Jeb set off for the cave as the first stirrings of dawn lit the eastern sky. Any other morning the village would already have been alive with the sounds of farmhands travelling up to the high meadows, but today they slumbered recovering from the night’s festivities.
He dressed quickly favouring a light, loose fitting shirt better suited for climbing. He tugged in frustration at the scraggy blonde mop of hair that refused to stay put the only trait he and his sister shared. A snort from his father’s bed caused Jeb to freeze, sprawled across the bed mouth agape it was evident Broughton was still sleeping off the drunk he’d staggered back home in. Cautiously Jeb slipped from the cabin not wanting to wake the man; he had no wish for a beating this morning.
He was relieved Vespa had not yet returned from camp. She would only have followed and with her came the questions, ceaseless and irritating. His frustration often resulted in a thrown rock and a harsh word, only for her to linger out of range like a scolded dog snapping at him.
He’d wanted to ride Shadow, but the gelding’s excited whinnies would have woken the village. Instead, he would make the long trek to the mountains on foot.
He made good time across the lowlands the silence of the meadows broken only by the occasional hum of a zip bug going about its business. Lost in his thoughts, the craggy face of the mountainside soon loomed into view.
The rock face was a sheer climb stretching off out of view. He craned his neck picking his route amongst the handholds and crevices that pockmarked the stone, the higher reaches still hidden by the morning mists. Securing a firm grip, he pushed off with a grunt, quickly finding his way.
He enjoyed the silence his mind focused on the ascent, at just fifteen turns he was tall for his age and muscled from helping on the farm, assets for the strenuous task ahead. Surefooted he scampered easily up the vertical face, every handhold and crag a familiar friend to him, he’d scaled the area so often he boasted he could have done it blindfolded.
Just short of the thinning mists he paused to catch his breath, a light sweat covering his body causing the shirt to cling to him. A sudden chill blast of mountain air was a welcome respite from the heat of the sun’s first rays.
From his vantage, the view extended over the entire valley far below him the village slumbered in the distance. His gaze followed the meandering dirt track leading away from his home towards the high meadows and fields where the crops would soon be ready for gathering. His musings were loudly interrupted by a flock of Whoot Horn’s as they swooped overhead, the first signs of the encroaching winter turn. Watching the birds turn to specks amongst the jumble of granite peaks he searched for Hyber’s little camp, somewhere out there the old storytellers compound hid with its sprawling vegetable patches and orchard bursting with Snap Apples. Savouring the memory his mouth watered, he could almost taste their sharp sweet tang on his tongue. His thoughts tinged with sadness; today was his choosing, and he would not make this trip again. Shaking off the melancholy, he set his jaw and lunged upwards to continue his climb.
The sun had yet to hit the mountain side fully as he pulled himself grunting and sweating over the ledge, the cave entrance hidden in the shadow of the towering rock face. Cave seemed a silly name for the structure as it now resembled something far grander than a simple animals den. Upon a time it had been a mine. A seam of precious Valonsteel ore had been discovered quite by accident, and it had become something of a novelty, farming being up to then the sole occupation available to the village. Valonsteel highly sought after by weapon-smiths, specifically those of the Kolream Forgeworlds who used it to produce the Pyr Swords and Gnash Hammers of the Imperium knights. But after many months of hard toil the effort had barely garnered enough of the ore to make a handful of soup spoons, and so the operation had been abandoned.
Some time later Zefram had returned from the crusade’s, finding himself shunned by the village for his strange dress and ways, he’d set up home in the mountains. Jeb had spent that summer helping the old man convert the mine into a home, much to his father’s disapproval.
But what interested Jeb and where he’d spent every spare moment since was the Akir cruiser that the old man had travelled in. Mol was the ships integrated on-board operator the brain of the craft; she controlled all the systems and could even run the ship on her own in some limited capacity. Over the many turns, she had developed some quirks in her personality matrix, crotchety she treated Jeb like a constant annoyance.
He waited a moment at the cave entrance; the steel shutter was still down meaning the old man hadn’t woken yet. He snuck into the cavernous hanger where Mol resided. Not part of the original excavation, he’d assisted his grandfather in its construction. With judicious use of WAM charges and a portable blast fuser, it had taken them a fraction of the time the mine had, even if the resultant noises and flying debris had done little to encourage the village to alter its views of Zefram.
The hanger always took Jeb’s breath away whenever he powered up the lamps. The light would pick up the blue seams of Valonsteel crisscrossing the cavernous ceiling; they shimmered like bolts of lightning etched into the rock.
Before him Mol floated in the centre of the chamber, the gravity anchors holding her in place. She was neither sleek nor some clunky freighter but somewhere between, parts of her almost feminine in the curve of the plate. At the cockpit, she was all business with two additions of Zeph’s. Military grade blaster pods suspended either side of the view ports, resembling the antlers found on full grown Moosecrab’s. When the lights were on in the cabin, it was almost as if she was scowling at you.
He paused a moment at the massive Grav Bike hidden beneath a tarp. He’d spent many joyous hours churning up Old Man Gangle’s fields with it, or chasing down the mountain shriek cats that had ventured into the valley; they were fast, but this could almost catch them. Behind in the shadows was the vault, only Zeph had the code for that. Inside it housed his ceremonial MASS armour, as worn by the Knights order. He’d seen it once, hunched over like a slumbering giant it shone a dark Valonsteel blue and had been terrifying and breathtaking all at once.
His precious morning fading fast he climbed the gantry attached to the side of the ship, he approached the outer airlock situated in the lower rear of the craft.
He cranked open the magnetic bolts with a satisfying clunk, the door folding inward smoothly despite its apparent weight and size. As he stepped inside the first fluttering of the ships internal lighting flickered on, and the warm air of the ventilation enveloped him like a glove. Mol stirred with a low mechanical purr. He snatched a holo-mic from his pocket and clipped it to his ear. The tiny unit booted into life, and a HUD fuzzed into view suspended in the air before his left eye.
A blast of static caused him to snatch at the mic, ear-splitting in the quiet of the cabin.
“Damn you, Mol!” Jeb rubbed at the buzzing in his ear. She’d done that on purpose.
“Well if you will sneak in like some dirty Jagger what do you expect” Mol’s female voice reminded him of when Hyber had caught him stealing fruit from her garden three summers ago, although her language was usually more colourful than the old women’s.
“I’m going to finish those load test’s we started last week.”
Ignoring her he crouched down at one of the maintenance panels and pulled it free setting it aside, he dragged himself through the hatch. It was cramped inside, and the shaft dropped off sharply, the pull of the ships artificial gravity kept you safe, so up could be down. The downside was you could easily lose your bearings. He’d brought in a small satchel of tools and begun the process of connecting to the systems. The ship twitched against the gravity wells that held her.
“Easy old girl” Jeb patted the inside of the hatch affectionately.
“Nobody calls me ‘old girl’ except Zeph! Now get your Fugging paws out of my systems!”
Jeb let out a sigh. “Let me finish running these diagnostics, or would you rather you blew a drive coupling next launch,” Jeb muttered to himself under his breath. “I ought to put a couple of Scroatch toads in your primary servo’s that’ll shut you up.”
Suddenly the internal lighting flicked off plunging him into darkness. “How’d you like it if I shut off the gravity and drop you on your head farm boy?”
Jeb tried to remain calm, but he suspected she might do it. He released his hands on the tools in surrender. “Ok! Ok, you win.”
He started to back out the way he’d come.
The lights blazed back on blinding him, overhead he heard the dull clunk of the hatch followed by the unmistakable voice of his grandfather booming through the ship.
“Just what the Crug is going on in here?”
Jeb appeared out of the hatch as Zeph finished securing the mag-locks on the airlock. His Grandfather turned to face him his expression stern, his beard gray as his head, white in places it was cut short in the military style of the Imperium. He wore tight fitting tan fatigues usually worn under a knight’s armour, topped with a thick black waistcoat adorned with commendations gathered throughout his battles. At his waist, a blaster hung heavy from its holster. Something he always wore that drove Jeb’s father crazy. Very few weapons could be found in the settlement and of those most were low-grade rifles used for hunting. The weapon Zefram had could level the village with little effort.
Jeb did his best to avoid the steely blue gaze of his grandfather, his eyes fell to the brand the old man carried on his cheek or ‘Meat Tag’ all Knights took the mark one day he would.
Zefram cleared his throat in a rough blast and Jeb looked up; he knew he was for it.
“Why in the seven systems are you fugging around up here, you should be preparing for the ceremony. And how many times have I told you to stay out of her damn innards.”
Zefram laid a hand on a panel gently.
“You know how tetchy she can get in the mornings.”
Mol remained silent, but Jeb could sense her smugness in the way the lights glowed.
The old man craned his neck to look anxiously down the access corridor leading to the bridge.
“Your sister’s not in the damn cockpit again?”
Jeb winced at the remembrance of when Vespa had fooled around at the primary controls only Mol’s quick reactions had averted his sister blowing a hole through the mountain.
“How many times do I have to say it, she’s not a damn toy.” Zefram’s words trailed away lost in thought for a moment. But soon his full attention was back on Jeb.
“Your fool father needs few reasons to bust my chops over you kids coming up here without you handing him one on a plate. Go get!”
Standing at the hatch Jeb turned with a broad smile.
“I’d surely love to take her up before I go.”
“Would you now? I’ve said it before we’re retired. Planet hopping’s a game for the young.”
“Speak for yourself.”
Zefram scowled up at the ship. “And you should know that better than most.” He levelled his eyes back at Jeb. “You still here?”
And with that he was done, Jeb understood better than to argue and he slouched off. Zefram’s words ringing in his ears.
“And no climbing! Take the gorram lift!”