Haladras, p.1

Haladras, page 1

 part  #1 of  Haladras Trilogy Series

 

Haladras
 



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Haladras


  Copyright © 2014 Michael Karr

  All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written consent from the author.

  First printed in paperbound 2014

  ISBN 978-0616007655

  Cover image of terrain © Spectral-Design /

  Shutterstock Images

  Cover image of planet Shutterstock Images

  To my Dad – a true Athylian

  Pronunciation Guide

  Ahlderon ALL-dur-on

  Allega uh-LAY-guh

  Amrahdel AM-raw-dell

  Arturo are-TUR-oh

  Athylian uh-THILL-ian

  Boldúrin Bowl-DUR-in

  Denovyn DEN-oh-vin

  Ducädese doo-KAY-deez

  Dura Cragis DERR-uh KRAG-iss

  Elydar ELLI-dar

  Fenorra fen-OR-uh

  Grüny GREW-nee

  Haladras HAL-uh-drass

  Kaladra Kal-EH-druh

  Kyndoo Yavi KIN-dune YAW-vee

  Mauwik MAU-ick

  Orphlyus or-FIL-ius

  Quoryn CORE-in

  Pacqua PA-quah

  Rowvan ROW-van

  Strybrn str-EYE-burn

  Valenkr VAL-in-kerr

  Arsolon ARR-sul-on

  ONE

  SKYLAR’S WHITE KNUCKLES squeezed tighter the throttle of his jetwing.

  Faster. Faster.

  The ruddy sandstone raced by in a blur as he navigated the sinuous ravine at breakneck speed. Never before had he flown through the Devil’s Throat with such speed. Around every bend, fierce outcroppings lashed out at him. He knew he should slow down. But he couldn’t risk it.

  Just two more turns...

  He sailed around the next bend, banking left, his boot grazing the rock face.

  One more...

  Like a flash of lightning he banked right and shot around the last bend. Before him the flat wasteland of Haladras unfurled like an ocean of sand and rock. Skylar torqued the throttle and brought his arms closer to his sides. The narrowed coupling field formed by the two hand-held thrusters made him fly like a rocket.

  He ripped straight through the sunbaked desert air, straight for the place he ought to have been at a full hour ago. Cloud Harbor, the planet’s main spaceport. It seemed to be taunting him, drawing closer at an agonizingly slow rate.

  Within a few minutes, however, Skylar could see the dock clearly. The crew was busier than usual, hurrying this way and that as they endeavored to follow the stream of orders spewing from Rasbus’ mouth. The port master was evidently in one of his moods. Skylar was not surprised. He had never known Rasbus not to be more irritable than normal on days like this.

  With some relief, Skylar alighted onto the deck, just a short distance from Rasbus.

  “You’re late,” said Rasbus roughly, not bothering to look up from his docking plans. He hollered out another order to one of his lieutenants. “Is this how you thank me for letting you have this assignment?”

  “I was—”

  “I don’t want to hear your excuses—”

  “Jurvic, have you double-checked those tow cables?” Rasbus bellowed to one of the crew on the lower deck.

  “Aye!”

  “Good. Check them again.”

  Skylar stood there, anxiously wondering if Rasbus was finished with him. Had he missed his one chance? There would be no arguing with Rasbus if he said no. After several more moments in which Rasbus berated a junior dockhand for not being at his assigned post, Rasbus again spoke to Skylar.

  “I have half a mind to send you to clean the latrines during this docking. But fortunately for you several of the crew have taken ill or are injured. I need you out there. Suit up and report to Kindor. You have exactly five minutes.”

  “Yes, sir!” Skylar replied, already turning to make a dash for the armory.

  “And, Skylar,” Rasbus added, turning to Skylar for the first time and pointing his massive finger at him, “be careful out there.”

  Skylar nodded, then bolted out of sight.

  Within a few minutes, Skylar had re-emerged from the armory clad in his deck suit. The suit was fabricated from layers of dense flame-retardant material within and thick armor plating without. Skylar lumbered along as quickly as he could under the cumbersome weight of the suit. Despite the climate-controlled interior, Skylar felt like his body was inside a furnace.

  His metal boots clanked loudly on the steel-grated platform as he navigated his way along the bustling deck. Soon he spotted the tall figure he was looking for. He was glad Rasbus had assigned him to work with Kindor. The amiable deck officer had always watched out for Skylar, and treated him like a younger brother.

  “There he is,” said Kindor when he noticed Skylar approaching. “I was wondering when you’d decide to show up.”

  “I lost track of time,” Skylar confessed. “I was playing a game of Orb Scram.”

  Kindor chuckled. “Sounds like a good excuse to me, but I hope you didn’t tell that to Rasbus.”

  “He said he didn’t want to hear any of my excuses.”

  Kindor nodded. “Sounds about right. Well, you’re here. That’s all that matters. Now, listen,” he continued, his tone shifting to business, “I’ve posted you at station 47. You’ll man the winch. You can handle that, can’t you?”

  Before Skylar could respond, Kindor had slapped him on the back and strode off to check on the rest of his team. Man the winch? He certainly hadn’t expected such an important assignment. Rasbus would not have authorized it. That was Kindor, though—always excessively confident. No doubt Rasbus had intended Skylar to be a monitor, or something equally less critical. There was no time to discuss the matter, though. Already the initial warning siren was announcing the approaching convoy. The docking procedure would begin within minutes.

  Skylar glanced up at the sky. High above him he descried the blurry, gray shapes of the three convoy ships and their entourage of frigates. He wished to watch their descent. Not today. He had things to do before they arrived.

  Hurriedly, he found his post—station 47. Taking a deep breath, he stuffed his head into his helmet. Skylar studied the station’s control panel, with its intimidating array of gauges, dials, buttons and levers. It looked exactly like the ones in the simulations he had done a hundred times before. But, somehow, now that it wasn’t just a simulation, the panel seemed infinitely more complex.

  With a trembling hand, he located and checked the most important components of the panel. The winch lever, tension gauge, and emergency release. Those checked out fine. He continued his inspection of the other gauges and components, just as he’d been taught. Everything checked out.

  The second siren cried out, signaling lock-down of the deck. Skylar’s heart began beating more rapidly.

  “Station 47, status check,” a voice hissed and crackled in his helmet. Skylar hesitated.

  “47, status check,” repeated the voice.

  “Clear...all clear,” he stammered.

  “Copy.”

  His helmet went silent again.

  Looking up, Skylar saw the convoy nearly upon them. The ships were no longer fuzzy blots against the washed-out sky. The distinct forms of their massive hulls were now visible. Skylar smiled unconsciously. One day he would be a crew member on one of those ships—captain, even. That was his dream. Working as a dockhand was only a means to that end. Most ship crewmen start out just like Skylar—as apprentice dockhands. Captain Arturo, who was at that moment commanding the foremost ship, the Supernova, always recruited his crew from among the best dockhands.

  After every successful docking, Captain Arturo shook hands with each of the two hundred dock-crew members working the dock before receiving a repo
rt from Rasbus. This time Skylar would be among those with whom Arturo would shake hands. No doubt he would notice Skylar’s comparatively young age. Arturo would be impressed. And, thus, Skylar would win a positive place in the mental logs of the illustrious captain.

  His plan couldn’t fail.

  A sudden darkness roused Skylar from his daydreaming. The Supernova hovered ominously overhead, its immense shadow engulfing the entire deck, its engines roaring like thunder and sending down a gale of jet-hot air. Sweat instantly began pouring down Skylar’s forehead, stinging his eyes. Were it not for his protective suit he would have been roasted alive.

  Skylar glanced around at the rest of the dock. He represented just one of a hundred dockhands stationed at the winch stations surrounding the enormous elliptical-shaped dock. The hitchers were already floating in the air, hefting the great tow cables that would pull the convoy ships safely into port. Each cable was capable of sustaining multiple terapascals of load. Each was thicker than his arms.

  The indicator light on his control panel suddenly glowed yellow; the ship was now in position to commence the docking.

  He watched as the company of hitchers slowly rose to meet the ship, their tow cables swaying rhythmically in the torrent created by the ship’s thrusters. It was a slow process. Each of the hundred cables had to be secured to one of the hundred anchor points lining the ship’s hull, all the while the ship rocked and swayed in the air. The hitchers had the most dangerous job. Many careless ones had gotten themselves smashed by a swaying ship. An improperly connected cable could also lead to disaster. Skylar felt grateful Kindor was not crazy enough to give him that assignment.

  After what felt like an hour, the hitchers began descending back to the deck, leaving the tethered convoy ship swaying above with its cables dangling like the tentacles of a terrible monster. It would soon be Skylar’s job, along with the hundred other winch operators, to slowly reel in the convoy ship.

  The indicator light on his panel changed to green. Skylar took a deep breath and switched the winch into first gear. Even above the din from the ship’s engines, Skylar could hear the grinding of the winch’s motor as it came to life and the slow, methodical clank of its gears turning.

  With steady progress, the slack in the cables diminished until they were all taut. Skylar watched his tension gauge intently. As soon as it indicated any substantive tension on the cable, he halted the winch, then waited.

  Now began the coordinated process of pulling the ship toward the dock. A non-trivial task, for the ship would continue to pitch and sway—despite its pilot’s best efforts to keep it steady—putting disproportionate strain on the tow cables. Each winch operator had to ensure that the tension on his own cable did not exceed its maximum tensile capacity. Skylar had to constantly monitor his gauge, slowing down, speeding up, or backing off the winch as necessary. Depending on the ship, this could be a challenging task, sometimes requiring multiple attempts.

  The stage-two light on his panel flashed yellow, then signaled green. Skylar pulled his winch’s lever and started the arduous process.

  At first, his nerves made him tense and reactive. He struggled to keep the needle of his gauge from oscillating excessively. Within a few minutes, however, his confidence grew, and he began to handle the winch with considerable ease.

  Things were going well. The let-out gauge indicated just seventy meters remaining. The ship would be docked in no time. At fifty meters, the roar of the ship grew to a deafening intensity. The sheer strength of the thruster’s vibrations made Skylar’s teeth chatter. Still, he managed to keep a steady hand on the control lever, and the ship continued to descend smoothly.

  Forty meters remaining.

  Skylar began to breathe easier. He felt as calm as if this were simply another simulation.

  Suddenly, an unexpected red light burst to life on his control panel. “Abort” flashed a red sign.

  Abort! Why are they aborting? At that same moment a siren pierced through the roar of the ship’s thrusters.

  Skylar glanced around the deck. Cables everywhere were being released. Grasping the full import of the situation, Skylar reached for his emergency release switch, flipped up its safety cover, and pressed it forcefully. He expected to hear the rapid clinking of gears as the winch unwound as fast as the ship could pull it. Nothing happened. The tension gauge read high—climbing higher every second.

  Again, he tried the release trigger.

  Nothing.

  Again.

  Still nothing.

  Bringing his fist down, he slammed it as hard as he could.

  No use.

  The tension gauge continued to climb.

  Frantically, he threw the winch into full reverse. Nothing moved. It was stuck.

  The tension was rapidly approaching a critical level.

  Just then his helmet crackled and hissed, and an urgent voice shouted in his ear. “Station 47, abort operation! Abort operation. Do you copy?”

  “My winch is jammed!” yelled Skylar. “We’ll have to activate the emergency release from the ship’s anchor.”

  “Station 47, I repeat, abort immediately!”

  “I can’t,” cried Skylar.

  Out of the corner of his visor, he saw a group of technicians running toward him. He took another glance at the gauge.

  “We don’t have time for this,” he growled to himself.

  Almost without thinking, he reached for his jetwing hanging from his utility belt, stretched out his arms like a falcon, and blasted off the deck, straight toward the ship.

  How much time remained before the overburdened cable ripped a crater in the deck, he didn’t know. Precious little, of that he felt certain. If only he could reach the ship’s anchor point in time, he could avert the imminent tragedy. He’d heard of it happening before. Several dockhands were killed.

  Not today!

  He raced upward, following the swaying cable, taking care to stay out of its way. In just a moment he reached the underbelly of the ship. The ship seemed to be straining against the stubborn cable with all its might. The ship’s anchor swayed tauntingly just a meter in front of him. How could he activate the emergency release? He needed his arms and hands to operate the jetwing. There was no other option; he would have to use his foot. It was a dangerous maneuver while hovering with a jetwing.

  Cautiously, he moved closer to the ship and waited for the anchor to cross in front of him. Everything moved in slow motion.

  “Come on...a little closer...”

  Now.

  With great effort he thrust his booted foot straight at the red button.

  Missed.

  The kick had thrown him off balance, causing him to fall backward. He managed, however, to stay in the air. Heart beating painfully, Skylar positioned himself for another attempt. This time he couldn’t miss. In his mind, he imagined the groan of the dock under that tremendous strain.

  Here it comes.

  Taking aim, he swung his boot at the emergency release. Something gave way beneath his foot. Instantly, he felt himself hurled backward, feet flipping over his head, jetwing thruster jolted loose from his left hand. The deck below raced toward him.

  Seized with fear, he struggled to catch the jetwing’s thruster with his hand. He was falling too fast. The deck was too close.

  The suit—it made him too heavy.

  In vain he tried to activate the other thruster in his right hand. But without the other, it was futile. Skylar flailed in the air, as if he could slow the speed of his fall with his arms.

  Suddenly, something streaked in front of him. And all went black.

  TWO

  Skylar groaned like a person on the verge of death and forced his eyes to crack open, letting in painful slivers of light. Everything looked bright and blurry. Instantly, his eyes snapped shut again. His head throbbed. His ears rang. His whole body seared with pain. A bile taste filled his mouth, and his stomach churned as if he were going to
vomit.

  He tried to breathe deeply, to calm himself.

  What happened?

  Pain.

  He groaned again before slipping out of consciousness under the weight of it.

  Several hours later, consciousness tugged at him again. He did not immediately open his eyes, but laid still, waiting for the tidal wave of pain to overtake him again. It didn’t come. His head no longer throbbed. His ears no longer rang. The nausea had passed. The rest of his body felt fine, with only some minor discomfort in his left arm. His head, too, ached a little; nothing compared to his previous agony.

  He ventured to open his eyes. They still protested under the sudden brightness, blinking rapidly. After a few moments, they adjusted to the light, and Skylar took in his surroundings. He saw little worth seeing. Bare metal ceiling and walls. Blinding white lights. A steel cabinet. Nothing to give him any clue as to his whereabouts.

  Not feeling sufficiently strong to turn or lift his head, he left off inspecting the remainder of the austere chamber.

  “Where am I?” he wondered aloud, then shut his eyes again and attempted to remember what had happened to him. Evidently, he’d been hurt. How, though?

  “Feeling better, are we?” came a raspy voice.

  Skylar started at the sound of it and opened his eyes. A thin, crooked nose and huge pair of eyes stared down at him.

  “Don’t be alarmed, my boy,” said the figure.

  Skylar made no reply.

  The figure, whose voice sounded like a rusty hinge, was an elderly man with sunken cheeks, pointy chin and wing-like ears, bushing with sprigs of gray hair. He wore a pair of bulbous goggles, which amplified his wide-eyed stare.

  “Now,” the old man continued in his creaky voice, “let’s have a look at your hurts, shall we?”

  The old man produced a light and shined it in each of Skylar’s eyes, blinding him again.

  “Good...excellent,” he said with a strange sort of satisfaction. “Now, how are our little surgeons doing? Let us have a look...”

  Placing a black visor over his goggles, the man moved his face uncomfortably close to the side of Skylar’s head. Skylar tried to watch out of the corner of his eyes. What was he doing? Was he a physician?

 
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