Chapter 32: Boarding Party
All over the ship, the alarm went out. First people were happy to hear Jule’s perky British accent again and then alarmed in the same breath with what he told them. They were relieved that the captain had been found and that the crew of the Becky Thatcher were okay and trailing them from a safe distance. All that turned to concern and trepidation as they heard about Kyton and his brother.
“Okay men, you heard the computer,” said Jeremy Weathers, acting First Engineers Mate in the absence of Kyton, Peck, and Pewter. “Do not engage the tin cans when they arrive.”
Jake Cramer asked, “Tin cans sir?”
“Jules said they were like Spanish Conquistadors, right?” Jeremy explained.
“I don’t…,” Jake started.
“Didn’t you study your history?”
“Well, not …”
James Knight spoke out. “Geez, Jakester, like my name.” James emphasized the Knight. Addressing Jeremy, “Don’t we have a right to defend the ship?”
Jake was still pondering the implications and turned back to his dials and gauges.
“We will get that privilege in due time, Mister Knight. In the meanwhile, let’s lay low, do what they ask but do it sloooowly and methodically. We wouldn’t want to make any mistakes, now would we?”
James Knight chuckled, “No sir, we would not.”
Mister Weathers continued. He had grown up in the shipyards and knew his way around a dock. The rest of the crew saw him slip a rather hefty wrench between the folds of grease cloth near his station. “Just keep something to defend yourself within arm’s reach. Don’t engage.” He turned and surveyed the room.
“Aye sir.” came the chorus from the dozen men within earshot of the engineering deck.
Spying the cache of equipment that was brought on board from Waite Aerospace, he hastily addressed a junior member of the team. “Nathan, take that stuff on the sled and get it below and stowed out of the way. There are things we might need later that we really don’t want them getting their hands on. Jules, please escort Mister Marke to a safe holding area for that equipment. After you stow that, get back here on the double.”
Nathan Marke gave Jeremy a half-salute and sauntered out of the engineering bay, pushing the hydraulic skid. “Come along Jules,” He said to the ceiling.
In the medical bay, Gus Maher had been pondering the disappearance of Doctor Weaver when Jules’ voice came over the intercom.
“Mister Maher?” Jules said inquiringly, his hologram appeared discretely in a smaller form on the console in front of Gus.
Gus started and almost spilled the coffee he was drinking as he read the last notes that Tricia Weaver had written about Captain Grumm while he was still in the medical bay.
“Damn, don’t sneak up on a guy like that… It’s damn good to see you functional again, Jules!”
“Shh… there is little time,” replied Jules. He launched into the explanation. Fortunately, Jules was capable of engaging up to over four thousand simultaneous conversations as he was designed to be a novelty Ship’s Purser, Master of Ceremonies and overall Ship’s guide to the almost three thousand passengers the ship had been designed for.
“Gus, there are armed troops heading for every part of this ship.” Gus’s alarm turned to anger as Jules told him about Kyton and the confrontation between him and his brother Daran.
Gus slammed the clipboard on the desk next to him. “That slimy, no good. I’ll tear his arms right out of their sockets. I’ll boil his junk until it balloons up and explodes… I’ll…”
“Wait, Gus. There will time for all that. The captain is awake and in control. Right now he needs us to remain calm and passive while they have a chance to hatch a plan.”
“What kind of plan?”
Jules launched into an abbreviated explanation. Gus’ eyes visibly brightened as it was revealed and he chuckled out loud.
“So you are telling me there are soldiers dressed as knights in armor with lethal looking armament filing through the halls as we speak… and that’s your plan?”
Gus Maher laughed out loud with the guttural belly laugh of a Cossack peasant. “It will either work brilliantly or fail miserably, my friend.
Sydney was having the worst of it. His captain still missing, the executive officer apparently a traitor to both sides of a conflict he didn’t even understand, and the other principle crew members missing and presumed dead in the storm that brought them here. Troops invading the ship he had vowed to protect. Oh, and being stuck in an alien world that for all appearances was totally inside out. Yeah, he was having a rough day.
Kyton’s brother Daran spoke through the diminutive translator. “First you will take us to where you propel this vessel from and you will order them to surrender. No harm will come to anyone that cooperates. Our mission is to deliver this ship intact.”
“Mission to whom?”
“Isn’t it obvious from our house sigil and the banners of Harnor-Everoth?
Sydney looked with a blank expression and shrugged his shoulders. He said, “I got nothing...”
Daran looked down at the Grommon. “He is telling the truth. As strange as it sounds, I don’t think he recognizes banners of the Holy Order of Saint Paulus.
“How is this possible?”
“There are still areas in this great big wonderful world that haven’t experienced the benevolent hand of Pope Clemonte.” The Grommon explained.
Daran glowered at the gnomish figure. He snarled, “I should kill you for your insolence, you, pathetic little worm.”
“Yes, you should and end this insufferable nightmare,” replied the Grommon. Daran moved to cuff the smaller being, saw Sydney staring at him and checked his hand, thinking better of it.
“Be happy that you are still useful to me, worm. There will come a day when you are not and that is the day you should dread.”
Sydney saw the grimace and the shudder that involuntarily came from the elfin creature. He saw a weakness he could exploit and smiled.
The count smiled as he looked up. “Lead on and take me to the people that engineer this wondrous airship.” Daran’s tone was much gentler now.
They rounded a corner in the spacious, yet unfinished hallway.
Wham! out of the blue, Gus Maher had rounded the corner at a full run and being a big man, bowled down Sydney, the Grommon and a couple of Daran’s troops. They recovered fast and the firearms, that looked as lethal as they did primitive, lowered to point at the heap on the floor.
“Sóli!... Paradi!...” barked the troops that were still standing.
The Grommon spoke up in a bored tone. “They want you to stop.”
“Thank you, I gathered that, please relay to your master that Gus is just over zealous and clumsy and meant no harm.” Sydney made a mental note of the accents and dialects he overheard.
They slowly picked themselves up with arms raised in the universal sign of surrender. Gus dusted himself off and patted his pocket as subtly as he could muster. Sydney, who was well trained in police and security, caught the action right as he felt a small buzz from his own pocket. Standing up with his back turned to the men holding guns trained on them, he winked at the recovering Gus.
Gus addressed Sydney. “Sir, you are bleeding. I believe your ear is bleeding.” Indeed, a drop of blood plopped at Sydney’s feet.
“Daran, please allow me to wipe the blood? I have a cloth in my pocket that I’m going to reach for.” Sydney waited for the Grommon to translate. Daran nodded. After all, it wouldn’t do for the ship’s crew to see their captain battered and bleeding.
“Slowly…” remanded Daran. “We wouldn’t want any further incidents.”
Sydney reached into his pocket and withdrew a pristine handkerchief to wipe the seeping blood from his ear. He palmed the tiny earbud commlink that Gus had slipped him and only he, Gus and the Grommon noticed when Sydney slipped it into his ear with one of the passes of his handkerchief.
He brought it up to his ear one more time and discovered only a slight amount of fresh blood. “Thank you, I think we are good now. Gus, I imagine you are coming with us now.”
“Yes, we can’t exactly have him advertising our presence to the rest of your crew, can we? This operation depends on pinpoint accuracy and stealth. What is your name and function crewman?”
Gus was still staring alternately between the tiny Grommon and the man dressed up as one of the Three Musketeers, who looked a lot like he could be Kyton’s father. “Oh, you mean me? Gus Mahar, Ship’s paramedic.”
“What is a paramedic?” Daran turned to Sydney. “Is this a useful function?”
“He is the ship’s physician. It’s an extremely useful function.”
“I agree, for now, let’s keep moving. With the ship’s physician and captain as hostage, the crew will undoubtedly resist the temptation to cause us any trouble.
Gus caught Sydney’s expression and knew not to correct or elaborate.
The earbud chirped and Sydney smiled as he heard Artie’s voice loud and clear. “Good, I can see you hear me. Yes. Jules is here too. Just nod every once in a while as I quickly fill you in…”
Sydney nodded slightly and chuckled.
“Does something amuse the Captain?” Daran spoke to Sydney.
“Nothing important. I just find it amusing to be held captive by people wearing clothes five hundred years out of date.” He changed the subject “So Daran, tell me about this Sigil I am supposed to know about.”
The Holy House of Harnor-Everoth is the reforging of the original, proud clan of House Davici to become the Exotheosia - the mouthpiece, lantern and sword of Omnus Musteria, the Universal Truth. The Musteria was revealed almost two thousand Morae ago. It is the Universal truth handed down by the Sisters, immortalized in the sky above us.
The explanation asked more questions than it answered, but Sydney also knew that Grumm and the computer were listening in. It made his heart sing that everyone was alive and accounted for. There may just be a way out of this yet. He asked a question. “How many houses are there anyway?” Trying to continue the conversation.
“We are adding more all the time, of course, as new clans among both the Nilori and Dranoki. Anyone who can see the light of the Sisters can join the harmony of the Musteria.” Sydney could tell that Daran was very proud of his little cult. There was much more to this Count Daran Harnor than met the eye. “But to answer your question, there are currently forty-seven houses in total but only ten houses that hold the right of election. The other thirty-seven are minor houses that generally owe allegiance to one benefactor or another.”
“Right of election?”
“The right to elect a new Pope.”
They arrived at the general entrance to Engineering. Daran stopped Sydney with a hand to his shoulder.
“Captain Sydney, I see you as a reasonable man. We are not murderers. Now, remember, no sudden moves, no secret handshakes. Just go in, tell your engineers to do their jobs and offer no resistance. We would hate to have any unfortunate incidents.”
Sydney just nodded his head. After all, he was not in control here.
They rounded the corner into Engineering. The crew played their part well. At the translated command of the little being, they laid down whatever tool they happened to be holding then raised their hands in surrender. They listened to Daran’s monolog, inwardly chuckling at the picture it painted as Daran’s high and mighty words kept coming from the uncomfortable smaller person in front of them. They were all wearing the same earpiece now and were in constant contact with Jules and Captain Grumm. Daran posted a guard at the entrance to engineering.
Daran once again spoke directly to Sydney. “You will instruct your men to turn this ship on a bearing of seven one four and make with all haste your sails and props can muster for the capital.
Sydney looked at him with a blank expression.
“Don’t you know how to navigate your own ship, Captain Sydney?
“Of course I know how to navigate my ship! If you haven’t guessed by now, we are visitors here. We have only just arrived in your lands and we do not know your systems of navigation. Our own system of navigation will not work here.” Sydney was, of course, speaking about satellites and GPS but thought better than to bring up that can of worms.
Daran leaned over and spoke quietly to one of the guards who promptly saluted and left. Sydney looked quizzing. “He is going to fetch one of our navigational instruments from the Santus Norengo.”
“Is that the name of your ship?”
“Of course it is! Couldn’t you see it when we arrived? It is clearly marked on the tailfin in both Castalan and the common merchant tongue. Where are you from that you cannot recognize a ship of the High Guard?
“I’m from Milwaukee, but I doubt that would be of any help to you.”
“Well, Sydney from Milwaukee, I suppose you have never seen our capital city of Palla Moret then. You are in for a treat.” Daran beamed. Secretly, Sydney could not help a grin as he agreed with Daran. The thrill of discovering a new civilization, despite its harrowing dangers, was a tantalizing web of adventure and intrigue that pulled Sydney in like the call of a Siren, totally irresistible.
“Well, Sydney from Milwaukee, lead on. Show me more of my magnificent ship. I want to know all its secrets!”
The ship was now fully occupied. No one had resisted. Sydney had put the announcement over the intercom under the watchful eye of the over-zealous Casteen Governor. Daran was smart and took in everything he was shown.
“Relax Sydney, you are doing just fine,” said Captain Grumm’s voice in his head. Sydney just nodded only most imperceptibly.
Another voice popped into his head. Ethan said, “I’ve sent the drones out further ahead of us. This is really nice. When the perpetually increased sunlight, or whatever they call it, and the fact that we have no horizon to deal with, my girls can fly anywhere in this world and still be online and connected. I’m scouting a hundred miles ahead and both port and starboard. We can have eyes almost everywhere. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we are recording!” Ethan sounded giddy enough to almost wet his pants. Sydney just nodded again.
“Something wrong, Captain Sydney?” The dualistic nature Daran’s unknown language combined with the higher pitch from the Grommon translator broke him from his apparent daydream.
“No, it’s just way past my sleep time.” Sydney rubbed his eyes. “It was already late for us when you arrived.”
“I’m sorry. You have been a perfectly amicable host. I will permit your sleep cycle.” He spoke to the guards. “These men will escort you to your quarters. Don’t even think of anything rash, dear Captain. Sleep does any man good but plotting does not. I have guards on every man and woman on this ship and I will not hesitate to make an example out of anyone of them should you forget your place. You are my prisoner and as long as you are hospitable, I choose to treat you with respect. I trust you to do likewise.”
“I wouldn’t even think of anything else. You have been too kind.” With that, Sydney stood up and with his guard and left the bridge. Out of earshot of the Grommon and knowing the guards could not understand him, he appeared to talk to them. “So, where are we going again?” The guards accompanying him shrugged their lack of understanding.
The voices in his head replied, “We can see it up ahead. I’d say we are four hundred miles out still. A good twenty hours at the Empress’s best clip. There really isn’t much else you can do at this point. Get your sleep, we are going to need you later.”
“Roger that. Enjoy yourselves, gentlemen,”
“Ahem” came another, decidedly female voice.
“Excuse me… and ladies.” Sydney grinned.
Grumm looked at the consoles reflected in the pad he had commandeered. “Jules, based on the air pressure here and observations, what is our highest safe altitude deck?”
“Roughly fifty-two thousand feet sir.”
“I cannot account for all the variables. Everything in this environment is basically inside out. There is no horizon and no way to take satellite measurements. Based on the change in atmospheric density as we have progressed, I am assuming that fifty-two thousand is a safe upper limit. As far as anyone knows, the atmosphere might stretch all the way to whatever is up there, serving as this world’s inner sun.”
“Possible, but unlikely. Yes, I think fifty-two is a good working altitude, providing we pressurize of course.”
“And based on your observations, our ‘guests’ would not have any similar capabilities?”
The computer responded, “It doesn’t appear so, sir.”
“How about the rest of you? Any reason to believe those ships on our deck could follow us if we just suddenly decided to scamper to a much higher ceiling?”
Zak chimed in from the launch that shadowing from above. “None that I can see. However, you know we are only good for about thirty thousand feet and that’s with jets and expending a lot more fuel. We wouldn’t be able to sustain that for more than a couple of hours before we would have to sit down and refuel.”
Liam looked at Zak. “Refuel? Out here?”
Zak chuckled, “Relax kid. Becky gets her fuel from compressed hydrogen that we get from water vapor. It would take about twelve hours to refuel completely that way, but we can run at lower altitudes indefinitely just on solar power alone. I have to hand it to them, this world is a dream come true to anyone that champions solar power.” He stifled a yawn. “With our technology, we could be kings here.”
Captain Grumm interjected. “Stow that talk, mister. Right now that dream will be a nightmare if we don’t get any sleep. Doctor, correct me if I’m wrong.” He looked at Trish. “This world has a secret weapon. It is fooling us into forgetting about time.”
Trish spoke up. “Artie is right. We are a slave to our circadian rhythm and this world inside the world does not appear to work that way.”
The captain finished. “That’s what I thought, doc. I suggest we table any further discussions about conquering this world and work on merely surviving it. We know where we are heading and how long it will take to get there. Let’s take shifts, but get some sleep, folks.”
Doctor Weaver spoke up again. “Artie, you especially. Get some sleep. You are recovering from a head injury and I don’t have any proper equipment holed up in here.”
“Trish, I’m fine. I’ve been sleeping for days.”
“Yes… in an artificially induced coma! You are not fine. You suffered trauma and now your body is kicking out adrenaline to compensate. You will collapse soon. Trust me on this. This is my expertise. Get some sleep, doctor’s orders!”
“Fine. Jules, wake me up if anything interesting happens.”
“Belay that Jules. You will not. You will wake me up if I am sleeping and I will decide if we should wake the captain. Is that understood by both of you? Are we clear on this?”
Grumm said, “Crystal…”
“Quite clear, doctor,” replied the computer.
“Good!” She looked around to make sure there were no other questions to her authority over the health of the captain and then settled down with the pad to keep an eye on the situation.
“Doctor, heal thyself?” Aaron muttered from his perch on the couch.
“Oh, be quiet!” and she threw a pillow at him.
The recreational vehicle turned ship’s launch was spacious enough for the six occupants, but put enough people in a tin can long enough and mutterings of “Are we there yet” are bound to happen. Modified as it was, it no longer possessed the comfy captain’s chairs or lounges that it would have had in its former life. Now converted into a deceptively agile and impenetrable mobile command and control vehicle, it had very few of the amenities of home. It did have three fold-out cots though and the makeshift crew took turns with four-hour watches. The group that was not sleeping took turns watching the real-time feeds coming from the drones they had at their disposal.
Jules had made sure the coast was clear while someone from the ship launched the other two drones. They now had four very capable and semi-permanent ‘eyes in the sky’ as it were to help guide them, record their journey and keep them out of as much trouble as possible. Two of them were close by, monitoring the tin can from above and below and the other two were out scouting ahead.
Liam watched the makeshift Aegis display that Jules was providing them. Each of the four screens showed a different view of the land as it scrolled by like the paper from an old player piano. They were beginning to leave the lush forest now and were starting to cover a rockier terrain. From some of the pictures, he could see mountains and in one picture he could still see the mountain they have first observed with the binoculars. “Jules, how far have we traveled from when we first set down?”
“You mean landfall, when Telami first joined you?”
“Right. I’m looking at the mountain and trying to get my bearings.”
“Oh, right.” Another screen opened out like a holographic display that showed the terrain they had mapped so far. Jules overlaid that with a path that indicated both the Becky Thatcher’s journey in yellow and the Empress in blue. There was a lot of doubling back and now they were following a curved path that led them further away from the mountain. It was also obvious their path was designed to avoid an area of the map that was still mostly dark. “We are currently thirteen hundred and twelve klicks from the mountain.”
“So, about eight hundred miles.”
“Give or take.” Jules was never sure he would get use to humans annoying habits of guesstimating.
“We could never see that far on the outside of the earth,” Liam noticed.
“Of course not, on the outside, the land is on a convex curve and you are limited by the horizon.”
“I already got the geography lesson from Zak when we first got here. So, why can’t we just look up and see the rest of the ground from the other side of the earth?” Liam asked with genuine curiosity.
“If you have sensors like mine, you can. The haze from the central sun and the refractory properties of two layers of intervening atmosphere diminish your ability to see details in exactly the same way you can’t see the stars during the day.”
“But you can see them?”
“Indubitably. But it’s because I have sensors that sense most of the wavelengths from the far infrasonic all the way up to gamma waves. It’s enough sensory overload that I have to be selective about what I pay attention to. I can’t process it all at once.”
“Why is that?”
The computer did it’s best to pretend to sigh, “Alas, even I have my limitations, but hey… don’t tell anyone, ok?”
Liam looked at the board some more. “So this ‘X’ is our presumed destination?”
“I’ll let you know if it isn’t. But yes, it appears to be a rather large city, even by our standards, with a lot of infrastructure, industry, and traffic. Lots of ships, both on the water and in the air. There even appears to be steam power and some factories.”
“So, why is the Captain even going along with this charade? It seems all we have to do to ditch these guys is gain some altitude where they can’t go?”
“Yes and kill Kyton along the way.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“Master Liam, your father raised you better than that!” Jules continued. “Captain Grumm, your father and Kyton Davis are very good friends. Whatever transpired to create these current events is a definite series of unfortunate circumstances, but you don’t throw away a decade of friendship over a couple of mistakes. I don’t think Kyton intended to harm anyone. I was monitoring the vortex we were caught up in all the way up until Kyton cut the power that hurled us here. He agonized over that decision. I really think that he thought it was the only way to keep the ship from being torn apart.”
“I’ll take your word for it, but I still don’t like him, even if you tell me that we are honor bound to rescue him.”
“Hopefully, that will change in time.”
“Don’t count on it, Jules.”
Telami and Doctor Peck were talking to Rebekah and Doctor Weaver near the back of the ship. Liam overheard parts of their conversation as he was mulling over everything that Jules had told him.
“I’m telling you that Grommon is ready to bolt. Just give her a chance.” Telami was gesturing to the others.
“What makes you so sure?” Doctor Weaver studied the Grommon with the eyes of a surgeon.
“All the signs are there. I was in exactly the same mental state, just a few days ago. Grommon can only take so much abuse.”
Doctor Weaver was astounded that the creature was learning English so quickly. “How is it that you are learning our language so fast?”
“Your speech patterns are very similar to the Nilori. Even your inner speech is virtually identical. From what I gather from listening to Doctor Peck and Mister Phillips talk, they believe our illustrious friend over there and his group are descendants of men that came from your world hundreds of years ago.”
“Yes, I got the same impression the moment we saw them. We called them Conquistadors, which was Conquerors in their own Spanish language.”
“Fitting name for them; they have been trouble since the very beginning. They have been the instigators of every conflict in our lands have seen for the last thousand years. Even the Dranoki fear them, but not so much as yet.”
“Dranoki? Who are they?”
“Very different from us. Where you and I are soft and related to furry animals in our lineages.”
“Yes, we call that evolution. We evolved from monkeys.”
“We have a similar expression, but our learned men believe we evolved from a small rodent called chipagra.”
“Then what did these Dranok evolve from?”
Telami visibly shuddered and looked very seriously into the screen. “We call the plural form of Dranok, Dranoki, just like a Nilor are Nilori. Dragons, Doctor Weaver, Dragons. Dragons that love nothing more than to eat poor little Grommon children.”
Weaver could tell from his expression, as alien as it was, that he was serious and it caused him great distress to talk about it, but she had to press on. “So you say they are reptilian?”
Telami looked confused for a second. After all, he couldn’t read her speech directly over the comm connection. For the parts of speech he couldn’t yet understand, he was relying on the inner voice of the reaction from the people next to him to fill in the gaps. When Doctor Weaver said reptilian, everyone seemed to have a different idea of what that was, from turtles to lizards to alligators. Fleetingly someone in the room voiced raptor and thought of a scene from the classic movie Jurassic Park. It was probably the boy, thought Telami.
“Raptors,” he said out loud, “I believe the best analogy are Raptors.”
Now it was everyone else’s turn to shudder.
“The Nilori and the Dranoki had put aside their differences for many thousands of years before the new Nilori practically invaded, spreading chaos throughout the realms with their new ways and new religion.”
“Yeah, that sounds a lot like conquistadors. I think we have the same people.”
Megan cut in, “So how do we help this Grommon being held by Daran?”
“We don’t for right now,” replied Telami.
“What do you mean? You don’t want to help her?”
“Of course I do, she’s in a bad way. No Grommon deserves what she is undoubtedly being forced to endure.” Telami looked at the quizzical eyes around him. “It’s just that she is currently the only translator you have on your vessel and if she was no longer there, things there might quickly get ugly. Some of your people might even die.” He trailed off.
Doctor Weaver finished for him “Then we have to wait until we are ready to make a break and then rescue her at the same time. Are you getting all of this Jules?”
“Of course Doctor Weaver. I’m calculating the odds of our success even as you speak.”
Tricia continued, “Well, then calculate this into your odds…” and she began to lay out a plan.