Skylark in the Fog by Helyna L. Clove
Series: N/A, Stanalone
Genre: Sci-Fi, Space Opera
Intended Age Group: New Adult/Adult
Published: September 6, 2022
Publisher: Story Well Publishing, LLC
So when the universe falls to pieces, it doesn’t mean your life has to, right? That comes later.
Jeane Blake, captain of the spaceship Skylark, makes her living by looting dead worlds, planets fallen prey to naturally occurring wormhole-like rifts plaguing the cosmos. She survives the only way she knows how: avoiding commitment and arguing with her dead foster father’s ghost. But when her crew stumbles upon an alien device that could collapse the wormhole network and wipe out all sentient life, they catch the hungry eyes of the Union, a tyrannical empire hunting the sinister tech.
As she flees the Union’s brainwashed agents, Jeane is forced to take on a shady mission and gets stuck assisting the runaway monarch of a technocrat planet. Queen Maura Tholis is seeking the aid of an interstellar resistance to reclaim her war-torn world, with another trouble-magnet device as her bargaining chip: a glove that allows her to command AI systems. Jeane couldn’t care less about the whole deal, but things become personal when the Union annexes the place she calls home. And it might be her fault.
Reluctant to become weapons in the hands of power-hungry militants and desperate rebels, smuggler and queen join forces. But to save their homes, they must redefine themselves, work with the enemy, and face personal traumas they’d buried long ago—and only stars know which challenge might break them in the end.
Author Bio & Information
Helyna L. Clove (she/her) is a science-fiction/fantasy novelist and a lover of all types of storytelling, hot comfort drinks, and a universe full of stars. She has been writing stories of thrilling adventures in expansive imaginary worlds since primary school but only recently has stepped out into the world with her books. Skylark in the Fog is her debut novel.
When not writing, Helyna can be found doing her day job, astrophysics, staring at pretty molecular spectra and commandeering radio telescopes, reading, cooking, playing video games, or trying her hand at different art forms. She currently lives in Wales with her small family of a wonderful boyfriend and Puddle, the tortoiseshell cat.
Author Website: https://helynalclove.com/
Publisher Site: https://storywellpublishing.com/
Part I – It’s a long lane that has no turning
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
(Lanehunter prayer, originally from Old Earth, excerpt from Crossing the Bar by Lord Alfred Tennyson)
Chapter 01 | Wild Lark Chase
The moment the first missile crashed into the Skylark, Captain Jeane Blake realized she had gravely underestimated the danger they’d gotten themselves into.
The spaceship jolted, and a series of yellow warning messages flashed up on the screens. On the radar display, the markers showing the Lark and the Union vessel hot on its trail flickered in and out of existence in the interference, and the gravitational anomalies of the lane kept throwing both ships off-course. Their pursuer was gaining on them.
“The generator didn’t like that,” Kliks groaned in the co-pilot seat. His lean form hunched over the console, large black eyes tracking the numbers on the status indicator. “Alignment issue, I think. Can we get out of here now?”
Jeane frowned at the code running on the main computer screen, then at the model above, where the Skylark’s current trajectory appeared atop the schematic representation of the lane: a stream of parallel lines forming a shifting and contorting chasm in the spacetime continuum. “We need five more minutes to compute a vector,” she said. Although only a rough estimate, that sounded like just enough time to be blown to smithereens by an overeager Union agent.
Her Talalan companion made a frustrated noise, realizing the same thing. “I’ll take a look. We won’t get far without proper thrust.”
He stood, crossed the cabin with one long stride, shoved the door open, and stormed out. Only a few seconds ahead of the next blow from the Union vessel.
The hit shook the entire ship, and this time, the artificial gravity grid in the walls and the floor couldn’t compensate fast enough. The impact pushed Jeane to the deck, and while she grasped for the edge of the console, a bone-chilling metallic creak reverberated through the hull, making her teeth grind.
She hauled herself up and punched the comms button. “Kliks, come in! Are you okay?”
One of the lamps above released a spray of sparks over her keyboard, and the next second, all the lights blinked out in the cabin. The engines sputtered one last time before they gave up the fight. Silence and darkness fell over the Skylark.
Jeane sank back into her chair, and as the ventilation wound down around her, she took a shaky breath and started counting her heartbeats.
Eight, nine, ten, eleven—then the auxiliary generator rattled to life.
The shrill sound of an alarm filled the cabin. Jeane shuddered, swallowed the acrid bile rising in her throat, and scanned the awakening displays. Most of the ship’s instruments reported errors, their shields and the engines were down, and although the front screen flickered to life to show the immediate environment of the Lark—nothing but the glow of this precarious tunnel in spacetime they’d decided was a good idea to jump into—the main computer remained offline.
She killed the alarm and tried the comms again. “Kliks? ALU? What’s your stat, guys?”
There was no answer. Panic crept up her spine. They were dead in the water in the middle of a gods-forsaken lane with an apeshit agent set on offing them. How’d this day gotten so bad, so fast?
“…got us on the tail…fell down the frickin’ ladder!” Kliks’ words started pouring out of the speaker, occasionally dropping into silence just to reassemble into somewhat comprehensible phrases a second later. “I’m afraid the generator…to bring back power!”
He sounded pissed, but at least he was alive.
“What do you suggest?” Jeane’s gaze kept wandering back to the swirling fog of the lane displayed on the screen. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the void outside was watching her.
“The bastard…stopped shooting at us, so…and look at it.”
Jeane pushed away from the console, detaching the flashlight from the belt of her cargo pants. “I’m going down there. Is ALU with you?”
“They’re on their way up. …a vector?”
“Nope, system fried first. Don’t move. I’m coming.”
She barely walked out into the darkened corridor when a series of sorrowful beeps sounded off from ahead. With another step forward, the flashlight beam fell on her technician’s angular form.
“No power,” ALU said, crestfallen. They seemed uninjured, but their insect eyes scanned the hallway as if they were waiting for an ambush. Their squat, boxy body bounced up and down, and they waved their four multi-jointed, metallic arms around. “Don’t like it.”
Jeane reached down and grabbed them by one long limb, turning them around and marching them across the darkness. “Give me something useful!”
“Structural integrity sixty-three percent. Life support ten percent,” ALU recounted, pattering forward. Without power, gravity would linger in the ship for several hours, so at least they wouldn’t have to acrobatics their way through it for now. “Generator and shields at zero. Engine room sealed off.”
Skies damnit. Shouldn’t have asked.
The agent knew what they were doing, immobilizing the ship without destroying it. But the Union was usually not this merciful when dealing with lanehunters, so Jeane didn’t even dare to imagine what the bastard really wanted with them.
The Skylark had been lifting off a dusty little planet in a backwater dead system when the agent had shown up. The small lane leading to the highly unstable central star of the world didn’t have a name and was only identified with a row of numbers. It was the last place to expect an attack from the Union. The empire’s henchmen preferred the busier sectors to catch themselves some innocent scavengers.
The crew had already been in a hideous mood, finding nothing of value on the deserted military base, save for some scrap metal and defunct weaponry. The offices had been cleared out, and the decrepit ships in the docks loomed empty. This wasn’t all that surprising. The Altex, the race that had built the place, had been extinct for a hundred years because the central system of their empire had been destroyed by a forming lane, then the Union had purged their surviving colonies. But this was a newly discovered outpost, its location recovered in files smuggled out by lanehunters from stars know where. Virgin waters and all that jazz—definitely worth a trip, their source on Metallia had said. Except they clearly hadn’t been quick enough about it.
After a few hours of fruitless foraging, Jeane and her companions had climbed back into the Lark to plan a course to their next objective, hoping that one of these days, they’d actually earn the price of their fuel and maybe the funds for a few necessary upgrades too. They’d just left the atmosphere when the Union nailship had started tailing them. Jeane had raced the agent to the lane, hoping to lose them on entry, but Jerkface had followed them in.
She descended the ladder to the maintenance level with ALU at her heels, and they hurried toward the tail along the corridor lit by sparse, red-tinted emergency lights. They found Kliks standing beside the metal door of the engine room, only his legs visible as he leaned into a section of removed hull panel. The surrounding deck was scattered with cables, tools, and various diagnostic devices.
Jeane peeked into the wall cavity beside Kliks’ shoulders. Blind LEDs stared back at her from a sizable switchboard, and she smelled smoke. Kliks turned to her and plucked a tiny flashlight out from between his teeth. “The engine room is in emergency lock, and I already managed to ruin a battery trying to switch life support back on.”
Jeane gave an indignant grunt. “That hit must have knocked out the shielding circuitry.”
“Possible,” Kliks agreed. His huge black eyes narrowed to thin half-moons in concentration, and the shallow wrinkles creasing his gray face even at a relatively young age (as typical of his people) deepened. His short white hair was sticking out in all directions on the top of his head, and he lifted a hand to smooth it down self-consciously when he noticed Jeane eyeing it. “It’s hard to tell from here. We have to go in.”
“ALU says the room is not pressurized.”
The technician confirmed with a trill. They’d climbed the opposite wall and were now dismounting another panel; the metal sheet landed on the deck with a clang, and ALU stuck their arms into the hollow space. The next moment, their head also disappeared inside the hole.
“So.” Jeane started pacing. “The engines and shields are out, we can’t see or hear outside, and very soon, it’s going to be real cold in here. But hey, first, we might burn to a crisp at the lane barrier if we stay too long without navs! What in hells does that agent want from us so badly?” It was a rhetorical question, but when Kliks sighed and pulled on the zipper of his black overalls nervously, she raised her eyebrows. “I’m listening.”
He stared at her for a second and then started speaking with the momentum of someone continuing an argument they’d already begun in their head. “I swear, I didn’t think they would jump us so quickly! Well, I have to suppose that’s the reason, but I mean, everything else would be a stretch. I’m not even sure what—”
The Talalan closed his mouth. Then he opened it again. “I found something on the Altex base.”
For a moment, Jeane didn’t know how to react, and Kliks took advantage of her confusion to go on in a desperate tone. “Remember those wrecked ships on the runway? You couldn’t get in, but I did. I wanted to tell you, but I—”
“For skies’ sake!” Jeane blurted out, the anger breaking through her daze. “What were you thinking? We don’t keep these kinds of secrets! Why the fuck—”
«Getting all worked up won’t solve the problem, you know.»
Jeane swallowed hard, closing her eyes for a second. The words kept echoing in her mind.
«Calm and collected. You can do this,» the voice went on, and the familiar tone was like a cold shower on her burning temper. She sighed inwardly. Of course, he would think so. He always had too much faith in her.
She looked at Kliks, who naturally couldn’t hear any of that but had in the meantime stopped babbling and stared at her from behind his best poker face. ALU kept rummaging in the wall, not concerning themself with the drama in the slightest.
“The ship was Talalan,” Kliks added quietly.
«Smack me twice and call me Kevin! That’s quite an interesting piece of information!»
Jeane took a deep breath. She leaned forward, glaring into Kliks’ face, then poked him in the chest. “We don’t have time for this. But we’ll talk.”
Kliks pursed his lips together, nodding, and it took Jeane all she had to tear her gaze away and gesture towards the engine room.
“If only a few connections are busted, we’re still good. We’ll check the generator, jump-start it with a power cell, and if the engines are not entirely dead, it only has to hold until we’re on the vector. Weirdo warped spacetime physics will take care of the rest.”
Kliks switched back to problem-solving mode, too—anything to escape her wrath. “We’re not going to have much time with a cell, considering the Lark’s appetite. Also, what about after? Once we’re out of the lane?”
Jeane waved it away. “Cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“Because if the agent can follow us out…”
“Sure, just like we thought they wouldn’t follow us in.”
Jeane raked her fingers through her hair. “Well, let’s assume they can’t because otherwise we may go ahead and screw ourselves now. Will the cell hold or not?”
“Are you going to feel better if I say yes?”
They glared at each other for a long second, and ALU chose this moment to pull their head out of the wall and offer with a cheerful tone, “ALU go in!”
“No.” Jeane sighed, fiddling with her flashlight for absolutely no reason. “ALU stays here and gets our eyes and ears back. I want to know what Jerkface is doing out there. Keep working. I’m suiting up.”
The technician chirped in agreement, and Jeane set out on a jog through the ship, leaving her crew behind.
Most of the Skylark’s bulk was filled by the cargo hold, while the engines and the generator took up the tail section. On the lower deck, there was only space for a couple of tight storage chambers, and on the upper deck, apart from the control cabin in the bow, a common room and two cramped sleeping quarters nestled in between everything else. All in all, the vessel was a hundred yards in length and a dozen yards across—a medium-sized freighter ship, although customized to a degree.
Times like this, it seemed way too small for a crew of three.
Jeane passed the entrance to the cargo hold, the ladder leading to the upper deck, then the airlock door, and by the time she reached the end of the hallway, the fury pressing on her chest had dissolved. She stopped in front of a towering storage unit and slid its doors open.
She stood still for a long moment. The spaceship felt lifeless and somber around her, and the flashlight cast quivering shadows on the patchwork gray-copper metal walls. She was sweating like she was getting paid for it; with the life support out, air circulation had also stopped. Still, thinking about the cold, aggressive energies of time and space, twisting and turning around the ship made her skin crawl. Crossing lanes had become second nature to her over the years, but it didn’t mean she enjoyed taking her time in them. She would have been crazy to. Those things could tear apart entire galaxies.
And now they’d gotten themselves stuck adrift in one. They hadn’t run into agents in months; what in hells had happened this time?
She grasped the leather strap hanging on her wrist, took a rubber ring off it, and tied her long blonde hair into a ponytail.
“Fuck,” she stated and felt instantly better.
«Don’t panic, kid. Been worse, hasn’t it?»
She removed a spacesuit from the closet and climbed into it hastily, sealing the gloves and boots into place and taking the helmet under her arm. A button on the wrist turned the controls on with a soft beep, and she breathed out, relieved. Good thing Kliks always reminded her to keep the batteries charged.
«An abandoned Talalan vessel, right on your hunting grounds. You know what that means.»
She paused reluctantly. It meant Kliks was keeping secrets. It meant he’d known what they were going to find on the Altex outpost, maybe even that they could run into agents. And he hadn’t said a word.
They’d been flying together for five years, and despite their many differences, their teamwork had proved to be effective. Trouble was never too far, but they’d always dealt with it. Yet the moment something surfaced from Kliks’ home planet, the mysterious closed world Talala, everything changed.
«And what are you going to do about it?» the voice in the back of her mind pressed.
Jeane pulled a zero-G toolbox out of the storage unit, shut the door with a bang, and set off towards the tail again. First, I’ll save your damn ship. That’s what I’m going to do.
When she got back to the engine room, ALU was sending an angry series of trills at Kliks, who was still tinkering with the power cell.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Kliks gave a tired head shake. “I dared to suggest that shorting the cables to open the door might be dangerous.”
“No other way!” ALU objected, their small body still half-stuck into the wall. “Structure too weak for blast. Have to maintain pressure in ship!”
Jeane stepped beside them and glanced into the shaft. The technician was clutching the edge of the opening with two arms while using another pair to hold onto a cable running vertically down the inner hull.
“Is this safe?” she inquired.
“Chance of life-threatening injury thirty-eight point three percent,” ALU exclaimed proudly.
Jeane raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. Can you seal the door after me?”
The technician blinked. “Yes,” they said and ducked their head back into the hole.
Kliks closed his side of the argument with a dramatic eye roll, but there was a distinct look of worry on his face. Jeane attached the flashlight to her belt, but before she put the helmet on, she fixed her eyes on her friend for one more moment.
“What is it?” she asked. The Talalan visibly winced, and it was both satisfying and scary. “What did you find in that ship of yours?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Kliks admitted. “It’s in the hold. I intended to inspect it when we were in safe waters.”
Jeane scoffed. “Must be valuable if the Union was tracking it.”
“I think it is.”
She wanted to grill him more, wanted it so damn much, but there was no time. So, she sighed and put on the helmet, breathing in deeply when fresh oxygen flowed into it. The whiff of cool, dry air touching her face was a welcome relief. She gave a thumbs-up to Kliks because there was no time for petty gestures either, rooted herself in front of the engine room door, and touched the comms button on the suit.
“ALU, if you can hear me, go.”