The cup of tea in my hands had gone cold, though my body still vibrated with warmth from the ritual and my mind was wandering in too many directions to care.
‘You must have known that there was a good chance you would be given a Guide.’ Valerian propped his feet up on the table like he owned the place.
‘Beth said the Higher Echelon don’t give a shit about us, about the cursed.’ I frowned and knocked his booted feet off the table.
‘We normally don’t interfere, that’s true, but there are always exceptions.’ He crossed his knees and leant back against the chair, his bright amber eyes glinting.
‘Like me?’ His hair seemed to be dancing around his head in the breeze from the ducted air; shoulder length, dark chocolate strands flitting about and exposing the high undercut beneath.
‘Like you. That offering you performed was powerful, especially given that you’re a newly awakened and untrained witch. My bosses have deemed it too unsafe to let you blunder about without proper training.’ He combed the hair out of his face.
My breath hitched and I focused on my tea.
‘Your bosses?’ I asked.
‘You’d know them as the old gods, although they may have faded from common knowledge altogether these days.’ He twirled his empty tea-cup on the table top.
‘Disgruntled underling then.’ I plucked the cup out of his grasp and set it back on the saucer.
‘I am no ones underling.’ He hissed.
‘Okay, Jesus — take a chill pill.’ His forehead wrinkled and he narrowed his eyes at me.
‘Another tea?’ He got up, collecting the cups and saucers.
‘No, thanks. I think I just need some fresh air.’ He took the dishes to the sink and I used the opportunity to study him.
He’d walked out of the shadows in the chapel the night before and scared the crap out of me. I’m annoyed to admit that I shrieked a bit. Okay, more than a little. Valerian hadn’t helped the situation; after he stopped laughing and caught his breath, he’d asked if I was retarded. It hadn’t gotten any better from there. His only redeeming quality was that he wasn’t painful to look at. It was just a pity that his personality didn’t match. I got up to head to the upper deck, and doubled over in pain as the Shift warning slammed into my chest. My breath fled and my ribs squeezed my insides to putty. My knees caved underneath me and I slumped boneless to the floor. I heaved, but managed to keep my tea in my stomach.
‘Shit.’ I groaned, using the table to haul myself back to my feet.
My whole body hurt.
‘What?’ Valerian turned around and his sneer melted into concern as he took in my rather haggard face.
‘Shift warning. Gotta get to the bridge.’ I stumbled, tripping over thin air, as I shuffled to the door.
He was by my side in a flash, wrapping his well muscled arm around my waist. I let him drag me along, daydreaming about how well toned the rest of him was. He set me down at the chair in the center of the bridge. From this chair I could control the entire ship, without the crew it once needed.
‘Hey. You still with me?’ He crouched in front of me, warm hands gently shaking my shoulders.
‘Yeah. I’m okay, just need a minute.’ I nodded slow, not wanting to jar my aching muscles further.
‘Wouldn’t it be better for you in the infirmary?’ He asked as I pulled the tablet out of my pocket and expanded it.
‘If I Shift while the Pleiades is on the ground there’s a high risk that it’ll re-materialise on or in something.’ I checked my vitals, and set the tablet aside.
My heart rate was still high but it didn’t seem like anything was wrong. I turned to the control panel on the arm of the chair.
‘Strap yourself in. I don’t know if we’ll get high enough before it happens.’ I flicked the starter switch and as the engines warmed up I ran through the pre flight checks.
‘Have you ever flown this thing before?’ Valerian looked a little green around the gills.
‘I landed her without killing myself didn’t I?’ I snapped, pushing forward on the throttle for the repulsors strapped to the undercarriage.
The Pleiades took a moment to unglue herself from the muddy surface; it had rained heavily a few days ago and the ship had sunk an inch or two into the soft top soil. The repulsors gained momentum once the seal broke, the airship climbing rapidly at nearly a hundred feet per second. I set the auto pilot to level off when we reached the lower atmosphere just as Beth had showed me, well out of reach of any aircraft flight paths, and hoped to hell we made it that high before the Shift happened. I’d gotten extremely lucky with my first Shift, having materialised in an open field on a prehistoric planet. I doubted my luck would hold out a second time.
The Shift hit me like a swift kick from the Hulk right to the gut, and I wrapped my arms around my waist to keep myself from accidentally knocking the controls. Sparks of light burst behind my eyes as pain ripped through me, leaving my body feeling raw and over sensitized. I grit my teeth and bit my tongue so I wouldn’t scream. I wouldn’t be doing that again, I yanked my tongue too hard and nearly ripped my tongue bar right out.
I felt broken.
The clock said only ten minutes had passed, but the pain had made it seem like lifetimes. Valerian was peering at me, wide-eyed and curious, like I was a sideshow act.
‘What? Want to stop staring and get me some water?’ I coughed, my lung appearing to come halfway up my throat.
He unbuckled his harness and the second he left the room I bolted for a trash chute to empty my stomach in. God, but I felt like shit in a blender. I made it back to my seat just in time for Valerian to make it back with a bottle of cold water. I sculled half of it before taking a breath, and promptly choked.
‘And now I know your gag reflex is intact.’ He smirked.
I flicked the open bottle at him, and relished in the barely muffled squeak he let out as the cold water hit him.
‘And now you’re soaked and in aircon.’ I turned to the big, curved window that wrapped around the room, giving a hundred and eighty degrees of vision.
There was an endless vista of dark blue over an expanse of greys and white. Carefully, I began to descend. I didn’t want to come down too fast if there were aircraft or buildings under all that cloud. The sun rose over the horizon just as we began to descend, bathing the clouds in vibrant colours; bright purples, bold oranges, hot pinks and a dazzling gold. It was stunning. After that the interior of the cloud quickly grew dark, flashes of lightning near blinding as they shot across the sky. Thunder rumbled and little bolts of static flickered across the window. There were lightning rods spread out across the airships exterior, which helped charge the fuel cells. The ship had close to forty percent left in the cells, and I figured it would be better to charge the ship now and not try to do it later when I was desperate. Opening the connection between the mainframe and the tablet, I extended the lightning rods from their slots over the ships body, the computer beeped at me every time a bolt hit one of the rods. Valerian had his eyes closed, whether because of the storm or the altitude I didn’t know, but I kept one eye on him and the other on the radar, fingers crossed it stayed clear all the way down.
Several large bolts skittered across the nose of the airship, arcing from one of the harvesting spikes and flaring out into the open air. An alarm buzzed on the console, and I slid my tablet out to check it.
‘What is that?’ Valerian frowned at me as though I were a child touching something I’d be told not to a hundred times.
‘An alarm, the lightning must have hit something it shouldn’t have.’ I fumbled with the tablet, opening it out into a laptop sized screen.
‘What did it hit?’ He worried a hand over his eyes.
I clicked on the annoying alarm icon and a diagnostic screen popped up. The airship had turned into a magnet, attracting all the electrical energy the storm was generating, and one stray strike had fried part of the guidance system. At least it wasn’t a critical system, I couldn’t use the guidance system anyway, considering the maps it held weren’t for any worlds I had ever visited.
‘The lightnings taken out part of the GPS system. Not much I can do about that, I don’t even know where to begin with fixing it, not like I need it anyway.’ I sighed in frustration.
I hadn’t even had the Pleiades for a whole month and I had already broken it. It was my first car all over again.
‘I know a spell you can use for that.’ Valerian winced as a particularly bright bolt of lightning coruscated across the nose of the ship.
‘A few more minutes and the ship will be fully charged, then I’ll take her down.’ I checked the fuel cell charge gauge, noting it was now over eighty percent and steadily climbing.
‘Are you sure that’s wise?’ He peered out the window, jerking backwards when a spike of static burst near his face.
‘Not entirely, but I’d rather get as close to full as I can now than be stranded till I Shift into another storm.’ I watched the gauge tick over into the nineties.
Another clutch of blinding lightning bolts slammed into the airship, and the fuel cells tipped over to a hundred percent. I hurried to retract the lightning rods. I wasn’t quick enough and an electrical surge ripped through the ship, killing all the electrical systems as it tripped an automatic shut down to purge the excess electricity. The bottom dropped out of my world as ship began to free fall, and I gripped the arms of my chair in sheer terror.
‘Well, this is where I make my exit. I’ll meet you on the ground.’ Valerians face was pinched and tight, his grip on the console turning his knuckles white.
‘What?’ I struggled against the G force of the dropping ship to look at him.
Valerian made several gestures with his hands and his body flickered several times before disappearing into thin air.
‘God damn jerk!’ I yelled at the empty seat.
The tablet powered back on moments later, followed by the mainframe and the engines. The clouds screamed past the window, and I was beginning to see green at the bottom of the glass.
‘Come on, come on!’ I willed the engines to start and the repulsors to kick in as I frantically keyed in the vertical lift command a dozen times over; the last thing I wanted was to crash to the ground in a fiery ball of pain.
I could clearly see the outskirts of a large town out the window now, tall buildings gleaming as the sun shone off their polished glass surfaces, the tallest of which bore the Catholic cross. The suburban sprawl became visible around it, and finally the lift engines fired into life, arresting my fall. My stomach threatened to escape from my mouth as the ships forward momentum was restored and I slammed back in my seat. I grabbed for the manual control yoke as the Pleiades tipped on a seventy degree angle, banking sharply to left. I tried not to over steer, pulling the yoke to the right to correct the angle till the ship levelled out before reversing the engines to slow down, though it took a few attempts. I was close enough to the ground that I could make out vehicles and the large animals on the farmland around the ship. It took a few minutes to find a large enough clear space where I could land; a fallow field behind a run down old manor house and it was a good ten minutes more before I could move my hands off the yoke and unbuckle my harness. I took several deep breaths before I pushed out of my seat and wobbled unsteadily to the charting table and the Book.
“Civilised Earth, 2104AD (AE 10662)
Oxygen levels – 20% vol (safe/average)
Median temperature – 18.4ºC / 65.12ºF
Universal Language – English
Human Development – Technological Revolution (phase 3)
Chronian presence – None
Warnings – Ecclesiastical polity (Roman Catholic) governs continental U.S.A and majority of South America.
Mounting civil unrest.
Society reliant on fossil fuels.
Paradoxical culture (1950/60’s reminiscent)”
‘Well, that sounds cheery.’ I muttered, sliding the De Vrai aside.
Tapping a couple of commands into the tablet, I checked the electrical systems were functioning properly after the auto-shutdown nearly killed me, and made a mental note to find a workaround code to prevent that from happening again.
“Are you dcead?” Valerians voice called from the hall outside the bridge.
“No thanks to you, you prize asshole.” I muttered, setting the tablet aside.
“I simply had to go and check something with my superior.” He replied, snootily.
“Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night princess.”
I limped to the bar near the what must have once been a lounge area and poured myself a finger of whiskey to calm my nerves and soothe the aches that were registering now the adrenaline was wering off.
“I can’t start teaching you magic without permission, there’s a lot of things I’m prevented from teaching you, sacred knowledge and all that.” He justified, more to himself than to me.
“Okay, whatever. Now that we’re onthe ground and no longer seconds from death, what can you tell me about this world?” I poured a second shot into the glass, silently lamenting that the whiskey bottle was nearly empty.
“Not much. The Catholic church rules a good third of the western world, particularly the Americas. They don’t take kindly to magic users, and are still burning so called witches so you need to be mindful of that when you venture out. No obvious magic, and you’ll need to mask your aura before you even think about setting foot outside this ship, your curse will register as active magic to their witch hunters, regardless if you cast anything or not.” Valerian leaned heavily on the bar, watching as I sipped at the sweet liquor.
“Great. So basically it doesn’t matter if I don’t actually know any magic to even use, but this stupid curse can get me killed anyway.”I sighed, scrubbing a hand over my face in frustration.
“I’ll teach you a cloacking spell. Maybe two. I don’t know how well trained their witch hunters are, so you’ll need to learn one of the higher calibre spells to keep the curse locked out of sight. If they have mage sight, a simpler spell would easily penetrate it.” Valerian explained, tugging the glass from my hands.
“Hey, give that back!” I lunged after the retreating glass.
“You need to be sober to learn magic, drunk spellcasting is extremely dangerous for even low level witches, with the amount of power you have you could level this town casting a spell wrong without your full faculties available to you.” He explained softly, setting the glass out of my reach.
I pouted, but didn’t object. He made sense after all.
“Fine.” I sighed.
“Okay, let’s find a space to practice then.” Valerian nodded.
I pulled up the map on the tablet that I had taken to carrying around with me, and tried to find a space. One of the dining halls was labelled as a range, I wasn’t sure if it was for weapons or magic but I pointed it out and we decided to check it out. It was a short walk, made in silence that wasn’t entirely awkward. The range was a long, rectangular room, with tables and chairs stacked three rows deep against the back wall and a massive floor to ceiling window opposite it that looked out over the rear deck. The deck was covered in lush greenery, and I realised it was the pools Beth said had been converted to planters.
“Give me a moment to ward the place and we’ll start.” Valerian said, fingers moving quickly and creating more of the odd shapes I had seen him using when he disappeared on me during the freefall.
I snooped around the space as he worked, half paying attention to the words he muttered in concert with his finger puppetry, half looking for anything out of place. The room looked, for all intents and purposes, like a disused dining room, but I had come to expect that with this ship nothing was as it seemed. There was a thick layer of something covering the wall at the far end, pock marked with tiny dents as though something had exploded against it. The chandeliers that must have once hung from the ceiling were resting near the door we had entered through, and the hallway that led to the kitchen was stacked with yet more chairs, buffet carts and other items that were once used by the staff for service. Several minutes later Valerian called that he was done. I squared my shoulders, shaking off the buzz from the whiskey, and stepped back into the middle of the room. Time to start getting my shit together.