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Caelum, Sci-fi, Chapter 0



This is the first chapter of Caelum. Actually it would be more accurate to say this is the sixth version of the first chapter of Caelum. This is the single oldest story I have, and I've written and rewritten it over and over. I'm finally at the point where I think I can do it justice, so here it is.

The Cover art was done by the talented Lux Nova, and you can find her over at: https://www.instagram.com/luxnovastudio/

She has an amazing selection of prints available, and I own a few of them myself.

In any case, on to the story.

On a distant Planet known to humanity as Caelum, a valuable resource is literally in the air itself. Always seeking an edge against other factions, a group was sent to colonize the planet to exploit its natural bounty. On arrival, they were surprised to find that a technologically advanced civilization was emerging from underground. Following years of border skirmishes, the rise of an old enemy drives a clash that would ultimately see humanity reduced to a shadow of its former presence on the world. Decades later, Skye, a young human living among a village of the native Shard finds himself thrust into the center of events that will forever change the world.


0

I crept forward, my eyes scanning the forest ahead of me for movement. The trees were massive, easily as thick across as twice my arm span. I knew that if I looked upwards, I’d see their branches stretch for hundreds of feet, as if trying to touch the violet-hued sky. Now wasn’t the time for that, though. Now was time for the hunt.

Around me were the Shard. My father’s enemies and the only people I had ever known. Taller and thinner than most humans. Their gray-blue skin would normally have made for stark contrast with the reddish vegetation around them. Each wore golden ceremonial armor around the shoulders, stomach, and upper legs that was all sweeping curves.

You would think they’d be easy to see in the reds, purples, and muted browns of the forest. When they channeled what they called their “ascendance”, however, they could cover their bodies with a shimmering field that made them nearly impossible to see. My suit had built-in stealth systems as well, and, while not as effective as those of the Shard, they would do.

One of the Shard approached me as we moved stealthily through the forest. He tapped my shoulder pad with a four-fingered hand and nodded. “Are you well, Skye?” he asked. “As good as I can be, Kite,” I shrugged, glancing up at him. Over six feet tall, Kite was considered to be of average height for his species. The bristly hair he shared with most Shard was cropped close to his head.

He pulled at the dozens of small tentacles on his chin that made up his “beard”. They were finally starting to grow in. “Try to be careful. Krystal is likely to kill me should you injure yourself,” he said half-jokingly. “That would be fun to watch,” I answered with a smile. “Perhaps, but not fun to experience,” he responded, brushing his fingers absently along the large bony growth on his upper chest. I recognized the gesture. It meant he was thinking of something unpleasant.

A cry sounded in the forest. The sound of some animal in its death throes. Kite immediately melted back into the scenery. Sweat began to bead on my forehead, and I fought the urge to wipe it away. Not that I would have been able to anyway, unless I wanted to try and get through the reinforced visor of my Exo-Suit.

To be fair, I probably could. The suit itself was some six hundred pounds of ultra-dense accendium. Heavy armor plates with muscle-fiber bundles underneath made me strong enough to tear through concrete bare handed. The only reason I could even move around in it was due to its built-in power-generator.

I shook my head to clear the distractions away. I needed to focus. This was only the third time the Shard hunting party had decided to bring me, and I needed to prove it was worth it. I glanced down at the weapon in my hands, checking it for what felt like the thousandth time in the last hour. The Dragon-V, a black assault rifle that magnetically accelerated ammunition through a sleek barrel. Accurate and capable of putting a hole in just about anything.

I rose my weapon to my cheek and carefully moved forward with the others. From some distance ahead came another death cry. I winced. Whatever the Raaed killed, they did so brutally. That’s why we were taking all these precautions. The large group. The stealth. We wanted to make sure that we were the ones jumping them and not the other way around.

Thankfully, we had someone with us whose skill at tracking and moving silently put most of the Shard to shame. The air shimmered a meter or so in front of the shard at the head of our group, like a heat haze against the trees and undergrowth. The haze faded away and, in its place, stood a girl.

Krystal was just a bit shorter than I was, though as far as anyone knew we were the same age. Her brown hair fell in waves to the middle of her back, and I knew, if I was closer, I would see the emerald of her eyes. My heart always skipped a beat when I saw her. She searched the group and smiled as she found me. I smiled back. She turned her attention back to the leading Shard.

“Report,” he said in a gruff voice. “There are thirty or so of them, Elder Muro. Just Karak, like we thought,” Krystal answered. He looked at her with his usual intensity, as if weighing her words. The Shard had never really respected me, but with Krystal it was a different story.

While my E-S was built to take the brunt of a frontal assault, Krysal wore a less armored, but more specialized, stealth version. Slimmer, it was armored mainly in the torso with overlapping plates of accendium that shifted soundlessly over each other as she moved. Even when her stealth systems were disabled, her armor still seemed to mask her movements somehow.

Her weapon was also very different. A longer barrel, as well as more robust construction, marked it out as a Phoenix-III sniper rifle. Two knives the size of her forearms hung off the belt at her hips. I realized I was staring and looked back at the Shard she had spoken to. Elder Muro seemed to make up his mind and acknowledged Krystal with a polite nod. He gestured the rest of his warriors forward. Krystal waited until Kite and I were level with her.

“How’s the, uh, third time?” She asked the two of us, a smile on her face. “Please refrain,” Kite begged, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “My mother would make us wish we died today otherwise,” he continued, eyes looking around suspiciously, as if she would come bounding out of the forest. I had to stifle a laugh. “Your mom is a bit overbearing, Kite,” I told him, and he glared at me. “Yes. And I do not wish for her to know of our adventures outside the village. Do you?” he hissed.

“Fair point,” I conceded, looking back over at Krystal. “All good?” I asked, and she nodded, looking up ahead. “We’ll be there in a few minutes, so it’s time to shut up boys. Good luck. See you on the other side,” she told us. Her hand found mine, and she squeezed. I squeezed back.

Krystal began to fade into our surroundings. “Stay safe, Krystal,” Kite thanked her, crossing his arms in the traditional Shard salute. We caught the last flash of a smile before she was gone. I knew she was heading back up towards the front of our group. Kite looked over at me, his expression asking if I was ready. I nodded and held up an arm. He tapped the back of his wrist against mine. Soon, we would be fighting the Raaed.

True to Krystal’s word, within a few minutes we had found them. Our group spread out around a clearing filled with the ugliest creatures I had ever seen. I felt a tinge of sadness as I looked at the things in the clearing. The Raaed had found Karak hosts. They looked like wolves that had been brought into existence by some sort of madman that had never seen one before.

Their skin was a tough leather with hardened plates. A purplish-black fluid that shined with iridescence oozed out of the cracks spreading over the surface of their skin. Their three-toed front and back paws were tipped with curved claws the length of my fingers. Their three-part jaws opened and closed slowly, as if part of an unconscious motion. They looked exactly like what they were. Dangerous predators mutated by an even more dangerous foe.

It was strange to see them here. I knew this forest. It was a beautiful, peaceful place. I knew that, during the day, colorful birds flew among the branches, and you could hear the sounds of vibrant animal life. I had been hunting here. Tracking herbivores with lanky legs through the very clearing we now found ourselves at. Kite had remarked on the flower bushes, and we had stopped to collect berries for a snack.

Now, the clearing was something different altogether. There was none of the bright violet grass that would’ve normally made up the ground. Instead, it was a muddy organic sludge that was a mix of dull reds, the violet of the grass, and the blackish liquid that leaked out of the creatures the Raaed attached themselves to. It was disgusting, and I was glad my armor kept out the scent.

Thirty-two of the Karak-Raaed were scattered around the clearing. Some walked around aimlessly, their feet sinking into the sludge and popping back out with a squelch. Others gathered around the corpses of whatever animals they had killed, eating them. The sound of the crunch of bone and tearing of flesh filled the air. I wondered briefly where, inside the Karak, the Raaed were. With the flick of an eye, I selected one of my armor’s visual overlays. After a nearly imperceptible click, a shroud of purple covered my vision.

The skin and musculature of the mutated Karak I was watching popped out of existence, replaced by a faintly green wireframe outline. My armor highlighted the thing’s nervous system in hues of red, blue, and yellow. Its brain was brightly lit inside its head. The thick lines of its spinal cord split into bundles of smaller and smaller nerves.

Nestled into the base of its brain, wrapped tightly around the start of the spinal cord, was a pale shadow. The ridged, worm-like form undulated smoothly as I watched it. I had found the Raaed. A chill ran down my spine, and I blinked off the visual overlay.

I tightened my grip on my rifle. I was suddenly thankful I didn’t actually need to hit a target that small. As long as you killed the host, the Raaed died with it. My armor, linked to my rifle, automatically adjusted the sights as I lined up a shot. Now, all I had to do was wait for the order.

Less than a minute later, it came. Elder Muro came bounding out of the trees, shouting a Shard war cry. For a moment, it looked like the air around him was flipping inside out. His form became visible, but I knew he was now surrounded by a protective shield. With him, came the other members of our party, similarly protected.

The Elder raised a fist, a blade of energy coalescing around his hand. He slammed it into the head of the first Karak-Raaed. It died instantly. The first kill was his. I opened fire as some of the other Shard dove into the melee after their leader. Some had stayed behind and launched bone-shattering bolts of energy focused through their shields at the monsters. A full five Karak-Raaed died before they moved.

Just as the thought began to form that this would be easier than I expected, the monsters reacted with explosive violence. Three of them set upon a young Shard warrior and tore him apart. Another Shard cried out. I barely had time to register that one of the things had bitten off his hand.

Despite the anarchy of combat, I could see Krystal dancing among the enemy. She cut them to pieces with her glowing knives. A bright, blue-white fire wreathed the blades as they pulled in air and superheated it. Streaks of flame followed her swings, as she sliced the front paw of one of the Karak-Raaed and finished it off with a stab to the center of the forehead. I fired a burst into a Raaed that came up from behind her. She gave me a tiny nod and ran to her next target.

Kite followed behind her, glowing spheres of energy orbiting his hands. As a Karak-Raaed came at him from the side, he crushed an orb in his fist. A fine mist enveloped his palm just before he slammed it into his opponent. The mist flowed into it, and it spasmed as it died. Another leapt at him, and I saw the air around him shift. The thing looked like it slammed into a wall, falling to the floor. I finished it off, as Kite turned to face another of the Karak-Raaed.

Sweat gathered on my forehead, threatening to flow into my eyes. I blinked it away. I lined up another shot, tracking a Karak-Raaed as prepared to leap at the unprotected back of one of the Shard. I pulled the trigger, and it rolled to a stop.

My heart thudded in my chest. I could hear my blood pumping in my ears despite the clash in front of me. Focus, came a voice in my head I had only heard a few times before in my life. I felt as if my vision sharpened suddenly. Time seemed to slow as I killed a Raaed that had been coming at Kite from his blind spot and then switched to a target that had been bounding towards Krystal.

Time appeared to speed back up as the last Raaed body fell to the ground. It had only been a few minutes, but it had felt like an eternity. My muscles were tight in my armor, and my breath was ragged. I slowly came up from my crouch, my legs stiff. With a glance and a blink, my helmet opened up around my face.

The metallic front of the mask that had held the visor in place split in half, the sectioned portions sliding back until they sunk into the plated structure of my E-S. The top section pulled back in segments, following the two sides.

My helmet now off, I snapped my rifle back into the magnetic holster on my thigh. As soon as it was in place, the barrel and stock folded inwards to reduce its size. The process took less than two seconds. I took a deep breath. The smell of recent death and lingering decay mixed with the fresh air of the forest filled my lungs. I coughed and looked around, trying to find Kite and Krystal.

Karak-Raaed bodies and the occasional shard corpse were scattered throughout the clearing. They were already sinking into the muck. The sludge seemed to pulse strangely around the dead. Crisscrossing sunbeams, courtesy of the treetops high above us, tinted the scene an eerie violet. I watched for a few moments as some of the remaining shard retrieved their dead.

Kite raised a fist, and I tapped the back of his wrist with mine. “Well fought,” he grinned. “Looks like all of our time ‘practicing’ was worth it,” I smiled back. He laughed, the rush from battle still clear on his face. “Looks like you still can’t fire a bolt though,” Krystal joked from behind him. Kite turned to her with mock despair on his face. “You wound me,” he told her. “Oh yeah, I bet,” she rolled her eyes, punching him in the arm.

Krystal’s gaze fell on me. It wandered critically along my armor, searching for something I knew she wouldn’t find. “None of them even got close to me, Krystal. I’m fine,” I told her. She frowned for a moment, and then smiled. “Good,” she said, pulling me in for a kiss on the lips. I felt a flutter in my stomach. It wasn’t a new sensation. Kite coughed politely, as if to remind us we still had company, and Krystal took a deliberate step back. She still held my hand. Kite shook his head, smirking.

Krystal’s grip tightened around my fingers as she intertwined hers with mine. “Do you need to make sure I don’t have a scratch every time?” I asked her with a smile. She shrugged. “I just want to make sure my two inexperienced boys are safe and sound,” she answered brightly, a playful glint in her eyes. Kite opened his mouth as if he was going to complain, and then closed it. His eyes said he would have words if he didn’t know they’d get back to his mother. Krystal and I both laughed, and Kite joined in after a beat.

“Besides. Ever since Mom found Anna and I she’s told me I needed to keep you two safe. You’re always getting into trouble,” she added dismissively. I stared at her, my heart tightening in my chest. After a moment, her eyes widened in realization. A soft breeze swept over us, and for a moment the scents of battle were swept away.

Tears welled up in Krystal’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking down at the floor. “It’s okay,” I told her, swallowing past the lump in my throat. “It’s not your fault she died,” I told her. Krystal wiped a hand across her face, brushing away her tears. She looked at me apologetically, seeming frustrated with herself. “It isn’t yours either, you know,” she affirmed.

I opened my mouth to say I disagreed with her, but Kite wrapped an arm around each of us and pulled us in. “Enough. I believe your mother would say… what was it… lovebirds shouldn’t argue about useless shit? Yes?” Kite declared. Krystal and I both stared at Kite. He never cursed. The word sounded strange in his mouth, and for some reason it felt like he struggled to articulate it.

I burst out laughing, and Krystal soon joined in. I caught Kite’s triumphant smile through tears that were now of laughter. He let us go and swept both arms to the sides in an exaggerated gesture. “We must celebrate our victory. Your performance was nearly as good as mine, Skye. We must tell Anna. She will undoubtedly be proud,” he said. I shook my head, a grin on my face at the thought of our little sister.

Kite turned back towards the site of the battle and his smile faded. My mirth left me as I followed his gaze. It fell on the bodies of the Shard that had been pulled out of the Raaed muck. They had been arranged in a line. There was a certain rush after combat that made it easy for me to forget the consequences. Especially since my two best friends were fine.

As the other Shard began to gather around the bodies, we followed. We formed a circle around them and kneeled. Only Elder Muro stayed standing. His eyes were resolute, but there was a touch of sadness in them. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, and each of us followed suit. “For those who have fallen, we beseech the Gods to find them peace,” Muro intoned, kneeling and closing his eyes.

Around me, the voices of the Shard rose in a prayer to the god of war. A supplication for him to preserve the essences of the lost warriors. It was beautiful. The secondary, melodic language that the shard used for ceremonies always sent shivers down my spine. I joined my voice to theirs. A symphony of power barely held back by the words containing it.

We finished and rose. Elder Muro gave orders to gather the dead and return to the village. We would be home in a few hours. Kite looked at the ground in front of him. The breeze returned, stronger this time. The leaves of the trees rustled against each other. The sky was starting to darken. Kite looked up and sighed deeply. He looked at the two of us, worry on his face. “The Raaed are increasing in number. You two must be careful. I do not wish to pray over you as well.”

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