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Project Heavenstorm (Chapter One of my novel)
Chapter Three

The shoreline of Kesalzhin Island was less than a kilometre away.  Daal could make out the dozens of lighted windows far above the forest trees.  The Assembly Hall and Administration Tower loomed over everything, their crystal lamps drowning out the evening stars.

His old college.  The stench in his soul was insufferable.  After all these years, he was only grateful to return as a master.

Sir, they’re here.

Daal turned to face the stern in response to Jihosky’s announcement, and his smile returned.
Twenty-one transparent Dragons were approaching the Chalivon.  They were invisible to the naked eye, but Daal could sense their mass and motion, especially as they whooshed overhead and began their spiralling, decelerating orbit above the ship. 

Daal levitated a few storeys above the deck, in full view of his crew.  After a moment’s reflection, he levitated a few more storeys to ensure he was above the heads of all Dragons on deck.

“Human crew, prepare to fly ashore,” he broadcast both vocally and telepathically.  “Main flyers can do all the levitating.  Illusionists, keep the group camouflaged.  Dragons, tear out the crystals and start the circle.”

Three Human crewmembers capable of levitation rose above the deck, each carrying another Human crewmate in a transparent bubble.  While Daal stayed behind, the rest rapidly shot out towards the shore, becoming more and more translucent with distance.  The Dragons levitated, and turned their attention - and mindpower - to the deck itself.  The deck split open from prow to stern, the timber flashing into ash, the steel hissing as it liquefied, the masts falling outward from the centre.  The entire three-hundred-metre length of the maxifreighter was being gutted like a fish.  Within seconds the innards were exposed - all one hundred and twenty of them.  The giant boxes were levitated row by row.  The metal casings glowed fiery orange as they softened and liquefied, then peeled away to expose their contents.

Inside each box was a crystal a metre wide, its sixty-four facets as clear as glass.  As crystal lamps on the last few masts fell away, the military crystals refracted rainbow splinters that danced frantically within the ship’s exposed interior.

Already, seawater was gushing in through the rends in the ship’s hull like a dam turned inside out.  The semi-molten remains of the freight boxes hissed as they fell into the water, sending out explosions of steam that rose to engulf the levitating crystals.

More Dragons descended from the spiralling group above, parting the rising steam cloud in their wake.  Most of the Dragons levitated three or four of the crystals towards them, then packed them into their pouches.

“Remember,” said Daal, “three degrees apart.”

The Dragons swerved and flew away, fading into transparency with distance.  Daal flew on after them.  Behind them, the remains of the Chalivon - no longer recognisable as a sailship - sank beneath the sea and steam.

The camouflaged Dragons split up, heading along their designated routes.  Daal headed straight for his meeting site on the beach, where the translucent forms of all his Human crewmembers awaited, fading into full view as he approached.  He had chosen a site many kilometres away from the mouth of the river that led directly into the campus.  He landed between Jihosky and the Pinstriped Man, already turning to sense the distant Dragons skirting the beaches of Kesalzhin Island.

“This had better be worth the budget,” he said out aloud, knowing all too well that the stakes were far higher than anything related to mortal economics.

~ ~ ~

It was a peaceful summer night on Kesalzhin Island, and Chancellor Kalina Tathaunen had one final staff meeting to organise.  She carried her pocket crystal lamp from her private quarters to her office desk, confident that the decorative searchlights and holograms beyond the balcony would inspire her rather than distract her. 

Soon, she would have her free time.  This early in the summer holidays, the advanced students stayed behind for their supplementary classes and exams.  Within two weeks, most of them would join the other ninety per cent of students - visiting their home countries and often touring elsewhere.  Shortly afterwards, Kalina would leave caretaking duties to Vice Chancellor Akrimmar, allowing herself to visit the mainland for both business and pleasure.  There were dozens of relatives, friends and professional acquaintances to catch up with.  There was also her other occupation - the one she rarely spoke of on this campus.

A metre from the desk, she froze.

Something else was distracting her ... something nibbling at the edge of her consciousness, like an important fact temporarily forgotten.  She scanned the entire island in a sweeping arc.  Was that motion she sensed?  Maybe it was a few flying Human students dancing on the thermals.  The motions and positions were hazy.  They could have been anywhere.  Still, perhaps they had their reasons to camouflage.  She knew about the sexual practices of Human flyers.  She had been with one in her youth.  Just let them be, she thought as she sat down at her desk.  The night deserved its pleasures.

~ ~ ~

Tilanna checked her pocket watch before flying over to her last patch of moss.  It had been eighteen minutes since her descent from the surface.  She was doing well.

Still levitating, she turned to face the other side of the moss-splashed tunnel.  The last and brightest patch of moss was roughly forty-five degrees from the top, vaguely fish-shaped and three times her length.  She flew the full hundred metres, grateful she could still keep herself warm so far underground.  The moss patch expanded to fill her view.  After spending a few seconds adjusting to the glare, she took her crystal out of her pocket and gently pressed it against the moss.  The blue-white glow gave her hand a neon-like sheen.  Her mind meshed with the crystal, measuring the luminosity of the moss in milliwatts per square centimetre, then quickly using her own brain (unlike many other students) to convert the reading into watts per metre.  Her reading complete, she recorded it in the crystal before shifting it to another part of the moss patch.  Five readings were necessary to provide a reliable average.

Tilanna froze in the middle of her second reading, distracted by the faintest tickling sensation on the inside of her skull.  She turned away from the moss, looking down the distant bend in the tunnel.  Were those two male students awake?  She scanned in their direction.  The granite walls turned translucent as her point-of-view rushed through them, rapidly decelerating as it approached the two students.  Tilanna recognised both of them.  The Human was in her Mythology and Culture class.  Was Vithan his name?  He had a long pale face and hair as jet-black as his clothing.  Like many of those trendy campus sceptics, he loved to joke about the absurd implications of taking legends literally, just as much as he loved to debate about their symbolism.  He and the tiger-striped Dragon duelled rather frequently in the sky over Kesalzhin; but it was only an act, or a sport at most.

The tiger-striped Dragon purred as he slept.  He held the sleeping man close in the coil of his tail, sheltering him under the vast veined tent of his wing.  The Dragon’s aura filled the scene with soft radiance.  They appeared as peaceful as two living creatures could ever be.

The pair shot away into the distance as Tilanna retracted her scan-vision.  She certainly had nothing to worry about from those two males.  The twitch in her mind was nothing more than a false alarm - perhaps a dream from one of the sleeping pair going transleak for an instant.  She would remember to leave the Dragon access door open for them when she returned to the surface ... in thirty minutes, not one second more.

She returned her attention to the moss.

~ ~ ~

On the beach, the invaders were gathering.

The thirty-two Dragons faded into view as they returned from their perimeter errand, their pouches empty.  Syjilika added her invisibility field to Daal’s, ensuring that all the Dragons were unseen from outside as they landed on the sand.

Daal walked up to the most lightly built of the Dragons - one of his original sailship crew.  He was red and white, like a fox, and wore the two thin gold neckbands of a Patrol Officer - the lowest and most common rank of the thirty-two Dragons present.  While the other Dragons were built like Nekalifan temples, this young male was lean and serpentine.  One could tell from his bright scales that he was in his twenties; and this was for a species that did not reach “middle age” until two hundred.  Furthermore, it was well known that his psionic strength was average for the general adult Dragon population - below par for the fighting body of the Skywatch.

Yet the other Dragons did not look down on Tanekyra.  All but the highest-ranking officers treated him as an equal. 

On each side of Tanekyra’s neckbands was an eight-pointed star.  The star stood for “specialist”, yet that was the understatement of the century.  As far as the surrounding Dragons were concerned - indeed, as far as the entire Skywatch was concerned - Tanekyra was The Crystal Expert.

“Formation is complete, Sir,” said Tanekyra.  “Reaction should take place in exactly one minute.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” said Daal, “because if this fails, we’ll know who to blame.”

Tanekyra’s gaze was steady.  “Be assured,” he said, “what I lack in raw power I make up for in precision.”

Everyone was staring at Tanekyra.  Everything that they had worked for, lied for, stolen for, killed for, risked their lives for depended upon this minute, this young buck.  He had been deeply involved in the latter stages of the secret government project.  He had arranged the theft of the fruits of that very project.

The other Dragons treated him as an equal, and thus judged him by similar standards.  If he failed them, they would punish him as an equal.

The giant crystals had been placed in circular formation around the island - some on the beach, some in the sea.  They were each about a kilometre apart; only three degrees of the circle they described.  And they were set to react within the next forty seconds.

Daal’s Human crew had been psychologically conditioned for what was going to happen, in order to maximise their concentration.

“They’ll definitely see this from the mainland, Sir,” said Jihosky.
“I should hope so,” said Daal.

Jihosky took out his chain pocket watch.

“Twenty seconds ... Nineteen ... Eighteen ... Seventeen ...”

Tilanna pocketed her crystal, then floated down the base of the tunnel, preparing to relax before her journey back to the surface ... in twenty minutes exactly.

“... Fourteen ... Thirteen ... Twelve ...”

Alathaka took up a good part of the ancient courtyard as she sat, speed-reading the luminous, shifting Draconic runes that danced above the crystal before her.

“... Nine ... Eight ... Seven ...”

Vithan and Olokuvon slept soundly.

“... Four ... Three ... Two ... One.”

Jihosky put down his watch and looked around, his gaze aimed high at the evening sky.

Nothing happened.

Tanekyra blinked several times, breathing heavily.  It was clear that he could feel the pressure of dozens of gazes - Daal’s especially.

Daal raised a glowing hand.  “Make your peace wi-”

The beach lit up, and a column of white light rose into the night sky like a vertical sun, towering above the silhouetted trees in the foreground.  Even the Dragons had to bend their necks to follow its ascent into the stars.  A thunderous roar like a million waterfalls followed a second later, rustling trees in its wake.

Tanekyra sighed.  “Thank Tikamath,” he said in his own language.

A second column towered further in the distance, then a third, then a fourth.  Nets of bluish light - as high as the columns themselves - wove from one to the other.

~ ~ ~

All over Kesalzhin College, students stopped in their tracks and gazed up, some dropping their food or drinks or crystals, many dropping their jaws.  The rising columns of light dwarfed the mightiest architecture, here or anywhere.  Crystal lamps dimmed and flickered all around.

Alathaka jerked her head up from her text crystal.  “What in Tikamath’s Name?” she snarled to herself in her native language.  Harsher curses followed.

Kilometres below, Tilanna sat in the base of the moss-streaked tunnel, gazing upward, her scan vision on maximum.  “No ...” she said to herself.  “No.”

Kilometres away, Vithan and Olokuvon awoke with a start, having sensed the same nightmarish power surge, tugging for their attention like a falling sensation.  The lamps they had been relighting were now flickering, confirming the nightmare’s reality.

“Can you feel that?” said Vithan.

Olokuvon instinctively tightened his tail-coil around Vithan.  “The power is tremendous,” he said.
“What’s going on up there?” said Vithan.

A hundred storeys above the surface, Kalina stepped out onto the balcony, already in a daze.

The cage of light surrounded all the visible campus and forest, filling the sky.  On the paths below, hundreds of Human students stood in the flickering lamplight, gawking at the vastly grander light that was caging in their college, their entire island, bar by celestial bar.

Energy cage, thought Kalina, desperately clinging on to rationality in the midst of her shock.  But the largest ever recorded energy cages were located in the Haxlia Dragon Rehabilitation Centre, and each had a diameter of four hundred metres.  This one was a hundred times as wide, had ten thousand times the base area.  The expense would have been unthinkable.

She looked directly upward, and gripped the barrier.  For the first time since childhood, she was experiencing vertigo.  The night sky was being reduced to a disk of darkness, its stars dimmed by the greater light that enclosed them.  Dozens of shafts of light radiated out from the disk, fattening as they extended outwards and downwards to enclose the ground all around her...

Her mind, accustomed to grasping the scale of things, faltered before the scene above and around.
The cage was closing, column by column.  The disk above was almost complete.  Judging by the relative size of the disk of sky above the cage ... those columns had to be at least two hundred kilometres high.  No Human or Dragon had ever flown at that altitude - at least, not in recorded history.

Kalina knew that there were others to call to; but they would come anyway, their agendas tempered by ancient patience.  For now, more immediate help was needed.

The rapidly closing gap in the cage faced toward the mainland.  Kalina faced it, focusing on the Republic of Varantua hundreds of kilometres across the sea, on its capital city of Panument, exerting all her mindpower in a telepathic scream ... until the final column rose in her way, and her transmission dissolved in a crackle of random thought.

Daal watched the rise of the final column with a certain paternal pride; he had not created the city shield, but he had adopted it.  The last net of blue fire wove its way from the last column to the first, blocking off the ocean a hundred metres from the beach.  The shield was closed.  He turned to his crew.

“There’s only one Dragon left, but we still have to contend with over a thousand Humans.  A handful of them would have Sentinel potential.  That is why mass mesmerism is absolutely essential.  Despite their numbers, our collective will is more than enough to overpower theirs.  Remember, we are dealing with artists and academics, not fighters.  Take them by surprise, render them docile, and we eradicate the need for physical conflict.  We must cultivate a reasonable public image if the Global Council is to meet our demands.

“Altogether now, commence levitation.  Break into formation.  Hold moderate camouflage until we reach the campus.”

As one, the invasion force began to levitate.

Alathaka stalked along the adequately broad pathway, her head slung low, her ears flattened, parting Human crowds like an axe through driftwood.  They wandered and ran past her, their minds and voices in frenzy.  The energy cage was doing it to them - its scale, its rhythmic rippling, its broadcast of raw mindless power into the ether.  Dragons, however, were made of stronger stuff.  Alathaka knew that this phenomenon was many orders of magnitude above a mere illusion or psionic prank, yet too familiar in form to be some bizarre Kujira experiment.  Only a large nation had the means and will to produce such rigidly structured energy on such a scale.  The implications were very serious indeed.

Beneath her active intellect, the crisis was peeling Alathaka’s psyche right down to the core.  Instinct was taking over - the urge to defend one’s territory, one’s clan, even if such were adopted or temporary.  Her reactor-stomach vaporized the last remnants of her bovine meal, pumping waves of energy into her internal force fields and aura.  How dare they invade Kesalzhin!  This was her College!  These were her friends!  Someone was going to fry for this!

She was still stalking just before the mindwave stopped Human and Dragon alike in their tracks.

In the thousands of years Humans and Dragons had shared a sixth sense, there had been countless thousands of words to describe the countless thousands of textures available to that sixth sense.  As usual, cultures and languages had chosen some of the harshest sounding words to describe the most unpleasant of those textures.  The Lythinians had vyskhaxa, the psychic equivalent of intense light glaring into one’s eyes that hit the back of the brain like a solid object and scrambled one’s thoughts into gibberish.  The Nekalifans had khuktak, the psychic equivalent of having a dozen drill instructors screaming fast and complicated orders in one’s ears that one had to comprehend and recall in complete detail because the lives of millions depended on it.  The Varantuans had krakesquea (which only worked on Humans), the intensified revulsion of one’s own body as all nerve endings and the flow of blood along thousands of kilometres of veins was suddenly felt all at once.  The Dragons had a word that sounded like a gargling howl that tapered off into a bloodcurdling hiss.  This described the imaginary burning itch deep in one’s marrow that one felt like clawing through hide and flesh and bone just to extinguish.

The staff and students of Kesalzhin Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted felt all these sensations and more.  Some held their hands to their ears and shut their eyes, trying to keep out the deluge of unwelcome sensation - a reflex action that dated back to a time when the sixth sense in Humans was too weak to be proven.  Some fell on their knees and outspread their arms, avoiding contact with their own bodies.  Some vomited.  Kalina gripped the barrier tight and took deep breaths, directing her psychic energies inward to disinfect her polluted mind, outward to stem the flow of further assault.

Alathaka roared.

Olokuvon leapt from the tunnel base.  His throat screamed in Draconic, but Vithan caught the unmistakeable image in the telepathic shockwave.  Alathaka.

Instantly Vithan reached out and halted the Dragon in midair.  He levitated to the struggling Olokuvon’s level, keeping his arm outstretched, his fingers clawed.  The gesture was symbolic; yet essential for visualising the invisible net of psychokinetic force he needed to restrain the writhing, clawing, twenty-five-ton Dragon.  It was not pleasant.  It felt as if someone had stabbed his palm with an icicle that penetrated all the way to his elbow nerve.  It felt as if a rat-sized Dragon was clawing on the inside of his skull, searing his entire system as it grated the bone.  He also felt the very real trickle of blood under his nose, the price of straining his mindpowers to near-suicidal limits.  There was no way he would last another minute.

The roles were reversed.  The Dragon was effectively in the Human’s pocket, and the experience was painful for both.

“There’s nothing you can do,” said Vithan between gritted teeth.  “You’ll be outnumbered.”

“Thus I shall die fighting!”

In an agonising burst of added effort, Vithan spun Olokuvon around to face him.

“Listen to me!  Victory is all about timing.  If we rush into this, we last a few seconds.  Or we can bide our time and take a few more of the buggers than we would otherwise.  We have that choice.”

His pain was easing.  That was a good sign.  Olokuvon was willing to listen.

“And what of Alathaka’s choice?” said Olokuvon.

“She's even stronger than you.  She can look after herself.”

“Then she’ll be the first to die!”

The Dragon psychokinetically flung Vithan against the tunnel wall.  Vithan’s shield cushioned the impact, but the granite shattered around him.  At least the real pain was over - his restraint of Olokuvon had well reached its limit.

“Is it inconceivable that she is also outnumbered?” added Olokuvon, his striped scowl huge in the flickering lamplight as he floated towards Vithan.

“If she’s dead, you’ll feel it.”

Breathing more calmly, Olokuvon closed his eyes.  He opened them after a few seconds.  “She’s unharmed,” he said.  “Occupied, but unharmed.”

“You see?  We still have a chance.  This is not like one of our little fencing duels.  This is real.  To the death.”

"Is your college worth fighting for?  Are your friends worth dying for?"

"Don’t you go doubting my integrity like that."

“Are you prepared to die?  To cease to exist?  To become nothing?  With no reward awaiting you for your courage?”

Vithan inhaled a trembling breath.  It was not like his friend to mock his atheism so bluntly.  But then, it was he who had brought up the subject of death; and he did not have a loved one up there being held hostage.  Who was he to moralise at a time like this?  He had to be honest.  Olokuvon would know if he were lying.  Did he want to live for another hundred years knowing that he had neglected to save lives, knowing that he could have made a difference?  Perhaps he could live with that.  People would understand.  He was right about being outnumbered.  But would he let Olokuvon fight alone?  Olokuvon would never leave his side in a time of true danger.  

Vithan envied Dragons.  He envied their courage, their determination, their unshakeable beliefs - whether in their Goddess or themselves.  If Vithan could spend the final hours of his existence knowing what this felt like, then, perhaps, it would all be worth it.

There was only one answer he could live with.

“Not in vain.”        

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RE: Project Heavenstorm (Chapter One of my novel) - by DarrenRyding - 11-08-2019, 02:19 AM

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