Nova Wars Chapter 10: Deep in the Mines By Draconicon
When Ryker went back to the mines, Klim and Dresnath came with him. There was something that they needed to see down there, the Commodore knew, and it was better that they see it in person than wait for Ryker to find it for them. Their time was too limited to wait as long as they wanted.
Here’s hoping that Sollon has an easier time with his work than we’re having with ours, the velociraptor thought as he dragged his protective suit on. The dragon at his side said nothing as they got dressed above the slaves, one of the supervisors guiding them through the process.
“And if you get that on - yes, like that - you’ll be able to fit the exterior shielding module to your chest. Better than the one-piece unit that the slaves down there have, you must admit,” the komodo dragon said, “even if it does mean that you have to work it on and off in layers.”
Klim grumbled as he dragged the suit on. Ryker was somewhere down there, he knew, still dressed in one of the supervisor suits as a disguise. Frankly, he was amazed that the folf had managed to get one of the officers out of the suits, and even more amazed that the security officer hadn’t been discovered just yet. It was only a matter of time, he knew that much, but every second that he kept the bluff going was another miracle in and of itself. Perhaps they’d have enough of them to keep going.
“I’d like to be passed over to Supervisor Rose as soon as we’re dressed,” Klim said.
“Supervisor Rose? I don’t -”
“He’s one of the new ones, shipped in recently.”
“If you say so. Do you know his designation number?”
The velociraptor turned, arching an eyebrow at the komodo dragon. There was a moment of silence, then the other scaly turned his head downwards, shaking it back and forth.
“I apologize, Commodore. It is not mine to question.”
“No, no, it’s not. Now, unless you think we need more help…”
He left the dismissal unsaid, allowing the komodo dragon to slip away without further annoyance. Shaking his head a few times, he got back to work, settling into his suit properly.
As soon as the komodo dragon was out of earshot, Dresnath leaned over.
“You think this is going to work?”
“Better than waiting for Sollon’s slave training plans to pan out,” he muttered. “At least Ryker’s set up down here, and from what Maggie’s passed on, she’s got enough contacts among the other slaves to get us a miniature rebellion if we need a distraction.”
“And what if we find something seriously dangerous down here?”
“Then we run like crazy, and hope that nothing chases us.”
“That’s the plan?”
“That’s instinct. I’m still working on the plan.”
“...One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me this stuff in advance. I’m getting a little sick of the making-it-up-as-we-go approach.”
“You aren’t the only one,” he muttered under his breath.
The next wave of slaves had already lined up at the airlock into the star, and were setting themselves up in a series of waves. The ones in front had two supervisors with path creators that would set up the hard-light constructions that the slaves needed to go anywhere inside of the star, and the slaves themselves were ‘armed’ with siphoning machines, things would draw the plasma and the other resources out of the flares that popped up around the hard-light paths that were made.
The second wave of slaves were assembled with a large collection of carts, things that would hover along the light paths and would carry the spoils of the star back to the main chamber. They were understandably nervous; taking too long would render the goods spoiled, and they would have wasted time, money, and very limited energy.
The final wave were the medics, or as close to them as the slaves were allowed to become. They could come in for anyone that was collapsing, whose suits had been damaged, or who had overheated inside their protective suits, all things that happened more often than not down in the star. Klim had seen it happen more than once outside of it, too, when handling the distilled oils of what could be harvested inside of a star.
Watching the assembled supervisors, he looked between one and another before finally pointing at one in the second wave.
“That’s Ryker,” he muttered.
“How can you tell?”
“He’s staring at asses again.”
“...Yeah, that’s him.”
They descended from the second floor, pulling on their helmets in the process. Velociraptor and dragon mixed among the slaves, walking up to the blacked-out glass helmet of the supervisor that the raptor had pointed out. Klim reached out, tapping on it a couple of times. The supervisor turned, the face still blacked out.
“Supervisor Rose, I assume?”
“Wha - I mean, yeah.”
“We’re working with you today.”
“...Right. Yeah, I’ll work with you.”
Keep up with the program, Ryker. Show a little more character than that, Klim thought, mildly annoyed as he looked around. None of the other supervisors seemed to have noticed the lackluster response, but some of the slaves were turning their way. He reached out and grabbed the folf through the suit, pulling him closer.
“I want to see a little more enthusiasm than that, soldier.”
“Nnngh! I’m not a soldier, you know. I’m a supervisor.”
“At least show some enthusiasm for your work. Otherwise, I’ll have to have a talk with your supervisor.”
Translation: keep up a better act, or they were both going to be in trouble.
There was a moment of silence, then the folf groaned, pulling back and shaking his helmeted head.
“Fine. I’ll show you whatever you like, but don’t expect to get much. Stupid higher-ups thinking that they can interfere with the work of the lower castes…”
It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Klim just hoped that Ryker took the lesson to heart. Authority in the Hierarchy could be lost as quickly as it was won, and people that didn’t embrace the obligations that came with the post - and the pride that came with it - would often find themselves challenged and brought low, just for the fact that they weren’t defending what they had, even against those that didn’t particularly want it.
He glanced towards the airlock door, and then back at the folf.
“We want to go deep. There’s mining paths further down, yes?”
“A couple, but not any of mine. All I can show you are the ones that are closer to the surface.”
“Well, you’re being overruled today. A Commodore wants to see further down into the star.”
“That’ll take some work. I ain’t got clearance for that.”
“Make clearance. Use the name of Hexclaw if you have to.”
“...I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
The folf walked off, and Klim shook his head as he stood where the ‘supervisor’ had been. The last thing that he wanted was to start leaving a name trail for someone else to pick up, but this should be a little safer than it otherwise would be. Supervisor Rose wasn’t even one of the official names on the station; if it wasn’t for his own rank being as high as it was, the other supervisor likely would have challenged him over it, made him explain himself and what the hell he was doing. That, combined with the fact that it was a supervisor asking for a superior officer rather than a superior officer pushing for something on his own, should put enough layers between him and the request to keep the Evaluator off his back.
And that was something to worry about. He looked over his shoulder at the cameras that lined the ceiling, too far off for common eyes to see, but he noticed the flicks of movement in the darkness. They were watched, and the Evaluator was plugged into the information in security, administration, and everywhere else on the station. There was nothing that he couldn’t find out. The only thing that they could do was keep the scaly inquisitor from prioritizing them.
Rumiir’s task should keep him busy for the moment, he thought. Until this is over, as long as we don’t present a danger to whatever they’re looking for, we should be fine. We’re secondary, interesting, but not important.
The only difficulty...was the power of his name.
Klim Hexclaw. Rumiir reminded him of a number of things that the name was known for. Torture, murder, general destruction. Not that different from a standard officer of the Soaring Fleet, when one came right down to it, save for his own general competency at it.
The Evaluator would remember that name, and if he was any good at his job, there was already a message sent back to the home worlds of the Hierarchy that was checking into the records of his claim of being a Commodore. Until that came back, though, the Evaluator wouldn’t move. Not yet. Not until he was sure.
They had time, still. Some, anyway. It would have to be enough.
He looked up as the folf came back, the black-helmeted supervisor nodding.
“I’ll be replacing Supervisor Calen today. Up to the front with you, officers.”
The velociraptor nodded, making his way through the slaves to the first wave. The door of the airlock opened as they arrived, and the wave of heat hitting the shield that kept the plasma and searing light out almost left him sweating. And would have, if dinosaurs sweated at all.
Rolling lights of liquid plasma that turned to gas and then back to liquid again burned his eyes, and he had to turn on his own shaders across the front of the helmet. The slaves stepped forward, led by Ryker, and the hard-light constructions began to pile up. He and Dresnath followed, unwillingly impressed by the whole thing.
Despite the heat of the star around them, there was clearly some damage that had been done to the interior. The rolling waves of plasma no longer covered everything, and what licked along the bottom of the hard-light platforms that Ryker made clearly lacked the force that it had once had. He wondered how that worked, how people were able to tunnel into the center of the star and then leave semi-corridors behind in their wake.
The answers, he supposed, lay in the fact that the star had its own source of gravity, pulling inwards with a different level of force than what they were used to from the planets that they’d visited. The suits helped to cancel out the gravity problem outside of the station, but more than that, there was the issue that the various streams of plasma rising out and then falling down were pulled in different striations, almost like currents in a river. Cut out the currents from one place, and the streams had to change to accommodate the empty space. If the space was small enough, it was more likely to stay empty rather than fill up again.
He followed the hard-light platform with caution, making sure to look out at the star proper to give it the interest that it deserved, and then turned his attention back to the rest of the operation. Every so often, he looked from the star and the slaves to the supervisors - and Ryker in particular - but most of the time, he made sure to seem as interested in the star mining as possible.
Dresnath followed behind him, and there was a soft crackle over a private radio connection between them.
“Sir, do you see Maggie anywhere?”
“She’s in the second wave, isn’t she?”
“I thought she was in the first.”
“Either way, we can’t look too hard for her now. Keep it casual,” he muttered back.
The dragon nodded, stepping to the side. He walked over to one of the other supervisors, probably under the excuse that he wanted to know how the star mining worked, but Klim would guess that he was more interested in seeing where Maggie was and making sure that she was alright.
Knowing her, she’s probably already pulled together an accounting list of all the different pieces of equipment down here, raw labor numbers, and everything else that anyone running this operation would need to know. He shook his head as he thought of the truly incredible efficiency of his quartermaster. All the numbers are already accounted for. All she’d be doing now is learning the names to assign to them.
Ryker stopped at the edge of the first platform, more than two hundred feet from the shielded airlock. He walked up to the folf, leaning in and turning the radio to a short range thing, something that wouldn’t spread. The sun’s own radiation would scramble things further off, anyway.
“What are you thinking?” he asked his security officer.
“I’m thinking a sideways drop, sir,” Ryker muttered.
“The tunnel that they use to go deeper is occupied right now. Can’t really make any side trips down there since they’re doing active mining. But, you know, there’s a platform about three hundred feet straight down.”
“Yeah, didn’t think you’d like it much. And it’s not so much a platform as it is where a platform has been.”
“So...let me get this straight.”
“You want us to jump.”
“Three hundred feet straight down.”
“Through a star.”
“Well, through a large chunk of star, some hot, some not.”
“Yeah, and trust you to make a platform at the end of it that we don’t go shooting past. Just so we can get to the center of the star and see what the hell we’re dealing with?”
“...Yep, that’s pretty much it. Too insane for you, captain?”
“Not at all. Just wanted to make sure that we weren’t adding jetpacks or something into the whole scheme.”
Klim looked down. He could see the swirls and eddies of the currents of the star, and could see where there were empty spots and full spots. The suit should hold together long enough to reach the bottom, but the should was what worried him. Should only got you so far, and when it failed, it tended to do it suddenly, without warning, and with a great deal of pain involved.
But Ryker was right about it being the better route. He didn’t want someone else to notice that they were heading down there, and it would probably be easier to sneak out rather than to sneak down. If they could just avoid being seen as they dropped, then they would be pretty much golden.
Just need a good distraction here, Klim thought. Maggie better have something good for this.
“Stay ready. I’m going to get Dresnath, then get Maggie to start something.”
“Be quick. Don’t know how long the opening is going to stay there.”
“You just be ready to go when the time comes.”
Maggie had something, alright. It wasn’t what he expected, but it was definitely...something. The mare had pulled out a couple of the overrides that the supervisors used if a slave was being too indirectly aggressive for the suit to pick up. The look on her face when she was told that she could use those at her discretion to play with the supervisors and the slaves was just a little worrying.
Just something that she’s working through, he told himself. Not something to be concerned about unless she gets this equipment installed on the Breakaway, somehow.
He returned to Dresnath and Ryker, standing on the edge of the hard-light platform. Ryker nudged him lightly as he walked between the dragon and the folf, and Klim sighed as he looked over the edge.
“Just like that time on Malkath,” he muttered.
“What happened there?” Ryker asked.
“Long story. Started with a free-flying drop into a collapsing mountain, ended with skinning a dragon and using his wings to get out during an eruption.”
“I’ll let you decide whether I’m kidding or not.”
Klim took a few deep breaths, looking down at the fiery interior of the star. It was quite a bit more molten than he was used to, but he reminded himself that they had a way to keep from falling all the way to the heart of the star. As long as Ryker’s device worked, and his security officer was as good a shot as he’d always been, they were going to be completely fine. A little sore in the legs, perhaps, but fine.
Just wish that I was the one carrying the freaking gun…
But no, that would be suspect, and he needed to keep this as normal as he could. He reached for the side of his head.
A split-second later, the radio frequencies filled with moaning chatter as the chemicals for punishment started to flood the suits and those that wore them. He turned it off, looked at the folf and the dragon, and then ran forward with them off the edge of the platform.
Almost instantly, he regretted it, his stomach dropping out through his back - or so it felt - and he bit his lips to keep from screaming the way that Dresnath was as they plummeted through the fires and flames. Wind gusted up from the center of the star, guiding the tongues of fire around them, shoving them around, making it harder and harder to keep on track.
They hit the first wave of unmined star, and their suits went from a warm red to a burning crimson, then to a hot white. They passed through before it could melt them further, but he was half-sure that they had lost more than fifty percent of their shields in those few seconds.
A look at the read-out for his suit confirmed it. They were down to forty-three percent of their shields. If they hit another layer like that, they’d be down to just the protective armor of the suit, which wouldn’t have a chance of standing up to...well, anything but the natural heat in the cleared tunnels. If they went further…
He didn’t want to think about it.
Seeing another layer coming up, he turned in mid-air, aiming his legs at Dresnath and kicking. The impact sent them apart, splitting them to either side of the layer of heat, falling into two different tunnels. They went through the floor of it, but it was a shorter and less painful burn than it would have been.
Twenty-six percent, he thought as he looked at the read-out. Not much left.
Before he could ask, Ryker fired his weapon, creating another hard-light surface. They kicked off it, flying backwards again, and met up with Dresnath. The dragon grabbed them desperately.
“We have to be close!”
“Fifty feet! Thirty! Ten!”
They hit, hard, and almost broke their legs in the process. Klim gritted his teeth, barely believing the sheer discomfort that rippled through his limbs as the hard-light platform stopped them in their tracks. He clenched his jaws, once, twice, holding back the need to scream from hitting so hard.
Dresnath whimpered through the mic, and even Ryker groaned.
“Looks like I’m the shield this time, guys. Where’s the tunnel?”
Ryker pointed to the left, extending the platform that they’d made into a rapidly-descending shaft. It was almost straight down, to the point where they sat down and slid along the rapidly-constructing shield between them and the fire below. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing.
Down, down, down into the star they went, and Klim started to wonder just how far the Federation had gone before the Hierarchy had taken over. They had to be past the top layer of the star by some way, now, and he could feel more of the gravity of it pushing down on the outside of the suit. It was harder to move his arms and legs, and he felt the speed of their descent rising higher, the star’s core pulling them further down.
More than that, though, he could feel something...something else. At first, he put it down to superstition, but the further they went - now passing two minutes of sliding - the stronger it felt. Like an awareness that had settled on him. It was like someone watching him, except that it felt like they were more aware of him that just that one sense could have accomplished. He shuffled on the platform as they went deeper, taking a few deep breaths and hoping for the best.
Finally, the tunnel leveled out. A quick read-out showed that they were more than two miles deeper than the other miners, and he knew that they were pushing their luck. The suits they were wearing weren’t meant to be down this far in a star, and without back-up, they could easily be stuck down here until they melted. Their communications wouldn’t reach the surface, not with that much radiation between here and there.
Ryker pointed to the expanded part of the tunnel.
“Ain’t been down this far yet, but the other supervisors were sending stuff down here.”
“Living or dead?”
“Living, at least when they went in.”
Without any real choice in the matter, he pushed forward, dragging himself along in the process. He didn’t know what was going to happen when they reached the end of this tunnel, but he knew that he’d find out, and soon. The tunnel widened quickly, and he knew by pure instinct that it would lead to a cavern terminus.
With every step they took, the heat climbed higher and the feeling of someone watching grew stronger. Klim shuddered as he felt that itching feeling on the back of his neck turn to something pressing down on the back of his head, almost like someone was pushing him to bow. He was abruptly reminded of the way that the officers back at the training academy would push people, and didn’t like it.
They rounded a corner, and immediately stopped.
“Oh, no…” Dresnath whispered.
“The fuck is that thing?” Ryker grunted.
Klim didn’t say anything. The velociraptor was too stunned at the sight of a legend made into reality.
Before them was stretched a vast expanse of stars and gases, miniature points of light that had been condensed down, as if the night sky had been stretched out as someone’s skin and then laid out on a creature three times the size of the biggest warship that he had ever seen. It was curled up in a circle, but he could make out tails, claws, teeth - oh the teeth, larger than fighter-craft and sharp enough to rip through capital ships - and wings.
It was more than a dragon. It was a galaxy dragon.
And luckily for them, it was asleep...for now.
Oh fuck, oh, fuck, oh, fuck. Klim looked back at the other two. Ryker was fine, but -
Dresnath turned, his eyes glowing with the same sparkle-field that the dragon’s skin was made of. Klim remembered the legends of the old times, where dragons had been ruled by these creatures, when the galaxy dragons had spread through time and space, filling the minds of their subordinates with their own presence. That must have been what he was feeling as they approached, the mind of the galaxy dragon seeing if there was a way in. As he wasn’t a dragon, there might not have been, but with Dresnath…
Back to the mines, and this time Klim and Co are going deeper into the star, trying to find just what the hell the Hierarchy found down here that’s worth keeping hidden. The answer doesn’t make anybody happy.