Right, right,” Noah said, shifting his grip on the blowtorch he held and returning his attention to the iron. It warped under the fiery pressure, a hole slowly forming that he was glad to drag and expand until the incision fully burned through the sheet.


|/’v’\|


The work progressed quickly, and an hour later the last slab was secured in place on the back of the hover. Lilly slipped into the driver’s seat and hit the ignition. As the hover slowly gained momentum, Noah replaced the tools in his belt loops and maglocked his boots to the surface of his gravboard, the rest of the team following his lead. They floated into motion on the waves of the wind, following Lilly as she picked up speed and drove through the cratered wasteland, the hover jumping as it skipped over pockets in the ground.

Zoe sped past him abruptly and contorted in midair above the hover’s cargo bay, flipping around so that she was upside-down and staring back at them. She grabbed hold of the blunted edge of one of the sheets of metal and continued flying backwards in a handstand, the gravboard steadying her legs in midair. Leah rolled her eyes and Zoe stuck her tongue out in response, prompting a chorus of laughter.

“What happened?” Lilly demanded, tossing a glance back over her shoulder to see what she was missing, hair blowing in the wind.

Zoe curled her head back underneath herself to meet Lilly’s gaze. “Oh, nothing! Just a normal boring day out here in the surface world, yessir.”

“I see,” Lilly giggled.

“Hey Lill, can I drive?” Zoe asked.

Leah responded before Lilly had a chance. “NO. You are way too young to be driving hovers, and given the circumstances I’m wondering whether we should even trust you with that gravboard. . .”

“Aw c’mon, Lea, please?” Zoe begged.

“Not a chance.”

“Lill, we can ignore her, right? Let me drive?” Zoe stage whispered over her shoulder.

“I HEARD THAT!” Leah called out, and Noah convulsed with laughter.

“Sorry Zo’, but Leah’s the boss,” Lilly said. Quieting her voice, she continued, and Noah was barely able to hear her over the wind. “I’ll totally let you drive later when we’re back at the Garage and all finished up for the day. Just keep it on the down-low!”

Zoe acknowledged her with a dramatic sigh, so as to avoid tipping off her watching sister, who was farther back and just barely out of earshot. Evidently, the blood started rushing to her head, so she lowered herself to lay on top of the metal sheets, stretching her arms out and yawning to replenish her oxygen.

They all rode on in silence for another minute before coming up to a particularly deep fissure in the rocks beneath them, spanning about twenty meters across and running longer than they could see. Lilly steered the hover alongside it carefully before veering down a natural ramp descending in a gradual slope along the side of the chasm. Though the ramp continued its decline into the depths for several hundred meters, Lilly commanded the hover to halt after she had only driven fifty.

Zoe took her cue to move at the slowly grinding stop, arching her back into a bridge and pushing forcefully off the metal with her feet to backflip back into flight on her gravboard. She twirled in the air mid-flip, angling her board to direct herself to the ground beside the hover. She popped her board out from underneath her feet to land and catch it in one smooth motion and proceeded to slip her slight frame under a narrow cleft where the rock face met the ramp path.

The hidden passage concealed a lever. As Zoe located it, the cranking sound of rock scraping rock greeted Noah’s ears, the groans of the cliffside’s annoyance at being forced to reveal its secrets. A concealed assembly of stone gears began to rotate, and the solid rock wall adjacent to the hover split in two, retreating into itself to reveal a massive cavern. Lilly drove the hover inside - Noah and the other gravboarders following - and Zoe released the crank to retract the doors before popping out of a side door inside to meet them. The doors rumbled shut, cutting off the outside world, and Noah heard movement behind him as his crew scattered to various workstations and storage compartments around the room.

Noah couldn’t help gazing around as he entered, despite having done so thousands of times. The cavern extended for several hundred meters, punctuated by the occasional stalactite or column but largely supported by metal supports running through the rock walls. He had stumbled across it shortly after the Shattering, and it appeared to have been used for Defender parts storage, which made it perfect for their own Defender-related mission.

Dominating the cavern stood the crux of that mission: the Shield Breacher. The spacecraft consisted of a large cylindrical shaft with four wings and a plethora of tail fins, with the steel skeleton of a set of thick rings framing the main body and connecting to it with spokes like those of a wheel. The nose of the vessel tapered to a sleek cone with a drawn-out point, and there were rockets positioned along the rims of the rings as well as behind the tail.

As a whole, it was a patchwork creation, with various shades of gray, brown, and black forming the structure depending on the skyfall they had been able to scavenge. There was no shortage of areas that sported gaping holes in the exterior plating, and the similarly unfinished interior rooms were visible through them.

One of these holes emitted a silvery flash suddenly, and Noah shaded his eyes in an attempt to aid his focus. It flashed again as something moved within, preempting the exit of a tall humanlike shape made of metal pipes. It grabbed the edge of its hole and slid down the side of the craft to land with an echoing thud at the bottom of the cavern. The creature bounded over, and as it drew nearer he could make out the form of a boy nestled within the pipes of the machine, directing its movements with his own appendages.

“Hey, you guys made it back quicker than I thought!” he called out. “I came here but you were gone, so I ironed out the last few kinks on my Mehkxoskeleton while I was waiting. Whatcha think?”

Noah nodded in approval. “Looks good, Atari. That should make plating the stabilizer rings worlds easier.”

Atari gestured, and the pipes securing his chest popped open, swinging upwards to create an opening that he promptly hopped out from. He was of average height, wiry-framed with a shock of black hair that encircled his head and hung low over the right side of his forehead in clusters of strands that remained scattered in open rebellion against his attempts to comb them, or at least they would have if such attempts existed. A dime-sized tattoo rested on his left temple with three slightly curved lines converging upwards - the symbol of the ancient system that was his namesake - ringed in a clear implanted panel that glowed with a soft neon pink light and pulsed irregularly. Much like the others, he dressed simply in old jeans and a black hoodie, prioritizing performance before appearance.

He swept a hand through his hair and depressed a button on a small black hook resting above his earlobe. At his touch, it expanded outwards along with its twin on his other ear, growing like a shoot towards the front of his face before they each branched inwards and melded together to form a set of wire-rimmed glasses perfectly positioned on the bridge of his nose. They appeared empty for a moment, and then the interior edges of the frames generated a grid of deep blue lasers that coalesced into a magnifying field. A series of microscopic digits scrolled over the lens that Noah couldn’t read, but Atari’s eyes fixated on them and he fiddled with some controls on the temples to change the output.

“Let’s see what we’re looking at,” he mused, striding towards the day’s haul. He stroked the topmost slab of cut iron with two fingers of his left hand, turning them over palm-up and pressing the fingers of his right hand against the simple silver band on his wrist as if checking his pulse. The band shifted towards his hand, and when he raised it, the metal slab floated into the air in response. He twirled his wrist and it began rotating before him. He nodded in satisfaction and let his arm drop, sending the slab back down to the pile with a resounding clang. All activity stopped, and he glanced around sheepishly in the sudden silence.

“Sorry. . . wait, so you guys already knew metal is loud when you drop it? It’s just me?” he quipped, receiving a chorus of groans and eye rolls as they returned to preparing their tools. He winked at Noah, then clambered back into his mechsuit.

Noah strode into the center of the room and raised his arms. “Alright, listen up! We’ve got an hour before Jake and Trystin leave for the game, so let’s not waste time! Forget the sensor tests for now - we’re gonna try to finish paneling the first stabilizer ring today now that we’ve got all this new material.”

Various indications of assent returned to him. Leah flashed him a thumbs up, Atari pumped the fist of his Mehkxoskeleton in the air, Jake saluted, Lilly nodded, and Zoe cartwheeled in preparation.

 



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