Chapter 39: Changing of the Guard
Captain Grumm called another meeting of senior staff. Curiously, Liam and Rebekah were asked to attend these meetings now on a regular basis. When everyone filed into the room, Kyton, Jonathan, and Grumm were already seated. The holographic image of Jules was walking around and looking out the windows, though except for the infrequent glimpse of a mountain, there was little to see as they were still shrouded in the clouds.
The dragon scale that had been recovered from the lounge was resting on a plastic tray in front of Grumm. As everyone filed into the room they all paused to look at it. Grumm carefully noted the reactions of the three guests they had on board. The two Grommon, Telami, and Leora were noticeable curious and stared at it for what seemed a long time before they took their seats. Telami’s look was more lustful, almost like greed in a way. His inner sense allowed him to notice that Grumm was watching him. The diminutive man swallowed and took his seat. Leora followed right behind. It was not lost on the senior staff that she seemed to tag along with Telami wherever he went. No one wanted to pry, but they seemed to be getting along very well.
When Leora turned away from the scale to take her seat, she made a small sign with her hand. Something that seemed religious – almost like a Sign of the Cross. Grumm made a mental note to ask about it later. When Roon walked past the scale, it was obvious that he was trying to look at it without it appearing that he was looking at it. It was also obvious that just the presence of the scale made him very uncomfortable.
“Is there something wrong, Roon?”
Jonathan grunted to the Na’Kie bodyguard and guide. Roon grunted back. “He says it’s just the smell. The Na’Kie are very sensitive to scent, especially Drakkor scent.”
“Well tell him I am sorry and this will not take long.” Jonathan grunted the response to Roon and nodding his consent, they took their seats.
Rebekah and Liam had been right behind Roon. She reached out to touch the object, sitting like a specimen on a petri dish.
“May I?” Rebekah looked questioningly to Captain Grumm.
“Be my guest, Rebekah. We’ve run every test we can think of on the damn thing.” She reached out to touch the armor plating which carried all the leftover memory of the events from the day before. She ran her finger over its contours, noting its smoothness. It also gave off a slight sparkly glow where her finger touched it. She drew patterns on the chiton-like a child drawing on suede. The tiny pinpricks of light disappeared as quickly as they emerged.
“What makes its sparkle like that?” Rebekah made lines across the surface of the plating. The glow dulled as soon as her finger traced by. She wondered if she could write her name on it before the glow dulled too much.
“We don’t know. Spectrally, there are some other elements present there that we haven’t been able to identify.”
Rebekah withdrew her hand like it had been burned. “Is it safe then?” She was thinking of her dad’s discussions about radioactive material and the early days of Madam Curie and Radium.
Grumm sensed her concern. “We don’t know what it is, but it’s not radioactive. Like I said, your dad and Jonathan have run every test we have. I wouldn’t have laid it out here on display if I thought it was dangerous.” He turned and addressed the entire body of senior staff. “Ok people, take your seats.” On the wall screen behind Captain Grumm, details of all the tests and testing methods appeared. There were gasps from some of the people that knew what they were looking at.
“Does this mean…”
“Hold it for a second Daniel. I want to tell it as a narrative for the benefit of the people that might not hold an engineering degree.” Grumm looked the room of people and continued. “Everyone knows we were attacked yesterday by a bonafide, real dragon. It left its calling card when it attacked the forward observation lounge. Luckily, and with the quick thinking of Mister Wait and Miss Peck here, this particular threat was neutralized and nobody was seriously hurt.”
“However, Kyton informs me from the lore of these creatures that they are highly organized and broadly intelligent. Undoubtedly, news of our existence and movements in these mountains will spread through any and all dragons within hundreds of miles, from here to our destination. Kyton also says it is highly abnormal for any dragons to be spotted this close to the capital. It might just be because we were so high in altitude that we invaded their territory. We just don’t have any good intel or theories at the moment, so we have no idea why it attacked us. I can’t possibly imagine that they see us only as a snack so there has to be some other unknown motivation for attacking us yesterday.”
Grumm picked up the scale in front of him and turned it over and over, contemplating. “Like I said we have run every test we can think of that we have the equipment to run.” Grumm stopped and looked around the room for effect. He handed the scale to Kyton.
Kyton continued the narrative, “The scale is made from a kind of polypeptide, polymeric protein substance. Chemically, it closely resembles spider silk. It’s very close to Aerolon, but at the same time different enough that we just don’t have the equipment to measure it properly.” There was an audible gasp from the people in the room that knew what that meant.
Liam was the first to ask. “What does that mean? I’ve heard Aerolon this and carbon that mentioned many times in the few weeks I’ve been here. What does it mean, though?”
Liam’s dad took the lead. “Simple, son. Carbon is the most naturally occurring element on the planet. and it can be arranged into an almost infinite variety of molecules and compounds, from the softest material on earth.” He stopped to take the chitin armor from Kyton. “To the hardest. The carbon lattice in this piece of dragon scale seems to be twenty percent stronger than the structural material of this ship. We believed our plating was the strongest material on earth. We were wrong.”
Sydney spoke out. “Maybe our plating is the strongest material on Earth, just not in Earth. You think these dragons were what fairytales were once made of?”
Jonathan replied, “I don’t see how it could be any other way, Sydney. Somehow, dragons like these have visited us long ago. At least enough to be in our fairytales. Now one of these fairytales has ripped a hole in the underside of the ship big enough to drive a bus through.”
“Yeah but the kids killed it, right?” asked Captain Grumm.
Telami spoke up. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Stunned maybe, but I think it would take a lot more than that to kill an Emperor Drakkor.”
Sydney was still fishing. “Well if that armor plating can break off, it has vulnerabilities.”
Jonathan quipped, “Yes, I’m sure it does, but even Roon here has only seen the business end of a dragon twice in his life and has never seen one lose in battle. The Na’Kie live high in the mountains and get the occasional dragon. Not once in recent history has anyone ever been able to kill one. There are stories and legends of course. They can wipe out entire villages in a single pass. They are the stuff that fairytales and nightmares are made from for a reason.”
“I get that, but at least Roon is still here to tell the tale.”
Jonathan replied, “Ask him to tell you that story sometime. It doesn’t have a very happy ending.”
Roon grunted. Telami, sitting next to him, grunted back. The blood drained from Roon’s face as it took on a pallor and he dropped his head and was silent.
Telami spoke up again. “Roon says his entire family was wiped out that day and he has been basically alone ever since. He was coming down from his first hunting party. They saw the dragon in the sky and ran as fast as they could, but it was over within seconds. Over two hundred villagers were torched in seconds. They never had a chance. It happened many Morae ago, but it still haunts him.”
It was Doctor Weaver’s turn. “You got all that from a grunt?”
Telami responded, “They have an incredibly sophisticated and efficient language, Healer.”
“So it seems.” She turned back to the captain, “So why did you call us all down here? It certainly couldn’t be to tell us there is a creature out there that can kill us? So far I think we have seen about a thousand things here that could do that.”
“No, you are right, doctor. This diamond coated killing machine is just icing on the cake. I just wanted you to know what we are up against in case we get any more surprises.”
Liam asked, “What if we electrified the entire outside of the ship?”
“We thought of that, but it’s too risky. Because the skin is conductive and such a huge surface area, we already have to do a lot of work to wick static electricity off the ship to keep it from building up. The amount of static we already spool off the ship is equivalent to a small lighting storm. We wouldn’t want that to find a way inside the ship.”
Doctor Weaver nodded in agreement, “It would potentially be worse than a dragon. I get it.”
“We do have some ideas though for weapons that could potentially protect us. We wouldn’t really know though until we have a chance to build them and field test them.”
Artemis continued to look around the room. “I thought I would give you a status update. We are currently heading, in a roundabout way, to a mountain outpost north of the Capitol, where Jonathan had been doing research on that micro-sized sun up there and the moons these people seem to worship. For those of you who don’t know, Jonathan is kind of a packrat. He is certain that he still has the files that contain a copy of the key we need to start the engines, but it’s contained on a storage device at the outpost. Providing the device is not damaged and still functional, it should give Jackson and Jonathan everything they need to jumpstart the engines. According to my great grandfather’s journals, there is access at the poles between worlds. It was probably a hole left over from an earlier asteroid impact, eons ago, but if Nicholas could find it, I’m sure that Jules can too. We can…”
Captain Grumm looked around the room for a second in confusion like he suddenly didn’t know quite where he was anymore. With a gurgle, his eyes rolled up in his head as he slumped to the floor.
“Artie!” Doctor Weaver had noticed the change in the captain’s tone and was already moving to him in a flash. Jonathan had caught him before he hit the floor, not wishing any further damage to complicate his healing head injury. The doctor and Gus were at his side in a second and she was injecting him with something. An instant murmuring went up. Kyton moved back to give the doctors room.
“Settle down people. Some of you know Artie has been battling his own demons for quite some time. I think he would have preferred to tell you himself, but he has a rather rare form of aggressive cancer.”
Captain Grumm was coming around.
Doctor Weaver said, “Slowly Artie. Give the meds a second to react.”
Artemis allowed them to help him back into his chair and then pushed aside any further efforts.
Artemis lifted his head and shook off any lingering effects. He started, “Well that pretty much cinches it...” He shook his head again and regained his bearings. Artemis began to talk again. “…I had been in remission. With treatment, I probably could have been again. However, we don’t have the proper treatment or facilities on this ship. The medications that Trisha had been able to supply me ran out about two months ago. Now all she can do is compensate for some of the symptoms- which you just saw. Without some other form of treatment, I will likely be dead in a couple of months.”
Trisha’s lip began to quiver and she started to tear up. Many others let their emotions slip. Liam looked over at Rebekah to see tears streaming down her face. She looked momentarily at Liam and quickly turned away to hide her vulnerability. Artemis Grumm was the grandfather she never knew.
Artie looked around the room, not enjoying the effect his words had on his crew and especially his friends. “With that said, I have no intention of going peacefully. Recent events and many late night discussions with Kyton and even more recently, Jonathan, have convinced me that there may be alternative treatment to seek. There is certainly no guarantee that any such treatment can be found for me, but it won’t stop me from looking.
To that end, on our way back from Jonathan’s outpost, we will be very near the northern edge of what is left of Kyton’s province. At that point, Kyton and I will be bidding you farewell. We will seek out his people there that might be able to help. I tell you this from the bottom of my heart that it has truly been a pleasure working with each and every one of you.”
Another gasp and murmuring built up amongst the people sitting there.
“It’s perfectly OK. It was pointed out to me that if I just sit here and wait, nothing good is going to happen. I have to make it happen and I have been used to making things happen all my life. Besides, it’s very difficult to actually experience this wonderful world just from looking down on it from the air. Kyton and I will go off in search of a cure and I will leave the ship in perfectly capable hands.”
Ethan said, “But sir, what about the dragons?”
“Or the Empire?” asked Daniel.
Liam added, “Or dinosaurs even?”
Artie regained control over the conversation. He said, “There are dangers everywhere, people.” Artie gestured to Liam. “Where Liam came from there were people being flogged and hanged every day for offenses we would consider quite petty. For crying out loud. St Louis no longer even exists because it was literally obliterated by an asteroid which is why we are here in the first place. You can’t hide from life. It has a way of finding you and biting back. I also have to remind you that there are over a billion intelligent creatures in what I am told are seven distinct races in this amazing new world that live with these dangers every day. It’s not any worse than crossing the street back home.”
Doctor Weaver spoke first, “So your mind is made up?”
Captain Grumm shifted and winced in pain as if to drive the point home. “I’m afraid so, Trish. I have no other choice. There is no future for me here. Kyton says there are natural medicines here and methods of treatment that we have never seen topside.”
One of the engineers said, “This is coming from a man that quite literally was going to sell us out just a few days ago. One that you were going to try for treason.”
Grumm continued, “Also a man that I risked everything to save. One I would… am... trusting with my life, Yes.”
Doctor Weaver just nodded. She managed to squeak out “Please excuse me…” before she walked swiftly out of the room. Rebekah quickly jumped up and followed her out.
A tear managed to leak from the captain and he swatted it away with a vengeance as he watched her leave. He continued “It will be your jobs, all of you, to keep this ship out of the hands of the locals long enough to get home. I’m counting on all of you. Sydney, will you come forward?”
Sydney looked dazed. “Me? But you and Kyton know more about this ship than anyone. After you, Jonathan would be the better choice.”
Grumm continued, “Jonathan will certainly be serving in an advisory capacity. He helped design her and may know more about the ship than anyone here, but he has other outstanding business and I think he will soon have his hands full.”
Liam had not been paying attention until then. He had been thinking about Rebekah’s fast departure with Doctor Weaver. He quickly turned back to face Grumm at the front.
“There are plenty of people here that can provide any amount of technical advice that will come in handy for running the ship. If the truth be known, Jules can run the Empress all by himself. He has been quite adept at adapting to handle any number of difficult scenarios.”
“Thank you, sir,” The holographic image spoke from the window. He turned to face Artie. Grumm could swear he appeared to have been crying.
“What I need in a replacement is someone I can count on that doesn’t have any agenda. Sydney, you might not have the technical knowledge. That’s completely true. That’s why you have all of them.” Grumm swept his arm through all the room. “You do, however, have heart and character and you are very good at thinking on your feet. Every time you have faced a challenge, you confronted it head on and managed to come out on top. You have common sense and a good bit of luck, traits that are much more important in the captain of an airship than technical skills.”
“But sir…,” was Sydney’s only reply.
“No, my mind is made up. Mister Blankenship, do you accept this challenge? To get our crew safely home? To never waver from what you know to be the truth? To never be swayed by petty concerns or hidden agenda and to make decisions that work for the better of the ship and its crew?”
Sydney was overwhelmed. There was nothing in the last couple of day’s events that had prepared him for this. Yes, he had done a decent job acting like the Captain in front of Kyton’s brother, but that had just been an act. He had even come up with much of the Halloween theatrics that had won them the ship back.
Sydney felt a chill overcome him and he stood up with a renewed sense of honor- and purpose. He watched himself as if from a distance as he moved to the front of the table where Captain Grumm, Jonathan and Kyton Davis were seated.
Kyton directed everyone’s attention to him. He reached over and pulled out a pad and pushed it over to Captain Grumm. “Sydney Blankenship, do you swear to fulfill the duties of Captain to the Empress of the Sky to the best of your ability?”
Sydney was still in a fog. He heard himself say “I do”.
“Then place your hand on the pad. I, Captain Artemis Grumm do relinquish control and the title of Captain of the Empress of the Sky to Sydney Blankenship on this day November 18, of whatever year it is here.”
Jonathan and Telami looked at each other. They spoke simultaneously, “old calendar?” They agreed old calendar seemed more appropriate. The Year of our Mother, forty-two hundred and thirty-five.” like they had recited it a hundred times.
Artemis repeated “4235.” A red button appeared on the pad by Sydney’s hand. Sydney stared at it, wondering its significance.
Jonathan spoke first, “Just push the button.”
Through the fog, Sydney managed to control his other hand and reached over and pushed the flashing red button that instantly went away.
It was done. There was no fanfare. No theatrics but ownership of the greatest and most powerful airship that either world had ever seen had just been transferred. Everyone seemed to be patiently waiting for his first instructions.
Liam managed to croak “Excuse me. I need to check on something.” He rushed out of the room.
The dragon scale was still lying on the table in front of Kyton. As Liam passed, his body blocked anyone else other than the principles at the head of the table from seeing. The scale began to glow with a blueish phosphorescent glow that startled Liam. It got stronger as he approached. Kyton looked startled, but he quickly repressed it and a glance from Jonathan silenced any question he might have had. Kyton placed a napkin over the scale and unceremoniously removed it from the table. Unfazed, Sydney gave Liam a slight nod as he passed.
There was a lounge area outside the suite of conference rooms that were originally for guest use. The largest one with the best view outside was always used for the officer’s meetings. It was the same room that Liam had been in and out of many times in the three weeks he had been a member of the crew. He stumbled out, gulping in the fresh air. Doctor Weaver and Rebekah were sitting in two of the lounge chairs that had been created and arranged for any number of gatherings, cocktails parties, and events. Now Trisha Weaver was sniffling and dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief that Rebekah must have produced from her pack.
Rebekah looked up and saw him come out. She patted Doctor Weaver on the shoulder and stood up to see what was up and hurried to catch up.
“Wait up!” Rebekah ran up to him as he was just turning to another hallway.
“It’s ok, Beka, I really just want to be alone for a while.”
“That sure was a ton of shit bricks to dump on us, wasn’t it?”
Liam kept walking. He had no idea where he wanted to go. Damn, this ship was big. “Yeah, I didn’t know him very long, but I guess I met him before any of the rest of you did.” He wiped away a single tear.
Rebekah turned towards him and got him to stop in the hall. “He has always been like a grandfather to me. Ever since he came home with my dad after visiting your dad’s company. Everyone else treated me like a girl. The teachers at school, my dad, my other relatives. Artie always saw something else. I was always bugging them about their work. There was nothing else for me to do. Mom was gone and Dad was throwing himself completely into his work. At the time, I resented it. I wanted him to pay attention to me as much as any little girl would. Artie recognized a talent in me that no one else ever took the time to see. I wouldn’t know shit about engineering or computers if it weren’t for him. Hell, I would probably still be wearing dresses with ribbons in my hair.” She began to cry huge wracking sobs.
Liam pulled her to himself. “I think you would look perfectly adorable in a dress with ribbons in your hair.” Liam hugged her like he had never hugged anyone before. “I never had a grandfather. I never knew until a couple of days ago that my father was old enough to be my great, great grandfather!”
“Life’s funny like that I suppose. We never imagined that this entire world existed right under our feet, did we?” Not getting an answer, she asked, “So, what happened in there after I left with Doctor Weaver?”
“Well… Artemis resigned as Captain for one thing. He and Kyton are probably already packing for their excursion.”
“Oh shit. So, who is going to be the captain if Kyton is going with Artemis, your dad?”
“No, Artie never asked my dad. Either that or he asked him in private and was turned down.”
“Then I guess it would be my dad or Sydney, right? My dad wasn’t even there; he’s still sleeping off his exhaustion. I helped him along with a couple of sleeping pills with the Melatonin that Doctor Weaver gave me for him. I guess they did the whole official transfer and everything.”
“Yeah, Sydney’s our new captain.” He stopped and looked right at her. “Rebekah, I think all the rules have changed now. It’s overwhelming. A few weeks ago I was literally fighting over scraps of bread. I was running toward the ship just a few days ago, then I was in combat against alien bigfoots that were trashing my dad’s research, after that, we ended up in Oz, Kyton was selling us out to his father which turned out to be his evil brother. We played Halloween for some very superstitious knights and then we had to go and rescue the very same traitor.”
Rebekah replied, “If you hadn’t gone to rescue Kyton, then you would never found your father. Hell, you wouldn’t even have known he was here and he would still be rotting in jail – or worse! And as far as Captain... I mean Mister Grumm is concerned, if he hadn’t hit his head, he probably wouldn’t have found out how bad his cancer had spread. I didn’t even know he was sick, Liam!”
“Then yesterday we were fighting dragons...” Liam trailed off, omitting the part about his mother being from Aerathiea and alien artifacts glowing whenever he was around.
“I wonder why he didn’t hand it over to your dad. He did help design the ship after all.”
“It’s on my list of things to check out, Beka. I just haven’t had time to ask him yet. Grumm did say something about dad having other business.”
Liam pushed himself out of his seat and offered a hand to Rebekah to pull her up too. She waved him off and very nimbly contorted her torso and vaulted up like she had been doing it all her life. Liam looked impressed.
“Gymnastics until I was twelve,” she commented. “I’m going to go back and sit with Trish and see if she needs anything.”
“I’ll meet up with you later. I have about a zillion questions to ask. I think I’ll start with my dad.”